Sunday, January 31, 2016

   What difference does the vote make?


In the past I have frequently complained about our so-called democracy and said that it is not really a genuine democracy -- a system where the people rule -- but an oligarchy, rule by the few. But now I am, as so many other critics of our democracy, sitting on the edge of my chair and wondering what the next few weeks will bring. Will it be Hilary or Bernie? Will any Republican make a dent in Donald Trump's lead? All of the sudden the critics of democracy seem to have forgotten what they have been saying for the last four years and are about to take bets on the outcomes of the first primaries.

Is that being inconsistent? Well no. The political system we have may not be as Democratic as it is often said to be. But it is all we have and is, at the moment, the only real conduit for possible political change. It is also a better electoral system than many and we must acknowledge that in spite of all of our criticisms. In Egypt the people elected a military man for president and are now saddled with the same military, authoritarian dictatorship they got rid off with great effort and sacrifice in 2011. The people of Hong Kong have elections but the Chinese government decides who can run for office. You may say about Sheldon Addelson and the Koch Brothers what you want, their role is not as nefarious as that of the Egyptian general and president el-Sissi or of the central Chinese government in Hong Kong.

At the same time we must not have any illusions about how our system works and about the extent to which "the people rule." Suppose that Bernie Sanders wins not only the Democratic nomination for president but also defeats Donald Trump handily. In January 2017 he and a small staff arrive in Washington DC to take over the reins of government.

What they will find is a federal government that has close to 3 million employees. The new president, Bernie, needs to get to know the heads of the Pentagon, the CIA, homeland security, national security agency. He needs to get to know the people who approve of new medications, the FDA, the people run the economy and so on and so forth. Once he has met all these people he must try to have them adopt his priorities and policies. That will obviously be an uphill struggle.
He will never get to know any but a tiny minority of the leadership of the federal government agencies. He will never know what goes on in these agencies.
The leaders of the Pentagon, for instance, have their own interests, namely to keep the military as large and as powerful as possible. They have their own projects. They are intimately connected to large industries that build futuristic bombers and battleships for warfare we may never have to engage in. They are also intimately connected to the congressional representatives from the districts where these weapons, old and new, are manufactured. The bureaucracies the incoming President inherits are massive, sluggish, unwilling to change and reluctant to take orders from outsiders.

Obama's experience is instructive. He never did manage to close down Guantanamo. He did leave Iraq and is being roundly criticized for that. He has not managed to end the war in Afghanistan and every indication is that that war will be with us for many years to come.

Clearly the person of the President does make a difference. Had Mitt Romney been elected in 2008 we might be in very different situation. But we might also not. Some Presidents are very powerful; others are not. Bernie may be unable to budge Pentagon policy because the generals think that democratic socialism is ridiculous and Bernie does not deserve being taken seriously. They may ignore Hilary because she is a woman.

The process by which our government arrives at decisions is immensely complex and rarely predictable. We cannot know whether one candidate or another will affect policy in ways I and my friends desire. It is misleading to think of democracy as a system where the people rule. No one rules in the United States. The question is rather what groups of our population have an influence over decisions that matter to them.

Whether any given group can affect government policy on a specific issue does not only depend on who wins an election. The candidate supported by a particular group may turn out to be unable to budge the generals, budge Wall Street, or the fossil fuel companies. In that case our excitement about Iowa or New Hampshire will prove slightly comical.

But let’s be optimists and assume that we’ll luck out and the best person gets elected and will prove to be able to make some changes for the better.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


Over significant internal and foreign opposition the Danish Parliament passed a law mandating Danish police to take valuable objects and cash away from refugees coming into the country from the Middle East. Denmark is trying to discourage refugees from entering their country. This latest episode in the refugee crisis confronts us once again the question of what we should be doing to help out.

During 2015, our country accepted about 2000 Mid-Eastern refugees--people fleeing Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and other places in the region. For the coming year the US has promised to accept 10,000 more refugees. According to some estimates the total number of displaced persons in the Mid East is close to 4 million persons. Is our response adequate?

It seems clear that we have a moral obligation to help the refugees from wars in which we ourselves are actively involved. American planes are bombing Syria. American troops have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and brought great destruction to those countries. Our drones have been killing people in Pakistan for years. We are not only obligated to help people who are suffering terribly because, as human beings, we are obligated to help our neighbors. We are also obligated to help in this case because some of the refugees are the victims of our military actions. If your house burned down, you would expect your neighbor to put you up. If they suffer you expect to help them out.

But, of course, nothing is that simple. Asked to help refugees many people claim that this mass of humanity is not leaving the Middle East because they are driven out by war, because their houses and livings are destroyed, but simply because they want to live in Europe where the standard of living is higher. These are not victims of war, people say, but “economic” refugees. But that distinction only confuses the issue of what we should do about the refugees. Of course they are economic refugees because sustained bombing of their cities and villages by many different parties, the United States included, has deprived them of a way of making a living. Yes, perhaps they could continue to live where they are now if they were scavengers at the town dump, or resorted to thievery and other crimes. But should we stand by while they are forced to live at the very edge of starvation?

There are other commonly given excuses for not considering the plight of the  victims of wars, which we started or have actively participated in. There is the fear that these refugees will take jobs from those who live in the US at present. Is that a realistic fear? The answer to that question is not clear. On the one hand, most refugees coming to the US are not well educated and compete only with Americans who have no more than a high school education or less. As more American young people go to college there is a growing pool of unskilled jobs that immigrants already fill. At the same time every new person coming to our country not only looks for a job but also creates work. They need food, clothing, housing. Their children need places in school. Immigrants not only take jobs but also make work for other citizens.

Anyone who tells you that, without doubt, immigrants take jobs away from Americans has not given this matter any thought or tried to gain some information about this debate that has been going on in the US since the early days of our republic.

The argument that immigrants that arrive here untrained, without a knowledge of English will cost the taxpayers money is similar. It is by no means obvious that that is true. It is not certain that it is false either.

If we let in refugees from Syria, will terrorists use our generosity to sneak into the country to commit mass-killings? That is a definite possibility. How likely is it? We do not know. But consider this. Many Americans, fired up by the second amendment, are willing to incur the likelihood of more mass-shootings in order to retain every citizen’s right to own as many and as lethal weapons as they choose. Should we be more timid when it comes to following our moral duties to fellow humans in serious trouble and say that we will not risk terrorist attacks for the sake of being decent to some fellow human beings?

It is important to put the terrorism fear in perspective. “There have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).”[]

The mass emigration from Mid-Eastern countries confronts us with a serious moral dilemma. But that is the character of morality: it is very rarely completely unambiguous what one must do. We owe each other support and respect but in most cases there are mitigating circumstances and we must make difficult choices.

But two things are clear with respect to the refugees. The sorts of things people say to absolve us from any obligations are often ill-considered. The opponents to being decent make up facts. They are just making excuses. 

In addition, the choice of what we must do is very difficult. There are at least three different considerations that drive us in opposite directions. On the one hand, there is little doubt that we must help our neighbors when catastrophe strikes them. We would expect the same from then. But, on the other hand, the masses fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria are not by any stretch of the imagination our neighbors. In the third place, the plight of these masses of refugees is, in part, caused by the US military. We cannot bomb cities to rubble and then refuse to help the surviving populations.

As an immigrant myself, I tend to take the side of the refugees. But there are different sides to this question. What has been missing so far has been a discussion that is respectful of the complex relevant facts and conscientious about our moral obligations.

Monday, January 18, 2016


If you plan to get married in 2016, it is high time to get started planning. How many people will you invite? what venue will be your favorite? Is it available? There are endless questions, decisions to be made, and arrangements to be completed.  Lest you forget to take on this project, many big cities host Bridal Exhibitions in which anyone whose business is at all connected with weddings shows their wares. The local newspaper’s Sunday Magazine had a special issue dedicated to weddings. There were pages of wedding gowns and articles about different kinds of weddings. The push is on for couples to prepare for their wedding day and, in the course of that, spending serious money.

One question occurred to me that was not raised by anyone. Why make weddings into such a major and expensive production? The couple has been living together for, often, several years. They have come to know each other intimately as have the families. In many cases the couple already has a child or two. So what is this wedding frenzy all about?

We live in a world where many women and men believe that women's liberation has been accomplished. Today men and women are equal. Both contribute and both profit from their marriage. They are equal at work.

While that is clearly an exaggeration--women still earn significantly less than men for doing the same sort of job--the situation of women has changed significantly in the last fifty years. We have still to elect the first woman president and the number of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is very small. Everywhere women are being sexually harassed from very early on, whether that is in colleges and universities or in the military. Significantly more women are murdered by their husbands than  husbands by their wives. The vast majority of children are still raised by their mothers. Current statistics suggest that 20% of fathers stay home to be house husbands.

Nevertheless the position of women has improved in the last hundred years. But it has not changed in all parts of our lives. In many facets of our existence attitudes and practices with respect to the role of women and men are still what they were 100 years ago. Weddings are one of those facets.

Previously, a middle class woman had only one career in front of her: being a wife and mother--working class women always went out to work. Young women did not go to college in order to prepare for their work life, or to become educated. They went to find a husband. By the time a woman reached her late 20s, she was called a "spinster" if she was not yet married. Spinsters were thought to be "dried out." They lost their sexual allure. Worse, they missed their goal in life. They were to be pitied because their lives were empty.

If that is the trajectory laid out for women's lives, her wedding day is indeed the happiest day of a woman's life because it is the day when she gets the opportunity to fulfill her  mission in this world: being a wife and mother. Since men had a much more generous set of goals and opportunities, their wedding day was not as important. Men who did not get married, were not pitied or written off as failed human beings. Some came under suspicion of being homosexual, but even that did not condemn their life to meaninglessness. Oscar Wilde spent time in jail for homosexual acts. But he was a respected and acclaimed writer anyway.

What we say and do in relation to weddings reflects an outlook that is completely out of keeping with what many people think about the relations between men and women. Whatever criticisms people may have of Hillary Clinton, I have not heard anyone say that her job is not to run the country but  to stay home and take care of Bill. No doubt there are some people think that, but even Donald Trump doesn't say that.

In some areas of our lives, equality between men and women is widely accepted. In others we think about men and women the way our great-grandparents did around the time of World War I. It is interesting to notice that what maintains these very old-fashioned outlooks is, in part, the financial interest of the wedding industry. A great deal of money is being made on weddings. Wedding connected businesses maintain the ancient ideals of the "perfect wedding." By doing so they maintain old-fashioned ideas about male and female roles which are completely inappropriate in the world in which we live or in the world we are trying to build.

Working for female political candidates, agitating for equal pay for equal jobs done by men and women, protesting against  sexual harassment  are important ways of promoting equality between men and women. But as long as we are willing to maintain ancient beliefs about women and their wedding and their role in the family, the struggle for complete equality will remain stuck.

Women of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your fancy weddings.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why does racism persist?

One of the genuine accomplishments of 2015 was bringing the persistent presence of anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-woman emotions and attitudes into the open where it is there for everyone to see. Another encouraging fact  is that many whites, and many men have taken to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to racism and sexism.

But do we understand what the problem is? Why are racism and sexism apparently ineradicable? We have seen significant changes. We have a black president. We have many eminent African-Americans in positions of authority. We have made changes that will allow the American Society to benefit from the work of many extremely talented  women and persons of color.

 But the bulk of all persons of color and women are still second-rate citizens in different respects--with respect to their earnings, with respect to the positions they are allowed to fill. Young black men are the predominant victims of police shootings. They are disproportionately unemployed, incarcerated, or under supervision of the criminal system.
Why does that not change?

The most common answer is that many Americans are prejudiced. They hold negative beliefs about persons of color or about women. These are beliefs which are demonstrably false but that does not affect the many people still adhering to those beliefs. In other words, to put this very bluntly, we believe that a large proportion of the American citizenry are not very intelligent and wildly irrational. Facts do not impress them. But  their beliefs are highly emotional, motivated by fear, by distrust of strangers, by uncritical echoing of the beliefs of their neighbors.

While that may be true in some cases and in some situations, it is not the complete explanation. It is important to see that the economic system--capitalism--which many of us are so proud of for producing clever electronic devices at prices that many people can afford, is at the same time consistently encouraging racist and sexist distinctions and divisions.

Our economic system is unable to create full employment except under abnormal conditions such as a World War. What is more, unemployment is in the interest of employers for when jobs are scarce, workers are willing to work for less because it is better to have a poorly paying job than no job at all. A significant number of the unemployed are people of color--people widely believed to be lazy, to be unskilled and unemployable. This racist mythology conceals the failure of capitalism to create jobs.

At the same time, racist distinctions allow employers to pay people of color less than whites. Women in many locations earn significantly less than men. Women of color, earn significantly less than white women. Men of color, if they work at all, get the worst jobs.
Racist and sexist distinctions are in the interest of the business owners.  This does not imply that the owners of enterprises approve of the murder of young black men or the many brutalities of racism and sexism. They do not approve of family violence, especially if it ends in murder. But they are sufficiently interested in racist and sexist distinctions that they are willing to support various police organizations. So far there seem to be no business organizations dedicated to combat racism and sexism.

Today many big city police departments appear to be at war with Black communities, aided and abetted by the criminal justice systems, the public prosecutors, and grand juries. But it is useful to remember that as long as workers have organized to better their condition at work, the police, as well as the state militias, the National Guard, have been deployed to suppress workers’ efforts to organize themselves. The history of American Labor records many bloody attacks on labor by police and the state militias.

The motto of police is often ” To Protect and to Serve.” Considering the history of Labor it is clear that it is the interest of the big employers, the capitalists, that determines who is to be protected and who is to be served. It has always been the employers, the rich, the economically powerful men in any given community.

What was true then, is true today.

The lesson is clear: Our society is corroded by racist and sexist prejudice. Anti-racist and anti-sexist training for police and criminal justice personel may well open the eyes of some and may, in doing that, be useful. But the scourges of racism and sexism will not disappear as long as the groups with greatest power in the society--the banks, Wall Street, business enterprises large or small--derive tangible profit from race and gender denigration.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

                   Facing Islamophobia

    In the face of the current rising tide of racism, in this case directed at Muslims, it is very difficult to know what to do. The Islamophobes place the blame on a large group of humans – more than 1 1/2 billion persons – for the actions of a very small, if very lethal, group of fanatics. It is the same sort of bizarre logic by which anti-Semites blame all Jews past and present for their part in the death of Jesus. It is important to point out to these ultraconservatives that when African-Americans demand reparations for the suffering imposed on generations of slaves and their descendants, suddenly the logic shifts. Faced with the demand for reparations the same people who blame all Muslims for terrorist acts and blame all Jews for the crucifixion will protest that they did not own slaves and are therefore not responsible for the suffering of African Americans. But if all Muslims are responsible for the actions of a very few, and the same is true of Jews, all Whites are responsible for slavery and Jim Crow and for todays continuing racist oppression.

    Obviously this would have no traction with people who are confused, often irrational and contemptuous of logic. (You know who I am talking about.) The President has therefore asked American Muslims to reach out to their neighbors and establish contacts so that the two groups can learn to cooperate and thereby defeat Islamophobes.

    But what should the different groups be talking about? In some places there are conversations between Christians, who have collected a list of passages in the Koran which seem to legitimate or even demand violent actions against non-Muslims, and members of the Islamic community who try to explain the meaning of those passages in less violent and more conciliatory terms.

    But that seems to me a misguided undertaking. Scriptural verses whether Islamic or Christian or Jewish, or in any other religion, do not make people act. How many Christians love their neighbors? There are some, to be sure, such as the Catholic Workers or members of some monastic orders. But most Christians definitely do not love their neighbors and when they are asked to support the poor, they will tell you that poverty is a result of laziness. The poor only have themselves to blame.

    By the same token the violence inflicted by terrorists who happen to revere the Koran, cannot be blamed on that book anymore than the violence that Christians and Jews have inflicted and are still inflicting on peoples in the Middle East can be blamed on passages in the Old or the New Testament.

    What we all should talk about it instead is what moves some people to be violent, as so many people have shown themselves to be in recent years. That is the beginning of a long and difficult conversation because most of us believe that sometimes violence is justified. Many Americans who are appalled by school shootings or by religiously motivated killings – among those are the murders of doctors who worked in abortion clinics – are, at the same time, frequently convinced that the war in Iraq was necessary to protect our American freedoms. The people who are ready to countenance war must explain why they reject terrorism as a legitimate form of warfare. As they think about the motivations of terrorists, many people need to confront their own approval of violent actions.

    These are difficult questions and painful ones, but we do need to ask them. Is killing people by drone strikes any less terrorism than killing people by flying an airplane into the World Trade Center? Do we approve of terrorism, as long as it is not directed against us? We cannot even begin to understand the terrorism aimed at us as long as we do not acknowledge and justify ( or condemn) the terrorism we inflict on others.

    “Let him, who is without guilt, cast the first stone.” Our response to terrorist attacks will only perpetuate thetrajectory of brutal violence, if we continue to refuse to see what part we play in these violent tragedies.