Monday, March 25, 2013

International Women's Day

International Women's Day has come and gone. The signs of women's inferiority and vulnerability are, however, still everywhere. Here are four manifestations of the position of women in the world today. They happened in the last twenty-four hours and were reported in today's paper.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran traveled to Venezuela for the funeral of Hugo Chavez. When he met the mother of Chavez he hugged her. For this gesture of kindness he was roundly criticized by conservative theologians back home. Touching a woman not a member of your family is strictly forbidden. The orthodox theologians regard women as sexual objects. Touching a woman is a sexual act. Women are objects; whom they want to touch or by whom they do not want to be touched is not not for them to decide, but is up to the male theologians and the woman's male relatives.
The Catholic Church has chosen a new pope. An exclusive men's club whose celibate members, among other things, lay down the law about sexuality and childbirth has chosen, once again a man bitterly opposed to any sexuality not meant to create children, and a man bitterly opposed to equality for women. In choosing this pope, the church has not only declared once again that women's equal rights to play religious roles are not even to be considered. It has also reasserted the exclusive right of elderly celibate men to regulate the sexual life of millions of faithful. As far as the College of Cardinals is concerned, equality for women is a non-issue.
The US government is endorsing the misogyny of the Catholic Church by sending the vice president and an entire delegation to attend the new pope's inaugural mass.
There has been copious commentary on this election of the Pope and on the new pope. The church's disdain for women has not been a frequent subject of comments. Pervasive discrimination against women is still generally acceptable among those who follow the affairs of the Chuch.
The North Korean government is once again feuding with the South Koreans. They do this by insulting the president of South Korea because she is a woman. In similar ways, the North Korean government has in the past insulted former secretary of state Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. Denigrating a woman just for being female is acceptable in North Korea.
Lest we think that women are better off in the US and more highly regarded, comsider the major scandal that has erupted about sexual assault in the military. In 2010 an estimated nineteen thousand women were sexually assaulted while in the service. Four thousand women lodged complaints; one hundred and ninety-one defendants were convicted in military courts. In many cases the victims' superiors took no action against the guilty parties. Often women were told by their superior officers not to report their rape. One former female Sgt. reported her a rape to the chaplain who told her that the rape was God's will and God's way of getting her to go back to church. (Some days, it appears, God is not so smart.) One lieutenant-colonel convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to a year in prison was pardoned by his commanding officer and returned to his job. Assaults on women are not taken seriously by those in command in the American military.
We have a long way to go until women are equal and can feel safe. We, especially men, have a whole lot of work to do.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Will citizen activism save us?

Thomas Jefferson was a bit of a socialist in that he believed that all people should own some productive assets. Farmers owned a piece of land, carpenters and shoemakers owned their tools, schoolmasters owned their school, and the parishioners owned their church. That made everybody independent. They did not, in Jefferson's word, have to "pander" to customers or, worse, to employers. In Jefferson's day that was pretty much the condition of America. When de Tocqueville came from France in the 1830s he was struck by the general equality prevailing among people. Not only did people have equal rights but their economic conditions did not vary substantially from one person to the next.
With industrialization all that changed. Massive amounts of capital were needed to build canals and then the railroads. After the Civil War large industries arose and with them the large capitalists like Carnegie in steel and Rockefeller in petroleum. At the same time, the small farmers and artisans of Jefferson's days had become industrial workers. No longer independent and, to some extent, self-sufficient entrepreneurs, they had been turned into wage workers dependent on the capitalist employers for their livelihood and their very existence.
These new wage workers lost their autonomy. They could not solve their own problems in times of unemployment or commercial crisis. They could not educate their children. They could not move out of the slums surrounding the factories where they worked because they needed to be close to their work.
This new working class needed government protection. Hand in hand with the growth of large business and their more monopolistic practices grew up a government that tried to shore up corporate capitalism by protecting working people against the worst excesses of the corporate regime. This new protective government came into its own during the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt saved capitalism but understood clearly that the working class needed saving also. That gave us a set of new government agencies and projects to protect health and old age for workers, to clean up the cities where workers lived, and to protect everyone when businesses were cutting corners.
Roosevelt's welfare state was just the beginning. After World War II the Federal Government sent thousands and thousands of veterans to college and into graduate schools. In the 1950s Pres. Eisenhower had the government construct a vast network of four-lane roads crisscrossing the entire country. President Kennedy launched the Federal Government into space exploration and Pres. Lyndon Johnson will launch the Great Society with its War on Poverty.
As American capitalism expanded further by becoming global, the government also expanded in many different directions to become all the larger and more intrusive.
It now seems to many people that this partnership between very large global corporations and an increasingly large government with aspirations of global control is coming to the end of its usefulness.
Perhaps the history of the former Soviet Union is instructive here. Their centrally planned economy managed to modernize Russia at an astonishing pace before and during World War II and perhaps for a decade or two after that. But then that system fell victim to its own success. The Russian economy kept expanding until it became too complex to be planned from the center. At that point it began to decline.
Perhaps our caretaker government has also become too big and thus becomes more and more cumbersome and often inefficient if not outright bizarre. Libertarians and people on the political right want to shrink government. But it is clear from their proposals that a shrunken government will leave millions of Americans without health care, jobs or housing. It is not possible to return to a small government as it existed in the early days of our Republic, but keep corporations as mammoth as they have become.
But if the federal government has become too large and complex to provide needed services for citizens, what can be done to streamline it? Advocates of small government never consider that letting the government take care of poverty, of environmental protection, of the problems of the sick and the elderly is also a great convenience for us, because we don't have to worry about people who grow hungry. Presumably the government takes care of it.
If we are unwilling to have the government do everything then we obviously have to do it ourselves. Citizens who want to shrink the government cannot just do this at the expense of the poor, or the sick, and the old, without taking responsibility for our less fortunate fellow citizens. Shrinking government can only be done by citizens who become more active and who take upon themselves the jobs of caring for those who fall victim to our economic system.
Obviously, that is easier said than done. Too many people who are well-off work 70 or 80 hours a week. They're always connected to the workplace. They are always doing something to make money. They have no time to work at the local food bank, to tutor students, to work in organizations helping the elderly, or to provide free medical care for those who cannot pay for it.
It may well be true that the federal government has become too large. If we want to take back control over our lives, we need to be willing to do the work which the government is doing now. We cannot simply allow people to starve, to die prematurely for lack of health care, or to have children grow up without a decent education for lack of good schools and good teaching.
Am I wrong in thinking that not many people are willing to do that?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Do we get the democracy we deserve?

Doing interviews and surveys to prove that the American electorate is woefully uninformed of the most elementary facts about our politics is a cottage industry among social scientists and journalists. Again and again we are told that people who go to the polls, usually have no idea of who they are voting for and why.

As a result working people vote for governors who are openly anti-labor. Women passionately support candidates who are unabashedly sexist.

Voters are confused about the issues as illustrated by the Tea Partier who was reported to have said: “Don’t let the government mess with my Medicare.”

Ill-informed voters cast their votes pretty randomly. What we get is a government that acts pretty randomly. The Republican opposition to raising taxes and the Democratic nostrums for getting the economy going are not based on facts, on economic experience but on vague assumptions about what rich people will do with their money if their taxes are reduced, or what poor people would do if some government program would put a little bit more money in their pocket.

We do, indeed, get the government we deserve. A government elected by the uninformed is going to be a government of the uninformed.

And what should we be doing about that?

The most common answer to that question is: “education.” But education teaches only those who want to learn. You can have people sit in a classroom for a long time. If they are not interested in learning they are not going to learn anything. They may do all the work assigned, they may pass the exams with flying colors but if they don’t care about the subject, they will forget overnight what they knew yesterday.

The real problem is that people are not interested in our democracy. They find politics confusing, they find it boring, they find it, most of all, pointless.

Politics appears pointless because ordinary citizens do not have anything to say. Contrary to the story we tell about democracy, that it is “government of, for, and by the people” no one has asked my opinion lately. Did anyone ask you?

Politicians more or less eloquently talk at us, they will claim grandly that “the American people will not stand for….” And I hear this and say to myself: Did that person ask me? How does he know about what the American people will stand for if he does not ask and also if he does not listen?

It is not unreasonable to say that ours is a government of, for, and by politicians (and some other people we’ll mention later.) So it is of no interest to me, the ordinary citizen, because it does not have any effect on my life that I can do anything about.

The ordinary citizen’s refusal to participate in politics may well result from a certain resentment. No one cares about what I think. But a lot of people care about what the heads of large financial institutions, of large corporations think because they will drop several million dollars in political action committee coffers in order to push their own, private interests.

Not only does no one listen to what you and I think, but they do listen to what the rich people think. That is clearly unfair, it is undemocratic and, in so far as democracy is an important part of America, it is unpatriotic. It makes me mad and therefore I won’t have anything to do with politics.

But there are other reasons for being indifferent to politics. In contemporary America that is what citizens are supposed to be. Our government is no longer a government of the people because people today are not supposed to participate.

Remember George Bush after 9/11? He told us all to go shopping. Responding to a major attack on our country we are told not to bother our poor little heads about what to do – let the government take care of that, our job is to spend money. And of course before you spend money you have to earn it. And that has become the main occupation of citizens.

In the past there were the Minutemen, the farmers and artisans, who left fields and workshops to take up their muskets and defend American independence against King George. In the past our liberties were for every citizen to protect. Not anymore. We now leave it to the government and go to the mall instead.

When politicians from the president on down talk about schools and education, they always say education is supposed to prepare us for jobs, for working, for making money, for being consumers. Very rarely does anyone talk about education as the preparation for being citizens.

The country faces many serious problems which are not easy to understand. But education does not prepare us to participate in thinking about those problems. It simply prepares us for being good employees, for being productive, for putting more money in the corporations' coffers.

It is the government itself that wages this campaign to discourage citizens from participating in politics. Not only don’t they pay attention to citizens except during election seasons, but they let it be known that we should not bother about politics because they would take care of it.

Are they taking care of it? You tell me.

And, what is worse, we are letting them make a mess of it by speechifying, posturing, pointing fingers at each other and making secret deals with people they get money from. We are allowing them to be incompetent, hypocritical, elitist and undemocratic.

It looks as if we were getting the democracy we deserve.