Sunday, January 24, 2010

We The People, Incorporated

The Supreme Court of the United States is the last line of defense against laws which may violate the sovereignty of the country and infringe on the rights of its citizens. Though certainly not perfect, it remains the backstop, against which the misses of the Legislative and Executive branches must come to rest. It has a very narrow set of rules to work from -- the Constitution of the United States. It's only job is to ensure that no local, state, or Federal law violates those rules.

Now, the rules are subject to interpretation. The Founding Fathers worded each Amendment carefully, so as to make the intent of them clear, but leave room for subjectivity. They also ensured that the Constitution was amendable, where clarification or expansion was required. They made a clear hierarchy in the system of checks and balances, upon which the whole framework of American government was supposed to rest; the Legislative branch makes the laws, the Executive branch enables the laws, and the Supreme Court rejects those laws that violate the Constitution.

It has always been assumed that the Justices of the Supreme Court were impartial enough to look at the law for its essence and its legality, not for its political potential. Of course, where the business of humanity is concerned, to expect any individual to be completely impartial is to ask too much. Upbringing, education, happenstance, personal belief, religion -- all these things will have subtle influences on any person, and while a person can claim impartiality, they are betrayed by their humanity. Still, where codes and laws are concerned, the wisdom of Solomon is not required to hear the evidence and distill the essence of it and compare it to the law, and then determine if it is a violation of the Constitution.

Therefore, it is a bit perplexing that the Supreme Court decided in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, to imbue corporations with the same rights to free speech as actual, living, breathing American citizens. In essence, the court has give the OK to corporations, both domestic and foreign, to meddle in the election of public officials. Though it stops short of giving them an actual vote, the decision means that a corporation is free to spend any amount of money attempting to support an incumbent politician or a rival to an incumbent, in order to tip the balance in Congress in favor of their corporate interests. A Sword of Damocles can now be hung over legislators, who cannot possibly raise enough money to oppose the concerted efforts of their corporate foes, forcing them to either toe the line, or resign.

One wonders just what predisposed the majority Justices to vote the way they did. Could they be so weak-kneed, as to feel the pull of corporate greed? Could they be so contemptuous of the average American citizen, that they feel that it is necessary to allow corporations to their thinking for them? Are they unaware that by granting these rights, they leave the door open to foreign entities that have majority stakes in American corporations? Were they oblivious to the havoc that several major corporations caused, with their poor business practices, which plunged this nation (and the world) into a global financial crisis?

The Founding Fathers certainly did not anticipate the extent to which companies would expand to become global corporations, with influence far beyond their borders. They most assuredly did not intend for companies to gain the rights of American citizens -- to have freedom of speech or even to vote. Companies and corporations are ephemeral entities, composed of many individuals, with no separate existence of their own. They were not the product of love, borne into the world via the pain of birth, to be nurtured by caring parents. Their function is to provide products or services for the consumption of the citizenry, to generate profits for their owners and/or shareholders.

It is obvious, given this decision, that there are two facts that cannot be in dispute: 1) the Supreme Court of the United States no longer functions as intended by the Founders, and 2) corporations have gained too much power over the government of the United States. This decision means that Congress will have a hard time passing meaningful campaign finance reform, if the Supreme Court will simply dismiss it as restricting freedom of speech for anyone, which leaves Congress paralyzed. Given the lifetime appointments of Supreme Court Justices, it is possible that such gridlock on campaign finance reform may remain for decades, until the majority justices from this decision have been replaced.

So it is becoming increasingly clear, that just as our ancestors felt the need to throw off the yoke of British oppression, we must rise up and throw off the yolk of corporate oppression. This is not a thing that can be accomplished using the current system; it will require that we, the citizens of America, use our Constitutionally guaranteed power, and call a Constitutional Convention, to alter the playing field, redefining the rights of citizens as belonging to citizens only, and to tackle the inertia represented on the Supreme Court by imposing limits on the tenure of Justices. Only by doing so, can we short-circuit the undue influence of business in politics, and ensure that the Justices of the Supreme Court have a clearer vision of modern society, rather than dragging along the influences of the past.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Hypocritic Oaf

The last thing you need to hear, when your country has been shaken by an earthquake, flattening buildings, destroying infrastructure, and killing tens of thousands, is that it is somehow your fault. Or more precisely, the fault of your ancestors. Yet that is precisely what a "renowned" Christian pastor would have you believe, based on a apocryphal story and his own brand of bigotry.

According to Pat Robertson, host of The 700 Club, the people of Haiti made a "deal with the Devil" in order to throw off the shackles of oppression of their French masters. Apparently, only by employing the forces of darkness, were Haitians able to overthrow the French and declare independence from "Napoleon the Third." Or someone like that; Rev. Robertson was more than a bit hazy on the history.

Actually, the freeing of Haiti from oppression was due, in part, to the French Revolution, which inspired the Haitians to clamor for freedom from slavery and French rule. in 1793, when France and Great Britain went to war, the British invaded and the French commissioners there, to secure the help of the locals, abolished slavery in the territory. It was the beginning of independence for Haiti, and a now distant bright memory against the backdrop of death and devastation.

That a "Christian" minister would not only base his premise on apocryphal and false information is nothing new; the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trails, the death of Jean d'Arc... throughout history, it has always been easier to look on those considered "different," and fear them for their difference. This is, at the root, bigotry and discrimination, neither concept being anything new. Haiti is an 80% Catholic nation, and perhaps because they hew so closely to the mother church, upon which many a Christian sect looks unfavorably, it is easy to take up the "they got what's coming to them" screed.

Of course, Reverend Robertson is merely taking advantage of the First Amendment, which protects his hateful and hypocritical speech, as well as providing him the ability to worship whatever way he chooses. It could easily be said that had he made his remarks anywhere else, there might have been a greater swell of indignation. Perhaps it is because he has made such remarks in the past; perhaps the American people are simply used to people doing this and have become a bit blasé.

I suspect that Reverend Robertson has not read his Bible lately, or he might have come across this, from Luke 13:1:

"Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

And it will require repentance for Pat Robertson to see the gates of Heaven, for to claim to worship Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, on the one hand while ignoring his teachings on the other, is to incur a penalty most grave. While Jesus wanted people to follow his way, he knew it could not simply be imposed. First, the weakest amongst us had to be brought up from the gutter. The most wicked amongst us must be reformed. The richest amongst us must help the poorest; the wounds of the sick and the dying must be tended. Jesus knew that for anyone to be able to believe in God, his father, they must first know that his followers were earnest, nonjudgmental, and willing to extend them kindness and compassion. There must be a uniting of humanity.

So let preachers and pundits and purveyors of anger and hatred peddle their wares, for they alone are responsible for the stain it places upon their soul. We, who believe in higher purpose, greater good, and human duty, do not need their ilk, for we shall rise up and reach down, to take the hands of the hungry, the tired, the sick, the destitute, and the devastated, and raise them up, too. In the end, we will represent humanity, long after the words of the wicked have mixed with the dust on the ground.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Death Comes To Haiti

Haiti: a small island nation in the Caribbean Sea, sharing that island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. A former French colony which threw of the yolk of Imperialism to gain independence, and then spent generations struggling to create itself. A poor country, ravaged by poverty, lack of services, political corruption, and hurricanes. And now, it suffers the gross indignity of its position on the boundary of the North American and South American crustal plates, by being shaken by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, leading to death, devastation, and despair on a scale even larger than that left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and possibly worse than the Asian Tsunami of 2004.

This small, struggling, often destitute nation has been an afterthought in a hemisphere of afterthoughts. The Caribbean is more known as the destination of cruise ships and sun seekers, than a collection of small, struggling countries and colonies, dependent on tourism and their meager exports to maintain themselves. Haiti is certainly buried by its larger neighbors to the south, unable to compete with Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina for the attention of the First World. Except of course, when political strife or natural disaster strike.

All disasters before pale in comparison to the fate that befell Haiti at around 5:00 PM local time on Tuesday, January 12th, 2010. At that moment, strain built up by decades of slow grinding of one tectonic plate against another was released in a spasm of energy rivaling the full complement of nuclear weapons on the Earth in power. The shock of the release surges through the crust of the planet, sweeping out in all directions, but the brunt of that energy was borne by the nearby island, specifically near its capitol, Port-au-Prince. In one moment, the earth surged and bucked and swelled, and poorly constructed buildings collapse in great numbers, trapping tens of thousands under tons of rubble, filling the streets with frightened survivors, and crippling an already underdeveloped and overwhelmed country.

This disaster is a combination of the worst parts of 9/11, the Asian Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, for beyond the death toll is the sheer destruction left in its wake. Power severed, communications cut, water nonexistent, hospitals either collapsed or swamped with the wounded and dying, government crushed under the weight of its own buildings, and even the United Nations forces buried in the rubble. The sole major airport in Port-au-Prince damaged, left without the means to operate properly, the port smashed into wreckage and made unusable.

Given the magnitude of events, the response must be on an even greater scale, but there are serious problems to surmount, and time ticks away. After 72 hours, those trapped in the rubble who remain unrescued or even unfound, will start to die, adding to an already horrific toll. The scenes show thousands of people, with little or nothing left, tearing at bricks, concrete, and steel with bear hands and any implement they can find, desperate to help those who remain pinned beneath the rubble. Aid organizations already in the country have exhausted their supplies, and can only make due with anything they can scrounge until help arrives, help slowed by the destruction of infrastructure and the lack of proper facilities for handling the massive flood of people and material required.

One cannot help but feel their heart break, to see the suffering and misery, and be unable to simply scoop these pour souls up, feed them, house them, and mend their wounds. That we could all simply drop what we are doing and run to the rescue is a dream, but we must do what we can. We must do our human duty, in whatever way we can, whether it be money, supplies, or manpower, and help this nation. We cannot, however, simply help them now and in the coming weeks. If anything good can be said to come of this, it is the idea that not only can we help these people through their time of fear and need, we can actually help to repair and improve and bolster this formerly disregarded nation, to make it better, to give its people a better chance to live a decent life, and to provide them with the means to help themselves in the future. We must not abandon this opportunity when it becomes inconvenient; this disaster is the direct result so many previously missed opportunities. If we are to prevent this from happening again, we must not simply prop Haiti up -- we must help it move forward.

Monday, January 11, 2010

You Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine

Some in Congress claim there are privacy issues, concerning the use of full-body scanners at airports to increase security. They are afraid that the ability of the scanner to "see through" clothing is an invasion of privacy. All because a Nigerian man tried to one-up Richard Reid, the infamous "Shoe Bomber," by putting his own life (and reproductive capability) on the line by putting an explosive device in his underwear.

This, from the people who brought you, amongst other things, The Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, warrant-less wiretapping, and a free pass from potential liability for telecom companies who supplied private phone records and allowed the wiretapping to take place.

Let's get one thing straight: you have a better chance of being struck by lightning, than dying in a terrorist attack involving an airliner. In recent years, most terrorist attacks have consisted of car bombs, truck bombs, IEDs, suicide vests, planted on roads, on trains, on buses, or in trucks. That said, the idea that the plane you are riding in may suddenly explode fills us with a unique terror, made even greater by the events of September 11th, 2001. Frankly, the destruction of airplane filled with passengers is terrorism of the highest order, because at thousands of feet above the ground, the vulnerability factor is very high.

All this in evidence, we come to the conclusion that there must be tighter security at airports, and we will have to pay for that security with assaults on our personal liberty and inconvenience at a time when inconvenience is the last thing we want. Congress may wish to wail about privacy at this point, but they led us down this garden path, and they have no right to change their mind and act the wounded party. It is their mess; it is up to us to clean it up.

Anyone who has seen the results of a full-body scan will note that we are not talking about the creation of Internet-ready pornography; the person in the scan is represented by a translucent white shadow, over which lies the opaque blocks that represent less ephemeral items: watches, keys, pacemakers, and hopefully, underwear bombs or hidden guns and knives. The scans are done at the security checkpoint, but those who do the scanning may be in an entirely different area of the airport, and have no way of seeing who is being scanned, only which scanner is delivering the image. It is technology that was science fiction two decades ago, but is finally capable of being turned to good use to provide updated security, and eliminate some of the fuzziness that comes from random pat-downs, wanding, auxiliary searches, and bomb-sniffing dogs.

As with most times in our country's history, it is we -- its citizens -- who bear the brunt of defending our nation, and not simply by being in uniform. The first shots fired in the War of American Independence were not fired by well-equipped, well-trained troops, but by citizen militias, groups of butchers, bankers, shipwrights, blacksmiths, and others, determined to defend their homes from the British, and eventually break British tyranny in The Colonies. It is always the average citizen, who sees most clearly the wrongs that need righting. It is the average citizen, who can do more to ensure the safety and security of their fellow Americans, by bring to light the weaknesses, foibles, and follies extant in our society. It is we, who can control how problems are solved by electing representatives with a good sense of the land and good common sense, who are driven by a need to serve the people, not their party.

For Congress to worry about privacy now, after the horse has left the barn, only goes to show how we got into this situation in the first place. Throughout recent decades, it has become more important for Congressmen to pander to their party, and pay lip service to the people who elect them. Backed by the money readily available from special interests and corporations, the contributions of the average citizen are of such little value, that to hope that the person we vote for has our best interests at heart, is at best a fool's bargain. The security of America has been thrown away by legislators interested only in the consolidation of their personal power, expanding their influence, and catering to the interests that hold the biggest purse-strings. It has taken moments like September 11th, the Shoe Bomber, the shooting at Fort Hood, and now the Underwear Bomber, to stir them up, though rather than creating a homogeneous mixture of patriotism and mindfulness, the stirring has only led to a jumble of Senators and Representatives falling all over each other to point fingers at others for their failings.

Our security starts at home, with us. We must strive to be vigilant, and we must continue to be tolerant. Mistakes will be made, people will be wronged, but we will get the hang of it. We must also work to replace those in Congress who have forsaken their sworn oath to see to our freedom, liberty, and security, with people we know understand our concerns and more importantly, will listen to our problems. Inevitably, it is on the shoulders of American citizens, that the tide of hatred against us and our way of life will be turned, and it is up to us to ensure that those who do not intend to help us are moved aside, before they lead us to greater disaster.

Friday, January 8, 2010


President Obama is not Jesus come to cleanse the Temple. He did not stride up the Capitol Building steps and cast aside the lobbyists and yes-men and panderers, and declare that Congress would be a house of reason and law-making. While so many imbued him with their sense of hope and their need for change, a mantle he gladly shouldered, it was unrealistic -- given American history -- to believe that the man could change Washington, D.C. simply by his election. The rats did not abandon ship when President Obama set foot on the deck.

And so, the promises and hope of the campaign turned to the grim-faced reality of the first year of an administration tasked with handling two wars it inherited, a global financial crisis it inherited, and a country in turmoil, split open by a divisive and shockingly brutal campaign that highlighted the best and the worst of human behavior. And while Candidate Obama held up the ideals of hope, change, transparency, and bipartisanship, President Obama had to deal with rancor, partisan politics, mistrust, and hopelessness.

It is easy to be disappointed. He was held up as a knight-in-shining-armor, who would slay the dragon known as politics, and restore decency and honor to the government. He would overturn the horrid and nonsensical policies of his predecessor, and bring praise and accolades back to the nation. He would, with a stroke of his pen, end the tyranny of unwarranted detentions, the on-going meat grinder of unpopular wars, and the erosion of personal liberties. He would spread justice, ending restrictions against needed research, allowing gays their just due, and providing essential services to all Americans. He would be the savior of a nation.

It didn't work out that way.

In casting off the shackles of the previous administration, the American people deluded themselves into thinking that it would be so simple, that the special interests, lobbyists, and ne're-do-wells that had spent decades choking off necessary legislation and watering down protections would flee in terror. Strangely, they did not. If anything, they dug in their heels, whispered in the ears of their "friends on The Hill," and set up even more roadblocks to compromise and good governance.

So it came to pass, that despite assurances from Candidate Obama that things in Washington, D.C. would change, it becomes apparent that President Obama overstepped the bounds of credulity. If he, too, believed in the aura that had been cast about him by an adoring electorate, then the shock of the fall must have been a sharp one, as it became clear early on that the resistance to his reforms had girded for battle, and even a majority by Democrats in both houses of Congress was a paper majority, at best.

Almost a year in, the hand-wringing and moaning has begun. Already people are looking to 2012, writing the President off as a one-term wonder, a lame duck with three years to go and no hope of accomplishing anything. What those bemoaning their decision to elect him fail to realize, is that electing Barack Obama was only a tiny fraction of the battle. True, majorities in Congress swept in on that rising tide, but it was not enough to sweep the 2008 election, sit back, and watch the sun set on the policies of the past. As usual, Americans forget that in order for Representative Democracy to work, legislators must constantly be held accountable. The power and energy that got President Obama elected, then magically dissipated, as it so often does after an election. While the President and his staff tried desperately to hold onto it, with the coming of the health care battle, it was clear that the bloom was off the rose; complacency had set in amongst the electorate once more, save for those who had not voted for him.

We, the progressive, change-minded, socially aware portion of the country, the people who elected the first black President, then gave up the ground to the forces of unreason and ignorance. We stood idly by, and watched the tea parties and sycophants and fear mongers spread their bile and vitriol, aided by the popular media, and did very little to counter it with any force. Perhaps we thought we'd done enough; perhaps we thought our responsibility ended at the ballot box. The Proposition 8 vote in California should have been a portent of things to come: if we do not continue to stand up and be counted, if we do not keep up the fight, if we do not drive the enemy back, then we shall find him back in our front yard throwing stones.

The disappointment is palpable, as the Executive Branch huddles behind closed doors to reconcile health care, and struggles to explain a man on a plane with a bomb in his underwear, while the economy sputters along. those who believed in miracles are now resigned, sure they made some mistake in believing this man and his vision. Any vision, must, of necessity, be dashed against the rocks of reality, for even the most optimistic and pragmatic and humanist among us realize that change comes only slowly, and not without cost. That cost is constant vigilance, constant struggle, and pressing our legislators to bring to fruition those plans and projects that benefit all Americans. If we are disappointed in our President, we must also be disappointed in ourselves, because we assumed he could shoulder the load for us. If there is to be success going forward, we must raise our voices again, and hold both Congress and the President to account. Only then, we will have the change we so desperately seek.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Freedoms Yet Won

The fight must go on, for equality for gays and lesbians. The fight is not just for them, but for our society, and the soul of America. The time has come, to erase any doubt, as to what was meant by the sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Forgiving the unitary gender expressed, it states a case that everyone, everyone, is entitled to the same rights.

Of course, as we all know, while that may have been what the framers intended for people to conclude, they were trapped in a century which saw people outside of the realm of the white male (Native tribes, Negroes, women, et. al.) as somehow "less than" men. While the sentiment expressed in the sentence was of a higher order, it was taken to mean it only applied to a narrow group. The two-plus centuries since the signing of the Declaration of Independence have seen a constant struggle to widen the circle, as group after group has sought to be allowed their inalienable rights. The progress has been slow, tortuous, and fraught with violence. As the white male population has seen its influence wane over the centuries, the resistance to change has increased. Even as many more groups have been enfolded into the general milieu of American life, each new group seems to find it harder to claim their place, as if there is only so much room.

There is a sense of inevitability to it, but it comes with a recognition that, at this point, it should not require so much effort. When do we finally say that all rights, everywhere, apply to everyone? What critical mass must be reached to allow resistance to fall away, to cause Americans to realize that we are not truly living up to the ideals of the founding of our nation if we do not allow it to be so?

None of this is new; the pattern has been repeated down the centuries, by varied and disparate groups. Always, as people have gathered to form collections, there has been some discourse, spoken or silent, as to how the rules and strictures of the group will apply to all who belong, and to those who do not. Even as the groups moved from scattered, wandering families in the cradle of humanity's beginnings, to the mighty collectives of nations we see today, at each stage, the formulation of new ways of thinking and societal rules to live by has been influenced by the idea that there is an "us" and a "them," and what is good for "us" must somehow remain "ours." The inclusion of further groups in "us" has always let to contention and confrontation at some level, as if the fruits of more organized society were jewels to be hoarded.

Even now, the United States, which has vowed to spread Democracy, spreads it as "our" Democracy, resisting the idea that there might be any better form. The founders were not so rigid; they incorporated the ability to alter the Constitution because they knew that inevitably the world would change, and the laws of the United States would potentially have to change to remain universal and relevant. The Constitution could not be set in stone, lest America collapse under the weight of the dead hand of its founders and their way of life. Their prescience has been rewarded, as the Constitution has been altered to fit its times, and to correct oversights left in the wake of its original adoption.

Still, the work is far from done, for the freedom and liberty outlined by the Constitution has not seeped into every pore of American society. The fight by gays and lesbians to receive the same consideration in terms of marriage is another signpost that notes our inability to fully shed the dogmas of the past. The battle is not couched in terms of freedom or liberty, but in terms of abomination and destruction. Those aligned against the issue can marshal only fear, illogic, and pseudoscience to make their case, and yet they hold far too much sway. They are aided and abetted by those who would use them to increase their own influence, at the expense of the rights of individuals. It is a conspiracy, to hold onto the last vestiges of power available, a sad and final shriek on the trail toward being supplanted by a more enlightened society. They will not relent, not while they may control enough public opinion to make their case and still be thought credible.

The inexorable advance toward a united humanity can be slowed, but invariably, cannot be stopped. Those who would deny homosexual marriage have convinced themselves of their righteousness, in the same way the drunkard insists he can "handle his liquor." Yet, even as they struggle to maintain a parochial and outmoded way of thinking, the world continues to move past them. In the sage words of Carl Sagan:
If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
The day will come when the barriers, all barriers, finally fall. Despite the seeming inevitability, we cannot rest, waiting for it to happen of its own accord. We must pull together, deny those who would block progress the power to do so, and help the process alone, if we are truly to be free.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My God Can Beat Up Your God

Faith and religious belief are not as simple as a name, a divinity, or a book. The range and diversity of faith systems -- including denial of faith -- that are extant on this globe is staggering. Even within what are considered "main" religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, et. al.), there is a breadth of belief that encompasses a multitude of variations on the main religion's themes.

The Founding Fathers were well aware of this, and of the strife created where the State imposed a religion upon its people. Therefore, the First Amendment to the Constitution enjoins the U.S. government from establishing a national religion. In doing so, it limited the ability of the government to proselytize for or cater to any one religious belief system, and simultaneously separated religion from government, so that no one religious faith could hold sway over the entire country, save by unanimous acclamation, a situation unlikely to happen given the diversity of the citizenry.

So, each to his or her own. Whatever faith fits your circumstance best is yours; your right to it is assured. That said, this will not stop others from attempting to use their faith as an exemplar of the "right" religion, for you and for everyone else. This leads to some very thin ice.

Faith is individual. Even in relatively homogeneous religions, how you choose to interpret them, how you choose to worship, how you exercise your faith, is entirely up to you. Some will follow the tenets of their religion to the letter; others will pick and choose what suits them. Some will follow religious leaders blindly; others will question what is said in light of what they know. Your faith may fall under the umbrella of a particular religion, but how you choose to worship (or not) is entirely your decision.

This sets up friction, between those who interpret religious teachings more rigorously, and those who do not. In every religion, this leads to some form of fundamentalism, which expresses itself in various fashions, depending on the teachings of that religion. This friction is often expressed in actions, as members of orthodoxy seek to spread their faith outward and impose it on others, sure of its "rightness." Such efforts put a strain on our secular life, imposing conflict and sometimes danger.

This conflict is nothing new, and the secular world and the religious world have done this dance for eons, it seems. That the United States should be founded on the ideal that religious freedom is a right, and religious tolerance is sacrosanct, has proven to be both a bold move and a ramping up of the dance. It is not often easy for some to understand that no matter how fervent their belief or faith, not everyone is willing to share it, and no one is under any obligation to give it consideration. What works for one group, may not work for another.

The constant push-and-pull of religious faith versus secular society could weaken us, not unlike what happens when a spoon is bent repeatedly until it breaks. We need not let this happen, however, for the answer lies within each of us: the belief in liberty. We sometimes take for granted that we can even have such conflict, given the history of humankind is replete with examples of the imposition of religious dogma, or the brutal ransacking and destruction of some faiths by secular oppressors. If we cherish the hard-won liberty that is now ours, then we must see that it is enough that we believe in a thing, and if others believe it, so be it. This is true in so many other arenas, and while this may be difficult to employ in regards to religion, we would do well to consider the consequences if we do not. Liberty has fallen under less.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Needs Of The Many

Roughly 6.5 billion people inhabit the Earth. It is a staggering number, given the limited amount of land suitable for easy habitation and the irregularity of abundance of natural resources. Add to this the seasonal fluctuations, which bring forth habitability changes, and the dynamic weather, and the spread of humanity across the globe is even more remarkable. True, there are other species with larger numbers, and with perhaps greater reach, but none other than Homo sapiens has shown an ability to move beyond the simple forces of nature and evolution, to control its own destiny.

Yet, for our ability to circumvent the natural systems that govern our planet, we are still slaves to the legacy of our ancestors, whose fight for survival was more contentious, more cutthroat, more subject to the vagaries of change. That we are here is testament to their stamina, endurance, and cunning, as their knowledge of the world they lived in was limited, and the vast expanses before them held dangers aplenty. With no ability to predict future events, subject to the whims of a restless planet, somehow they grew, thrived, and were able to begin to wrest a living from the earth, to escape the endless cycles of forced hardship. Even so, they were forced by their environment to adapt, to build behaviors that protected them, allowed them security and growth. Though the forces which shaped those behaviors have been vastly mitigated in millions of years, their impact on us remains.

Our ancestors had to be cautious, conservative, mindful that their group was one of many fighting for scarce resources. Strangers -- those not of the same tribe -- were regarded with suspicion and hostility. Where two groups came into contact, each was made wary of the other, and no doubt, where a resource (food, water, shelter) was coveted by more than one group, there was fighting. In the end, those groups that contained the most adaptable, most adept members, grew stronger, while others died out. This continued throughout millions of years, honing the faculties and skills of the progenitors of Homo sapiens, eventually leading to the humanity we see today. And while we have advanced far beyond anything our ancestors might have dreamed of, we have not shaken the same instincts and behaviors that guided them through the tortuous landscape that was primitive Earth.

We still look on those who are "unlike" us with wariness and hostility. Our desire to hoard resources to ensure our survival, while depriving others of those resources to weaken them, is inherent in our social, economic, and foreign policy. We still fight over those resources, though on a vastly larger scale than those human tribes that roamed the plains eons ago. Even when we live in abundance, we squander it, failing to prepare for what may come, reveling in the simple pleasure of having, as if to have these things means they will always be available. We feel that the things that make us powerful are somehow anointed, given sacred form, and make us more worthy than those who do not have the same things or do not share the same beliefs.

Our advancement as a species equipped us with the mental horsepower to shape and mold our world, to form communities and civilizations, to harness previously unfathomable energies, to move beyond the simple mechanisms of natural selection, and to weather changes in the environment that previously would have crippled our ability to survive. Even so, while the mind has been turned to worthwhile pursuits, and has brought us the marvels that fueled our growth and expansion, we continue to drag along the dead weight of our ancestral behaviors. No amount of mental computing power has seen fit to erase them.

They plague us still, these demons of ancestry. They are the impetus behind bigotry, racism, narcissism, greed, violence, lust, and the need for power. To each of these, a primal emotion attaches itself, overriding the reason and logic of the cerebral cortex, stimulating us at our very core, filling us with fear, envy, loathing, and spurring us to actions that have no place in the enlightened society that our advancement has supposedly led us to. We are not tribes, circling a dwindling watering hole, fighting for survival; we are a species with knowledge and power, capable of forging the infrastructure that ensures that no member of humanity need go without. We have left the dry, barren, dusty plains, and ascended to the lushness of cool, green forests, running water, and bountiful harvests. Still, at the margins, the dry rot of the millennia remains, gripping us amidst our cornucopia. We become petty, insular, unreasoning, savage, treating each other as no better than the animals we arose from, all the while guarding our territory, hoarding our precious commodities, striving to be the last standing amongst our peers.

If we are to succeed fully, to grow beyond the simple savagery, then we must shake off the chains that tie us to a distant and primal past. Our new brain, with all its gifts, must assert dominance over our primitive brain, which stood us in good stead in the past. We must forgo fear, anger, hatred, division, and dogma, if we are to become more than a mere collection of people, but a singular humanity, with a reach that extends far beyond our atmosphere. The longer we wallow in the mud, the less likely we are to survive what lies ahead, and the disasters that lie before us pale to those we know today. We have the capacity to move beyond simple existence, to place a stamp upon the universe. To do so, will require the acknowledgment that we are not few, but many, and that the needs of the many must be met if we are to survive.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Big Picture

It is interesting how so many of the more divisive issues we face are the result of a narrow scope on a much larger problem. It seems far easier for many to simply lock in on a singular aspect of society that they find objectionable, ignoring the grand scale that encompasses it.

Take abortion. Much fire and brimstone is traded back and forth over its propriety and legality and morality, but it is simply a singular aspect of a larger framework: human reproduction, more specifically, a woman's ability to regulate when and in what manner she becomes pregnant. With the advent of reliable chemical birth control, it became possible for a woman to gain complete control of her reproduction, allowing her to enjoy her sexuality without the constant fear of becoming pregnant at an inopportune time. This remarkable breakthrough would allow humanity to better manage its resources, as it could have lead to fewer unwanted births, and a reduction in the need for social services to help mothers care for unplanned children. Instead, the whole span of reproductive management has come under attack, with abortion being made into the crux of the issue, instead of sex education. Rather than dealing with the causative factors making abortion more prevalent (rape & incest, poor family planning, lack of sex education, inadequate access to birth control), those who would seek to eliminate it concentrate solely on the procedure itself, instead of its place in the grand scheme.

Take oil. For close to a century now, our insatiable need for energy has been fed by a non-renewable source, oil. While abundant energy on a titanic scale pours down upon us every day, we harness our industrial might, our societal growth, and our military muscle to the yoke of a resource we can no longer control. The sources of oil within our political control our limited, and even if we were to drill in every forest, nature preserve, and sea bed within our grasp, we would find little enough, to quench our insatiable thirst. This leaves us vulnerable to the machinations of other groups and countries; do you remember the oil embargo of the early 70's? Even then, when our consumption was nowhere near the peaks it is at today, we were vulnerable. At that moment, we could have diverted our appetite away from fossil fuel, toward clean and renewable energy. The Space Age had given us the solar cell, but rather than pick it up and run with it, we continued to guzzle gas. Our foreign policy, our political will, and our place in the world has been shaped by a resource we can no longer dominate. We have lost our view of the big picture, and left ourselves vulnerable to dictators and terrorists, rather than making renewable energy a matter of national security, as well as environmental policy.

Take poverty. Despite decades of declaring "war" on it, poverty is even more prevalent now than it was in the days of The Great Depression. While the country's economic power continues to increase, and our influence in the world rises, we continue to neglect our own people, relegating whole swathes of our society to a miserable life of deprivation, disease, and despair. The average American is too easily subject to the vagaries of a system whereby those in power become more powerful at the expense of decent, hard-working, tax-paying people, without paying their proper due. So many groups pour so much effort into "saving" things, or "preserving" things, and yet they walk by people who are hungry, homeless, and without hope. How can we talk of our greatness on the one hand, while we continue the policies that keep so many of our citizens bereft of the basic necessities for a decent life? We are only as strong as the weakest among us, and sadly, there are so many who are too weak to fight, too weak to dream, too weak lift themselves up from the mud. Some would dismiss them, claim they should "think more positively," "work harder," or "stop living off my dime," but they would be missing the bigger picture: that we are a nation, a people, brought together to provide mutual support, and charged by our founders to provide for the common good.

Take any polarizing issue, and you will see that it is generally part of a tableau, a small part of a grand production. While it is always easier to live with blinders, to see only that which is before us, it is our duty to look back at what we've done, and look ahead to what we must do, and strive to reconcile where we are as part of the greater scheme of life. Like it or not, we, humanity, are all in it together. What affects one of us, affects all of us, in the end. Like the butterfly, whose flapping of wings brings about additional perturbation of the atmosphere, so each of us adds to the general course of human events through our action, or inaction. If we are to finally grow as a species, then we must accept that life is far more than the sum of its parts. We must look to the broad scope of humanity, and work toward a greater good for all.