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.

It’s Time to End the Epidemic of Sexual Assault

What do city subways, college dorms, and military service have in common? They are all venues for the vulnerable when it comes to sex assaults.

The latest horror stories come from women in New York who’ve been ogled, groped, flashed, harassed, splashed with ejaculate and attacked on subways or in subway stations. One recent account involved a woman who was forced off a train and only managed to escape when she was able to push an alarm button as her assailant dragged her along the platform.

The city, trying to deal with the situation, has proposed a law to upgrade unwanted sexual contact from a misdemeanor to a felony and to turn “sexually motivated touching” into a sex crime with possible jail time.

But one woman blogger says she isn’t convinced it will help much. “The most lamentable aspect of taking public transportation as a woman is enduring the unsavory boys and men who exploit the shared space and put our safety in jeopardy. Women understand that most men don’t engage in this brand of sexual violence. But the number of guys who are doing these things is sizable enough to make most women uneasy during our commutes.”

The seriousness of the sexual assault epidemic on university and college campuses is garnering much needed attention thanks to recently released guidelines promulgated by the White House. Aimed at forcing academic institutions to aggressively combat sexual assaults the recommendations call for anonymous surveys, anti-assault policies, and greater confidentiality for those reporting crimes. The administration wants Congress to pass further measures to enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failure to comply. It has also proposed a website – NotAlone.gov – to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the steps were announced. “We need to give victims the support they need and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

For Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger that’s good news, but it’s money-where-mouth-is-time. Raped by a fellow student while at Columbia University, a university official interrogated Sulkowicz about the sex act that occurred, suggesting that it was physically impossible as described. The panel dismissed her accusation, even though there had been other sexual assault complaints against the same man. “Has anything every happened to you that was just so bad you felt like you became a shell of a human being?” Sulkowicz asked a New York Times reporter when sharing her story.

Dana Bolger’s rape occurred when she was at Amherst, where a dean “encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” she recalls. “He advised me to take time off and wait for my rapist to graduate.” Another Amherst student survivor was forced into a psychiatric ward and forbidden to study abroad or write a senior thesis. She ultimately withdrew.

One in five women is sexually assaulted in college according to one survey and 55 prestigious colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence. The White House initiative is “a meaningful first step,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), but more needs to be done. “There is a sense this isn’t really a crime, that there is no harm. Well, it’s a felony and it is harmful.”

Meanwhile, sexual assault in the military continues apace. A new Pentagon report reveals that between June 2012 and June 2013 there were more than 3500 reports of sexual assault – a 43 percent increase in one year. During that year soldiers were fifteen times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy, a statistic that even the Pentagon calls “startling.”

The military seems baffled about how to handle the growing epidemic, despite new oversight and assistance programs. And it is clearly embarrassed by ongoing high level disasters, like the fact that more than thirty Air Force instructors are being investigated for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. New legislation has been proposed that would standardize guidelines for punishment for sexual assault convictions, but it may be too little too late. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said “the military may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could undermine our ability to effectively carry out [our] mission.”

It’s hard for victims in the military to take things into their own hands but college students and subway riders are fighting back. Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger helped launch a national network of students who have established an educational and advocacy website called Know Your IX – referring to Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and the right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment. And in New York advocates for subway safety formed an organization, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, which support a bill requiring police to collect data on sexual harassment in subways.

What do these groups have in common? The belief that no one should have to “forgive and forget” when sexual violence occurs – anywhere, to anyone.

SALE BY OWNER: VT COUNTRY HOME!

SALE BY OWNER!

A piece of Vermont heaven!

A piece of Vermont heaven!

150 Mandigo Rd., Saxtons River, Vt. 05154
802-869-2686
Priced to sell! $390,000

INTERIOR PICTURES AVAILABLE ON REQUEST!
Lovingly maintained, with recent upgrades and priced to sell, this stunning property is off a quiet dead end road. The driveway reveals a pretty pond and manicured lawns and leads to this 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath home on 12.7 high and private acres. Beautifully landscaped and overlooking an open yard, a pond and southerly mountain views, this is one of the prettiest settings around. The house is airy and light, and boasts a large eat-in kitchen adjacent to the tasteful dining room. The kitchen has a bay window in the eating area, a center island, and illuminated glass door cabinetry. Drawers below the stove-top make for easy storing of pots/pans, and there is a sizable pantry. The spacious living room features a fireplace and built-in bookcases. Step down into the beautiful 1998 addition with its radiant heat, 4-season sun room, and master suite with laundry and private office. The south-facing screen porch and small deck overlook the lawns and ridge view. The second floor offers an inviting guest room, another bedroom, a study/bedroom and a full bath. This impressive home is a sunny and beautiful oasis, private yet minutes to Saxtons River Village, the town of Bellows Falls, and easily access to Brattleboro or skiing.
What we love about our home
The house is in a beautiful, peaceful setting with great views including a pond and mountain ridge. It is full of light. It has country charm with modern convenience and it’s easy to keep clean! Everyone feels very comfortable and welcome here.

Facts:

• Bedrooms: 3 beds + 2 studies
• Bathrooms: 2.5 baths
• Single Family: 2,841 sq ft
• Lot: 12.7 acres
• Year Built:1976;1998 addition
• Heating Type: Baseboard, Radiant
• Taxes: $5470
• Excellent schools, public and private
• 2.8 mi. to village; 6 mi. to Bellows Falls, 22 miles to Brattleboro; 8 mi. to I-91

 

 

 

 

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.          

Corruption, Control and the Pathology of Power

In part because the subject intrigues me, I’ve been trying to answer the question of why corruption, moral and otherwise, is so prevalent in human nature.  None of us comes into the world corrupt, morally bankrupt or cruel. So what is it that makes so many of us fall prey to this dangerous and disillusioning character flaw?  Try as I might to tease out an answer that would satisfy my curiosity about this facet of human psychology, I have yet to posit a theory, even after researching the subject on the ‘net using search terms like ‘power and pathology,” “moral corruption,” and “Tammany Hall.”

My interest in this topic was sparked by a difficult personal experience involving local politics but it peaked when the scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke, and was exacerbated when I read about similar machinations by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  The Christy debacle has received wide media coverage while Gov. Walker’s questionable behavior has stayed below the radar for the most part.  But it seems that thousands of emails and hundreds of court documents released in February strongly suggest that Mr. Walker and Mr. Christy have much in common, including the fact that there’s been a lot of monkey business going on inside the office they oversee.  In the Walker case, it seems that staffers were mixing government and campaign business to the extent that several of his aides have received criminal convictions.                                             

 Not that corruption is always political.  In a stunning example of corporate corruption, a recent New York Times story revealed that a federal lawsuit had been filed charging for-profit schools with fraud.  It turns out that Premier Education Group, owner of more than two dozen trade schools and community colleges operating under several names in ten states, has been charging fees of $10,000 and up for programs that don’t prepare students for promised careers.  What’s more, they are falsifying records in order to qualify for grant money and other funds.  Students report that the schools they attended lied about certifications they would receive upon completion of a program. Some students and teachers testified that people without high school diplomas had been admitted, and in one case a man convicted of a sex crime was accepted to study massage therapy.

 Corruption is a complex and compelling topic which knows no boundaries. It happens in every country – with the possible exception of Bhutan until it opened up to the outside world – and across all cultures.  It has no age, race or ethnic parameters (although there may be gender disparities), and none of us fully understands why so many people seek personal gain through such behaviors as bribery, extortion, nepotism, graft and embezzlement. The world, it seems, is full of Bernie Madoffs.     

 Take the Sochi Olympic games, for example.  An estimated one-third of the $50 billion spent on that event – an amount greater than all the other winter Olympics to date combined – was allegedly lost to embezzlement and kickbacks, according to the Institute of Modern Russia in its online report “The Reverse Side of the Medal.”  But then, what else is new in Russia?

 Afghanistan is ranked as the third most corrupt nation in the world after North Korea and Somalia, largely thanks to its American-educated president, who is known to govern through patronage.

 And in Nigeria, an upsurge in corruption has resulted in long lines at everything from gas stations to passport offices.  Port congestion is said to be rampant and with a nod to New Jersey police extortion at toll gates and traffic slowdowns on highways are common.

 The litany of petty and grand corruption around the globe goes on ad infinitum. So why, we must ask, do so many people put personal gain above the public good?  Why are huge numbers of people willing to cheat others as a means of gaining success or recognition or material comforts?  What does it all say about our collective humanity?

 I still don’t have any answers.  All I know is that Lord Acton, a.k.a. John Dalberg, was right when he noted, in the 19th century, that “power tends to corrupt [and] absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an insight he had upon recognizing that civilizations fall into decline when they fail to use power wisely.  History teaches us that power is no friend of intelligent inquiry or discourse, and that it wreaks havoc on the good traditions and institutions it is meant to respect and honor. It also reminds us that power becomes its own God. 

 Mahatma Gandhi once noted that “corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy.” To that I would add, corruption ought not to be such a vibrant piece of the human psyche.  But the questions remain: Why does corruption prevail in matters of governance, commerce, and individual exchange? Why do we become indifferent to it?  What can end such “business as usual?”  

Announcing Workshops!

From Harriet Tubman to Harry Potter: Exploring Our Archetypal Journeys
Saturday, May 3; 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.;
The Writer’s Center, White River Junction, Vt.
$45
What do King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Harriet Tubman and Harry Potter have in common? Sure, they all have a great story to tell. But it’s more than an exciting narrative: Each of them has been on an archetypal journey – a heroic exploration, full of adventure, fraught with risk, and ultimately rich with reward. As they seek to find meaning in a complex world, each of these characters is changed forever by their experience, an experience peopled with mentors, villains, jesters, and other archetypes. This workshop will help us explore our own archetypal journeys as we reach for the “Golden Fleece” in our lives. For more info or to register, email  eclift@vermontel.net or call (802) 869-2686.

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Strong House Inn is proud to present a

 Creative Writing Workshop

with award-winning writer Elayne Clift

September 12 – 14, 2014

Back by popular demand…..

BREAKING SILENCE: WRITING OUR WAY TO THE TRUTH OF OUR LIVES

 “What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?”   That simple question, posed by poet Muriel Rukeyser, became iconic in the 1970s, when women writers of the “Second Wave” first began telling their stories openly and honestly.  Rukeyser’s answer to her own question was “The world would split apart.” 

 Beginning with an evening talk about the history and meaning of women’s diaries, journals and memoirs, we will explore the enforced silence of “good girls and fine ladies” that kept women marginalized and invisible for centuries — until a few brave souls among them put pen to paper, which they have done (often surreptitiously) throughout history.  Their courage and musings inspired others, including such 20th century writers as Virginia Woolf, May Sarton, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath and a host of others. 

 What will these women inspire in us as we break our own silence in order to tell some truths about our lives (without going down any dark rabbit holes)?  Short readings and writing prompts will get the juices flowing and an advance reading list will be provided for those who want to explore this topic more deeply.  Come prepared to be surprised by what you remember, reflect upon, write, laugh about, and share.

 

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.