Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Destructive Impact of Our Us v Them Perspective

During this holiday season, I think it timely to address a fundamental problem in the development of human societies ... the us v them mentality.  People band together in groups ... whether formally or informally ... because they feel something in common and want to be part of a group, not alone, often to increase their security.  Unfortunately, most groups form their identity by differentiating themselves from others which quickly transforms into us v them, competition, and often conflict.  

We see the world as made up of some people like us, and a mass of people not like us who would exercise power over us to our disadvantage if they had the ability.  The impact of this dynamic is not surprising. And it has been the basis for the development of human societies for millennia, if not from the beginning of man.

Since all mankind ... regardless our race, color, religion, nationality ... descended from a common ancestor in Africa, how did this come to be?  It is probably a safe bet that the first society was a communal one, but at some point, someone in the group wasn’t happy and split off and formed another group, and then competition for resources began and conflict began.  You have the same pattern in animal societies ... they are communal within the group but often fiercely territorial and aggressive towards other like groups.

Although man has a brain and can think, as he has advanced technologically his basic brain patterns have not altered at all.  Man is today working with the same brain that first evolved 100,000 years ago.  And so he still sees himself in an inevitable security/conflict mode.

How sad, because we are all children of the same God.  Regardless what you call your God, whether that God is responsive to prayer, a moral force, or an amoral force, or whether you see the development of the world and its species as a scientific progression and survival of the fittest and that is your “God,” we all are literally children of the same God, we all stem from an original source.

And we all have something else in common ... the suffering of mankind is universal.  There is no one, regardless how rich or how poor, who does not suffer because we are all afflicted with feelings of insecurity.

What a different world it would be if everyone felt that everyone else in the world was one with them and vice versa.  How different it would be if we followed the moral prescription of all religions to do unto others as you have them do unto you.  What if we gaged our every action by the impact it would have on others, and if others were in any way harmed we would cease or alter our actions?

There would be no war, there would be no poverty, there would be no lack of access to \quality education or quality medical care.  There would still be people who were richer or poorer, but the extent of inequality would be greatly reduced.

Who do I blame most for this continuing cancer on the soul of humanity?  The world’s major religions.  They are the force that has perpetuated more us v them feeling and violent conflict than any other force over the millennia.  Even when the conflict wasn’t religious, they have stepped up to support their nation states or communities in aggressive actions against others.

Yet the major religions are the principle holders of moral authority in the world.  They could, with a united voice, change this dynamic or at least begin the process of changing the dynamic.  They should be able to rise above their claims to exclusivity and embrace the equality of all religions as well as those who profess no religion..

I know that this will never happen.  Historical forces and our habit-energies would overwhelm any attempt to change this societal dynamic.  Nevertheless, this is what the world needs and I pray that a voice, or voices, rise to proclaim this truth and further peace on earth.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Hate Speech - The TIme Has Come to Regulate It

Hate speech is defined as “speech that attacks and is an incitement to hatred of a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”  Hate speech is not a rational discussion of the pros and cons of a group’s values or actions.  It is targeted solely at the listener’s emotions.

There has always been a lot of hate speech in this country, but over the past few decades, it seems to be getting worse.  As in the past, hate speech is directed against various groups ... gays and lesbians, people of color, immigrants, pro-choice women and their doctors, Muslims ... with the object of either inciting the public to act against these groups, often through legislative action but also often through violence, or just denigrating their value as human beings.

Such speech has been deemed protected by the 1st Amendment’s right of free speech.  While that right is not absolute, the only limitations on speech approved by the U.S. Supreme Court have been incitement that created a clear and present danger of violence or illegal action, libel and slander, obscenity, “gag” orders to insure justice, or protecting consumers from false advertising, for example.

In each of these cases, someone was being harmed in a way that could not be practically countered in the “marketplace of ideas,” which is the function of free speech in a democracy.  While most European countries, and some others, banned hate speech after WWII because of the Nazi experience, the United States has not seen fit to do that.  The reasoning being that unless there was a clear and present danger, the hateful speech could be countered in the marketplace of ideas by other speech.

This reasoning may have had some validity in the pre-internet, pre-cable TV era.  But now it is a specious argument.  We live in an era where many people lead very polarized, insular lives.  Because of the advent of the internet and cable television, people now can and do listen only to news and pundits that agree with their point of view.  If they hear an opposing viewpoint, they dismiss it out of hand as being biased or ill-informed.

We also live in an age where information goes viral, which is to say that like a virus, the information spreads very quickly.  Given these two factors, together with the fact that guns are readily available and there seems to be less inhibition to using them against people, hate speech has a heightened  ability to cause a clear and present danger to the physical or mental well-being of an individual or group of individuals.  And it therefore should be banned.

Interestingly, the loudest opponents of such a law would be liberals, for whom the right of free speech is sacrosanct.  But as discussed, the right is not absolute, and such a law would not be a “slippery slope” leading to further restrictions on free speech.

Regarding those who create hate speech, they should not be able to disingenuously claim the protection of free speech.  The court has made clear that people are to be protected from a clear and present danger of violence.  In the case of much hate speech, it is clearly the intent of the speaker or writer to foment violence against individuals or groups based on an emotional hatred.  That one has no way of knowing whether someone will act on that incitement should not protect such speech.  By the time someone acts, it is too late.

And for those many instances in which hate speech deals with a legislative agenda, it should also be banned.  While there is certainly time for opposing viewpoints to be aired, the marketplace of ideas is not functioning very well in our current polarized internet/cable TV environment.  

But more fundamentally, hate speech has no place in a civilized society.  Just as a society has the right to protect consumers from false advertising and children from obscenity, society has the right and I would say the duty to protect people from hate speech.  Both the haters and those who are the object of hate suffer as a result of such speech.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Self-Help Scam

The self-help industry is huge.  Although numbers are hard to come by, in 2008 Nielsen Bookscan reported that 13.5 millions self-help books were sold in the U.S.  The self-help industry is said to be worth around $11 billion annually, including seminars, DVDs, etc.

Obviously, lots of people are crying out for help.  They feel miserable or frustrated about their lives in various ways, whether it’s their relationships, work, family, or personal development.

And it’s no small wonder because we live in a culture which is extremely competitive and which is constantly sending us messages, whether through the media or through family and peers, that we need to be more than we are, we need to have more than we have.  We live in a culture which creates feelings of insecurity from almost day 1 after birth.  As insecure people, we cannot develop and maintain good relationships.  And we cannot be satisfied with anything we achieve; regardless how successful or powerful, we always want more in order to remain happy.  Our culture has created a collective monster.

This is the context within which the self-help industry thrives.  And it is the context in which it ultimately fails the people it supposedly is trying to help.  The problem is that as soon as you fall into the trap of feeling there is something about yourself that needs “fixing” or “improving,” there is no hope because you are buying into the culture’s hype.

And that is why, despite the tens of millions of people who read and are otherwise drawn to the advice of self-help gurus, nothing really changes in their lives or in the world.  Yes, a few “make it.”  But the vast majority get nowhere even if they faithfully follow the advice given.  If these books worked as advertised, the world would become far less dysfunctional and vast numbers of people would feel better about their lives.

No, the problem lies not with individuals, it lies with the culture and the way it impacts everyone in it.  No one can escape it.  We are all a product of our learned experience ... whether from family, peers, or the larger culture.  But it all comes back to the culture.

Our ego is the repository and protector of these learned experiences.  It drives our lives and controls our actions based on these learned experiences which at their core are based on insecurity.  As such it is the font of our neuroses that cause us so much fear, anxiety, anger, and general suffering.  It is the reason why few of us ever feel at peace or find true happiness.

Since you can’t change the culture, we have two options.  The one is to change ourselves in a way so that we have a better fit with the culture and thus do better in our interactions with it.  Succeed on its terms.  That is the basic tact of self-help books.  And it doesn’t work because our culture feeds upon and manipulates everyone in it.  And thus we can never find real happiness or peace going that route.

The other option is to change the way we interact with the culture ... to interact with it on our terms.  To realize with great clarity what it is and how it operates, how our learned experiences have impacted us and caused us endless suffering, and how we can step back from this manufactured ego and find our true selves ... strong, secure, happy, and at peace. Freeing ourselves from the cravings that our learned experience promotes ... that is the source of peace and contentment, happiness and yes, even joy.

And that, my friends, is the Buddhist path.  Ending our suffering not through the process of psychoanalysis or self-help improvement, but by understanding how our feelings and perceptions, while feeling very real, actually have no inherent reality and are just a product of our learned experience ... and learning that by freeing ourselves from this known, from our ego, we can discover again our true selves and see ourselves and the world around us as we and it really are, without the distorting filter of our learned experiences, our thinking mind.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What Has Man Wrought?

Throughout the ages, man in “civilized” societies has felt that he is superior to all other elements on this planet.  Man to put it mildly has been very full of himself when it comes to his place in the scheme of things.  Western man (which is to say followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition) even saw himself as being made in God’s image.

After all the millenia of hype, the question must be asked, has the advent of man on this planet been of benefit, either to the other elements of the planet or even to man?  What has man wrought?

Before the advent of civilized societies, the natural world functioned in a very symbiotic and pure fashion. There was nothing is this world that was despoiled.  Primitive man, up to and including the Native American Indians, had great respect for all the natural elements and lived in total harmony with them.

With the advent of civilized societies (at least Western ones; I cannot speak to the other early civilizations), and certainly since the industrial revolution, man has despoiled the environment, to a greater extent with each passing year.  “Progress” for mankind has meant degradation or extinction of the natural environment.

And what of man’s benefit to man?  At a minimum, that depends on which side of the power divide you’re standing.  

Some examples.  Starting with the growth of ancient civilizations, the powerful often dominated those they conquered by making them slaves.  Slavery as a business proposition had (and in some parts of the world still has) a long tradition that began before the start of carrying slaves to the new world.  Under the guise of “the white man’s burden” and “spreading God’s word,” European nations plundered and destroyed native civilizations around the world.  In our own country, the American government practiced what can only be called genocide against the Native American Indian.  Certainly, if man was benefiting man, it was only the strong benefiting themselves.

“O.K.,” you may say,  “all of this is true but look at the incredible progress that man has brought to mankind.”  Man has always touted the concept of progress, of an ever-improving life with each technological innovation.  Remember G.E.’s slogan, “Progress is Our Most Important Product” or DuPont’s, “Better Living Through Chemistry”?  The slogans are gone, but contemporary marketing makes the same case through manipulative images and ad copy.

There is no question that man is better off materialistically than he was in the past.  But is he happier?  Is he better off spiritually than he was hundreds of years ago?  I would argue that the answer is probably, “no.”  As he moved from the land to the city, man lost his connection to the land, his feeling of belonging and purpose.  He lost his roots and it has been getting worse with each generation.  Life may have been very hard, but there was a spirituality (not religiosity) to man’s life which provided a feeling of self-worth and an innocent happiness.  

Modern man, whether living in a major city or in the country, is totally a creature of modern culture.  He is manipulated as to what he thinks, what he wants, what he buys.  Whether it’s politics or business, it’s all about marketing, selling.  And because of our culture of competition and consumerism, we are manipulated to always want more and not be satisfied with what we have and who we are.  We have lots of stuff, but also lots of debt.  It is a system which fosters frustration, dissatisfaction, and depression.  

This is not to say that man (and of course in using this term I am including women and children) did not suffer from depression and frustration in earlier years.  But the breadth and depth of it in contemporary life is far greater.

Finally, there is the question of whether man has even benefited those closest to him ... his immediate family.  I cannot say what family life was like in ancient times.  But as man moved from primitive communal societies to “civilized” societies of a non-communal and later capitalist nature, man became an insecure animal, left to his own devises to fend for himself.  

As I argue in my book, Raising a Happy Child, insecure people raise insecure children and the cycle is never ending.  Thus we find ourselves today in a world filled with insecure people.  Regardless how powerful or rich someone may be, deep down that person is typically very insecure.  And whether in the family or at work, insecure people cannot develop strong, healthy relationships.  Certainly not ones based on unconditional love and trust.  Their insecurity has a powerful impact on how they view themselves and the world around them.  That is why our world is so dysfunctional, whether you look at family relationships, the political landscape, or the relationships between nations.

And so, the answer to what has man wrought is much degradation and misery.  We seem to be an evolutionary experiment gone awry.  Although we have advanced in many ways over the millenia, our brains (as opposed to our knowledge) have not advanced or evolved.  We are still functioning with a brain that nature developed for primitive man 150,000 years ago.  And that brain is not equipped to handle the changes that have occurred in human society over those years.  Our ability to think has unfortunately not made us better human beings.

Is there a way out?  A better way?  Yes.  In my book, Raising a Happy Child, as well as my various Buddhist books, I try to present a cohesive, positive answer for my fellow man.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Ultimate Failure of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life

Rick Warren wrote an amazingly successful spiritual book, The Purpose Driven Life.  According to amazon.com, it has sold more hardback copies than any other non-fiction book in history and it is the most-translated book in the world, except for the Bible.  Recently a new edition was published.  

If so many tens of millions of people have read his book, where is the great change that should be occurring in the world?  The point is that it isn’t.  It’s like the Bible.  Untold millions of people have read and reread the Bible, many with great fervor, but there are precious few who truly walk in Christ’s shoes, who do what Jesus would do.  The same is true for Jews and those of other religions.  As the saying goes, they may talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

What is going on here?  Why are there so many people who are reborn Christians or are similarly reconnected with other religions, and yet we have seen no increase in peace and love, in the lack of suffering in this world?  If anything, this reconnection to spiritual roots seems to have increased the divide among people, the us v them mentality, that is so endemic among the religious evangelical or ultra-orthodox.  Perhaps that’s because it’s much easier to focus on their love of God, their sense of community, and the form or rituals of religion rather than the essence of His teaching.

To examine the book’s ultimate failure in this regard, look for example at Day 16 of The Purpose Driven Life.  Warren notes that God expects us to love others, even those who may be difficult, and even those who are not members of “God’s family.”  He states that this is vital to our purpose here on earth, that without love our other actions or abilities don’t matter, noting that God has commanded us to love one another and that we must show it by our actions.

This is a beautiful thought.  I, and I’m sure many others, have written similarly about the transformative nature that the teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” would have on the suffering in this world if only it were followed.  Yet despite the fact that it is the moral cornerstone of every major religion, its essence is uniformly dishonored, ignored by most of humanity, regardless whether religious or not, rich or poor, educated or not, a leader or a follower.

Why is this so?  The answer is simple ... our ego controls what we do, our every action.  The product of all our learned experiences ... whether from our family, our peers, or the larger culture that form our environment ... it is very powerful, entrenched in our minds.  Every feeling, perception, and judgmental thought is a consequence of that training, that conditioning.  It is the only “I” we know.   And it is from our ego that we usually divine our purpose, unfortunately. 

If we attempt to do something which is not in line with what our ego wants us to do, we find it almost impossible to make any progress.   And clearly, the messages of “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” run counter to what most of us have learned from family, peers, and our culture.  Instead, it’s all about “me” ... doing whatever is necessary to get ahead and achieve one’s goals.  It’s about competition.  “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m not the one who’s going to be eaten.”  

So the answer to the question of why millions of people have read and sincerely believe in The Purpose Driven Life as well as the Bible and yet their actions towards themselves, their family, and the world around them have changed hardly at all, continuing to inflict suffering on themselves and others, is that Rick Warren’s book, as well as the Bible, does not confront the issue of how to surrender your ego to God.  Not to speak of some other higher power such as the god inside you or your true Buddha nature.  

That's because he and the Bible treat our "temptations" as the voice of the Devil, and his solution is to resist the Devil by humbling yourself before God and quoting scripture to the Devil when you are tempted.  But while being born again may be very effective in freeing oneself from an addiction, like George W. Bush’s alcoholism ... something large and visible which causes damage to oneself ...  it often has little impact on reducing the hold of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride ... oddly, the list does not include anything about doing harm to others), and it has little or no impact on all the other aspects in which the ego manifests itself in one’s everyday life.

It’s just not that simple.  One must first acknowledge that all these forces, regardless where they originated ... family, peers, culture, the Devil ... have become part of us through our ego.  They are thus at the very core of our self-image, our concept of "I."  That acknowledgment is the starting point.

I can personally attest that even for someone who has practiced Zen Buddhism for almost 20 years and meditates every day, feeling truly at one with all beings, being free of all one’s hot buttons and fears, is a real challenge.  It requires constant vigilance and discipline.  For as soon as one is distracted and lets one’s guard down, the ego sees an opening and seizes the moment.  One is never totally free of it for it is a part of us.

That said, if one addresses the ego as Buddhist teaching does, one slowly evolves to a point where the negative impulses towards ourselves and others are replaced largely by feelings of love and compassion.  It frees us to recognize and perform what is our real purpose in life ... to offer others joy and help relieve the suffering of others.  

And by so doing, we experience joy ourselves.   Feeding our ego never brings us real joy because it always needs something more to be satisfied.  That is why in our culture one can never be rich enough, powerful enough, sexy enough, young enough, etc.  The messages we receive from almost every outlet of our culture feeds and strengthens this aspect of our ego.  

Listening to the sound of a different drummer, to your true self, is a huge challenge.  But it can be done.  For books, a blog, and an advice column on freeing oneself from one’s ego, go to my website, www.thepracticalbuddhist.com, by clicking on the Self in No Self book icon in the right margin.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Is The Use of Chemical Weapons Sufficient or Necessary to Justify Force?

President Obama’s plan to use military force against Syria’s government is a flawed policy decision.  The only way in which force is justified now is because chemical weapons have been introduced, which is to say that the use of chemical weapons automatically justifies the use of force.

I disagree.  In this particular instance, the Syrian government has for two years been waging a nasty war against both the rebels and the civilian population of the areas that support the rebels.  According to a UN report noted in the NY Times this past June, 92,901 civilian deaths have been documented, with the actual number likely being considerably higher.  Now about 100 have been killed in a chemical attack (apparently not the first one).  

If the use of military force was not justified before, it is not justified now.  Civil war is a nasty business no matter how you look at it.  Had the Syrian government not committed enough atrocities against civilians prior to the introduction of chemical weapons?  Haven’t countless other governments in civil wars committed atrocities against their people?

The question is where do you draw the line?   How do you make a decision to strike militarily?

We cannot be the world’s policeman.  We cannot strike militarily every time there is a civil war and the government uses brutal force against both the rebels and their civilian supporters.  There is no moral imperative to intervene nor is it in our national interest.

However, we should draw the line where a government is conducting ethnic cleansing or genocide, regardless of the technology used.  That does present a moral imperative.  That was the case in Bosnia, where we intervened.  That was the case in Rwanda, where we didn’t intervene.  That was the case in Dafur, where we also didn’t intervene.  And we should have in each of those cases, with or without the support of the international community or close allies.  That is not the case in Syria.

The White House talks about our credibility being at stake.  Our credibility in the world is certainly a very important commodity.  But if a policy we have is flawed and especially where it is not supported by the international community then to proceed in the face of such opposition is nothing but national ego.  It has nothing to do with credibility.

We should have a clear policy on military intervention in cases of civil strife and stick to it.  To my knowledge, we have no such policy.   

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Income Inequality Per Se Is Not the Problem

In an ideal world, at least in my mind, you would not have the extremes of rich and poor.  But people have different intelligence levels, different talents, and different aptitudes which, even with all other things being equal, would translate themselves in the real world to significant disparities in earning opportunities.  Add to that that all other things have never been equal and we have the situation in which rich and poor have always been a part of human existence and it will likely always remain so.  But that fact in and of itself is not the problem.

The problem is how the rich, or I should say the very rich, the top 1%, got there and are increasing their share of the economic pie at the expense of the rest of us.  It’s a classic case of exploiting those less powerful to make your own fortune.

“Oh come off it,” you  may well say.  “That’s a bit extreme.  A leftist diatribe.”  Alright, it may be, but lets see what the facts show.

The very rich, or those they inherited their money from, get there typically through a combination of two things.   First, they engage in an enterprise which in one of various ways exploits, which is to say unfairly takes advantage of, others for their own personal benefit.  (This does not gainsay the innovative value or quality of the product or the management excellence of the enterprise.)  Second, they influence Congress to slant the tax laws in a way which benefits themselves at the expense of everyone else.  

The first point is understood by anyone with an open mind as examples are everywhere.  Whether one looks at the classic robber barons of the early industrial revolution (and most corporate CEOs today) or the masters of finance who orchestrated the toxic investment instruments that resulted in the 2008 market crash, the very rich have achieved their wealth and power by exploiting others, whether it’s their workers or whether it’s investors (yes, they even prey upon their own clients) or whether it’s gullible people looking to buy a home. 

“How can you say that workers are exploited?” you may ask. “They have their contracts and if there’s a union, collective bargaining.”  Decades ago, when industrial jobs were plentiful and unions were strong, your point would be well-taken.  And in that era, the disparity between CEO compensation and worker compensation, although large, was far narrower than today.  Blue collar workers were solidly middle class, except in the South where there typically were no unions and workers were exploited.  

In today’s global economy, workers have no power, even if there is a union, because the job market is so bad and the owners have the practical opportunity in many cases to close and open up business in a lower-cost foreign country.  And so workers are taken advantage of because management and stockholders have only one concern ... improving the bottom line.  If the choice is between maximizing profits and giving the workers a higher wage, the choice will always be to maximize profits.  

As a result, workers’ wages have stagnated over the past few decades and if their jobs have gone and they’ve found other employment their wages have typically fallen.  In both cases, the working class has been left ever poorer, just treading water above poverty, as costs continue to rise.   While the CEOs and management keep getting richer.

But it is in the impact of the tax laws which have been passed to enable the rich to become richer (supposedly to grow the economy through increased investment and the “trickle down” effect, although that’s been shown to be nonexistent; the economy has not exploded in growth as we were promised) that the hidden and less known harm of income inequality has been felt.  The reason is quite straight-forward.  Lower taxes = less revenue for the government.

Because the tax breaks that the very rich and their corporations receive have greatly reduced tax revenues (15.8% of GDP in 2012, the lowest since 1950, compared with the high of 20.6% in 2000), there is less money available for government, whether federal, state or local, to accomplish their responsibility.  That responsibility as stated in the Declaration of Independence is to “secure the rights” of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   

Government has for much of the 20th century tried to meet that responsibility and ensure the general welfare through programs that provide quality education for all, support for the poor, a sound infrastructure, and all the basic services that government needs to provide and pay for in order for the country and individual communities to functions effectively and efficiently and thrive.  

But with significantly reduced tax revenues, all levels of government are finding it necessary to reduce services and quality in almost every area of government activity (and no, the problem is not principally the recession but tax cuts for the rich and corporations as well as the holy cow of military spending).  This has not only resulted in exacerbating the impact of the recession, increasing the abjectness of those already living in poverty and throwing more people and families into poverty.  Through cuts in services, it is making the already disappointing experience of many of our citizens in the areas of education, health, income inequality, social mobility, and equal opportunity (see my post, “American Exceptionalism - A Myth Exploded”) even more dismal.

It is no crime to be rich and successful.  But to be rich and successful at the expense of others, especially those with less power, is a social crime.  And it is a violation of the American social contract under which we all as citizens share responsibility for government’s efforts to promote the general welfare, each contributing according to his means, which unfortunately is more violated today than honored.  

America has enough wealth to ensure that those who are poor, and everyone else for that matter, have access to good health, education, and housing and do not go hungry.  America has enough wealth to insure that the infrastructure on which our viability depends remains strong and world-class.  And still allow people to be quite rich.

If America continues on this path where the rich feel entitled to more and more and where they have no concern and feel no responsibility towards their fellow citizens, let alone employees, then America’s greatness will become a thing of the past.  Not because China or some other country vaults into first place as the largest economy in the world.  But because America will have failed its own people, its own heritage, its own promise.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

American Exceptionalism - The Myth Exploded, Part II

In a previous post, I discussed why American exceptionalism is a myth ... that the data show clearly that Americans are not better off than those of other developed countries in the areas of health, education, income equality, social mobility, and equal opportunity.  The promise of the Declaration of Independence has not been realized by large segments of America’s citizenry.

Another way in which American exceptionalism presents itself is in our undying belief that our system of government, democracy, is the best system of governance in the world and that all people should live in a democracy and experience its benefits.  Connected to this is our belief that from a geopolitical perspective, a government will more likely be our ally if it is a democracy than if it is not.

In the cases of Russia and Iraq we see the absolute fallacy of this reasoning.  Russia was a Communist dictatorship.  It was the evil empire, our blood enemy for half a decade.  But for all the failures of the Soviet Union’s Communist system regarding the lack of freedom of its citizens and the weakness of its economy, as well as of course the horrors of Stalinism, it provided important benefits to its citizens ... order, security, jobs, normalcy, a sense of place.  

After the fall of Communism and the overnight transformation of Russia into a democracy, everything fell apart.  There was no more authority and Russia became a gangster state, overrun by criminals, thieving oligarchs, and politicians whose only concept of governance was personal enrichment and absolute control.  Far from becoming an ally of ours, Russia has remained a thorn in our side, although a less powerful one.

Iraq was without question under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein a terrible place ... at least if you happened to be viewed as an enemy of his.  But even more so than in Russia, Iraqis benefitted from order, security, jobs, and a sense of place.  There was no freedom, but people were able to live their lives for the most part in an atmosphere of normalcy.  

After the American invasion and the introduction of democracy, Iraq fell apart as a country.  It became instead a place of warring factions, continual violent conflict, with no security, no order, no normalcy, and not many jobs.  America’s experiment in exporting democracy to Iraq has been a dismal failure.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, and every person on earth should be able to live in an atmosphere of free speech, religion, politics, etc.  But if you talk to people on the street, what is more important than freedom is order, security, normalcy, jobs, and a sense of place.   In some cases, notably in most of the former Eastern bloc Communist countries, the introduction of democracy has been beneficial to its citizens.  But in many others, we have seen the introduction of democracy in a country fail miserably to benefit the people.

The United States government must learn, as it apparently hasn’t, that for a democracy to function as intended and deliver its promised benefits requires a combination of societal background elements.  For example, if, as in Iraq and many other countries, you have a population divided by religion, ethnicity, or tribe with a history of violence in dealing with conflict, the implementation of democracy will be almost impossible.  If you have a country, such as Russia, in which the populace has gotten used to and wants a strong authoritarian government, democracy will produce the same.  If you have a country, such as the Gaza Strip and Egypt, in which Islamic fundamentalist forces have a strong presence, democracy will produce a government of that nature.  Note:  Recently Secretary of State John Kerry said that the military coup in Egypt deposing the lawfully elected president was restoring democracy; is there something I’m missing here?

In many cases, democracy is not the form of government which will best meet the needs of the people for order, security, jobs, normalcy, and a sense of place.  I remember the point made in a Political Science class in college that often countries need a transition government, such as a benevolent authoritarian government, to allow the necessary elements for a functioning democracy to develop.  In other cases, the democracy it championed may turn out to bite the U.S., but that makes it no less legitimate.

So both from a humanitarian standpoint and a geopolitical perspective, the exporting of democracy is of questionable value except in carefully considered circumstances.  The United States should both have other options that it is open to and when democracy produces an undesirable result from a geopolitical perspective, as in Egypt and as in Chile in the 1970s, it needs to respect the legitimate expression of the wishes of the citizens of that country.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Fallacy of the War on Drugs - Getting to the Root of the Problem

There is no question but that the drug abuse epidemic that has swept across our nation is a catastrophe.  It is a catastrophe for those who are addicted and are subject to its cravings.  It is a catastrophe for their loved ones, who suffer in innumerable ways.  It is a catastrophe for our economy because of the lost productive value of those who are addicted and the cost of dealing with the drug problem.  Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually.  

Recognizing the importance of getting people off drugs, the government has engaged in a policy aptly named, “The War on Drugs.”  Its concept is one of prohibition ... whether by criminalizing the use and sale of drugs and thus deterring such activity, or Nancy Reagan’s campaign of, “Just say no.”  

What simple-minded approaches to a deep-seated problem!  First of all, we know from our experience with alcohol prohibition that it not only doesn’t achieve the goal of reducing consumption, it has an actual negative impact by creating a whole illegal subculture around the manufacture and distribution of the substance.  And that has been our experience with the war on drugs as well.

Then they decided that the deterrent aspect needed to be strengthened by making prison sentences mandatory, even for relatively minor possession charges.  Well, our prisons have filled to overflowing, and yet it has made absolutely no impact on the demand for drugs.  

The criminalization approach to drug control and Nancy Reagan’s appeal to people to just say no have failed for the same reason.  As Time said in a report, “Americans tend to think of drug addiction as a failure of character.”  Such approaches assume that one has the ability to make a rational choice whether to do something or not.  Yet that is clearly not the case when it comes to drug abuse.

Others who recognize that it is not a failure of character, view drug addiction as primarily a biological problem relating to the chemical process of addiction.  But that is also looking at the wrong place.  That certainly describes why addiction is so hard to break out of, and why treatment rather than incarceration is often more appropriate, but it does not begin to help understand why people choose drugs to alter their mental state, which is where addiction and abuse begins.

Drug abuse is at root a societal problem.  People want to alter their mental state because they feel painfully insecure and thus unhappy.  It is an indictment of the failure of our society to raise children who feel secure, psychologically, and grow up be secure adults.  There is an abundance of academic research stretching back decades that finds that, to quote from an NIH report, “factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress, and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.”  These are all factors that induce feelings of insecurity in children.  The same can be said for almost every type of addictive behavior.

No one chooses to become a drug addict, or an alcoholic for that matter.  The problem is not that addicts have less moral fiber or character flaws.  The problem is that people who choose drugs or alcohol to alter/escape their mental state are typically people who are in agony.  They are suffering from feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem that are so intense, even if they are outwardly successful, that they feel that their only escape is through drugs or alcohol.  Yes, there are those who fall into drug addiction accidentally because of peer pressure, but the vast majority are trying to escape a world in which they can find no peace and security.

Indeed, one can argue that almost all of our social problems flow from a failure to raise secure children who go on to become secure adults.  Assuming that our government or a local community understood this and wanted to address the root cause, how would it go about it?  How could it change the pattern of insecure parents raising insecure children, with the situation repeating itself without end?

In my book, Raising a Happy Child, I note that it is a myth that childhood is a happy, carefree time. Typically it is neither carefree nor happy; it is instead fraught with insecurity. Raising a Happy Child seeks to change this fact of human development.

Why do children suffer this fate? What becomes of our lives is overwhelmingly a function of learned experience ... from our family, our peers, and the larger culture ... but first and foremost from our parents. The vast majority of parents are good people and would not do anything intentionally to harm their child.  But parents are people who are a function of their own upbringing and learned experience. They have their own fears, frustrations, angers, and desires.  And they see things through the lens of that experience and those emotions, which in turn impacts how they interact with their children. 

The result is children who do not feel loved unconditionally, are as a consequence insecure, and grow up to become insecure adults who do not love themselves unconditionally.  This is the primal basis of our fears and neuroses.

But this does not mean that parents should simply lavish praise on their children, give them what they want, or be uncritical of their children.  Direction and criticism are important parental functions; the question is how they are given, in what context. Raising a Happy Child seeks to provide parents with the means to step outside themselves, to be able to experience their child, themselves, and the world around them mostly free of their learned experience and emotions, thus enabling them to provide their children at all times with the nurturing and unconditional love they need to be happy and secure. 

The book then guides parents through the critical development stages of a child's life, providing advice on how to address the significant issues that arise at each stage within the context of unconditional love.  Raising a Happy Child  seeks nothing less than to fundamentally alter the quality of the relationship between parents and children, and thus change the way children relate to themselves and the world around them.  For more on the book and sample text, click the book's cover in the sidebar.  

What government, civic leaders, religious leaders ... anyone who is in a position of influence should do is read this book and encourage all parents to read the book and follow its advice.  Beyond that, government must take action to reduce social problems that exacerbate these issues, especially the failure of our schools.

Raising a Happy Child assumes that there is nothing fundamental that we can change about the competitive, consumption-driven society we live in.  I think that is beyond hope.  But governments and parents can take steps to improve the quality of life (and I don’t mean the number of possessions one has) that the average person experiences, insuring that everyone feels part of the larger community, equal in opportunity, and that everyone is nourished by their immediate family.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

What Are We Celebrating on July 4th?

July 4th ... Independence Day ... is fraught with symbolism.  It is the beginning of American exceptionalism, the beginning of America taking its place on the world’s stage, the beginning of freedom and prosperity for Americans.  

There is no question that 1776 marked the beginning of America's feeling that it was exceptional and that it’s moral voice coupled with an unleashed mercantilist strength gave it a place on the world’s stage.  But what of freedom and prosperity?

We all know the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence, crafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson ... “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”  These were truly revolutionary words.  They have given America’s elite something to crow about.  And they have given America’s disadvantaged something to hang their hopes on for more than two centuries.  But what were and are the facts on the ground?

Those that benefitted from our independence were primarily those with business interests, who were now free of the yoke of English taxes and control.   Then as now, business interests were the main “client” of government ... indeed, back then you could only vote if you owned land or had enough wealth to be taxed, so those were the constituents ... and they prospered then as they do now.

As of the first census in 1790, 18% of the US population (700,000 out of 4,000,000) were slaves.  Their status certainly did not change with American independence.  That would have to wait another 85 years for the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Of the Founding Fathers who were slave holders, George Washington did free his slaves upon his death.  Jefferson did not even do that.

The status of women ... the wives of the founders and the mothers of their children ... did not change at all with independence.  They remained chattel with no rights for a century, slowly achieving some rights in the later 1800s, and only won the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

Over the last century, there can be no question that both women and blacks have improved their status in all areas of American business and life  But there can also be no question that even today neither have reached anything approaching equality with white males and that discrimination persists. 

And then there are the Native Americans.  They had a status even lower than slaves because they were of no use to anyone.  They were just a heathen barrier to be gotten rid of when their presence interfered with American interests.   Our genocide of Native Americans (and what else can it honestly be called) is breathtakingly chilling.   It's justification is closely related to Hitler's "Lebensraum" ... Germany's need for more room to grow.  Manifest destiny has no room for equality.  

And as for general prosperity, while it is true that we all have more now than we did, it is also true that there is greater inequality between the richest Americans (top 5%) and the rest then at any time.  If you look at broader groups ... top 20%, middle 40, and bottom 40 ... the income distribution has remained pretty static since independence.  So we really haven’t achieved much of anything on that point.

So what are we celebrating?  Some very wonderful-sounding words which we have still not managed ... or if truth be told, even tried very hard ... to implement.  We are celebrating the birth of a nation with unbridled mercantilism/captitalism that was able to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the natural resources of this vast country.  We are celebrating American progress, which has left many damaged lives and souls in its wake.

Is this really cause to celebrate?  Can't we do better in fulfilling America's promise to its people?

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Meaningful Right to Die

There is a worldwide movement, with organizations in most developed countries, to foster the right of individuals to choose to die with dignity.  But those efforts are limited to when they are either terminally ill or suffer from irreversible physical illness, intractable physical pain, or a combination of progressive physical disabilities.  Even in the Netherlands, which is one of the few countries to have enacted voluntary euthanasia, it is limited to those suffering from “hopeless and unbearable suffering,” which has been interpreted as meaning serious medical conditions combined with considerable pain.  

The other catch is that one must be of sound mind when making this contemporaneous choice.  To my knowledge, there is no such thing as a directive for choosing voluntary death at some future time when one is no longer of sound mind, similar to the common living will, which is a directive to withhold life-prolonging efforts.

The mission of the organizations working towards the acceptance of a right to die with dignity are thus far too narrow in my view.  As a human being, one should have the right while still of sound mind to determine the timing of ones death if at some future point one is no longer left with anything resembling “quality of life,” and that should not be limited to the physical indicators typically espoused.  One should be allowed the right to choose to die with dignity regardless whether the problems are physical or mental.

Case in point ... my mother.  When she was younger, which is to say in her 60s and 70s, she used to notice people who were suffering from dementia, looking blankly at the world, and say, “If I ever get like that, give me the black pill.”  Meaning that she wanted to be helped to die.

My mother is now 103 years old.  For the past year she has resided in the nursing home of a life care facility where she has lived for the past 13 years, starting with an independent living apartment and “progressing” to assisted living and then the dementia unit before being transferred to the nursing home.  She lost her memory, both short term and long term, years ago.  She sleeps or dozes most of the time, has no energy, has little awareness of what’s happening around her, although she does recognize my brother and me, sometimes, and takes joy in our presence and when we take her out in the sun on a nice day.  I should note that my mother takes no medication and is definitely not alive due to any specific miracle of modern science.

At the facility where my mother lives, there are many people who look blankly into space, who are not “terminally ill” or suffer from an irreversible physical illness or progressive physical disability, unless the dementia of growing old would fall under that category, which is not the case.  Suffering the results of a stroke would probably also not qualify under these narrow definitions.  The very old are not considered “disabled” nor are they considered to be suffering from an irreversible illness.  Odd, because both is often definitely the case.  

From every perspective, not allowing such people, indeed all people, to have a directive to die when they reach such a state or one of the physical states noted above is wrong; it is inhumane.  From the person’s own perspective, there is no question that most of them had they been asked while they were still of sound mind whether they would want to live under such conditions would have said, “no,” just as my mother did.  Who in their right mind, no pun intended, would want to continue living in such a state?  And it is the wishes of the individual that should be controlling in a matter such as this.

From the perspective of the person’s loved ones ... spouse or children ... witnessing the mental and physical prison in which their loved one is living without any chance of change is brutal.  Even when there is still a spark of life, of who they used to be, left, as in the case of my mother, the overwhelming numbness of their existence is  the predominant fact of life.

Finally, from the perspective of society ... and many will howl loudest at this consideration ... the expenditure of vital resources to sustain life at this stage is not a viable use of those resources.  If the choice must be made, and unfortunately it must in a world of limited resources, between providing adequate schooling and other resources to children, for example, or spending huge sums of public money for end-of-life care, only one choice is rational.

Before going further, let me make absolutely clear again that what I am advocating is the ability of an individual, while still of sound mind, to make a directive that if or when at some point in the future he or she should reach a certain defined state of hopelessness and unbearableness ... be it mental or physical ... he or she directs that they be helped to die.

The first question to be asked is, why are living wills ...  the direction to withhold life-prolonging actions in certain situations ... broadly accepted whereas the right to be helped to die is broadly not accepted, except in very limited circumstances and in very few jurisdictions.  The usual explanation given is that it is one thing to ask that medical efforts be withheld, which fact will hasten death; it is another to ask that medical efforts be made proactively to hasten death.  

I would say that this is a distinction without a difference.  Are not both actions a decision to commit suicide?  Why is asking to withhold efforts morally or legally different from asking that efforts be taken?  The one answer is that the medical profession’s holy grail is to prolong life.  Withholding life-prolonging efforts, even at the very end, is scandalous enough for many physicians and physician ethicists.  Actively bringing on death would be unspeakable, besides raising lots of medical malpractice questions. 

Were I more cynical, I would have to raise the fact that the medical profession and health industry makes a huge amount of money from the cost of end-of-life care as it currently exists.  There was an article in The Atlantic recently about a doctor who is trying to change the profession’s end-of-life culture and practices so that the patient’s welfare is predominant.  But I fear that it isn’t just a matter of ethical or Hippocratic Oath culture, it is one of money.  It’s no secret that doctors order many unnecessary tests because of the billings they can then charge insurers.  I fear the same motive plays a definite role,  even if subconscious, in their decisions on prolonging life at all costs, no pun intended again.

The next answer is the religious one.  Most religions have found a way to parse living wills as not being suicide, but consider voluntary choice of death suicide and thus against God’s law.  It is only God who decides when one dies.  But this distinction is patently without rational merit.  Without a living will, there is no question that such people would live longer, whether a few days or many months.  Yes, it would be due to the miracles of modern medicine, but that is what is available today.  It is, if one is of such mind, what God has provided to modern man.  

For those religions that do not even support the concept of a directive to withhold life-prolonging care, all I can say is that I find that position shows no respect for the human being who is suffering.  If one truly believes that God chooses the time of our death ... and this naturally must include all deaths, whether car accidents, illness, or gun massacres or the holocaust ... then one is beyond rational thought on this subject.

The final answer is the fear of people being “murdered” against their will.  People posit all sorts of horror stories of the mentally infirm elderly being taken advantage of by unscrupulous relatives who want their money, etc.  But if someone is of sound mind and makes such a directive, then the only thing necessary to prevent such manipulation is that the event or state that brings the directive into play be clearly defined and that two medical doctors must stipulate that such event or state has indeed been arrived at.  

Indeed, in looking at the long and broad experience with living wills, there has been no evidence that I am aware of of manipulation by others.  On the contrary, what one does hear of frequently is loved ones not wanting the directive to be honored; they don’t want the individual to die, they cannot give up hope that by some miracle the medical situation will improve.

But the locus for the decision to continue life must reside with the individual.  It is their life.  To not allow a human being the right to die with dignity is just one more example of the man’s inhumanity to and lack of compassion for man.  The right to die movement needs to expand its scope to include directives and hopeless and unbearable states that are mental as well as non-progressive disabilities such as those that result from stroke.