Monday, October 22, 2012

A Plea to My Leftist Friends: Obama is not Romney - The Vote Matters

There are some on the left of the political spectrum (the real left, not what our media and pundits call the "left") who see no important and meaningful difference betweeen Romney and Obama. Both, they argue, are corporate puppets who don't really represent the needs of poor, working, or even middle class voters. Both are stooges of the Military Industiral Complex that murders civilians abroad and imposes American Imperial Policy on nations all over the globe.

My Friends on the left are surely right to see Romney and Obama as tools of the the American Military Empire, the Corporate robber barrons, and the absurdly rich plutocrats. Neither man's campaign or debate performances mention the extreme income inequality, growing poverty, and diminshing resources of our nation's poor. Neither questions American expceptionalism and imperialism at home or abrod. Even worse, neither man seriously addresses the erosion and whole-sale decimation of the American Middle Class. With these points I agree completely.

Why, then, do I claim that Obama is not the same as Romney and that this election actually does matter?

Here's why: Obama will preserve social security and traditional medicare. Romney, on the other hand, will do away with both, turning them - slowly and carefully no doubt - into privatized and ineffective shadows of their former selves. Romney will slash taxes even more than Bush already has, diminsihing public funds, and resulting in drastic cuts to the social safety net. Far fewer food stamps, less unemployment, even more drastically underfunded schools, an infrastructure that crumbles and erodes even more so than it already has.

Romney will repeal Obamacare and pass the Ryan Budget into law. Of course, many on the left are unhappy with Obamacare, seeing it as a sell-out to the Health Insurance Industry. There is merit in that criticism. I share in that dissappointment. Despite my reserveations about Obamacare, however, I prefer a system that eliminates pre-existing conditions, expands medicaid to cover more of the working poor, allows young adults to stay on their parents insurance until they are 26, and provides free vaccines, screenings, and birth control to many who desperately need these services. Whatever Romney would put in place of Obamacare, would include none of this. It is likely in fact, that he will reinstitute the worse of the practices of the private insurance market, and perhaps even make matters worse than they were before.

I know that, for us on the left, Obama is not "our man." I know that his foreign policy has been a human rights travesty. Drones, kill lists, suspension of due process, the arrest of Bradley Manning. Yes, these are deplorable. The United States and its leadership ought to be held accountable for all of this; Obama included.

But what is to be gained by letting Mr. Romney win? Will he and his party release Bradley Manning? Stop the drones? Be rid of the kill lists? Be serious. If anything they will expand and amplify this and possibly bring back water boarding and other tortures just for good measure.

Finally, don't foget that Romney will get to appoint as many as 3 Supreme Court Justices during his Presidency if he wins this thing. If you care about a court that is set to consider same-sex marriage, if you are concerned that Roe V. Wade not be overturned, this is very far from a trivial matter.

To vote for Obama is not to support his dreadful - and all too American - imperial foreign policy. Nor is to vote for the clear corporate power structure that he represents.

We must vote for Obama to keep what is left of our social safety nets -  food stamps, head start programs, unemployment insurance, social security, medicare, etc - out of the hands of Mitt Romney and the right-wing party that comes with him.

We must vote for Obama in order to build on that which is good in Obamacare. We cannot return to what existed before it pasts.

We must vote for Obama to protect women's reproductive rights and the hope same-sex couples to have their love recognized with legal marriage.

Obama may not be the "change we can believe in," he is surely not the progressive champion some took him to be. Despite this, however, we know that his opponents are radical regressives who will undo what is left of the New Deal and the Great Society. On social views that will turn back the gay rights and womens movements, and plunge us backward. If we re-elect Obama we can push his party to the left, we can build up genuine progressive movements locally from the ground up and change the political climate of our nation for the better.We can do this not because Obama is wonderful, or even willing to join us, but because with Obama we can retain enough of the old liberal ideas and institutions to move forward and build.

But if we don't defeat Mitt Romney, if we don't win President Obama a second term, it may take us a generation, or even several generations, to undo the damages of the radical, right wing, regressive, and destructive social and economic agenda of Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan, and a Republican Party now run by openly extremist regressives.

Bookmark and Share

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why it is Morally Wrong to Vote for Paul Ryan

I believe that Paul Ryan's political views are deeply immoral. Because of this I will cast my vote against Mitt Romney and his VP this November. I guess this makes me a values voter of a short; albeit a liberal one. 

Of course anyone who knows me or this blog knows that I was always going to vote Obama in 2012. So this post is not really about me, it's about the role that morality does, and should, play in our voting choices.

Many Americans have long held to the troubling position that our personal values and moral concerns should be separated from how we vote and who we vote for. This has never really been the case. If we are honest with ourselves, then we know that we cannot vote against our conscience, against what we think matters. Furthermore, why on earth would we wish do so? Why would we leave our convictions outside the voting booth.

The right wing has understood this for a long time. The left has but slowly and recently become aware of it. But this November the choice of values is sharp and clear.

Mitt Romney has chosen Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan for his running mate. Ryan is best know as the author of the Ryan Budget. This budget deprives the poor of medicaid and food stamps, the elderly of medicare and social security, and in general cuts funding to all forms of aid for poor and middle class Americans, apparently for the sole purpose of giving more tax cuts to the super wealthy.

As Robert Reich explains,

Ryan’s views are crystallized in the budget he produced for House Republicans last March as chairman of the House Budget committee. That budget would cut $3.3 trillion from low-income programs over the next decade. The biggest cuts would be in Medicaid, which provides healthcare for the nation’s poor – forcing states to drop coverage for an estimated 14 million to 28 million low-income people, according to the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. 
Ryan’s budget would also reduce food stamps for poor families by 17 percent ($135 billion) over the decade, leading to a significant increase in hunger – particularly among children. It would also reduce housing assistance, job training, and Pell grants for college tuition. 
In all, 62 percent of the budget cuts proposed by Ryan would come from low-income programs. 
The Ryan plan would also turn Medicare into vouchers whose value won’t possibly keep up with rising health-care costs – thereby shifting those costs on to seniors.
At the same time, Ryan would provide a substantial tax cut to the very rich – who are already taking home an almost unprecedented share of the nation’s total income. Today’s 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together.

We are , then, presented, first and foremost, with a choice of what we want government to be. Should government work to improve the lives of its citizens, to provide for our basic needs, to help build community, to educate, enlighten, and strengthen civil society, or should government be used as a tool to aid and abet the wealthy few as they hoard more and more of the economic pie?

If you appreciate government roads, public parks, libraries, and rules and regulations that protect you from shady business practices, if you think education is a right and that our schools should be well funded, if you think the elderly are entitled to basic health care, and the unemployed and starving help for their basic needs, then you must vote against Paul Ryan.

Ryan sees the government as a tool to be crafted for the good of rich men like himself. If we stand against that, if we really think government ought to be used to help all people and build a strong and healthy society, then we are morally obligated to cast a vote against Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney this election day.

Should someone be inclined to believe Ryan's claim that his goal is to reduce the deficit, the New Yorker Magazine quickly kills that myth:

Ryan was a reliable Republican vote for policies that were key in causing enormous federal budget deficits: sweeping tax cuts, a costly prescription-drug entitlement for Medicare, two wars, the multibillion-dollar bank-bailout legislation known as TARP. In all, five trillion dollars was added to the national debt

In other words, Ryan's budget has nothing to do with reducing the deficit. It would not do so in any case. The best way to reduce the deficit would be large cuts to military spending and big tax hikes on the super wealthy. Ryan directly opposes both. His real goal, therefore, is crystal clear: helping the filthy rick hoard even more wealth.

The role of government, however,  is not the only value forced to the forefront by the Ryan pick.

If we believe that women have the right to determine their own reproductive choices, if we believe that they are fully equal with and entitled to the same dignity as men, then we cannot, in good conscience, vote for Paul Ryan. Mr. Ryan is steadfastly for that set of policies and positions that some call "the war on women." If Ryan had his way employers would be free to refuse women coverage for their birth control on the flimsy and bogus grounds of "religious freedom," and states could force women to have trans-vaginal ultrasounds.

Finally, Paul Ryan is a poster boy for those who refuse to see gays and lesbians as equal to those who are straight. Not only does Ryan oppose same-sex marriage, he opposes allowing gay people to adopt, voted to keep "Don't ask, Don't tell," and refused to support anti-hate crime legislation. Those of us who support our homosexual fellows and their full equal rights and dignity must oppose this man.

There are other issues that are just as morally disturbing: From his "A" NRA rating on guns - which in light of recent shootings in Colorado and in Ryan's home State of Wisconsin, is particularly perverse -, to his desire to arrest women who have abortions; from his desire to repeal "Obama-Care," to his strong support for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's destruction of that State's unions, there is scarcely any position held by this Social Darwinist that does not demand that we respond by stating our moral convictions with our vote.

The choice is clear. If you believe government should ensure a fair playing field and a basic standard of living for all, if you believe gay and lesbian people and the love they have for each other should be respected, if you believe that women are human beings with full dignity who have every right to control their reproductive faculties, then you are morally obligated to vote against the Romney/Ryan ticket, and, therefore, to vote for Obama,

If, on the other, hand you are going to vote for Romney and Ryan, then admit to your moral positions. When you vote for them, you vote for a government that exists to make the richer richer at the expense of every one else. A vote for this GOP ticket is a vote that says that women are not really equal to men, that gays and lesbians are sinful and bad, and that people do not have a right to health care, social security, or basic aid when they fall upon hard times.

That is the choice. It is a moral decision.

Bookmark and Share

GOP Je$us

I really wish I would have thought of something this clever and telling! But alas, I discovered it only recently. Well reading an article on Social Darwinist Romney VP pick Paul Ryan at Mother Jones Magazine, I learned of GOP Je$us. The basic premise of this clever satire is this: what if Jesus were - instead of a non-violent, anti-greed, inclusive preacher - actually like the right wing of the GOP who claim they follow him. I give you, the GOP Je$us and his Tea-Party Gospel, via his Facebook page:

The Me-Attitudes

  • Blessed are the rich, the reign of this world is ours
  • . The rich rule the world, and the rest suffer and die, often in misery. Do not let this be you my brothers! Easier to use your riches to genetically engineer very small camels that can fit through the needle's eye…

  • Blessed are the violent and the invincible, the proud and the powerful, the domineering and oppressive
  • . We can have it all! And let our status of power be the proof that we are deserving of the fruits of the labor of the middle class and poor…

  • Blessed are those who show no mercy.
  •  No mercy to the poor, to women and children, the elderly and the homeless, victims, outcasts, enemies, refugees, the hungry, the undocumented, the unborn, those on death row, those who are different, those we don’t like. And of course, those who happen to be in the way of what we want…

  • Blessed are the warmakers.
  •  Yea I say unto you, if we were not making war, we could not be said to be making much. That is what China is for! Lo, the Lord looked at China and said "Let it be the worlds factory floor," and it was good…


Compare the Me-attitudes of GOP Je$us to the Beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth, then take a look at the real Jesus' teachings about wealth. The stark contrast between Jesus and the GOP Je$us satire is well done. This brings the heart of the matter home powerfully. One cannot follow the economic philosophy of the right wing and at the same time follow Jesus. The two are irreconcilable and fundamentally opposed.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, July 16, 2012

How to read the Bible

There are, in my view, two erroneous perspectives on that collection of ancient literature that we have come to call "The Bible." The first, and perhaps most common, is that is is some kind of divinely authored encyclopedia. On this reading, the Bible comes straight from God as is therefore free from any scientific, historical, moral, or other errors.

Anyone who has actually read the Bible knows this is simply not true. The Bible contains every manner of human error. We know that not all of its stories are historical, that knowledge of science does not inform its pages, and that it frequently assumes a tribal and primitive morality that we cannot even begin to find inspiring.

This knowledge, unfortunately, leads some to reject the Bible as a horrid product. Such readers love to debunk and ridicule the Scriptures, pointing with glee to troubling or historically mistaken passages. They are correct that these passages exist, but they too beg the question on what the Bible is and how we should read it.

The problem is that both sets of readers assume that the Bible is either a divinely authored and error free text, or it is pure rubbish. This dilemma is, I suggest, a false one.

The way out of this false dilemma is to understand what the Bible actually is. The Bible is a fully human collection of texts. These texts were written, edited, collected, and canonized, copied and re-copied over centuries. They contain every human error one would expect from so broad and wide a collection of ancient literature. It might help if we ceased to speak of "the Bible" and instead spoke of "the scriptures." This is, after all, a collection of widely different texts from very different authors, in different times.

Far from undermining the Bible however, such an understanding of what it is should enrich our appreciation of it. Were we to believe that God truly authored the texts, we would have to face troubling events, slaying the first born of Egypt, commanding genocide against the Amalekites, stoning twig gathers on the Sabbath, striking Onan dead for the withdrawal method, and so forth. Unless you are willing to look into the face of your firstborn son - and I know I'm not - and think that such a being could deserve God's wrath because of the decision of your nation's leaders, or that God could command that your child be killed just so his "chosen people" could have their promise land, then you simply cannot be a Biblical literalist.

Seen as an ancient human product, on the other hand, we can appreciate the gradual transformation of Yahweh, a tribal war god, into the one universal God of mercy, justice and Compassion. For make no mistake, taken as a literary work, we can follow the Biblical Character of God from his origins as a fiery, vengeful deity who plays favorites (just read the book Judges or 1 and 2 Samuel) to the loving Father in Heaven who teaches Jonah the value of mercy. That transformation is a splendid and inspiring one. There were lot's of little war lord tribal gods, I can think of no other that transformed in to a loving God of universal justice.

Casting our gaze downward from Heaven to the Earth, we find that the Bible is a story of conflict. On the one hand stand the Kings of Israel and Judah. Again and again these Kings, and the elites who serve them, attempt to lord it over the "regular folks," to take their lands, their spouses, even their very lives; to become little dictators in the promised land. But again and again the prophets speak out to condemn them. Pleading for justice, making the case for the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, the poor, and the downtrodden, the prophets consistently equate God with justice and fair play, and religion with treating others, particularly the weak and marginalized, with respect, compassion, and concern.Whether it is the prophet Nathan damning King David for the murder of Uriah the Hittite (not to mention adultery with Uriah's wife!), Elijah defending the commoner Naboath against King Ahab's seizure of the former's vineyard, or Amos crying out to let "justice flow like water," there is simply nothing like the passion of the prophets for justice, equality, and fair play in all of ancient religious literature.

So read the Bible as a flawed, sometimes horrible, human creation. That is, after all, what it is. But in that realization the very power of "the good book" can hit home. A ethic of "the chosen people" turned into a universal ethic of compassion and justice for all people; a petty and jealous tribal god transformed into a loving creator wishing for all to receive justice, mercy, and blessings.

That is something truly inspiration, truly spiritual, and truly astounding, and - just perhaps - truly divine.

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spinozoan Spirituality

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." ~ Albert Einstein

The 17th century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza is not usually regarded as a spiritual or religious thinker.  On the surface this fact is odd. Spinoza writes of "God" so frequently that the romantic poet Novalis dubbed him "that God intoxicated man." But Spinoza's God is not the divine lawgiver and potentate of traditional western theism. 

For Spinoza God is the infinite and eternal substance of which all finite things are but temporary expressions. His God is not person-like, not a law-giver nor a judge of human actions. Furthermore, his God did not create a world out of free will. For Spinoza the world is nothing more than the totality of all of God's necessary self-expressions. In fact, Spinoza goes so far as to identify God with nature itself - at least with nature understood as the active and creative power that is "reality as a whole", though not simply with the total collection of things in the world. Because of this, many have claimed that Spinoza's non-personal and absolutely non-supernatural God is really no God at all. This deity surely could never inspire us to dance, pray, love, or die for it.

And yet, there is much in Spinoza's writing to suggest that he is filled with a profound personal piety and deep spirituality toward his God. In part five his masterpiece the Ethics Spinoza argues that the ultimate fulfillment of human life is the love of God. This love fills the mind with peace, calm, and serenity. The greatest joy we can know comes from knowing God and loving God.

Commentators as diverse as the Catholic Father Copplestone and the atheist Steven Nadler have claimed that we can't take Spinoza's words too seriously here. All he really means, they argue, is that we should have an awe and appreciation of the rationality and order of nature. Spinoza, so they say, means by love "nothing more" than the joy that comes from understanding the natural world; he is not speaking about a personal relationship with a heavenly Father. 

They are right of course. Spinoza does think of loving God solely in terms of understanding and appreciating the workings of the natural world. He says as much, "He who clearly ... understands himself an his emotions loves God, and so much more in proportion as he more understands himself and his emotions." (E5P15) I must confess, however, that I fail to see why this disqualifies Spinoza's thought as spiritual.

It is certainly true that Spinoza's God is not the God of popular level Judaism and Christianity. It is also true, therefore, that Spinoza's understanding of "spirituality" cannot mean love for a person-like supernatural being who can love me back in the same fashion (indeed, Spinoza specifically says that God cannot love me in any human fashion (EVP18-P19)). But are we really going to insist that spirituality and even religion must be restricted to a relationship with a supernatural and person-like being? If so, then I fear we will have to qualify a great many Buddhists, Taoists, and even many Western mystics from our definition.

Spinoza is spiritual in the sense that Carl Sagan understood that term. In Sagan's words:
When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.
Albert Einstein expressed much the same sentiment when he claimed that: 
"The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of  human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."
This captures Spinoza's attitude perfectly. Awe, humility, reverence and deep appreciation. These are the only conceivable feelings in one who has grasped the order, unity, and sheer rationality of reality itself. Furthermore, when we understand that we are are one with reality, a finite and temporary expression of that infinite and eternal power and process, we cannot help but rejoice in that. If such emotions are not spiritual, if such attitudes are not religious, then I have no idea whatsoever what they are. 

Appreciation of reality as a whole, joy in understanding our place in and unity with it, humble love for the power and awesome order of it: this is the heart of Spinozoan Spirituality. But it is not the whole of it.

In his Theological-Political Treatise Spinoza carefully argues that the truths of traditional religions are not ontological or historical, but moral. Religion is true to the extent, and only to the extent, that it teaches justice and charity. A religion that encourages a society where all are treated fairly, where everyone has a decent standard of living, and every person shows compassion to those in need is a true religion. A religion that teaches and preaches the opposite of these is a false one. 

For traditional Judaism and Christianity this moral imperative derives from being children of God. We love each other as God loves us. Spinoza would not put it that way. For him justice and charity arises out of recognition of the deep unity and interconnection of all things as expressions of one and the same underlying infinite and eternal power. Furthermore, it is our powerful connection to one another, our being "like each other" that compels us to be good to one another. 

This connection with each other, this connection with reality, this moral imperative to care for one another and treat each other with justice, charity, and compassion is the expression of true religion in actions, just as awe, humility, reverence, and joy are the expressions of true religion regarding that infinite and eternal ground of being. In both these senses, Spinoza is a deeply spiritual and truly religious man.

In our time when the conventional forms of our religions no longer satisfy many, perhaps the spirituality of Spinoza can speak to us. The alternative to traditional Western spirituality and religion need not be the secular atheism of Camus and Sartre. Unlike such emotionally unfulfilling  existentialism, Spinoza's brand of naturalism has a great deal to offer us. 

Samuel Beckett would have us believe that we are waiting for a Godot who will never arrive, searching for a meaning that simply is not there. Baruch Spinoza claims, on the other hand, that Godot is not what we thought, and meaning is not where we thought it was. We don't need to accept the tedium and meaninglessness of godless and horrid existence. On the contrary, we need to reconsider what God, meaning, and existence are.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Den of Thieves - The Real Meaning of Jesus in the Temple

In the schedule of Holy Week, Monday is the day that Jesus "Cleansed the Temple." For those who don't quite recall the details of that event, here is the incident as described by the earliest gospel Mark:
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers. (11: 15-17)
There is a long-standing, but misleading, tradition that sees Jesus as acting out of anger. On this view, he is angry that commerce is defiling the Holy Temple. Scholarship has largely discredited this common misreading of Jesus' action in the Temple. 

Rather than throwing a "temple tantrum," Jesus is acting out a deliberate demonstration against the temple and its authorities. The commerce performed by the merchants was necessary in order to keep up the sacrifices. You had to change impure Greek and Roman coinage for pure Temple coins. This was a legitimate and proper function for Temple sacrifice. The temple could not work without these merchants. 

In other words, by tossing over the tables of the money changers and prohibiting entrance to the temple (this would have had no real effect, given the temple's size. It is a symbolic protest), Jesus is symbolically destroying the Temple. His actions indicate that it's function is invalid. Jesus, acting in the name of the God of Israel, declares by his deeds that the temple and the authorities running it are null and void. They do not speak for God. They do not have legitmate status in the God of Israel's eyes.

But why would Jesus do this?

The Temple authorities were the native ruling elites who made a fortune by cooperating with Roman rule and power. As such, they profited by helping Rome exploit and demean the Jewish peasantry. In particular, Roman commericial agriculture robbed many Jewish peasants of their land, and pushed far too many people to the margins of society and beyond. Roman rule defied the Torah's notion of land ownership, and the distributive justice of the Jewish God. 

For many Jewish peasants, the Priests and the Temple, no longer represented the Jewish God of justice, but rather his opposite, the gentile overlords who harmed the great majority of Jewish Peasants.

So in the name of the Jewish God of liberty and justice, Jesus condemns the Temple and its leaderships. He declares that far from speaking for the God of Israel, they speak against him; as do their Roman masters.

The meaning of Jesus' Temple actions was not lost on the Temple leaders, nor on Pilate. They quickly arrested him and crucified him. They got the message and promptly tried to destroy the messenger.

It is clear to me that those of us who follow Jesus today must do as he did. We must stand against the power structures in our own society that, like the Roman Empire of old, exploit the masses of the population in order to benefit the wealth and power of a narrow few

For me that means we need to involve ourselves in Occupy Wall Street. This, in the United States today, is the true democratic movement (or at least has the potential to be) of our times. The 99% movement identifies the real problem, Plutocracy and Corporate power, calls it out, and seeks to find solutions to it. 

Let's do as Jesus did: let's toss the money lenders from the Temple and condemn the "den of thieves" for the crooks they are.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

American Individualism: That Dangerous Delusion

I begin this post with two discussions. First a discussion between a group of mothers who don't vaccinate their children and a Public Health official (watch it from 45 seconds to 3:56) :

The assumption that these mother's make is that whether or not they choose to vaccinate their children is their decision alone. The possible health risks to unvaccinated, at risk groups are irrelevant - in their minds - to that decision. They either refuse to believe that there are such risks, or refuse to believe that they have a responsibility to take these risks into account. Thinking in terms of the individual apart from the community, these mothers insist that their responsibility is to themselves and their children alone; others are, presumably, responsible solely for themselves in the same manner.

The Public health official protests that when we affect the community, we cannot help but affect ourselves. If we introduce illness into our society, our own risk of illness increases as well. If we don't help take care of each other, we cannot even take care of ourselves.

The second discussion I heard today on NPR. The Supreme court is currently discussing the Constitutionality of "Obamacare." Specifically, the court is hearing arguments to rule on whether the individual mandate - which requires Americans to buy insurance or pay a fee - is permissible according to the Constitution. Whatever the fate of that particular position, some of the arguments against it put forward by the conservative Justices have a particular flavor. Listen to the following:

NPR: Health Care Mandate before Supreme Court

And this:

NPR: For and Against the Health Care Mandate

Just as the mothers did in the first clip, the Justices appeal to the individual first and foremost. The claim is that we cannot require this or that individual to "bear the costs" of other individuals, and that to do so eliminates (or at least greatly diminishes) their freedom of choice.

The opposition to these Justices argues in much the same vein as the Public Health Official in the Vaccine discussion did. Health care decisions never affect me solely as an individual, what happens to me directly affects what happens to others. If I don't get health insurance, and I am rushed to the ER for a heart attack, the hospital must treat me. When I can't pay, they must raise prices, insurance responds by raising premiums, and State Governments by raising taxes. To think of health insurance as nothing but an individual choice without any communal impact is not only naive, but entirely fails to consider the facts.

Behind the reaction of both the Justices and the mothers is the myth of the self-made individual. The myth holds, in spite of common sense, that whatever happens to me in life is the result primarily (perhaps even solely) of my own effort and achievement. If I get sick, that's my fault. If I'm not rich, I did not work hard enough. If I lose my home, can't afford chemotherapy, or find myself buried in debt, then I have no one to blame but me. Even worse, this myth seems clearly to advocate the position that the responsibility I have to others is negative; that is, I must not steal from them, murder them, or physically assault them, but I owe them nothing more than that.

The myth of the self-made individual is sheer nonsense.

We all owe a great debt to others for who we are and what we have achieved. We were taught to walk, talk, and even use the toilet by parents (or some caretaker). We were taught to read, write, and do arithmetic by teachers. Our character, personality, loves, likes, hates, preferences, values, and even our talents, are shaped to large degree by coaches, employers, coworkers, teammates, friends, lovers, and even casual acquaintanceships.

We are who we are because we are related to and interconnected with other people, other members of our communities.

But it's more than that. We are not little islands roving about an vast expanse of sea. What we do affects our society, and that society affects us. If we support policies that cut funding to education, cut aid to those living in poverty, dump people into prison for non-violent crimes, and fail to acknowledge the divisions of race and class that rip our society asunder, then we will be hurt by living in a less content, more violent, and less cooperative society. What we do or fail to do for our society, we do or fail to do for ourselves.

In economics the myth of the self-made individual is all too well known. Many of the super rich and their supporters argue that they must not be taxed at higher rates than the rest of us. They claim that to do so is nothing short of stealing what they rightly own.

Behind this idea is the assumption that wealthy people are solely responsible for their wealth. The help and assistance that they have received from others is marginal and negligible. They see themselves as "self-made" heroes whose hard work and intelligence has earned them their success.

The fact that many of these so-called "self-made" individuals were born wealthy, received government loans, grants, and other funding, use public roads, rely on employees who are publicly educated, depend on consumer protection laws, police, fire fighters, and other public services is not taken into account.

Furthermore, that how much money one earns depends on arbitrary factors - like being born with certain natural talents rather than others, being born in a time period in which one's talents pay off, and having one's talents, somewhat randomly favored by society - is never recognized by these self-professed heroes and their allies.

That a professional athlete, or a hedge fund manager, is paid so much more than an elementary school teacher, or a nurse, is simply a matter of the way society structures its economy; not a result of how hard these individuals work, or the result of some moral worth or inherent greatness that they posses.

We have to start thinking of ourselves as related to others, not merely encountering them like passing ships in the night. We are a community, not a collection of atomistic egos. What we do or fail to do for the broader society, we do or fail to do for ourselves.

Bookmark and Share

Friday, March 23, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin

This Picture of me in a hoodie is my expression of Solidarity with the family of tragically slain teen Trayvon Martin. Many of us in America support justice for this poor kid and our hearts go out to his family. All too often young black men are killed because of "mistaken identity" or just plain racism, and it is shamefully common for their killers to escape any punishment for their crimes.

If you don't yet know much about the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, Here is the tragic tale as reported by Mother Jones Magazine (if you click on the link you can see updates, comments, video and audio):
On the evening of February 26, Trayvon Martin—an unarmed 17-year-old African American student—was confronted, shot, and killed near his home by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman has not been charged with a crime. Since Martin's death and the revelation of more details, the case has drawn national outcry and sparked hot debate over racial tensions, vigilantism, police practices, and gun laws.

What happened to Trayvon?

Martin, a Miami native, was visiting his father in Sanford and watching the NBA All-Star game at a house in a gated Sanford community, the Retreat at Twin Lakes. At halftime, Martin walked out to the nearby 7-Eleven [1] to get some Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. On his return trip, he drew the attention of Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood in a sport-utility vehicle and called 911 to report "a real suspicious guy."

After discussing his location with the dispatcher, Zimmerman exclaimed, "Shit he's running," and the following sounds suggest he left his vehicle to run after Martin."This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher. "It's raining, and he's just walking around looking about." The man tried to explain where he was. "Now he's coming towards me. He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male...Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is...These assholes, they always get away."

"Are you following him?" the dispatcher asked. Zimmerman replied: "Yep."

"Okay, we don't need you to do that," the dispatcher warned.

Several minutes later, according to other callers to 911 in the neighborhood, Zimmerman and Martin got into a wrestling match on the ground. One of the pair could be heard screaming for help. Then a single shot rang out, and Martin lay dead.

Are the 911 recordings available to the public?

Yes. After public pressure, the city of Sanford played the tapes for Martin's family, then released the audio recordings. Here are some excerpts. You can also read a full transcript of George Zimmerman's initial police call here, along with an examination of whether he used a racial epithet, as some listeners have suggested.

What happened to the shooter?

So far, not much. Zimmerman told police he'd acted in self-defense. ABC News reports [8] that he had wanted to be a police officer, and Sanford police didn't test him for drugs or alcohol after the shooting (such tests are standard practice in homicide investigations). He was licensed to carry his gun, and police initially told Martin's father [9] that they hadn't pressed charges because Zimmerman was a criminal justice student with a "squeaky clean" record.

That wasn't entirely true, however; in 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for "resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer"; those charges were dropped. Media investigations and Martin family attorneys suggest [1] that Zimmerman was a vigilante with "a false sense of authority" in search of young black men in his neighborhood. Police records show Zimmerman had called 911 a total of 46 times [1] between Jan. 1 and the day he shot Martin. (Florida guidelines for licensed gun owners [10] state: "A license to carry a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman.")

How are Florida's self-defense and "stand your ground" laws key to this case?

Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida's concealed-carry provision into law, which "liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits," according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting "shall-issue [11]" statute triggered a wave [12] of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time [13] that Florida would become "Dodge City.") Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period [14] on handgun purchases.

Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel[15] found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits.) Since then, Florida also passed a law [16] permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers' wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill [17] after his close friend's daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.

Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad "stand your ground [18]" law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have "a duty to retreat" before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said [19]: "Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property."

As Melissa Harris-Perry has noted this kind of tragic killing of young black men is all too common. And sadly, it is almost equally as common that their killers go unpunished. This is simply intolerable. We have to take a stand and stop this. Let's make the world a more just place, let's fight to end tragedies like that of Trayvon Martion

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sign the Petition to Forgive Student Loan Debt

The Following email explains it all and tells you where to sign the petition. This is a crucial issue. Student loan debt is unfair and crippling. Something must be done to protect education as a public good!
Since 1980, average tuition for a 4-year college education has increased an astounding 827%. Since 1999, average student loan debt has increased by a shameful 511%.

In 2010, total outstanding student loan debt exceeded total outstanding credit card debt in America for the first time ever. In 2012, total outstanding student loan debt is expected to exceed $1 Trillion.

In short, student loan debt has become the latest financial crisis in America and, if we do absolutely nothing, the entire economy will eventually come crashing down again, just as it did when the housing bubble popped. Reasonable minds can disagree as to the solutions, they cannot, however, disagree on the existence of this ever-growing crisis, as well as the unsustainable course we're on towards financial oblivion.

As a result of more than 30 years of treating higher education as an individual commodity, rather than a public good and an investment in our collective future, those burie d under the weight of their student loan debt are not buying homes or cars, not starting businesses or families, and they're not investing, inventing, innovating or otherwise engaged in any of the economically stimulative activities that we need all Americans to be engaged in if we're ever to dig ourselves out of the giant hole created by the greed of those at the very top.

Now for the good news: there's finally hope on the horizon! Representative Hansen Clarke of Michigan has just introduced H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, in the House of Representatives - legislation designed to lend a helping hand to those struggling under massive amounts of student loan debt.

For a brief summary of H.R. 4170's main provisions, please copy & paste this URL into your browser:

To read the full version of the actual bill itself, please go here:

To read answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, please go here:

Student loan debt has an undeniable and significant suppressive effect on economic growth. The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 directly addresses this enormous boot on the neck of the middle class and represents a glimmer of hope for millions of Americans who, with each passing day, find that the American Dream is more and more out of reach.

Therefore, we, the undersigned, respectfully request that Congress bring H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, up for consideration and commit to holding a straight, up-or-down vote on it this year. Thereafter, we, the undersigned, respectfully request that President Obama sign this legislation into law.

That's why I signed a petition to Rep. John Kline (MN-2), The United States House of Representatives, The United States Senate, and President Barack Obama, which says:

"Total outstanding student loan debt in America is expected to exceed $1 TRILLION this year. Millions of hardworking, taxpaying, educated Americans are being crushed under the weight of their educational debts, while the economy continues to sputter. Support a REAL economic stimulus and jobs plan. Support the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 (H.R. 4170)."

Will you sign the petition too? Click here to add your name:


Bookmark and Share

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Morals, Taxes, and the Welfare State

There are two primary types of arguments offered to support the Right-Wing agenda of deregulation, cuts to social welfare programs, and tax cuts for the wealthy. The first type of argument is consequentialist. Advocates of this approach claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy, deregulating markets, and slashing social welfare programs are better for everyone. These moves will, they argue, make us all wealthier.

This is line of argument is absolutely false. The empirical data is unequivocal: the Right-Wing economic agenda benefits the very wealthy only. Wealth never trickles down, deregulation never helps main street, cuts to social welfare programs never help the unemployed and working poor. These policies have been implemented since the late 1970s, and all that has happened is that poverty has increased, middle class and working people have seen no rise in income, but have lost their pensions, their health insurance, and become buried in debt. Fewer and fewer people can own a home, send their kids to college, or pay their medical bills.

The consequentialist arguments are demonstrably, empirically, and indubitably wrong.

The second kind of argument is a moral one. The following video clip of Fox News' Stuart Varney provides a good example:

According to Varney and those who think like him, it is immoral to take more from the rich. They are entitled to what they have earned, and they are better off than the rest of us because they "worked harder" and "made themselves."

There are several problems with this type of argument:

1) The wealthy have not, as a class, worked harder than anyone else. That's just plain false. Working class people often work themselves to exhaustion and even death, and wealthy people sometimes can go years without breaking a sweat. No economic class, as a group, is divided from others on the basis of how hard they have worked.

2) There are no self-made individuals. In point of fact, there is a great deal of empirical evidence that persuasively demonstrates that, in nearly every case, the very wealthy have become so with the help of (a) being born and raised with wealth and privilege and (b) the assistance of government services and subsidies - usually more so than the rest of us. Or, as Elizabeth Warren nicely sums up in the following video:

Finally, 3), as John Rawls persuasively argues, to claim that one morally deserves X one must demonstrate that one has earned X chiefly through one's own moral or individual efforts. But this is simply not possible in the case of wealth. How much personal wealth one accrues depends on a number of arbitrary factors. First, and most importantly, wealth is often a mere accident of birth, some of us are born more or less fortunate than others. Second, often our income level is determined by our natural talents. But, although we can develop these, we cannot create them. If I do not have a talent that can earn me a great deal of money, then I will not earn a great deal of money. Third, which talents pay best is based on the arbitrary preferences of society. In our society talk show hosts and professional athletes make millions, whereas school teachers make, on average, 43,000 a year. Does a talk show host, say Oprah Winfrey, deserve to be extremely wealthy in some moral sense that a teacher does not? Hardly. The difference between her wealth and theirs depends on the arbitrary whim of society. It is, therefore, not reasonable to claim that the wealthy are morally wronged if they are taxed at higher rates than those who earn less.

The moral arguments for the Right-Wing agenda fail, just as the consequentialist arguments did.

Now turning from the Right-Wing agenda to the Progressive one, can a good case be made for the Progressive agenda of high taxes on the wealthy, strong social safety nets, and powerful government spending on the public good? Yes they can.

On consequentialist grounds the Progressive agenda is clearly a good idea. Imagine the reduction in crime if far fewer Americans lived in poverty, were well-educated, had good jobs, nice retirement plans, and access to affordable quality health care! Imagine how much better the United States would compete in the world if our schools were properly funded - not to mention the moral satisfaction in being sure that our society provides for those who are suffering, who are down and out.

Furthermore, the most prosperous time in our nation's history was the period after WWII into the mid to late 70s. During that time our income inequality was at it's lowest, unions were at their strongest, regulations at their most intense, and taxes on the wealthiest 1% of income earners was never below 70%. Coincidence? If so, then explain the fact that this boom did not exist before these policies, and failed to exist afterward. Explain the occurrence of the same trends in Europe.

More importantly, however, is the moral case for a strong welfare state. As a society we need food stamps and unemployment insurance for those who are poor, health care for all, good public schools, good public roads, parks, libraries, and community centers. We need all of these because our society is a healthier, happier, safer, and much better place when we have them in all their strength. Even those who are wealthy enough to get by with their private schools, gated communities, and personal Islands, are safer and more secure in a society where those around them benefit from good social services and programs.

Consider an analogy: Vaccines prevent deadly diseases. Not everyone, however, can be vaccinated for every disease. The elderly, the very young, some people with chronic illness or disabilities, cannot take certain vaccines. In a population where the vast majority of people are vaccinated, this is not a problem. Those who cannot be vaccinated are protected by what is known as herd immunity. Because so many people are vaccinated, the feared disease cannot enter the population and the unvaccinated persons are safe. Having myself or my child vaccinated, in other words, is not merely of benefit to me and my child, but is a public good, from which we all benefit. A community without measles or polio is much better off than a community with these dangers.

Unfortunately an increasing number of parents refuse to vaccinate their children. These parents fear that vaccines are dangerous and may even cause autism. Science has conclusively refuted these fears. Many parents, however, refuse to believe the scientific community and don't vaccinate any way. The result is that diseases like whooping cough and measles have returned. The unvaccinated have suffered because of this, often even dying as a result.

The Right-Wing agenda for economics is as irrational and as dangerous as parents who won't vaccinate their children. Because an increasing number of Americans have come to believe over the last 35 years or so - in spite of the empirical facts! - that the wealthy both morally deserve all their wealth and will benefit the rest of us by keeping it (and getting more), we have seen our social welfare programs slashed, our public services eviscerated, our social contract torn to shreds.

The result is a less educated, less secure, less healthy, more impoverished, and increasingly divided society. This is a recipe for total disaster that can, in the end, finish only with widespread rebellion, despair, and disaster.

We must now either wake up to the failure of the Right-Wing economic agenda, or watch things get much worse.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Feminism is not a dirty word

The victories of the women's movement have caused many to question whether it is still needed. So great is the skepticism for its continued role that "feminism" has become a dirty word. Feminist are generally portrayed and ridiculed as "man haters," "feminazis," and "ideologues." This is an unfortunate and inaccurate caricature.

A feminist is committed to the following three claims: 1) women and men ought to be moral, political, social, and economic equals, 2) societal perspectives, institutions, and power structures have and continue to prevent full equality of men and women, at the expense of women (patriarchy), and, 3) justice requires that we work to change the patriarchal systems that place women in a position below men. Other than a broad commitment to justice for all people and activism to ensure it, one need believe nothing in addition to these three claims to be a feminist. When that is understood, can anyone not say that feminism is correct? Bell Hooks is right "feminism is for everybody."

Recent events make it all the more necessary for those of us who truly believe in working for a world in which men and women are really equal. The time has come to proudly reclaim the feminist label.

Some extremists on the right wing of the political divide are waging a kind of war on the rights and dignity of women. Angry Catholic Bishops shout out that they will not pay for birth control. All male panels testify to congress about their "religious freedom" - the freedom to refuse to cover women's family planning!. Republicans in a number of states attempt to force pregnant women to undergo a transvaginal ultra-sound if they want an abortion; even if the woman was raped!

If all this were not bad enough, when women and those of us who love them protest these draconian measures as disregarding women's rights, we have people respond that women should just put aspirin between their knees like the good old days! Meaning, sadly, that if women don't want to get pregnant they should just never have sex. Even worse, some clueless pundits, with more contempt for women than brains, claim that transvaginal ultra-sounds cannot be invasive since "they had no problem having similar to a trans-vaginal procedure when they engaged in the act that resulted in their pregnancy."

This is all familiar right wing moral fanaticism. It's nothing more than a way of attempting to control women by implying that they are "sluts" and "deserve it" if they have an unwanted pregnancy. It's nonsense. But the fact that so many still think and speak this way is proof that feminism is very much still needed.

But what of those who reject the puritanical moralism of the right? What of those who fancy themselves free, open, and non-censorious about sexual mores? Unfortunately many of these types are no better. Not only is there a massive market for Internet porn that overwhelming portrays women as violently dominated by men but "shock jocks" like Howard Stern, whose entire career is almost nothing but demeaning and insulting women, are more popular than ever.

To take a very recent example, Stern spent a large segment of an interview with Adam Levine, trying to figure out why Christina Aguilera has gained weight. He lamented the fact that she was no longer "hot" and called her "plus sized," clearly repulsed by the Cuvier-than-before pop star. Aguilera is a beautiful and talented woman, and it serves Stern's misogynistic purposes to try and put her down so crudely ... not to mention the ongoing image problems and eating disorders among women that he and his brood revel in.

The moral of the story is simple. We do not live in a world where women are fully equal with men. We should, but we don't. Patriarchy is working, much more overtly recently, not only to keep women down, but to push them back.

The women's movement must fight on!

Bookmark and Share

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sign the Petition to overturn Citizens United

Sign the Petition

Click on the image above to go to the petition and sign it. Watch the video of Sen Sanders below if you are not sure why you should

Bookmark and Share

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Truth about Unions and Their enemies

Please watch the following Episode of Fault Lines in order to understand. 1) What Unions are, 2) How they are being threatened, and 3) Why we have to fight for them:

Milwaukee is featured prominently in this episode. I lived in Milwaukee for 7 years and I've taught there for 8. It is, as the above video notes, the 4th poorest city in the country and the second most segregated city as well. Living and working in Milwaukee I can tell you first had, the policies that have been destroying this nation for over 30 years now are on full display in all their horror in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

Bookmark and Share

Bloodletting, Snake Oil, and Tax Cuts

A word about the long abandoned but even longer widely used medical treatment of Bloodletting.

According to the PBS documentary Red Gold
Phlebotomy, or bloodletting, is the longest-running tradition in medicine. It originated in the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Greece, persisted through the Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods, flourished in Arabic and Indian medicine, and lasted through the second Industrial Revolution. The practice continued for 2,500 years until it was replaced by the techniques of modern medicine. Doctors bled patients for every ailment imaginable. They bled for pneumonia and fevers, back pain and rheumatism, headaches and melancholia; even to treat bone fractures and other wounds. Yet there never was any evidence that phlebotomy did any good.
You get the idea, a medical practice that no one had any reason to believe worked was frequently employed anyway. In fact, as everyone now knows, bleeding a sick person harms them.

It seems clear now that Republican elected officials, party leaders, and pundits are modern day Bloodletters. Even worse, given the financial meltdown of 2008, they are rather like some professional Bloodletter plying his trade after the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics!

Republican elected officials and pundits continue to argue that the economy can be fixed and jobs created only if we cut taxes further and deregulate markets and banks more. If we do so, they claim, the wealth will trickle down making us all well-off, employed, and living the good life.

This is nothing new. The "prosperity gospel" has been the official doctrine of the right wing since the mid 1970s. What I find perplexing about this dogma, however, is that such policies have been enacted - with barely a pause or a counter policy - for 35 years. Tax cuts have never created jobs (even in the Reagan era jobs were only created by Tax raises) and never boosted the economy.

The wealth has not trickled down. In fact, as all data shows only the super rich (the 1%) have benefited from these policies. The rest of us have lost our homes and our retirements, seen our health care costs soar, our policies cover less, our personal debt explode, and our incomes stagnate or even decrease. Don't believe me? Just look at the following chart:

If you still have doubts, read the information on income inequality gathered here and here. The data is absolutely clear and perfectly comprehensible: The rich gain, everyone else loses. The most dramatic deregulation and tax cuts in our history (the Bush Tax cuts, and the repeal - under Clinton - of Glass-Steagall) far from fixing, preventing, or even alleviating this trend have caused the greatest economic and job crisis since the great depression.

And, no surprise here, the last time the super wealthy had taxes this low was the roaring 20s. Take a look at one more chart and see it for yourself:

Low tax rates combined with minimal regulation right before the great depression. The exact same combination leading up to 2oo8. Mere correlation? Both in the 20s and the decades leading up to 2008? Not likely.

Ok. I can hear some right leaning readers refusing to believe me. So one last bit of evidence. Watch the Following episode of Fault Lines (Aljazerra News) on the top 1%:

And some people think - or at least claim to think - that more of these same policies will fix things!!!???

Either these folks are modern day Bloodletters or modern day snake-oil salesmen. Take your pick.