Sunday, April 24, 2016

Why Racial Turmoil?

Racial divisions have lately been in the news with many protests against police rampages in black communities.

Harvard University has responded to these major injustices by putting on one of its buildings a small plaque that commemorates four slaves who served presidents of the University in the 1700s. Portions of our cities are torn apart by gang wars, by unjust incarceration, by appalling poverty and Harvard University commemorates four slaves who lived more than  300 years ago!

What a striking example of how little justice and equality matter to our leaders! A university that has on its staff eminent philosophers, historians, sociologists, political scientists, students of education could have called together all these scholars to make a careful analysis of our racial problems and to make concrete proposals for overcoming them.

What would we have expected one of the world's most eminent universities to ask? Our nation has been and continues to be torn apart by racial hatred and, to tell the truth, we don’t understand that condition. From our origins, as a nation that used slaves to create wealth, to a nation that is officially dedicated to racial justice while, in reality, large numbers of whites distrust blacks and disrespect them, we have consistently been unable to understand why we continue to be plagued by the scourge of racial hatred.

In different periods of our history, our inability to overcome racial divisions will most likely have different histories and origins. How can we possibly understand why after the heroic years of civil rights struggles in the last century and after electing a black man as president of our country, the cancer of racial distrust keeps eating away at our soul?

Why is it impossible for us whites to live our lives contented and proud without despising others and believing lies about them?

These are clearly important questions to ask. What is the matter with white people in America that they cannot be happy unless they invent spurious reasons for looking down on their fellow citizens who are not white? Why must they disrespect others in order to respect themselves?

Answers to these questions are not easy to find. Which answers are reliable will be especially difficult to ascertain. But here are some obvious ideas:

For many Americans, their work life is repetitive and tedious. They do not receive the respect they deserve from their employers and often from the people they provide services for. Gaining self-respect under those conditions is really difficult.

"America’s business is business" said Pres. Calvin Coolidge. Many Americans echo that pathetic platitude. But if I am not the owner of a business, what is my source of self-esteem? We have different answers to that question. We treat ordinary citizens as consumers but being a consumer is not an occupation that strengthens your self-respect. You cannot walk down the street with your head held high because you bought the latest electronic gadget.

Alternatively, the role of citizens is to help enrich the owners of the businesses they work for by getting paid as little as possible. That too is hardly designed to make employees feel proud and valued.

There may well be other reasons why it is difficult for white men and women to feel confident in themselves. Whatever the reasons, we are experiencing a major crisis of self-respect. Recent statistics show a steady increase in the number of suicides in America. Every year more men and women, and even children, decide that their lives are not worth living and kill themselves.

And those who do not commit suicide frequently need to bolster their failing self-esteem by reminding themselves that at least their skin is white or, at least, that the government pretends that their skin is white.

Instead of installing memorial plaques, perhaps Harvard University can rally its intellectual resources to ask why Americans in large numbers cannot bear their lives at all or can bear their lives only by tormenting others. If we could answer that question, perhaps we could begin to confront and resolve our racial hatreds.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Crisis in oufr Values

The Crisis in our Values

 If the current presidential campaign teaches us anything, it is that America is suffering from a serious lack of positive goals, of projects that arouse the enthusiasm of citizens and make them feel that their life has a purpose.

The need for a positive goal is so tremendous that, however appalled they may be by his foulmouth bragging, people follow Donald Trump enthusiastically just because he promises to make America great again. Many citizens feel that our nation  is drifting without clear direction and values. They will follow anyone who promises to provide new inspiration to their lives.

More surprising even is the widespread support for Bernie Sanders. Not too long ago anything called "socialist" was completely unacceptable in the United States. Any proposed project that its enemies could label "socialist" was dead. No politician would have ever supported a socialist project. But today many ordinary Americans support Bernie Sanders with money, with great enthusiasm at his rallies, and with their votes because Bernie has a set of clear ideals. Justice and equality, he believes, are very important--important enough to fight hard for. His followers are looking for positive goals and values. They want them so badly, they are willing to support his crusade even though Sanders calls it socialist.

Whence this pervasive sense that our lives do not have much value? Why is there this desperate need for new ideals, for goals that are worth working and sacrificing for? Wherever we look in our nation we find corruption, selfishness, unwillingness to take on the obligations of citizenship. Our leaders talk about freedom and equality but seem to care only for their rather petty self-interests. In the end, making money seems to be their only goal. For thoughtful Americans it has become difficult to be proud of their country.

Our public life has become embarrassing--a series of sexual scandals like that of President Clinton or later Gen. David Petreus. Many political careers have been ruined in recent years by extramarital affairs. Defenders of family values have been put to shame by their abandonment of most ordinary marital loyalties. It is difficult to admire our public officials because they embarrass us.

The Panama papers reveal once again widespread corruption in the political classes of different countries. We learn that three states in America--Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada--allow the creation of secret corporations in which the wealthy can shelter money from the tax man. These states allow citizens to evade their civic obligations by paying the taxes they rightly owe to support the government that has allowed them, in the first place, to gain the wealth they have. Some of this money, whose owners remain unknown, ends up financing political campaigns. Our democracy is being manipulated by people whose names remain secret.

Very large sums of money, given by a relatively small number of individuals, play a significant role in our elections. For ordinary citizens who cannot do more than give $25 here and there to Bernie Sanders, it is clear that their participation in our democracy counts for very little. Citizens’ votes are not equal because some spend millions of dollars trying to determine who will get elected; the voice of ordinary citizens is silenced by these large contributors. It is difficult to feel any enthusiasm for our political system of which we have been proud for so long. But that pride has been seriously undermined by the role of 187 families who essentially control political giving in our country today. Large corporations and their owners have debased our democracy. Political offices are for sale.

Global corporations, like Exxon or General Electric, pay no income taxes in the United States. The major drug producer, Pfizer, almost succeeded in moving its mailing address to Ireland in order to evade its obligation to the US government and pay much lower corporate taxes in Ireland instead. Major businesses model the prevailing attitude toward our democracy: take what you can get but be sure to avoid supporting it.

Lacking the tax support owed but not paid by large corporations, the government must increase the tax burden on working people whose economic situation is  precarious. Governments are short of money and, under pressure to cut their budgets, they save on services for ordinary people, often working people of color. The result is an epidemic of high levels of lead in the drinking water and many children affected by lead poisoning, such as in Flint, MI. We are not wiling to guarantee good health to our children in spite of our great wealth.

The nation’s main goal seems to be ever larger profits for global corporations. The well being of ordinary citizens who produce those profits is not considered important. The nation’s motto has become “Get Rich!” and only the already rich succeed in meeting that goal. We may be the richest nation in the world but we distribute this wealth without any regard for fairness..

On a series of scales of international comparisons such as educational achievement of our youngsters, such as infant mortality, such as cost effectiveness of medical care, our country does very badly as compared to many other countries, even ones that have considerably fewer resources than we do. Yes we are rich but we do not know how to use our money wisely.

Not everyone knows all of those facts. Not everyone is willing to admit that our military adventures have ended in embarrassing failures. For different groups of Americans, their sense of futility, that America has lost its greatness derives from different experiences. For young Black men and women, the continuing violence perpetrated  against them by the police, by prosecutors, juries and judges leaves them profoundly disenchanted with their country and their outlook for their own future. For white working class men whose pay has stagnated for almost 50 years and whose jobs continue to be insecure, the promise of America has been broken that if they worked hard their condition would improve. Their condition has slowly deteriorated; their future looks grim.

Profound disillusionment of different groups of Americans flows from their different experiences, from the different ways in which they have been betrayed by powerful businesses and powerful political groups.

No wonder that we have an epidemic of drug overdoses not only among the young, both white and brown and black, but among middle-aged white men who have worked hard and see no reason why they should continue to do so. No wonder that we have gangs of young men who are willing to kill each other in the pursuit of illegal gains because for them, too, life is not worth a great deal. Their gangs offer a source of pride that their country  does not provide.

Yes, we need a living wage for many hard-working Americans, we need free education for all of our young people, we need to tame the high cost of medical care due in considerable part to drug companies, to physicians, to the manufacturers of medical machinery trying to get rich.

But none of these reforms will do us a whole lot of good, as long as we drift through our lives without a sense that our lives are worth living, that we stand for important ideals, and pursue noble goals. Whatever political or economic improvements our political leaders might devise, will not make a significant difference unless we are willing to recognize this crisis in our values and to overcome it. As long as the nation is dedicated to getting rich and allows success in gaining wealth only to those who are already too rich, many citizens will find their lives empty, their work unrewarding, and their country an embarrassment.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Lesson from the Arizona Primary

The word "democracy" is a composite of two Greek words--"demos", the people and "kratein", to rule. Democracy is the rule of the people. That is what we keep saying, and that is what democracy theorists keep telling us. But the recent primaries in Arizona demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that our democracy does not consist of the rule of the people.
In the recent Arizona primaries, many voters, especially in neighborhoods where the majority of people were poor and/or persons of color, had to wait in line for many hours in order to be able to exercise their right to vote. The Republican legislature and state government cut back sharply on the amount of money available for opening polling places. The number of polling places was reduced. Hence the long waits.
No doubt the shortage of polling places prevented a number of citizens from voting as they had planned. Parents needed to pick up their kids in school. Workers needed to be at work and could not stand in line for hours. Parents needed to be home to cook dinner for their children. They needed to be elsewhere to take care of aging parents. They had other obligations and commitments. There was not enough time for standing in line for hours in order to be able to vote.
The decisions of the state government excluded significant numbers of citizens from being part of "the people." They were prevented from exercising their citizenship rights; they were effectively prevented from acting as citizens.
In this situation the people did not rule because the government decided who was going to be a citizen. It was up to the government to allow some people to be active citizens and to prevent others from doing so.
When the government decides who is a member of "the people," the people no longer rule. On the contrary the government has the power to determine the membership of the people. Our Constitution begins with the words "We the People . . . “ But in Arizona you need government permission to be a part of that people.
Nor is the regulation of polling places the only technique by which the government decides who may vote and who may not. Many states have passed laws that make it much more difficult to vote. In some states you need to have a birth certificate in order to register as a voter. Once again the people, people of color, people whose lives are difficult and often chaotic, are likely to be excluded because they don't have the needed pieces of paper. Other states require photo IDs for anyone to go and vote. Photo IDs are hard to come by, especially for people living in the country, who have transportation challenges, little money and find it difficult to procure these identity cards with their picture on it.
“Gerrymandering” is a venerable American expression referring to drawing the lines of electoral district in artificial ways in order to deprive some populations of any chance of having an influence in elections. Drawing districts with smaller pockets of African-American voters, assures their failure to ever elect an African-American candidate. By distributing African-American voters over a number of different districts, their votes are made ineffective unless they vote for the dominant white candidate. By drawing electoral districts so as to effectively disenfranchise certain groups, the government, specifically state legislatures, deprives certain groups of effective voting rights. Gerrymandering steals the civil rights of targeted groups.
Our government effectively limits who might have a chance at being part of the people that rules. Eliminating significant groups from the electorate it determines what kind of influence voters have on government. The political interests and goals of upper-middle class whites are different from those of a more mixed electorate. What people will want and what they will strive for is seriously shaped by filtering the membership of the citizenry allowed to vote. The people do not rule. The government determines in significant ways what voters will demand.
They then insult our intelligence by telling us that we live in a democracy where the people rule. Of course, they had their fingers crossed behind their back when they say so.