Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Third Law Of Political Motion

For every action, there is an equal, but opposite, overreaction.

You may have heard, that a USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, gave a talk at an NAACP luncheon, in which she related a parable about how, in the 1980's, she was working for an agency trying to help black farmers, when a white farmer came to her, seeking badly-needed help. It was part of a larger talk on how she was required by this encounter, to throw out preconceived notions of race, and come to realize that all farmers were hurting, just not black farmers. The 45-minute talk was a window into how preconceived notions of black and white and all race were barriers that needed to be dismantled if people were to get the help they deserved. This was back in March.

Flash forward to July, and Andrew Breitbart, conservative gadfly, excerpted the portion of the speech about the white farmer, and Ms. Sherrod's remarks to the effect that she "didn't help him enough," and then proceeded to use the decontextualized video as a means to batter the Obama Administration on its race relations and raise the specter of "reverse discrimination." This was in response to NAACP accusations regarding certain members of the Tea Party and their racist views, questioning why the party had not repudiated these elements. The whole thing was wrapped up in a neat package, fired off on Mr. Breitbart's various blogs, repeated by Fox News, and held up as a sign that the Obama Administration was in the habit of hiring people who would discriminate against whites, as a form of revenge for the egregious excesses of slavery.

The overreaction was swift. Ms. Sherrod was asked to resign (by whom is still a subject of debate, as no one seems to want to claim the honor), and the NAACP condemned her. Mind you, this was before anyone decided to review the full contents of the speech on the video tape, a video tape conveniently owned by the NAACP.

When the tape was finally reviewed, the picture became much clearer, as it often does when the light of day is shone into the dark corners of society. It turns out that rather than confirming her "reverse racism," the tape not only exonerated Shirley Sherrod, but held her up as the kind of conscientious public servant we actually want in government. Sudden and profuse apologies were issued, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was reported to have said he was willing to reinstate Ms. Sherrod, though she is not quick to accept.

So what have we learned? The simplest answer is: the Obama Administration is on the defensive, and is hyper-sensitive to issues of race, when it has no need to be. The next answer: the NAACP has lost some of its élan by throwing someone under the bus before getting all the facts straight. The final answer, and no great surprise: conservatives will stop at nothing to embarrass, denigrate, harass, and upbraid the current administration, based on falsehoods and ignorance.

Conservatives in the Republican Party were ticked off enough that they were unceremoniously denied further power, when their dynamic duo of McCain and Palin failed to woo the moderate electorate, so crucial for winning elections. They immediately began to look for any flaw, any issue, to drive a wedge between the President and the people. So began the claims of Kenyan birth, secret plans to fill the White House with blacks bent on retribution for slavery, election-related misdeeds by ACORN, and a constant hammering of the President's agenda, even where they had previously supported the action. Stimulus, Wall Street bailout, health care, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan... no matter what, no matter where, they would do battle, sure that they could hoodwink the populace into thinking that President Obama was going to begin rounding people up and denying people their rights.

Sadly, too many people in America buy into this kind of claptrap, and they are the kind of people who answer polling questions. America is moderate by nature, because it has to be -- the citizenry is a mixture of so many things that there is bound to be conflict, so cooperation and concession is the order of the day. At some point, the playing field must be made as level as is practicable, is everyone is to have the same level of freedom and liberty. The fringe wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties would have you believe the other is the ruination of the country and the world; reality lies somewhere in the middle. With each change in administration, the power of opposition shifts. George Bush was roundly criticized and excoriated for his policies (by yours truly, as well, though hopefully with some semblance of decorum) by Democrats; Barack Obama must now face the same withering fire from Republicans. His attempts to create bipartisanship are admirable, but as of this late date, fruitless. He must now take the tack his predecessor did -- forge ahead and let the critics have their say, but not engage them at every turn.

This whole event need never have happened. The Administration must, of needs, explore the possibility that there is some truth to the accusations, but no such overreaction was required. A contemplative and thorough review was required, to avoid the appearance that conservatives were capable of giving the White House marching orders, and to expose the truth. President Obama and his staff must never fall into this trap again. Let conservatives rant, let Republicans filibuster and bluster, and bring this directly to the American people. Show them the ridiculousness of such things, if they don't already know, and make it clear that the President is trying to the best for all Americans, and he doesn't expect everyone to like it. The winner is the side that can say it tried, without flinging mud. Look for the dirty uniforms, and you will see the people in the trenches, people like Shirley Sherrod, who are playing the real game, pushing America forward instead of constantly trying to hold it back.

America, The Dissonant

The United States of America is the land of the dichotomy; that is to say, we are the nation that embodies both the best and the worst of attributes of humanity simultaneously. It is at once a privilege to live in a free nation such as this, and a travesty having to live with the hypocrisy and ignorance so rampant. People would wave the flag and the Constitution at you, as if to say they are our country, but the flag is a mere identifier, and the Constitution, while grand, is but words on paper. It is what we do with these things that gives them meaning, and makes us angels, or demons, or both.

We live in a country where we are told there is an epidemic of obesity -- just look around. Even as this is said with breathless alarm, there are those who, with a meager income, public assistance, and the charity of food banks, still find themselves hungry several days out of the month.

There are those in this country who have city apartments or country mansions worth thousands of dollars a square foot, and those are only second homes. Meanwhile, families are being forced by economic chaos, to abandon homes they can no longer afford, to join the roles of the homeless, forced to seek shelter wherever it can be found.

Corporations beg, plead, and pay to receive tax incentives to create new jobs, claiming they cannot while they are so oppressed by the poor economy. This, when during the good times, they were cutting jobs, fattening profit margins, and driving up productivity, working the remaining workers harder and for lower pay.

We are outraged by the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster, scandalized by the way oil companies and the government have acted, even as we continue to fill up our SUVs and drive a mile for a gallon of milk.

Our immigrant heritage is celebrated, the bravery of those who voyaged here to start a new life held up as a shining example of the strength of our nation, even as we seek to expel immigrants who fill some of the most unwanted and back-breaking jobs in our country, because we could not find a way to let them enter legally, nor help them escape poverty in their own country.

Many trumpet their right to speak their mind, even as they shout down those who try and voice an opposing opinion.

There are those who claim that the American family is under siege, and that family values must be restored, even as they cheat on their spouses, to great public scandal.

Some firmly believe that the current administration is tearing down the Constitution, even though not one Amendment has been repealed and the Supreme Court of the United States continues to function as it ever did. Their right to freedom of speech is undiminished, yet they claim they are not being heard, even as they spout their vitriol on TV, the radio, and via the Internet, unfettered, all the while not complaining about the fact that the Federal government was ceded the power to monitor communications virtually without oversight.

Freedom, liberty, and justice are touted as our birthright, even as some seek to deny them to people who happen to be homosexual.

We are allowed to worship as we choose -- so long as "Christian" values take precedence over any other.

Americans are proud that they continue to have the right to bear arms, so long as the right is not infringed by pesky laws requiring background checks that might keep chronic abusers, criminals, and the mentally unstable from owning guns, and guns can be sold to anyone, no questions asked.

Public figures constantly tell us we are a "Christian" nation, even as the poor get poorer, the hungry get hungrier, and intolerance rises. Christian virtues of charity, compassion, and fellowship are espoused, if not practiced.

We seek perfection in our public servants, even as we elect the same crooks and charlatans again and again, never holding them to account for failing to provide a decent life for all Americans, even as they enjoy the fruits of American taxes.

Some are afraid that government is too large, though they would be hard-pressed to say just how large government should be.

Senators and Representatives from some quarters do not believe that tax money should be used to fund entitlements and social programs, even though they are charged with the welfare of all Americans. They instead believe that lining the pockets of the rich is the best way to provide for all Americans, even though the rich are under no obligation to spend the money. They decry the inflation of the national debt, even as they, themselves, pile onto it with their pet projects and spendthrift boondoggles.

The "free" market is the cure for all our ills, even though our choices are limited by the arbitrary decisions of out-of-touch corporations, and our consumerism is driven by marketing, not quality, costs passed back to us at every turn.

We cannot fail to see that such dichotomy is our ruination; to push ourselves to the margins, rather than move toward the center, where the bulk of humanity lies, is to divide ourselves, and a house divided cannot stand. If we are true to our founding, true to the words in the Constitution, true to freedom and liberty, then it is up to all of us to ensure that every American receives these benefits, regardless of individual belief. It is the protection of our individuality, while at the same time being knit together under one banner, that is what is truly great about America. Let us no longer allow the disparities between what is and what must be divide us -- let us seek to unite behind the proposition that every one of us is of worth, and deserves decency and respect. Only then will we truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One Next Step For Mankind

Perhaps it was the same feeling, the same moment of awe, as that of the first colonists to land at Jamestown or Plymouth. A new world, being seen by those eyes for the first time. Stepping off, and placing a foot on new soil, carrying the hopes and dreams of so many.

No one save Neil Armstrong can know what he was thinking and feeling at that moment on July 20th, 1969, at 10:56 Eastern Daylight Time, when his left foot touched the lunar soil and he uttered the words many of us know by heart: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for Mankind." Unlike the original American colonists, who landed on a sandy shore, with trees and birds and the breeze in their faces, Neil was enclosed in his bulky spacesuit, the sounds of his life support backpack his constant companion, along with the sound of his own breathing and the chatter in his earphones. He looked out on a stark, barren, and inhospitable landscape; his traveling companion, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, would later utter perhaps the most descriptive two words to convey the scene: "Magnificent desolation."

That day happened forty-one years ago, and was a moment that, for an instant, locked every person on the planet who had access to a radio or television, together. An estimated six hundred million people were, briefly, one, in their awe and admiration for the feat. What had been touted as a "race to the Moon," was now shorn of its Cold War implications, and was a triumph for all humanity, our first tentative step into the cosmic ocean.

Like so many explorations in the past, the feat has not been followed up, as it so logically should have been. Lack of will, lack of money, lack of vision -- the curse of any great endeavor is that once it is over, the fickle among us turn away. Every Apollo mission after Apollo 11 (except for the near-disaster that was Apollo 13), would see American support wane and interest evaporate. Just as we were getting good at going to the Moon, we stopped, and turned our remaining equipment into the most expensive lawn ornaments of all time, or quietly rusting and decaying scrap. The glory of the moment, fueled initially by John F. Kennedy's vision, was now spent, discarded like a booster stage of the mighty Saturn V.

If we can put a man on the Moon... this was now the beginning of a refrain heard many times afterward. It was used to highlight the need to end poverty, cure cancer, stop world hunger, and end global conflict. If such energy, time, money, and knowledge could be harnessed to accomplish a goal that, until that moment, had been the stuff of science fiction, why not these other things? This is where the Cold War reasserted itself, for the impetus needed in creating a manned space program and reaching for the Moon was not initially made from high ideals, but fear, fear of a Red Moon, and nuclear weapons raining down on the United States from above. Sad to say, but poverty, malnourishment, and peace all lay at the edges of human vision, even as they do today. No number of documentaries about the plight of people in the world has engendered the kind of outcry and call for action that were supplied by the launching of Sputnik.

Many would see the Moon program as a waste of taxpayer money. Still others, did -- and still do -- seek to deny that it ever happened, pleased with themselves for denying America its technical triumph, secure in their own ignorance. Worse still, NASA's prominence flags, only holding on through the auspices of its robotic probes, as they comb the Mars and the outer solar system for information on the origins of the planets and life on Earth. Soon, with the last few Space Shuttle flights, there will no longer be the roar of human beings being hurled into space from the Florida coast. The gantries will fall silent.

A vast, seemingly limitless horizon awaits us. Untapped resources are there for the taking, obviating us from the need to pillage our world. Asteroids, filled to overflowing with mineral and material wealth circle us, waiting to be mined. Comets, bearers of water, can provide the potential fuel to explore the solar system thoroughly and supply space stations and Moon bases with oxygen and water for many decades. The Moon itself could become the next frontier outpost, part mining camp, part scientific research station, part launchpad for the stars, and eternal monitor of the health of the Earth.

Just as the original colonists and pioneers stepped off into the wilderness, with no guarantee of survival, or riches, or even stability, so too must we, humanity, step off into the void, cross the cislunar sea again, this time provisioned for the long haul, to settle and to explore and to harvest the bounty that awaits. The time is inevitable when we must do this; we are the only known sentient life in the universe, and our home cannot hold us in safety forever. As seeds on the wind and in the waves, we too must spread out, take root in new places, and let humanity grow, unencumbered by the limitations of our planet and our minds. It is not enough to bemoan the loss of the past, to shriek for a return to the way things were; our eyes should always look toward the future, toward what humanity can be and must be, if we are to be more than a footnote to cosmic history. We speak for humanity, and it is we who must make the next great leap for Mankind.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

[Insert Adjective Here] American

It is interesting to note the number of people who wear the appellation "Real" American proudly, as if it were a designation to be found on a job application or a Census form or in the Constitution. The ridiculous nature of the proclamation, that somehow one American can be more "real" than another, points to a fundamental flaw in our character as a nation, that we have not overcome in over two hundred years. Whereas, at the time of the Revolutionary War, it was still possible for Colonists to consider themselves subjects of Great Britain and not Americans, no such divide exists today. Those born here, or who have taken the oath of citizenship, are Americans, plain and simple.

That should be enough for anyone; the concept could not be simpler. Yet, deep within the American subconscious, there still resides the need to categorize and catalog, to provide some sort of delineation as to where any particular person falls. Though the Constitution would count all Americans as equal, subject to the same laws, awarded the same rights and privileges, free to live in perpetual liberty under our flag, some find it necessary to divvy up freedom and partial it out based on sometimes arbitrary and mainly discriminatory grounds, as if some are owed a greater degree of it than others.

When you can subject people to categorization, it is easier to minimize and dismiss their attitudes, their questions, their concerns, and their objections. It is also easier to foist upon them stereotypes, that can easily justify your negative view of the group. Why take a person as they are, when you can tar-and-feather them with a broad brush? Lumping them together with their "disreputable" counterparts allows you to assuage nagging guilt and reinforce your own superiority. Such self-fulfilling and self-serving schemas ensure that everyone is in their proper place. This allows "real" Americans to distance themselves from the rest of us.

While pride in the heritage of our ancestors is not to be dismissed, it cannot become the yardstick by which we are measured. To be African American, Indian American, Vietnamese American, Italian American, etc., is only important in terms of that heritage, not as a means to erect fences around groups. Each and every American, regardless of heritage, wealth, education or employment, deserves the same level of respect and decency, the same full and total access to liberty and justice, and the same right to pursue prosperity.

Anyone who wishes to wrap themselves in the American flag and the Constitution, must first accept that they have no greater claim to those things and what they represent, than anyone else who is an American citizen. This country is strong through its diversity, not just in people, but in ideas; those who journeyed here over the centuries brought with them hopes, dreams, aspirations, innovations, and a desire to be free, and we are the caretakers of that spirit. America stands or falls through all of us, not just a select few; it is up to every one of us to do our utmost to maintain the freedom and liberty of all of us. That is what should define a real American.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Are You There, World? It's Me, Haiti...

Six months ago, the region around Port-au-Prince, Haiti was rocked by a titanic earthquake, which leveled buildings, cut essential services, crippled the government, and killed over two hundred thousand people, leaving five times that number homeless. Aid and assistance came in from all over the globe, as the plight of the Haitian people touched hearts and minds everywhere. For a brief moment, Haiti was central to the world, not just the Caribbean Sea. Tent cities were erected to house the homeless, food and water were shipped in continuously, and medical staff from everywhere converged on makeshift hospitals and clinics to treat the wounded.

Now it is six months later, and while rubble has been cleared and some semblance of normalcy is slowly returning to everyday life in Haiti, the problems still remain. Infrastructure -- what little of it there was -- is still in bad shape. Tents dot the landscape, as permanent structures have yet to be built. Hospitals are still crowded. Jobs are scarce. The Haitian government still seems afflicted with the same torpor.

The grand promises of the United States and other nations, in the form of aid money and expertise to help get Haiti on its feet again, are not materializing quickly enough, and where groups and organizations want to make inroads on the critical problems of creating proper water supplies, consistent waste management, and adequate housing, the Haitian government seems incapable or unwilling to act. Six months in, and the average Haitian is still struggling to survive, living in refugee conditions in their own country, clinging to hope and not much more.

There is a unique opportunity here, to rebuild Haiti in such a way, as to make it more self-sustaining and prosperous. It as if the earthquake has provided a blank canvas for the world to work on, and here is the chance to put theories to the test. Earthquake and hurricane resistant housing could be built, to minimize damage from catastrophes. Sewer systems and water purification plants could provide clean drinking water and sanitation to everyone. Solar power could be used to provide everyone with clean and cheap electricity. A fiber-optic network could be constructed, to give Port-au-Prince the latest in communications capabilities. Between construction and operation of these systems, jobs would be created, and the tourist industry could be revitalized. Finally, the poorest members of this proud nation might be brought up from the depths of their poverty, to share in the wealth that is available.

Such a revitalization would be a draw for global businesses, bringing badly needed investment and jobs to an island with few natural resources. Proper business and tax law would ensure that Haiti remained attractive to business and commerce, while supplying it with the revenue necessary to maintain and expand on the systems that promote growth. In essence, Haiti could be an incubator for new ideas and concepts in business, infrastructure development, renewable energy generation, and telecommunications. Investment would allow the government to properly fund the school system, assuring future generations the education require to work in the wider global marketplace.

Maybe this is all a pipe dream, but the potential is there, if only someone or some group will seize the reins and drive it. Haiti deserves no less for the depredations it has suffered over the decades. It is time for the world to make good on its promises.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Smile, Even Though Your Heart Is Breaking

I want you to imagine the following scenario (WARNING: this may disturb you, so tread lightly): you are a young girl, past puberty, and you were raped by your father, brutalized in a way you never thought possible, left feeling unclean, like your soul is now black. You are confused, dazed, and swept up in a maelstrom of recrimination, law, scandal, gossip, and depression. Then, as if it can't get any worse... you are pregnant, carrying the seed of incest within you, an occurrence that is anathema socially and problematic genetically. Now, the horror can never truly go away, for in a few months time, you will have a living, breathing reminder of it.

It would take a powerful constitution, intestinal fortitude, and a great deal of forgiveness, to keep the child. No one likes the thought of a potential life lost, but you would be forgiven for seeing this as a burden that you cannot bear, and no one should ask it of you. This is a decision that is best made by you.

Except that some would say that it isn't your decision, that no decision is required. A life is a life.

To be more specific, Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle believes that "two wrongs don't make a right," and so, a young girl subjected to the brutality of incest has an obligation to carry the baby to term, even at risk to her own life and sanity. In Ms. Angle's own words:

I think that two wrongs don't make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.
The carrying of an unplanned -- and potentially unwanted -- child to term is off-handedly compared to a clichéd bit of advice that has little to do with reality. It's akin to telling a death row inmate to "make the best" of their time in jail.

I commend any young girl who can, actually, carry such an unwanted pregnancy to term, and learn to love a child that is the result of such a brutal and vicious assault, either by a stranger or a family member. However, that decision cannot be mandated by the State, either directly, or through the removal of the option of abortion; to do so, is to condemn no-longer-innocent girls to lives of constant psychological torture, and to subject their babies to the machinations of a mother who may see them a font of their unhappiness and self-loathing. Such a lack of compassion is sign of blind faith and ignorance.

It is despicable to replace another person's right to self-determination with your own morality, especially where that morality is based upon a faith that not everyone else shares. The right to freedom and liberty as written in The Bill of Rights makes it clear that the State has no right to tell an individual how to worship, and by extension, cannot promote any particular social view based on one religion. If your faith tells you that abortion is amoral, so be it -- no one is asking you to have one. To then substitute your judgment for that of a young girl, who must suffer all the consequences of the theft of her dignity and pains of pregnancy, due to your misguided belief that you must save her from herself, is criminal.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Freedom Sought, Freedom Lost, Freedom Won

It was a continent of rolling plains, jutting, snow-capped peaks, surging rivers, thick forests, and lush vegetation, filled with an immense variety of animals large and small. The native tribes of North America could roam it at will, moving whenever conditions called for it, or to avoid encroaching on another tribe. The land was so expansive, so vast, it would be hard to imagine it filled with people over any number of generations. The tribes roamed free, living off the land, content to take only what they needed.

Then the others came. Those of pale faces and bodies covered in strange clothing and speaking an alien tongue. They came in great ships, like giant birds with their sails unfurled. The natives did not know it, but these newcomers were also looking for freedom, freedom from repression and persecution. They intended to start new lives, to live as they wanted, worship as they wanted, and work hard as their God intended. To look at this new land, they would be forgiven for thinking there was no one there -- no cities or ports were evident, no signs they would recognize as portending human habitation.

The new inhabitants and the old inhabitants of North America would become locked in a struggle for the land, with settlers demanding more and more, and the tribes willing to concede less and less. Though many tried to be honorable, the greedy and land-hungry won out, and drove the tribes back, staking their claims to the land they had "found."

Thus it would be, and as the influence of English, Dutch, French, and Spanish settlers grew, the power of the tribes would wane, as they stripped of land, land they never claimed to own, but land they had lived on, planted on, and hunted on, for as far back as their most distant ancestors. Their freedom was slowly being curtailed, so that the settlers' freedom could grow.

And yet, the settlers were soon chafing under the rule of powers across the ocean, back from the lands they had abandoned, the countries that had not wanted them or would not help them. The vise-like grip of England slowly squeezed the Colonies, using them as a source funds for wars against France, and denying them any representation in Parliament. Slowly, inexorably, intolerably, the constant pressure was enough to ignite revolution, and thus it was that we, today, live in the country we do. From independence to the modern day, we have spread to fill a continent, even as we pushed the native tribes into smaller and smaller spaces. Our freedom was the direct result of the loss of freedom of others.

So, think of The Declaration of Independence not as a beginning but a continuation, of the constant and restless impulse to be the people we are, to do the things we want to do, while living in harmony with others who share the impulse. The creation of America was a next act in the drama of the slow erosion of the British Empire and the ascendancy of a new nation, which would then have to fight itself over the true meaning of the freedom proclaimed in that original declaration, and which continues to try and clarify, reshape, and redefine freedom for all time. Though muskets and rifles and cannons are long silent, the revolution continues, in the long, slow, hard march toward true equality for all citizens of the United States.