Friday, July 20, 2018

The Multi-Faceted Road to Freedom

With the current president in office and the dysfunctional political climate in the country, it would be easy to focus on nothing but our current problems and how to move the country back to a state of sanity and rationality.  While that is of utmost importance and so must consume much of our time and effort, we/I would be negligent if we did not also continue to reflect on the larger issues that impact our society.

Human history has been a story of the powerful and the oppressed, the haves and the have nots.  The drive for survival focuses man on gaining power, the more the better, since when you’re fighting for survival one can never be secure enough.  And since having power by definition means having power over others, that sets up the age-old dynamic of human society.

This power dynamic is evidenced at all levels of human interaction.  Even within the family, while usually not oppression, there’s often a power struggle between husband v wife, sibling v sibling, or parents v children.  In school it’s mean girls/bullies against those they consider “lesser” beings.  In the larger world, it is or has been men v women, Christians v Jews, WASPs v Catholics, whites v blacks.  Go to any country and you will find the same dynamic, even in Buddhist Myanmar.  The list is endless.

In our society we have tried to lessen the impact of this dynamic, to free people from oppression, through the establishment of rights.  The effort has not been to change the oppressor’s mindset in any direct way, but to change his or her way of interacting.  To end discrimination.  And to provide a legal recourse for those who are discriminated against.

This has been a worthy effort to make our democracy and human relations more just.  But the effort has two major shortcomings.  

First, we can pass all the legislation we want, but if we do not change people’s attitude towards the group in question, discrimination will still occur on a regular basis.  It’s true that giving people rights has had some impact on the oppressor’s mindset, but there has been little fundamental change, especially where the bias runs strong and deep or the oppressor feels threatened by the oppressed’s potential.  Yes, there will be less overt discrimination, but much will still exist and only that which is called out through a law suit will be stopped.  

The fact is that we have not even discussed the underlying mindset that creates these problems.  We as a nation have never really had a discussion about race or women.  We’ve had a bit more discussion about sexual orientation in recent years and are starting to have a discussion regarding gender identity.  Until there is a nation-wide, humanity-based, discussion about these issues, nothing fundamental will change.

Second, while the passage of rights laws has been a critical necessity, we have done little to assist the oppressed to improve their lives regardless.  It is a maxim of spiritual teaching that we each have the power to change how we experience life, regardless the circumstances.  Thus, for example, the serenity prayer, with my exposition (…), says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change … which is the way my life is right now at this moment.  The courage to change the things I can … which is how I relate to myself and the world around me.   And the wisdom to know the difference.”

The first part of the prayer is usually met with substantial push-back from anyone who approaches it.  We don’t want to accept the way things are.  But the prayer does not mean or require that you don’t attempt to change the environment in which you live; it just means that you accept that right now at this moment it is the way it is.  It is an essential step if one wants to experience peace in the moment rather than mental stress.

The second step of the serenity prayer as it normally appears, “The courage to change the things I can,” is usually just greeted with a shrug.  Because it is interpreted as meaning changing the circumstances we live in and having the courage to do that.  That is a tall order in many if not most circumstances.  And so it leads many to feel that they are failures because they don’t have that courage or ability.

Yet this is not the real point of the second statement at all.  The universal spiritual teaching is that all we have the power to change is how we relate to ourselves and the world around us.  That is what gives us the power over whether a situation causes us stress and unhappiness or whether we are at peace regardless.

Before going further and discussing this powerful teaching, let me first talk about the word “peace” which I’ve used several times.  It’s not a word that we usually think of as possibly applying to ourselves in any practical way.

As an example, let me quote from my forthcoming book, How to Find Inner Peace:

Peace. What a completely foreign concept this was to me. How can anyone be at peace or serene unless they’re a saint? Since I was a young child my life had been filled with inner turmoil, despite an outwardly happy home and relationships. And in looking around at my peers and family, and at the images of the larger culture, I didn’t see anyone who was at peace. … Yet I knew in my gut that peace and happiness, a life free of suffering, was a rational, reasonable goal. The question was not whether but how? 
“First then, what exactly is peace?  Peace is the absence of fear, anxiety, hatred, guilt, shame, doubt and confusion … or better put, it’s not the absence of these emotions but not being controlled by them. It’s also being free of an intense desire for things you don’t have or to be someone other than you are.”

So how do we as individuals and as a collective group change the way we view ourselves and the world around us so as to experience peace and happiness, rather than fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc.?  Books have been written by many, including me, to answer this question.  But let me try to answer it briefly by looking at some specific examples.

Feminism:  The founders of feminism understood that if the lot of women was to improve, it was not just a matter of gaining certain rights vis a vis men; women had to change their attitude about themselves, what was possible, not be controlled by the confines that men had set for them.  So even without or before gaining rights, women could improve their life experience by changing their self-image.

Blacks:  At the turn of the 20th century, well before the real push for civil rights, Booker T. Washington led a movement to improve the lives of blacks through self-help, both in education and business.  But because he did not confront the oppressive regime, his was a one-pronged approach and he fell out of favor and influence.

Later, while the push for civil rights was going on, there were others in the community that were addressing how blacks could improve their life experience by changing their self-image and stop resorting to destructive behavior both towards themselves and other blacks.  They sought to build a supportive community.  One such movement was the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH and PUSH-EXCEL.  The other movement was the Nation of Islam.  

While the central goal of Operation PUSH was to improve the economic position of Blacks through various means, in his weekly sermons Jackson preached the uplifting of his people.  Nina Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” became an anthem of the movement.  And through PUSH-EXCEL he sought to improve Black and minority student performance in inner city schools and help them stay out of trouble.

A more divisive, although in many ways effective, approach was taken by the Nation of Islam.  It believed that Blacks could only improve their lives if they disassociated themselves from the surrounding White culture.  Instead, it sought to have Blacks adopt the strict morality of Islam to improve their lives and support one another.  While the Nation achieved many good things for its people, it was unfortunately built upon hatred of the white man.  And nothing good spiritually develops from hatred.

LGBTQ: For the LGBTQ movement, the spiritual emphasis, while pursuing legal rights, has been changing the self-image from one of shame to pride.  And as more and more LGBTQ people responded to that message and came out to family, friends, and colleagues, people found out that LGBGQ were a part of their everyday lives, that they were in essence no different from themselves, and so more people came to support the movement for equal rights.  Coming out created the environment for equal treatment, not changes in the law.

The point of these group examples is that regardless what the rest of the world is doing to you or how they are reacting to you … and this applies to individuals as well as groups … you have the power to change your life experience for the better.  By believing in yourself, by treating yourself well, and by having the courage to move forward with the things that makes life meaningful for you, that speak to your heart.  

In my post, “The Next Wave of Feminism,” I discuss the need for each woman to enter into an exploration of who she really is,  as opposed to who they’ve come to think they are based on their life experiences and our culture, so that she can truly decide what is best for her.  Every group must help their members free themselves from the confines that the rest of the world has placed on their narrative story.  

With women, for example, it’s not a simple matter of saying “no” to motherhood or being a housewife; that is more a statement of rebellion, not of deep inner exploration. One must be truly free of the past in order for each individual to decide what choice is best for them … for some it will be being a housewife and mother; for others it will be going into business or the professions.

There will always be lots of obstacles, with or without legal rights, but if you are true to yourself you will always be at peace.  For you will be one with your heart, and you will not allow anyone to take that feeling away from you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Why Judge Kavanaugh Is Not Qualified to Sit on the Supreme Court

There is no question that Judge Kavanaugh has all the paper credentials one could ask for.  His education and years on the bench clearly make him qualified in that sense for his appointment.

However he is not qualified in terms of the judicial temperament requisite of a judge, especially a justice of the Supreme Court.  The essence of justice, as embodied by the classic symbol of the blindfolded statue of justice holding the scales, is that a judge will decide a case on its merits, free of any bias regarding the particular matter before him.  Will he thus vote with the “liberals” on the court some times and other times with the “conservatives,” depending on the merits of the case?

One way of looking at this question is whether the judge will respect precedent, an extremely important element of judicial stability and impartiality.  Or will he be more of a political judge than a judicial judge?  

In discussing this issue, I certainly am aware that all justices come to the bench with their particular views of the appropriate role of government.  That is inescapable.  And it is true of both the “liberal” and the “conservative” justices.  But within that framework, a judge must be able to decide a case based on its merits, not on some foreordained, ideological view of the world.

From his opinions, it is clear that he, like some of the other current “conservative” justices on the Supreme Court, is not a conservative of the old school.  He does not respect precedent if he disagrees with it and is extremely biased as to how the law should be applied to a case.  

In short, regardless of the facts, he is against government/court intrusion into business matters and the executive branch while he is in favor of government/court intrusion into the lives of individual citizens to enforce his view of morality.  The facts of the case are irrelevant; he is social conservative and ideologically strict.

The justice he replaces, Justice Kennedy, was on the other hand definitely a conservative of the old school.  He was against government/court intrusion whether it was against business interests and executive power or in the private lives of individual citizens.  Thus Justice Kennedy could both vote recently in favor of American Express and Trump’s travel ban but be the lead justice in the decisions to decriminalize homosexuality and approve gay marriage.

The focus of the confirmation hearing should be on Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament, not how well he is respected and his solid paper credentials.  The fact that there are some other justices currently on the Court who do not have the requisite temperament is irrelevant.  Better late than never.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Amorality of Donald Trump - Part 3 - Health Care

I previously wrote two posts on actions that show that Donald Trump will do and say anything he feels he needs to in order to get what he wants.  He has no morality or ethics.  It’s all transactional.  The end definitely justifies the means for him.

Today’s New York Times provided yet another example.  The Trump administration announced that they were suspending $10 billion in risk adjustment payments to insurers because a lower Federal court in New Mexico threw out the formula on which the payments were based.

Why this sudden and unusual deference to a judicial decision, let alone one by a lower court?  Because it allows Trump to do what he and the Republicans are dying to do … kill Obamacare.  

Actions taken by Trump and the Republicans have already greatly weakened the Affordable Care Act by driving up premiums substantially, making it less affordable for the very people the Act is meant to protect.  If Trump proceeds to suspend these risk adjustment payments, it will without any doubt practically kill health care access for Americans who have come to depend on the ACA marketplace for their health insurance.

Another lower Federal court in Massachusetts had upheld the formula.  If the Trump administration were truly neutral on the health care issue, they could take a wait and see attitude pending the appeal of these cases, or others, to higher courts.  The administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid had the gaul to state that “we were disappointed by the court’s recent ruling.”  Such mendacity!

People have already received notice from their insurers in the past weeks that they were requesting big increases (50%) in premiums for 2019.  And that was before this development.  A 100% increase would now not surprise me.

Trump’s Justice Department has also asked a Federal court to declare the requirement that 
insurers not reject people for pre-existing conditions or charge them more … one of the most important aspects of Obamacare that has benefited millions of people … unconstitutional.  Another betrayal of the very people who put Trump in office.

What is to become of the health of our middle class citizens who do not receive insurance through their employment?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

What Are We Celebrating on July 4th?

July 4th ... Independence Day ... is fraught with symbolism.  It's 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 its moral voice coupled with its growing economic 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 to 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 the mass of Americans, especially the disadvantaged, something to hang their hopes on for more than two centuries.  This was the basis of the American dream.  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, only George Washington freed 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, to a lesser extent, 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 broad discrimination persists. 

And then there are the Native Americans.  They had a status 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 the Native American (and what else can it honestly be called) is breathtakingly chilling.   Manifest Destiny had no room for equality.  

And as for general prosperity, while it is true that we all have more now than we did … more education, more modern conveniences, creature comforts … 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 moving, aspirational words which we have still not managed ... or if truth be told, even tried very hard ... to implement.  As President Obama said, “We can do better.”

We are celebrating the birth of a nation whose unbridled capitalism was able to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the natural resources of this vast country and a bottomless pool of cheap immigrant labor to make this the richest nation in the world.  We are celebrating a rapacious America which, while being the leader of the free world, despoiled the environment and took advantage of the mass of its powerless citizens, leaving a damaged people and landscape in the wake of “progress.”

Instead of celebrating so hard and patting ourselves on the back for how great America is, we should use this opportunity to rededicate ourselves and our institutions of government to implementing those words of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal,” “that they have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that the role of government is to “secure” those rights.  We should never forget that in reality most of our citizens have little cause to celebrate if they stopped to think about it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Choosing the Next Supreme Court Justice - An Open Letter to President Trump

With the resignation of Justice Kennedy, a momentous task has befallen you.  How you proceed with selecting the next Supreme Court justice will have an immeasurable impact on the country and your fellow citizens for decades.

Justice Kennedy was a conservative justice of the old school.  He believed in limiting the intrusion of the government/courts whether it be in business matters or the lives of individual citizens.  Thus while he just voted in favor of American Express and in support of your travel ban, he was the lead justice in the decisions that decriminalized homosexuality and that recognized the equal right of gays and lesbians to marry.

The other four conservative justices are instead conservative politically, not judicially.  Meaning, while they are against government/court intrusion into business and the executive branch, they favor government/court intrusion to enforce their version of morality on individuals, especially on matters relating to the LGBT community and the right of a woman to choose.

You have two choices.  You can either please your socially conservative base and appoint a justice that is not true to Justice Kennedy’s legacy.  Or you can appoint a justice that is a conservative in the mold of Justice Kennedy.

What is at issue here is a basic principle of our Constitution and democracy.  In life, competing rights often run up against each other.  When the exercise of one’s rights either harms another or impinges on their rights, then that is not allowed.  That’s the basis for our criminal law and all government regulation.

In the case of LGBT matters, you have on the one hand people who have very strong religious convictions that homosexuality is immoral and a sin.  On the other hand you have gays and lesbians who are just trying to live their lives like everyone else … working, marrying, having children.  As Shakespeare put it, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”  They are engaged in what the Declaration of Independence terms, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

No private person should ever be forced to do something that violates their religious conviction.  However, when a private person provides a service to the general public, whether it be as a doctor, a pharmacist, an employer, or a baker, they are no longer acting as a private person.  They are providing public services that must be provided to all citizens equally, without discrimination or bias.  

This in no way prevents them from holding their beliefs, but if they step out of the private zone and into providing a public service they cannot act towards others based on that conviction. That would impinge on the others’ right to receive services free of discrimination.

Let me illustrate this point with an extreme example.  If it were someone’s religious conviction that Jews were Christ-killers and thus hated Jews, or if someone’s religious conviction was that Blacks were inferior people, not made in God’s image, and so could be oppressed, would the Court ever say that someone’s religious conviction overrode a Jewish person’s or a Black’s right to be free of discrimination?  Of course not.  And it’s not just because the law now specifically provides those rights.  It’s because those rights are inherent in our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, our democracy.

In the case of a woman’s right to choose, there are likewise those who have strong religious convictions regarding ending the life of a fetus and even against contraception.  On the other side, you have women who for a variety of reasons, personal or medical, either do not want to become pregnant or have a fetus mature into a child and be born in detriment to their own health and wellbeing.

Here again, you have the distinction between the private person and one who provides a service to the public.  A pharmacist, an employer, a clinic cannot deny women access to the products or information they need to make a decision and implement it.  

But this argument also has its limits.  To clarify the point about competing rights, here is an extreme example: you could not force a doctor to perform an abortion because in that case you would be forcing him to actually do something that violates his principles, as opposed to providing information regarding something or a product that is against his principles.

Your role as President is to be President of all the people, to protect all the people, to insure that all people are treated fairly and equally.  There is no question that there are some people and organizations that are down-right anti-religious.  But that is their free speech right, except in the provision of a public service.  And that is no excuse for depriving the Supreme Court of the political neutrality that is essential in its role of interpreting our laws and enforcing the Constitution.  The health of our democracy and the wellbeing of our citizens depends on it.