Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book Note of the Day

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,
by Barbara Ehrenreich

So far this one gets my attention more than the others in my reading queue—Nader's Only the Rich Can Save Us, Derrick Jensen's Walking on Water, Michael H. Stone's Anatomy of Evil. This may be because she speaks to a phenomenon I have noticed myself, and so in reading Bright-sided I experience a happy recognition, as when a stand-up comedian says what we've all noticed but haven't articulated yet—"Oh, that's so true!" I'm thinking.

I must beg to differ with her on one point, however. On page 25 she writes: "No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments." Well, while I realize I am a mere whiff among the great winds of the blogosphere, I have been here, kvetching my head off, nevertheless: "Losing body parts to breast cancer was pretty much the opposite of fun."

UPDATE, November 5, 2009:

On one website I find this, in response to the book:

"I am truly happiest when I am thinking positive.
This book will be in the dollar bin by christmas.
Who would read such crud?
Is there an audience?"

The response:

"Being 'happy' is not necessarily the highest of high values. Being real, being truthful, being in touch with reality, is sometimes the healthiest place to be. Before you can effect change, you must face reality; otherwise, you may be nothing but a happy idiot, while the world falls apart around you.

Ehrenreich has truly faced an important reality with this book, and in doing so, she has offered us an insight which has the power to heal and bring a healthy new understanding to the culture. You should read it before you ignorantly dismiss it.

Don’t forget: As St. Augustine said, 'Hope has two beautiful daughters—Anger and Courage; anger over what’s wrong and the courage to change it.'"

I am particularly grateful to Ehrenreich her fascinating discussion of the "New Thought" movement, its Calvinist origins and its various cultish dogmas promoting self-alienation, ultimately—I would call it phoniness. "All is God, or Mind, or Goodness, or Whatever—except for that asshole who just slammed into my bumper—but oh well, after I've let him know what a loser he is, I'll choose to be happy for the experience." Lah-tee-dah.

I myself have been to enough sales meetings to have experienced first hand the anxiously aggressive, tyranny of positivity training; while you are being pummeled with the likes of, "EACH PERSON ON PLANET EARTH IS ABUNDANTLY AND INNATELY CAPABLE OF ATTAINING BREATH-TAKING HEIGHTS OF HAPPINESS AND FULFILLMENT," you are simultaneously subjected to negative supervisory habits and judgments. Your boss wanders about with a button that has a red slash across the word NEGATIVITY, while she simultaneously complains about "the numbers." Sheesh!

Also, it occurs to me that Obama's oft-repeated excuse for letting Bush, Cheney, et al, off the hook for torture and war crimes, that is, "We're looking forward, not backward," must have arisen out of the positivity movement. I'm thinking, he talked to Oprah! So now the Justice Department is making rule-of-law decisions based on Oprah-Think, but only where powerful elites are concerned. Everybody else gets prosecuted and held to account.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Health Care Letter to Mr. Obama

"If the corporation is a 'person,' what kind of person is it?" Sketch by Laurie Menard

Dear President Obama,

In your speech to Congress on September 9, you said, “Insurance executives don't do this because they are bad people. They do it because it’s profitable.”

Question: With respect, how did we come to this place, where those who injure others in a for-profit scheme, or system, remain in our good graces, to escape a designation as “bad people?” And when did making a profit become a justification for policies that injure American citizens?

Mr. President, what would America look like today had Lincoln said, “Well, the slave masters don’t do it because they are bad people. They do it because it’s profitable.”? What if he had said, “If you’re starting from scratch, then liberation from slavery would probably make sense. But managing the transition would be difficult. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive.”? How would that work for you, Mr. President, had the federal government not recognized the essential immorality of slavery, that is, bad people doing bad things to innocent people? We’d be in pretty sad shape, it seems to me.

And we are in sad shape now, with regard to health care. While 44,000 Americans die each year for lack of access to health care, the CEO of United Healthcare hustles off with a compensation of $3,241,042 million, and he remains in our good graces. If 44,000 Americans died by terrorist attacks in one year, would we be so blind to the true character of the terrorists? No. But deaths for lack of access to health care hugely outnumber deaths by terrorist attacks. I ask you: who are the bad guys, Mr. President? Who are the worst of the worst terrorists?

It seems to me it is time to act on a vision for an ethical and moral America, and that means recognizing the character of an industry for what it is, before we decide how to deal with it.

Perhaps we have a very different hierarchy of values. In mine, profit, wealth and power are not above the moral, human values of care, respect, equality and justice. To my mind, any person, CEO, corporation, or politician that places private wealth above those more human values, and injures others in the process of conducting business, is a bad person. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but unless we are willing to shame the underlying mentality and character of people who do bad things on a grand scale, how can we ever eliminate their power to injure and control us?

Perhaps it is time for us to examine the notions that permit the suffering caused to others by the quest for profit: the notion of “greed is good,” for example; the notion of entitlement to wealth, undeterred by conscience, that is, “it’s not personal, it’s only business;” the notion that wealth connotes virtue, no matter the corrupt, inhumane practices that might have produced it.

I understand that you have met insurance executives and perhaps found them to be charming and intelligent. But please consider what the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare has brought to our understanding of human psychology, a check list of personality and behavior traits common to psychopaths. I do believe these traits are not only common to criminal psychopaths, but also to professional sociopaths in business and politics:

superficial charm
grandiose ego
conning or manipulativeness
pathological lying
lack of remorse or guilt
lack of empathy
failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions.

These are traits fostered and nurtured in the business world, on Wall Street, and even in politics, are they not? Isn’t it time we question “values” that promote sociopaths into successful careers, where they feel free to injure the rest of society for their own selfish ends?

Mr. President, you also said you want to be the last president to work for health care reform. You want to fix the system. I believe you, but it saddens me to see your being undermined by your own good, practical nature, your desire to work with the system we’ve got and the people who profit from it. I am sorry to say, this path will not make you the last to work for health care reform; that can only happen when we see a REAL alternative to the current system, in order to eliminate the corrupt power of insurance companies. Without an option that would provide health care for minimum wage workers, the homeless, and the jobless, that is, all human persons, America will remain a cruel place to live for millions of people. Only a national healthcare system, like that of Canada, or France, or even England, will do the job.

You say you don’t want to eliminate the insurance companies. But you must know that’s a spurious concern, one that ignores the fact that in countries with national health care systems, insurance companies still exist.

Please stop making nice with the bad guys, Mr. President.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

This Government Subsidy: The Answer?

The City of Escondido in California ponders the question

At a recent Escondido City Council meeting, a former city council member stood up and reiterated the advice often offered by right-wing conservatives to the poor, the unemployed, the uninsured and the powerless, which is, “Government is not the answer.” If only someone had shouted, “Tell it to the corporations, Sir!” Or, with reference to the specific case now most foolishly under consideration by the city council, the Marriott Hotel deal, “Tell it to C.W. Clark!”

Clearly, to private entities such as C.W. Clark’s La Jolla based real estate development company, government is very much the answer. Should the city approve the deal, the city will fork over a $19 million subsidy out of a budget already in deficit, while also leasing the land tax free for ten years, by assuming, dubiously, the franchiser will stick around once it becomes clear there’s no market for the beast in downtown Escondido.

Given the recession, revenues and hotel occupancy rates for local hotels are already suffering. Best Western’s occupancy, for example, currently wavers at approximately 25%. The other hotels are not hugely better off.

To complicate the questions begged here, it has to be noted that the city has not revealed an inclination to require the franchise Marriott to hire local residents, nor to provide living-wage jobs, nor any other benefits to employees such as pensions and health insurance; and since the Marriott, corporate or franchise (2/3rds of all Marriotts are franchises), is not unionized, this government will satisfy yet another gift-wish of the corporate mind—profits made of poverty wages.

This is what is known as, I do believe, a “sweetheart deal.” But why ask the question, “Unless visitors are having trouble booking rooms, why put up another hotel?” Why ask the question, “In a democracy, shouldn’t the taxpayers have the right to say No to boondoggles that do nothing to improve the community or represent sane economic development?” The answers are irrelevant— where politicians are allied with business—both in spirit and personally—there will be subsidies to business, especially if the benefits are going to a company and its stockholders, at the expense of taxpayers, with no loss of skin off the corporate nose (Clark’s).

Notice that apparently the corporate Marriott is not interested in Escondido—perhaps because Mr. Marriott knows it would not be a prudent choice, given the market?

Item: “Hotels do not draw tourists to a region; they simply compete with each other for the tourists’ trade. Furthermore, hospitality industry jobs tend to be among the worst paying jobs in the economy: chambermaids, desk clerks, food service workers, etc...They do more harm than good for the residents of a city.”

Item: “ If the market is really there, you don't need public assistance. And if it's not there, don't build. All you do is hurt the hotels already in the market, and that's what's been happening for 20 years."

Still, why? What has possessed Escondido’s City Council? Whether the city council members who support this deal sincerely think a franchise Marriott hotel will provide revenue to the city and help balance the budget; or whether they are handicapped by a habit of mind, unable to think outside a free-market, cool-aid box toward enlightened, green economic options and new ideas for a rich, sustainable future; whether they might be getting kick-backs or gifts (not an unheard-of possibility)—well, who knows? The agreement will be negotiated “in closed session,” i.e., behind closed doors, as usual—no vote by citizens, no citizen oversight, no citizen voice present and holding sway over corporate and pro-business mind-sets. No transparency. We are left to wonder, and wonder we do, with letters, emails, blog posts, polls, and speeches by pro-community entities—pro-police union, pro-firefighters, parks, recreation areas, library, etc.—hoping common sense prevails.

We are left to wonder, to trust our elected officials to do the right thing. If they don’t, what will the city say to under-staffed and under-equipped police and firefighters; to kids unable to find safe and attractive parks and recreation areas to play in; to parents of kids without any place to play but on streets occupied by gangs; to residents who can’t find living-wage jobs; to students who find the library is closed just when they need it most? What will the city say— “So, how is that Marriott working out for you?”

In truth, good government can be the answer; bad government—engaging in double standards, socialism for wealthy developers but a cruel-world ideology for taxpayers and ordinary citizens—must not be the answer. Good government is not socialism; instead, it is a mixed economy, where a balance of private and public interests prevail.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Chimp Cartoon: Stop, Look Both Ways...

...before you and free speech get flattened by that run-away bus.

      I am thinking of the cover of the June 1978 Hustler Magazine, where a female was being cutely processed through a manual meat grinder (go find it yourself), legs and bottom balanced above at the funnel, with the ground-up product accumulating below on a plate. I remember being outraged by the illustration. I remember feeling the collective humiliation of my gender, understanding that the hatred and fear informing such a cartoon was our world, where disgust, loathing and shame have their way with us every day —rape, battering, lower wages— where, on the cover of a national men’s magazine, Woman is rendered into meat.
      Ten years later, the Supreme Court would defend Hustler and Larry Flint. You can read all about it yourself, but for the purpose of today’s post I give you this from the majority opinion: “The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events – an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal. This was certainly true of the cartoons of Thomas Nast, who skewered Boss Tweed in the pages of Harper's Weekly. From a historical perspective, political discourse would have been considerably poorer without such cartoons.”
      Since then, it became a comfort for me to place the value of free speech and political discussion above the values of civility, equality, and even dignity. It was a matter of growing up.
      And the world has seen many such challenges to our faith in freedom of speech. For example, in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten Jyllands-Posten published twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad, leading to a cultural clash between the Western tradition of free speech and Islamic tradition prohibiting pictorial representations of Muhammad. The outrage of believers was everywhere—protest, death and terrorist threats, murder. I cheered the newspaper and condemned the protesters—hooray for free speech, down with religious idiocy!

      Now we have a national newspaper publishing an invidious cartoon, where —and this is my interpretation— the authors of the “Stim” are likened to a chimpanzee. I say “authors,” because to my knowledge the Stim was not authored by one person, President Obama, but by Democrats in Congress. This may be too literal for some and seeming to avoid an obvious implication, still, here we go again—the wild rumpus has begun, with wounded outrage spilling onto the streets: “We are not monkeys, we are not monkeys!”
      One has to honor the wound expressed there, however. The horrors of white racism are so egregious, it is simply beyond reasonable to expect blacks to accept racist speech, even if unintended, without a protest; it is just too sensitive. Certainly, within the metaphor of America as family, we cannot ignore the injury of profound humiliation found in simian depictions of blacks, comparisons which continue to compound the collective, undermining shame blacks must resist on a daily basis. So, of course, there had to be a response.
      Still, it might be important to step back and consider a few realities. First, even if the intent of the cartoon was an insult to Obama himself, we have to remember that he is the President of the United States, not a second-class member of a dysfunctional family. He is no powerless, helpless, oppressed child of the realm. He, as a public figure, must now accept the verbal and visual attacks natural to his position. Certainly, I doubt we will witness President Obama’s personal outrage over this incident. He knows better than to honor such insults with a response. He knows the First Amendment to the Constitution; he will not tell the newspaper what it can publish and what it cannot publish—he’s not George W. Bush, after all. (Who, by the way, was likened to a chimp on a daily basis.)
      I sense here a headiness of new-found power in some of the protests. It is the will and spirit that oppressed people sometimes discover, once their oppressions fall away, and they find themselves in power. It is that which transforms them into those they previously despised in another life, to turn around and do to their oppressors what their oppressors had done to them. Where their rights were abused, they will abuse rights in turn.
      I sense the creation of a sacred cow too —speaking of animal metaphors— a people who consider their sufferings so far above any other in this world that they must never be subject to the same rule of law as other ordinary citizens. Israel comes to mind. They should be forever above criticism, too sensitive for normal democratic relationships and ordinary respect for the rights of others.
      Let's be careful of that, lest censorship be granted a right, by virtue of special-case sensitivity. Ask the Palestinians if this has worked for them.
      Finally, I have to admit I cringed, not at the cartoon, but at the protestors’ knee-jerk identification of chimpanzee as self, as if they had internalized the message so powerfully as to own it. Perhaps this is wrong-headed and insensitive of me, a white woman, but, I have to ask: if you recognize yourself in a representation, aren’t you projecting your own self-definition onto it? For example, if a public figure reads a novel and complains to the press that the villain in the book is there to insult him, hasn’t he admitted his own culpability? While I realize blacks are recognizing someone else’s racist definition of blacks, the risk is still there—by recognizing themselves in the visual metaphor they validate and empower the insult, and complaining about it makes it true, in the most ironically unfair way. When Richard Nixon protested, “I am not a crook!” didn’t we smile —not unfairly in that case— but we smiled just the same.
      I think it might be better to claim the insult as a compliment—hey, we all share DNA with chimps. 98%. We are primates, so how about we celebrate our primatehood?
      As for me, I think chimps are superior creatures...and, by the way, the chimpanzee in question had been medicated by his idiot owner with Xanax, an anti-depressant. What chimp oppressions he’d had to endure before he attacked is unknown. But that’s another story, and right now I would rather think the 2% difference between chimps and us is perhaps what makes them superior—at least they don’t go around turning us into pets!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Democrats Soft on Bush Crimes: No Looking Back, Please

Apparently, the Democrats are content to allow Bush and Cheney's crimes to go unpunished. They have generously decided to forgive all, in a spirit of "looking forward, not backward." (Biden)

Maybe Patrick Fitzgerald should drop the Blagojevich investigation in the same spirit, so that he can focus on the future, not the past. Maybe all criminals should get off scot-free, since focusing on past crimes is such a waste of time and resources.

No? Oh, I get it: The crimes of the Big Guys must remain invisible, must be ignored. It's an entitlement of power. The bigger the crime, and the greater the status of the perpetrator, the more we have to pretend nothing happened. Ordinary criminals—now that's a different story. Without them, how could we pretend to honor the rule of law?

What an insane culture this is.