Monday, September 24, 2018

Poverty in the United States

The Census Bureau reports that about 13% of the US population lived in poverty in 2017. The recovery from the 2008 recession has improved economic conditions for many Americans but has not touched the poor. There are as many poor people today as there were 10 years ago.
The White House denies this. They criticize the methodology used by the Census Bureau. The way they calculate poverty only 3% of Americans are poor. But most economists and statistician do not accept that conservative view of poverty.
Who are the poor? Conservatives try to tell us that people live in poverty because they are unwilling to work. Hence there is a big push to deny any kind of assistance to citizens who do not go to school or have a job. But this is sheer prejudice. 35% of the poor are children, 25% have jobs, often more than one. 10% are disabled, another 10% are senior citizens. 8% of the poor are caregivers – they cannot go out and work because they are needed to care for children, or a sick, or elderly, or disabled family member. 3% have taken early retirement, 7% are enrolled in school. There remain 3% who are not working. The other 97% are poor because they are prevented from working by their age, their occupation (such as caregivers), or their disabilities. A quarter of the poor do work, another 7% are students.
These official numbers, moreover, ignore some important additional categories. In the United States there are more than 2 million people in prison. They and often their families are unable to make a decent living. To that we must add a significant number of undocumented workers who earn less than the legal minimum wage. Their employers can pay them illegally low wages because the undocumented will not complain about their mistreatment.
It is worth noting that 25% of the poor are working but their wages are so low that they do not have enough money to pay for rent and food and other necessities. By some estimates, 25% of all workers in the US earn less than $10 an hour. Such low wages are clearly one important cause of the continued poverty of our fellow citizens.
Different sources will provide somewhat different numbersfor different categories of poverty but the general message is the same: poverty is very significant in our country and, even in a growing economy, the percentage of poor people remains the same, year in, year out.
These facts are clearly scandalous. Poverty in the United States is much more serious than in other developed countries. The United States is not only the richest country in the world but also the developed country with the highest poverty rate. It is also the poorest country among the Western capitalist countries.
It is not difficult to see what needs to be done to drastically lower the rate of poverty. The federal minimum wage needs to be raised to $15 or $20 an hour. We need to seriously reduce the number of prisoners and make sure that families of prisoners are taken care of. Welfare payments must become more generous. We must make sure that everyone, without exception, has enough food, a decent living space, and access to healthcare and education.
These are the initial steps that we must take but there is tremendous opposition against those not only in the White House but across all of America. The poor are the targets of harsh prejudice. They get blamed for their own poverty. They are said to be poor because they refuse to do a day’s work, because they are self indulgent, and lack basic skills. The poor are thought to be largely teenage (black) women who have children at 14 and 15 years of age. They are thought to be sexually licentious--an inclination inherited from the African ancestors of several hundred years ago.
Some of these accusations are clearly ridiculous and others, as we have already seen, false and unjust. The poverty rate of Black and Hispanic Americans is higher than that of Whites. But the white population in the US is much larger than the black and hispanic population. Almost 59 million Hispanics are poor, as are 42 million Black Americans. 195 million of Whites live in poverty-- more than twice the number of Hispanic and African-Americans poor. If you encounter a poor person the chance is one in two that you meet a White person.
Why do prejudices against continue to be so powerful? That question has different answers for different portions of our population.
Our leaders, from the White House on down, believe, like most Americans, that a good life is a successful life. Success they define as making lots of money. By those standards, the poor are complete failures and are therefore deserving of nothing more than contempt. The chief policymakers in America, accordingly, look down on the poor and never hesitate to disparage them.
But the people in charge not only have no respect for the poor they actively hate them. Congress is constantly considering legislation to tear the social safety net, to put stricter limits on who is eligible for food or rent aid. Elected representatives compete with each other for proposing further inroads in the already limited support for the poor.
Conservatives keep talking about the blessings of capitalism, of the so-called "free market." They believe that the economy should not be regulated by the government. This amounts to saying that unfettered capitalism without any regulations to protect consumers or workers would be to everybody's advantage. The fact is, however, that even a regulated capitalism, as we have it, leaves more than 10% of the population living in poverty. Capitalism is not in everybody's interest. It leaves significant number of citizens in dire poverty. The existence of large numbers of poor people in what we like to call "the richest country in the world"show that capitalism is not the boon our richest fellow Americans believe it is. The poor in America stand as an indisputable proof of the inadequacies of capitalism.
Rich capitalists, like Donald Trump, hate the poor for that reason: they constitute a living refutation of the quasi-religion of the free market.
The hatred of the poor has a large component of racism. Different sections of the population have different reasons for perpetuating it. Middle-class Americans have failed to get rich; they just get by. Given the prevailing idea that getting rich is the mark of success, the middle class is not successful. They can console themselves over that failure by distinguishing their own work ethic from the, actually mythical, laziness of the poor.
The lower middle class, a section on the population always in danger of descending into actual poverty, can reassure itself that it will not end up genuinely poor by trotting out the myth of the lazy poor. They, the lower middle class, work hard. They faithfully go to the job every day whbere they are underpaid. They are virtuous, they are not like the poor, lazy and without skills. So they don't, they think, have to worry about being really poor-- until the next recession when they face real, grinding poverty.
Different sections of the population have different reasons for subscribing to the mythology of the poor as indolent, unable to control themselves, lacking basic skills. They all share the same set of values that wealth is the sign of success. One has lived one's life well if one has accumulated lots of money and property.
That is the ethic that goes with capitalism. The goal in life should be making more money than the next guy. Little value is placed on integrity, on being a loyal life partner or friend, on being a good parent or child to those parents. Public service, loyalty to one's country is given lip service but do not really count. Its all about being rich, owning a bigger house, a vacation home at the shore, a big cabin cruiser, etc.
America's relationship to its poor not only shows that capitalism is a failure as an economic system but, even more importantly, it is a failure as the basis of our national ethic and our ideas of what makes human lives good lives and lives worth living.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

                                                                 Labor Day 2018

 Labor day was instituted as a national holiday in the 1880s. It was meant to celebrate American workers who were building a country of exceptional wealth and, as it would turn out, exceptional international power. But hundred and forty years later, Labor Day is not a celebration of much of anything. It is a long weekend, the beginning of a new school year and one more occasion to go to the mall and spend money. Labor is not doing well; wages have remained stagnant even in an economy daily celebrated as suprisingly productive. The country is thriving if you look at it from the perspective of those who are daily getting richer. It is not thriving in other ways.

These days everyone focuses on the President but that, of course, is just being lazy. There are thousands in positions of leadership in the military, in government, in universities and foundations who daily put one foot in front of the other and do not ever ask themselves where we are going. The country has lost any sense of direction. There are no clear goals. It is every man and every woman for him or herself and those that do not thrive and prosper are forgotten or, worse, blamed for their failure to enrich themselves in the brutal free-for-all.

Here are just two examples of our nation being completely lost, drifting no one knows where and not many people caring.

The current commanding officer in Afghanistan retired on Labor Day. The war, he reminded his audience in his farewell speech, has been going on for 17 years [SEVENTEEN years!!]. A war that began as punishment for Afghanistan's harboring Al-Quaeda is now a war against the Taliban and is, if the retiring commander is to be believed, a war we are slowly losing. But the commanding general in Afghanistan has not once spoken with the President, the Commander in Chief. The President seems not interested in the daily sacrifices of human lives and the enormous losses of weapons and other equipment paid for by American taxpayers. The military leadership seems content to stumble ahead blindly. Elected legislators in Congress are too busy with their war against the previous administration to consider what should be done with this endless war. In the current electoral campaigns I have not heard of any candidate who speaks out against continuing this bloody engagement. 

What shall we think about a country that continues to fight a war simply because no one wants to think about it? What shall we think of a country whose foreign policy rests on public relations slogans. The war in Afghanistan is referred to as "Operation Enduring Freedom." But this war has nothing to do with our freedom because a nation that conducts its affairs without any clear goals, without questioning the usefulness, let alone morality, of its policies can hardly consider itself free. Free citizens and free nations make clear eyed choices. We have not made any choices about the Afghanistan war in a very long time.

Here is one more news item from Labor Day that illustrates the total disarray of our nation. A year after hurricane Harvey flooded and devastated Houston Texas, many of the victims still are unable to live in their houses devastated by the storm. The government agency tasked with assisting the victims of natural disasters, FEMA, has provided some aid but left the reconstruction efforts woefully incomplete. A year later many people still cannot live in their houses and have to live with friends or relatives. These facts are not controversial; their interpretation is. We frequently hear that the continued homelessness of poor folks is not surprising. Their lack of minimal sources is to blame. The poor are poor because they are poor.We blame the poor for still having houses no one can live in. We are saying: "I do not want to think about this. Its their own stupid fault."

During tropical storm Florence in North Carolina, many, particularly elderly and poor people did not evacuate. They too get blamed for that--another thoughtless refusal to be informed and think seriously about our fellow citizens. Many elderly people lack automobiles. Had they left their homes where would they have gone. They had no money for hotels; the shelters were full. Many could not leave their pets which play central roles in their lives. Did anyone who blames them for not evacuating offer spacer in their homes?

As a country, we are content to allow people – significant numbers of people, especially children – to live in poverty, to not have enough food at the end of a pay period, to lack reliable transportation to get to work and home again, not to have access to excellent healthcare or education.

These facts alone are shameful but they are testimony to our widespread thoughtlessness. Americans like to brag about how great America is but they don't think about their fellow citizens who lack of work that pays a living wage, who, because they are the wrong color, because they have some infirmity or another, cannot make a decent living-- often only because their employer refuses to pay a decent wage. But we see no great uprising of outrage about how some of our fellow Americans have to live in extended periods of poverty. In the current political campaigns economic inequality is a theme. But I have yet to hear a candidate who has a concrete plan for assuring everyAmerican, everyone who lives in this country, a life of sufficiency without having to suffer anxiety about feeding their children or making sure that they get the medical care and the education they not only need but are entitled to.
Instead we go on going on stumbling forward or perhaps backward or sideways. No one knows where. No one thinks about it.

It is important to repeat that focusing on the vagaries of the existing President is clearly a way of dodging the larger issues which have been with us for a long time. We have refused and are still refusing to ask ourselves the important questions about why we conduct our affairs as we do, what our goals are, what it would mean for America to be great.

What are we trying to achieve it Afghanistan? Why are we allowing the poor to suffer disproportionately? As long as no one asks these and similar questions we will continue to wander around in our fog of indifference. We will remain a nation lost.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Our Democracy

A friend was recently deploring the state of our political landscape. She was troubled not only by the measures the government was taking and the utter chaos created by the president in his fairly random and unpredictable tweets, but also by the ordinary citizen’s sense of impotence. We can complain, she said, but there is really nothing we can do. We as ordinary citizens are without any power whatsoever to affect the conduct of this government. We have no power at all to moderate its hostility towards our friends or the support we are giving to brutal dictators all around the globe from North Korea to the Philippines to Israel or Russia.
She merely repeated what many other people have been saying: in our democracy citizens seem to be unable to affect legislative decisions or the apparently random policy choices of the executive.
But this time I stopped and asked a question: how can it be a democracy if citizens are unable to affect government decisions? Don't we always say that in a democracy the people rule? But how can the people rule if they have no power over the actions of their government?
We encounter here one of the contradictions in popular thinking about democracy. On the one hand, we consider a country a democracy if the citizens at large rule, that is, if they determine government policy perhaps not in intricate details but at least in broad outline. But on the other hand we think of democracies as systems where periodically the citizens cast ballots in favor of one representative instead of another and, sometimes, in favor or against a policy. In this way voters in different states, for instance, have decided to legalize the use of marijuana. On this view a reasonably well functioning electoral system is all a country needs to be considered a democracy.
But we can learn from our current condition, that casting ballots for representatives and the president does not give us the power to run our own lives in ways we choose. When the government takes small children away from their immigrant parents we can be totally outraged but whether that outrage affects government policy is up to the president and the people he chose to police our borders. If they do not respond to us, we are powerless to change their behavior.
The lesson to be learned from our present condition is that holding periodic elections, even if those elections are a squeaky clean, does not make us into a democracy. Only where the people rule can they claim to live in a democracy, where they have power to change government policy in specific instances, such as taking children away from their parents and detaining the parents under utterly deplorable conditions without proper bedding, clean water, and decent food.
As our government system is set up now, we, the voters, do not have the power to affect government policy. What kinds of changes would we need to restore the power that rightfully belongs to us?
It is interesting and distressing that this question is not being raised very often in America today. There is a great deal of discussion about different voting schemes, but there is no discussion, that I know of, of ways of restoring the power to the people.
But there are of course ideas that bear on this question. The most common example are discussions in different cities about citizens' review boards over police behavior. Here is a suggestion that the actions of a government agency, the police, should be regularly supervised by citizens who are not part of the police but are, instead, expected to represent the interests and concerns of citizens. In many places police behavior, especially towards African-Americans and Hispanic citizens, is often violent and demonstrably unjust. Citizens; review boards would possibly restore the citizens ability to exercise at least some control over police conduct.
Police in different localities have been quite successful in agitating against the institution of such review boards. Typically this particular government agency is quite unwilling to subject itself to the supervision by citizens. The same, of course, is true of many if not most government agencies. They may talk volubly about our democracy but they are really opposed to measures that might make our country more democratic.
We can hope to make our government more genuinely democratic by subjecting specific branches of the executive to citizens' supervision, for instance, by setting up police review boards. Electing school boards is another familiar technique. Citizen control over schools has been enhanced in some large cities by establishing local school boards to supervise the running of local schools by neighborhood groups. In other cities committees of patients at local health centers have been enlisted to mobilize neighborhoods in support of better health care and better health practices.
We actually know how to strengthen our democracy by instituting citizens participation in and supervision of government agencies. But the lack of citizen initiatives and the concerted resistance of government agencies has, so far, stymied many efforts. How can your neighborhood strengthen its ability to supervise government activities where you live?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Structural racism

One of the welcome, but unexpected effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is that more White people want to know what it is like to be Black in the United States today. Whites are beginning to listen and some of us are trying to learn the effects of anti-Black racism on Black lives.
The Lancet is one of the most prestigious medical journals in the English-speaking world and beyond. It recently contained a long article that showed that in any state of the US where police shot and killed a young, unarmed black man, large numbers of Black citizens suffered in their mental health. ( The Lancet, Volume 392, July 28 – August 3, 2018,) They were more depressed, anxious, fearful. Their sense of themselves, their self-esteem suffered. They felt more uncertain about their position in their social world.
The article showed the mental health effects of the murders of unarmed, young Black men and women on Black people. The murder of unarmed, young Black men and women, the article showed, did not have the same effects on White people. The murder of unarmed, young Blacks by police had a very specific, deleterious mental health effects on the victims of structural racism. It was felt particularly vividly by Black mothers, and by Black women expecting a child.
The article made use of what is now a familiar concept, the concept of "structural racism." Racism, this term implies, should not be understood primarily as the prejudiced thoughts and feelings and behavior of individual Americans. When we talk about racism in America we are not just talking about this or that person who has mistaken beliefs about Black people – beliefs that ascribe defects to Black people that they have no more than any other group in our nation.
Instead we are supposed to think of racism as consisting of social systems, of structures, instead of as the prejudices of individual persons.
This is an important insight, but it must be understood correctly. Structural racism is often understood as saying "racism does not consist of the beliefs or actions of individual White people. Racism is perpetrated and perpetuated by the system or the social structure."
Many White people like to talk about structural racism because they understand it in that sense that individual White people are not responsible for the existence of racism, for the murder by police of unarmed, young Black persons, for the inequality in opportunities for jobs or education between Whites and Blacks, etc. So I as a White person do not have to feel responsible. I should not feel guilty because it is not what I do or say that injures Blacks. It is the system.
But that is, of course, a complete misinterpretation. Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri was killed by a specific policeman. It was a specific grand jury that decided not to indict that policeman. Police who shot Black persons, if they were indicted, were absolved by specific juries. Racist acts are committed by specific White persons.
Black persons recounting their experiences over and over again experience the same indignities and assaults from different White persons. Talk about structural racism rejects the notion that there are just a few White people who are racist – "a few bad apples" – the startling and destructive fact is that different, totally unconnected White people will denigrate Black persons in the same ways as other White people. ( Austin Channing Brown, I'm Still Here, Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness [New York: Convergent, 2018] This is a book White people need to read.) More or less all White people will at times act in racist ways towards African-Americans – and of course against other persons of color, against other people who are not really White or whose whiteness is somewhat marginal as for instance Jews or, in Europe, the Roma, or Native Americans in our country.
That is what makes racism structural. It isn't just this or that person being mean or perhaps just ignorant and self-involved. It is all White people, all the time, with very few exceptions. Some of these White people are trying really hard not to be racist but even those of us who try hard, fail much more often than we like to admit.
One of the astonishing facts about structural racism is how it pops up in the most unexpected places. Several years ago A TIME Magazine reporter looked at the calls of umpires in different sports and found that in different sports White umpires tended to make calls against Black athletes more often than against Whites. (Katie Rooney, “Are Baseball Umpires Racist?”TIME August 13, 2007)
Structural racism plays out even in sports and it plays out in two ways. It plays out in the acts of White umpires and it plays out in the silence of the White public that does not protest these injustices.
In part they fail to protest because they don't know what is going on. But more and more White people are learning about the structural – that means ubiquitous, inescapable-- injustices done to members of Black communities but they refuse to do anything. They do not protest.
White people stick together and protect each other even when their racism is illegal or blatantly immoral. That racism is structural not only because it is everywhere but because it consists of an unspoken White solidarity against the suffering of Blacks. White police who killed Blacks can feel pretty safe because of the Whites who will protect them.
It is like Catholic priests who abuse children can feel assured that their bishop will protect them. It is like men in commercial or political organizations who sexually harass women. Until very recently they could be sure that other men would protect them also.
Structural racism means that all of us, Whites, regardless how well we mean, are responsible for the maltreatment for the injustices done daily to African-Americans because we commit overt racist acts, that we may not even recognize, or we refuse to protest those done by others.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Value of Life

Today I have a lot of questions and very few answers, but the questions are very important and are not always considered as clearly and carefully as they ought to be.
The question is deceptively simple: what makes life valuable?
The question arose in connection with a minor natural crisis. Earlier this year we found our trees infested with thousands and thousands of caterpillars. Standing under the trees one could hear these multitudes of small jaws chomping on the leaves. Chewed-up leaves would rain around you and cover the ground. All the while a gentle rain of black balls, caterpillar feces, was falling. After about a week many tall trees had no leaves left and we feared for them.
Then as suddenly as they had come, the caterpillars disappeared to be replaced by thousands of moths, little unattractive brown fluttering things. They were everywhere and came in the house every time the screen door was opened.
Now they have laid their eggs and they are gone. The trees fortunately are growing new leaves.
The whole episode was an astonishing demonstration of nature's struggle to preserve life, to continue life, to enhance and increase life. Nature regards all life, even the life of caterpillars and moths, as overwhelmingly important.
But – and here is the important thought – we do not. Some human beings regard animal life as valuable and therefore refuse to eat meat. They are vegetarians. Others go further and refused to eat eggs and milk and milk products such as cheese or butter. They are vegans.
But no one I know believes that plant life is valuable life. No one refuses their spinach on principle. No one I know hesitates to enjoy artichokes or avocadoes because they are living beings.
We do not, unlike nature, believe that life in all its different forms is valuable. So if we declare some lives, for instance our own, to have great value and that, therefore, our lives should be protected and cherished, we need to be able to explain how our life, human life, is different from that of the caterpillar or the tomatoes we do not hesitate to enjoy in the summer.
That question leads us directly into questions about abortion, into questions about the death penalty, into questions about wars – sending soldiers to their death, randomly killing civilians by bombing their cities. These are questions about the value of human lives. They are questions about the value of potential human lives. They are questions about what makes us human.
Many Americans believe fervently that the fertilized human egg deserves the protection of full-fledged human beings for its potential of becoming such human beings. Many of these Americans also accept the death penalty. We must ask them whether rapists and murderers do not still have the potential to become good human beings? And, on the other hand, does the fertilized egg not have the potential to become a rapist and murderer who, many Americans believe, deserves to be put to death, often in great pain.
The important insight is this: life itself, whether it be the life of humans or of caterpillars, is not valuable. We believed that human life is valuable because it is human. But what that human quality is that makes our life valuable is not at all obvious. The defenders of abortion as well as it's foes need to say more than that life is valuable. Caterpillars are more complex creatures than the recently fertilized human egg but that does not make their life valuable in the ways human lives are. They need to explain what makes a human life valuable. So must the defenders of the death penalty explain to us how the lives of human beings forfeit their value.
Why do our lives deserve protections not extended to grass and trees or to caterpillars?
Some people have better lives than others. Some need to work three jobs; they are always working and are not doing terribly interesting or fulfilling work. Cleaning offices and bathrooms is not that enjoyable. It probably does not give you a sense of pride in your accomplishment. Such lives are in some way impaired compared to the lives of people who have a job they love and are remunerated generously.
How do we decide who deserves the rich life – rich in satisfactions, rich in accomplishments – and who does not?
There is no obvious answer to the question what makes human life valuable. There is also no obvious answer to the question what makes some human lives more valuable than that of others. Why do some people deserve fulfilling lives and others not? Why do some people deserve to live and others not?
Brian Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, who has spent a lifetime as an attorney for prisoners on death row, tells us that no human being is merely his bad acts. The thief is more than a thief and so is the murderer or rapist. All human beings have the potential of being loving parents, faithful partners and generous friends. It is the potential for being good human beings that gives value to our lives. It is the potential for redemption, for seeing the error of our ways.
Caterpillars and moths do not lead good or bad lives. Human beings do and that gives value to their lives.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Family Values

A significant majority both on the right and the left believe in the importance of family in the life of all Americans but especially in the life of children. Those on the right may be more vocal about that and put forward a different definition on the family than that offered on the left. But all value the family as they understand it.
But the word “family” of course refers to a wide range of relationships. My grandfather remained a bachelor until age 50, when he returned to his hometown and married a schoolteacher. With her he had two children but for the rest continued his life as before. He spent his days at the chess club or in the library where he read history voraciously. His role in the family was benign but distant. His wife no longer needed to teach schoolchildren. Instead she was now in charge of the household, supervising a cook, and two maids, and the children’s nanny.
For my grandparents, family was a sexual and economic arrangement. My grandfather supported an affluent bourgeois household. When necessary he helped one or the other of his five brothers or their children. Family imposes obligations or allows one to ask for help. The permissions or obligations extended only to persons of the same ancestry.
In other families intimacy is more central than the obligations of mutual aid. In different settings intimacy has different meanings. Often shared work is at the heart of it. Families run a farm together or a business in the city. A father sells cars or installs electrical networks. As the business expands, sons and daughters join the firm as well as cousins and nephews. Being together almost daily, having many joined interests and concerns that need discussing, family members get to know each other intimately and learn to live well together.
My parents understood family intimacy to mean that some matters would only be talked about within the family. Sharing secrets with outsiders was a serious breach of family loyalty. Family intimacy often means that members, very familiar with one another, find other family members when they need comfort or advice or when they need help to think through difficult decisions. Family members may help each other raise their children. There have been, and still are, cultures where teens live with relatives to learn how to live a decent life and perhaps to learn a trade. Families care for each other's children. They also care for the common ancestors when they get frail in old age. Families know each other's history intimately. They use the lives of their relatives as models to imitate or perhaps as lessons of what to avoid doing.
It is interesting but quite distressing to see how family of the second type is becoming progressively more rare. This became very obvious to me on a recent trip to Latin America. In times of economic crisis, significant numbers of mostly younger people emigrate in order to find a livelihood outside their own country. Families that have lived in close proximity for generations are now scattered widely over the globe. Oceans separate family members. They may return for extended visits every few years. But they have now made lives for themselves in other countries. They have close friends unknown to their family; some of them may well be substitute families. The intimacy that close and almost daily contact had bred before is no longer there. Family members become estranged from each other. Family relations become much more distant. The importance of the family slowly fades. The emigrants’ children may speak a different language and have difficulties communicating with their grandparents when they return to Latin America.
Instead of celebrating graduations, weddings and childbirth together, families are in touch on social media and exchange photos on Instagram. The previous intimacy bred in frequent and extended contacts is no longer available. People keep track of each other. Grandparents have pictures of grandchildren but do not know them as they would have before when they were in and out of their house almost daily. The meaning of family is altered irretrievably. The loud insistence on the value of the family is a thinly veiled lament over its disappearance (when it is not an attack on LGBQT persons).
Nor are these phenomena limited to the developing world where migrants try to escape poverty and political turmoil, often sponsored by some US government agency. Few families remain in place in our country. Children often live at great distances from their parents. They escape the country and smaller towns to live in big cities that are “cool”--where is a lot going on. Grandchildren rarely see their grandparents. Grandparents are not involved in the growth and development of their grand children. Text and email replace this family intimacy. Images take place of living presence.
Family values are progressively more imagined than real. In politics they become a stick to beat those who live marginal lives or offend celibate men. In our social life, family values are disappearing mourned by denial.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Conversations about politics

One of my instructors in college, soon after the end of World War II, insisted that if the US government had wanted to establish concentration camps, it would not have had difficulties finding guards. In every nation, he insisted, one could find people given to violence and brutality to match the guards in German concentration camps.
The separation of babies, infants and children from their parents as they come across the border with Mexico, reminds me of these conversations in college. It appears that there is no shortage of border guards who are willing to take children from their parents. According to one story a nursing baby was taken from its mother's breast. The President has succeeded in persuading enough people of the evils of unlawful immigration to dispose over an adequate force of men and women ready to detain those immigrants and to split up their families.
How can we deal with these fellow citizens who loyally execute presidential policies that a majority of Americans regard as repugnant and inconsistent with our values?
Democrats are rallying to take back majorities in the House and the Senate by making sure that everyone on their side will actually go and vote this November. That is clearly a good policy but, by itself, it is incomplete. If they succeed and House and Senate will once again have democratic majorities, the quarter or a third of our population that is persuaded that their economic problems are to be blamed on illegal immigration, on Muslims, and other people from abroad will, once again, not have effective political representation. But they will remain where they are, waiting for another electoral cycle when they, once more, will have significant political power. Conservatives currently force their vision on liberals and progressives. If the Left wins the upcoming elections, they will be in a position to force their views on the Right. But the conflict will remain unresolved. The democracy we aspire to in which all the people govern themselves together will remain as remote as ever.
If we are to strengthen the democratic aspects of our society, we need to reduce the extent to which opponents coerce each other. Besides changing the majorities in Congress, we need to talk to our fellow citizens whom Trump inflames with his rhetoric. But how will we talk to them? Can we persuade them that they are wrong and we are right?
Conversations about political disagreements, for instance about immigration usually begin as attempts of each side to convince their opponents that they are mistaken, that what they regard as facts are actual errors, that their inferences are faulty, and their values questionable. But soon these attempts at mutual persuasion degenerate into shouting matches. Emotions rise, mutual understanding fails completely.
We tend to blame this failure of conversations about politics on the irrationality of our opponents. Instead of listening carefully to our arguments, examining our evidence and trying to pinpoint agreements and disagreements, they reject out of hand what we have to say. Irrationality manifests itself as unwillingness to listen carefully and respectfully. Rationality involves respect of the opponent in all but the most extreme cases. A necessary precondition of serious conversations between political enemies is mutual respect. We cannot talk to each other if we secretly believe the other side to be stupid, misinformed, brainwashed by propaganda. Any sort of political conversation that might actually be useful presupposes that each side is willing to recognize the other side as an equal partner in the conversation, as a partner to learn from and not merely as a benighted ignoramus to be an enlightened by our superior understanding.
But this form of irrationality is not the exclusive characteristic of conservatives. Leftists and progressives too often fail to listen with care and respect to their conservative opponents. Both sides to political controversy need to make, often difficult, efforts to listen and respond respectfully to their opponents.
You cannot have that kind of mutually respectful conversation with everybody. Some opponents may be too rigid or, yes, too unintelligent to be able to participate. Some are unable or unwilling to manage their strong commitments to a specific political stance. But there are enough people one could have a useful conversation with if only one tried.
Many families have members on either side of this political divide. If family members do not get along, have never gotten along, have always secretly despised each other, a useful political dialogue is not in their future. But there also are family members who sort of like each other except for their very different political orientation.
These are the people that should give each other the benefit of the doubt and explore quietly their differences as well as their shared values in order to discover why they have such different assessments of the President's agenda. Here is a chance for each to learn something, to broaden their understanding of one another and perhaps even to learn from each other.
Similarly, friends and acquaintances, co-workers are in relationships that allow for possibly enlightening conversations. Rarely will they persuade each other to give up cherished political principles. But instead of remaining completely at loggerheads, unable to understand each other or to have informative conversations, they may find enough agreements to engage in joint actions. Even though they continue to differ in deep ways, they can resolve disagreements sufficiently to act in concert.
As long as each party to current political divides insists that they are right and their opponents incompetent, bumbling, and mistaken our political system will oscillate between "progressive" and conservative majorities coercing their opponents. When each is in power they will force the others to follow their policies. Cooperation will be rare and insignificant.
Cooperation is possible only among groups that manage to have useful conversations and those are possible only when each party is genuinely willing to listen to the other and is prepared to change its mind, to appreciate the insights of the opponent in order to forge some kind of, however limited, consensus. The determination of each side to shoe the other side the error of its ways, instead of being of the essence of rationality, makes rational conversation impossible.
For that to happen both sides need to speak to each other respectfully.