Monday, December 19, 2011

Rethinking America

Listening to the debates among the candidates contending for the nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, I have been struck by how many references there have been to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. There seems to be a feeling, among some candidates at least, that these documents are unambiguous and that one can simply read them and understand immediately what the law is without any further interpretation. One gets the feeling that some candidates feel that much of the history of the Supreme Court has involved replacing the constitution with new laws rather than arriving at legitimate interpretations of the guidelines provided in the document. One candidate, Newton Leroy Gingrich, has even suggested he would, as president, feel free to ignore court decisions he disagreed with and perhaps even impeach judges whose decisions he found objectionable.

All this talk of the constitution has made me wonder whether the problem of current American politics has been properly identified. It could well be that the source of the deep divisions that have paralyzed America's legislators is the Constitution itself, since that document was the product of legislators who were incapable of seeing eye to eye on how the nation could be governed. Although it would admittedly be a big task, it might be time to put the Constitution of September 17, 1787 into the nearest shredder and start all over again trying to provide a more workable set of guidelines in order “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” If a new American constitution is written, I would recommend making a few minor changes in the structure of the country. A few of the suggestions I would make are the following:

  • Abolish the states. The very idea of trying to unite states was wrong-headed in 1787, when the only states were Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all of which are clustered together on or near the Atlantic coast. Now that the nation that grew out of those twelve states whose representatives signed the constitution in 1787 has fifty states that cover many times as much territory and have over one hundred times as many people as in 1787, the prospect of uniting them all is incalculably more difficult than it was as the nation was just getting started. The task of running the country as a country is hampered at every step by the existence of states with artificial boundaries, many of them so large that there is very little common ground within those boundaries. If one looks at a state such as Colorado, just to give one example, it is obvious all four of its borders were drawn on a map with a straight-edge rather than following natural geographical features. The eastern third of the state is prairie, the middle third is mountainous terrain, and the western third is a mostly arid terrain of mesas, canyons and hills. All three of these regions have different ecosystems, different economies and different demographics. What is now called the State of Colorado is an absurd monstrosity, an outrage to both reason and emotion. And Colorado is but an example of a kind of absurdity that is multiplied across the expanse of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

    Once the monstrous fiction of a state is removed, dozens of now-untractable problems will immediately disappear. Gone will be the conflict that now exists between federal laws and state laws. In the absence of state laws, there could be (as in Canada) a single set of federal criminal and civic laws. People who favor reducing the size of government should welcome the total elimination of fifty state legislative bodies, and people who favor the reduction of the tax burden should welcome the complete elimination of all state taxes. Much of the waste and redundancy that cripples the United States of America would be eliminated immediately by the elimination of states. (Of course, if there were no states to unite, the name of the country would no longer make sense, but it should not be difficult to find a new name for the more streamlined and much-improved country. It could be called Atlanto-Pacifica.)
  • Abolish the Senate.The Senate exists only because the founding parents could not agree on whether each state would be represented in the federal government by a number of representative proportionate to its population or each state would have equal weight just by virtue of being a state. (This whole issue was made even more complicated by the fact that some states that had a large number of human beings living in them, most of whom were slaves, wanted slaves to count as represented population, even though they could not vote to choose their representatives.) If there were no longer any states, there would be no need for equal representation among them, and hence no need for a Senate. Again, people who feel that government has grown much too large should be overjoyed at the prospects of eliminating one of the two bodies that make up the current Congress.
  • Abolish the office of President. The office of President of the United States (POTUS) is surely the second most ridiculous political idea in the history of governance, the first prize going to the office of Vice President of the United States. No country needs a president elected separately by the people, let alone a president elected by an electoral college. A country does need some kind of leadership (unless it is a country run on Quaker principles), but a prime minister will suffice. If the House of Representatives were structured more like a House of Parliament, then the leader of the party with the most elected representatives would automatically be the Prime Minister. A Prime Minister appoints a cabinet of elected members of parliament, who may be, but are not required to be, of the same political party as the Prime Minister. The cabinet is both an executive branch and a legislative branch.
  • Abolish an electoral cycle with fixed periodicity. Rather than having elections every fourth year, elections should be called as they are in all countries that have a parliamentary system. It should be the law that a government in power must dissolve parliament after five years of rule, but there would be provisions for the ruling party to call elections more frequently than that, and there should be mechanisms in place for the opposition parties to have motions of non-confidence that would force an election if governance is going badly. In order to reduce the amount of time and money wasted on political campaigns. elections should be held no more than thirty days after parliament is dissolved. In an age of rapid communications, thirty days is ample time for a political party to inform the voters of its platform and for the voters to evaluate the platforms they are asked to consider.
  • Reconstitute the Supreme Court. If judges continue to be appointed by the party in power, they should be appointed for a limited amount of time, say, a non-extendable term of eight years. If judges are elected by the people, as perhaps they should be, then they should have to stand for election every time there is a parliamentary election.

These are a few of the structural changes that could be made to enable a more efficient and streamlined and much less costly form of government to emerge in the country now called the United States of America. If the Constitution of 1787 is retired and replaced with an improved document, many of the amendments to the current constitution, including the Bill of Rights, would also be retired. Many of the ideas now rather poorly and ambiguously expressed in the Bill of Rights that came to be attached to the original constitution of 1787 could be expressed more clearly. The ambiguous amendment calling for the separation of church and state, for example, could be replaced by a provision declaring that there be absolutely no reference to any sectarian religious dogmas within the Parliament or Supreme Court or in federally funded educational facilities or health care providers, but guaranteeing that no individual ever be limited in his or her choice of religious views and practices, so long as those practices do not violate the criminal laws of the nation.

There are other reforms that I personally would recommend, but some of them are controversial, and I do not wish to enter into controversial issues here. They can wait for another communication. Suffice it to say for now that it seems perfectly obvious that the Constitution that has been in place since 1787 is no longer a fit instrument for effective government. It was never particularly good, but as times have evolved its few good points have ceased to be as good as they once were. It's time to bring an end to the United States and to replace it with a constitutional democracy more like those in most European countries and in such countries as India, Korea and Japan—or our next-door neighbor, Canada.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gaps

A sign that always caught my eye in the Toronto subway system was a warning that said “Mind the gap.” I think it may have been a warning to people that there was a space between the train platform and the floor of the subway car. But to me that gap was never much of a menace. I was more concerned about other gaps.

Everyone seems to be talking these days about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. In November 2010, The Consumerist reported that between 1995 and 2005, the average CEO pay went up 298% while the average worker's pay went up 4.3%. Notes published by Prof. G. William Domhoff, entitled "Who Rules America: Wealth, Income and Power" claim that in 2007, 42.7% of America's financial wealth was controlled by the wealthiest 1% of the American population, 50.3% by the next 19%, and only 7.0% of the nation's financial wealth was controlled by the remaining 80% of the American population. This distribution of wealth has held steadily since the time of President Reagan. An article on economic inequality claims that the Forbes list of billionaires shows that the three wealthiest people in the world (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett of the United States and Carlos Slim Helú of Mexico) together have more wealth than the combined wealth of the 48 poorest nations in the world. The economic gap has deservedly attracted quite a lot of attention. But that is not the gap that I wish to talk about in this squib.

There is another gap that has become increasingly evident to me during the past several months, largely thanks to the debates among aspiring candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. This gap is more difficult to characterize and therefore to quantify than the inequality between the financially richest and the poorest people. For lack of a better term, let me call this yawning inequality the civilization gap. By civilization I mean a whole range of human virtues beginning with a basic knowledge of science and the humanities (history, geography, economics, literature, the arts and so on). I also take civilization to include skills in critical thinking and what people commonly call wisdom—the ability to discern realty from fancy and to make good practical decisions grounded in fact and arrived at by weighing evidence carefully. And of course I take civilization to include compassion, generosity of spirit and empathy. In short, civilization includes the four traditional cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, self-restraint and courage and at least the theological virtue of love. The opposite of virtue, of course, is vice, and a commonly referenced list of vices in Western literature is the list of the seven deadly vices of pride, anger, greed, gluttony, envy, lust and sloth. My observation, then, has been that so far the Republican candidates have displayed a remarkable deficiency of civilized virtue, and what I suspect is that the candidates display that deficiency largely because they are supported by a substantial sector of the American public that is also lacking in wisdom, a sense of justice, self-restraint, courage and compassion but is driven instead by pride, anger and greed.

The Republican debates have had a number of chilling moments. Chris Matthews recalled several in the October 21 episode of Hardball. There was the cheer that came up from the crowd when it was announced that while Governor Rick Perry of Texas has governed, there have been 234 executions of prisoners, more than any other governor in modern times. Governor Perry also earned hoots of approval when he stated that there is no compelling evidence that global warming is taking place as a consequence of gas house gases being introduced into the atmosphere as a result of human use of fossil fuels. There were the shouts of "Yes!" when Senator Ron Paul was asked whether he would let someone who could not afford private health insurance die rather than be given treatment at the taxpayers' expense. Then Ron Paul was jeered when he said, rightly, that Muslim terrorists had attacked the United States because the United States had established military bases around the world and interfered in the politics of other countries, and not because terrorists hate American freedom. There was a cheer from the audience when Herman Cain said that anyone who is unemployed has no one to blame but himself. All those outbursts of cheering and jeering from the audience exhibited a lack of civilization that can be found in every region of the country. While the Republican debates are what have helped me be more aware of the civilization gap, I do not at all think the gap is an especially Republican phenomenon.

There are two dimensions of the civilization gap that I would like to reflect on here. The first dimension is what might be called an education gap, and the second is what I'll call the decency gap. As an educator, I am confronted on a daily basis with evidence of how poorly informed most Americans are about international events, geography, history, mathematics and basic science. One obvious educational gap is between those who have a post-secondary education and those who have stopped their formal education at or before graduation from high school. The cost of college education has become prohibitively high for most people, with the result that many low-income people in the United States have no opportunity at all for higher education, and many others graduate with debts that will follow them around for most of their lives. There is, however, a less obvious education gap. Even among people with advanced degrees, there is a gap between those who have a good grasp of both the humanities and the sciences. Specialization in most fields has resulted in an increase in people who are highly trained in a narrow field but poorly informed others. It is not unusual to find teachers and scholars in the humanities who know next to nothing about science, and scientists who have a poor command of topics in the humanities. In a complex world in which many decisions are made democratically, it is alarming when most people are called upon to cast their votes on issues about which they have little or no basis on which to make an informed decision. The alarm registers even higher when one considers how vulnerable most people, thanks to their ignorance, are to being manipulated through misinformation. In a democracy of dunces, most of the power ends up in the hands of liars.

What I have called the decency gap is a manifestation of a pandemic lack of sensitivity that goes mostly unobserved because people have become so, well, insensitive. (Insensitivity by its very nature is one of those maladies, like ignorance, a main symptom of which is that those who have the disease are unaware of having it.) A few recent examples may help clarify what kind of thing I am thinking about here. On the PBS News Hour of October 21, 2011, footage was shown of the last few moments in the life of Colonel Mu'ammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Qaḏḏāfī. The images, taken by a cell-phone camera, showed the terrified colonel being beaten, humiliated, cursed and pushed by an angry mob. As part of the same news story, the colonel's bloody corpse was shown lying on a mattress on the floor, surrounded by Libyans taking photographs of it with the mobile telephones. Apparently, producers of the News Hour found it sufficient to warn viewers that the images they were about to see were graphic and violent. What is astonishing is that such images have become entirely unremarkable. Television viewers were well prepared for al-Qaḏḏāfī's demise as a result of having seen similar photos of the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the assassination of Usama bin-Ladin. Indeed, people all over the world are routinely subjected on a daily basis to pictures of dead and often decaying bodies of war casualties, traffic accidents, political assassinations, homicides, and victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricane, tornadoes and floods. What is gained by showing such images? In what way do they aid the understanding of the world in which we live? What purpose do they serve, aside from satisfying the morbid curiosities of viewers? What is the effect of satisfying people's morbid curiosities on a daily, even hourly, basis? Do the producers of visual news and entertainment productions consider such questions? Do they give a second thought to the cultural climate they are helping to promote? I am not sure whether it would be more disheartening to learn that television producers give these matters no thought at all or to to learn that they have thought about it and find their policies warranted. Denying that regularly subjecting viewers, even at the safe distances provided by a television, to the effects of violence has the effect of creating a more coarse and insensitive cultural milieu seems as reprehensibly ignorant as denying that burning fossil fuels creates the conditions of accelerating degradation of the air, the land and the waters of our planet. In both cases, it is a matter of a cultivated ignorance that is willfully maintained in the interest of making money at all costs.

These are dangerous and unpredictable times. Part of what makes them so dangerous is that there are too few people minding the gaps.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Green Tea Party policy on national holidays

The Green Tea Party of the United States of The Milky Way recommends that all national holidays be abolished on the grounds that patriotism is unseemly, undignified and irrational, and because the celebration of nationhood serves to divide the human race into artificial and unnatural divisions that too often lead to warfare, closed borders and other forms of inhumanity. 
It seems fitting for the Green Tea Party to add this plank to its platform on July 4. For some reason, Americans have gotten into the habit of celebrating July 4, 1776 as the date when America was born. It is celebrated by those who don't know any better as the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, nothing important concerning the Declaration of Independence happened on July 4, 1776. The document was approved on July 2 by the Second Continental Congress, which John Adams predicted would be the date on which the birth of the new nation would be celebrated. It was not signed by anyone until August, and people dribbled in to add their signatures until November. So the document that Americans worship—the one with all the signatures—did not yet exist on July 4, 1776. (For more on common misconceptions and erroneous beliefs about the declaration of independence see the National Geographic website.)

Surely it makes no difference whether anything important happened on July 4, 1776. Patriotic sentimentality has little to do with historical accuracy. July 4 came to be the date for celebrating Independence Day in the United States, and to insist on any other date would be as pointless as insisting that Jesus of Nazareth was probably born in the spring rather than in December (if one is a Western European) or January (if one is an Eastern European). What's in a date? It's really the content of the Declaration of Independence that matters, not the date when it was voted on, or the date on which the first signature was affixed, or the date on which the final signature was affixed.

It is really with the contents of the Declaration of Independence that we of the Green Tea Party of the Milky Way have the strongest misgivings. The Declaration gets off to a very bad start in the opening paragraph.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

An axiom of the Green Tea Party it that it is never necessary for one people to dissolve its political ties with another. It is not only never necessary, it is rarely even advisable. While it is generally speaking a rash and foolish move for one people to dissolve its political association with another, it was certainly an unnecessary and imprudent move for the Second Continental Congress to make. That it was foolish is evidenced by the fact that it led to a war that was financially ruinous and that resulted in pointless deaths and injuries and loss of agricultural and industrial productivity. So while political separation from England was frivolous, the resultant war was a calamity from which it took the new nation decades to recover. Moreover, the entire sordid affair set a dangerous precedent of hot-headed recklessness rather than cool reflection and careful deliberation. The sooner the whole sorry mistake of the American revolution is forgotten, the better the United States, and indeed the entire world, will be.

After getting off to a most questionable and rocky start, the Declaration of Independence then ventures into unwarranted theological speculation with the following dubious claim:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This statement is so riddled with unsupportable assumptions that no rational man or woman could affirm it. First of all, no truths anywhere are self-evident. The very idea of truth is highly controversial. At best one can say that people concoct narratives to support their irrational desires, and the more improbable the narrative, the greater the temptation to call it self-evident or to attribute its authorship to a superhuman agency such as God. There is no evidence of any kind that men were created, so in the absence of such evidence, the authors declared it self-evident that men were created.

Not only were all men created, says the Declaration, but all men were created equal. That claim sounds appealing, but it can hardly be called a truth. It is at best a pious wish, a pathetic whimpering articulation of a desire that social realities could be other than they are. Nowhere in any society have all human beings had equal access to the resources of nature and human civilization. This sentence in the Declaration of Independence was penned by males, many of them slave-owners, hardly any of whom had any intention of including women in the political process, most of whom believed that only property owners should be allowed to vote. These were men who knew that not all human beings are in fact created equal, and most of whom would have staunchly resisted a society in which all members of the human race would be given equal access to nature's and human society's resources. The line was utter hypocrisy when it was written and remains so now by most people who recite it. It is a mantra falsely supposed to have magical powers.

If there is no evidence that all men were created, then there is surely no evidence that they had a Creator, let alone a Creator who endowed them with inalienable rights. There is no such thing as an inalienable right. Rights are dispensed by powerful human beings to those whom the powerful favor, and since the favor of the powerful is subject to change without notice, every right can be revoked with a simple act of pernicious will. The very idea of absolute rights is a farce, for all rights are contingent on the will of those who deign to tolerate some of the behavior of their fellow human beings. Rights are dispensed to those who pay tribute to those human beings who wield power over them. There is no justification for bringing the Creator into the picture, and nothing but unrealizable expectations can come from the mischievous claim that the Creator has endowed his creatures with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Earlier drafts of the Declaration had spoken of the pursuit of property, but fortunately a more felicitous piety was inserted in the final draft, even though it is probable that most of the men present really did believe that God had given them the right to take whatever property they could from the Indians.)

Life is clearly not inalienable. Every being that is born eventually dies, and death is alienation from life. Even if it could be granted that there was a Creator, and that She granted rights to her creatures, surely it would have to be conceded that the only inalienable right of anyone who is born is Death. So the claim that the Creator endowed every creature with the inalienable right to life is plainly false. It is another example of a wish that reality could be other than it is.

Liberty is also quite obviously not inalienable. Every human society has some mechanisms available for depriving those who do not act to commonly accepted norms of proper conduct of their liberty to continue acting. Human beings are being alienated from their liberty all the time through incarceration, banishment, exile, shunning, and ostracism. Some alienation from liberty is rationalized by an appeal to questionable claims of justice, but nearly all such claims are barely disguised exercises of the capricious use of power. Liberty is always alienable, and it can be seen as a right only when availing to it does not disturb the selfish pursuits of human beings who are in power.

This brings us to the pursuit of happiness. That phrase is, at the very best, a platitude. Of course anyone can try to be happy. Nothing exists to prevent a person from trying to be happy. But the obstacles that stand in the way of anyone actually attaining happiness in anything but short and infrequent bursts are, for the vast majority of human and other kinds of sentient beings, insurmountable. Given the sheer misery of most of human existence throughout all of recorded history, it would be a cruel joke to say that people have an inalienable right to happiness, and it is a meaningless verbal flourish to say that people have the right to pursue that which they have almost no chance of attaining.

The first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence are based entirely on either unverifiable assertions or demonstrably false claims. After saying that the Creator endowed all people with inalienable rights, the Declaration goes on to declare that it is the purpose of government to secure these rights. (But surely, if the rights were truly inalienable, there would be no need to devise human governments to secure them. Wasn't the Creator supposed to take care of that? Didn't the authors see that the call for human government was an obvious contradiction to what they had just said about inalienable rights?)

Next the claim is made that whenever any government is destructive of the allegedly inalienable rights, then people have a right to overthrow that government. This is a very Confucian idea, of course. The early Confucians claimed that when the Son of Heaven fails to carry out the will of Heaven, then the people have not only the right but the obligation to overthrow the failed Son and replace him with a Son who is more reverential toward the will of Heaven. But whether such an idea is articulated by a Confucian or a Deist like Thomas Jefferson, it is little more than a rationalization on the part of those whose anger has boiled over to such an extent that they have taken it upon themselves to seize power from those who have it and to wield it over a different set of unwilling victims.

The Declaration of Independence was a triumph of rhetoric over reason that led eventually to a rupture in the bonds of love that ideally bind all human beings together and that bind human beings to all other forms of life and to all non-living forms in the universe. It was a bad document when it was written. It was voted on and passed precipitantly, and it led to a disastrous war. Why anyone would want to celebrate such a series of failures is beyond all comprehension.

For this reason, the Green Tea Party of America, on this July 4, 2011, hereby declares the celebration of July 4 an act of folly that serves no useful purpose. And with the abolition of this national holiday, the Green Tea Party also abolishes Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. If people wish to take the day off to barbecue dead animals, drink insipid American beer and start wildfires with fireworks, then let them do so in the name of the pursuit of mindless and transient pleasures, but not on the pretense of honoring noble principles.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Green Tea Party educational policy

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. (Marcus Aurelius)
Public education in the United States has always been fraught with political complexity. Consider the following facts about the history of public education in the United States.
  • There was no system of public education until the late 1820s.
  • The decision to provide public education was motivated by the thought that citizens in a democracy should be sufficiently literate to become informed about political and social issues so that they could make informed choices when voting. Since women did not have the right to vote in many states until the 19th amendment was added (passed by Congress June 4, 1919 and ratified August 18, 1920), public education was offered only to males at first.
  • Because it was widely believed that without a solid moral education, a person would not be capable of making good decisions in voting, moral education was seen as of the greatest importance in public education.
  • Because it was widely believed that there can be no morality in the absence of religion, it was decided that the Bible should be at the center of a boy's public education. But since the first amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion by Congress, it was decided that children would be taught no particular religious doctrines; each child would be allowed to interpret the Bible in his own way and to arrive at his own understanding of its moral teachings.
  • Almost immediately, there were major protests against the newly formed system of public education based on what was called non-sectarianism.
    • Conservative Christians claimed that the educational system showed a strong liberal permissive bias (because it gave freedom to students to interpret the Bible in their own way) and a Unitarian bias (since the doctrine of the Trinity was not allowed to be taught). Many leading evangelical Christians therefore threatened to refuse to pay taxes that would support schools that they could not in good conscience send their own children to.
    • Catholics claimed that the educational system showed a strong Protestant bias, since all students would be taught from an English translation of the Bible that was not approved by the Vatican. Moreover, a document from the Vatican declared that allowing people to read the Bible without the guidance of properly trained priests is deliramentum (folly, nonsense, madness). Many leading Catholics therefore refused to pay taxes that would support schools that they could not in good conscience send their own children to. (This issue became so heated at times that riots broke out. In the worst of the so-called Bible Riots, nineteen Roman Catholics were killed, and several Catholic churches were burned to the ground.)
The issue of public education has become even more complex now than it was in the nineteenth century. The demographics of the country have changed significantly with the result that a religious text associated with Christianity is no longer suitable as a basis for public education. Although 76% of the US population are people who identify themselves as Christian (51% Protestant and 25% Roman Catholic), 15% consider themselves as having no religious beliefs and another 5% say they do not know what their religious beliefs are. 4–5% of the US population identify themselves as following a religion other than Christianity. (See source of these data.) Taking societal and demographic factors into consideration, the Green Tea Party recommends the following policies for public education.

  1. Given the importance of moral education, but taking into consideration the need to maintain a non-sectarian (and preferably non-religious) basis for morality, all students in public school should be exposed to a broad spectrum of the moral thinkers who have influenced human beings throughout recorded history. At the minimum these thinkers should include Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Mengzi (Mencius), Zhuangzi, Zhuxi and Wang Yangming.
  2. Given the importance of historical context for any public policies, all students in public school should have a thorough grounding in the histories of ancient Mesopotamia and of all the continents on the earth.
  3. Given the importance of religion in human history, every public school student should receive an education in the histories, beliefs and practices of all the major religions of the world. Given the breadth and depth of this topic, comparative religions should be taught every year of a student's educational career.
  4. Given the importance of reasoning and critical thinking, every student should receive training every year in informal logic, formal logic and mathematics. This should be supplemented with a grounding in the theory and practice of scientific method.
  5. Given the importance of knowing a human being's place in the natural world, every public school student should have a grounding in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and geology, with an emphasis on the canons of reasoning and assessment of evidence practiced in each of these scientific disciplines.
  6. Given the importance of understanding how laws are made and interpreted, every student in a public school should study some aspect of constitutional law, how bills are formulated and approved by the Congress, the functions of the executive branch and a history of Supreme Court decisions. Such education should be a part of every year of his or her educational career. Every student should also receive an education in state and municipal government.
  7. Given the importance of languages as an access to cultures, and given the fundamental importance of multiculturalism in today's world, and given the ease with with young children learn languages, every student in an American public school should be taught, from the Kindergarten level to the completion of secondary education, at least the following languages: English, Spanish, and French, plus one Asian language, one African language and one native American language. (Given that Kindergarten is a German word, and given the importance of both the Germans and the Dutch in early America, every child should also learn German or Dutch, or at least Norwegian.)
  8. Every child who is a resident of the United States should receive the basic education described above, and this education, and all educational materials necessary to carry it out, should be completely funded by federal monies. All students should receive allowances for transportation to and from school and for healthy food consumed during school hours. (Students caught eating Oreo cookies provided by Red Tea Party mavericks during school hours should lose their food allowance privileges for a week.)
  9. The core curriculum should be determined by the federal government; no state or municipality should have the right to determine its own curriculum for any subject other than state and municipal history or civics.
  10. No educational institution funded by public monies should have a sports team that competes with other institutions of learning. Monies now wasted on inter varsity sports should be diverted to exercise and fitness programs and courses in basic nutrition, which should be available to all students but required of all students whose BMI index places them in the overweight or obese range.
  11. No person who has not successfully gone through the curriculum designed by the federal ministry of education should have the right to vote in any elections at any level of government unless he or she has passed an examination equivalent to that required of all naturalized citizens. (This is in keeping with one of the Green Tea Party's principles, namely, that unearned citizenship is a contradiction in terms.
Some Americans, especially those given to extraordinary levels of ignorance, may object to what they see as too large a role played by the federal government under a Green Tea regime. The official Green Tea Party response to such people is “Tough carrots!” Let people who have no interest in responsible democracy move to a plutocracy, where all their thinking is manipulated by greedy capitalists and where hardly anything is available but misinformation carefully doled out by people with vested commercial interests. As for America, may it become a democracy in which political decisions are made by representatives chosen by informed voters who have demonstrated their abilities to think critically and for themselves. That is, after all, what the Founding Fathers and Mothers had in mind.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Green Tea Economics

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. Adam Smith (1723—1790)
A perfectly obvious observation that served as a point of departure in a previous post was that the desideratum of a balanced budget can be achieved only when expenditures do not exceed income. No serious economist believes the government's budget can be balanced by attending only to cutting expenditures or attending only to increasing income. What is needed is a combination of decreased spending and increased acquisition of public funds.

It is remarkable that hardly any figures in the American political arena have had the combination of wisdom and courage needed to point out that the most costly item in the American budget is not Medicare and Social Security (as Tim Pawlenty, John Boehner, Michelle Bachmann and hordes of Black Tea Party enthusiasts incessantly but inaccurately aver), but rather the military. The wastefulness of military spending has already been discussed on this blog site (and will be discussed again in the future). In this squib, the focus will be on how to increase governmental income.

So far, the public discussion of how to increase revenues has been focussed on raising tax rates for the wealthiest 2% of taxpayers, putting into place a national tax on purchases of goods and services, increasing the rates of taxation on inherited assets, and closing loopholes that enable corporations to write off business expenses so that they do not pay taxes on substantial portions of their profits. The Green Tea Party favors all those measures but notes that even if all of them were put into place, the increase in revenues would still be modest. What will be discussed here are other measures needed to increase revenues.

An axiom of economics so basic that even I have heard of it is that the wealth of any nation depends on three factors: population, productivity and ingenuity. The greater the number of people actively participating in a nation's economy, the higher their level of efficiency, and the more skilled a society is in delivering goods and services to their intended markets, the more overall income there is in that nation; the more income there is, the broader the base that can be taxed.

A major weakness in the United States economy is that the country wastes human resources. The country fails to increase its population of workers, and it fails to make good use of the population it has. To rectify these two types of waste, the Green Tea Party proposes two policies: increasing legal immigration and decreasing the prison population.

Increasing legal immigration

There are millions of people around the world, many of them in the Americas, who are ready and able to come to the United States to work and to start up small business enterprises. What prevents them from entering the US workforce are unrealistically strict quotas on immigration. Perhaps the ideal solution would be to establish a pan-American economic union similar to the European union that would have a single currency like the Euro (called, perhaps, the Americano) and porous borders that would allow any citizen of any country in South, Central or North America to take up residency and work legally in any other country on the American continents. The ideal would be an economic zone in which anyone from Ellesmere Island to Tierra del Fuego could move freely. Under present free-trade agreements, only goods can move freely across borders. This policy serves corporations seeking markets, but it hamstrings laborers seeking employment.

While an American economic union would be by far the rational most solution, it is, precisely because it is rational, unlikely to succeed immediately. It may take time to implement, since some people will no doubt perceive that economic justice would erode their unfair advantages, and maintaining the unjust status quo will become a major preoccupation to them. So while North, Central and South America work slowly toward an economic union with a single currency, the United States can unilaterally increase its own labor force by making dramatic increases to immigration quotas. It makes no sense at all to build walls and fences and electronic surveillance systems across the border between the United States and Mexico to keep people out of the country who are eager to find honest employment and to provide labor that the United States desperately needs. The American economy would take a nosedive overnight if it were not for the millions of migrants who have come to this country to work illegally. It is time to recognize the American economy's indebtedness to those people and to make their presence in the country perfectly legal. There is absolutely nothing that eliminates crime more effectively than abolishing laws that make some behavior criminal. It is time to stop making seeking honest work, and doing honest work when it has been found, a crime.

Decreasing the prison population

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 743 out of every 100,000 American people are in prison. In second place is Russia, with 577. In the United Kingdom 141, and in the Netherlands only 94, out of every 100,000 are in prison. According to an article published in 2008 in the New York Times, 25% of all the prisoners in the world are in the United States.

There are many factors leading to the fact that the percentage of prisons in the USA is eight times the percentage in the Netherlands. Two that deserve special attention are the lengths of sentences given for crimes, and the kinds of behavior deemed criminal. Both of those factors are linked to the fact that in many states, the running of prisons is done by for-profit private companies whose profits depend on a steady flow of customers for their beds. Accordingly the Green Tea Party recommends taking criminal law out of the jurisdiction of states and replacing it with a federal criminal code (similar to the one in Canada) with much shorter sentences for most crimes. It further recommends that all prisons be managed by the federal government and that no correctional facilities anywhere in the country be within the domain of private enterprise. Justice (like health care) is far too important to be entrusted to the hands of profit-seekers.

Reducing the lengths of sentences would only partly reduce the number of people in prisons. A larger factor would be to make significant reductions in the kinds of behavior that is considered criminal. It was mentioned above that seeking and doing honest work should never be made into a crime. (For that matter, it should never be a crime to cross a border and to take up residence in a country.) In 2009, the number of people arrested for drug-related crimes was 13,687,241. Nearly 20% of all inmates in American prisons are serving terms for felonious drug possession or trafficking, and the average length of sentences for drug felonies are only slightly shorter than the average length of sentences for violent crimes. Moreover, 17% of all those convicted for property crimes report that their crimes were committed as a direct result of seeking to find money to pay for drugs. Making drugs illegal makes them expensive, and making them expensive gives drug-users an incentive to commit crimes. People with drug addictions need treatment, not punishment.

Another source of human waste in the American prison system, aside from the unreasonably high number of people imprisoned for behavior that should never have been deemed criminal in the first place, is the scarcity of educational programs made available to prisoners. As a result of serving unreasonably long sentences for minor crimes, people coming out of prisons usually lack marketable work experience. Scarcity of financial resources has led in almost every state to a decrease in programs designed to educate inmates and give them marketable skills. As a result, the recidivism rate all over the United States is remarkably high. The Green Tea Party recommends that money (most of it saved by reducing the overcrowding of prisons by reducing the number of behaviors deemed criminal and by reducing sentences) be put into improving education and job training both inside and outside of prisons.

Decriminalizing international migration, decriminalizing drug use and trafficking, and shortening sentences are three measures that would result in a significantly larger workforce, which would in turn increase the tax base. The government's income could thus be increased significantly without any taxpayers (except for the wealthiest 2% of the population) paying higher rates than they pay now.

Generally improving the quality and availability of education would result in an increase in the productivity of the workforce. Educational reform will therefore be a topic for a future plank in the platform of the Green Tea Party.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Green Tea Party

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. (Henry David Thoreau)

Preamble

There is no political party in American politics that represents my interests. In saying that, I realize I am joining a queue that grows longer each day. Some disgruntled Americans have identified themselves with a movement called The Tea Party, so called because its policies are as loose and random as raw tea leaves. There may be some affinity between the twenty-first century Tea Party and the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The eighteenth century protest action that came to be called the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the Tea Act, which lowered the taxes on tea imported from Britain, thereby driving down the price of tea to consumers. Lower British tea prices endangered the business of smugglers who had been making a handsome profit by smuggling Dutch tea into the colonies and selling it at lower prices than British tea fetched. Rowdies paid by the smugglers threw a shipload of British tea into the harbor, and greedy criminals have been rousing the rabble ever since against any governmental policy that threatens their interests by passing laws and regulations that benefit ordinary people. The twentieth century Tea Party movement follows that original model much too closely for my tastes. I have little use for it.

The twenty-first century Tea Party movement, insofar as it has any focus, seems to be interested primarily in wringing its hands over governmental spending that would benefit ordinary people rather than a handful of billionaires. The allegation of some of its followers is that such programs as Medicare and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have the potential to bankrupt America and that they represent a governmental takeover of the healthcare system; apparently what the Tea Party Movers prefer is a continued takeover of the healthcare system by rapacious corporations that make fat profits by keeping the costs of poor-quality medical interventions artificially high. Be that as it may, one can have a certain amount of sympathy with the concern that the American government spends far more than it makes and is therefore running up a debt that could bring considerable inconvenience to future generations. If a concern with unsustainable levels of public debt is what makes one a Tea Party sympathizer, then I propose a new branch of the Tea Party that takes the interests of ordinary people and some of the better policies of the Green Party into account. Let's call this new movement The Green Tea Party.

The Platform

If a new political party hopes to sweep the nation in the next election cycle it needs a platform, which is a list of policies and promises that will be forgotten or ignored once the party gains power and finds itself besieged by highly paid and ruthlessly efficient lobbyists representing the major corporate interests that actually determine how the country will be run. The Green Tea Party's platform is still under construction, or it will be as soon as the planks and nails arrive. So far only one plank has come, but that's a start. As other planks and shims (and, of course, wedges) arrive, they will be announced in future posts to this blog site.

Balancing the budget

There is no hope of balancing any budget unless expenditures are equal to or less than income. A government's income is made up largely of various kinds of taxes and tariffs. Most reasonable people can be persuaded that it is to their advantage to pay taxes if the money raised is spent on programs that support the well-being of the population. For at least a century in the United States, governmental policies have resulted in spending that not only does not foster the well-being of the population but actually undermines it. The greatest single source of counterproductive spending is the military budget. Therefore, the most important bundle of expenditures to examine is the bundle resulting from the policies that result in the United States spending nearly half of all the money spent in the entire world on military enterprises.

The military is a twig on the executive branch of government. Its stated purpose is to defend the country. Arriving at a reasonable military budget requires coming to a clear understanding of what the United States needs to be defended against. Aside from natural events such as floods, hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes, the people of the United States are endangered by very little. No other nations are poised to invade the country and colonize it. (That has already been done by the Europeans, with quite a bit of involuntary help by African slaves.) The only human enemies that threaten to disturb the peace of Americans are those created by the unwelcome presence of the US military itself. The US has military bases in more than 130 countries. It also has a stockpile of expensive weaponry, some of it kept in the United States and some of it stored elsewhere, that could destroy most human life and that still costs a great deal of money to maintain. The Green Tea Party therefore recommends saving money by closing all military bases overseas, bringing all military personnel in foreign countries back to the United States, dismantling the entire arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, and reducing the army to a few thousand people trained to help victims of natural disasters. That would result in a reduction of government expenditures by about 35% of its current levels. If Wikipedia is anywhere near correct,
The U.S. Department of Defense budget accounted in fiscal year 2010 for about 19% of the United States federal budgeted expenditures and 28% of estimated tax revenues. Including non-DOD expenditures, defense spending was approximately 28–38% of budgeted expenditures and 42–57% of estimated tax revenues.
In addition to cuts in the military budget, The Green Tea Party recommends cutting all military aid to foreign countries and replacing it with non-military humanitarian aid to promote health and education in developing countries. This change would surely result in good will toward the United States, thereby reducing the resentment and hostility toward the country that has arisen through decades of interference in and exploitation of developing countries around the world.

It is imposible to take seriously any political party in the United States that does not make a dramatic reduction in the influence of the military a top priority. Some members of the other branch of the Tea Party (which, to distinguish it from the Green Tea Party shall henceforth be called the Black Tea Party or perhaps the Red Tea Party) agree that the current level of military expenditures are destroying the United States. In future postings, an attempt will be made to persuade them that the Green Tea Party has policies that make more sense than those of the Koch Brothers and other enthusiastic corporate sponsors of the Black Tea Party that have grown wealthy through entrepreneurship like that of the pirates in the eighteenth century who used to trade in stolen Dutch tea.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Taking stock of American progress

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

— Henry David Thoreau

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What might he think of the progress his country has made toward the vision he dedicated his life to realizing?

The way of looking at the root causes of human misery that has made the most sense to me is the Buddhist claim that all misery arises from some combination of greed, hatred and delusion. Although Dr. King did not speak in those terms, his vision can be seen as a one of striving to bring about a society in which fewer of our actions are motivated by greed, hatred and delusion and more are motivated by generosity, love and wisdom.

Greed is alive and well in America, and since the time of Dr. King it has gone from being a motivation that people were ashamed of and tried to disguise to a motivation that they actively and openly pursue. American culture has become much more dominated than ever before in my lifetime by an ethic of making as much money as possible, acquiring as many possessions as possible and avoiding as much as possible sharing what one has with others. No politician dares to declare openly that he or she favors raising taxes for anyone in any form at all. Money that people acquire through selling their labor, through investments, through gambling, and through inheritance tends to be seen as money that they have earned and that is therefore theirs to do with as they please.

In conversations I have had with people who are opposed to taxation, an argument I have heard several times is that when people are taxed heavily by their governments, then they are less likely to give to charities. That observation is not borne out very well by statistics. In the United States, for example, a recent study published in the Guardian indicates that 60% of people in the United States make charitable donations, which qualifies the American people to rank 18th in the world, behind Malta (84%), Netherlands (77%), the United Kingdom (78%) and such countries as New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and Denmark. According to the Worldwide Tax website, the tax rates for individuals in Malta, whose population ranked first in percentage of its population that gives to charity, are the same as those in the United States; in both countries, the maximum tax rate is 35%. In the second-ranking Netherlands, on the other hand, the maximum tax rate is 52%. In both Malta and the Netherlands, there is a high VAT or sales tax. The Dutch pay 19% VAT. Americans pay none; even in states and municipalities with relatively high sales taxes, Americans rarely pay more than 10% sale tax. The Dutch and the Belgians have very similar income tax rates and VAT rates, but only 40% of Belgians donate to charities. Japan has individual tax rates similar to the Dutch and Belgians, but only 17% of Japanese people donate to charities. South Africans, like Americans, have some of the lowest individual income tax rates in the world, but only 15% of South Africans make charitable donations. Clearly, there is no correlation between the amount of taxation in a country and a culture of charity. The reason why Americans rank no higher than 18th place in the world in charitable donations cannot be attributed to taxation rates.

Americans as individuals may not compare all that well with the citizens of other countries in their generosity, but how does the United States do as a nation? How generous is the United States government in giving foreign aid in comparison with other national governments? According to the Bill Gates Foundation, in percentage of its Gross Domestic Product given as foreign aid, the United States government ranks 22nd in the world, just behind Italy, Greece and Japan. Top-ranking Sweden gives nearly 1% of its GDP to poorer nations. The United States gives 0.19%, about one-fifth as much as Sweden, less than half the international average of 0.45% and well less than one-third the United Nations target of 0.7%. (Only five nations meet that UN target: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Luxembourg.)

Remarkably, Americans perceive themselves as being far more generous than they are. According to the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting website, in an article published in October 2005

Americans think about 20 percent of the federal budget goes toward foreign aid. When told the actual figure for U.S. foreign aid giving (about 1.6 percent of the discretionary budget), most respondents said they did not believe the number was the full amount...

It appears that generosity is not doing well in America, but delusion is still robust.

Something has been said about greed and delusion in America, but what about hatred? I am old enough to remember a time when some well-educated and well-respected Americans openly and without embarrassment expressed racist views. The sort of racism I saw on an almost daily basis in the 1950s is difficult for many young people today to imagine. Thanks in no small measure to Martin Luther King, Jr and other people who were involved in working for social justice, it is no longer the case that capable and intelligent people are kept out of universities, high-quality housing, corporate boardrooms, public office, and the voting booth because of differences in appearance and culture as a matter of public laws and policies. Overt racism, against African Americans at any rate, has given way to much more subtle forms of racism. Now, people who may be uncomfortable with the fact that an African-American family is living in the White House do not dare declare the reasons for their discomfort openly; instead, they make factually incorrect insinuations that the president was not really born in the United States and is thereby violating the US Constitution. Or they make the ridiculously inaccurate claim that he is a socialist.

The target of fear-driven exclusion has become more diversified than it used to be. A high wall is constructed across the Mexican-US border to keep out Mexicans and Central Americans, who are undesirable not because they speak Spanish and may have native-American ancestors, but ostensibly because they are willing to work for low wages and because they pay into a social security program from which they will never draw a penny. The animosity and fear and suspicion and ignorant stereotyping that used to be reserved for African Americans, Chinese Americans, Italian Americans and Irish Americans is now shared generously with Muslims. All things considered, America is not much less of a breeding ground for hatred than it was the day when Rev. King was assassinated.

Given that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to raising the awareness of Americans on issues of economic and social justice, and on the terrible consequences the war in Vietnam was having on all Americans and on the Vietnamese people, it is not at all difficult to guess how he might have felt about the directions in which the current Congress is headed. He would not be pleased to see Congress proposing that, in the name of fiscal responsibility, all funding to NPR and PBS be cut, and that more than one billion dollars be withdrawn from health centers and food assistance programs for low-income Americans, and that there be dramatic reductions in funding for education—both for the amount of money available to pay teachers and their aides and the amount of money made available to provide tuition aid for low-income students. He would especially not be pleased to see all those reductions in discretionary spending be made while the budget of the military remains bloated far beyond any kind of necessity. He would not be happy that the United States still has stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and military bases in more than 130 countries, and wars being conducted for the better part of a decade in two countries, and more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles being fired into Libya at the cost of $1.6 million apiece. These were not the policies and values for which Martin Luther King Jr lived and died.

On the 43rd anniversary of his assassination what might Dr King think of the progress his country has made toward the vision he dedicated his life to realizing? Realize the answer, America, and be ashamed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Speaking as a foreigner

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
(L.P. Hartley, The Go-between)
L.P. Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, is written from the perspective of a man in his 60s who is looking back at one summer during his childhood. Looking at his own past from the vantage point of several decades of maturity, his past seems like a foreign country, a slightly alien setting populated by people whose actions and values are not quite like those of people of the present. This sense of foreignness is compounded by the fact that the main character is recalling a time when he visited a boarding school friend whose family came from a higher social class and much wealthier conditions than the protagonist himself came from. All the awkwardness of crossing the class boundaries of England at the end of the Victorian era—the incidents narrated in the novel took place in 1900—are explored in a narrative style that brilliantly captures the nostalgia of a man in his 60s looking back on the dawn of his adolescence, and the confusion that goes with having lived through events that are not thoroughly understood.

The melancholia of the The Go-between, published in 1953, anticipates the mood that comes over me as I think back on a past that has become something of a foreign country from the perspective of my current age and that was something of a foreign country to me even then. A time that combines that dual foreignness for me is Wisconsin in the 1960s, when I was a college student. Having lived most of my life in New Mexico and Colorado, I found Wisconsin more strange than I would have guessed. Although I had already had the experience of living for a year in a foreign country—Virginia—as an elementary-school pupil, I was unprepared for how strange some of the ways of the American midwest would feel to a young man from southwest. For much of the time I was there, I felt a longing to be closer to a place I could think of as home.

One day while I was in Wisconsin during the 1964 presidential campaign, a political campaigner came through town who had some connection with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). I made a decision to join a small group of other students in a minor demonstration outside the venue where this campaigner was speaking. I carried a placard saying “The House Un-American Activities Committee is un-American”—a slogan that admittedly lacked originality and imagination but one that adequately expressed my convictions.

Wisconsin had been the home state of the notorious communist hunter, Senator Joe McCarthy, a man whose name conjured up feelings of deep loathing in my parents' household; he was the very antithesis of everything my family most loved about America. While Senator McCarthy had no formal connection with HUAC, both McCarthy and HUAC had an obsession with the dangers of communism, many of them imagined. Many of the Wisconsinites who had admired McCarthy in the 1950s approved of HUAC and were passionately devoted to Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. Like McCarthy, and like many members of HUAC, Goldwater was determined to dismantle the social programs that had been put in place by Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Goldwater campaigned against the so-called welfare state, an umbrella term that included social security, Medicare and most other government-managed programs designed to help people through hard times. Not surprisingly, Goldwater also opposed labor unions. He was a vehement opponent of the Soviet Union and was quick to point out similarities between Communism and any and all governmental programs designed to promote social and economic well-being. Goldwater carried only a few counties in Wisconsin in 1964, but the outnumbered Goldwater supporters made their presence, and the depth of their passions, felt.

As I marched around in a tight little circle carrying my anti-HUAC placard, a grandmotherly woman about half my height walked up to me and asked me my name and address. I told her. She wrote it down and then turned around in jubilation to a group of her companions and said triumphantly, “I got one! We'll turn his name into the FBI!” Never had I felt more as though I had wandered into a foreign country. It was beyond my imagination, and certainly beyond my experience, that anyone would think that someone protesting against a governmental organization would be deemed in any way worthy of being reported to the FBI. While living in the foreign country of Virginia I had taken a tour of the FBI building and was assured that no criminal had ever escaped the grasp of the FBI, an agency that worked around the clock to protect innocent Americans from gangsters and hardened criminals. They said nothing on that tour of the FBI investigating Quakers and other peace makers, so how was I to know that granny might have meant what she said? The idea that a college student carrying a placard could be seen as a danger to the American way of life was so ridiculous that I could not helping bursting out laughing—even though I had been raised well and knew that it is rude to laugh at my elders. My laughter was returned with a scowl of unmistakable disapproval on grandma's face. I was, after all, an unwelcome foreigner, a stranger in her land.

That was 1964. From the perspective of 2011, 1964 is a foreign country. Thank God it is far way from here. They do things so differently there. In 1963 I went with an African friend to a dining room in a hotel to celebrate American Thanksgiving and was turned away by the maitre d', who explained that my friend's presence would make the other diners uncomfortable. That happened in Wisconsin, not Alabama or Mississippi—lands as foreign to me then as North Korea. It is difficult to imagine such a humiliating event taking place in 2011. People are not turned away from public dining facilities for the color of their skin in 2011. That sort of thing happened only in such foreign countries as 1964, a foreign country in which it could not even be imagined that an African American could be elected president.

Until recently, I would have thought that many other of the ways of 1964 were quite foreign to the culture of 2011. I had assumed that the virulent anti-union and anti-Communist sentiments that motivated the Republican presidential candidate of 1964, who lost by one of the largest landslides in American presidential history and whose defeat was accompanied by the defeats of numerous conservative Republicans around the country, were as safely tucked away in the past as slavery, dungeons and inquisitions.

The Inquisition. I was eight years old in 1953, another foreign land in which people did things differently. One day I came into our small apartment and found my parents and several other adults lying on the floor, huddled up near the speaker of our radio. In those days, a radio was a large piece of furniture that dominated the living room; it was filled with vacuum tubes that kept burning out. Our radio console also housed a phonograph. All these adults were huddled on the floor straining to hear the sounds of a scratchy phonograph record, sounds that they could barely hear because the volume was turned very low. They were listening to a recording called The Inquisition, a satirical skit that had been made in Canada in which the McCarthy trials were being compared to the Spanish Inquisition. The adults laughed so hard that tears ran down their cheeks. I asked why they did not turn up the volume and sit in chairs like other adults I knew. My mother explained that it could be dangerous if the neighbors overheard what they were listening to. I did not know then about the concept of paranoia, but I thought she was being overly cautious. It was not until later that I learned that several of her friends had been actors and playwrights whose work had gotten them blacklisted. One friend had been involved in making a movie called Salt of the Earth, based on a true story about New Mexican minors who had fought to form a labor union and who had been beaten by thugs hired by the management of the mining company for which they worked. Writing such a play was sufficient cause for getting classified as an anti-American Communist sympathizer in the foreign country known as 1954.

The past is indeed a foreign country. No doubt the same can be said of the future. I am finding, however, that the present is no less foreign. Congressional representatives seeking to dismantle the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known informally in some circles as “Obamacare”) come from a country whose ways are completely alien to me. The inquiry conducted by Rep. Peter T. King (R, NY) into radicalization in Islām is an act taking place in a country that can best be described as barbarian. The wall being built across the Mexican-US border, punctuated by the unconscionable failure of Congress to grant citizenship to the children of undocumented workers from Mexico and points south is a structure that, like the great wall of China, is a silent witness to a xenophobia that is entirely outside the moral parameters of my country. The land in which Glenn Beck reportedly had 3 million listeners, more than the 2.7 million who watch The News Hour on PBS, feels nothing to me like home; I am only slightly encouraged by Beck's rapid decline to 2.5 million viewers since last summer. The systematic assault on unionized labor in the public sector feels like an invasion of aliens. Many of the decisions of the Supreme Court have taken place in a country I barely recognize. A country in which a soldier in the US Army can be kept without trial in solitary confinement for three-quarters of a year for being suspected of having leaked documents that were mildly embarrassing to the US government is a land so exotic that even with my love of adventure I cannot imagine wanting to visit.

The past is a foreign country. The future is a foreign country. The present is a foreign country. They do things differently here than they do in civilized lands. In 1956 I read Edward Everett Hale's short story, “The Man Without a Country.” Being but a child in 1956, I had no way of knowing that that story would be the story of millions, and probably tens of millions, of Americans who had hoped that America would stop being a foreign country where they do things strangely.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Gluttony for Punishment

On the last day of 2010, I finally finished a task I had set out many times to do before: I finished reading the Christian Bible (the Protestant version) straight through. As I read it, I kept some notes and marked some cross-references and grouped passages together according to themes. On the first day of 2011 I decided to repeat the task, this time reading the King James version to savor the poetry of 17th century English, and this time following a traditional lectionary that selects for each day a mixture of Old Testament and New Testament passages. Yesterday, January 9, one of the selected readings was Psalm 21, and I was reminded by that text of a disturbing theme than runs throughout the Hebrew and the Greek texts of the Bible—a theme that I always try to ignore, and one that I certainly never try to incorporate into my approach to life. The theme I find so distasteful is the identification of others as enemies and the prayers that one's enemies will be destroyed, and that all who are unrighteous will be punished. The lines of the twenty-first Psalm that brought a sickening taste to my mouth were these:

Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies: thy right hand shall find out those that hate thee.Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them. Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men. (Ps. 21:8–10)
Now I may very well find such words as the very opposite of anything I would regard as inspirational or spiritual, but it is educational to encounter such passages (again and again) in the Bible, because they help me understand a great deal about both the European and Semitic traditions, and of the Judeo-Christian threads that are woven into the fabric of American culture. So much of what has always distressed me about America's European heritage has been the role that American  men (and sometimes, but more rarely, women) of European extraction have taken as those who must be obeyed, and those who must mete out punishment to those who fail to obey. There is a significant sector of the American population who can be described as gluttons for punishment, for they seem to have an insatiable appetite for punishment—so long as they are not on the receiving end of it.

And a great deal of this gluttony for seeing the unrighteous suffer and be exterminated comes directly from the culture of the Bible. Whether it is Joshua marching into the land of Canaan and killing all the men, women, children and even animals on the grounds that the ways of the Canaanites were offensive to the sight of God, or the Christians longing for the downfall and humiliation and devastation of the Roman empire, there are few books of either the Jewish or the Christian scriptures that do not celebrate the suffering and death of those who think and act differently and whose difference is deemed offensive in the eyes of God.

This week I received a letter from someone serving a very long sentence in a California prison. He told me of a conversation he had recently had with a fellow inmate. My correspondent told how he had begun the discussion by saying that he was disturbed by American foreign policy, which is so often a policy of forcing others to accept mainstream American values and economic policies and regarding those who do not readily comply as savages and evil-doers who deserve no better than to be dominated and, if necessary, destroyed. This opening led to a spirited discussion. The other inmate reportedly made no attempt to deny that America's behavior in the world has been aggressive and domineering. Rather, he defended America's culture of bullying as being essentially human. This is a dog-eat-dog world, he said, and those who do not bully get bullied. If America were not dominating others, others would be quick to dominate America. The only way for a country to survive is to look around and see who is poised to try to be aggressively dominant and to beat them to the punch.

It does not surprising that an inmate in an American prison would think that striving for dominance is the very essence of being human. From everything I have heard about American prisons, they are, as a friend of mine—a former prison guard—recently put it, “just like everything you have ever heard about hell, but in many ways worse.” It is not easy for those who live in hellish realms to see that there might be some alternative to being dominated by both the legal system and other prisoners and gaining respite from being bullied only by finding a few weaker people and dominating them.

The culture of domination thrives outside the walls of our prisons almost as much as it thrives on the inside. The very fact that there is such a thing as prison walls betokens a culture of domination, and of justifying domination on the grounds that those being dominated are evil-doers or reprobates whose behavior has alienated them from the allegedly inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That Americans are so fond of punishment—or at least so convinced that there is no alternative to it—is distressing enough. The distress is compounded when one thinks of the people who are deemed worthy of punishment: drug addicts, the poor, the disadvantaged, the mentally ill. With the exception of a few so-called white-collar criminals such as Bernie Madoff, who seem to be driven mostly by greed, most of the people in American prisons are there because of drug-related behavior or from actions arising from the desperation of poverty.

I have some study questions for America. Why is drug addiction seen as a crime to be punished rather than as a disease to be cured? Why is vagrancy and homelessness seen as a miscreance rather than as a condition that no one chooses? Why is begging seen as a manifestation of laziness rather than as the consequence of desperation? Why are those who cannot afford health care because their skills do not enable them to earn high wages perceived as a drain on the economy and a factor in a nation's national debt? Why are those who need help regarded as parasites? And to what extent do these attitudes reflect religious teachings stemming from three thousand years ago and elevated to the status of divinely inspired wisdom? And here is a question for extra credit: how many people like John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords have to be shot by people who feel a need to punish them for offering help to those who need it before America dares to meditate on its addiction to punishment?