Category Archives: Elections

Is America a Failed State?

As we say in New England, it’s been a wicked bad time lately. What with Ebola, ISIS, climate change induced weather crises, the situation in Ferguson, MO, the Secret Service scandals and more, we all feel shaken and fearful for the future.

It’s not only Americans who are feeling less secure and more frightened about what lies ahead. Worldwide, there is a growing sense of insecurity, anxiety and vulnerability. Still, I can’t help noticing the ways in which the U.S. is moving in dangerous directions, revealing flaws so serious that one wonders what separates us from countries that we like to call “developing countries.” “American Exceptionalism” – a term that smacks of superiority – may no longer imply what is best in our national culture. Now it may stand for all that is exceptional in negative ways in American life and politics.

Think about the growing corruption in our electoral system, typical in “less developed countries.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dealt a terrible blow to our political process when it ruled that essentially corporations are people. The rise of Super PACS and the power afforded individuals like the Koch brothers will have alarming consequences in the 20016 elections.

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Anonymous political giving is growing exponentially. Voters are increasingly accosted by advertising from groups with seemingly benign names and dubious agendas. These groups are required to disclose their finances only on federal tax returns, and the names of donors are exempted. Approximately 55 percent of broadcast advertising has been paid for by groups like this recently. Then there is gerrymandering and changes – attempted or achieved – to voting laws designed to keep certain people from voting the way some folks want them to.

Then there’s police brutality and our deeply broken justice system. I’m not only talking about what happened in Ferguson or St. Louis or other places where black kids are shot to death by white cops, which obviously has a lot to do with the abysmal state of race relations in this country.

I’m talking about stories that seldom make the news, although the case of Lisa Mahone and her boyfriend Jamal Jones did get coverage. Mahone and Jones were rushing to the hospital where her mother was dying when they were stopped by police because Lisa wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Before the whole thing was over, police had drawn their guns and Jamal was tasered because he didn’t have an ID and was too afraid to get out of the car. All of this occurred with two terrified children in the back seat of the car.

The police are simply out of control. They have turned into militarized forces and SWAT teams because they’ve been trained to act like they work in a war zone by people who have done exactly that, many of whom are now cops on the beat.

Police departments and drug task forces have been allowed to take millions of dollars from Americans under federal civil forfeiture laws with which they buy Humvees, automatic weapons, night-vision scopes and sniper gear, according to the Washington Post. The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize, even without charging anyone with a crime. In order to retrieve their assets, victims must prove that the seized money or property was acquired legally. Mainly used by the Drug Enforcement Administration or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there have been 62,000 cash seizures since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments.

As for the justice system, take the case of teenager Courtney B. who was falsely accused by another teen of unwanted sexual touching, an accusation invented by a mother who wanted to sue a school district for money. Courtney was arrested in Arizona without due process, held without bail for 66 days, and wrongfully convicted of child molestation by a judge. Sentenced to 11 years, she is required to register as a sex offender upon release. Despite proof that the alleged crime never happened, the county attorney, disbarred after copious alleged ethics violations, refused to admit he’d made a mistake. So this young woman languishes in jail – like so many others with similarly tragic stories, and many exonerees who finally make it out.

Clearly, we are failing as an exceptional, First World, democratic country in many ways.

In a recent column in The New York Times related to the Secret Service debacle, Thomas Friedman put his finger on something important and relevant. “Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying,” he wrote. “Watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore?”

We should all be asking that question with all due speed and gravity before we too become known as a “less developed country” struggling with political and moral corruption.

An Inveterate Worrier Goes Forward with Trepidation

In December I received an email entitled “Going Forward Together” from my progressive senator, Bernie Sanders.  It offered a list of issues that urgently need to be addressed by Congress this year. 

 His list included wealth and income inequality and growing poverty, the need for jobs, the urgency of raising the minimum wage and providing retirement security for seniors, Wall Street’s “too big to fail” banks, campaign finance reform after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, justice for minorities, women and gays, and the threat posed to American civil liberties by the National Security Agency.

 I couldn’t agree more with Senator Sanders.  But here’s the troubling thing: I have a slew of additional issues I’m worried about. 

 According to the latest Shriver Report, “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink,” an estimated 42 million women, and 28 million children who depend on them, are living their lives on the edge of disaster. They are “one single incident—a doctor’s bill, a late paycheck, or a broken-down car—away from economic ruin.”  What women, a large number of whom are head of household and sole income earner, especially in low-income families need is “a country that supports the reality of women’s dual roles as by far the majority of the nation’s caregivers and breadwinners.”  Instead what do we get? Mike Huckabee yelping about women’s runaway libidos and a shocking assault by his cronies on women’s privacy and reproductive health.

 I worry about our criminal justice system, and the private enterprises with a vested interest in them, running amok.  Horrific sentences, deplorable conditions, inadequate medical care, and abusive staff are just some of the issues at hand.  So is the fact that juveniles are facing life without parole, despite Supreme Court decisions aimed at curtailing mandatory sentences and ensuring juvenile justice.   

                                              

In one Florida case, two kids aged 12 and 14 with no prior record attempted to rob a man.  One of them fired a gun, accidentally wounding him.  He was grazed by the bullet but not badly hurt. The kid with the gun, likely advised to accept a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery, hoping for leniency.  Instead the judge sentenced him to 70 years without parole.  Clearly the youth who carried out this attempted robbery, gun in hand, needed to be punished.  But the case is not unusual in its extraordinary sentencing.  Nor are the ones that slap teenage girls in jail for life without parole for accidentally killing their sexual abusers.

 Human trafficking is another worrying issue that affects young people in devastating ways. While efforts are being made to address the worldwide epidemic, it happens far too frequently in the U.S.  Florida, Chicago and Washington, DC have been described as “hot spots” of trafficking in a report funded by the Department of Justice. And New Jersey could soon be added to that dubious list in the wake of this year’s Super Bowl.  “New Jersey has a huge trafficking problem,” according to U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “One Super Bowl after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks.”  Danielle Douglas, a self-described sex-trafficking survivor, agrees. She told The Huffington Post that major sporting events attract sex traffickers looking to make money. “The Super Bowl is a huge arena for sex trafficking. Some visitors come to the Super Bowl not to watch football. They come to have sex with women, and/or men or children.”  Is this America’s latest version of “Take me out to the ballgame”?

We all know that gun control legislation – with teeth – urgently needs to be enacted.  Shootings in schools, movie theaters, malls, on our streets and in our homes is so out of control one hardly has words.  What we do have is compelling facts: 33 Americans are murdered with guns every day. Our gun murder rate is 20 times higher than any other developed nation.  American women are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries.  There have been at least 36 school shootings since Newtown.  And dangerous people can still buy handguns in 34 states without background checks. What more evidence – how many more fatalities – do we need before the NRA is defeated and sane legislation is enacted?

                                                                                       

 There’s more, of course – climate change and the state of education in the U.S., for example – but even Bernie Sanders doesn’t have the energy to confront all of our woes in one go.  And things aren’t looking good for legislative reform this year as the right and left continue to behave irresponsibly.  So what’s a country or a constituency to do? 

 At the very least, I suppose, we can remind people of the work ahead if America is not to fall behind in ways unimaginable a generation ago.  It wouldn’t hurt to send Bernie Sanders a thank-you note either.

What the Shutdown Means for Women

She’s a young mother, pregnant with her second child, who relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – WIC – for food and medicine when her son gets sick. When the federal government shut down she became one of almost nine million mothers, and their children under five, who lost their vouchers for food, baby formula, and breastfeeding support.

She’s a victim of domestic violence who has nowhere to go for help because funds usually available under the Violence Against Women Act have been reduced or eliminated.

She’s Michele Langbehn, a beautiful young mother who told her story on CNN and then started a Change.org petition to try to save her life. Having endured multiple surgeries, nine months of chemo, and two cycles of radiation to stop the spread of her rare form of cancer, she was under consideration for a clinical trial of a new medication that just might save her life when the shutdown hit the National Institutes of Health.

Michele Langbehn and her daughter

“I’m furious that Congress has chosen to shut down the government and leave so many of us behind,” Langbehn’s petition said. “This is not just about the debt ceiling or national parks. For me, the shutdown means that Congress is denying me potentially life-saving treatment. I speak for everyone battling cancer when I saw we don’t have time to wait.”

Why, I wonder, haven’t the critical needs of women like these – caretakers, breadwinners, mothers, daughters, elders in need – been given the priority of parks, monuments, food safety, and deserving veterans when it comes to policy and publicity?

All over this country, women who struggle to make ends meet in the best of times now face disastrous challenges, setbacks, and fears for the future of their families. Most of these women remain invisible, certainly in the eyes of privileged, uninformed, insensitive, politically driven policymakers under that big white dome in Washington. What do they know of moms who have to miss work and lose pay because Head Start programs or adult day care facilities for their aging parents have been closed? How many of them have looked at the face of a sick child and had to choose between food and medicine? Who among them has a child who won’t be able to attend college because financial aid has been cut?

As one blogger noted on slate.com, “Republicans are all about how babies are so great that women shouldn’t be able to say no to having one. … However, they clearly don’t love babies enough to make sure the alive ones are fed.”

That observation reminds me of what feminists pointed out back in the 1990s: Mean-spirited conservatives in Congress are all for supporting children from conception to birth. After that, it’s up to you, Mom.

And it’s not just about mothers. It’s about young women in college – and there are more of them than men – whose financial aid is being cut. Will they skimp on contraception, or meals, or meds, to make ends meet?

It’s about elderly women who can’t afford to heat their homes in winter if they depend on help from the Low Income Home Energy Program.

It’s about single women whose economic stability is seriously challenged when they are furloughed, and it’s about their health and wellbeing when they have to forego health care or preventive services like birth control, HPV testing, and pap smears for lack of funds or because of the moral objections of Neanderthals who get to hold them hostage.

The Affordable Care Act – can we please stop calling it Obamacare – has already meant that millions of women across the country have been able to access preventive health care without a co-pay, and more will benefit when the law takes full effect. It has already been measurably cost-saving: The Guttamacher Institute, for example, has shown that for every dollar invested in birth control services, nearly six dollars is saved in the long term.

As Dr. Atul Gawande, who writes for The New Yorker, and others have made clear, to date the Affordable Care Act has allowed more than three million people under age twenty-six to stay on their parents’ insurance policy. Seventeen million children with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be excluded from insurance eligibility or forced to pay inflated rates. And more than twenty million uninsured people will gain protection they didn’t have. A “new norm is coming,” Gawande says. It’s a norm that underscores that Americans are “entitled to basic protection.”

Who but the meanest and most politically driven could be against that? Virginia's Tea Party-er Eric Cantor

The answer is a group of nasty, small-minded, heartless Tea Party members who are about to go down in flames. It gives me no pause to watch that happen. But taking women like Michele Langbehn and so many others down with them positively turns my stomach.

Fifty Years of Milestones for Minorities

The symbolism in President Obama’s use of bibles owned by slaves, by Abraham Lincoln and by Martin Luther King during his inauguration ceremonies offered clear and compelling testimony to a remarkable achievement over the past fifty years. We Americans can be proud. The fact that a black man was elected not once, but twice, only a generation after the civil rights movement took hold in this country is an amazing statement about what we are capable of. Watching Mr. Obama take the oath of office amidst throngs representative of America’s diversity was a moment that will long be remembered by historians and long be cherished by those of us who served as witnesses to our time.

The changing face of America is present as we consider other milestones representing progress over the last fifty years. Not the least of these momentous events relate to women’s struggle for equality. Fifty years ago, for example, a report issued by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women – a body established by John F. Kennedy two years earlier – documented substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and made specific recommendations for improvement. These included fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable child care – extraordinary ideas in their time. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than a man for the same job. We may not be there yet on all of these measures, but we are well on our way.

Diversity,

The year1963 also saw publication of Betty Friedan’s iconic book The Feminine Mystique, an examination of women’s lives after WWII that ignited the women’s movement known as second wave feminism. Friedan, a journalist who had researched what became of women in her graduating class from Smith College, set off a firestorm of feminist angst when she wrote about “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the depression and sense of isolation college-educated women trapped in post-war American suburbs were experiencing. Friedan went on to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) which led to the formation of other feminist organizations that continue to fight for women’s equality and human rights.

In the prologue to her book In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution Susan Brownmiller wrote about the birth of the women’s movement. Her words now seem prescient within a wider context: “Although I can speak with confidence of a beginning, of certain documented rebellions sparked by a handful of visionaries with stubborn courage, there were antecedents to those rebellions … This is how things happen in movements for social change, in revolutions. They start small and curiously …a barely observable ripple that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations [emerges]. If conditions are right, if the anger of enough people has reached the boiling point, the exploding passion can ignite a social transformation.”

The second inauguration of President Obama, it seems to me, is a beginning, a start to something as new and fragile as a newborn baby, but a baby that will thrive and grow so long as it is nourished, well cared for, loved, and guided toward healthy development as it matures into own identity. There was something in the air that sunny January day, something quietly powerful that began to take hold. It wasn’t the wild enthusiasm wrapped in impossible expectations we saw four years ago. Rather, it was an almost somber knowing that something positive and full of potential was afoot. We sensed ourselves on the verge of a finer America in the words Mr. Obama spoke. We saw the real possibility of the kind of change that is within our grasp.

In part that is because of rapidly changing demographics, a new sense of urgency about the earth we live on and the world we inhabit, a newly emerging set of priorities, and a Republican party that has become the architect of its own demise. But beyond that, I believe there is something we are poised to become, something that calls forth our better natures, something that the Mayans might have meant when they said the end of 2012 would bring forth a new era.

I know how hard it will be to achieve the kind of future I’m suggesting might be on the horizon. But I think there are visionaries with enough courage who can serve as the successors to previous rebellions that changed the course of history.

We can start small and begin that ripple “that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations.” We don’t even have to reach the boiling point. Our “exploding passion” can carry us forward. The best part is we can all be counted among the visionaries. All we need is enough courage to ignite the social transformation that seems to have already begun.