Thursday, December 31, 2009

Murder by State

The British government continues to express its outrage at the execution two days ago of its citizen, Akmal Shaikh, in China. Mr. Shaikh had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which often results in deranged thinking and impulsive actions.

While the U.S. government is generally quick to condemn other countries for human rights violations, our great nation has been appropriately silent in this case. We pretty much have to be. We execute people who are mentally ill all the time. Also children—or, rather, people who committed capital crimes as children. Also innocent people who get snared in the net of a ruthless and antiquated “justice” system.

Reliable DNA testing has only been available for a few years and is often not used because of costs. Nonetheless, it’s become routine for prisoners condemned to death or life in prison to be exonerated when someone, such as the Innocence Project, takes an interest in their case. In 2009 alone, nine death-row prisoners were shown to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Estimates of the number of inmates who are clinically diagnosed to be mentally ill (never mind those whose mental capabilities have never been assessed) range from a very modest 5 to 10% among death row inmates to about 33% in the general prison population. Children are routinely condemned to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.

Of the 52 people legally executed in the U.S. in 2009, how many were innocent or mentally ill? We’ll never know, of course.

What we do know is that as long as we as a nation condone execution, we cannot complain if our citizens abroad risk being subjected to the same rough justice.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Tribute to Senator Robert C. Byrd

I never met my paternal grandfather. He died of “black lung,” a disease of miners, when my father was only two years old. At 38, my grandmother was left with four young children and no income.

Back then, there were no disability benefits, no state assistance for families, no food stamps, no Social Security. Grandma survived and kept her children together by virtue of a strong back and fierce determination. She got a job in a commercial laundry, where she spent up to sixteen hours a day standing on a concrete floor, steaming and pressing bedding for hotels and clothing for those wealthy enough to afford the service. She ended up with arthritic knees and varicose veins, but she never got so sick she couldn’t work.

Born in the coal mining country of West Virginia, Robert Byrd grew up knowing about hardship and desperation—about how important a job is to a family and how some jobs wear people out when they’re young. A man of compassion, Byrd has spent over fifty years in the Senate (and seven years in the House before that) speaking his mind, voting his conscience, and doing his best to make a hard life a little easier for folks. Representing one of the poorest states in the nation, he understands the need for reliable, affordable health care.

Senator Byrd is a man of integrity; that is to say, he’s consistent in upholding the principles in which he believes—including, to the greatest extent possible, states’ and individual rights. Sometimes, values clash, however, and people of integrity learn, grow, and change. Largely because of his commitment to states’ rights, Byrd joined in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After four more years of debate about principles of individual and human rights, however, he voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

An intelligent, educated man, he can tolerate uncertainty; intellectually honest, he’s able to both admit his own mistakes and embrace change when new evidence presents itself. He joined the anti-communist but rabidly racist Ku Klux Klan in his youth; he has never denied but often apologized for his support of prejudice and intolerance during that time. A supporter of freedom of and respect for organized religion, he also supports women’s reproductive rights. At 92, he’s probably about the only man in West Virginia who can get away with encouraging the coal industry to embrace the modern world by acknowledging the realities of climate change and relinquishing the practice of lopping off mountain tops to create open-pit mines.

Robert Byrd has always chosen being truthful over being “politically correct.” Yet since his career began in 1952, he’s never lost an election. He’s maintained a 98 percent attendance record in the Senate and cast nearly 20,000 votes. The people of his state don’t always agree with him, but clearly they respect the fact that he works hard in their behalf.

Of the many fallacies that pass for rational thinking in America these days, overgeneralization is one of the most popular. As part of America’s sharp turn toward cynicism in recent years, it’s become more fashionable than ever to lump all politicians together and tar them with same brush. However, politicians are like anyone else: there are cowards and heroes among them. As far as I’m concerned, Robert C. Byrd is one of the heroes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We the People

Draw a circle. Now draw another circle that intersects the first one. The result should be a figure that contains three spaces: the part which only belongs to the first circle, the part which only belongs to the second circle, and the part shared by both circles. You have just created a Venn diagram.

The Venn diagram is a great way of illustrating the concept of “me, you, and us”—or, if you will, “yours, mine, and ours.”

This is a central reality of human existence: as social creatures, there are parts of our experience that represent only our own interests, rights, and responsibilities. There are areas in which we have shared interests, rights, and responsibilities. And there are areas that belong to “you”—whoever “you” may be—and that are none of my business.

If we could all just get it straight which parts of life fall into which category, a great many of the world’s problems would be solved.

Concepts like compassion, morality, and responsibility can all be illustrated by use of a Venn diagram. We all decide what we believe to be “yours, mine, and ours” when—consciously or unconsciously—we answer questions like these:
  • To what extent is my life my own and nobody else’s?

  • How much should I care about other people’s feelings or well-being?

  • Am I responsible for trying to improve the lives of people I don’t know personally?

  • Should people protect the well-being of other living creatures—including the overall health of life on earth?

In a democracy, answers to questions like these motivate everything we do—including whether or not we choose to participate in government, and how. In America, that means deciding whether we are Democrat, Republican, L(l)ibertarian, or “other.”

The “other” category now includes those “tea-party conservatives” whose goals, if any, seem to be 1) to bring back the “Golden Years” of Bush-Cheney and 2) pay no taxes, no how, for nothin’, if possible.

Government represents the “us” part of the Venn diagram. It’s the way each family, community, or nation organizes itself for the good of the whole.

In the beginning, there was considerable debate among the nation’s founders about how “us” should be defined. Should it include only males? Only whites? Only the wealthy? If yes, what responsibility did these decision makers have toward others? We still struggle with the same questions:
  • Does a woman have a right to decide whether to bear a child?

  • Does a child who has lived here all her life but is not a citizen have a right to be educated?

  • Should public policies consider the needs of the poor and middle class as well as the rich?

The founders were not deluded—as many Americans seem to be today—into thinking that the documents they produced (The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) settled anything, once and for all. They knew that the principles of freedom and democracy they set forth in these documents would have to be studied, understood, adapted, and defended as long as the nation endures—that preserving them would require, to borrow a cliché, “eternal vigilance.”

In America, the government is “us.” To be anti-government in America is to be, in my opinion, anti-American. It puzzles me no end that the people most negative about the American government and its leaders are often those who go out of their way to call themselves “patriots.” By definition, patriots are those who love, support, and defend their country.

You can’t love your country without respecting its history and its government. You can’t support your country without supporting its leaders to the greatest extent possible. You can’t defend the country without actively participating.

Unfortunately, we all seem to remember all that only when the country is at war or under attack, as in the weeks after 9/11.

If only we could all be "patriots" during ordinary times--citizen-participants who choose our attitudes and actions for the good of the country and all its inhabitants.

In all of our millions and with all our wealth as a nation, just imagine what we could accomplish.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Climategate: A Mistake in Information Management

For two weeks beginning December 7 of this year, scientists and world leaders (as well as a few ignoramuses from Washington) are making their way to Copenhagen. As they struggle to find global solutions to the world-wide environmental crisis, right-wing critics in America are still nattering about some injudicious words taken out of context from emails sent years ago by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Hackers and thieves stole thousands of pages of material, selectively releasing tidbits that can be interpreted by the ill-informed to cast doubt on the enormous body of scientific knowledge supporting climate change. The timing of this sophisticated bit of intellectual terrorism—days before the largest and most important international climate summit in the history of the world—was no accident.

In his recent book, Denialism, Michael Specter says this of people who persist in disbelieving what rational and well-informed people know to be true: “they shun nuance and fear complexity.” That may be true of the consumers of misinformation; but those who manufacture it, popularize it, and profit from it are motivated by something more sinister than ignorance and fear: greed and/or the lust for power.

From what has so far been made public, it seems clear that the UEA scientists were concerned that fragmentary and incomplete information from their research could be used by climate-change deniers to overshadow conclusions based on years of good-faith scientific inquiry. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happening; ironically, however, discussion about whether and how to release these isolated facts has resulted in the whiff of a cover-up—which, in the minds of many, is enough to taint their entire body of evidence.

A favorite and very effective trick of those who manipulate public perception for financial or political gain is to find one or two instances out of many thousands and blow them out of proportion. When a gabby Acorn worker in Baltimore had a conversation with some sleazy visitors to her office that was recorded on tape, the result was an avalanche of criticism that crippled the entire organization. Besides encouraging poor people to vote (a practice that enrages many Republicans), Acorn is a community-service organization that aids the needy and homeless. When Congress cut off funding to the organization in a knee-jerk response to that one incident, things got even more desperate for thousands of people who need the kind of assistance Acorn provides.

The problem with the UEA emails is not information withheld by scientists. It’s mis-information deliberately manufactured and broadcast by people who stand to profit by public confusion. The problem for America and the world is how, in the “information age,” we can help people learn how and where to get accurate information—and whom to believe.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What's Good for the Environment 's Good for Business

In his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman talks as much about the realities of the world economy as he does about the purported subject of the book, global climate change. For those who may not have the book on their reading list, he's made the first two chapters available to anyone who may want to get a sense of what this very important and readable book is all about.

I don't believe anyone can speak with authority about economics or the environment without being familiar with Friedman's highly respected analyses. If you haven't read the book, enjoy!

In Whom We Trust

Happy 38th birthday to the Libertarians among us. The Libertarian Party was founded on December 11, 1971, and is now the largest “third” party in the United States. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, estimates conservatively that libertarians comprise anywhere from 13% to 20% of the American electorate. At the rate things are going, that means that people who identify as libertarians may soon outnumber Republicans, whose numbers seem to have been in the mid-20th percentile in recent months (depending, of course, on who you believe).

In talking about libertarians, it’s necessary to distinguish between those affiliated with the political party (spelled with a capital “L”) and those who “lean” libertarian (with a small “l”). Either way, this group is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in terms of the national discourse and decision making.

I’m no expert, but my sense is that in general, libertarians tend to be young, well-educated, and tech savvy. Highly resistant to being boxed and labeled, they fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media by communicating mostly on the Internet. Being generally anti-government, they tend not to brag about their influence; they seem to regard any necessary foray into politics the way a dairy farmer might think about mucking out the barn—as a distasteful but unavoidable part of the business of citizenry.

I find the rise of the libertarians both heartening and alarming. It is heartening because a viable third voice in this country may help us get past the colossal waste of time and energy represented by bipartisan posing and sniping. It’s alarming because I believe that the first principle of libertarianism—the primacy of the individual—is wrong. (More about that later, in what I hope will become a fruitful and mutually enlightening discussion.) The point here is that I, for one, will no longer talk about the American “two party” system. That expression is now antiquated and misleading.

No round-up of mainstream modern American thought would be complete without mention of a movement that is increasingly independent of traditional party affiliation and seems to be emerging as a new “party”: the fundamentalist Christian “conservatives.” With Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer, this group may eventually coalesce under the “Conservative Party” label, a group characterized by anti-intellectualism and magical thinking.

According to a recent biography, Ayn Rand, the ill-tempered, irascible defender of all things capitalist, often greeted new acquaintances with the question, “What are your premises?” Although based on her radical (and incorrect) belief that all decisions are based on reason, the question itself is important. Not knowing the answer is the basis of no end of pointless, existential conversations between people who think they’re talking about the same thing but really aren’t. (Case in point: When Republicans use the word “socialism,” they mean one thing; when Democrats use it, they mean something else entirely.)

Although her theories were greatly flawed by her ignorance and denial of the emotional aspects of decision making (a mistake that also created havoc in her personal life), Rand was correct in her belief that we can’t really understand “where people are coming from” if we don’t know the basic tenets of their philosophy—in other words, if we don’t know in what or whom they place their trust.

That said, for the sake of our ongoing discussion, here is a brief (and admittedly biased) summary of the main political movements in this country and their guiding principles:
  • Democrats believe in the People—in the collective ability of a group of well-informed and well-intentioned individuals to band together to protect what they value and to progress.

  • Republicans believe in the Market, which they believe to be impartial and benign but is really designed to empower and enrich the few at the expense of the many.

  • Libertarians believe in the individual, not as a member of a community but rather as a sovereign decision-maker free to act, as much as possible, without reference to the concerns or mores of the larger society.

  • Religious “Conservatives” believe in God, as well as in religious and political leaders who claim to speak for God.

Next: “We the People”

Friday, December 4, 2009

On Tiger: A Distinction Worth Making

The national obsession with a little fender-bender in Florida isn't the kind of thing I usually like to justify with a comment. However, Kathleen Parker's recent remarks about the Tiger Woods episode are worth noting: "This isn't breaking news," she points out. "This is breaking gossip."

Oh, that more among us could tell the difference!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Meaning of Words

Thanks to The Tarquin for this link, which provides thoughtful and much-needed clarification for some of the language being slung about in the public discourse these days.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World AIDS Day 2009

In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, about 33.2 million people were living with AIDS around the world—about 2.5 million of them children under 15. During that same year, about 2.5 million were infected with this highly preventable disease and about 2.1 million died.

To put that in perspective for Americans, that means that the number of people living with AIDS is about four times the population of New York City, with new cases every year about equal to the population of Houston. In the U.S. alone, it's estimated that well over a million people are living with AIDS with an additional 55,000 to 60,000 diagnosed every year.

In South Africa, the country hit hardest by the pandemic, the president has wised up and is taking positive action to address the AIDS problem. Meanwhile in America, I spoke just yesterday to a pregnant 15-year-old who was not aware that a condom might not only have prevented her pregnancy but also helped to protect her from STDs, including AIDS. She knew, of course, that abstinence would protect her; however, like many of the 1 in 3 U.S. girls who become pregnant at least once before their 20th birthday, she didn't think about that when it was time to make a choice.

In the U.S., there has been little public awareness or support for initiatives to address the AIDS epidemic for one main reason: thanks to political correctness, it's all but invisible. To read the obituaries in almost all American newspapers, you'd think no one ever dies of AIDS; rather, those who are infected die of pneumonia, cancer, or some other more socially acceptable disorder caused by AIDS. Partly because of our dysfunctional health care system and reporting laws that differ from state to state, some cases are never identified until a terminally ill patient reports to a hospital to die.

So on this day, I suggest that we consider a few ways to improve this situation. We can stop the nonsense about "abstinence only" sex education and resolve to give kids all the information they may need to protect themselves. (This doesn't mean telling kids to have sex, but it does mean acknowledging that no matter what we say, many won't choose abstinence.) In the same spirit of compassionate realism, we can support needle exchange programs. American Catholics can tell their newly politicized bishops that if they want to reduce the number of abortions in America, they should support measures to reduce the numbers of unwanted pregnancies. We can support health reform. And finally, we can work to reduce the kind of mean-spirited judgmentalism that may prevent AIDS-infected people from getting help and taking steps to protect others.