Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Killing the spirit...

I finally saw 12 Years a Slave last weekend (it took a while to make it to Portland). THIS. MOVIE. IS. INTENSE. This movie shows a glimpse of the brutal reality and monotony that slavery was. Harder than watching some of the brutal scenes in the movie is knowing that reality was much more harsh and much more frequent. Even after watching this movie, and other movies about slaves that have come before, I can't understand the smallest inkling of what it would be link to be a slave; not only physically, but more so psychologically. To be treated as less than a person. To be treated as property. Slavery is one of the most dehumanizing institutions that has ever existed. The myth of the southern gentleman permeated the national conscious to the point that slave owners in the south were not strictly viewed (at the time) as cold-hearted, horrible people. Even the account of Solomon Northup speaking of his first "master", William Ford, speaks with relative fondness for the treatment he received from Ford, as opposed to Edwin Epps. Because slavery was so dehumanizing, one's perspective on the world becomes skewed, and the idea of horrible, bad, good, love, hate, all become ambiguous. Northup believed that William Ford cared for him, but Ford sold him as property to another man to repay a debt without a second thought.
12 Years A Slave was a very powerful movie, and I think one that a lot of people should see if for no other reason than to be reminded of the horrible past that our country has, and one that continues to have repercussions in contemporary society. However, as much as the story of a kidnapped free man in the north being sold into slavery shook me, I couldn't help but think of the lives of those that were born into and lived their whole lives within the slave system. You see, Solomon Northup knew freedom. He lived a normal life in Saratoga Springs, NY, and was well educated, well read, and very talented. His experience being sold into slavery is awful beyond comprehension. But what kept him going day in and day out during his time in slavery was hope. He kept hope alive that he would somehow get out of this hell that he'd been thrown into. That he would someday escape, or that someone would recognize that we was a free man, or that something miraculous would happen. And indeed it did. It was his hope that forced him to talk to Samuel Bass about his situation and ask him to deliver the fateful letter for him that ultimately lead to his freedom. Hope kept him going during his lowest moments in bondage. But hope is something reserved for those who believe they can have something different.
The slaves that were born on the plantation and lived their whole lives in the slave system knew no such hope. There may have been exceptions, but for those born into the system any semblance of hope had been literally beaten out of them over the course of their lives. People who knew nothing different could have little hope for something different. There is a poignant scene in the movie where Patsey asks Solomon to take her down to the river and drown her. He refuses to do so, because he as a former free man doesn't understand that she knows that there is no hope for her. There are no better days. There is no freedom. The only freedom for her is that provided by religion and the promise of life in heaven once her time on earth is through. To her that freedom is the only hope, so death is not the worst thing one can imagine, because life offers all of the horrors one needs, with no prospect for an end. As I said before, slavery is one of the most dehumanizing institutions that has ever existed; and this is not simply because slaves were not treated as humans by the slave owners, but more so because the slave owners destroyed their lives by removing the one thing that keeps people moving forward - hope.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Do you really...?

Support the troops.

That, for me, is both a statement and a question. The question is not whether to support the troops, but rather in what way should we support the troops. Also, in what way do the troops support us?
It has become rote in this country to qualify any critical statement about the military or military spending with a statement indicating that you support the troops - I do it myself. I guess it's because people don't want to be seen as patriotic or insensitive of young men and women sacrificing their lives for their country. But are they sacrificing needlessly? What exactly are our troops killing and being killed for? Is it really a security issue? Is the colossal expenditure of our national budget that goes to the DOD (not to mention other security-related issues) really worth it? Aren't the soldiers supposed to be supporting the ideals of our country like Democracy, freedom, equality, and rights? But if you think about it, our country doesn't uphold these things.
We have a Congress that is completely inept at working together and a general populace that does give one iota about supporting their fellow countrymen. We as a country are still plagued by racism, sexism, sexual orientationism, agism, regionalism, and probably many other -isms. We love nothing more than slicing our country up by as many demographic factors we can think of, and then doling out opportunity, power, and money to those that are deemed most worthy.
The irony of the military support is a lot of young members of the military come from places and circumstances that the people who support them once they're troops couldn't care less about. They're from poor, rural areas where the lack of opportunity forces them to find something to open up doors for them, and the military is often this option. Also, the people with those stickers on their cars tend to be the very people who support the troops only, but not where those troops came from or the the economic circumstances that drew them to the military in the first place. This is why we see so many young men and women who have completed their military service left in the lurch by these "troop supporters", because now that they're back to being civilians they have nothing to offer - whether it be security or a political statement. Veterans are ignored by these "support the troops" folks. This is very similar to the anti-choice protesters who care so much about the life of an unborn fetus, but once that baby comes into the world they care nothing about refusing assistance for food, medical care, or education. It's all hypocritical, political bull$hit.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's not what you think it is...

This government shutdown is the least surprising thing to happen since Barack Obama took office. It's been inevitable for some time, and to be honest, I'm surprised that it didn't come sooner during one of fights over the debt ceiling. The unfortunate reality is that this is exactly what Republicans - or at least tea party Republicans - have wanted for a long time. Republicans believe that a) the government is too large and b) that the government spends too much money.
Therefore, "starving the beast", as it were, is the only way to create what they would consider substantive policy to limit the size, scope, and spending of the U.S. government. To use an Obama analogy, they want to use a chainsaw to cut the U.S. budget, when a scalpel is necessary.
Sure, the U.S. government spends too much money. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, etc. all agree with that. But just what the government SHOULD be spending the money on and what it shouldn't is not at all agreed. Conservatives typically believe that we should be cutting any and all social programs; including education, health care, medicare, medicaid, unemployment, etc. Basically those things that support the majority of older and low-income Americans - and don't create profit. While Democrats typically want to cut things like military spending, tax subsidies to wealthy individuals and companies, and raise corporate taxes. These are two different perspectives on the role of government, and to be fair are worthy of a legitimate, healthy debate.
However, the arena for hashing out this debate is not a continuing resolution to pay the government's bills. Especially when Republicans are using it as an excuse to defund the signature legislation of the Obama administration, before it's even been implemented. Republicans don't even want to give it an opportunity to work, even though the American public essentially supported the ACA by re-electing the man whose name has become synonymous with the law.
So by shutting down the government, Republicans have essentially won this round. We can only hope that the American people see what they are trying to do and recognize that Republicans are not attempting to defund Obamacare (the ACA), but instead trying to starve government to the point of ineffectiveness, so that only those essential functions will be taken care of (which for them is military only). There's a good chance Republicans will take the PR hit for this government shutdown, but Americans are so apathetic, misinformed, and myopic, that unfortunately I don't think this government shutdown will have an major electoral impact.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Managing expectations...

The situation in Syria is awful. People are dying. People have died. A dictator is doing whatever he has to do to maintain power. It's a nightmare. But it's also a moral conundrum. Our country is fatigued by ten years of war in Iraq that was begun with an unclear objective (or possibly even a lie) and a continuing conflict in Afghanistan that is mired by continuing problem of what will happen when we leave.
Certainly there is an argument to be made that getting involved in Syria is a moral imperative to stop the killing of the opposition by Bashar al-Assad. But is the opposition "right"? Is there a "right"? Do we wan to support either side in this conflict? What are the long term benefits and consequences to getting involved? Also, why is the use of chemical weapons the "red line", but we've stood by while the government troops have killed around 100,000 opposition fighters. That's not a red line?
So besides the unignorable fact that we've stood by and let 100,000 people die during this conflict, there is also the larger problem of the goals and expectations of getting involved in Syria. If we were to go in with limited airstrikes - which would be mostly a symbolic gesture - what would the long-term impact be on the actions of the Assad regime? Little to nothing. Airstrikes may make it known to Assad that we're willing to "get involved", but would be more likely to show that we're interested in making gestures but actually NOT getting involved. Basically an  airstrike would indicate exactly the opposite of what we would hope to indicate. But on the other side of the coin is a full-scale, "boots-on-the-ground" military involvement. This is the furthest thing anyone in the United States wants, and that includes citizens and those within government. It's a sticky situation that not even foreign policy hawks want to become involved in.
So the question then becomes what to do? I guess my answer is I don't know. But I don't support military engagement. I would support an multilateral effort involving countries in the region and international players making a decision about what the best course of action would be. But a unilateral, or even bilateral (if France stays interested), incursion would be the furthest thing from beneficial that we as a country could do. So while the moral implications way heavily on my heart, I don't see how launching airstrikes (that have the unfortunately high potential of adding to the civilian death toll) or sending soldiers in can be anything but harmful to both U.S. interests and civilians in Syria. My prescription is that we either sit this one out and keep a watchful eye on situation, or try to bring together an international coalition (that includes countries in the Middle East) that comes together to figure out whether military intervention would be a net positive or negative.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I don't have a dream, I have a demand...

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That historic march, organized by legendary activist Bayard Rustin, and at which Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, was a landmark occasion in the history of civil rights in the United States. And while I certainly don't want to understate the importance of the event, many people use the March on Washington, and the ensuing passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, as evidence that we've "made it" with regard to racial equality.
But they're wrong. We've stagnated in our race relations. In fact, with the recent Supreme Court decision striking down section 5 of the voting Rights Act, and the current and inevitable future efforts of many to restrict the right to vote for many poor and minority citizens, we're actually moving backward. Those with ill intentions continue to play on racial fears and ignorance to push forward their agendas of white supremacy and economic monopolization. We still see gross differences between the opportunities of those born into affluent families versus those born into poor families; statistics show that little has changed when it comes to economic opportunity. There are gross disparities in education and access to vocational skill-building. And while many of these issues are tied to economic disparities, in many places in American society economic inequality has been intrinsically tied to racial inequality.
It is impossible to deny that there is a problem, when black people are hugely disproportionately represented in the ranks of those in poverty, those incarcerated, those as victims of violence, and many other metrics. We need to be honest about where we are in terms of the civil rights movement. We were moving forward in the 60s. We began slowing down in the 70s. We basically stopped in the 80s. We started arguing about the gains in the 90s. We regressed and pretended that inequality didn't exist in the 00s. And now we're moving backward in the 10s.
To turn things around will take honesty, openness, and effort. It can't be only black people that push for continued progress in the civil rights movement. We need equality for all people in this country and this world; immigrants, women, LBGTQ people, the poor, the sick, those from small towns and big cities, and everyone in between. Everyone is naturally equal; it is only because of ignorance, hate, and opportunism that our society has been twisted into believing that there are differences. Those who care need to keep caring and keep moving. Things will only happen if we make them happen.

Friday, August 16, 2013

We made it...

There is a scene at the end of the movie "The Graduate" that has always stuck with me - almost haunted me. In the scene, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just interrupted the wedding of his former girlfriend Elain (Katharine Ross) - whose mother he had an affair with - and they've escaped the angry mob in the church to hop on a bus toward "freedom". Both Ben and Elaine are gibby upon escaping the scene, but as they sit down and take even an initial stock of the situation they realize what a huge mistake they've made. Their faces move between forced smiles, awkard glances, and worried frowns.
This is what has always haunted me about that part. I've always been a "love will conquer all"-type romantic. I've always disregarded statistics and anecdotes about couples that have been in the same or similar situations as I have and failed. I just figured that "falling for" someone meant that you were perfect for each other and that things would inevitably work out in the end. But then along comes "The Graduate" and throws a wrench into that whole line of thinking. They had overcome a major obstacle in the fact that Ben had had an affair with Elaine's mother, but they were "in love" enough to believe in the moment that running off together would actually make them happy. And what happens immediately after the excitement of escape has subsided and the first tinge of reality breaks through, they immediately realize the error of their ways.
I certainly don't live my life by the lessons learned from a movie, but I will say that this particular scene has resonated with me. That's not to say I've changed my actions, even if I've changed my opinions. I still find myself falling to hard to fast for women that I should probably recognize right away will not be with me for the long term. I don't know if that's human nature, or just my nature. Maybe I'm a jump in head first type of person; so instead of weighing the pros and cons of being in the pool, I just want to know how the water feels.
There are certainly negatives associated with being too tentative in relationships as well, or being afraid of committing to someone, but I guess we've all got our baggage to haul. I guess all of this is to say that I think that scene, and specifically the look on Hoffman's face when they are sitting on that bus, is perfect metaphor for the reality of relationships throughout my life. Risk - excitement - reality. Risk - excitement - reality. Maybe one day reality will be a smile, not a frown.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Voting "rights"...

Do we live in a democracy? It's hard to know anymore. It's hard to know if we ever did. The definition of democracy is "a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system." Other definitions include terms like equality and rights. But it doesn't seem like the United States has lived up to any definition.
"In the beginning"...of this enterprise we call the United States, land-owning white men were the only people with any rights; and therefore the only people that could vote. This eventually changed to include all men. Then eventually it included land-owning former slaves. Then eventually it included women. Then eventually, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it included EVERYONE. Well, in theory it included everyone.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there has been a major effort made in several parts of the country to slowly deconstruct the bill. States have passed laws challenging the Voting Rights Act in an effort to limit the voting of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and immigrants. In addition, they attempted to discriminate against the poor, the elderly, and the infirmed. Basically, what some people in this country are trying to do is take us back to 1840 when only wealthy white men could vote.
What baffles me about this is not so much that politicians would support this; because unfortunately politicians don't seen the country (or the world) through the lens of humanity, but instead through he lens of politics. Therefore, if a politician in Alabama would benefit from the disenfranchisement of poor and minority citizens in their state, they're probably going to support it, regardless of the societal repercussions of that decision. It's not necessarily true that the individual is discriminatory (though it's not necessarily true that they're not, either), they're just opportunistic. But what they fail to realize is that their opportunism has real societal consequences that will live on much longer than their political careers. A mistrust or outright disgust for the electoral system is a consequence of that opportunism. And this is especially true among minorities and the poor.
While politicians may benefit from this narrowing of the political class, in the long run you're creating a society that hates politics and politicians, and could possibly (and will probably) one day rebel. Their attempts to keep white men on top will prove fruitless in the long run, because the reality is that old white men are dying every single day. And as the old guard of opportunistic politicians die out, we see the rise of younger politicians who, though they may still be opportunistic or even discriminatory, have to be much more pragmatic in a changing world.
Which brings us to the Supreme Courts decision to strike down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This specific provision basically makes mandatory a review of any changes to election laws made by states that have a history of discrimination in voting laws. Congress extended section 5 in both 1970 and 1975, and again in 1982, and lastly in 2006.
Therefore, despite antipathy among members of Congress, they were willing to uphold a piece of legislation that they determined was the bedrock of equality in voting. The Supreme Court decided otherwise. The problem with this decision is that even before the SCOTUS struck down section 5, we've seen an unrelenting effort (mostly by Republicans) to disenfranchise any and all people (or rather groups) they felt would vote Democrat. There have been requirements to buy government issued IDs (essentially a poll tax), limiting of voting times, closing of voting locations, confusing ballots, etc. All of these efforts are having the desired effect of those pushing them. They're creating confusion that leads to frustration, and eventually apathy toward the electoral process.
But we can't give in this easily. If we continue to be frustrated and allow those that would disenfranchise people to win, things are only going to get worse. We're going to see more than just voting rights go out the window; but rather our civil rights as well. It's time to get mad. It's time for people who don't agree with the direction we're heading to stand in front of the tank (so to speak), to set themselves on fire (so to speak), to chain themselves to the tree (so to speak), to refuse to leave the lunch counter (so to speak). Because right now we're playing right into the game of those that want to take away rights. They want us frustrated. They want us apathetic. They want us averse to the electoral and political process. It makes it a whole lot easier for wealthy white men to dominate if no one else wants to be part of the process.
So get angry. Protest. Start a march. Write your congressman and tell them to re-pass section 5 of the voting rights act with updated numbers of voter discrimination. It's time to act. Because it's better to change things now than to wait until the change will not be what anyone expects and will have the potential to create instability.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Liberty and Justice for...Some...

When the verdict in the George Zimmerman case came down I don't know what I initially felt. I had been mentally preparing myself, and anyone that I talked to, for the inevitable acquittal that he was sure to get. It wasn't that I thought he wasn't guilty, but there were several factors that were contributing to the inevitability. The first major factor was that the prosecution was seeking a second degree murder conviction, which seemed to be a long shot at best. The only eye witness (other than Zimmerman and Martin) said that when he viewed the struggle Martin was on top, and what happened after that we have no clue, because we only have the perspective of George Zimmerman and not Trayvon Martin. Another major reason Zimmerman was inevitably going to be acquitted was that our country does not value the lives of young black men, and therefore a man that was portrayed by the media as a neighborhood watch captain was going to be seen as a good Samaritan, while a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt is going to be looked on with suspicion. Why do you think the defense took the posture of trying to portray Trayvon Martin as a "bad" kid? Because it made their defense that much easier when the jury can "understand" Zimmerman's feeling of suspicion and fear.
The bottom line is that justice was NOT served in this case. I don't necessarily think that the jury was given enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of second degree murder, but the fact that he precipitated the encounter and then shot an unarmed 17 year old boy is wrong - flat out. It doesn't matter if Trayvon Martin confronted him; in fact, Martin had the right to do so under the very law that saw George Zimmerman acquitted. But nobody wants to bring that up. Nobody wants to be honest about the fact that if Trayvon Martin had been beating Zimmerman (according to Zimmerman's story) and had ended up killing him, we be protesting the CONVICTION of a 17 year old boy for the killing of a neighborhood watch captain - an innocent 17 year old boy.
People in this country, or at least a lot of people, don't want to have an honest conversation about what the reality of this highlights; our culture does not value the lives of young black men the way it does everyone else. People don't want to hear that. People want to pretend the civil rights movement began, worked it's way through, and finished. Quick and easy. Equality. BULLSHIT. We haven't dealt with civil rights (at least minority civil rights) issues since the 1980s. And all of the contemporary problems we see linked to historical racism are swept under the rug or passed off from a societal problem, to a yoke that specific minority groups have to deal with themselves. There is no sense of accountability among the majority (white) society in our country that in order to solve the problem of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. discrimination in this country, we all have to have an active interest, keep an open mind, and have an honest dialogue. Without a discussion, we will continue to see the horrible tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Jordan Davis, and hundreds of others who have been killed senselessly by a society that not only doesn't care about their death, but doesn't care about their life.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My Haitian revolution...

So I just got back after spending three weeks in Haiti. It was an amazing experience. It's actually very hard to put into words exactly how I felt being there or how I feel now that I'm back. I wouldn't necessary say that I feel "changed" in the way you often hear people say who have experienced something so alien to them, but I'm sure I will notice a subtle difference of perspective when looking at the world around me now that I'm back in a consumer-driven, more more more, society.
I think that is what struck me most about Haiti. Not the cliched idea that people there are happier, because I think that something like that is difficult to gauge. But it did seem that the people there were more content with what they had. And I'm sure a lot of that was the fact that they didn't know any different, and outside media (i.e. the internet) is not readily available to everyone so they might not necessarily know what they're missing. Not that they would choose to go after all of the bullshit we focus our lives on even if they did, but I guess what struck me was that the people seemed to be much more focused on living for the moment, living for today. And I liked that. But I think that has also been a double-edged sword for a country that has been through a lot of shit over the course of it's history. And while living for today may make individuals more content with what they have, it makes it hard to build a society around that concept. Lack of planning and savings makes it hard to build infrastructure; sanitation services, sewer systems, water filtration, etc. And it seems that while Haiti's lack of these things is due in large part to a simple lack of financial resources, the other problem that may be in play is a lack of interest on the part of most Haitian people in planning for the future.
I hope that doesn't sound culturally insensitive or relativist. In many ways I envy the perspective that most of the Haitians that I met have on the world. The constant need to improve and acquire more and more leads to a lot of unhappiness in our society and culture. But at the same time I think there are basic services of healthcare and infrastructure that are valuable to a society, and actually free up time and energy to focus on (what I would consider) more valuable activities. Now most of the time savings that we have in the United States are used for activities that actually end up wasting more time, but that is a different topic. I think there can and should be a happy medium. I don't think the people of Haiti would be unhappy with indoor plumbing that piped in clean drinking water so they didn't have to spend so much time gathering and filtering or boiling their water. Or with garbage being centralized in a dump or something of the sort to prevent the streets being piled with debris. Or with sewage services that made flushing toilets possible. Maybe I'm just too used to the society that I grew up in an and find it amazing that people don't bat an eye at these inconveniences.

Have you ever done any travel in developing countries, or even in undeveloped areas in this country. What is your perspective on this?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How much do we trust the watchers...

The recent "revelations" about the "illegal" surveillance program recently are nothing more than a ploy. Congress has known about these activities since they began during the G.W. Bush administration. The fact that congress is acting outraged is absurd, since even if they didn't know the extent to which the NSA was watching us, they still knew their capabilities and what the federal government was legally authorized to do. Furthermore, the level of snooping actually taking place seems to be rather overblown by some to score political points. The exact amount of data being collected is unknown, but whatever it is it would be impossible for humans or computers to go through everything. They're looking for specific, targeted hits of information and keywords. If you're not involved in activity that would alert the NSA, you're probably not being watched, your emails are probably not being read, and your phone calls are not being monitored.
Now, with all of that being said, there is a major question we as a country need to ask. Even if the government doesn't use this surveillance to "watch" all of us, but is only focusing on specific information and people, should they have the right to collect this information on us in the first place? Is this an overreach of government and security? We as a nation haven't determined this. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, it seemed that U.S. citizens were ready to give carte blanche to our security and intelligence establishment to use any means necessary to track down potential terrorists. Now we're trying to backtrack (or maybe not even, but are outraged at the reality of what security means), but either we've already authorized the program, or it's secret and therefore we don't know it's happening. If we as citizens really were that upset about it, we could create a big enough stir to stop the program. Certainly we would be fear-shamed by politicians of both stripes into trying to preserve the program in the hope of stopping future terrorism and protecting overall security; but if we truly believed our individual liberty were being threatened we could stop the program.
I personally could care very little if some computer is collecting my phone records and internet search records, but I do have a problem with the NSA being able to sift through these records whenever they like, even if I'm not a suspect in any particular crime. I think that a lot of people feel the same way. If we want to stop it, let's stop it. If we think security is that important, let's shut up about it and move. Either way, let's talk about this in a real, rational way, instead of allowing politicians to feign anger about something that they've known about and authorized since the program began.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What do I get....?

I was watching an interview with Christopher Hitchens the other day and it got me to thinking. I started thinking of how interesting it would be to get Hitchens' perspective on death and religion now that he's passed to the "other side". I mean, who knows where he's at, if he's anywhere at all; but the interesting thing is that Hitchens was so sure of his non-religious (or atheistic) beliefs - as many religious or "spiritual" individuals are about the existence of an after-life - it would be interesting to hear what he had to say now that he's actually experiencing whatever it is we will experience.
Now certainly I would be more interested in hearing from my dead grandparents, or other dead relatives, or other dead people that I know, but the majority of the people that I know that are dead (in fact, I can't think of one that is not) followed a religion, and most of them followed Christianity which believes in the existence in Heaven and Hell, so the outcome whether you're good or bad is pretty much already known. Alright, maybe known isn't a fair word, but every religious person has some conception of what they expect to happen when they die; whether that means going to Heaven or going to Hell. Whereas, a person who doesn't have a religious belief (or doesn't believe in a deity) really expects nothing to happen when they die, and therefore any alternative would be an amazing wonder to behold.
This is why I think hearing Christopher Hitchens' perspective on his own life after death would be interesting. If nothing happens, as Hitchens believes, at least we would get a biting satirical rift  by Hitchens on the futility of religion and the idiocy of believing in something serves no purpose in life, and obviously even less so in death (ironically failing to recognize that his state could be caused by his lack of faith even if a deity did exist, so he would never know the difference). Or, more interestingly, would be Hitchens' take on an existence in either Heaven or Hell. I imagine he wouldn't even be frustrated living in Hell, because at least it would give him fodder and free-reign to further debase religion and God, because he would ask what type of god actually creates humankind with free will, but then damns them to eternal pain and anguish if they don't worship their creator (possibly justifiably so). I imagine Hitchens would be annoyed by Heaven; not only because of the unchanging feelings of bliss, but because it would be further evidence of the pomposity of God to actually reward people who worship that which has created them, all to his own glory. God created the universe. Created humans. Gave humans free will. But then only gives happiness to those who worship him. Hitchens would say this is the height of egomania.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Government is...

The IRS. Good? Bad? Necessary?

I guess it’s easy for people to make a broad claim that I support big government because I’m unabashedly liberal, and therefore I generally support government assistance on many fronts. And I guess that I myself am guilty of defining conservatives as anti-tax, anti-government hate-mongers who care nothing for the poor and are only looking out for themselves, their guns, and their money. But the truth is that neither of these characterizations is fair.
I think the disconnect comes about when we define government as one, major monolithic institution. It isn’t. Government is as varied and diverse as the “private sector”, which is also often presented as having one definition and one goal. It doesn’t.
The IRS targeting conservative organizations that were seeking tax-exempt status was wrong. And while I most likely disagree with these organizations and their goals, I certainly don’t think it adds to democracy to have an institution within our government choosing winners and losers based upon political factors (to be a little fair to the IRS, many of the institutions filing for the tax-exempt status would not or should not have qualified – this includes many liberal organizations). So the IRS was wrong in this instance, but can we then turn around and say that since the IRS is part of “government”, then FEMA is wrong also, and so is HHS, and so is DHS, and so is the FDA. Where does it end? ALL government programs and institutions can’t be bad, can they? It’s ludicrous. The IRS isn’t even bad, there were just people within the institution that were doing the wrong thing.
We’re quick in this country to look for easy fixes and broad impacts. A government institution or program does something wrong – GET RID OF IT. But wait, wasn’t it performing some useful functions? Doesn’t matter, it messed up, so off with its head. That’s taxpayer money at work, and if it messes up its accountable to the taxpayers. Okay, fair enough. But what about all of the good services it provides – do those not account for anything against the mistake(s) it made? This is where conservatives and liberals seem to have the largest differential in opinion. Whereas liberals would say that the good outweighs the bad, and that there will always be government waste, but it’s a byproduct of the positive functions; conservatives are more apt to cut off the head of the individual, rather than treat the wound.
When there is waste in the private sector, we imagine that “the market” will work it out. That’s capitalism, right? WRONG. Government contracts, subsidies, tax breaks, even laws specifically written to benefit corporations. These are all examples of “government” propping up the “private sector”, because these companies no longer operated effectively or efficiently. And while it’s easy to turn this around and say that it is government that is at fault in this scenario (and part of the blame does lie with legislators), it is important to recognize that the same big business conservatives that are pimping the idea of the free market are the ones taking the government handouts. It is hypocrisy, and worse than that, it takes money away from government programs that help those in need to prop up businesses that are inefficient, ineffective, and unnecessary.
I had a discussion with a conservative friend of mine a while back in which he said that he didn’t like paying taxes because he felt that the money was being spent on things he didn’t agree with. I stood there for a second trying to get into his head. Not really understanding how an intelligent person could be so dense. I said plainly, “That’s a democracy. How do you think I feel? I’m sure I disagree with many of the things government spends money on that you agree with.” He just shrugged it off, but I think the point was noted in his psyche, because it’s a true point that no one wants to face up to. Yes, of course we all want our government to represent our individual ideological perspective, but I’d rather live in a country where I didn’t get what I want, but the process was fair, rather than live in country where a dictator happened to support my views. FOR THE RECORD – this is an oversimplification, because we don’t, in fact, live in a democracy, and unfortunately our government is more reactive to interest group and moneyed individual pressure than to that of the majority of citizens.

Sorry, you can scratch this whole post if you want, it’s rather disjointed.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The exception to the rule...

ter·ror·ism [ter-uh-riz-uhm] - noun
1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

Why is it that we declare people who plant bombs to kill and maim people, to illicit fear, terrorists, but we call people who do it with a gun just crazy individuals? What's the difference?

We have very little information as to the motivation behind the bombing that occurred at the Boston Marathon last week. However, the information that has trickled out seems to point to extremist views that ratcheted up to the point of committing a heinous act of violence. But so far we have no actual information linking the brothers to any terrorist group or terrorist training.

I've heard talking heads throw out the fact that they used the pressure cooker bomb as evidence, because it's been used by terrorists in other parts of the world. But I counter that anyone with even a limited knowledge of the internet can get access to the anarchists cookbook. Until I hear some definitive evidence that either one or both of these terrorists have specific links to a terror organization, I don't find it advantageous to conjecture.

Which brings me to the main issue, which is what makes someone a terrorist. It seems that by media standards, one can meet the threshhold of terrorist with any of the following:
(a) any immigrant that commits an act of violence against a U.S. citizen
(b) any person that uses a bomb to commit an act of violence
(c) any Muslim that commits any act of violence whatsoever
(d) any person that commits an act of violence after traveling to a majority-Muslim country

This criteria is bullshit. The media is wrong. The Tsarnaev Brothers are terrorists, there is little to no doubt about that (unless of course the police have the wrong person). But so is the shooter at Sandy Hook, so is the shooter at the Sikh temple, so is the Aurora shooter, so is the shooter in Tucsom, so is the shooter in Fort Hood, so is the shooter at Virginia Tech, and on and on and on.

These are all terrorist acts by the definition provided above. But because most of them were committed by "normal" young, white men, they are not deemed as such. Added to the fact that our nation's obsession with guns, and the gun lobby's huge influence, diminishes the impact that guns and gun violence have on the national conscious. I've never heard someone say, "bombs don't kill people, people kill people", but for some reason our society allows the same to be said of guns.

We are a nation that lives in fear. I've heard way more times than I'm comfortable with that people are stock-piling ammunition because they want to be prepared when "stuff goes down". I'm not exactly sure what they mean by this, or what they think the government is planning, but THAT is a the threat of violence that intimidates and coerces.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fairness, huh...

Fairness may be an easy term to define, but it’s much more nebulous when we make an effort to point it out in reality or determine how to bring it about (or even if we want it, but that’s another story).
The reason I got to thinking about fairness is because on NPR this last week (I listen to NPR on my way to work) they've been discussing the “sequester” and the impact it will have on the defense department. NPR has been talking about how the deep cuts in defense spending will impact the civilian jobs paid for by the defense department (employees will be forced to take 22 unpaid furlough days per year), and how the cuts will affect our “military readiness”. Now, obviously Defense is posturing, because the last thing they want is for their bloated budget to get cut, and for them to actually have to tighten their belt and buy equipment that gets used and pay for personnel that actually serves the interest of the armed forces; but that’s an issue for another day. Let’s suffice it to say that the Defense Department will say and do whatever they have to do to continue to receive the portion of the budget they receive. But what struck me most about this article was not the fact that the Defense Department was whining about furlough days and military readiness, but the complete failure of NPR – the supposed mouthpiece of the left – in discussing how the other part of the sequester, the cuts in non-defense spending, will affect literally hundreds of thousands of people.
But I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this fact. Fairness doesn't matter in this country. Fairness is a buzz word used by politicians to get people to hate and deride other people, while at the same time doing things that are unfair to others. Is it fair that minor drugs offenses send people to jail and give them felony convictions which affect the rest of their lives, while investment bankers gamble with your and the government’s money and lose literally trillions of dollars, but receive nothing lighter than a golden parachute (and a government bailout)? Is it fair that the working poor can hardly make ends meet, but are not only scorned by the wealthy for (supposedly) draining government coffers, but also pay higher tax rates than those at the very top who don’t even work for a living (and actually are the one’s draining government coffers through subsidies and special tax breaks)? Is it fair that immigrants (illegal or not) come to this country every day, labor hard doing shitty work while constantly fearing discrimination and deportation, while working hard to make a living for their family, only to have politicians in this country turn around and describe them all as criminals, who are doing nothing to serve this country but instead draining our resources (which is patently false according to statistics – something conservatives are generally afraid of) and/or taking the jobs from “hard-working (but unwilling to do the jobs) Americans”.
The fact is, things are not fair. I wish they were. I wish everyone had basic health care. I wish everyone had access to a good education. I wish everyone could get a job. I wish everyone cared to get a job. I wish people didn't manipulate the system. I wish there wasn't fraud. I wish the media was open and honest. I wish politicians were open and honest. I wish people who committed financial crimes would be held responsible. I wish. I wish. I wish. The list goes on and on. But the reality is reality. But one wish that I think actually can and should come true is that people who support the system of inequality and unfairness, shouldn't be allowed to whine about it once they’re facing the sharp end. To quote John Kennedy from his inaugural address, “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside”.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A true diplomat...

I did not vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary elections. I didn’t want her to be president. I wasn’t even a huge fan of hers. I don’t know why. I guess I was just excited about the potential for a Barack Obama presidency (and had been since his Democractic convention speech in 2004). The election got nasty. Hillary said some things that people cringed at. Bill said some things that people cringed at. Barack said some things people cringed at. It was thought that President Obama taking Joe Biden as his VP was a slight to Hillary – and maybe it was – but it turned out to be one of the best administrational slights ever made.
Hillary Clinton has been no less than a phenomenal Secretary of State. Hillary not only repaired the fracture within the Democratic party with her steadfast commitment to the Obama administration foreign policy, but also gained the respect of most Republican lawmakers and citizens with her tireless travel and diplomatic efforts in reaching out to leaders throughout all corners of the globe. Clinton has visited more countries and traveled more extensively than any other secretary of state in history. She is indefatigable. She’s visited several countries during her tenure that have been ignored by American presidents and secretaries of state for years. She saw before her as Secretary of State a task that was nothing short of changing how the rest of the world perceived the United States. And while that is a continuing process (and hopefully her legacy will continue under Sec. of State John Kerry), Clinton has made giant strides in improving the relations of the United States with the rest of the world.
Clinton faced congressional hearings today to answer questions about the murder of diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. Clinton was nothing short of spectacular. Certainly this was an awful situation. Awful for the families who suffered losses of their loved ones. Awful for other diplomatic personnel who lost a colleague and are also put at unease over their own security. Awful for the administration that place those personnel in harm’s way. And awful for an American public that sees the hatred against the United States being manifested in such a horrific way. And rightly, the public and members of congress want answers to questions about how this was allowed to happen. Republican congressmen attempted – and succeeded – in making Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the sacrificial lamb, by accusing her of fabricating a protest that had turned into an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Susan Rice was incorrect, that much has been shown to be true, but she was simply relaying CIA talking points that she had been given, to the Sunday morning talk shows. Rice should not have had to fall on the sword, but as a consummate professional, she did so to protect the integrity of the office on Secretary of State.
Hillary has done the same thing. While Clinton wasn’t the one to attend the Sunday morning shows, she would have given the same information that Ambassador Rice gave. And that is what Hillary has indicated in these congressional hearings. She said it before and she’s repeated it today that she was the one responsible for diplomatic personnel, and while there might have been failures in providing adequate security to American consulates and diplomatic personnel around the globe, there was so much happening during that time that there was little that she or the State Department could do. It was a bad situation and the Secretary of State cannot wave a magic wand and make a bad situation disappear. But she’s proven throughout the questioning of the Benghazi attacks, and especially during these hearings, that she is a person of integrity and will sacrifice herself to the dogs of politics to save the face of the office of the Secretary of State, the President, and the country as a whole.
We will miss you Madame Secretary. See you in 2016.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Change and no change...

Today I wanted to write a dual post about the president and myself.
I know a lot of people did not care as much about the RE-election of Barack Obama as they did about the election. The economy is still poor. We will have wiretapping issues. We still use drone strikes. We’re still in Afghanistan. But watching the president take the oath of office, and deliver what many have considered a bold, hyper-partisan inaugural address, I couldn’t help but feel a little choked up at the idea that this country not only elected, but re-elected the first black president in our history. I read a great Eugene Robinson article today, where he talked about what an amazing statement it makes that through all of the president’s trials and tribulations during his first term, he came through with an electoral victory, and race (at least with regard to the president) has become a muted or non-existent issue. Now that is not to say that we’ve attained that post-racial world, but at least the majority of Americans now accept that it’s not strange for a black man to be occupy the White House and maintain the position as the most powerful man in the world.
It is amazing. Sure, we heard a lot of racist undertones (and overtones) throughout the first four years of Barack’s presidency, but most of that stuff was fallen off to a light din in the radical corners of American political life. The president, for all intents and purposes, has changed the dynamic of American politics by not becoming (in the eyes of prejudice people who don’t consider themselves prejudice) a token black president that we as a country can hang our hat on, and then send packing with the election of a rich old white man, but instead an enduring presence during a period of uncertainty and insecurity. Barack is no longer only the first black president, but he is now a re-elected president; and specifically a president re-elected in the midst of continuing economic turmoil. Good on you President Obama, good on you.
Now onto myself. I’m not perfect. I’m sure that I have prejudices just like everyone else, and I’m sure that from time to time I say things that some people cringe at. However, anyone who knows me knows that I make painstaking efforts to be sensitive in what I say, and am the first to correct someone who I feel has said something insensitive or offensive. Again, I’m not perfect and I’m not bringing this up to say that I’m “holier than thou”, but I at least make an effort.
This brings me to a frustrating point of contention I’ve encountered in American society. I’ve noticed this among white people, but in talking to people of other racial/ethnic groups I know that it occurs there too, that people think that somehow because you’re of the same race that they are free to say whatever they want in front of you. It’s as if because we share the same skin tone it means I automatically agree with your prejudice or outright racism. And then, when I correct the person and let them know that I’m NOT okay with what they’re saying, then I’m questioned as to why I’m so upset about, because “it doesn’t affect me”. And my response is always the same (albeit somewhat trite) – “it affect ALL of us”. I don’t to live in a society where prejudice and racism exist, so I’m offended when it occurs by anyone against anyone. I don’t need to be a member of any particular group to be offended and I shouldn’t have to defend myself for being so. I should be the one (and am) that is questioning the person for thinking that they can “get away with” talking in some loose, effluent manner, just because our skin color looks similar. It just makes me sad and angry.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Quentin unchained...

So I debated whether or not to write something about Django Unchained. I had considered writing about the movie before I had seen it, because what I was planning on writing didn't have so much to do with the movie itself, but the reaction to it. However, because of laziness, and also because of a certain uneasiness with writing about movies that I haven’t seen, I decided to hold off.
Well I saw Django Unchained over the weekend, and while I’m still digesting the film, I think I’m at least comfortable writing a post about it.
Let me begin by saying that while Spike Lee is an intelligent man (or seemingly so), a creative filmmaker, and an undisputed maven in black cinema (an American cinema in general), I question his criticism of Django before even seeing the film. I can’t say that no one will find this movie racist (I personally did not, but more on that later), because it is subjective, after all, and that means that what I took away from it is not necessarily what someone else will take away from it. But I can’t help but accuse Spike Lee of bias, as he has a history of criticizing Quentin Tarantino (don’t get me wrong, I’m no Tarantino apologist) for being a racist; so the context of a white filmmaker – especially Quentin Tarantino – making a glib film about slavery naturally would rub him the wrong way. But as a filmmaker – especially a filmmaker that deals with racial issues – should at least give Tarantino a chance to make his argument before completely debasing the film, and calling it racist.
That being said, had Spike Lee seen the film, he still might have come to the same conclusion. And to be fair, I’ll agree with Spike Lee in saying that Tarantino’s use of the “N” word in his movies seems more about his potential desire for using a controversial word freely than to create authenticity in his characters and movies. In my reality – and my reality in no way reflects anybody else’s – people don’t just throw around the “N” word, whether that be in the company of black people or not. The “N” word is a taboo word, and just because a white person is friendly or comfortable with an individual or group of black people, doesn't mean that the word becomes standard nomenclature. In the black community it could be different, and I understand that, but I think Lee’s criticism is more of Tarantino’s white characters’ flippant use of the word, rather than his black characters.
Sorry, I trailed off a bit there. So while I understand Lee’s issues with Tarantino’s use of the “N” word, and the “N” word was used A LOT – I repeat A LOT – in Django Unchained, the use actually seemed very apropos to the film, and actually added a certain authenticity that Tarantino sometimes lacks in his historic pieces. If you read my blog, you might have stumbled upon a piece where I talk about the “N” word, so you know that I’m no fan; but as I said, it’s use in Django Unchained, while very liberal, actually seemed quite realistic. The use of the word itself, I hope at least, didn't solely create the impression in some people’s minds that this movie, or Tarantino himself, is racist.
Now to the film itself. I personally did not find the film racist. It is true that a filmmaker ought to be sensitive when addressing a topic such as slavery; but Quentin Tarantino is not a sensitive filmmaker, so while should doesn't equate to is, that doesn't mean he was being racist with his insensitivity. The film, similar to his efforts in Inglorious Basterds, is essentially a revenge movie where Tarantino rewrites history to make oppressed people beat their oppressors. While people may question why Tarantino made the movie, if I was to venture a guess I would say that it’s because he’s a filmmaker who is interested in the idea of oppression and social injustice, and therefore wanted to make a bloody farce based upon what would happen if history were fair.
That’s my take on the movie, but I’m interested in knowing what others thought of the movie. Did you find it racist? Did you think there was a point in Tarantino making the movie? Is it fair for Spike Lee to disavow the movie without ever seeing it?