Friday, January 20, 2017

The American Dream 
 I have been thinking about what a friend told me about his father and his uncles. They had fled a civil war in the Middle East when they were young men and, while they came away alive from the experiences in their home country, they bore serious emotional scars.
Most of them fared well in this country. They became business owners or professionals, they married and had children, they owned their own homes. Many people would say that they achieved the American Dream. But as my friend tells the story, they tended to be glum, depressive. Several had problems with substance abuse. Their marriages ended in divorce; their children too were mostly addicted to alcohol or drugs. They did not enjoy working in their businesses even when they were reasonably successful; their professions did not seem fulfilling. They were boring.
How shall we think about this? We can say that these men were ungrateful, self-indulgent whiners. They should cheer up and be grateful for what America allowed them to achieve--a standard of living that would never have been accessible to them in the country they came from.
 A somewhat less harsh form of this criticism might wish them some help with the damage done to their psyches in their native country and its brutal civil wars.
But perhaps we should pause a minute and consider more carefully what it means to achieve the American Dream. The most common idea considers the American Dream to be all about becoming a property owner, of making a good living, of owning personal property such as a house and cars, of being able to send their children to good schools where they could learn to make a good living, to own their houses and all that.
But is this too limited? What about love, close friends, work that excites and challenges, personal growth, acquiring new skills, new knowledge? A wise friend said to me once: "Earning a good living is not enough; you want a life that is meaningful."
But did these men not to have meaningful lives? They earned money in order to enable their children to have better lives. What could be better?
What makes human life meaningful is not easy to say. Different people may give different answers to the question about what makes life worth living. But is the life of the rich really the best life?
Consider this. All over the world there are religious persons who take a vow of poverty. Do they thereby foreclose the possibility of leading a meaningful life? Don't we rather want to say that religious persons lead good lives because they have found a cause to which to dedicate themselves completely? The daily trials and tribulations of our lives, the pressure of desires, hunger, fatigue do not affect them seriously because their days are dedicated to a greater cause, the worship of their deity.
I have talked before about the myths that Americans hear constantly and rehearse for others, about the blessing of capitalism, or that our political system is a democracy.
The myth of the American dream is another part of this mythology. But on examination it turns out to be dried up, impoverished. The good life is reduced to owning property.
All of this is very important at this moment when a new president promises to "make America great again." What does it take to make our country great? Must we have our names on everything we own? Must we have gold faucets in our bathrooms?
I would think that in a great America everyone would lead meaningful lives. Everyone would have access to education in the subjects that really fascinate them. Everyone would have a chance to be as good an athlete as they could. People would actively participate in the affairs of their neighborhood, in their schools and playgrounds. Instead of complaining about the failures of city government they would build small parks to enhance shared living spaces. Americans today are spectators of sports, of politics, of their neighbors lives. They depend on well-paid “experts” to tell them what to think and how to understand the events of this world. They consume information and understanding much like they consume food and drink.
We have become utterly dependent for almost everything we use. In a great America, everyone would once again be active, creative, inquisitive and thinking for themselves and sharing their ideas and their dreams with their neighbors regardless of how expensive their car is or their house. In a great America what matters is what we are devoted to, not what we earn.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Message for the new year 

Since the election of Donald Trump as president, there has been a great deal of soul-searching. A number of explanations of this unfortunate event are popular. Some people blame the schools for not teaching children how our democracy works. Others blame the media for misleading the public. Others again blame the voters for making a very unintelligent and uninformed choice.

These and other explanations ignore a very important fact about the American public. Americans live by a number of myths which are widely shared and never subjected to any critical scrutiny.  If the voters have proven ignorant in this election the ignorance is shared among all layers of the population and is supported and perpetrated by the media, by school teachers, and ministers.

No one wants to talk about capitalism. Creating jobs, for instance, was a big theme during the last electoral campaign. All candidates promised to create jobs. No one wanted to talk about why that was a necessity. Donald Trump blamed the export of jobs to Asia and has all kinds of remedies for that. But he did not want to talk about why jobs were exported to Asia. Nor did anybody mention, what should be common knowledge, that many manufacturing businesses are buying more and more robots that replace living workers. Why are they doing that? No one talks about that either.

The truth is that in our economic system profits are the main goal of all enterprises and making a profit is more important then treating good workers decently and preserving their jobs at  a good salary. Jobs get exported to Asia where wages are much much lower than here. Robots replace human beings because robots do not join unions, robots do not go on strike for higher wages or better working conditions. Buying robots increases profits and in our economic system profits come before people.

There is a problem about jobs and pay for the working and the middle class because corporations care more for profits than they care for people. Corporations do not  care more for profits because their managers are any greedier than the rest of us but because they work in a specific economic system which expects them to change well-paying jobs into jobs that pay really poorly, that anyone can do after half a day's training. That way the wage bill is lower and profits higher.

But nobody wants to talk about that. If anyone talks about capitalism they talk about its blessings, the newer and more powerful cell phones and all sorts of other gadgets which are making life easier - except if capital has taken your good job and converted it into one that barely keeps you alive.

For one group of Trump supporters - middle-aged white working-class men who have not gotten a decent raise in 20 years - their experience is totally incomprehensible as long as they're being told over and over again that the economic system is the best there is and is the source of their well-being. If the true nature of capitalism - its motto  " profits before people " - were better understood by the people who are its victims, they would not be as likely to be taken in by Trump’s promises.

But the mythology of the benign capitalist system goes hand-in-hand with another mythology, namely that the U.S. is a democracy.  In a democracy the people are the source and seat of power and they manage the government through the mechanism of periodic elections. But for the white working-class male who has been treated shabbily by the system for a long time that is again very confusing because if he has any  power to change his condition he has not noticed that.

 But, of course, the United States is not a democracy but an oligarchy run by the very rich and by the leaders of the economic system. They managed not only the government but also what everybody is told to believe every day. It is not surprising that the mythology of capitalism and democracy are so dominant.
That is just what a capitalist oligarchy wants everyone to believe.

 While freedom of the press is always in danger it still exists to a considerable extent. If you want to inform yourself and be able to see behind the “great blessings” of capitalism and the US democracy, here is a list all websites that I would recommend. They are more likely than the New York Times, or Washington Post to give you an honest account of our current condition:

Common Dreams Your daily news presented without concealing the problems of the existing institutions.

Democracy Now!
- Democracy Now! is an independent, global weekday news hour anchored by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González.

The Guardian.  Latest US news, breaking news and current affairs coverage from

The Nation. The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, and the most widely read weekly journal of progressive political and cultural news, opinion and analysis.

Truthout is a progressive news organization in the United States that operates a web site and distributes original political news articles, opinion pieces.

Look at any of these sources of news and you are less likely to be misled by the dominant myths of our society.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

            A Christmas Message

    It is the Christmas season, everyone is sending and receiving cards wishing for peace and goodwill to all men and women. But for most people this is just something they say. They do not  really mean it. They do not know, nor do they care,  how our government contributes to spreading the murder and abuse of innocent civilians by means of its military assistance programs.

    During  all this Christmas Season, as much as during the remainder of the year, our government gives away taxpayer money to the militaries of different countries which are well-known to torture and kill  civilians with complete impunity. Our government,  required by law not to give the weapons systems to countries that practice torture, simply ignores the law and continues to finance military establishments that disregard human rights every day.

    Here are a few examples:

    Israel receives the largest amount of military subsidies, more or less $3 billion a year. Their military harass Palestinians with random checkpoints, uprooting olive groves, and, according to some, maltreating children in their prisons.

    In our hemisphere, Mexico, Honduras, Colombia all receive generous military aid. According to Amnesty International " torture, massacres, disappearances  and killings of non-combatants are widespread [in Colombia] and collusion between the armed forces and paramilitary groups continues to this day." The situation in Colombia is so bad that Amnesty International has urged the US government to suspend military aid to the country. Our government has not responded to that suggestion.

    About Mexico, Amnesty International has this to say: "Federal, state, and municipal police forces also continue to commit serious human rights violations in several states. Women experience high levels of gender-based violence with little access to justice. Irregular migrants are at high risk of abduction and murder  by criminal gangs and abuse and extortion by corrupt Mexican officials. Women migrants are often raped. Journalists and human rights defenders are killed, harassed or face fabricated criminal charges. . . . Defending human rights can be a life-threatening job in Mexico. Scores of activists have suffered death threats, intimidation, and harassment in the last few years. Some of them have been killed for doing their job."  
    In Honduras the Clinton State Department supported a military coup that deposed a duly elected presidential candidate and replaced him with a right-wing candidate sponsored by the CIA. The police are accused of killing legitimate demonstrators with live ammunition or rubber bullets. Violence against women on the part of police is widespread and well known; rape by police officials is common.    

    Similar reports come in from other Latin American countries where the military and police forces, generously financed by the Department of State and the Department of Defense of the United States, abuse and murder civilians with complete impunity.

    Observers all around the world report on death and harassment of civilians paid for by US taxpayers.

    Before you send out one more " Peace to the World and Goodwill to Men" card, go and inform yourself on the Amnesty International website about the many ways in which our government brings war and brutality to many countries by generously giving weapons to police and the military.

 Once you see the facts, join those of us who protest these policies.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The American Flag and Patriotism

After the last presidential election and the surprise victory of Donald Trump, the students at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts took down the flag on their campus. Someone burned an American flag.

The flag being a symbol of America, they expressed their rejection of the sort of America that they consider Donald Trump to represent, an America that is loud, aggressive, and racist. It was a way of disassociating themselves from the America that had come to the fore in this last election.

The members of a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars Post were very disturbed by this disrespect of the American flag and held a number of demonstrations across from the campus to ask that the flag be restored to its customary place.

Respecting the flag is involved in patriotism. The disagreement over flying the flag on campus was clearly a disagreement about what it means to be a patriotic American.
There are different kinds of patriotism. Patriots, for whom respecting the flag is  a large part of being patriotic, are often ill-informed. They are likely to drive around with a bumper sticker saying "America Number One;" they are surprised and incredulous when they hear that America is, in fact, not number one, when they find out that America spends more on medical care than other countries while our medical care is inferior to that received by citizens elsewhere. They don't believe  that other countries provide better education for more of their children than we do. They do not know that America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country except Russia, more than Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Their love of country most likely is a way of making themselves feel better in a life that is profoundly unsatisfactory. If they are white, their love of country is likely to include a hefty dose of racism.

Here is where the story about the flag on the Hampshire College campus becomes interesting. The patriotism of the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post across from Hampshire College turns out not to be of the standard sort.

These are the leaders of this veterans organization: Victor Nuñez Ortiz, who was seven years old when he came to the US with his parents, fleeing the Civil War in El Salvador; Gamalier Rosa born in Puerto Rico. Both objected strongly against any hate messages directed at the students. Both reject racists and bullies. A third vet, very active in the Post is an Army veteran, Brianna MacKinnon, who is transitioning from male to female.

This coming week Ortiz is going out to North Dakota to stand with Native Americans at Standing Rock in their protest against building a pipeline that will endanger their water supply and violate sacred burial grounds.

Ortiz clearly understands that America is not Number One, but that, on the contrary, the values we cherish are always in danger and need to be protected. This is why hundreds of veterans are assembling at Standing Rock. His patriotism is a critical patriotism. As an immigrant, he values the shelter America provided for  him. But he also understands how precarious those protections are.

Lowering the flag, the veterans felt to be disrespectful for their military service in Iraq. That, too, is a complex matter. From the perspective at home, the Iraq war was a terrible mistake. From the perspective of those who served there, their experiences, their losses as well as the enormous losses of the Iraqi people, should not be denigrated by people in the United States. One can reject the war as an immoral undertaking and treat those who fought it, and those who were victimized by it with the respect they deserve.

This matter of respecting the flag has many complications because there are different kinds of patriotism.  Some patriots are ill-informed and are proud of a country that is best in all respects, that is, of course, a mere fiction. This sort of patriotism can be found everywhere and it is equally despicable everywhere, whether that be here at home, or in Serbia, or in Ruanda, in India and Pakistan, in Argentina  or Brazil, or in most other countries in the world. It frequently is trotted out to justify wars of conquest and genocide. It only serves to mislead gullible populations.

But there is also, of course, a very different patriotism. It does not brag about our wealth and military might. It values our political institutions. It understands that we never quite succeed in living up to our political ideals and  that patriots must therefore dedicate themselves to helping to make them as real as we can. They care less about making America great than about equality and respect for the freedoms of all.

Respect for the flag means different things. It may honor men and women who fought in one of our wars. It may honor a country that exists only in a fictional universe. Or it my serve to remind us that the institutions we are proud of such a our democracy or the legal system are always endangered, never more so than today, and it is the patriots’ work to loudly identify the dangers and to try to protect these institutions.

That is what respect for the flag means in the conflict over flying the flag at Hampshire College.

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.