Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unrest in the Middle East

The Revolution in Tunisia, the demonstrations in Algiers, Yemen and in Egypt are a profound embarrassment for the United States government. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton and President Obama have presented the US as the champion of democracy. But once confronted with real popular movements in favor of popular self-determination the President is rapidly backpedaling. 

The president could not say enough about what a good ally President Hosni Mubarak has been to the United States. (We have been a good ally to Mubarak too- to the tune of $ 1.3 billion a year) There followed some mealymouthed recommendations of allowing free speech. But neither Clinton nor Obama were willing to come right out and say it that Mubarak is an authoritarian ruler, who has for decades arrested and tortured political opponents. Elections in Egypt have been a sham. All through the Mideast, our allies are dictators or absolute monarchs. We have cooperated with them and made it very clear, if only through our actions, that all this talk about freedom and democracy was for local consumption back in the United States and that no dictator need to be worried about US opposition -- with the exception of Ahmadinejad in Iran.

( And even he does not need to be terribly worried. A while ago someone reported that the government had given exemptions from the commercial sanctions against Iran to no less than 10,000 American firms. While our official position is uncompromisingly hostile to the government of Iran, we are willing to allow American firms to make money supplying this enemy, thereby strengthening the Iranian government.)

And indeed, our government’s talk about freedom and democracy is for home consumption. They are trying to persuade us that their primary agenda item in foreign policy is the promotion of democracy. This blatant lie only shows their disrespect for the American electorate. They don’t think they have to tell the truth at home; voters are only there to be manipulated.

To my mind that does not show a lot of respect for democracy either. After all, if people are systematically misinformed by their government, their decisions at the ballot box are not liable to be worth a lot. Perhaps Mubarak is a trusted ally because our government and his play pretty much the same game, except that ours is more sophisticated in its disrespect of its people.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama – advocate of violence.

The president is nothing if not upbeat in his public speeches. He would have made a really good football coach. He can get people fired up as he did before his election.

And he is all about winning. Again and again over the years he talked about America as the greatest country in the world. But that is surely foolishness. Different countries have different virtues. Why can’t we recognize that? It is a stupid chauvinist assumption that your country is better in every respect.

And he is all about competition. He thinks we should improve the education of our children so we could outcompete the Indians and Chinese. Education is not to make life better for our children. It is for us to be leaders -- in what? in glitzy gadgets for communication, in more GPS trinkets? Obama does not care; he only cares about winning. He is not embarrassed to talk about Sputnik when we decided to beef up education in the US not because we value education but because the Russians were ahead in space technology. And Obama is repeating that truly embarrassing admission: education has no intrinsic value. It is valuable only if it helps us win out over Indian or Chinese technology and industry.

What a pathetic view of education and of what really matters in human lives!

But it gets much worse than that. We need matters not only in commercial competition. As far as the president is concerned, winning is also important militarily. America -- according to Obama the greatest country in the world, bar none -- is bankrupting itself so it can bully everybody else militarily.

The government deficit is growing by leaps and bounds. Even Obama thinks we need to do something about that. But he is not willing to touch the tax cuts for the rich or, worse, the money we spend on the military. Nicholas Kristof has a chilling commentary on US military expenditures:
“• The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It says that we spend more than six times as much as the country with the next highest budget, China.
• The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?
• The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
• The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.
This is the one area where elections scarcely matter. President Obama, a Democrat who symbolized new directions, requested about 6 percent more for the military this year than at the peak of the Bush administration. “

Shall we cut the budgets that aid the elderly and the poor so that we can maintain troops in Germany, and South Korea, on Okinawa, and in many other places? To be sure, it may not be quite as easy to throw our weight around without all our far flung military bases and that, in the end, is the only thing that really matters to guys like Obama.

In the end what matters are macho bragging rights. Our technology is better..., our military is more powerful....

Our house is falling down around our ears, but our president is standing in the doorway yelling: “my penis is bigger than yours.” 

Poor Obama, poor America.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Saving the rich?

It is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Pres. John F. Kennedy. Everyone remembers the injunction “ask not what your country can do for you...” in his Inaugural Speech. Very few people remember the line “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

That sentence came in the context of a pledge that America would help poor nations elsewhere. But in the light of our more recent history, the thought sheds a bitter light on what America has become. After the meltdown of 2007 and 2008, the government bailed out the big banks and financial institutions that caused the economy to crash. I saved the very few who are rich.

At the same time, efforts to create more jobs or to support the unemployed have been lukewarm and ineffective. I did little to help the poor.

It is not as if there weren’t a lot of work to do in our country. Our schools are under-staffed. Millions of elderly could use someone to come and visit, to watch TV with them or read the newspaper to them. Physically limited people could use help getting out, going shopping or going to the movies. Single mothers with children could use help and some time off from mothering and their work. Libraries are understaffed. Injured veterans could lose a great deal more attention. There is lots of work to do.

But somehow the nation has persuaded itself that poverty, disease, old age and disabilities do not concern the rest of us. “America is business is business” as Calvin Coolidge said and all that matters is that our big banks -- those that are too big to fail -- make money once again.

Contrary to Pres. Kennedy’s prediction, our society has saved the few who are rich and made little effort to help those who are poor.

But Pres. Kennedy was talking about “a free society.” Perhaps in saving the few who are rich without helping the many who are poor we we have done serious damage to our freedoms.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Peace ?

Around the Holidays and the New Year, we wish each other peace. We wish for peace on earth and a peaceful new year. Now with Martin Luther King Day upon us, talk of peace escalates once again.

But like the weather, everyone talks about peace but no one does anything about it. Or, more accurately, few people do anything about it.

Domestically, we take great pride in our political institutions and the non-violent forms of change—change in policies and changes in leadership. We do not resolve our disagreements by violence, but we go to Court to have the judges decide and—once they have decided—we accept their verdict. We are solidly committed to peaceful resolution of our disagreements.

That is the story we tell ourselves and the world. It is a true story but it leaves out an important part of what we do. When a court has settled a disagreement, the judges issue an order. Citizens who do not want to accept that order will soon be confronted by police, by the sheriff, by armed soldiers. Yes, we turn to judges to resolve our conflicts. But their judgment is backed up by the clear threat of violence. The weapon of the policeman who serves papers on us, makes it very clear that the decisions of our Courts are backed by the threat of violence. The peaceful resolution of conflicts works because the court ordered decision are backed by credible threats of prison and other punishments.

Our dedication to peaceful conflict resolution is very limited.

At the same time there are alternative forms of conflict resolution which have made considerable progress in the last so many years. These go by different names, and follow somewhat different procedures. But they all begin with an agreement by parties in conflict to try as hard as they can to settle their disagreement, to work out a settlement freely accepted by all parties and make a major effort to make that settlement work. Here there is no appeal to a judge. No one tells the parties what they should do. No one gives orders. No one issues threats. There is no dependence on armed policemen. It is a genuine effort to settle conflict peacefully, to stay away from violence and even the threat of it.

In this alternative method for settling disagreements and conflicts, the parties tell their stories to one or more mediators, each in turn. In a series of meetings, they work out a mutually acceptable solution which they can own, take responsibility for, and execute. The mediator—in most cases—makes no suggestions. Mediators do not tell the parties what to do but try to create an atmosphere of careful listening, of responsible conversation, where issues can be clarified and perhaps reframed and solution hammered out by the parties in disagreement.

Today many colleges and universities offered mediation to their students when conflicts arise between students or between students and faculty. Most major institutions of higher learning offer one-or-two years degree programs in mediation.

Mediation is regularly used in international conflicts, but has proved less successful there. Today, mediation (in whatever form) is not a panacea, a ready made solution for the ubiquitous violence in the world. But the only available alternative—war with its mass killings of civilians as well as of combatants and vast destruction of cities, roads, schools, hospitals and homes. The Vietnam vet begging on the street corner should be a daily reminder for us of the unacceptably high cost of war.

Violence will remain the means to settle conflicts as long as we run to lawyers and courthouses with our conflicts. Lovers of peace can actually work for peace by learning about mediation and using it when needed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shooting in Arizona

As various observers have pointed out, mass shootings have become ordinary events in the US. There was Columbine; there was Virginia Tech. There have been so many random shootings in post offices that “going postal” has become an accepted expression in English. And now there is a mass shooting in Arizona. Everyone is upset. Congress had a tearful meeting on the South stairs of the Capitol. Everyone is angrily pointing fingers at someone else.

Once again we hear calls for gun control. There are numerous calls for "greater civility" in political discourse--such as by President Obama in his Tucson speech.

But these reactions remain on the surface and fail to acknowledge that these episodes of open, very public violence are simply manifestations of the violence that pervades American life. These reactions may even be read as a deliberate refusal to look into our own hearts to see our anger, suspicion and sense of powerlessness.

Many Americans are very angry. Many people feel suspicious of their neighbors; many feel very terribly powerless. Many carry loaded weapons. The fantasies of having a shoot out in self-defense or in defense of American Traditions seem very powerful and widespread. Shooting weapons, even on the practice range, satisfies these violent fantasies. So does the daily news of murders, grisly accidents, family violence, drug wars, and assassinations. Also police dramas, violent computer games, road rage and cut throat competition in business appeal to the angry and powerless. Bullying in the schools has recently been in the news. Family violence never leaves the news.

People who compensate for their anger, fear, and powerlessness by violent fantasies are passionate in support of gun control, of capital punishment, and prone to support a security state. Hence they are for "law and order" and join vigilantes when they can. Hence they demonize other groups: Communists, anarchists, gay men and women, immigrants, undocumented workers, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, sex offenders. All this suppressed violence creates an atmosphere of hatred. In spite of our image of “one nation under God” we often act more like a snarling pack of wild animals.

Mass shootings show us our real face. They will continue as long as a significant portion of the American people is consumed by anger, is suspicious of strangers, feel impotent in the face of the government, “liberals,” and the ubiquitous communists under their beds.

Neither gun control nor calls for “civility” and certainly not passionate attacks on Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh et al. will alter the basic mood of America. That mood is anchored in the deep structures of our society and our history as owners of slaves and conquerors of Native American lands. They are anchored in the insecurity of most peoples' work, in their dependence on the distant and often bureaucratic management of huge corporations. They are anchored in the selling of our democratic system to the highest bidder.

We can't alter our history and do not seem to be prepared to do anything about social structures. We only deal with the symptoms of widespread anger and suspicion. We may succeed for a while and allow public life to settle down to a more moderate level of anger and violence. After all our national character is complex. Next to the anger and powerlessness often sits a neighborly, helpful and compassionate streak. One moment we look with suspicion at the dark-skinned stranger on our street; the next we give generously to help victims of some far away disaster.

There are times when this kindly, optimistic streak is dominant and our public life is less violent. But such changes deal only with surface manifestations and the level of violence is bound to rise again when our angry, suspicious and powerless side once again becomes dominant. Until we manage to change, to make life better for all of us and thereby change our national character, violence will remain the periodically dominant trait of life in America..

At the moment we are not even trying.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Do you know how to improve our schools?

Bill Gates knows. Yes, Bill Gates who gave us Windows – well, he did not exactly give it to us. After all, he ended up the world’s richest man and we are stuck with Windows. He has now distanced himself from Microsoft and become a national leader in education reform.
Bill Gates supports Pres. Obama’s intensified version of “No Child Left Behind”: standard testing in English, Math and Science which has transformed many schools into examination mills that prepare children to pass multiple-choice exams. But these children are only being drilled in English, Math and Science. They do not learn American history or world history. They know nothing about our political system. They know nothing about art; they do not learn to play an instrument. They are not equipped to be citizens in a democracy.
In science they may be able to answer certain age-appropriate questions on a test, but they have never tried to perform a scientific experiment. They have not played with robotics or computer programming. They may be able to read but are they able to think for themselves? No they just have memorized the “correct” answers. They are getting prepared for 1984.
Gates thinks about schools as any businessman thinks about his employees. If the business is not thriving – and many of our schools are not – who gets the blame? Well the teachers of course. Gates thinks that teachers should not be paid more for getting more education. We should not encourage teachers to learn more, to be intellectually curious and alive. They should be cogs in a complex machine. They should let their leaders do the thinking. (Maybe that’s how Microsoft manages to produce products like Vista)
Like many businesspeople, Gates thinks about education as a process producing future employees. Not too long ago, Jill Biden, wife of the vice president Joe Biden, held a conference in the White House about community colleges. The question was: how can community colleges prepare young people for the workplace of the future?
What an utterly inhuman way of thinking about the next generation of Americans and their education! The question we should ask about all education is: how will our schools prepare children and young people to lives the richest, most satisfying, fullest lives? The focus of education should not be on American children as workers but on their lives as valuable human beings. We should help them to be the best and most wonderful people they could possibly be.
Teachers deserve the same respect. They are not robots on an assembly line. They have individual relations with hundreds and thousands of children and young people in the course of which they try to transmit knowledge and skills, develop latent capacities, hold out high ideals and encourage their students to believe in themselves and to do as well as they possibly can.
Gates does not seem to know that there is a high correlation between poverty and poor school performance. 20% of American children live in poverty. Instead of badmouthing teachers, maybe Gates could use some of his billions to alleviate the poverty of these children. The odds are very good they would be doing much better in school also.
Passing multiple-choice tests every two years is not education. That might be good for rats in the laboratory. It is not adequate for human beings.
Why is that so hard to understand, Bill?