Monday, February 28, 2011

Why Public Sector Workers Are Not the "New Welfare Queens"

Contrary to the outrageous charge by Governor Christie, neither teachers nor any other public sector workers are the “new welfare queens.”  Teachers, firemen, agency personnel … all of these people provide a valuable service to the state and to the community. 

Anyone who says that they are overpaid has not looked recently at salaries in the private sector where many, not just the top dogs, earn substantially more while providing questionable benefit to the community, other than shareholders.  And that brings me to a point totally forgotten in both the Republican attacks and the workers’ defense. 

The reason why workers in the public sector generally have better benefits than those in the private sector is not because their unions have a cozy relationship with government.  It’s because government executives felt that in order to attract good people to government employment, strong benefits were needed to offset the fact that they could never hope to achieve the type of salaries and bonuses that were available in the private sector if you were a strong performer.

Granted, not everyone is a strong performer.  But benefits, as opposed to wages and promotions, have never been tied to performance either in government or private settings.

As a secondary reason, many public sector employees work under very difficult conditions … think about teachers, firemen, and policemen.  The better benefits can be thought of as equivalent to combat pay.

There are without question many valid issues to be raised with teachers’ unions and others.  One can also make a strong argument that in difficult economic times, public sector workers must make some sacrifice along with everyone else … taking a pay cut, paying a higher percentage of medical insurance costs, etc.

And indeed, the unions in Wisconsin agreed almost immediately to such changes.  They understand the need. 

But to take away their collective bargaining rights and eliminate dues check offs, among other things, turns this from a valid state effort to cut costs to an invalid state effort to bust the unions.  And that is basically what Governor Walker is trying to do.

The Republicans are constantly talking about the need for sacrifice in these difficult times.  But why is it that the sacrifice they suggest always comes solely or mostly from the workers and the poor?  If the well-off were asked to sacrifice by giving up their Bush tax cuts, then the Republicans could make a moral argument that everyone must sacrifice, each according to his ability.

Instead they are just playing their usual game.  Take from the poor and workers; give to the rich.  They have no concern for the common good.  They are hypocrites masquerading as the party of the people.  They have no shame.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What If Ethics Is Antithetical to the American Ethos?

The financial crisis and the Deep Horizon oil spill have revealed once again an all-too-familiar pattern in American business and government.  Business takes risks without regard for the potential negative impact on the public, and government regulators who are supposed to police such activity choose instead to give business a free pass to do pretty much as they choose.

These two habitual behaviors in tandem pose grave risks to the common good on a daily basis.  And so, there was much talk again about cleaning house in government agencies and promulgating new regulations.  And some minor progress was achieved.

But it seems to me that all this talk misses an important point … the proverbial elephant in the room … these problems at their core reflect a lack of ethics in American business and government.   Which raises the question, what role does ethics play in the American ethos?  By ethics here I mean a system of moral principles, the values relating to human conduct by which the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions are judged.

The American ethos has been defined in various ways … all related.   It is said to have capitalism and democracy at its core; it is said to be competitive; it is said to be a land of opportunity for all.  None of these implies or even necessarily encourages ethical behavior.

Interestingly, these definitions of the American ethos while in part related to our founding documents are quite different in their perspective.  For example, it is quite different to say that, “all men are created equal” as opposed to “equal opportunity for all.”  The latter means that anyone should be able to get ahead in life.  That is more a statement of the grounds of competition than the ethical statement that, “all men are created equal.”  The contention of many on the right that we are a religious country is also totally absent from these definitions of our ethos.

If we look at American politics, from the very beginning, politics has been rife with dirty tricks.  Even founding stalwarts Jefferson and Adams resorted to underhanded tactics in their battles against each other.

Then there are the ethical questions raised by a country founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and yet slavery was accepted and women did not have the right to vote.  Yes, these conditions existed elsewhere at the time, but nowhere else was a country founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  The ethical conflict cannot be denied. 

The Founding Fathers, however, were ultimately pragmatic souls who did what was necessary to achieve the birth of the new country.  It would take the Civil War to free the slaves, but their status in the South was not much improved until the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement.  Women did not get the right to vote until 1920.

During the expansion of the new country and the early stages of the industrial revolution, the government’s embrace of the capitalist system left business enterprise more or less free of any government oversight.   And as they became larger, corporations lost community contact; they became impersonal anonymous enterprises that were concerned only about acquiring wealth and power.  The result was a rapacious system in which the powerful exploited the weak … owners exploited workers, powerful companies devoured weaker ones.  The concept of ethical behavior was absent.

But by the dawn of the 20th Century, progressive ideas founded on the words of the Declaration of  Independence began to take hold in government.  As a result, a series of laws were passed that both limited the power of business and provided a structure that gave workers the power to negotiate with employers.  Thus ethical behavior was imposed on the capitalist system by government.  During the Depression, more laws were passed that both regulated business and provided a safety net for the poor and the elderly.

America was looking more and more like an ethical society.    But that was mostly an illusion.  Where government or the courts did not impose ethics that conformed to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the people, business, and government, especially at the local level, continued to exhibit a lack of ethical standards.   The business world was all about competition and getting away with what one could.  Local government corruption was commonplace.  In the larger society, prejudice and discrimination was prevalent, not just against blacks and women, but against Jews as well.

From this historical perspective, ethics was never part of the American ethos.   To the extent it broadly existed, it was because it was imposed from above, not because it was part of the very fiber of the people. 

But at some point after WWII, it seemed to become more expected for business, people, and government to act ethically.  We were now the leader of the free world and we needed to act like the leader.  Especially at the level of national politics, decorum and courtesy went beyond a formality and was genuinely part of an ethical culture.

Then came the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Suddenly, the ethical fa├žade began to crack.
And Richard Nixon opened the window for an unethical operative like Lee Atwater to begin his rise in Republican politics. 

Almost single-handedly Atwater brought about the nasty, unethical, political culture we have today … at least on the part of Republicans … where the only thing that matters is winning.  Where business, freed of regulation whether formally or through malfeasance of the regulators, has acted as one would expect, having little concern for the public impact of their actions and only concerned with making money.  And where the famous “me” generation of Ronald Reagan has lost a feeling of responsibility for their fellow man. A cynicism about government and authority arose among the people.

America thus seen has merely reverted to its underlying ethos, free of the constraints of a progressive mindset that had brought order to the unruly world of capitalist democracy.  But if we wish to be a great nation, be true to our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and do justice to all of the people, then the progressive moment in our history must be restored among Republicans and Democrats alike.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Obama’s Budget – Where Is the Leader We Elected?

Everyone … well almost everyone … agrees that the United States’ budget deficit is something that must be addressed now if we want to maintain the financial stability of this country.  And everyone also agrees that given the size of the projected deficits, the net reduction on a yearly basis needs to be huge.

Three different nonpartisan/bipartisan groups came out with reports several months ago about how to reduce the deficit.   While they differed in their details, they were all consistent in that any serious effort must combine cuts in all areas, including especially defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as selective tax increases.  

Without that breadth of cuts combined with tax increases, there would be no way of cutting the deficit sufficiently while apportioning the resulting sacrifice in a just way.  The pain of austerity needs to be shared by all while limiting its impact on the weakest in our society.

The Republicans, who are serious about cutting the deficit, have put entitlements and defense cuts off the table, they have put tax increases off the table, and they have declared that the impact of tax cuts on the deficit would not be considered.  Given the size of their proposed cuts, this is a prescription for massive pain primarily for workers and the poor.  The sacrifice would not be a shared one.

And what has President Obama proposed in his 2012 budget?  A timid approach to cuts combined with increased investments in various areas resulting in an admittedly insufficient attack on the deficit.  What he said was that any moves to tackle cuts to the entitlements would have to be bipartisan.  Defense seems to be pretty much off the table for him too.

Where is the leader that we elected?  Where is the change that we want?  With the backing of the three studies on how to reduce the deficit, the President would have had good cover to put forward a bold budget that incorporated many of their suggestions.

Had he done so, he then could have said to the Republicans, “Your way is not the American way …it is not the fair and just way to reduce the deficit.  My proposal is a proposal for shared sacrifice across the entire spectrum of America’s populace and business community, incorporating a “means” test:  those that can most afford it sacrifice the most; those that can least afford it sacrifice the least.”

That is what I would have expected from the President.  That is what needs to happen to move the debate forward in a constructive fashion.  Are there people left in the halls of power who will rise to the occasion?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Robin Hoods in Reverse – Republicans Take From the Poor and Give to the Rich

 I don’t know how the Republicans get away with it.  In the budget cutting debates, they keep saying that people must sacrifice because the situation is so serious.   That statement is fine in the abstract.

But why is it that all the sacrifice that they are proposing is going to come from workers and the poor.  Whether its as beneficiaries of the domestic programs and services that are being gutted or public service workers whose collective bargaining rights they want to end, the sacrifice is coming from those who can least afford it.  And since these cuts will hurt state and local economies and increase unemployment, they will receive a double whammy.

Meanwhile, the rich and near rich … who have done very nicely during the financial crisis … aren’t being asked to sacrifice anything.  Instead, they get tax cuts!  Whatever happened to the concept of "shared sacrifice?"

When are the people in this country, including those in the Republican base who are not well off, going to rise up and tell these jokers, “Enough! You do not have a mandate to do us harm.  If there must be sacrifice, it must be apportioned justly.”  They need to hear from the people.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Waffling on Israeli Settlements - The Establishment Wins Again

From the outset of his administration, President Obama has clearly and forcefully stood against Israel’s settlement policy.  In his Cairo speech he said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.  This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace.”

Yesterday though the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling the settlements illegal … basically saying what the President said in his Cairo speech.  As a matter of fact, the Palestinians were very careful to craft the language of the resolution to match language that the Obama administration has used on this issue.

Ambassador Rice said that the veto should not be misconstrued as our now approving of the settlements.  This statement misses the point.  It isn’t a question of whether we approve or not … clearly the Obama administration doesn’t.  It’s a question of whether the President will stand up for what he believes when the going gets tough.

How this action will be construed by Israel and the rest of the world is that regardless what the President thinks or feels, the United States will not stand with others to stop Israel when push comes to shove.   This will leave the Israeli’s feeling that they are free to do whatever they want and the Arab world feeling that the United States still can’t be an honest broker for peace. 

Contrary to Ambassador Rice’s statements, this action is a setback for peace.  And it is a setback to the President’s overtures to the Muslim world.

I have no way of knowing, of course, but I have the feeling that the President wanted to hang tough on this issue and at least abstain from voting.  But once again, as in case of Afghanistan and in Egypt, the foreign policy and military establishments have held sway and forced him to submit.   

The same thing is happening with Bahrain … I cannot believe that the President doesn’t want to say something forceful against the deplorable use of force to crush the protestors.  But that would be “against our strategic interests.”

The foreign policy and military establishments are stuck in the mindset of the past and their view of strategic interest is very short term.  Our autocratic allies in the Middle East will all be gone in the next few years.  In their place will be countries that will more likely be anti-American because of America’s historic support for those autocrats and its failure to get ahead of the curve on this issue and support the revolution that is occurring in an appropriate way. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.  But history will undoubtedly repeat itself and the United States, as it has often in the past, will lose the opportunity to be the beacon of freedom it should be and instead will be viewed as the front man for the military/industrial establishment.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Republicans Need a Reality Check

If ever there was a time for the silent majority to rise up and let itself be heard, it is now. 

The loudest group in the United States over the past two years has been the Tea Party.  Through its concerted activism it has managed to change the complexion of contemporary American politics.  It enlarged and aroused the Republican base, providing the Republican Party with its big 2010 House victory, and now it’s calling the tune, forcing the Republican House leadership to propose draconian cuts which would be harmful to state and local economies.

Yet look at who the Tea Party is.  According to a New York Times poll, only 18% of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters and they are wealthier and better educated than the general public.

They are angry, the poll found, about what they see as the undue support that the Federal government provides those less fortunate, especially African Americans.  Thus it’s not surprising that most of the cuts that Republicans propose are in social programs that help the poor and working class, as opposed to Social Security and Medicare, from which their base directly benefit.

Republicans say they have a mandate.  But recent polls consistently show that the majority of Americans, while wanting the deficit cut, don’t what programs cut, whether it’s the big ones like Medicare and Social Security or domestic programs like education, anti-poverty programs, and farm aid.  But since the Republicans have put entitlements and defense off the table, and tax increases have been ruled out, the only places to cut the deficit are those very domestic programs … and the proposed cuts are massive.

The silent majority must make themselves heard … they must call or email their Congressmen to let them know that they do not want these programs cut because it will further depress the economy and increase unemployment.  If they do not, the consequences for the nation will be dire.

We were all thrilled watching the Egyptians protest.  Surely Americans can pick up a phone or send an email to express their protest to these out-of-touch moves by the Republicans.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Islamophobia Has No Place in Our Democratic Society

Life for American Muslims has gotten more difficult in the wake of the Islamophobia that has swept across the land since last August’s “Ground Zero mosque” demonstrations.  Case in point: the Orange County, CA District Attorney recently filed criminal misdemeanor charges against Muslim students for disturbing a public meeting and conspiring to do so.

A year ago at the U. of California, Irvine, several Muslim students – members of the Muslim Student Union – disrupted the Israeli ambassador repeatedly during his speech at the university, shouting protests against Israel.   The students were removed from the hall and the MSU was suspended for a quarter.  The students were not disciplined.

The university’s action was appropriate.  Central to the concept of free speech in our democracy’s marketplace of ideas is the position that various points of view must be allowed to be voiced and heard.  As with most rights, however, there is a concomitant responsibility not to use that right to interfere with its exercise by another. 

By choosing to heckle the ambassador and interrupting his speech, as opposed to, for example, setting up a booth outside the entrance to the hall with banners voicing their feelings, they were attempting to shout him down, to force him to stop speaking, to silence him.  While there is a long tradition of heckling speakers in this country and elsewhere, such action is not the hallmark of a civil society and it is not uncommon for such protesters to be removed from the space by security guards or police.

The MSU was not disciplined for expressing its opinion as it had done frequently in the past without any university action.  It was disciplined for interfering with someone else’s right to be heard.  In the context, I think the suspension was reasonable.

However, the DA’s action is another matter.  It is highly unlikely that when someone disrupts a speech in Orange County and is removed, that person is typically prosecuted.  If my supposition is correct, then there is only one reason why these Muslim students were charged … Islamophobia.

A government official acting against individuals because of their race or creed is a violation of the 14th Amendment of our Constitution as well as Federal law.  There is no place in our society for toleration of such bias.

Indeed, there is no place in our society for the wave of Islamophobia that we have recently witnessed.  Yes, the United States and its citizens have been subjected to terrorist acts by Islamist militants.  But to take the actions of a violent few and transfer guilt or suspicion to all Muslims and treating them as the enemy is not reasoned action; it is not just action. 

Actually, Islamophobia has in an important sense little to do with 9/11.  During the nine years following that tragedy, while Muslims were clearly viewed more suspiciously by many, there was no public uprising like Islamophobia.   No, that occurred only when right-wing demagogues found a cause they could conflate into a roaring blaze … the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.”

The rage in various parts of the country surrounding Muslim communities wanting to build a mosque is embarrassing.  We have freedom of religion in the United States.  What does that mean, if not the right to build a house of worship for your religious observance. 

Muslim Americans are good Americans.  They as a group are no more a threat than German American citizens were during WWI and Japanese American citizens were during WWII.  That there are undoubtedly isolated radicals among them who wish to harm the United States does not alter that fact any more than the Timothy McVeigh’s and anti-government militias in this country could fairly implicate all white conservative Americans in supporting violent acts against the Federal government.

The demagogues of the right paint a world where an enemy is lurking around every corner, whether it’s an Islamist radical or a socialist liberal.  In former years it was a radical African American or a Communist Jew. 

Unfortunately, the followers who listen to these demagogues have swallowed their emotional diatribes hook, line, and sinker.  That is where the threat to our democracy lies, as well as from any person or group, regardless whether on the right or left, who preaches hate towards fellow Americans.  Hate makes rational discourse impossible, and rational discourse is the lifeblood of our democracy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When the Word is as Mighty as the Sword

There has been much talk recently about whether people can be held accountable for violence if their words didn’t actually incite the violence, but created a climate of hatred and fear that underpinned the violence.  From a legal perspective, certainly they cannot be held responsible.  However, are they morally responsible?

Two recent cases are on point.  The first concerns the incident in Tucson in which a deranged person with strong anti-government feelings shot and killed or injured twenty people.  Many liberals pointed to Sarah Palin’s infamous “crosshairs” map as well as her “reload” language as having some responsibility for the incident.  To which she replied that she abhorred violence and that such an accusation was a blood libel.

But Sarah Palin has a history of fomenting hostility and violence.  The “reload” call and the rifle crosshair map are just more relevant to the current incident.

During the 2008 election campaign and the health care debate, Palin frequently painted Obama as a hostile enemy, not a “real” American, who “palled around with terrorists” and was a socialist.  As a result, her audiences became increasingly hostile, calling out  “terrorist” and “kill him” on numerous occasions.  Not once did Palin repudiate the violence of her audience.

In the second case, a group of Evangelical Christians went to Uganda to press their message that the “homosexual agenda” was evil and that homosexuals sodomize teenage boys.  To put it mildly, they found a receptive audience and the result was a proposed law under which homosexuals would be executed simply for being homosexual. 

While consideration of that bill was put on hold due to international condemnation, a local paper published photos and addresses of key gay activists with an accompanying anti-gay diatribe, after which one was hammered to death in his home.  Here again, the Evangelicals reacted with horror to the crime and said that in no way did they promote or provoke anti-gay violence.

Yes, to paraphrase the NRA, “people kill, not words.”   So Palin cannot be blamed for the Giffords’ shooting and the Evangelicals cannot be blamed for the Uganda murder.  However, their incendiary deceitful words can be blamed for creating an atmosphere of fear and violence towards, on the one hand, Obama and liberal democrats as the enemy, not just opponents, and on the other towards gays as a threatening Satanic force.

A deranged man pulled the trigger and struck the hammer blows, but Palin and the Evangelicals were a force that help point the gun and raise the arm in violence.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Opposition to Climate Change: Reasoned or Self-Interest?

The Republicans are moving forward in their opposition to climate change.  As the New York Times reported recently, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives will push legislation stating that the EPA does not have authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.   They have already done away with the House subcommittee responsible for climate change.   While this bill will most likely not succeed in the Senate, Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, has proposed a bill that would put off any new regulations regarding power plants and other industrial sources for two years.

Despite all the evidence, historic and current, that climate change is upon us and is to a large extent caused by the polluting effect of human industrial and other energy-related activities, there are those, both scientists and politicians, who do not believe this is true.  They either deny that climate change is happening or that it is caused by human activity as opposed to the cycles of nature.  Why?

There is no rational reason for doubting the facts of climate change.  While those who are skeptics have sought to poke holes in the evidence, either by claiming that Climategate showed that the evidence has been manipulated by climate activists or questioning how there can be global warming when the United States and Europe has been experiencing the coldest and snowiest winters in years, these claims have no basis. 

There was no falsification of data found in Climategate and the global warming pattern of climate change is not contradicted by the cold winters we’ve been having.  Overall, we have experienced the hottest years on record and temperatures at both poles and in the ocean are clearly rising.

When you look behind the smoke screens and bluster, one comes up with an answer very much in keeping with human nature and our culture … greed.   Whether it’s scientists who are dependent on the energy industry for the funding of their projects, or it’s Republican politicians whose first interest is always protecting the interests of their big business corporate donors, or it’s a Democrat from West Virginia, a state where politicians regardless of party receive significant financial backing from the local coal industry, the answer is the same.

These people are more concerned with their own personal self-interest then they are with the common good of their countrymen or mankind.  While this is not an uncommon human character trait, and it is certainly not a new trait among politicians, the increasing influence of corporate and financial interests in Congress over the past 30 years is very disturbing. 

Government officials … whether elected or employed … are responsible for doing the people’s work, of acting to further the common good.  President Lincoln coined the phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  The Republicans and some Democrats have instead sought to nurture government of industry, by industry, and for industry. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Republicans Seek to Fool the People

Republicans are out to prove that indeed you can fool some of the people all of the time.

Republicans say they are out to cut the deficit. Now, all studies on cutting the deficit have said a combination of spending cuts … across all areas, including defense and entitlements … and tax increases will be necessary. 

But not only have they ruled out any tax increases, they have exempted tax cuts from an examination of their impact on the deficit.  Thus they demanded that the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 be extended despite the $100 billion negative impact on the deficit in just the two-year extension period.

Republicans also say they will create jobs.  But they have not indicated how they plan on addressing this goal … the discredited Reagan-era theory of the trickle down impact of tax cuts hasn’t even been broached.  Worse, by proposing to reduce the deficit solely by huge budget cuts in limited areas of the budget … they’ve taken defense and entitlements off the table … they will likely have a depressing impact on the economy at the state and local level and actually increase unemployment.

Republicans claim they are following the wishes of the people.  Yet contrary to their claimed mandate, recent polls of the public have consistently found that the deficit is not a top concern if cutting it has a negative impact on them.  They want job creation.

True to form, the Republicans are once again being hypocrites.  Their only real interest is protecting their wealthy corporate and banking industry donors.  Their policies show no concern for the average person or the common good.

Wake up, America!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Keeping Egypt from Becoming Another Iran

Once again, American foreign policy finds itself behind the curve of events, supporting the status quo while urging reform, supporting a repressive establishment against the interests of the people.

American foreign policy has always been pragmatic, and indeed, it must be. At its core, however, our foreign policy should be consistent with the principles this country has always said it stands for—democracy, freedom, human rights, and the legitimate aspirations of all people as voiced in the Declaration of Independence.

President Eisenhower expressed this philosophy powerfully in his famous Farewell Address:

We yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched . . . strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment. . . . Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, January 17, 1961

But if we look at America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and indeed throughout most of the world, we find instead that U.S. foreign policy has been based primarily on the military and industrial interests of the United States—a very narrow definition of our national security interests. American foreign policy has virtually never been based on what is in the best interests of the people of a country because the military/industrial establishment views popular movements as inherently anti-American, which has in fact become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Of course, our government always seeks to portray its policy when possible as being for the betterment of the people.  Thus the Vietnam War was about protecting the South Vietnamese from the domination of the Communist North, and Iraq was, belatedly, to free the Iraqis from the yoke of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.  But in reality, that was not why the United States invested its blood and treasure in these efforts.  It was instead to protect its military/industrial interests.

How different the world would be today if the United States weren’t trapped in this conservative view of the world. What if instead of supporting governments that oppress their people, we supported the people in furtherance of our strategic long-term interests? 

One example of a lost opportunity was when Ho Chi Minh approached President Truman about providing support to his movement.  He was not anti-American although a Communist.  How might that have changed the events in Southeast Asia? 

Likewise whether it was support for the Shah of Iran or the assassinations of President Salvador Allende of Chile and President Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the American government consistently has taken a conservative view inconsistent with the principles of our country.  And we have paid the price, in that the result has usually not been favorable for American strategic interests, except perhaps in the short term. 

Most recently, the tragedy of 9/11 and the rise of terrorism to a large extent flow from this failed foreign policy.  We must acknowledge that in the long-term, our foreign policy perspective has often been counter-productive.

U.S. foreign policy should instead support democracy around the world … through peaceful means, not imposition by American force … regardless of whether the resulting government is pro- or anti-American. Our policy must also show true concern and support for the legitimate economic needs and political aspirations of the people in Third World countries.

If through such policy actions we come to be seen as truly supporting the people rather than the governments that oppress them, then many countries that liberate themselves and their inhabitants would no longer be anti-American.  They might not be allies, but at worst they would be neutral, thus greatly increasing our national security.

The current events in Egypt are a case in point where America could pay dearly for its policy mistakes.  Because of our historic support for President Mubarek, as well as our support of Israel, the general mood of the “street” in Egypt is anti-American. 

Even though President Obama sincerely wants to improve relations with the people of Egypt and the other Muslim countries and spoke to them eloquently at the beginning of his term, his actions have spoken louder to them.  There has been no real change in American foreign policy vis a vie the Arab world.  He is trapped in the system that Eisenhower warned against.

What America is doing in Egypt is trying to find a way to support the establishment and thus current strategic interests while opening the door for freedom of expression and for the opposition to take part in government.  But proposing an interim government headed by the ex-security chief and current Vice President Suleiman, who would negotiate with the opposition while Mubarek is still on the scene, is almost bound to fail. 

It is highly unlikely that the Egyptian power structure is ready to give up its grip on power in future elections.   And it is unlikely that the opposition will trust anything Suleiman says.  Indeed, why would they trust the man who was in charge of crushing them? 

The “negotiations” that occurred today were not surprising therefore in their result.  Suleiman claimed progress on the issues and consensus while insisting that Mubarek stay till the elections; that was the spin that was put on the meeting in the government media.  The opposition said that nothing was accomplished and that demonstrations will continue.

The United States needs to be more daring and at a minimum come out clearly in support of the people and urge Mubarek to leave now.  For unless he agrees to go now, there will be no orderly transition. 

Further, we must use our close contacts with the Egyptian military to insure that they are a force for change. They will be the determining factor in whether real change occurs peacefully, or whether the revolution grows violent. Without pressure from the military, it is highly unlikely that the Egyptian power elite will ever agree to give up power peacefully.  And the military will only press for change in the power structure if they see it as being in their own interest.  That’s where America’s influence must come to bear. 

It is not too late to save Egypt from becoming another Iran.  Our goal should be to encourage the development of a country like Turkey … a country that blends secularism and Islam, engages an independent foreign policy, and has close relations with both the West and the Arab world.  While this may be less convenient than the old arrangement, if the choice is between another Iran or a Turkey, I think the choice is clear as to America’s best interests.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Truth in Politics: De-Frauding American Politics

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”  With those words, an Army lawyer took Senator Joe McCarthy to task and helped end McCarthy’s destructive un-American witch-hunt.  The time has come to say the same to the Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins of the chattering class and stop their vile perversion of our right to free speech.

American politics has always been rife with misleading statements and at times outright falsehoods.   Mendacity just seems to be an ever-present aspect of politics.  But during the past decade, and especially this past year, things have taken an especially nasty turn, becoming so aggressive and incendiary as to pose a real threat to the health and well-being of our nation’s democracy.

What has become of this country?   Time reported that a “plurality of Arkansans think that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.” The health care reform debate was hijacked by fears that the law would create “death panels” and that it contained “Hitler-like” policies. The silly fear that the reform legislation posed the threat of creeping socialism was by comparison quaint.

These are all incredulous positions that fly in the face of reality.   Why then do so many Americans, not just a small radical fringe, hold these beliefs so adamantly?  The answer is clear … political commentators they respect, such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, have taken to extreme demagoguery to create a rabid, angry voter block.  Perhaps even more damning, not a single Republican member of Congress has refuted these scurrilous accusations.  Some old-line conservative commentators did call these lies for what they are, but unfortunately, they don’t carry much weight these days.

If actors on the political scene are so callous with the truth, if they feel no ethical constraints, if they have no shame, we have reached a point where the American people need a Truth In Politics law to protect them.

To this suggestion, both liberals and conservatives will no doubt react with horror and raise the flag of the Constitution’s 1st Amendment right of free speech.   But the right of free speech is not absolute.  Courts have long recognized that one cannot cry “fire” in a crowded theater because of the threat to the public safety that would result.  Inciting to riot is also not protected by the 1st Amendment. 

More on point is the Truth in Advertising law that protects consumers from deceptive advertising.  Specifically, under Federal law, advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive; there must be evidence to back up any claims made; and ads cannot be unfair.  The law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

Why is this important exception made to the Constitution’s right of free speech?   The reasoning behind this, and other consumer protection laws, is that the consumer is at a disadvantage vis a vis the businesses that cater to them … in this instance because they don’t have the ability to reasonably determine for themselves the truthfulness of advertising claims and that they therefore might make purchase decisions that either actually cause harm or are otherwise detrimental to them.

If consumers can be protected from false and deceptive advertising, surely the general public should be protected from false and deceptive claims in political statements and advertising that are “likely to mislead and be detrimental.” The danger here is twofold … first, citizens will cast their vote or take other action in ways they wouldn’t if they knew the truth, acting contrary to their interests … such ads are thus another type of fraud used to alter election outcomes and policy decisions; second, these incendiary falsehoods are creating an emotional angry atmosphere making meaningful substantive debate on the issues impossible, thereby stifling the lifeblood of American democracy … the marketplace of ideas.

Those opposed to a Truth in Politics law will say that there is still ample opportunity for individual citizens to determine the truth, that public debate exposes all falsehoods.  That’s the point of free speech.  There’s even a website,, that enables people to check the accuracy of statements made by politicians.

But this argument does not reflect the polarized nature of today’s politics and body politic.  In today’s world, if you are on one side, and someone on the other side says that your leader is lying, there’s no chance of that being heard or believed.   Fact-checking is only done by people who are rational, who are seeking the truth.  Since so much of today’s debate appeals to the emotions, reasoned thought is a scarce commodity.

Opponents will also say that falsehoods and appeals to emotion are nothing new in American politics. While that is certainly true, statements spread at a different pace and depth in today’s information age.  The impact of media political commentators, the internet, and You Tube videos is such that a new phrase has been coined … a charge is said to “have gone viral” because it has spread so rapidly and so broadly.   While charges can be, and have been, refuted, there is no chance for the damage to be stemmed.

No, much as it goes against my grain and the grain of most Americans, we have reached that point where to save our democracy, we must enact a Truth in Politics law.  We can no longer depend on ethics or rational thought to save us from the demagogues.

Blog Mission Statement

Our nation stands under attack … not from without, but from within.  Both our politics and our culture have been corrupted.

Politics on both the right and left are ever more polarized.  We cannot be a great or strong country if the people and their politicians view fellow Americans who happen to have opposing points of view in an us v them mode, as the enemy; we can only progress if we are united, albeit with differing perspectives on how to go about things.  And our culture caters to the worst aspects of capitalism with ethics and concern for the common good falling to the demands of greed and competition.  The same issues are present throughout much of the world today.

One central aspect of the problem is that our country and much of the world is bereft of spiritual values.  Now right here we have a definitional problem.  I am not referring to the values hawked by born-again Christians in this country, or Islamists in Muslim countries, or the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.   Because interestingly, in almost all cases, the “spiritual” or “moral” positions taken by these self-righteous people go against core tenets of their own religion.  

On the other hand, you have the majority of people, at least in the United States, who claim to believe in God but are not spiritual in any meaningful sense; their lives are totally a creature of contemporary culture.  Their spiritual core is if not empty sorely depleted.

It will be the mission of this blog to look at current events, be they political or cultural, from a spiritual, not religious, perspective, with relevant support from our founding documents, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.   Remember when it was popular for Christians to wear bracelets that said, “What would Jesus do?”  That’s basically the question that this blog asks, but from a larger spiritual perspective.

I will take as my perspective the common teachings that are at the core of the spiritual/moral constructs of all the world’s great religions … Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Greed is the root of all evil.
Put away lying; speak every man truth.

Only when these maxims are followed will we achieve “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” and realize the goals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that “governments are instituted to secure” the equality of all men and their “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”