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.