Category Archives: Politics

Two Nobel Prizes, 65 Million Girls Absent from School

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, shared by deserving recipients Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, shines important light on the children of impoverished countries. Through their work on behalf of children’s rights we are reminded of the urgency of now when it comes to girls’ education and to child exploitation for financial gain.

Significantly, the award came as the United Nations marked the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to promote girls’ human rights and to highlight gender inequalities that still lead to various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by a huge number of the world’s girls. That is not to diminish the painful lives boys lead in many corners of the world. But the issue of girls’ education that Malala speaks to is so critical to a country, a community, a family, a girl, a woman, and her own children that it deserves the special attention a 17-year old activist – the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – has brought to light.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them most,” Malala has said. “It’ a girl with a book.” She is hardly exaggerating. Just think how ISIS and the Taliban and Boka Haram confine females to sexual slavery by way of faux marriages.

Sadly, history is replete with unnamed multitudes of women denied an education. In medieval times, for instance, women who were unmarriageable or considered unruly were shunted off to convents. But there they found a haven free from subservience and perpetual childbearing, a place where they could read, write, discuss ideas – until the men in power realized how dangerous that was, and banned them from such activities in favor of religious devotion and endless embroidery.

Yet, here’s what we know about the value of girls’ education: It is central to a country’s development and improvement. It leads the way out of poverty. And it has a direct, proven impact on child and reproductive health, economic growth, environmental sustainability, national productivity, innovation, democratic values, and social cohesion.

In the World Bank’s new report, Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, key findings include that “girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married [off] as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own healthcare than better-educated peers; and enhanced education – the ability to make decisions and act on them – is a key reason why children of better educated women are less likely to be stunted; educated mothers have greater autonomy in making decisions and more power to act for their children’s benefit.”

We know that illiteracy is one of the strongest predictors of poverty and that every year of schooling increases individual wages for both men and women. We know that an educated, skilled workforce is one of the foundations of a knowledge-based society and that education makes vital contributions to lowering maternal and child mortality rates, protecting against HIV/AIDS, reducing fertility rates, and enhancing environmental awareness.

But let’s put a human face on this, as CAMFED, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to girls’ education, has. Suppose you’re a 12-year old girl, they suggest. You went to primary school, loved learning, and enjoyed interacting with your classmates. But you couldn’t go to secondary school because your family didn’t have the money for school fees, uniforms, or transport. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t safe. Or that your labor was needed at home. You therefore became a financial burden on your family and had to work to contribute money to the household. Young, lonely and sad, you are likely to have a baby before you are 15 or 16, maybe three children by the age of 20. You are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than your former classmates and your children are more likely to be malnourished than women who waited to have families. You have no power – no agency to make decisions – no say whatsoever over your life. And all you wanted to do was stay in school.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 24 million girls like that one. Overall in the world, there are 65 million girls who are not in school.

In poor countries, 60 percent of the present population is under 25 years of age. Without children’s rights, including access to education, how are we going to realize global peace and development? In conflict-ridden areas – proliferating at a staggering rate – how will we stop the violation of children and the continued violence that occurs from one generation to the next?

Thank Heaven for a new generation of young women, and men, symbolized by Malala Yousafzai. “I know I am not alone,” she told reporters on learning of her prize. “I think this is really the beginning. This decision sends a message that all people, regardless of language and religion, should fight for the rights of women, children and every human being.”

That includes policymakers and politicians as well as parents. Would that they had the will to join her quest.

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.

http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=HN.607992422541035815&w=98&h=108&c=8&pid=3.1&qlt=90&rm=2

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.

Women Take the Lead as Abolishing the Death Penalty Gains Traction

When Sabrina Butler’s baby stopped breathing in 1989 she tried administering CPR but the baby died shortly after they arrived at the hospital. Police accused her of beating her baby. After aggressive interrogation the 17-year old signed a paper given to her by a hostile detective. Sent to a county jail she languished for a year awaiting trial without an attorney. During her trial, “the judge overruled everything my attorney said.” The jury convicted her of capital murder. Sentenced to die in 1990, the death sentence was overturned in 1992. But Sabrina languished in jail for three more years before a second trial proved her baby had died of a genetic kidney disorder. Finally, in 1995, Mississippi’s only female inmate on death row was exonerated.

Sabrina Butler Sabrina Butler

In 2009, Sabrina settled her case. Now she works with Witness to Innocence, “the nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.” She travels widely advocating against the death penalty. “It’s my calling,” says the spiritually motivated mother of three.

Sabrina’s story is not as unusual as it seems. According to the Bluhm Legal Center at Northwestern University’s School of Law, “Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones. As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.”

Nor are exonerees the only ones advocating the end of the death penalty. Take Sister Camille D’Arienzo, an activist with the Sisters of Mercy in Queens, NY. She became involved with the issue in 1993 when George Pataki was promising to restore the death penalty while running for governor of New York. Gathering a group of friends together to ask what they could do, they decided to use the Declaration of Life created by a former Mary Knoll priest to espouse their opposition to taking life “because it violates Christian principles.” The Declaration was sent to then-governor Mario Cuomo who immediately signed it. Thus began the work of a now 81-year old nun, who ministers to prisoners on death row.

Then there’s Bonita Spikes, whose husband was killed in a convenience store robbery in Maryland twenty years ago. Since then she has “reached out to other families who’ve suffered the traumatic loss of a loved one to murder.” Focusing on African American communities in Baltimore she knows people “who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss.” Still, she says, for most of them, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer “isn’t even a remote thought.”

Joyce House worked equally hard to get her son Paul released from Tennessee’s death row. Wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1986, he languished in prison, ill with an untreated neurological disorder, until he asked Joyce if she’d ever heard of DNA. As a result of her research a semen specimen proved that he had not raped the victim. They still tried to convict him of murder. The media picked up the story highlighting the abuse Paul suffered by a corrupt legal system. In 2009 all charges were dropped, although he was placed under house arrest for a year so that he would be ineligible for financial reparations.

Delia Meyer has not yet succeeded in exonerating her brother, on death row in Texas for sixteen years. Charged with a triple homicide he did not commit, Delia says, “We’ve had a hard time getting out from under it,” in part because evidence was hidden or withheld. Now the Innocence Project is working on the case.

Photo credit: Flickr

These women work closely with organizations advocating an end to the death penalty. Sabrina Butler recently joined forces with the Kentucky ACLU where bi-partisan legislation is gaining traction. In Tennessee, where ten executions are scheduled between now and 2016, Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says since the legislature brought back the electric chair, more people are discussing death penalty failures.

Why are so many women in the forefront of the movement? “Because for the longest time women have been the standard bearers for our culture,” says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s because we have compassion and probably a much better ability for forgiveness,” adds Alicia Koutsouliereis, a volunteer with Amnesty International USA.

Women are clearly having an impact. Coupled with news of botched executions, pharmaceutical companies refusing to provide drugs, and increasing numbers of exonerees, there is growing awareness of the fatal flaws in the criminal justice system, and the inhumanity of state-sanctioned killing. During oral arguments at the Supreme Court earlier this year, a California federal judge declared that state’s death penalty system had violated a constitutional amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. He called California’s system “antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Women working to end the death penalty have known this for years. Their fight to end the travesty continues.

A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)

masada

Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

Reacting to Conflict in the Middle East: A Revealing Litmus Test

It’s amazing watching what people reveal about themselves when tensions in the Middle East explode. Some otherwise liberal, compassionate souls with big hearts suddenly morph into raging self-appointed authorities. Others who’ve suffered deeply and have reason not to be kind toward oppressors become surprisingly gentle. Some spew invectives while others weep for dying children.

But nothing rivals what has taken place on social media since the horrific conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began. Having responded to a friend’s pro-Israel Facebook post in which she equated my sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians with being “pro-Hamas,” a slew of opinions started flying and haven’t stopped.

“It’s one thing to be so-called ‘pro-Hamas’ but quite another to simply be against the slaughter of innocents,” I wrote. “No one denies Israel’s right to exist (least of all me, a Jew) or to defend itself, but their slaughter approaches genocide. I cannot sanction the disproportionate response to the aggression perpetrated by some Palestinians. Most people in Gaza are ordinary, impoverished folks trying to survive in terrible ghetto conditions with absolutely nowhere to go or hide. Given the Jewish experience with ghettos and extermination who should feel compassion for them more than Jews?

“When I learned that 25 people perished while eating a meal together during Ramadan (suppose it had been 25 Jews breaking the Yom Kippur fast?), or that hospitals and UN safe-haven schools were being bombed with children killed, maimed, traumatized, there is no way I could sanction Israel’s aggression. While both sides need to regain their sanity and end hostilities in a sensibly negotiated settlement, Gaza has become a killing field. It makes me sad, and I feel an unwelcome shame (where once I felt pride) that ‘my people’ could behave like this. I ask this simple question: How does killing more children after the tragedy of lost youth that started this conflagration solve the problem or redeem the tragedy?”

Some readers support my position, some argue against it, and some spew spurious vitriol. The people who agree with me frame their arguments as I have, with a social justice, human rights lens, while those with opposing points of view respond from a (frequently erroneous) historical and political perspective. The passion that both sides feel is stunning, and sometimes alarming.

Because of copious dichotomized debates, I want to offer some further thoughts, beginning with a quote from Holocaust survivor, Reuven Moskovitz. His words are credited to IAcknowledgeApartheidExists.org. “It is a sacred duty for me to protest against persecution, the oppression and imprisonment of so many people in Gaza. As a Holocaust survivor I cannot live with the fact that the State of Israel is imprisoning an entire people behind fences. It’s just immoral.”

Leaving a synagogue because of “our overwhelming silence as Jews” over what was happening in Gaza, writer Naomi Wolf said, “I mourn genocide in Gaza…I mourn all victims… Where is God? God is only where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice.”

Someone in Gaza wrote this email to my friend, “Israel has targeted houses and residential areas. When people flee their homes the warplanes target them in the streets. They didn’t even allow the Red Cross to pull dead bodies and injured people out. Medical teams and journalists are among the victims. More than 70 percent are children and women. We have no power and no water. It’s horrible.”

It is not my purpose here to debate the merits, mistakes or arguments of either side in this terrible conflict. Nor am I trying to justify my position. I am merely stating it. I think it is urgent to transcend the politically expedient rhetoric of Hamas and others who say their goal is to destroy Israel, wiping Jews off the face of the earth. Consider Israel’s military strength and its American support and you realize that is never going to happen. We also need to acknowledge that a human rights approach to the situation does not make one “pro-Hamas.” Name-calling serves no purpose other than to inflame.

Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but that does not give it ‘carte blanche’ to slaughter innocent people by the thousands. Nor does Israeli oppression of Palestinians mean Hamas has a right to fire rockets indiscriminately. We must acknowledge that both sides are guilty of hideous violence, broken promises, outrageous lies, blind hatred, and unwillingness to negotiate in the interest of mutual survival. But we also need to recognize that both sides are equally terrified. That’s why the blame-game is useless. It gets us nowhere in solving the problem. Neither does name calling. Anti-Semitic accusations (and acts) must not be tolerated; no one should assert that charge against someone because they hold differing views.

In the end, the conflagration will expire when its impact becomes intolerable. For me, it already is. That’s why I speak out. Will others find their voices of conscience before another woman, on either side, grieves a dead child who never had a chance at life?

Are We Really the Greatest Country on Earth?

Often politicians and others like to glorify American democracy, history, principles and actions. They wallow in soliloquies espousing the United States as the best, brightest and most innovative country in the world. They beg the question, why would anyone want to live elsewhere?

Well, besides our inability to stop gun violence, our treatment of the poor (many of whom are children), our crumbling infrastructure and inadequate cell phone service, our denial of climate change, the Koch brothers’ political power, our shameful maternal and infant mortality rates, our damaged educational system, and institutionalized racism, here are three reasons: capital punishment, torture, and now the betrayal of veterans.

State-sanctioned execution is legal in many states. While a 1972 Supreme Court ruling suspended capital punishment between 1972 and 1976, once it resumed in 1976 more than a thousand people were executed by 37 states where capital punishment was legal at the time. We are among the few countries that currently allow the death penalty, including China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. More than 140 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Together the U.S. and the four countries cited here constitute more than 90 percent of the total capital punishment executions in the world.

In a recent blog post on The National Interest Paul Pillar noted that “the United States is distinctly in a minority in regularly using death as a criminal punishment.” Texas proudly takes the lead in executions. Pillar quotes a Houston lawyer on the state’s efficiency: “I think Texas does it as well as Iran.”
To quote Amnesty International, “A wealth of mounting evidence proves that capital punishment does not work.” The death penalty here as elsewhere, the organization says, is discriminatory and used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. And the risk of executing innocent people has been dramatically highlighted by DNA testing and the release of wrongfully incarcerated individuals. We also know that the death penalty disregards mental illness even though international law prohibits executing “the insane.”

A recent botched execution in Oklahoma and the Missouri case of a stayed execution because the accused man suffered from a medical anomaly that would have meant an excruciating death by lethal injection have again raised the issue of capital punishment as an immoral act. A recent editorial in The New York Times pointed out that death by lethal injection became the standard method because hanging, firing squads and the electric chair were deemed too “barbaric,” not because the state was taking a human life.

The reality is that state executions take place in shameful settings, at night, behind closed doors. If Americans actually saw what happens they would be horrified. As the Times editorial said, “There are no clean executions.”
Capital punishment is not the only torture sanctioned and carried out by the U.S. Amnesty International and others have made clear that “in the years since 9/11, our government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “…the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering for purposes such as obtaining information or a confession, or punishing, intimidating or coercing someone.” Torture is always illegal. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CID) is also illegal under international and U.S. law. It includes any harsh or neglectful treatment that could damage a detainee’s physical or mental health or any punishment intended to cause physical or mental pain or suffering, or to humiliate or degrade the person being punished. Yet in the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and CID in the name of fighting terrorism.

An argument can be made that the appalling lack of care for veterans by the Veterans Administration’s also constitutes CID. Recent news reports suggest that things are worse than we yet know. John Dickerson of CBS News said it best: “What makes the VA scandal different is not only that it affected people at their most desperate moment of need–and continues to affect them at subpar facilities. It’s also a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government. The growing scandal points out more than just incompetence,” he wrote in Slate, referring to lies told by administrators.

That is perhaps the most frightening piece of the VA scandal and reveals its moral connection to capital punishment and torture. The common denominator is obfuscation, often coupled with contempt, carelessness, incompetence, and a total lack of compassion – all of which add up to cruelty and suggest that this may not be the greatest place on earth to live. At the very least it should give one pause to reflect upon serious flaws in American culture, including its incipient violence, whether by execution, torture or sheer neglect.

Welcome to the New America, Where Oligarchs Rock!

When I was a junior in high school my English teacher, Vivian Davenport, wrote a “Word for the Day” on the blackboard. Students were charged with defining the word and crafting a sentence using it correctly.

‘Oligarchy’ might well have been one of Ms. Davenport’s words: Definition – “a small group of people who together govern a nation or control an organization, often for their own purposes.” Sentence: America seems to be moving from a democracy to an oligarchy.

Ms. Davenport might well have written ‘plutocracy’ – governance by the wealthy class, or ‘autocracy’ – the unlimited political power of a single ruler, on the blackboard too. I doubt she ever asked us to define or use the word ‘democracy.’ She would have assumed we all understood that political system, given how frequently it was invoked to describe the merits of American life back in the post-war 1950s. Today I suspect she would add it to her list. In her quiet way, she would want us to understand what we stand perilously close to losing.

Let’s not be Pollyana about American democracy, though. As writer Tom Adams pointed out in a blog post on Reader Supported News a while back, the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t even appear in the constitution. John Adams warned his colleagues of the “tyranny of the majority,” and Alexander Hamilton believed that “the people should have as little to do as may be about the Government.”

Hamilton                           John Adams  Adams

The so-called founding fathers were, like the majority of our Congressional members today, wealthy, white, property-holding (and slave-owning) males who favored a system of government that protected their own financial interests. Then as now, chosen representatives did not represent the interest of the public. Rather, their priorities neglected society at large while serving the financial elite.

Nevertheless, despite their political motives and personal flaws, we like to believe that the nation’s architects understood their responsibility and their legacy as they crafted a future for the new country they were helping to build.

Would that we could say the same for our current Supreme Court. Instead we are left to wonder how in the world they could have done it again with their McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision hot on the heels of the Citizens United decision – opening the doors to a new America in which money talks while the one percent balks.

The Citizens United decision of 2010 cleared the way for corporations to spend freely to get their sympathizers elected. It virtually declared that corporations were people too, effectively eliminating limits on direct donations by the ultra-wealthy to political campaigns. As Common Dreams noted, “it was a disaster for democracy.”

Now, the Court’s shocking decision has removed virtually all remaining constraints on campaign donors, including one that limited the ability of wealthy individuals to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties. (The decision left the cap of $2,600 per election that an individual can give to any single federal candidate but removed the limit on the grand total that can be contributed to all federal candidates.)

This may be good news for right wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson but it spells disaster for the rest of us, having overturned decades of much needed campaign finance law.

As Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) put it, “It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules. Now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.”     Baldwin

Welcome to the new America, where oligarchy rules and plutocrats reign.

Reform groups are organizing and demonstrating, petitions on social media are mounting and pundits (like me) are pounding the keyboards. But the fact remains that the highest court in the land has now made it possible for one rich guy to write a single check worth millions of dollars to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees, and the little guy be damned.

Is there even a word that captures how dangerous that is for America’s future, or a word for the day when democracy died?

 

The Elephants in the Pay Equity Room

Last month, April 8th being National Equal Pay Day in the U.S, pay equity for women got another fifteen minutes of fame.  We were reminded that when the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, American women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today they’ve reached between 77 and 81 cents on the male dollar — a still unacceptable gap resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, and thus smaller retirement accounts and lower social security payments just because of gender.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is noted for her activism on economic issues, pointed out, “If in 99.9 percent of all occupations men earn more than women, that is not an accident, that is discrimination.” 

There was big blather among talking heads noting that the comparative figures being used to quantify the gender-based discrepancy was an aggregate number.  But what we didn’t hear much about in the discussion was several critical issues that impact women’s work lives and often prevent them from reaching the equity goal.

 Let’s start with the fact that women are not monolithic.  We have different levels of education and thus different opportunities, different goals, aspirations and skills, different skin colors and ages. We live in different parts of the country, urban and rural.  We are physicians, farmers and factory workers; bankers, bakers and businesswomen; models, machinists and marketing mavens. For some of us, our productive work is unpaid and unrecognized. Think of women who don’t “work outside the home” but who provide unremunerated services ranging from food preparation and housekeeping to chauffeur, psychologist and hostess.  All of this makes it dicey to talk about women and work in simplistic ways.

But there are other relevant variables that we missed a golden opportunity to address more fully when focusing again on the need for pay equity because the gender pay gap isn’t just about “comparable work.”  It’s about big stuff like access, equity, subtle discrimination, racism and more.

We know that African American women earn 72 cents for every dollar men earn, although that figure depends on whether they are being compared to white or black men.  For Latinas it’s even worse; they earn 60 cents for every dollar that men earn.  But as Bryce Covert points out in an April article in The Nation, race too often gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. “It ends up in the ‘explained category,’” she says, citing studies that explain why a certain percentage of the gap is due to racial disparities. “But a large percentage of the gap remains unexplained,” she points out. “We know that race dramatically shapes wages. That’s partly why it gets lumped into the explained category. Taking this measurable difference into account helps explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? …There’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. But race is pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination.”

Another issue is likely to be particularly relevant to two-career families in the economic bracket that draws the most attention when issues of pay equity arise. For professionals with careers in which both women and men are heavily invested psychologically, there needs to be more discussion of divisions of labor on the home front, and quality childcare.  One reason women never catch up to men financially in the workplace resides in the fact that they still bear the brunt of responsibility for keeping everything ticking along in America’s kitchens and nurseries.  You know the story: Women come in and out of the job market because of children so they never make partner in their law firm, or never get tenure, or aren’t viewed as managers and leaders.

Which leads to another topic – the “second generation gender gap.”   Studied by Deborah Kolb at Simmons College among others, the term refers to organizational practices that look neutral but can have different impacts on men and women.  For example, gendered assumptions about male vs. female roles often lead to conclusions that men are better at strategic roles while such innovations as encouraging diversity or fostering team work are viewed as women’s work.  “In deciding what’s a good fit when it comes time to choose people for strategic roles it is much more likely that men will be put up for these opportunity jobs,” Kolb says. “Organizational structures and assumptions can go far in shaping formal systems such as hiring and promotion practices as well as compensation.”

 These issues are not esoteric. They are germane to pay equity in critical ways. Sure, they’re complex and difficult to assess. But until we take them on, recognizing and reconciling them in meaningful ways, the wage gap is likely to continue creeping toward resolution, if it moves at all. What a shame we lost the chance to dig deeper into this matter before another year is gone.

Bullies, Brutality and Bullets: Violence in America Prevails

An army general admits to sexual misconduct and other serious offenses and gets his wrist slapped while keeping his pension. Police brutality in California screams for reform while an offending officer is dubbed “the best deputy in the department.” Congress yields to pressure against a potential Surgeon General because the NRA doesn’t like him calling gun violence a public health issue.

Who says this country isn’t all bravado, big brass and balls?

The case of Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair underscores that the epidemic of sexual abuse in the military continues.  General enters guilty plea as captain testifies to her emotional painSinclair plea-bargained his way out of jail for heinous crimes against women including sodomy, death threats and forced pornography.  He perpetrated these behaviors in four countries over at least three years.  At his court martial Gen. Sinclair crowed “the system worked.”

But it’s a badly broken system. The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact occurred in 2012. No wonder Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was appalled when her attempted legislation to remove prosecutions in the military from the chain of command failed to garner 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.

When Daniel Johnson’s disabled father dropped a cigarette on the ground in front of his California home in late 2012, the elder Johnson little expected that the involuntary act would lead to his 26-year old son having his genitals burned with a Taser because a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy thought he was out of line.

The deputy issued a $1,000 fine for “littering” when he saw Daniel’s father, who drops things because of medically documented nerve damage in his hands, let go of the cigarette butt.  When Daniel explained that the “littering” was accidental because of his father’s medical condition the officer threatened to ticket him too. Daniel pleaded with the officer to let him retrieve the butt because they couldn’t afford the fine. That’s when things got scary. Another deputy slammed Daniel against the patrol car and the initiating officer beat him. This assault was followed by the Taser attack as his horrified parents watched. Daniel, a UC/Berkeley graduate who like his father is black, was arrested for battery on a police officer. Charges were never filed. Daniel’s lawsuit is pending.

A recent TV expose on Aljazeera America helps explain why there is an epidemic of police brutality in America. According to its program Faultlines, “federal money and combat equipment is transforming U.S. police departments into military-like forces.” 

Increasingly, police departments, which receive billions of dollars in Homeland Security grants along with free post-conflict military equipment, are using military-style tactics for routine daily operations.  SWAT teams have grown exponentially along with the number of police officers who once served in the military.  And non-violent protesters who want to see an end to “war games” and “urban warfare” are likely to be designated “domestic terrorists” when they dare to raise their placards at events like the trade show held in the San Francisco Bay area last year where vendors hawked everything from automatic weapons and surveillance drones to “crowd control” weapons. 

Despite the fact that the number of innocent people (mostly black or Hispanic and young) killed by police is escalating, cities like Boston are now arming police cars with military weapons. The tragic reality is that kids are killed every day by overzealous police, and Daniel Johnson’s awful experience is not uncommon. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the president’s nominee for Surgeon General, knows a lot about senseless killing.Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy is shown. | Courtesy Meredith Nierman Harvard educated with an MD and M.B.A. from Yale, he has seen plenty of gun violence victims in emergency rooms. That’s why in 2012 he declared that “guns are a health care issue.”  You can imagine how that went down with the NRA.  But his colleagues say they “are appalled that a candidate of such high caliber – with impeccable credentials, a well-earned reputation as a ‘doctor’s doctor’ and formidable experience in management and leadership – could be derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America’s health professionals.”

The 36-year old Dr.Murthy works at a Harvard-affiliated hospital in Boston and teaches at Harvard.  He co-founded TrialNetworks to leverage technology to improve clinical trials and he started a non-profit educational organization, VISIONS, to address HIV/AIDS.  He also supports the Affordable Care Act. No wonder the far right can’t abide the thought of him as America’s top doc.

As writer Lauren Friedman and other social critics have noted on various websites, “gun violence unquestionably is a public health issue.” In 2009, it caused over 31,000 deaths and guns were involved in more than 73,000 non-fatal injuries. The American Public Health Association calls gun violence in the U.S. “a major public health problem and a leading cause of premature death.” 

And yet we continue our destructive bravado.  Like a frenetic ‘film noir’ in which brutalities flash across the wide screen that is American life, our psyches are bashed until we are inured to the underlying violence. 

That in itself, it seems to me, is a public health issue.

The Pornography of War

We’ve all seen them – the photographs of malnourished children with big bellies and thinning reddish hair; the pictures of babies with horrific harelips, the sad and lonely faces of AIDS orphans.  These photos, tugging at our heartstrings until we write checks to assuage the guilt of affluence, have been dubbed ‘the pornography of poverty.’  They are seductive.  We can’t divert our eyes. They stimulate something in us, perhaps compassion vs. passion, but still, they make of us voyeurs as we look upon other people’s suffering and humiliation.

There is another kind of pictorial pornography – the pornography of war.  You know its poster child too:  A “wounded warrior” learning to walk with a prosthesis (or two); a female officer incapacitated by depression, perhaps induced by guilt for what she has seen or done, or by what has been done to her; a child wrapping her arms around a dad who no longer has the mental capacity to recognize her, a homeless vet wandering aimlessly.        

And that’s just in our own country.  We seldom see pictures of children wearing the faces of conflict, bearing wounded bodies, bereaved beyond repair in places where wars are actually fought: Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.  These photos are no less seductive. We look upon them with broken hearts, perhaps wondering why there is something horribly compelling about human suffering, and when we’ve had enough, we look away.

These photos make me immensely sad, and angry.  I cannot bear to look upon limbless bodies, shrapnel misshapen heads, or blank, staring eyes when they are used to garner sympathy in order to foster a simplistic, faux nationalism that calls itself patriotism.

Let’s be clear: Our troops did not march into Iraq to save us from weapons of mass destruction, or to protect democracy.  They went to Iraq, as they did to Vietnam, because of a lie told to them (and us) by their own government.  All the loss of life that followed, on both sides, happened because Iraq had something we wanted (oil) and because George W. Bush wanted a war. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy for sure but what have we got to show for our bravado?  A country torn apart and full of suffering souls because of our dishonest invasion.  As for the so-called wounded warriors of Afghanistan, what were they actually fighting for in a country whose culture we don’t begin to understand, and so rife with corruption that no one knows where the money went, although a large chunk of it is likely in the pockets of President Karzai and his cronies, all of whom have turned against the ally we thought we were. (If you think the American military was welcome there, talk to some Afghanis. You’ll get a different picture than the ones used for propaganda.)

So let’s be clear about something else.  President Obama is not, as politicians on the right would have us believe, a wimp on war.  He is not clueless, inept, passive, stupid, or weak in foreign policy.  His devotion to diplomatic solutions aimed at ending conflicts that cause so much pain to so many people – often with unanticipated consequences – is courageous, intelligent, active and sensitive to complex realities.  Unlike his predecessor and the hawkish Republicans who continue to live in some kind of Reaganesque LaLa Land, Mr. Obama recognizes the costs of war in human as well as geopolitical terms. 

Like Jimmy Carter, also unfairly pilloried for his political posture, the president knows that difficult but safer solutions often reside in the conversation between two people, both with a stake in the outcome of actions they take.  The president is not the inexperienced ingenue some people believe he is.  He’s simply trying to exercise caution, and a modicum of wisdom, from this side of the brink.  That he keeps his wits about him and maintains his dignity while critics hit him hard for believing in alternatives to war is something we should all be grateful for. 

       

To be clear again, I am not a knee-jerk Democrat (although I am always and forever an independently minded one). I don’t always agree with the president’s decisions or actions.  I am a harsh critic when criticism is called for. But in writing this commentary, what I want to know is this:  How many more limbless, lifeless, lost soldiers will it take before we come to see that war is not inevitable, not desirable, not always the solution, and should never be undertaken on the basis of lies – or false notions of patriotism.

How many more pornographic pictures must we view to see that violence is always trumped by vision, and that suffering is the last, worst solution to conflict.  If you doubt this, ask any one of those poster people promoting nationalism– or the parents and partners who now weep over their dead bodies.