Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Leading the sheeple by twisting the truth...

Most people who know me know that I’m an atheist.  Having made that statement, most people who know me also know that while I have enormous problems with churches and the business of organized religion in general (the subject of another blog post at some point to be sure), I have nothing but respect for people who are truly faithful and who really try to live up to the best and most noble aspects of their belief systems.  Such is the case with a very long-time friend of mine, M.  She is a genuine Christian in the best sense of the word – she is giving; she seems to do her best to be non-judgmental; and she is steadfast in her faith, no matter what.  Add to that, she is a genuinely charming and nice person.  The other night I saw a blurb come across my Facebook that “M likes the Christian Coalition.” I was horrified.  While I am not generally given to sharing my private conversations with people, I do so here to illustrate a point:

EAS:     Oh how it saddens me to see that you "like" the Christian Coalition. You and I don't see eye-to-eye on religion, and that's totally ok as matters of faith are very personal, but the CC is a hate group pure and simple. Its mission is to promote a right-wing agenda that seeks to marginalize and exclude very large swaths of American society while wrapping itself in the cloak of biblical fundamentalism. It has been said that when fascism comes to America it will be carrying a Bible and wrapped in a flag, and quite frankly groups like the CC are vying to be the standard bearer for just such fascism. Jesus' message was one of love and tolerance and forgiveness for all. He did not preach hate, marginalization and hypocrisy.

M:     I like that you know so much about what Jesus talked about. So why aren't you two closer?

EAS:     It's very simple. I'm an atheist. That having been said, I accept and respect that most people aren't. Your faith is as deeply rooted in you as my lack of faith is in me. It is part of us. I respect your faith even though I don't share it. I also respect the fundamental message of Christianity -- the love and tolerance part -- and have little respect, in fact great derision for those who would twist good people into following them into missions of hate and division.

M:     I would say that it takes as much faith to believe there is no God than to believe there is. I think people are angry at their circumstances and therefore are angry with God. They also want to live their life their own way without a God and His set of rules. Also the consequences of what the God would say are coming for not following set rules. So I'm content following His plan and understand that others are not. But as always Eric, I would understand that you will vote and support those who subscribe to your beliefs and philosophies as I know you would guess I do the same. You don't believe your peeps are hateful and I don't agree with the peeps that call themselves Christians and hate the very peeps that Jesus Christ died for.

EAS:     I can assure you that it takes no more faith for me to be an atheist than it does for you not to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Allah, or Vishnu or any of the thousands of other deities people around the world worship. It does not come from an angry place for me. Just as a universe without a creator makes no sense to you, a universe *with* one makes no sense to me. To understand that, you'd have to crawl inside my head, and that is quite impossible, and I'm not suggesting that you ought to. Nor am I suggesting you ought to give up your faith for atheism. I'm not about that at all :) I just happen to think very highly of you. I also happen to oppose everything most everything the CC stands for and find it particularly disgusting that they drag good people of faith into this by twisting the fundamentally good message of Christianity for their own selfish and genuinely un-Christ-like ends, and would hope that you could see through them and rise to your better nature and live by your principles.

Whether M chooses to dissociate herself from the Christian Coalition is ultimately her own affair and if she does not, all I can say is that I tried.  She’s still my friend – even if we don’t agree politically or on matters of spirituality -- and I truly value her friendship.  One of the greatest things about the US is the fact that as individuals we are free to associate ourselves with whatever group or groups we choose to.  In fact, the larger point here isn’t really even about the Christian Coalition per sé.  The Christian Coalition as an organization has dropped dramatically in membership and influence since its heyday in the late 1990s when the IRS slapped it down for violating the rules that keep non-profit organizations from engaging in direct political activities (read more about it here).  Rather, the point is how right-wing groups, whether socially right as in the case of the Coalition or corporatist as in the case of Americans for Prosperity, cloak themselves behind ostensibly benign causes or words to manipulate people who, in an absence of critical thinking, truly believe that they are doing the next right thing when they are, in fact, being used as the instruments of their own downfall.

We see a beautiful example of this right here in Arizona in SB1070, Arizona’s (in)famous “papers please” law, which the courts have fortunately enjoined from full implementation. Governor Jan Brewer, having ascended to the office after Janet Napolitano left the Governor’s office to become the Secretary of Homeland Security, signed this legislation into law in the spring of 2010 and campaigned on it ultimately to win election to the Governor’s office in November. An investigation by local journalists later revealed links between Brewer, State Senator Russell Pearce, the legislation’s sponsor, and the Corrections Corporation of America, a private for-profit prison corporation that operates many of the prison facilities in Arizona and who provided a great deal of support for the passage of SB1070 and ultimately for Jan Brewer’s election and which stands to profit handsomely from the increased traffic through Arizona’s jails should the courts permit this legislation to stand. Brewer’s opponent campaigned on repeal of 1070. Brewer, fueled by corporate money, whipped up great amounts of fear among the lesser-educated and easily manipulated conservative largely white older people of Arizona to make them feel that they had a great deal to fear from immigrants from the south – a simple fact of life in Arizona since before Arizona even joined the US nearly 100 years ago.

With the advent of the Citizens’ United ruling in 2010, this problem is only likely to get worse. The only defense against it is vigilance. Do align yourself with groups who share your beliefs, but know who is behind those groups, no matter what side of the political spectrum you may occupy. Most websites have an “About Us” page. Read it. Find out about the people or corporations who are behind the groups who are advocating for the causes you believe in.  Why are they advocating for those causes? What’s in it for them? Sometimes the cause is genuine. More frequently the cause is a front for corporate or religious interests who are interested in pushing some other agenda.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Monopoly: for real...

Since I was very young I have always been fascinated by the game Monopoly. I grew up playing marathon games with my brother and sister and anyone who would play against me and even to this day I maintain a collection of vintage and unusual sets, as well as sets from around the world, and enjoy playing when I can find a few spare hours for a game and someone willing to play. I learned that there were certain strategies that were nearly sure-fire winners in the game and that if you wanted to win it never paid to be anything but ruthless. The whole point of Monopoly after all is to acquire everything on the board and to drive each of your opponents into financial ruin and ultimately out of the game.

There are a couple of ways one might look at this game. One might view it as a way to show how careful investment and management of one's money and holdings can multiply wealth and how by making foolish decisions or just from a run of bad luck one can fall through the cracks. One might also consider this game as an object lesson of how barely regulated capitalism tends ultimately to enrich the few at the expense of all others -- even when there are governmental mechanisms in place to provide for a minimal safety net for those without any other resources (if only we could all pass Go once in a while and collect $200 from the mythical magical bank). The land of Monopoly is one where ultimately one or two players will be very very rich and everyone else will be dirt poor or bankrupt.

We are witnessing in the United States what is amounting, in this writer's opinion, to the mid- to end-stages of a very brutal Monopoly game. Coming out on top are large multinational corporations, their boards of directors, upper management ranks, and large shareholders. Finding themselves being drained of everything they have and their means to compete are smaller businesses and individuals. The individual's ability to achieve (celebrities, accidental celebrities, and sports figures notwithstanding -- but how many of them are there really -- and how fleeting can their success be?) in this country is a factor of how useful that individual is perceived to be to a corporation, which in turn comes from a combination of factors including education, experience, age, mobility, race (yes I said it -- if anyone thinks racism in this country is dead, go spend some time in Alabama or Mississippi) and other intangibles. If an individual, any individual, does not fit a given corporation's profitability profile for a given job description, that individual finds himself out of work, replaced (or not) by another.

Multinational corporations in the US view people as fungible, disposable assets and have no loyalty to their workforces or even to the US as a country. If a corporation feels it is to its immediate benefit to offshore jobs, those jobs move out of the country without regard to what happens to the displaced workers in the US. Corporations buy out their competition -- witness for example how many fewer banks, airlines, car brands, etc. there are now than there were just 15 years ago. Corporations consolidate and standardize (ever notice how one town in the US looks largely like another -- same stores, same restaurants, same movie theaters, for example). It is common knowledge that nearly nothing is manufactured in the US anymore and what is assembled here is generally assembled from parts made abroad and even those assembly jobs are disappearing. A 45 year old factory worker in the US with no more than a high school education and 20 years of experience has as much chance of landing a decent job in his field with benefits and a salary equivalent to what he was making at his previous job as a snow cone in Phoenix in the middle of July has of seeing 10 minutes into the future.

It's not by accident though that the multinational corporations are winning the game. They are doing what any skilled Monopoly player does: they are using every technicality in the rule book to win. In the real world of the US, those technicalities include the ability to change the rules in the middle of the game. There was (and continues to be) some regulation on capitalism in the USA. In the early 1900s in response to the growing influence of powerful national (not yet international) industrial monopolies, the federal government passed the Sherman Anti Trust Act. Additional legislation such as Glass-Steagall, which regulated (at least until its repeal in 1989) the types of businesses into which banks could enter and how banks operated over state lines came into being during FDR’s run in office. The US had import tariffs in place to protect its manufacturing base, and a very high (90%! -- lowered during the Kennedy administration to 70%) marginal tax rate for individual income over $3 million annually. These regulations (among others) put some brakes on corporate power and influence and allowed the US from the post WWII era through the late 1970s to build up the highest standard of living the world had ever known before for the largest number of people. Effectively it was that rare Monopoly game where two players own about half the board each and just go round and round seemingly endlessly just trading rents and occasionally getting infusions of cash from Free Parking jackpots (if you play with that rule -- which is actually not part of the rules if you're a purist). Then things changed.

Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981. With Reagan came the advent of supply-side economics, also known as "trickle down" economics. Effectively the idea here is that by easing the tax and regulatory burdens on businesses and wealthy individuals that they would invest the money they weren't paying in taxes into job-creating activities which would then boost the overall tax receipts for the government. Multinational corporations loved this idea. Rich people loved this idea. They put a great deal of money into selling this idea to the US public and it worked. 

The results of trickle-down economics are legend and we are still living with them. Businesses and wealthy people did not, however, use their government-provided savings to create jobs -- the country went into recession. Stock market and commodity bubbles started happening where they had not happened since the 1920s because all that extra money went into speculative investments that drove prices up and down like a roller coaster culminating with a dramatic stock market crash in 1987. 

Bush the Elder continued these policies and ultimately had to renege on his pledge never to raise taxes, which cost him the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. Clinton did little to change supply side economics although with the imposition of pay-go rules as well as other reforms in the mid 90s the economy did begin to improve. Clinton, however, negotiated and signed NAFTA -- which made it extremely easy for US companies to move their manufacturing to Mexico. Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all participated in the dropping of US import tariffs, which had the result of flooding our markets with low cost imported goods at the cost of millions of US manufacturing jobs. Bush the Second signed CAFTA in 2005, which dropped even more import barriers to other Latin American countries, further decimating our manufacturing base. Simultaneously the multinationals and wealthy have managed to reap enormous profits from the globalization of trade and have continued to funnel this money into speculative investments, which have continued to create huge bursting bubbles in the US and world economies -- the spike in oil prices in 2007, the real estate boom and bust, and the near collapse of the US Banking system from bad derivative investments to name but a few that spring to mind.

To date, despite some watered down attempts at minimal financial regulation, President Obama has not addressed any of the root causes of these problems, perhaps because he and his people have been doing their best since taking office to stem the economic bleeding caused by the past 30 years of bad policy, perhaps because they have no intention of addressing the root causes -- it is too early to call this one. He certainly has not done anything to address the travesty of supply-side economics or the conundrum of global trade and its pernicious effect on the US worker. It is certain, however, that the multinationals are not stopping. With the entrenched idea of corporate personhood, first put forth in the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case in 1886 and most recently with the Citizens United decision out of the Supreme Court last January, corporations opened the door to buy even more influence over the rules and the rule-making process than ever. The 2010 elections were an example of what corporate money can do to fool the US public into believing what its masters want it to believe. Further, as multinational corporations continue to consolidate their grip on print and broadcast media, their job will become even less difficult as they will control largely what information people will see and hear unless they make the effort to inform themselves through other channels.

So is there any hope to take back the Monopoly board from the multinationals and have the individuals and small businesses win the game? On its face, it would appear not. It is certainly beyond the ability of any single individual or small business to change anything acting alone. It is only through collective action that change can come about. People must demand that their elected representatives serve their interests and not the interests of the corporations; that corporate personhood end; and that corporate money have no influence in elections. People must band together and demand this loudly and forcefully and must not take anything but complete cooperation from the government. In the US, we have the power of the ballot box. We also have the power of protest and civil disobedience. The power of protest brought changes to this country no less significant than the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 50s and 60s. People can do this. People must do this. If people do not, while we may have a representative democracy in name, we will be living forever afraid of the next roll of the dice.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Time Bomb in Tucson

Yet another terrible stain has blighted the state that I call home.  Unless you, my esteemed reader, have been hiding out in a cave without any access to news for the past several days it is highly unlikely that you are unaware of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona, the deaths of so many innocent bystanders including a 9-year-old girl with a promising future, and the heroism of the people who rushed to the aid of the injured and to apprehend the killer.

My heart and hopes go out to Gabrielle Giffords, her family, and to the families and loved ones of all of the other victims of this tragedy.

Since Saturday there has been no shortage of blathering from the talking heads on television, in the papers, and on the blogosphere.  Some fix blame on Sarah Palin and her gun sights ad.  Others have quoted "friends" of the shooter as calling him a "left-wing lunatic." Still others are blaming Arizona and its overly permissive gun laws.  There have been calls to tone down the rhetoric on both sides.  Everyone claims to know what was in this kid's mind.  The mountain of verbal Bandini that has piled up is so great that we ought to be able to fertilize the Mojave Desert and, with a little water, grow pretty pretty flowers.  None of these people know this guy.  I don't know this guy.  I can only speculate and opine on what we do know and what it means to me.

The shooter was 22 years old and already mentally unbalanced -- at least if we can trust the background reporting on him (I have learned not to take anything that the corporate controlled media reports at face value), but from all accounts, including an interview with a good friend of his posted at Mother -- it would seem to be the case. My life experience tells me that most people become politically aware somewhere in their early teenage years. Assuming this to be the case with this individual, he would have been waking up just about the time that Fox News was coming into its own as a 24/7/365 arm of the Republican party leading up to or during Bill Clinton's impeachment, just as the political landscape in the US was becoming more polarized than at any point in the nation's history. Since then we have seen a broadening and deepening of this polarization, led mostly by corporately owned right wing media outlets who effectively have managed to shut out any kind of rational discourse or debate in this country.  It is in this environment of one-sided infotainment masquerading as news that Jared Loughner formed his twisted vision.

Assuming he paid much attention in school, his history classes would have been somewhat dumbed down, thanks to the careful ministrations of the right-wing TX Board of Education, who from its sheer buying power tends to control what goes in textbooks (and has for some time), and he very likely would not have had to have taken a genuine civics course, which was a requirement when I was in high school, but is no longer in most places. From what we read in the media, however, Laughtner was a self-styled historian, drawing his own conclusions from his own reading of such works as "The Communist Manifesto," "Mein Kampf," "Animal Farm," and "1984" to name but a few.  The Mother Jones interview suggests that he was apolitical, but for some reason had a pointed dislike of Gabrielle Giffords in particular and an overall distrust in government.  Nothing in the mainstream media over the past 12 years or so would dissuade a person who was already predisposed to this kind of thinking.  In fact, the media, particularly the right wing corporate-controlled media, has been remarkably good at encouraging rhetoric against more moderate points of view.  This disturbed young man was a time bomb created not by a political ad or one particularly ugly electoral season, but by over a decade of vicious attack politics that seek to do nothing but demonize anything but the most hard right corporatist line.

How many more time bombs are out there waiting to go off? Hard to say. Can we stop training our young folks to hate, yes we can.  How do we do it?  Well that's a great question without any easy answers.  To me it would start by breaking up the corporate media conglomerates who control the flow of information to the vast majority of this country.  There are approximately 6 corporations who control directly or indirectly about 90% of the radio, television, and print media that is in general publication in the US.  That would be 6 boards of directors who ultimately decide what over 300 million people get to see, hear, read, and how the information will be presented to them.  These individuals are not necessarily servants of any one political party.  Rather, they are servants only of themselves and their shareholders.  Scared people tune in.  Fear sells subscriptions.  High ratings means high advertising revenue.  The truth is not important.  What is important is profit, and where it brings in more profit, control of individual liberties.

While we're breaking up media monopolies, we need to bring back real history and civics education to our public schools and stop letting the Texas Board of Education tell our nation's young people that Tom DeLay, who was just sentenced to three years in prison for his corruption while in Congress, was a great statesman while leaving out important historical contributions from people such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.  We also need to bring back a spirit of genuine critical thinking and rational debate.  The media can set the example here.  Perhaps it is not as flashy as having people yell at each other from debate dungeons where they can't actually see one another, but it is far more effective at getting a point across.

We truly do not have a great deal of time to turn this around and it is critical that we do so lest Saturday's isolated tragedy become an all too common occurrence. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Blame Kim...

Over the course of time folks have told me that I have a certain special way of expressing myself both face to face and in writing.  It's true that language has always held a particular fascination for me, most anyone who knows me knows that I take more than a certain pride in having mastered a couple of languages other than English and that when presented a simple question such as "what time is it?" I'm well known for explaining how the clock works, while ultimately getting to the precise time.

Knowing this, my dear friend Kim has urged me to start posting my various musings in this forum.  As the title of this blog might suggest, I come from a left of center point of view on most things while living in a state where to be an openly card carrying liberal is about as popular as chlamydia with most of the folks around me.  

My opinions are my own, and where they aren't, I give credit where credit is due.  Likewise with my analysis.  My facts are the facts as I know them and can back them up.  I have no problem doing a little homework and research.  It is my hope that the people who choose to participate in this blog will do the same.

I have a couple of things I would like this blog to be and one that I hope to avoid.  First, I want it to be a place where reasonable people can have rational and well informed discussion about any variety of controversial topics while simultaneously allowing me to express my thoughts and opinions and even historical perspectives on events of the day in the hope that they will serve as a catalyst for more discussion and debate.  On the other hand, what I do not want this to turn into is a place where narcissistic know-it-alls feel the need to strut and preen and attack one another with specious nonsense or simplistic talking points without any actual research.  In short, I'm telling you that while I may put out a point of view, I want you to challenge me.  It is because people throughout my life have challenged me by showing me the realities of life and how they did not fit the preconceived notions my conservative upbringing programmed me to believe that I transitioned from being a very right of center knee-jerk Republican to a Democrat -- and effectively socialist -- in the European democratic sense of socialism.

At the end of the day, if the blog fails, we can simply blame Kim.  On the other hand, if it succeeds, well, Kim.... that's your fault too ...