Sunday, December 27, 2015

Back to the Future, But Not Too Far!

We are a country that is obsessed with the future, with facilitating the next phase of our “progress.”  In the process, we have lost our collective, our societal mooring to what has made the United States a great social and political experiment.  

As I’ve noted in previous posts, our society is dysfunctional in many respects.  But there are two central problems.  One is that virtually all political power is now in the hands of major corporations and the rich; they call the shots in Washington, not the people.  The other is that these same actors, as well as many average citizens, seem to have no concern for the welfare of their fellow citizens, and in the case of corporations, their workers.

One can place a band-aid here, and another there.  But that will not change any of the basic problems that we are facing and which are pulling the United States down from its great potential.

I have therefore argued for a revolutionary change in attitude and perspective on the part of our political parties and citizens.  This revolutionary change is not to something “new,” some utopia, but rather back to ideals and standards that served this country well and made it strong during the 20th century.  

In the first 125 years of our country’s history, things were pretty much a frontier-style free-for-all.  Each person for himself.  People who needed help generally weren’t helped, and those who were on the make pretty much got away with anything they tried.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the country took a progressive turn in its politics under Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.  The government and people saw that things had gotten out of hand and that there was massive inequality in power and wealth in the country.  Because such inequality did not square with our founding ideals, there was a realization that government needed to become a more active player to insure that the average citizen wasn’t exploited, and that power was more evenly distributed.

Thus, during the first 20 years of the new century, the progressive income tax was introduced, the robber barons were regulated, massive holding companies like Standard Oil were broken up, and workers were given the right to unionize.  And women were finally given the right to vote.  

As I state in my book, We Still Hold These Truths, a social contract developed that gave practical shape to Lincoln’s famous, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  There was an increasing emphasis on a balance between rights and obligations, between business interests and the public good, with each person contributing to support the government’s efforts to level the playing field, each according to his ability.

Following the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting Depression, government saw the need to increase its role both in providing a hand to those in need (for example, the enactment of Social Security) as well as regulating the excesses of big business (for example, the Glass-Steagal Act).  In the mid 1960s, Medicare was enacted together with a host of measures to further improve the balance and fairness of our society. 

Congress also passed major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, although it must be said that while these laws resulted in certain improvements in their lives, the basic standing of most black Americans in our society and the conditions in which they lived and were educated were left virtually unchanged.  And they were still frequently subject to various forms of both institutional and private discrimination.  (See my posts, “The Mirage of Civil Rights,” and “Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System.”)

But I don’t want to overstate my case.  Needless to say, throughout these progressive periods, there were plenty of people, both in Congress and in the populace, primarily Republicans, who were against both measures to regulate business and efforts to increase government spending or other efforts to help those in need.  Even during the Depression and its immediate aftermath, there were people, and not just the rich, who literally hated FDR!  In 1932, the height of the Depression, Roosevelt only got 58% of the popular vote when he ran against Hoover, although he swept the electoral vote.

In this regard, it should be noted that regardless of the huge changes shown in the electoral vote map, indicating landslide years, the popular vote has never been a landslide.  For example, in 1972 when Nixon got 96% of the electoral vote, he received only 61% of the popular vote.  Likewise, when FDR got 98% of the electoral vote in 1936, he got only 62% of the popular vote.  The country has historically been quite divided.  

Then along came Ronald Reagan, the same man who had campaigned vigorously against the enactment of Medicare, who as President famously said that, “Government is not the solution to the problem.  Government is the problem.”  Reagan didn’t invent a new movement.  He just gave voice and a popular face to deep feelings that have always been held by a large percentage of the voting population, legitimizing those perspective.

The fervency and bitterness of these feelings grew and deepened over the following years, culminating in the Tea Party movement and the current crop of Republican radicals (they should not be referred to as “conservatives”) in Congress.  What they, led by the billionaire Koch brothers and others who back them, want is nothing less than a return of this country to its 19th century ethos, when it was each man for himself, without any interference from or help by the government, of course with the exception of Social Security and Medicare from which most of them directly benefit.  Unfortunately, they don’t see the irony in this.

What I am calling for is a return to the 20th century ethos (Reagan excepted) of balance and social responsibility plus a changed attitude towards black Americans.  

This is not a soak the rich movement or class struggle.  It is a movement that seeks a return to the ethos where we are all part of a society, that recognizes that many people are born into situations that place huge obstacles in their attempts at pursuing the American dream of happiness and equality, and that those who have made it, who have benefited from the system, have a responsibility as citizens to help the government in its efforts to assure that all have true equal opportunity.  

In this regard it should be noted that for most of the income tax’ existence, the highest tax bracket ranged from 60 - 94%, dropping down to 50% during the Reagan years.  So the current top rate of 39.6%, and even the various suggested increases, are historically low.  It should also be noted that regardless of the tax rate, the rich have always remained rich.

Nor is this an anti-business movement.  The health of our economy and of the businesses that make it prosper are of critical importance to the well-being of all Americans.  Business interests must always have a significant place at the table.  But we have learned all too often that it is nevertheless not true that what is good for corporate America is good for all Americans.  Thus there must be a balance between the needs of business and the greater public good.  Maximizing profit cannot be the sole goal of a responsible corporation in a democracy.  

For example, the New York Times just reported that corporate lobbyists working with their friends in Congress (on both sides of the aisle) inserted a provision in the omnibus spending bill that just passed that continues a tax loophole that benefits casino and hotel owners as well as major Wall Street investors to the tune of $1 billion.  That is to say that our tax revenues will continue to be reduced by that amount from what they otherwise would be.  That is unconscionable.

Nor is this a big government movement.  I for one feel strongly that government should be as small as it can be while executing the functions that are its responsibility.  There should be no holy cows.  Every aspect of government must be justified by the purpose it serves and its effectiveness.

What I seek is simply government of the people, by the people, and for the people … all the people.  Not government of the people  (they do still elect), but by corporations, and for corporations.  Which sadly, is what our government has to a large extent become.

The citizens of this country deserve better.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

When Is Justice Not Justice?

For the last few decades, certainly since President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork, the nomination and confirmation process of Supreme Court and lower Federal court justices has been political theater.  It was not always so.  

Chief Justice Roberts stated in a recent talk reported in The New York Times that earlier in the 20th century “The Court was not regarded as such a partisan football.  A lot of nominations of this time were Republican presidents appointing Democrats and vice versa.  The Court wasn’t regarded as a place where partisan matters would be worked out.”  

And so it should be.  Not that partisan matters shouldn’t come before or be considered by the Supreme Court.  But they shouldn’t be decided on a partisan basis.  The only proper question is whether or not they violate the Constitution, and that should be a strictly legal question, not a partisan one.

In front of many courthouses there is a statue of Justice, a blind-folded woman holding the scales of justice.  Since the 15th century, she has been blind-folded because of the belief that to be “justice,” a decision must be without regard to who is being judged or who the victim or other party is.  Justice must be impartial.

But what does that mean?  Is it just a matter of it making no difference, for example, if someone is rich and powerful as opposed to poor and weak?  Or whether someone is black or white?   

Not quite.  It must go deeper because for that to truly occur it means that justice must be blind in the sense that those meting it out must be blind to their biases, their attitudes … everything but the facts.  That is the essence.  Political and personal attitudes must be left at the door.  Only then can a judicial decision truly be made without regard to who the parties are; only then is justice impartial.

For example, in a case which pits corporate rights against the individual, being pro-business should not impact the decision.  In a case involving abortion-rights opponents against women’s choice proponents, siding with one side or the other emotionally or intellectually should not impact the decision.  The same is true for any case that pits parties on opposite sides of an ideological divide against each other.

The reader may respond that what I’m suggesting, nay demanding, is not possible.  It is indeed difficult for someone to put aside their biases and attitudes when they have the opportunity to further them.  But when one is a judge, I believe one must.  Otherwise, the justice handed down is not impartial.  And if it’s not impartial, it’s not just flawed, it isn’t justice.

It is in the legislative branch of government where biases and attitudes have a legitimate role.  We live in a representative democracy and representatives should as a general rule speak on behalf of their constituents, which means representing their biases and attitudes.  Yes, representatives are supposed to act in the best interest of the country (or state or city), but what that “best interest” is interpreted to be is inseparable from biases and attitudes.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And majority rules.

But the judicial branch is another matter.  Its role is to objectively interpret the meaning of laws, apply laws to individual cases, and decide if laws violate the Constitution.   Objectivity requires impartiality … both as to who the parties are and what they stand for, as well as in the law’s interpretation.  If the law is unclear as written, judges can look to the history of legislation or the history of the Constitution to decide how to interpret it, but not to their own political and social (as opposed to legal) biases and attitudes.  They are always interpreting, not rewriting, the law.

The Supreme Court is often criticized by Conservatives for what they term “judicial activism,”  which they claim is rewriting the Constitution.  Funny, though, that phrase is used by the Right exclusively when criticizing a liberal decision by the Court.  When the Court does the same but leans to a conservative interpretation, that term is not applied.  

But the term “judicial activism” as criticism is bogus.  Legitimate activism is inherent when interpreting the Constitution.  It was written in the 18th century.  The founders had their philosophies and attitudes, revealed in the basic principles stated in the document, especially the Bill of Rights, but they knew they could not foresee how society and enterprise would be transformed over the centuries.  They wrote a document for the ages, and that necessarily requires that broad concepts be applied to situations never envisioned.

As an aside, I want to make clear my view that there are both liberal and conservative elements in the Constitution’s language.  The creation of this country and its founding documents was a working out of the tension between these two views of government.  The result was a grand compromise.  The Constitution may be a profoundly liberal document overall, but it has its conservative aspects.  There is no denying that.

Often when dealing with the Constitution, looking at the language and contemporary documents while helpful still leaves the question open of how it should be applied to modern circumstance.  To answer this question, the Court has taken cognizance of society’s current attitudes - sometimes explicitly, sometimes not - in determining its proper application.  This is quite different from justices interjecting  their own attitudes and biases.  Referring to contemporary societal attitudes is more like asking what the founders would say in the current context.  This process does not disturb impartiality.

Let’s take two famous cases of activism as examples.  In Brown v Board of Education, the Court overturned its earlier decisions that separate education was equal and declared that separate education was inherently unequal.  What brought about this changed interpretation?  

When Plessy v Ferguson was decided in 1896 and supported state-sponsored segregation (in this case of railroad cars), society was not ready for integration.  The Court, applying contemporary standards, stated that the 14th Amendment “could not have been intended to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality or a commingling of the two races unsatisfactory to either.”  

And so they interpreted “equal protection of the law” quite narrowly and upheld the stated intent of Louisiana’s segregation statute as providing equal but separate accommodations. The Supreme Court, always wary of being too far in front of public opinion, conscious that they are not a legislative body, prefers to step lightly.

But the world and our society was at a different place in 1954 when Brown was decided.  Blacks were generations removed from being former slaves.  They were a part of society in a way that they weren’t in 1896.  While the South was still not ready for integration, the rest of the country had moved forward.  

And so the Court struck down segregation as being inherently unequal.  It wasn’t just a question of how much money was spent or the quality of education.  The very concept of the government separating the races in providing education flew in the face of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

The point I’m making is that because society had changed, the interpretation of the meaning of the Constitution required a change.  The Court may in fact have been more liberal in 1954 than in 1896, but looking at the case objectively, they came to the correct decision.

Many people, especially in the South, were outraged at the decision and felt that their State’s rights had been trampled.  This decision was perhaps the first decision where the Court was viewed by many as stepping into the partisan arena, the issue of race clearly being a highly charged social issue.

But it is the task of the Supreme Court to decide whether a Federal or state law violates the Constitution.  The fact that it happens to involve a highly charged area of social, as opposed to political, life does not remove it from the jurisdiction of the Court.  Society had changed in the intervening six decades since Plessy and so the Court in Brown properly came to its decision.

The other case I would cite is Citizens United v FEC, the case that declared that corporations are “people” to whom the 1st Amendment of the Constitution applies.  Thus their, and other organizations such as labor unions, right of free speech meant that they couldn’t be prohibited from spending money to influence elections through “independent” advertising in the 90-day period preceding an election.  

There was no legal precedent nor contemporary documentation to support the decision that the right of free speech applies not just to individuals but to organizations.  Nor was this a question of society having changed in a way which required a change in interpretation.  Corporations had not become weak entities that needed free speech to protect themselves.

And mind you, the law that was struck down did not say that corporations couldn’t spend any money on issue ads; it just said that in the 90-day period prior to an election they couldn’t run ads that mentioned a candidate.  There was a rational fear that a deluge of corporate money into advertising during the period could easily tilt an election.  Corporations and organizations, after all, do not have the right to vote, and so they should not have the right to unduly influence elections.  

But the Court now had a distinctly Conservative majority on issues pertaining to business.   They said that free speech was so important to our democracy that corporations should have that Constitutional right, regardless the lack of precedent, and so they struck down the law.  

This was a clear instance of the justices substituting their political judgment for that of Congress and also rewriting the Constitution.  This was the opposite of impartial justice. This was judicial activism that deserved to be criticized.

The American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct states in Canon 2.4 (b) that, “A judge shall not permit family, social, political, financial, or other interests or relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.”  That’s close to what I’m saying in this post although I think that “interests” is more narrow, more circumscribed, than “attitudes and biases.”  

The actual Federal Code of Judicial Conduct, however, is unfortunately less helpful on this point; it also doesn’t apply to the Supreme Court.  It states that, “A judge … should not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism.”  It further states that a judge should disqualify himself when he “has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party.”  Advisory opinions regarding the Code all seem to deal with external evidence of perceived partiality … connections to groups or individuals … rather than actual partiality of a judge.

But if a judge’s membership in an association that takes public positions on controversial topics would raise questions regarding his impartiality, then it follows that his private biases and attitudes on such matters should not be brought to bear on a case because it would disturb his impartiality.  I would urge that the point be stated unambiguously in all Codes of Judicial Conduct that judges must not apply their personal or political biases and attitudes to the cases before them.  Only then will impartial justice truly prevail.

Finally, I come back to the initial point I made in this post regarding the selection of judges.  If we want our judges to judge impartially, then how they are selected is of utmost importance.  Judges should be appointed for their neutrality, for their objectivity, not for their record of either being liberal or conservative.   

There are existing models for this.  At the state level, many judges are now appointed by non-partisan commissions using a merit selection plan.  Observers have long argued that this should be true for all state judges.

I would argue this should be true for all judges, regardless whether state or Federal.  A list of several candidates should be selected by non-partisan commissions, with the actual appointment then being made by the President/Governor.

The idea behind lifetime appointments for Federal judges was to remove them from the pressure of politics, which in one sense it certainly has.  But it hasn’t removed politics from the judicial process.  If a judge takes his political leanings with him on to the bench, he or she will apply political as well as personal biases and attitudes in rendering decisions, making them examples of partiality, not impartiality.  Both the way judges are selected and the Codes of Judicial Conduct must be changed.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves

In my recent post, “The Problem Isn’t Capitalism, It’s Our Society,” (October 8, 2015), I noted that the social problems in all modern societies (and most ancient ones, for that matter) don’t stem from their particular economic system, whether it’s capitalism or socialism or communism, regardless how much people rant and rave.  History has shown that changing the economic system does not change the basic nature of a society’s problems.  It typically just replaces one class of elite with another class of elite, one unequal structure with another unequal structure.

What then is the root cause of our societal problems?  And how do we make progress in solving these problems?

The root of our problems is that our society is not a community, meaning that it is not a culture in which everyone has a respected and valued role to play.  Instead, we feel that most people are not entitled to respect, that they have little value, that they are certainly not our equal, and that they do not deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness.  It is a culture of me/us v them.  This lack of community affects the family, the workplace, the smallest village, the state, the country, even the community of nations. 

That in a nutshell is the nature of the problem.  All the ills of our society … poverty, homelessness, workplace conflict, family conflict, civil strife, even war … stem from this basic lack of humanity in our interactions with others. 

Before proceeding further, it is important to clarify what I mean by a “lack of humanity.”  Humanity is defined by Webster’s as “being kind to other people and animals.”  Inhumanity, the opposite, is defined as “being cruel to others.”

In common usage, however, we have a much narrower concept of inhumanity.  For most of us, inhumanity implies a horrific act, a barbarous act, like the ISIS beheadings, or even the tortured conduct at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War.  

But as the definition clearly states, anything that is cruel to others is an example of inhumanity.  And mind you, this is from Webster’s, not some religious or spiritual text.  Combining that definition with the definition of cruel: any behavior that causes physical or mental harm or pain is cruel and thus inhumane.  Before we can make progress in solving society’s problems, we must acknowledge and accept this definition.

Using this definition, acts that man endures at the hands of his fellow man - whether in war, civil conflict, or everyday life situations such as in the workplace or even within the family - that are hurtful and painful, that fail to respect others, their equality, and the right of all to live with freedom and dignity … all of these acts are examples of inhumanity.  Yes, even acts you might view as somewhat innocuous in the workplace or at home, if they cause mental harm, are examples of inhumanity.  Without question, discrimination and bigotry are examples of inhumanity.

Aware of this definition, one begins to realize that inhumanity is almost more the norm of human interaction than humanity.  Thus the efforts of those, there’s even a foundation, to promote “random acts of kindness.”  How sad.

How do we find a solution to this problem?  How do we bring humanity back into human interaction?

We begin by noting that while this is not a new problem peculiar to the modern age, it is not a function of human nature.  If we look at communal societies such as indigenous groups that still exist, or Native American communities before they were devastated and corrupted by the white man, we see communities in which everyone had their place, everyone was valued and respected, everyone felt secure even though, in the case of Native Americans, there was some private ownership.  

But when mankind moved from communal societies to societies based on the individual as the organizing unit, something significant was lost in the transition … a sense of security.  And it has gotten worse over the centuries as civilization/technology has “progressed” and we have become ever-more disconnected from people and more connected to material things.

But I do not believe that all is irretrievably lost.  True, I don’t think from a practical perspective that it’s possible to have a true communal society in a nation as large and complex as most modern nations.  But since I don’t think there is an inherent contradiction between a capitalist economy and a sense of community, the question becomes - how to create the feeling and advantages of community while still having an economy that has the individual unit and private ownership as its basis.

Since our society is based on the individual, not the commune, the answer will also have to be based on the individual.  If the goal is to change our society and the world, it will have to be done one person at a time.   Some leadership from authority figures and the culture would help, but ultimately it comes down to the individual.

As noted above, what was principally lost in the transition to an individual-oriented society was a feeling of security.  When people feel secure, they have the psychological ability to be kind to others and respect others.  To give of themselves for the benefit of others and for the common good.

On the other hand, when people feel insecure the natural psychological tendency is to protect oneself, which devolves into seeing others as a threat, creating a me/us v them dichotomy.  In that situation one is not kind to others and one does not give of oneself for the benefit of others.  But the damage caused by insecurity goes even deeper than that.  When we feel insecure, we do not offer even ourselves kindness and respect because we do not feel worthy.  There is no happiness in our heart.  Thus the current state of affairs.

I have written in previous posts how insecurity is the source of all of our problems.  See “The Root of All Abuse and Violence - Insecurity” (1/7/13) and “Insecurity as the Cause of Social Conflict and International War” (1/10/13).  

For some, or perhaps many, readers this will all sound like “new-age gobbledegook.”  But bear with me.

Since I am positing that the solution to our society’s problems lies with the individual, before going any further, I ask you to ask yourself a question:  “Am I happy?  Am I truly happy?”

If you can look deep inside yourself, past your ego, and answer that question, “yes,” then more power to you and you are ready to start, if you haven’t already, treating all people with kindness and respect.

Unfortunately, most of us cannot answer that question, “yes,”  because we are troubled, we feel conflicted.  We are insecure.  It’s not that we don’t experience moments of happiness, but do we feel deeply happy?  No.

This is true regardless of one’s status in life.  Many people think that once you’ve made it, have money, have power, that you’re home free and experience happiness.  But that is usually not the case.  Regardless how strong our ego, regardless how successful we are, we don’t experience true happiness because we are at bottom insecure beings.  We have never been taught to open our heart and embrace all aspects of ourselves.  

We have never been taught  that we have everything we need within ourselves to be at peace and experience happiness.  Instead we’ve been taught that we need to be what we aren’t or need to have what we don’t have.  And the higher we achieve or the more we obtain, the more it seems we obsess about retaining what we have and obtaining even more

This is what must change.  If one person learns to embrace himself and know that he has what he needs inside himself to be at peace and experience happiness, then he will not only change his own life, but the life of all those he  comes into contact with because he will now relate to those around him very differently … he will offer them joy, kindness, and respect.  The more who change, the greater the impact.

Now, it’s a well known fact that most people will not undertake change for the benefit of others.  No matter how often people swear to do this, it just doesn’t work.  Most people will only undertake change for their own benefit, and even that is very difficult, so strong are our habit-energies.

So here’s the next question I want to ask you.  Would you like to be truly, deeply happy?  Would you like to be free of feelings of insecurity?  Would you like not to obsess about what’s going to happen to you tomorrow?

If your answer is, “yes,” then read on.  Despite years of negative programming by family, peers, and the culture, this is more within your reach than you might think.

The process is quite straightforward.  But it does take a lot of work to achieve as you are changing the habits of a lifetime.  Here are the basic steps:

1.  Become aware that all your feelings about yourself and the world around you are a result of your learned experience.  Now, most people would say this is as it should be because that’s how we learn.  However, learning facts and learning judgmental values are two very different things.  

You may be familiar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific that says, “you’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven. or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.”  Well, that basically is true for all feelings and perceptions.  Even everything we feel about ourselves is what we’ve been taught.  If you feel bad, or incompetent, or ugly, or the opposite, it’s what your family, your peers, and the culture has taught you.

None of these words describe who you and others really are; these are just labels we have been taught to apply.  They cover up the reality of people yet for most of us these labels are the only “I” and “them” that we know.  How many children are told over and over that they are bad or stupid?  How many are told that others, such as blacks, are dangerous, slow, and lazy?  And so these children come to identify themselves as bad or stupid and they identify others as dangerous, slow, and lazy with the harmful results that follow both for themselves and those around them.  How sad. 

The labels we apply to ourselves and others may just be just a product of the mind; it’s what we’ve been taught.  But they are no less powerful and cause us and them suffering.  It doesn’t matter whether the labels are pejorative or superlative, they cause suffering.

The oft-quoted serenity prayer says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Those are truly words to live by.

We can’t change the way the world is.  But we can change how we relate to ourselves and to others … the labels that we automatically apply to everything we experience. That is totally within our control, difficult though it may be to part with habit-energies that have formed over a lifetime. When we stop applying labels and see ourselves and others as they truly are, not caricatures or stereotypes, a new world of possibilities opens up.

This is why Nina Simone wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”  She wanted black children to hear that they are not stupid, but in fact gifted.  She wanted them to see their true selves.  Not the image placed on them by white society.

If you accept and acknowledge the truth of these statements, then you have made the first important step to in your own small way changing the world.

2.  Let your heart embrace all aspects of your being.  This is not something we are taught, either by family, peers, or the culture.  Quite the contrary.  We are made very aware of our faults, our failings, all the “negative” aspects of our character.  And so we learn not to love ourselves, not to respect ourselves; we are flawed, not worthy.  We become insecure.  We become very sensitive to perceived slights and wrongs and get angry or hurt, we tend to either withdraw or become an egomaniac.

Embracing all aspects of your being does not mean “indulge” yourself, giving yourself license to do things which may be harmful to yourself or others, but it does allow you to acknowledge these aspects of yourself and have compassion for yourself and for these tendencies, knowing that they are taught.  They are not you.

When we embrace ourselves fully we feel whole and so it removes the struggle, the internal battles, that tie us up and feed our anger, fear, and negativity.  Embracing these aspects of us greatly lessens their power. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when we, for example, fight our anger, try to rid ourselves of it, it actually strengthens our anger.  By embracing ourselves, these emotions instead sort of get smothered by love.  When we feel whole there is no reason to be angry. 

3.  Know that you have everything you need within yourself to experience peace and happiness.  Again, this is not what we’re taught by family, peers, or culture.  Just the opposite.  We are taught that we need all sorts of things … change who we are, how we look, obtain material things … in order to experience happiness.

But as in the first point, this is all stuff we are taught.  It is not a reflection of reality.  It is in fact by depending on things outside of ourselves for happiness that we are fated to experience endless disappointment, frustration, and psychological suffering.

This is not a refutation of John Locke’s famous poem, “No man is an island.”  It is not a call to isolate yourself and remove yourself from the world.  It is instead a call again to change how you relate to yourself and the world around you.

By not needing things, by not obsessing about things, by being able to say, “It’s great if it happens, but if it doesn’t that’s ok too,” the things we desire or want lose the power to frustrate us and cause us suffering.  It’s called non-attachment.

After becoming aware that all our feelings and perceptions are learned experience, a product of our mind, and not a reflection of our true selves … and after we allow our heart to embrace all aspects of ourselves … you will find that you become aware from within yourself, from your heart, that you have everything you need inside yourself to experience peace and happiness.

To summarize:  When you are aware that all your feelings and perceptions are taught, you will realize all the bull in our culture.  When you embrace all aspects of your being, you will find when you meet or even just observe others that you feel their suffering or joy, and you will feel compassion grow within yourself.  

When you know that you have everything you need inside yourself to experience peace and happiness, you will be able to go through your days without anything pushing your buttons.  You will be secure.  You will be aware of all things.  You will note the things that you can in some way change, but regarding those you can’t, you will be aware that things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is, your buttons will not be pushed, you will not obsess, you will not become agitated.

When you have reached this state, or even just begun the process of walking this path which is so different from the one you’ve followed in the past, you will find that you perform more and more random acts of kindness.  That you feel a sense of community with all people and have compassion for their state and suffering.  That you understand the value of all people, of all life, and that you respect all people.  

For you realize that people are the way they are and you are the way you are because it’s the way we’ve been taught to view ourselves and the world around us.  There are no evil people, just people who’ve been taught to do harmful things to others.  There are no failures, just people who have not been able to accomplish something that their learned experience drove them to do.  There are no lazy people, just people who’ve been beaten down all their lives by messages that they will not amount to anything.  There are no worthless people; everyone has something to contribute to society if given the opportunity; sometimes its intellect, sometimes its talent, sometimes it’s just a smile or their presence.  

And when you realize these things, you will support politicians who seek to change the fundamental nature of our culture, to create a sense of community, and to change the way we view government because so much of how people view themselves, respect themselves or don’t, feel they have opportunity or not, is a result of their interaction with government.  This is not an anti-wealth movement.  It is not an anti-business movement.  It is just a movement that says that everyone has their value and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  

The Declaration of Independence states that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to secure those rights.  So government action to improve educational opportunity, health care opportunity, job opportunity, and housing opportunity is necessary in order for all people to be able to truly experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to experience dignity and respect.   

Lincoln stated that we are a democracy “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  This implies both rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Those who have been able to benefit from the system and gain wealth need to give their fair share to support the government’s efforts to provide all citizens with a meaningful equal opportunity to make more of their lives.  The wealthy will still be wealthy, but part of that wealth will now serve a meaningful function in the betterment of the common good.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Real Issue in 2016 - Electing a Democratic Congress

In the recent Democratic presidential primary debate, the candidates trotted out programs that they would sponsor to address a variety of problems our nation is facing.  But an article in the New York Times  astutely noted that no one said anything, nor were they asked, about how they would get these programs through Congress given the current control of the House by Right Wing Republicans.  

An excellent point.  Whether it’s Bernie Sanders with his more liberal ideas or Hilary with her more centrist policies, none of them could get through a Congress where the Right Wing has a virtual veto power over any proposed program through their de facto control of the House despite their small numbers.  

If the public elects the Democratic candidate President because they want his or her programs to be enacted, then they have to elect a Congress where Democrats have majorities in both houses.  And if the Democratic candidate does not want to have a presidential term like Obama’s, then that candidate needs to make changing the makeup of the House and Senate a high priority.

At a minimum, no person who votes for the Democratic candidate should vote for a Republican for Congress.  This should be obvious, but the voting public needs to be reminded that this isn’t like the old days when a split in the control of government was often considered good by many because it resulted in more tempered, centrist policies.  Given the current nature of the Republican Party, we have seen that split control means total deadlock.  A government in total dysfunction.  A government by crisis.

But these votes won’t be enough to bring about the desired change because many House districts have been redrawn in such a way as to make them “safe” Republican seats, and so not in play for the Democrats.  Short of changing those district lines, the only tool the Democrats have is to convince droves of traditional non-voters to register and vote.

Even in Presidential election years, voter turnout ranges from bad to worse.  In a good year, like 2008, the turnout rate was 58.2%.  That means that 41% of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  In a bad year, like 2000, the turn out rate was only 51.2%.  So 48.8% of eligible voters … almost half … didn’t vote.

But here’s the kicker … studies consistently show that non-voters are disproportionately poor or less well-off, younger, and tend to favor higher taxes and more government spending.  For example, 46% of nonvoters have household incomes below $30,000, while the percentage among voters is 19%.  43% of nonvoters are people of color, while only 22% of voters are.  And 34% of nonvoters are under 30, while only 10% of voters are.

For it to work, this has to be more than your traditional get-out-the-vote campaign.  Not even resurrecting the Obama coalition will suffice, although that’s going in the right direction.  These traditional non-voters need to be touched by the campaign and galvanized to vote.

The Democratic Party has to find a way to convince these voters that their vote would make a very real difference to their lives and to get them to the polls, even with reduced hours, voter IDs, and all the other barriers Republicans are setting up.  Given the experience of the past 6 years, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of our country’s welfare hangs in the balance.

To accomplish this, the reference point for the campaign should be the equality and value of all citizens as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and the policies that logically flow from that premise as stated in my book, We Still Hold These Truths.  See also my post, “Growing a Stronger America - More Self-Sufficient, A Stronger Citizenry, a World-Class Infrastructure,” September 15, 2015.

This need not and should not be made to sound like a class struggle.  This proposed strategy is not anti-rich nor anti-big business.  This country needs a strong business community to provide good jobs for our citizens, and so government policies need to continue to support business growth.  

All this policy is saying is that the influence of big corporations and wealthy individuals on government policy has increased too far to the point that they for all intents and purposes control it.  And so the balance between private rights, government, and the public good is currently out of whack.  The influence of big money in elections and the influence of lobbyists in Congress has rendered meaningless the concept of one man, one vote.  A proper balance needs to be restored.

Every citizen should be valued and have a voice.  But almost one million children are born into poverty each year.  22% of all children, around 18,000,000, live in poverty.  Because of this accident of birth and the poor education and other negative life factors that typically come with it, these children do not have a meaningful equal opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  

Many people who had been solidly middle class and had enjoyed the fruits of their labor now find themselves as a result of globalization and the recent recession to be struggling to keep their heads above water financially.  They are no longer middle class but teetering on the edge of poverty.  

As part of the responsibility of being a citizen, those who have made it big because they have been able to take advantage of our system, and yes their hard work, need to give back more.  Both to help the government provide those less well-equipped for the economic struggle with the foundation needed to have a meaningful equal opportunity, and to enable the government to replace our archaic and crumbling infrastructure with one that will support a strong economy into the future. 

This proposed policy is ultimately about fairness.  It does not “gouge the rich;” they will remain very wealthy even after paying their fair share.  It is about treating our fellow citizens with humanity rather than cruelty.  It is about being true to the maxim found in the core morality of all the great religions and any civilized society … do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It’s about being true to the principle first trumpeted in our Declaration of Independence … that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.