Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Not "Bitter"? American Exceptionalism at Work

Remember when everyone jumped on Barack Obama for saying that blue-collar workers were "bitter"? Now here's one "bitter" unemployed man who's gone on a rampage in Tennessee that proves precisely Obama's point.

The Illinois senator and presumed Democratic presidential nominee said the following in April:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them.And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Now there's Jim David Adkisson, 58, who shot eight people, killing two, in a Unitarian Universalist Church, stating as his reason his hatred of liberals and homosexuals. Except for the fact that he's in Tennessee, Adkisson could be the poster boy for Obama's statement: he is an unemployed, luckless, bitter man.

He is also the poster boy for American Exceptionalism, the notion that somehow the rules of life that apply everywhere else, don't apply to the United States. One version is a "my country right or wrong" kind of nationalism.

A more complex U.S. exception is the self-defeating, self-hating bitterness at economic injustices that -- inexplicably and illogically -- drives a certain kind of working class American to vote or and support, precisely the ethos and the leaders who would do him the most harm. The classics are blue-collar Republican voters who loved Reagan even though he gave them a 10% unemployment rate (1982) and a complete wipe out in a huge number of smokestack industries.

The exceptional American is the Southern white who hates unions -- hey, who wants to work for better pay and benefits, that's sissy stuff! -- and hates blacks and hates liberals -- hey, who wants social insurance, anyway? -- and loves the GOP.

The Republican has played with his religion by promising to abolish abortion but never once in 30 years really trying, got him riled up about gay marriage and 9/11, then picked his pocket clean and sent his kid to Iraq with inadequate armor and a ridiculous plan. Yet who does he hate? The liberals! The gays!

Can't say I understand this exceptional American guy. He's been suckered so many ways, so many times, by so many hate-radio talk-show hosts, televangelists and huckster politicians.

No wonder he's bitter.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Someone who knows that I follow U.S. policy on poverty and unemployment asked me for a number that is not those typically reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: What proportion of the unemployed are African American?

The answer is not as simple as looking up a ready made official figure.

In June, the African-American labor force totaled 16 million, or 57.8 percent of the total African-American civilian, noninstitutional population (27.8 million). I offer these figures to highlight that "labor force" essentially means civilians out of jail who are able and willing to work.

Of that group, 1.6 million people were unemployed (for a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, compared 4.9 percent for whites). See this Bureau of Labor Statistics table.

Now, in response to the question, the total number of people unemployed in June was 8.4 million (see this other table). Thus, that the 1.6 million who were black represented about 19 percent of all unemployed.

Let's put this in context.

The 37,051,483 people who are black are roughly 12.3 percent of the total population of 299,398,485 (see these 2006 Census Bureau figures). Given that they make up 19 percent of the unemployed, blacks are overrepresented among the unemployed and roughly 1.5 times more likely to be unemployed than the overall population.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Correct Use of "No Problem"

You may recall my pet peeve with "no problem." Typically, some half-unshaven twentysomething hooked up to a music player uses the phrase to respond to a customer complaint, as if to say that he will tolerate the effrontery of interrupting his mp3 listening to handle a refund or a replacement request. Right, I was so worried about your entertainment at work, kid!

Yet there is a right way to use of the phrase and I came across it this week. On my way to work I thought I inadvertently inconvenienced a young woman and immediately offered an apology, to which she replied with a smile, "No problem." Exactly!

I had wronged her and she was being gracious, offering that it was no problem to her, speaking purely out of courtesy. In French, de rien (it's nothing) is offered, although usually it's in response to merci (thank you).

The sentiment is similar. I am really in your debt, but you offer graciously to relieve me of the burden by saying it was nothing, though we both know it was something.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Advocacy on One's Own Behalf

During the four years in which I was paid to advocate on behalf of my own diffuse ethnic group, I occasionally referred to my work as "the Hispanic biz," from which I was grateful to depart. Decades later, as a blogger who happens to be Hispanic, I am watching a blogosphere in which identity is almost a profession entitled to disrespect everyone else for shock or sympathy value.

Since when is defending the ethnicity, sex or sexual preference into which, no doubt, you wisely chose to be born, or the religion your sagely selected parents brought you up in, a ticket to fame, fortune and a get-out-of-shame card when you spill your offensive bile against others?
  • In Fernham, a wannabe feminist literary analyst, devotes a post to a paper she heard about Jorge Luis Borges' translation of Virginia Woolf's A Room of Her Own, parroting the notion that the version is "fatally muted," despite her mangling of Spanish because she doesn't speak the language!

  • My adored Bloguera posted a funny but somewhat excessive slam on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, admittedly an unrivalled collection of blowhards, because they called the chairman "presidente" in the Spanish version of their Web page -- even though presidente happens to be an accurate translation of the title for the head of a committee.

  • Then there's Gawker's dizzying spin on the New Yorker cover caricature of Barack Obama: early in the morning they were outraged, by noon they recognized satire and in the afternoon they talked their way out of it by pretending that they were undergoing the five steps of "how you were supposed to respond."
OK, so it's only blogging, not neuroscience. And, pace regular readers, yours truly deeply resembles these remarks.

Still, here are the nagging philosophical conundri: What is the value, if any, and what are the ethical limits of advocacy on behalf of one's own interests, culture, point of view? What about when one blogger's identity treads on another?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Greenness Is Next to Godliness

It always struck me as very odd that U.S. churches, charged in part with good stewardship of their acre, do everything they can, through their parking lots, to encourage the use of cars on Sunday. That is why, for my sixth ethical imperative, you will recall, I expanded the biblical encomium about adultery -- which was really about maintaining a pure lineage for the purposes of inheritance -- to apply to preserving the environment, our common inheritance.

In these days of high gasoline prices, of course, everyone is "green." Yet you still see those parking lots overflowing with SUVs. I have never heard a word ever preached against these gargantuan monuments to selfishness, lest they go elsewhere and affect the pastor's bottom line.

The Bible, of course, is the very opposite of environment friendly. One more reason to question it. In Genesis, God tells the first humans "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth." (Gen. 1:28)

This view influenced the Puritans and their spiritual descendants in the United States. Cities, railroads, highways, smokestacks, mines, vineyards, dams and canals were strung out from East to West like ornaments on a Christmas tree, pretty much without regard to what these human works did to plants and animals of North America, nor to the air, the water or the soil.

The U.S. Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s was part nature, part human carelessness. Bad weather came on the heels of the Depression's outbreak. It happened upon poorly tended, overworked soil with cultivated few of the modern agricultural precautions.

Today, as we face the environmental apocalypse of climate change, a commandment calling for "green" behavior seems oddly missing in the Mosaic original. So here goes my own godless ethical norm: "Thou shalt respect the surroundings that sustain thee and thy fellows."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Le Socialisme Americain

When I picked up my newspaper yesterday, I thought I woke up in France. But no, it turns out socialism is alive and well in America.
-- Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky) at the Senate Banking Committee

Heavens, no! Not socialism! Not a yearly month-long vacation for everyone, a 35-hour work week and freedom from worry about affording health care or old age. Can't have that!

Bunning's remark on Wednesday concerning the possible bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae was, ostensibly, hyperbole. Yet it reflects the tenacious grip on a refusal among many Americans to be rational about any idea that might be even timidly left of center.

Many people, including a correspondent of mine, assume that the minute one criticizes the richly flawed system of capitalism, one is advocating the Gulag Soviet prison system with Joe Stalin on top. The ghost of Joe McCarthy seemingly inhabits a good share of the American psyche: anything even suggestively pinko, lefty, Commie is totalitarian trash and utterly unthinkable.

Yet not just France has dabbled quite nicely in socialism, without Gulag, without bread lines. Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Sweden have all had substantively socialist governments that have put in place a system of womb-to-tomb state-supported social and economic insurance.

Even capitalist Canada has socialized medicine; I've tried it and it's good.

Only the United States insists on the archaic avoirdupoids system of weights and measures to go along with its antiquated dog-eat-dog economics.

Yet, if you're wealthy or a corporation, there's U.S. socialism for you in the form of gargantuan subsidies. Why not capitalism for them, Mr. Bunning? Or, indeed, why not socialism for wage earners and those unlucky enough not to earn wages at all?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Prejudice That's Still OK

Picture this: a young man goes into a synagogue and attempts to walk out with the scrolls of the Torah in the middle of the service; a controversy ensues, an spokeswoman for the rabbis decry the hate crime; then a Methodist minister pops up to say that's ridiculous, he knows hate crime and these silly Jews don't know what they're are talking about.

Didn't read about it anywhere? Of course not. There would be outrage everywhere.

The real story is that a University of Central Florida student at a campus Mass went up to receive communion then took the consecrated host home. He was asked to ingest it, but he put it in his mouth, then spit it out so he could take it home. The local diocesan spokeswoman called the event a "hate crime" and the local bishop asked for the host back.

That's not all.

Then came a "cool" Methodist preacher, one Rev. Jeremy Smith, who blogged all about it to say that it's not a hate crime. He completely dismissed the Catholics' complaints. So I pointed out that he really missed the sensibilities of Catholics and the history of host stealing because of his Protestant biases. Yet, so far, the guy has attempted to completely brush it off.

That's what 500 years of anti-Catholic propaganda in the English-speaking world will do. Even "cool," techie, hip ministers feel free to take a swipe when Catholics -- whose theological point of view I do not share -- feel something they regard as sacred has been disrespected, intentionally so.

But, hey, after all, they're just silly Catholics. You know: fish-eaters, wafer-chewers, minions to the head of the whore of Rome, inquisitors, crusaders, horrible deluded people -- not enlightened Protestants. It seems that Methodist ministers can still publicly vent prejudices about Catholics in the United States without social consequences.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Two Boomer Final Solutions

Given that the programs likely to suck the fiscal air out of government, just when we need money to repair the damage done by 30 years of Republican ascendancy, are retirement and health assistance for the elderly, how about if we consider euthanasia and means-testing?

One sounds a lot worse than the other, but they really amount to the same thing. The programs should help those who actually need help, not all who would like it.

Few will disagree that an elderly widow with $1 million in the bank, a paid home, ample clothing and furnishing needs to get a check from the government to pay for the remaining necessary expenses -- excluding health care, next on the agenda. Therefore, limiting social security benefits to people without the money to support themselves eminent makes sense and would extend the retirement safety net to the Boomers' children.

Medicare is far trickier. Here the problem is escalating health costs. None of the solutions I've heard, from HillaryCare to ObamaTweaks to McCain's you're-on-your-own, really address the problem, namely that our health care system has a hugely expensive testing and heartbeat-preserving component that is unnecessary and in real, practical terms, useless.

We're spending ourselves to the poorhouse giving people six last months of bedridden misery -- that time over which 80 percent of all medical expenses occur -- and in the process abandoning poor children with decades ahead of them, whose disorder and illness health care ends up costing tenfold what prevention would have.

Unplug us, please!

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Beast Drops the Second Shoe

No one outside the policy loop ever believed me when I said that the Republicans were amassing federal deficits on purpose to, as Reagan budget David Stockman director said, "starve the beast" of government spending on social programs. Now there's a debate on how to cut social spending even when Bush is gone!

If you don't believe me, just go to the Brookings Institution's Taking Back our Fiscal Future page and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' A Balanced Approach to Restoring Fiscal Responsibility page, just up this week. You'll see a debate by the wonkiest wonks on how to trim slash every social program currently funded by the federal government, especially Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Reagan ran up more debt than all his predecessors put together and his spiritual son Dubya gave money to rich people who didn't need it with a purpose in mind: to make sure that if you face illness, old age, job loss and related risks that predictably all of us are likely to face in a lifetime, and you are not rich, you're on your own, baby, no matter how much you contributed.

Need proof Reagan and Bush actually knew what they were doing?
  • "So we have the tax relief plan [...] that now provides a new kind -- a fiscal straightjacket for Congress. And that's good for the taxpayers, and it's incredibly positive news if you're worried about a federal government that has been growing at a dramatic pace over the past eight years and it has been." (President Bush, August 24, 2001)

  • "John Anderson tells us that first we've got to reduce spending before we can reduce taxes. Well, if you've got a kid that's extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker." (Candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980)
The "extravagance" is never military spending or subsidies to corporations or giveaways to rich farmers and stockmarket magnates. No, it's taking food out of infants and pregnant women abandoned to survive on their own.

Now you know and you can't say no one told you.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Survey of My Political Opinions

Continuing my top 10 influential books, I turn now to my politics and three emblematic books that informed the views I have developed: 2. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver; 3. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell; 6. All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

All three are widely known and their authors do not, unlike the obscure Catholic writers of the preceding post, need introduction. What may need explanation is how they, and the genre they represent, influenced me.

I was first drawn to Soul On Ice as a classic first-person cri de coeur (cry of the heart), rather than for its ideas. It was the early 70s, I was a white college student with no experience of the South nor of the petty-apartheid that Cleaver and his kind had endured.

From before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I remembered as a child separate drinking fountains and bus seating in Washington, D.C., but I completely missed the fact that an amusement park I went to was only for whites. In brief, I had very little in common with Cleaver, or so I thought.

My secondary school years in Latin America had exposed me to crushing poverty, but not to overt, accepted, legally sanctioned racism. However, I had come to see that want was not merely a failure of the prevailing economic system, but a feature, greasing the wheels of commerce with the anxiety to succeed.

A child of the McCarthy Era, I could never call myself a "Communist," but like many of my age, time and circumstance, in the face of appalling poverty I found liberation theology appealing.

Cleaver added to my religious political economy dimensions I had not considered. For the first time I realized that parallel, or somehow enmeshed with the hierarchy of socioeconomic classes, were the strata of race and sex. Atop the pyramid was the white man, followed by the white woman, then the black man, and at the bottom the black woman.

This seems obvious today. In 1970, to a young man from a family that possessed relative privilege and capacity to shelter, it was startling.

Cleaver's spicy terms were experientially discomfiting. He wrote about how black women cried out "Jesus" during lovemaking, thinking always of the iconic blue-eyed Jesus of American Protestantism. He spoke of the forbidden lust of white women for the fabled large black banana and the white Massa's exploits in the slave quarters.

How aroused he made me feel! How ashamed of myself I felt in discovering how easily I could lust like a slaveowner!

He, and writers like himself, whom I devoured, also reminded me that my Mediterranean looks were far from those of the revered Teutonic Jesus and that I and my forebears had not been part of that equation. Where did I fit in this revolution that simply had to happen to bring peace and justice?

Orwell's Homage, to my mind the best 20th century work in the English language, fit with the more overtly ideological works to which I was drawn. I found in Orwell's experience of the suppression of the Anarcho-Syndicalists by the Stalinists, the key lesson in intramural sparring within the Left: you can never trust the Stalinists.

This reconciled my budding and amorphous leftism, which I styled as Anarchism (but was not), with my anti-Communist upbringing. The Soviet Union was a useful bogeyman to help keep in check the ruling classes -- the undefined and always mysterious "them" who were the Wizards of Oz -- while the revolution had been, in theory, perhaps necessary and even good. But something had gone badly wrong once Uncle Joe took over the Party.

There is an ample literature of warnings from the Left about the potential for disaster in Soviet authoritarianism by figures no less distinguished and disinterested than Rosa Luxemburg. All of which was fine if I projected myself into port World War I "red" Berlin.

Yet here I was in North America, with capitalism chugging along quite fine, thank you very much Comrade Vladimir Ilych. Which is why a more sober voice such as Orwell's, and later Edouard Bernstein's, led me to milder electoral forms of reform-minded socialism, such as they have had in Western Europe.

Finally, there's the question of my own role. I never conceived of myself as a propagandist or revolutionary. I was too bourgeois for that. Yet change could be had through the power of the pen, I learned, when I first saw a 1930s movie called "The Front Page," later remade in 1974.

That's how Woodstein influenced my life. At a crucial time in my development, they showed that a reporter could, with honesty, integrity and without setting out to confirm foregone conclusions, bring to light information that, by itself, could cause change.

Our North American system of political and economic power has since adjusted to its vulnerabilities at the hands of the press, which is slowly being killed -- some say transformed -- by this very medium.

All The President's Men
, however, was about the brief moment in which two unknowns could bring down a president.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Survey of My Religious Opinions

Prompted by Lifehacker's list of books people proposed as life-changing (which, yes, was disappointing), I began to compose a similar list. That four of them were religious works surprised me, yet even in my present free fall to agnosticism, they provide markers of thinking as devoid of superstition as of cultural conformity.

My top-ten influential books included 1. A Religion for Our Time by Louis Evely; 4. Apologia Pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman; 5. The Lord by Romano Guardini; 8. A Marginal Jew by John Meier.

Louis Evely was a Belgian Catholic priest and spiritual writer whose 1969 book I began to tackle one night in a small town of the province of La Pampa, from which my travel companions and I would journey the next day through ruts to a particular spot in the open land.

Evely's writings were in the vein of the much better-known Henri Nouwen (to whom I was never particularly drawn). Writings that are meant to inspire in a lively way, taking the teachings and scripture of Christian faith at face value, rather than analytically, to help believing people make sense of their lives in light of faith.

In an adaptation of talks delivered in 1962 at a religious retreat for people who were about to set on volunteer aid missions in the Third World, he laughs at a religion of white souls in which salvation is an individual matter, let everyone save himself. Instead he speaks of a world that does not believe, does not hope and does not love, yet one which suffers for it.

The world, he concludes, will belong to whomever gives it the greatest hope. In his view, the greatest hope was to be placed in the God who became a poor Galilean woodworker, like the majority of the people of the world, to the point of being able to affirm, without crossed-fingers, without disclaimers, "Blessed are the poor."

To Evely the task of the Christian is not so much a matter of going to church as it is of becoming poor. That became the cornerstone of my modern religion. It explains why I chose a life that was frugal and had, long before such things were talked about, a low carbon footprint.

John Henry Newman was a significant name in my life before I ever read his writings. My secondary school was named after the founder of the 19th-century Oxford Movement in Anglicanism, who eventually converted to Catholicism.

His Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Latin, literally meaning "in defense of his own life") was a collection of essays he published as pamphlets in the 1860s in response to the accusation of a detractor. Charles Kingsley had written that "Father Newman informs us that truth for its own sake need not be, and on the whole ought not to be, a virtue of the Roman clergy."

Newman provides "a history of my religious opinions" (a subtitle which I have twisted for my purpose in this post), directed at the academic circles in which he lived all his life, and skewers Kingsley squarely, demonstrating not merely his sincerity, but the reasonableness of his views.

This book became the sourcebook of my discussions with an older Anglican lady who was on the brink, yet in great trouble wavering on the notion of becoming accepted into the Catholic Church. My second "convert."

Romano Guardini, despite his name, was German theologian and philosopher who taught in the University of Berlin until he was forced to resign by the Nazis. His writing is primarily philosophical and extremely dense. One reads a Guardini paragraph and must stop to consider it for a day.

Nonetheless, his popular work The Lord has been a long-time bestseller since the 1940s. Modern scholars regard his methodology outdated, but he still manages to tackle for the nonspecialist the crucial meanings of the story of the gospels in a critical, thoughtful manner.

I recall being stunned by the way that, merely in his careful examination of the genealogies of Jesus, he manages to provide wonderful insights. He transforms the usually tiresome begats into a gem of a little historical treatise.

John P. Meier, the only living author in the quaternity, is a renown biblical scholar who collaborated with the late Raymond Brown, co-author of the groundbreaking Jerome Biblical Commentary, whose ongoing work A Marginal Jew runs three volumes so far, with a "final" fourth in the works since at least 2001.

Meier approaches Jesus as a historian, rather than a theologian or a believer, and attempts to distill a synthesis of what Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and agnostic scholars locked up in a room in, say, Princeton, might come to agree could factually be asserted about the much-talked about Galilean woodworker.

I'm partial to his very funny footnotes, of which there are many. But I'm struck by the way in which he rationally limits the power of belief and nonbelief in attempting to leapfrog past the information available and the methods of historiography. For example, while he admits that the believer's grounds to affirm that Jesus performed "miracles" are circumscribed, he similarly points out that there is no scientific method to conclude they were not: there is no scientific divine-intervention meter.

These four books, by men of whom I became fond (I composed most of the Wikipedia entry on Evely to which the link above points), are markers in my journey toward, first, a post-Vatican II faith that insisted on the here and now; second, the development of a conviction of the reasonableness of faith; third, repeated retooling and reconsideration at different levels of understanding, concerning the meaning of substantially the same story; fourth, a dialogue concerning the believability of the story.

It would be erroneous to conclude from the preceding that I lost my faith thanks to Meier. Rather, his work delayed the falling of the scales for quite some time. In the end, my faith tottered not on Meier's writings, but on my own poor witness.

All four works are emblematic of many others read before and after or in tandem. I usually read several books at a time.

They were influential in different ways. Evely inspired an adolescent to dream of becoming an apostle, but the terms of faith or even doubt, remain those set in that first evening with a borrowed copy of the book.

Newman bolstered a young man in the defense of the ideal in the world once I was sent out at the end of my formation. Guardini provided critical grist for an adult professional busy with the concerns of a supporting a family.

In middle age, Meier has encouraged me to begin the work of integration, at least intellectually, of all those aspects of self that Carl Gustaf Jung says all of us embark upon before we die. Even though I have changed chairs in his imaginary team of critics, I look forward to his next volume.

In sum, a religion for our time might be to me a faith grounded in a profound relationship involving release from want and a conviction buttressed by fearless critical inquiry and the integration of experience, received wisdom and insight.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Armageddon or a Bump?

Having predicted ten of the last three recessions, my reputation for being a curmudgeon who is ready to predict disaster is entrenched. Yet on impending doom at the present time, color me agnostic.

In the face of those who call agnosticism a cowardly position, I rise to assert that in most cases it is the only sane position.

After all, do we have proof that God does not exist? Is there any certainty that, as happened in 1993-94, economic gloom will not begin to be replaced by the largest boom and fiscal surplus in history?

In the midst of a bearish stock market, l see reason to take the longer, mid-range view that everything will not collapse. High gas prices provide a needed incentive to curb and replace consumption of fossil fuels. Inflation is part of the set of pressures that will lead to restoring the purchasing power of working people. The Iraq quagmire may yet spare us more dangerous adventurism.

Silver linings aside, change will likely involve discomfort, shock and surprise -- it always has. Yet to insist dogmatically on atheism or on the end of civilization as we know it makes no sense.

Let's be clear about the sources of current anxiety.

A fair amount of doomsaying comes from my very large and noisy generation, the Boomers. It is not uncommon for people reaching retirement and the eventual end of life to have an apres moi le deluge (let disaster follow after me) attitude. My life is ending, such a view proclaims, so the world must be.

Another bit comes from the young, who have never seen a similar historical juncture. As Mark Twain put it, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." The Devil knows more because he is old, says a Spanish saying, than because he is the Devil. So if you've seen this before, as I have, this moment is not so unique.

Yet another source of belief that society as we know it is at an end comes from some who would like to see, at a minimum, profound change, in the present social, political, economic order, or a combination of the three. One need not be an extremist to believe that a good, all-sweeping socioeconomic twister would give us a chance to make a clean start on the road to whatever utopia one favors.

In my experience, however, worsening conditions do not create "revolutionary conditions," or an alternative equivalent, but merely misery.
  • In the U.S. 1980s, Ronald Reagan broke the back of unions, presided over double-digit unemployment, cut aid to pregnant women and children, created a whole generation of homeless and spawned an economy in which working people could be forced to accept declining wages and benefits while profits soared. In 2000, far from rebelling, the populace meekly submitted to massive electoral fraud by Reagan's heir, George W. Bush.

  • In the South American 1970s, a variety of military governments under the doctrine of "national security" coined by one Cesar Augusto Pinochet, used the pretext of leftist-inspired agitation or turmoil to torture, murder and banish hundreds of thousands throughout the continent. In the 1990s, freed from the military boot, various electorates brought to office presidential administrations that privatized even parks and introduced beggar-thy-neighbor social policies under the aegis of Milton Friedman.

  • In Eastern Europe there is a wry joke to describe a similar historic parabola in that region: What is worse than Communism? Post-Communism.
In brief, give me thoughtful, complex, measured, surgical action that makes for ripples of lasting change that spread benefits across a broad base.

Give me hope. Give me patience. I am tired of saviors and quick fixes.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Why Patriotism is Nonsense

Barack Obama and John McCain have forced me into declaring my own stance on patriotism once again. Patriotism is for the birds and there's no better day to say so than the Fourth of July. The only reasonable stance is to be not merely unpatriotic, but antipatriotic.

Countries don't really exist.

There is no such thing as the United States of America. Or France. Or Thailand. Or Canada. Or Argentina. All of these are mental constructs.

Sure, there are lands where certain languages and customs tend to prevail among their inhabitants. But these are fluid things.

According to patriotic theory, the United States is a nation of laws, founded on the Constitution, with definable borders and territory and citizens. In fact, the United States is not a nation, its laws are widely flouted (even by the lawgivers), most of its citizenry do not have a clue what the Constitution actually says, our borders are as porous as any others as the boundaries themselves are imaginary and citizenship is concept that is up for grabs.

Pace patriots. Most of this applies to France, Thailand, Canada, Argentina or almost any country. (I say "almost" because there's nearly always, as John Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile crisis, "some sonofabitch who didn't get the word.") Let's examine each of these items in turn.

A nation is best understood as human community that shares an identity, history, ancestry and extends back generations. The best known example is the Jewish people, who as a nation were stateless, from the time of the Maccabees to 1948, demonstrating that a nation is not the same thing as a state or nation-state.

The United States is most notably not a nation in that its population is entirely composed of immigrants. Yes, Virginia, even the Indians, who came to the American continent through over the Behring Strait, are immigrants, not native inhabitants.

We do not share a common ancestry, nor even a common history and certainly not a common identity.

This is equally true of every country in the American continent, from Canada to Chile. It may seem less true of European countries such as France (although ask the Flemish or the Bretons), but the wars in the former Yugoslavia amply attest to the notion that most European nation-states do not represent nations.

When the civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Galicia and Catalonia declared themselves independent and Generalissimo Francisco Franco had to suppress their languages for four decades to hold them in his tight fist from 1939 onwards.

As to our country, the United States doesn't even have a name that is a name, like Morocco or Poland, but a legal description of a particular legal agreement, which brings us to the mishmash of British custom, court precedent when it has proven convenient and sheer invention on the spot when it has not, that we call "law."

All of it, in the USA, is supposedly grounded in a document few understand. Lawmakers in Congress routinely flout the law -- in matters small and large -- and so do nearly all U.S. inhabitants. Moreover, there are abundant theories that say that states' laws supersede federal laws and do not bind across state lines. Good luck to you with "a nation of laws."

When I call our borders "porous," I do not mean that the Mexicans and Canadians (let's not forget whitebread Canadian illegal immigration to the USA) cross the Rio Grande or the 49th parallel without visas. I mean that the population, customs, climate of San Diego and Tijuana, as well as that of Bellingham, Wash., and Vancouver are very similar and that there has always been easy and close transit between the two.

The same is true between the bordering French Basque country and the Spanish Basque country, in which they speak Basque first and foremost and consider themselves of a common ancestry distinct from French or Spanish citizenship.

And think of it, how much more imaginary do things get than a boundary line drawn along a parallel, such as that which separates most of the western United States from Canada? How do you tell a Canadian tree from a U.S. American tree? Does one yield maple syrup and the other peanut butter?

Even legal citizenship is a fluid concept. Anyone born in the USA is a citizen, unless he is not. For example, the children of diplomats. The 14th Amendment calls for birth in the territory and under the jurisdiction of the United States.

But what about the nondiplomatic children of U.S. citizens born abroad? Many are "registered" in the local consulate and considered U.S. citizens, even though there is no tenable claim for jurisdiction or territory. Again, citizenship is a fluid thing nearly everywhere.

Patriotism, to round things up, was intended to refer to the love of one's patria, Latin for "land of the father." My father was not born, nor did he own land here -- or anywhere else -- which is not all that uncommon in these modern days. Where is the patria for me?

Sure, one can adopt an imaginary human community in which one feels more or less comfortable. One can decide that a certain piece of cloth with certain colors stands for this imagined social grouping and a certain piece of music speaks for everyone in the land the group has most likely stolen from someone else.

But let's not call these series of acts of maudlin convenience a noble thing, a reason to justify murder and mayhem -- let alone land and resource grabbing.

Before he was mercifully stopped, John McCain murdered Vietnamese by the dozens from the comfort of his cockpit. That's not noble. Nor is it particularly wonderful of Obama to wear a flag lapel pin, which he did not customarily wear before being a presidential candidate, just to show that he is "patriotic."

A pox on patriots and patriotism.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Real Independence Day

Today, July 2nd, rather than July 4th, is the actual day that independence of the territories that were to become the United States from Britain was first approved. This came in the form of a resolution that attorney Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian, proposed to the Second Continental Congress.

The brief document read:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

The motion was approved by 12 of the 13 colonies. Indeed, John Adams, of Massachusetts, who seconded Lee's proposal, was so certain that a great step had been taken that he wrote to his wife Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more
Now, 232 years later, the festival is held on the 4th, when the delegates approved the wordier, some would say grander, announcement of the decision by Thomas Jefferson, who composed it in the absence of Lee, who had rushed back to Virginia due to his wife's illness.

In honor of someone born on this great day, however, let us fire off an imaginary firecracker.