Monday, December 11, 2017

American Spirit v American Character

Recently I saw two very interesting and seemingly inconsistent interviews.  The one was with David McCullough about his book, The American Spirit.  The other was with Kurt Andersen about his book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.  

McCullough talks about the American spirit in familiar terms.  It is based on the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and those of the Founding Fathers:  equality, fairness, truth.  He spoke of the men who have lead this country as, for the most part, having had a certain gravitas.  They may not have always been wise or even good presidents, but they understood the responsibility, not just the power, of their office.  

A blurb for the books says: “The American Spirit reminds us of core American values to which we all subscribe, regardless of which region we live in, which political party we identify with, or our ethnic background.”  I certainly believe in those core American values and in their importance in guiding our country, witness my book, We STILL Hold These Truths.  However, I would not say that all American’s subscribe to these values.  Hardly.  And that is not just a fact today; it has always been a fact.

That brings me to Andersen’s book.  His argument is that the American character is composed of two very different strains.  On the one hand you have the religious fundamentalists, starting with the Puritans, who were beyond fervent in their often fantastical beliefs and would brooke no disagreement.  To believe was to be right.  As the population spread westward, religion followed often in the form of ministers who were hucksters, making show biz out of religion.

The other strain was formed by those who came to America searching for a pot of gold.  To them it was a land of opportunity, a chance to become rich.  There was no truth for them beyond the quest for money.

In both cases, he argues, fantasy was a core aspect of people’s belief system and character.  And they believed in their own truths.  I don’t know if Andersen makes this point, but I would say that this character is very much a self-centered one in both cases.

McCullough looks at the current political scene as an aberration from our historic spirit.  Andersen looks at it as the logical culmination of our historic character.

They are both right.  How can that be?  The tendencies that Andersen sees in our history have indeed always been there; the evidence is ample.  But for most of our history, the political and media establishment adhered, at least in form, to the higher American spirit.  The quote from John Adams that is inscribed on a mantle in the East Room of the White House says it all: “May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof.”  

And the power and prevalence of that establishment kept the lid on the unruly character of the people.  Even the largest corporations, which until the early 1900s were a law unto themselves, came to be regulated to enforce standards of fairness, equality, and truth.

But the political and social movements of the 60s upended much.  Everyone became entitled to their own truths and authority became suspect.  Watergate reinforced this.  Reagan legitimized this movement with his, “Government is the problem,” and the start of the Me generation.  Then, with cable television and the internet, the avenues for people to both express and listen to their own truths, their own facts, morphed exponentially.  Fantasy and hucksterism became the lifeblood of conservative talk radio.  And that has brought us today to the presidency of Donald Trump.

With pandora’s box opened, will we ever be able to return to a world where the American spirit prevails over the self-centered character of the people?  Painfully, it is hard to imagine.  The judgments and emotions are running so strong

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Exposing the Predator in Chief

In the midst of the tsunami of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a variety of public figures and their resulting fall from power, I kept wondering where is the media’s coverage of the allegations against Donald Trump?

Finally, The Atlantic recently recounted the accusations of each of the nineteen women who have in the past made allegation against Trump. Given that in the Access Hollywood tape he boastingly states that he has committed such assaults in the past … as he put it, “When you’re a star, you can do anything” … he must be held to account, just as the other’s have.

At the time the tape was made public, he did not raise questions about its veracity, but now he says it wasn’t his voice.  And so Billy Bush has come forward and stated that it was Trump who made those statements and that there were 8 witnesses.

Republicans took President Clinton to task for his sexual lapses or predation in the impeachment proceedings.  Donald Trump invited several of Clinton’s accusers to be his guests at the second presidential debate.

Where are the Republicans now when their own leader appears clearly guilty of such misbehavior?  To them everything is political.  They were against raising the deficit when it was part of Obama’s plan to help the economy.  Now that they are in charge, they have no problem with raising the deficit.  They speak against Democrats who have been accused of sexual harassment and call on them to be censured or resign, yet they support Roy Moore in his candidacy for a Senate seat.  

These are more example of Republican hypocrisy.  But the mainstream media cannot be a part of that hypocrisy.  The New York Times and all the major newspapers and media outlets must cover this story in thorough detail, following The Atlantic’s lead.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Is It Justice to Apply Social Standards Retroactively?

We have recently seen a rash of accusations against public figures involving various levels of sexual harassment/assault.  Most have been fired by their employers or Boards.  Only Roy Moore continues to receive unqualified support from both the Alabama Republican Party and his base.

That these acts were committed is beyond disappointing.  To become aware of the extent to which women are subjected to these types of actions, even by respected, upstanding people, both liberal and conservative, is a shock.  

As women have come forward and received a receptive hearing, more women have been empowered and found the courage to come forward with their own stories.  This is a healthy development.   Too long have women feared speaking the truth against men with power over them.  

The question is, what should society, what should organizations/employers do in the face of such accusations.  There is no question that society is quickly developing a new standard as to what is considered acceptable behavior of men towards women.  

While some have always abhorred such behavior, society as a whole has accepted the fact that “men are pigs” and that they do such things.  As long as they didn’t cross the line of criminal sexual assault or the age of consent barrier, society just shrugged its shoulder.

That is clearly no longer the case.  The question is, should people be punished … and firing someone from their job is being punished … for behavior which at the time, while reprehensible, was accepted by society.  Should these standards be applied retroactively?

When laws are passed, they are almost always applied prospectively.  Someone cannot be accused and convicted of a crime when the activity was not a crime at the time it happened.  That is the way the criminal justice system works; that is essential to its fairness.

I think the same standard should be applied here.  If someone’s behavior was either criminal or clearly unacceptable under community standards at the time it occurred, then if the accusation has indicia of truth, the person should be held accountable, punished.  

However, if the behavior was not criminal or unacceptable under contemporary standards, then the new standards should not be applied retroactively.  The person should, however, offer an abject apology and admit that the complained-of behavior occurred. And they should be called on the carpet and told that if this ever happens again they will be fired.

With regard to someone who is up for election, however, such as Roy Moore, it is for the people to decide whether someone with such a history should receive their vote.  A history of sexual harassment or assault is certainly relevant when one is seeking a position of public trust.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Hypocrisy of the New Republicans

I have written often regarding the hypocrisy of what I am calling “New Republicans.”  Republicans used to be conservatives of the old school, the party of business and commerce, and they made no bones about it.  Yes, they felt that such policies would lift up the entire country, but they did not try and sell themselves as the party of the people, the working man.  

The new Republicans, however, and not just President Trump (it started with Reagan), present themselves as the party that has the best interests of the average American, working-class Americans, at heart.  This is pure hypocrisy.  One just has to look at all their actions and policies; it is all about enriching business and commerce. (George W.’s immigration and education policies, which were in line with his pitch of compassionate conservatism, were an aberration.) They still insist that trickle-down economics and deregulation work for the average person despite the proof of past experience that they do not.  

But the new Republicans have entered an even more outrageous area of hypocrisy … moral values.  Prior to George W., Republicans presented themselves as upstanding people and they typically were, but they did not flog everyone with their moral righteousness.  Ever since Evangelicals have taken a firm hold of Republican politics, however, Republicans have cranked up the rhetoric against abortion and gay rights and generally have presented themselves as paragons of Christian virtue and morals.

Yet time and again we find that when it comes to choosing between upholding Christian virtue and morals or achieving their political aims … conservative justices, anti-abortion policy, push back on gay rights … they will look the other way when faced with morally offensive actions of their candidates out of the hope of achieving political victory.  Certainly the candidacy of Donald Trump was and his presidency continues to be a prime example.  

One of the more egregious examples of this behavior regards Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court justice and candidate for the U.S. Senate.  After numerous women came forward and stated publicly that they were harassed or molested by Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, the Alabama Republican establishment has stood solidly behind him.  

The most outrageous statement has come from the Alabama State Auditor who felt there was nothing wrong in what Moore did, saying that after all Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an established carpenter in his 30s. Forgetting about the fact that the story goes that Mary was a virgin, to site a social practice from 2000 years ago to justify actions today is beyond belief.  I guess it would be ok to go back to stoning people to death who are guilty of all sorts of crimes!

Democrats on the other hand have given no slack to liberals who have been accused of harassment in recent times.  Whether it’s Representative Wiener or Harvey Weinstein or Senator Franken or Kevin Spacey, they have all been roundly criticized and Democrats have been supportive of bringing them to justice.  They were not hypocritical, as Republicans accuse, for not calling for President Clinton’s impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Clinton’s actions were in fact roundly deplored by Democrats at the time, but those actions did not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors for which impeachment is appropriate.

It is past time for the “holier than thou” crowd to walk the walk and not just talk to talk.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

My Prayer for Born Again Christians

The Born Again Christian movement is a major component of evangelical Christianity.  One website describes being born again as “becoming children of God through trust in the name of Jesus Christ.”  It is a spiritual renewal.  Often born-again individuals talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  In the 1990s, many adopted the slogan “What would Jesus do?” as a guide to their lives.

What a transformed world this would be if indeed Evangelical Christians saw themselves and the world around them through the eyes of Jesus.  Jesus believed in those oppressed by society, for example beggars, lepers, and prostitutes.  On the other hand, he spoke out against the evil influence of the love of money and wealth.  He said that the meek shall inherit the earth, meaning those who are not filled with ego and who assert themselves not for their own gain but for the benefit of others.

If Jesus were alive today, there is no question but that he would fight against the extreme inequality in the world, whether it regards income, education, opportunity, access to health care, housing … anything essential to well-being.  He would be against all prejudice and discrimination based on color.  He would be against the pursuit at all costs of money, success, and power, often trampling on the welfare of others.

As to the two issues Evangelicals are most fervent about, abortion and homosexuality, Jesus was silent despite both of these “sins” being present during the era in which he lived.  Abortion was in fact legal under Roman law and had been practiced since ancient times.   A Christian bible reference site says, "Surprisingly, abortion is never mentioned in the Bible."  It goes on to say that the various passages often cited as support for the pro-life position were by their context clearly not intended to speak to the issue of abortion.

Given all the things that Jesus and the gospels commented on, the omission of any reference to abortion is indeed surprising and, one could argue, definitive.  Clearly, it was not something that either Jesus or the gospel writers felt strongly about.  So even if one reckoned that he was probably against abortion in “normal” circumstances ... that is to say not rape or incest or threat to the mother's life ... there is no support for the virulent nature of the pro-life movement.

Again homosexuality was not uncommon in Jesus' time and was the case since ancient times.  While one can't say from silence that he approved of homosexuality, one certainly has no justification today for the virulent Evangelical position against it.  Further, I think there is evidence that he would not be 
against homosexuality because he looked into people’s souls and believed in the power of love.  After all, he welcomed Mary into his fold despite the fact that prostitution was a violation of the commandment against adultery and punishable by death under the laws of the Old Testament. 

In fact, Jesus frequently encouraged his followers to not follow the letter of the law of the Old Testament, which Evangelicals cherry-pick for their convenience.  For example, following it on men lying with men being an abomination, but not following it regarding adultery and many other sins that were punishable by death.  It’s either all the word of God and thus immutable and to be followed to the letter, or it’s all subject to interpretation.

The tragedy of born again Christians is that the Jesus they are in direct contact with is not this Biblical Jesus.  Nor are they in touch with the divinity that is within us all, that they were born with, as taught by the mystical tradition of Christianity (Gnosticism) as well as the mystical traditions of all the Abrahamic faiths.  (See my post, “Ever Wonder Why the World Is the Way It Is?”)  

Instead, they are in touch with Jesus as he has been interpreted by their teachers.  And that Jesus is a very different Jesus from the soul revealed in the New Testament.  Jesus was a very gentle, tolerant man, except when it came to the evils of lusting after money.  Evangelicals as a rule, however, are neither gentle nor tolerant and they view wealth as a valid goal.

My prayer is that Evangelicals turn to the Jesus who is revealed by his words and truly do what Jesus would do.  See themselves and the world around them through the eyes of Jesus.  Then not just they will be truly reborn, but by example they will lead to the rebirth of all, regardless of faith.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

America’s Ongoing Tragedy

I am not a fool nor do I avoid unpleasant truths.  I have always been well aware that, despite the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence and the many laws that have been passed over the years to decrease the instances of discrimination faced by our Black fellow citizens, Black Americans continue to face a life experience full of prejudice and discrimination.  Many of my posts refer to this fact of life in America.

Recently, though, I finished reading the classic W. E. DuBois book, The Souls of Black Folk.  This book has done for me what no newspaper article about a police shooting or hate crime or poverty could do.  It has allowed me to feel the souls of Black Americans through its first-hand depiction of black life from slavery through the end of the 19th century.  

It has allowed me to experience the hope that they experienced with emancipation and each following promise of equality.  And the ultimate devastating realization that each hope was an illusion.  

And I’m not just talking about the Southern experience.  While the Northern experience was different, better, in many ways, pervasive prejudice and discrimination was still present.

This post will not again list the instances of both government … even Federal … as well as private prejudice and discrimination.  Suffice it to say that despite an improvement in the living standard of Black Americans over the years, the lives of most remain mired in poverty, degraded living conditions, and inadequate education.  Even for those who have “made it” and are solidly middle-class, they still face constant prejudice and discrimination.

We … both the government and the dominant white culture … owe Black Americans, finally, a real chance to be part of the American dream, not just materially, but to live in a country where, in the words of the Declaration, “all men are created equal … and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  To live in a country that offers true equal opportunity to all its citizens.

How do we get there from where we are now and have always been?  To achieve true equality, a country must be free of prejudice and discrimination.  That’s a tall order given our history and current state.

We must first acknowledge that this prejudice and resulting discrimination has very deep roots and exists throughout our society.  The South may be more infamous for this, but it exists everywhere.  Even the most liberal among us has some racial prejudice within him, if he can be honest.

It was thought by many, or at least some policy wonks, that integration, especially of the schools, would reduce if not eliminate prejudice and discrimination.  And while that has to some extent been the case, that effect has been too limited, too localized, and very inefficient.

The whole experience with multiculturalism did not work either.  While it bolstered self-identification and pride, it reinforced or even created a feeling of difference between groups.  It was in many ways counter-productive.

No, the country must do what it should have done at the end of the Civil War, and what we forced Germany to do at the end of WWII.  We must approach the question of slavery and racism the way we forced Germany to approach their Nazi past and anti-semitism.

I can hear people arguing that people are different now; things aren’t as they were at the end of the Civil War.  Yet on many important dimensions that reflect our attitude about race, we really aren’t much further along than we were then.  Yes, we have many laws on the books.  But the attitude of people and society has nevertheless not fundamentally changed.  Something may not be politically correct anymore, but it is still present behind closed doors.  The country is full of unreconstructed racists and Southern revanchists.

The pillars of the de-nazification program in Germany were: education and keeping Nazis out of government and cultural leadership positions.  Education had two principle components.  One was sticking the noses of the German population in the facts of “the Jewish solution.”  Whether it was watching documentary footage or being led through concentration camps, every German of every age was forced to face the inhumane horror that their government and their fellow citizens, including often their family members, had visited upon Jews and other people that had been classified as undesirable or subhuman by the Nazis.  

The other education component was producing material for students of all ages that both debunked Nazi propaganda about the Jews and others and put forth the facts of the important role that Jews and others had played in the development of Germany, both its culture and economy.

Regarding the job action, to keep Nazis out of important government and other leadership positions, all Germans had to complete the Fragebogen, which inquired into their activities during the Hitler period.  The idea was that Nazi perspectives should not creep into the new government.  While that was indeed achieved, it is the case that many ex-Nazis made it into government and other positions, often with the knowledge of the allies.  They just didn’t bring their Nazi-era beliefs with them.  I should note that with the pressure of the Cold War and the program’s unpopularity amongst Germans, the program was dropped in 1951.

So how could we apply this German experience to our own history of slavery and racism?  If someone argues that the two situations are not at all comparable and my suggestion is off the wall, I would respond that they really don’t understand the impact of slavery and racism in America.

I am not going to attempt to describe what such programs would look like or how one could keep racists out of important positions.  I will just say that with regards to education, it is important that racial stereotypes be debunked as not having to do with race but with slavery.  For example, DuBois addresses the sexual looseness of many Blacks and the extent of single-parent (female) families.  He notes that this stems from the slavery experience not a racial characteristic.  

Marriage between slaves was not permitted.  Men and women were encouraged to co-habit and have children, thus producing new slaves, but there was no formality, no permanence to the relationship.   These were socially loose relationships.  Either the master could separate the man and woman at will or the man could cohabit with another woman, which was encouraged by the system.  

While the end of slavery and the influence of Black churches helped build the concept of the Black two-parent family, the forces of economics, prejudice, and the slavery experience/training kept the number of stable two-parent Black families down. The pattern which was established during 200 years of slavery is thus to a large extent still with us.

Other aspects of ghetto life are the result of ongoing prejudice and discrimination, not, as many especially on the right would have it, Black culture.  Drugs, crime, poverty, terrible living conditions are not the fault of Blacks or Black culture. They are the direct result of the prejudice and discrimination that continues to exist.  Yes, Blacks could do more to address these plagues, but they cannot be faulted.  They have been beaten down for more than four centuries.

My point is that we do not just need a discussion of race.  We need something far more drastic to once and for all root out the prejudice and discrimination that exists in all corners of our society.  Only then will the dream of Martin Luther King be fulfilled: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Sycophant

What a travesty when the elected leader of our country shows no leadership.  Instead, his every action is determined by whether or how it will impact the support he receives from his core constituency.

Now to be fair, every president keeps his base very much in mind when considering actions to take.  It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise; the president is a politician.  

But I can think of no previous president who made all decisions in a way designed to throw red meat to his base and appease them.  Every president has had some issues he believed strongly in that were not supported by his base, or events happened that required taking action that his base disapproved.  That is the mark of a leader.  Once elected you act in the best interests of the country, you are the leader of all Americans, not just your core base of support.

Recently, it appeared that perhaps Trump was distancing himself somewhat from his base when he met with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and made a few deals.  Or when he supported a bi-partisan approach to shoring up Obamacare.  

But this was not a change of heart.  He did this not because it was in the best interests of the country, but because he desperately needed some legislative wins.  And so, except for the debt ceiling deal, he has reneged on the others as it became clear he was endangering the support from his Tea Party/alt-right base.

This administration can therefore be described as the tyranny of the minority.  The Tea Party and alt-right are a minority whether one looks at those voting, all eligible voters, or the entire population.  As a result, perhaps 20-25% of the country is at this point directing its destiny.  Our democracy has never been without its problems, but never has it been so failed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Heal the Racial and Other Divisions within Us

W. E. Du Bois, in his classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men.”  In the United States, that relationship and the resulting divisions between the groups has, despite all the civil rights laws and court decisions, not progressed to a circumstance of comfort, amity, and equality between the races.  

People of color are materially better off now than in the past, but the basic issues of prejudice and discrimination and their resulting status at the bottom rung of American society remain essentially unchanged.  This festering sore is always present and has a negative impact on the lives of individuals and our country in millions of instances every day.  That racial riots are not the norm does not mean that all is well.

But the problem of the color-line is not the only division that is rending the social fabric of the United States.  Historically there were major divisions between white Protestants and Roman Catholics, between Christians and Jews.  But those divisions have largely lapsed into dormancy.  The commonality of whiteness seems to have enabled age-old prejudices to become a relic, the appendix of society, but like the appendix capable of exploding causing much disruption given the right circumstances.

Over the past decade, however, a new division has emerged, most clearly identified by the emergence of the Tea Party Republicans.  This is not a mere political movement, a more radical conservatism.  The Tea Party represents a major new social division in our country.  Although Tim Burns connects this division with the one that took place during the Vietnam War between the “my country right or wrong” group and those protesting the war.

Why do I say that?  Because it marks a new demarcation of us v them.  Politicians, no matter how great their differences, have never viewed themselves as social antagonists, as us v them.  That is why they have always been able to form strong friendships and even loyalties outside of the halls of Congress.  (The one exception to this would be the Southern Democrats, who because of the race question did view the other side as us v them.)

The election of Donald Trump, the darling of the Tea Party, has spawned its equally rabid counterpart on the left, the Resistance, making matters even more difficult.  Both of these sides, who will brook no compromise with the other, are at least at this point in time a threat to our democracy.

How do we deal with these divisions, heal them, enabling it to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “rise up and live out the meaning of its creed, ‘that all men are created equal.’”  And in so doing, strengthen our country.  Is there a common thread that runs through these various divisions that would enable us, through wise government policy and education, to at last move us beyond these divisions?  I think there is.

One common thread running through many of these divisions is the lack of equal treatment, both in reality and in the eyes of the beholder.  People of color, especially blacks, have never been treated equally by government.  Whether one looks at segregated federal housing policy or unequal educational opportunity … never mind the blatant discrimination of southern state governments … people of color have suffered from direct and indirect government discrimination.  

On the other hand, many whites, especially middle and working class, viewed the federal government as bending over backwards to help people of color, spending billions of dollars. while not doing much of anything to help them.  They are not against big government in the form of social security and Medicare.  They are against big government programs that help the poor (predominantly people of color).  This is the basic position of the Tea Party.

This ties into the other major thread running through these division … the fear of economic competition, the loss of jobs, the loss of status.  If one looks at the South, certainly the enmity of whites towards blacks had everything to do with fear of the potential power of the black masses, their upending the social status of whites, and their retaliation against their white suppressors.  

Within the working class in the North and the unions, in the first half of the 20th century, employers often took advantage of or fomented anger and violence against blacks by pitting the two races against each other for jobs.  That resentment is seen today in the form of white opposition to affirmation action, both in the workplace and in upper education.  Similarly, immigration opponents routinely rouse their base by arguing that  hispanics and especially illegal aliens are taking away jobs from American workers who need them.

That this anger and violence is manufactured can be seen in the rare opposite case of Consolidation Coal Co. and its company town of Buxton, IA in the first warter of the 20th century.  Consolidation Coal made it their business to promote good relations among white and black workers and both were treated fairly.  The result was an unheard of utopia of integration and race relations.

How does this thread of fear relate to the Tea Party phenomenon?  It’s not so much that they fear economic dislocation by blacks or latinos, but that they fear their economic position has deteriorated, which is an indisputable fact, and that it will never recover because the jobs are gone due to government support of free trade deals and yet the government has done nothing to help them.  They fear the loss of their status.  They think that, as Reagan said, government is the problem, not the solution, and so they want less government (except as noted above when it benefits them).

For the nativists within the Tea Party movement, their economic fear is clothed in the fear for the country’s identity.  Whether by flower children or immigrants, they feel the country is being attacked by people who don’t belong here, who don’t honor the country, and thus threaten it’s existence as a place hospitable them.  This criticism and dislike extends to liberals because they are not sufficiently pro-American and support those attacking the government.

Other factors often mentioned regarding our divisions, most prominently those people are different from us, all feed off these basic themes of a lack of equal treatment and the fear of economic or status loss.  If people were treated equally and if they didn’t have the fear of dislocation, the fact of differing cultures would have much less relevance and power.

So it comes down to two things.  First, people want to be treated equally.  Second, people want their economic status to be protected.  There is no question in my mind that if one were starting with a relatively clean slate that it would be possible to treat everyone equally and protect their status.  Despite the fact that politicians have pitted one set of interests against another, they are not inherently in conflict.

However, we are not starting with a clean slate.  We are starting at a point of great inequality, economically and otherwise, as well as great emotion.  And so where do you start the process of bringing our society to a state of equilibrium?

A possible starting point can be found in my post, “Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves,”  11/13/15.  The points of that post cannot be neatly summarized in a few words.  Suffice it to say that it will require each of us to rethink our relationship to ourselves and to the world around us.  Not a minor undertaking!  But not impossible either.    I urge you to read it.

Only then will be open to accepting the steps and sacrifices necessary to bring our country to a point of equilibrium where we truly live out the words of the Declaration of Independence.  Where all people are treated equally, where all people have equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This is so important to both our own individual happiness as well as to the happiness and well-being of our country that we are mad if we do not at least make an effort to achieve a more humane, civilized society.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Amorality of Donald Trump - Part 4

It is beyond distressing that the President, the elected leader of our country, continues to provide more examples from his own words and actions of his amorality.  

In his rants against NFL players who bend the knee when the national anthem is played, he showed absolutely no understanding of the plight of most black Americans in this country: the ongoing experience of discrimination, the ongoing examples of prejudice that show many of their white fellow citizens consider them to be lesser beings, the poor schooling their children receive, the wretched conditions in which they live. As a result many have a lack of hope for any meaningful improvement in their or their children’s lives.

First black Americans had their hopes dashed after emancipation proved meaningless.  Then reconstruction failed.  Then the effort to be industrious workers and submit to their right-less status, following the lead of Booker T. Washington, failed.  Then the effort to gain respect through education failed.  Most recently, the effort to gain freedom through civil rights failed.

Every effort that has been put to black Americans to gain equality they have embraced with the hope of experiencing what Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his “I have a dream” speech:  “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”  Yet those efforts have left them with little.  Certainly black Americans are materially better off than ever before.  But regarding the elusive goal of equality in the eyes of their fellow citizens, after 150 years that day is still a long way off.  

W. E. Du Bois put it this way, “Emancipation was the key to a promised land.” But it proved to be but a “tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp.”  “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the door of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

For some, the door may not be closed as roughly as it once was, but it is still closed.  Even the most liberal of Americans have some racism under their skin, if they are truthful.  This country has never had the frank and brutal discussion of race relations that is needed to purge us all of any remnant of racism.

On another matter, the President has again had the opportunity in recent days to take the high road, this time regarding gun control.  But even in the face of the carnage in Las Vegas, he does not see the plight of his fellow Americans.  He mouths the words of commiseration, but he does not really feel what they, and so many before them, feel.  Because the man has no empathy.  If he did, he would pivot 180 degrees and lead the fight for reasonable, meaningful, gun control.

There is no question in my mind that Donald Trump suffered greatly as a child.  As a result he is a seriously insecure man and continues to suffer as an adult.  His over-the-top egotism, his paper-thin skin, his need for absolute loyalty, all are proof positive of the depths of his insecurity and suffering.

But as tortured as he may be, that does not absolve him of responsibility for what he doing to this country.  The only way to save our country is to remove him from office as quickly as possible by the legal means provided in the Constitution.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Increase in Social Media and Autism - Coincidence or Causal?

Over the last 4 decades, the number of children diagnosed with autism and related disorders has grown at an astonishing rate.  In the 1970s and 1980s, about one out of every 2,000 children was estimated to have autism.  In the year 2,000, with a broader definition and better diagnosis, the CDC estimated that one in 150 8-year-olds in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.  

Since that time, prevalence rates have increased 10 - 17% annually.  By 2012, the ASD estimate had risen to 1 in 68 8-year-olds.  “There is no established explanation for this increase.” 

Autism/ASD is mental disorder caused by variations in the brain’s development.  These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communications, and repetitive behaviors.  More specifically, children with autism demonstrate either “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors, and deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.”

I became interested in this issue because a close friend of mine has custody of a grandchild who has ASD.  Recently my friend asked me, because I had written the book, Raising a Happy Child, if I had any ideas on what might help his interactions with the child.  Knowing very little about the disorder, I did some quick research which uncovered the information conveyed above.

What do we know about the cause of autism/ASD?  Prior to the 70s, autism was thought to be caused by bad parenting, “unloving mothers.”  That theory has been thoroughly debunked. 

Instead, research has shown that a number of genes are connected with autism.  Further, a number of environmental factors before and during birth, that influence early brain development and thus increase the risk, have been identified.  They include advanced parental age, maternal illness, extreme prematurity, very low birth weight, and certain difficulties during birth involving periods of oxygen deprivation.  Also, mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution may be at greater risk of having an autistic child.

Clearly, the factors identified by science to-date could not even begin to explain this rapid increase in the rate of autism/ASD.  In looking briefly at several recent symposia on the subject, no new ideas were identified.  There was just hope in identifying “modifiable risk factors” as we better understand why the prevalence of ASD has increased.

When I first read the definition of autism noted above, I had a “duh” moment.  The definition, with the possible exception of repetitive behaviors, almost exactly tracks what researchers are finding is the negative result of compulsive use of modern technology … the internet, computer games, smart phones, social media.  

We’ve all seen the phenomenon.   Whether on the subway, in the theater, on the street … people of all ages, not just the young but older Americans as well, seem unable or unwilling to be disconnected from their technology tool, their new umbilical cord, for an unnecessary moment.  It has become an addictive behavior. 

I knew from research I had done when writing my book that “stress in the womb can affect a baby's temperament and neurobehavioral development. ‘Who you are and what you’re like when you are pregnant will affect who that baby is,’ says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. ‘Women's psychological functioning during pregnancy – their anxiety level, stress, personality -- ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to ... the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom.’” So it certainly seemed possible that an obsessive compulsive social media addiction would have an impact.

After I had done my initial research, I responded to my friend and indicated my hunch that the appearance of the new technology and its compulsive use during pregnancy probably has a strong correlation with the increase in ASD prevalence.  He responded by telling me that, interestingly, the ASD boy’s mother had been a compulsive computer gamer, including during pregnancy, and also didn’t take very good care of herself.  The boy is also a compulsive gamer.

With that single confirmation, I decided to delve deeper into the existing research.  The new definition and diagnostic criteria for ASD was developed in the early 1990s.  It’s probably reasonable to assume that the difference between the estimated prevalence prior to the broadened criteria for ASD diagnosis and post are mostly due to the new criteria as well as greater awareness.

However, in the period since ASD was defined, the criteria has been constant and the awareness consistently high.  So what accounts for the rapid increase since that time?

If one looks more closely at the CDC prevalence estimates, one sees a pretty stable figure prior to 1996 births, 1 in 150.  This finding is almost identical with a British study done during the early 90s.  Between 1996 and 2004 births, however, the prevalence increased to 1 in 68 children.  

More recent CDC data are not available (the report on 8-year-olds in 2012, thus born in 2004, was issued in 2016).  However a report from a 2015 government survey of parents found that 1 in 45 children, age 3  - 17, have been diagnosed with ASD.  Since the source of the data is different, though, one can’t conclude that the prevalence has increased further.  It may indicate an increase or it may indicate that the CDC data source is not as accurate and that the earlier prevalence rates were actually higher.  Either way, it’s not good.

During this period of rapid ASD prevalence growth, commercial internet and social media use took off (in the late 1990s) and grew exponentially.  A Pew Research study found that between 2005 and 2013, the use of social media by adults increased from 7% to 62%.  Since then the increase has leveled off and the last reading was 65% in 2015.  This survey, however, did not measure frequency or duration of use, which from observation appears to have increased significantly.

While the Pew data start where the CDC data leave off, we nevertheless know from it that between the late 1990s when social media started to 2005, the usage rose from 0 - 7%.  A huge percentage increase.  If I’m on the right track, the scary question is what the set of CDC data will look like from children born after 2010.

And there’s one more point.  The current research assumes that all factors impacting ASD development cease the moment one is born.  It considers no post-birth environmental factors.  Yet research has shown that a child’s brain continues significant structural development at least until age 3, with further development continuing until adolescence.  

It’s a very common sight these days to see even 2-3 year-olds staring at their little screens, watching a program or game while in their strollers, accompanying their parents at a restaurant, or elsewhere.  It’s becoming the new pacifier.  I cannot but think that it will have an impact on autism prevalence.

I cannot go any further with this line of reasoning from the available data.  However, I think that the connection, being both evident and sufficiently strong, points to the need for the CDC, or other appropriate federal agency, to gather information on the computer/social media habits of mothers during pregnancy.  And that data needs to include not just how many sites she visits (as was the case with the Pew data), but the frequency and duration of her visits.  Since it does not appear that such data would be able to be retrieved through the CDC’s ADDM data gathering system, a survey would most likely have to be employed.  Data on toddlers’/young children’s exposure to computer games/programs also need to be gathered.

Testing my hypothesis is of upmost importance.  I would even say urgent, given the ubiquitous nature of obsessive social media use prevalent today in our society.  If indeed more children are being born with ASD due to this risk factor, then every pregnant woman needs to be given a health advisory to stay off social media during her pregnancy.  This should be treated no differently than advice given to pregnant women to avoid other harmful behavior, whether it’s smoking, taking drugs, or eating fish from contaminated rivers.  And the use of devices by toddlers should be restricted.

If my hypothesis is correct but left unaddressed, this development could have more impact on the future health and vitality of our country than almost any problem we are currently facing.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Changing the Direction of President Trump

Until two weeks ago, the political reality of the Trump administration had been defined by rabid feelings for it on the part of its core base of support, and rabid feelings against it on the part of the Democrat’s base.  This reality, and its reflection in Congress, left Trump feeling that his only hope for success was to do everything possible to please his core supporters, the only people he could depend on.

Trump has never been an ideologue.   He certainly has very little in common with his core supporters.  But he used what he knew would work to get himself elected.  I do not even believe that Trump is a racist, a homophobe, or a white supremacist/anti-semite, at least no more so than the average person.  But he is an opportunist and amoral, so he will do anything that he sees working to his benefit.

And therein lies the opportunity.  I have previously advised that the only hope of changing the direction of this administration, or at least ameliorating its harmful impact, is by convincing Trump that it is to his advantage to tone down if not shift his more damaging directives.  

How?  By showing him that his only hope for major legislative successes is by working with Democrats in Congress, not his Republican colleagues.  This has now begun to happen, thanks to the smart work of Senator Schumer.

He wants these successes badly.  Whether it’s on infrastructure, tax reform, or health care reform, Democrats can give him the successes he wants while at the same time forwarding their own agenda and helping the average person.  

It's a win-win situation, except for the most rabid elements of the Democratic left.  But those elements should not be the drivers of policy.  Their support will not determine the outcome of the 2018 mid-term elections.  It is the turnout by average working-class people and the poor that will make the difference.  

They must see that the Democratic party is working in very positive, direct ways to make their lives better.  Hillary lost in large part because of her loss of their strong support.  The Party must regain their trust and support.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Ever Wonder Why the World Is the Way It Is?

We live in a dysfunctional world.  Violence and conflict are all around us … within ourselves, within families, within societies, between nations.  How often do I hear people asking, “Why?”

The typical answer is some version of, “That’s just life,” or “It’s human nature.”  But that’s too easy and facile an answer.  The truth is more complicated and enlightening.  While it’s true that it is the way it is, it is not human nature; it’s human development.  That means it’s not inevitable; people can change.  We have a choice.

All religions depict life as a constant struggle between light and darkness.  In former times, that fight was often spoken of as being between God and the Devil. 

These days one hears little about the Devil for the same reason that most people don’t talk much about God.  The existence of these deities as external forces that control our lives, to whom we can on the one hand pray for deliverance or on the other bargain with for what we desire, just flies in the face of both our life experience and scientific knowledge.  Many have thus lost their belief in the God of our forefathers, if not declaring God dead.

But another concept of God is very much alive for those who walk the path of spirituality/mysticism … whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, or Christian Gnosticism.  Their truth is that the Buddha/God essence is within each of us from the moment of our birth and remains there throughout our life.  

But that divine essence becomes hidden from us over the years, buried by successive layers of our ego-mind’s reaction to life’s experiences.  We become wounded by those experiences.  We become lost to our true selves.  And so we walk the path to reconnect, to rediscover our true selves.  Our salvation comes from within us, not from some outside force.  And so the eternal struggle is seen as being between our heart/soul and our ego-mind.

While we learn that the Buddha was tempted by Mara, the Buddhist equivalent of the Devil, I have never, I believe, heard the Devil mentioned when speaking of the challenge of healing ourselves, of ending our suffering. The reference is rather to freeing ourselves from the control of our ego-mind, it being the true source of our suffering, not the events we experience.  As the Buddha said, to free ourselves of the conceit “I am” is the ultimate freedom.

Recently, however, I felt the presence of the Devil.  I was having dinner with a friend who knows he has to limit his consumption of alcohol.  But he said he wanted a second glass of wine that night.  And that after dinner he wanted to go to some bars and have a beer like he does when he travels with other friends of his.  Knowing I would disapprove and say “no,” the expression on his face when he talked was a mocking one, sly.  I was aware of the strangeness of it at the moment, but I didn’t recognize it.  Only when I meditated the next morning, did I realize that I had been in the presence of the Devil.

I now understand that just as in some religions the Devil is thought to be a fallen angel,  in Buddhism, as well as the mystic traditions, the Devil can be equated with our ego-mind, which is our internal fallen angel/Buddha/God nature.  We have become so wounded repeatedly over the years that the ego-mind has no trust, no faith, and is consumed by fear; it has become cynical about the world around us.  It has overpowered our true self to “protect” us; we are in its control.  And so the Devil, our own Devil, is inside each of us; it is the nature of our ego-mind.

Ernestine, the Flip Wilson drag character, used to say, “The Devil made me do it!” In comic strips, a person was sometimes portrayed with an angel sitting on one shoulder whispering in his ear and the Devil sitting on the other doing the same, being confused by the competing advice; a graphic depiction of our internal Devil as well as our internal God-essence.   We have all experienced that.  So the concept is not foreign to our culture or experience.

I have written in previous posts how all the conflict and violence in the world, whether in the home, workplace, society or between nations is a result of the insecurity that man acquires from his life experiences.  (See my posts, “The Root of All Abuse and Violence - Insecurity” and “Insecurity as the Cause of Social Conflict and International War.”)  

That the ego-mind is not only filled with the fear, anxiety and self-centeredness (and often aggression) caused by insecurity but through continued wounding has acquired the lack of faith, trust, and cynicism of the Devil makes the dysfunction we observe all that more intractable.  And it explains the specter of evil that we see in all corners of the world.

This is why the world is the way it is.  It’s not because people are bad … there is no such thing as a bad person, just people who do bad things … or that humans are flawed.  It’s because our life experience has made us insecure and our ego-minds have reacted in a way which makes us a threat to our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.  The greater our insecurity, the more of a threat we become.  At some point we become the Devil incarnate.

If one wants to save the world from itself, this insight offers a possible agent of change.  It may not only be very helpful in a practical way for those already struggling to free themselves from the control of their ego-mind, the control of their emotions and perceptions, it may encourage more people, both leaders and followers, to enter upon that path.

How?  We very much identify with our ego-mind.  Its feelings and perceptions are all we’ve known our entire life.  Even for those who walk the path of the spiritual/mystic traditions, while we come to learn that our feelings and perceptions are the cause of our suffering and are not a reflection of our true selves, the power of these feelings are often barely diminished because we find it hard to deeply disown them.  So powerful is the ego-mind.  

When push comes to shove, we always return to the perspective of our wounded self, our ego-mind.  We have not purged ourselves from its grip.  The roots in our self-perception go too deep.

Identifying the ego-mind with the Devil may be very helpful because that image does not conjure up “I.”  It conjures up instead trickery, deceit, doing something against one’s best interest, evil … which is in truth how the ego-mind operates and controls us.  

Most people, regardless their status in life, regardless their lack of spirituality, would not I believe want to self-identify with the Devil.  It thus may well open the door at least a crack to the light of their heart.  And encourage people to at least ponder walking the path in order to find the way to disown their ego-mind and say “no” to its guidance, thereby freeing themselves from its control and finding inner peace and happiness.

Each soul saved makes for a better world.  Religions have always taught that.  But now salvation rests with the individual, what he chooses to do with his life.  Whether he chooses light or darkness, peace or suffering, not with his belief in a God external to himself.  This spirituality is of the present moment.   Its reward is here and now in a life of peace and happiness, not a Heaven to be experienced after death.