Archive for July, 2012
An American Motto: Free, Armed and Stupid – An Analysis (22 July 2012) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Gun Violence Epidemic Continues
Well here we go again. Late in the evening of July 20th “a masked gunman entered a Colorado movie theater playing the new Batman movie and “opened fire…killing at least 12 people and wounding 50.” [To this we can now add the December 14th massacre of 20 young children and 6 adults by twenty year-old gunman in Newtown Conn.] The gunman was not a large anthropomorphized bat but rather a young white male, and he “was armed with a rifle, a shotgun and two handguns” all of which he had legally obtained.
This is nothing new in the Land Of The Free. Among the more notable victims of the nation’s love affair with deadly weapons have been Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan and, of course, John Lennon. Then there are the recent (and periodically on-going) mass murders among the population at large: the Colombine High School shootings, the Beltway sniper incidents, the Virginia Tech massacre, and the 2011 Tucson killings. To this can be added the daily shootings that occur in every city in the country. Taking the representative year 2007, there were 31,224 deaths from gunshots with 17,352 of them (56%) being suicides. The numbers have, generally, been going up.
Part II – The Gun Advocates’ Excuses
Those who stand against tightening up the nation’s presently useless gun laws have a variety of arguments most of which are in good part delusional. Thus:
1. EXCUSE NUMBER ONE – Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
a. It is certainly true that while sitting on a shelf, locked in a draw, or carried in a holster, guns are inert pieces of machinery and, ultimately, it takes a finger to pull the trigger. Yet this fact is actually irrelevant. It’s irrelevant because guns are not manufactured to stay on shelves, in draws or holsters. That inert status has nothing to do with why they exist. So, we can go on and ask,
b. Why are guns manufactured? Why do they exist? Primitive firearms were invented in China sometime in the 12th century. They were invented to be used in warfare, that is to kill and injure other people. As the technology spread Westward, first into the Arab lands and then to Europe, it was improved, but the raison d’etre (its reason for being), to kill and injure others. stayed the same. The only thing that has changed over time is that in certain lands, particularly the U.S., a monopoly on the possession of such weapons ceased to be held by the state and guns diffused into the population as a whole.
In the United States, this process of diffusion was allowed based on a peculiar interpretation of Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That amendment says that the right of the citizens to bear arms shall not be infringed. But that statement forms a dependent clause in a sentence that links the right to bear arms to the maintenance of “a well regulated militia.” Apart from the National Guard, the modern U.S. does not maintain militias. And, most of the membership of the National Rifle Association (NRA), along with the other gun-toting tough guys walking the streets of (particularly) the mid and southern U.S., don’t even belong to National Guard.
c. The hard truth is that guns were originally invented, and still today are primarily made, to shoot people. Their other uses: in hunting, to shoot holes in paper targets, to blast clay projectiles out of the air for fun, are strictly secondary to their primary purpose.
d. So the argument that guns don’t kill people is a-historical and something of a red herring. Guns are essentially our partners, intimate accessories if you will, in what is most often criminal activity, facilitating the efficiency of acts of homicide, assault and suicide. At the rate we pursue these activities, we just couldn’t maintain the modern level of mayhem without them.
2. EXCUSE NUMBER TWO – Guns are most often used for self-defense.
a. If you go on the web, you can find surveys that allege the use of guns for self-defense numbering in the millions of episodes per year. However, these surveys are often carried out by biased organizations and are methodologically flawed. They have therefore been demonstrated to be unreliable.
b. More reliable studies, conducted by unbiased sources have shown, among other things, that: very few criminals are shot by law-abiding citizens; most criminals are shot either by the police, or by other criminals; and firearms reported to have been used in self-defense are, most of the time, used against members of a family or erstwhile friends during arguments.
Along the same lines, the statement concerning the Colorado theater massacre issued by Luke O’Dell, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners association, reflected the misconception that the answer to gun violence is more guns: “Potentially, if there had been a law-abiding citizen who had been able to carry [a gun] in the theater [in Colorado], it’s possible that the death toll would have been less.” One might more plausibly argue that if the shooter had not been able to procure a rifle, a shotgun and two handguns “to carry” into the theater, the death toll would have been zero.
Part III – The Problem of Lobby Power
It seems not to matter how many times these massacres take place. Nothing is likely to change. Here is what an article entitled “Still Little Interest In U.S. Gun Control” in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 22 July 2012 had to say, “Despite periodic mass shootings…the political calculus seems locked down. Most Republicans adamantly oppose tighter gun controls, and most Democrats would prefer to focus on other issues.” Why so? The reason has to do with a very flawed aspect of our political system. Ours is a system that allows a relatively small number of citizens (in this case gun zealots) to form a special interest, or lobby group, that raises and distributes great amounts of money nationwide and, in some parts of the country, exercises strong voting influence. These lobbies can hold crazy ideas that demonstrably harm society and make us look like an insane nation to the rest of the world, but that doesn’t matter either. The politicians will positively respond anyway to get money and electoral support. In this sense, we live in a land devoid of “national interest.” There is only the interest of lobby groups and the politicians controlled by them.
Nor is this situation unique to the problem of the nation’s gun laws and the power of the NRA. If we look at foreign policy, we see that similar lobbies skew policy with disastrous results. The Zionist lobby has the entire U.S. government head over heels in support of the basically racist state of Israel. And, this position does demonstrable harm to our standing throughout the Middle East and Muslim world. It’s crazy, but it has been going on for at least 65 years. The Cuban lobby of anti-Castro fanatics has intimidated Washington to blockade, sanction and otherwise isolate Cuba even though the rest of the world is content to trade and have normal relations with the island nation. Our politicians say they take this stand because the Cuban government is a communist dictatorship. So what? Do we have normal relations with China? Do we trade with Vietnam? They are obviously being less than truthful. They take the stand because they are bought and bullied by a bunch of well organized, well funded, fanatics. The whole thing is crazy and has been going on since 1960.
Part IV – Conclusion
There is simply something wrong with our political system. Too few people can command too much power in the name of relatively small minority groups. We need campaign finance reform and much more transparency when it comes to the operations of special interests. We need shorter electoral periods and limits on how much it can cost to run for any office. We need honest and open regional and national debates on both domestic and foreign policies that affect large numbers of our citizens (whether those citizens know it or not).
And, last but not least, we need a rational rethinking of what the word “freedom” means.
– Does “freedom” mean that just about anyone is free to carry weapons that potentially put the rest of us in danger? Free to carry weapons that are most often going to be used to shoot off the carrier’s foot, or shoot someone he or she imagines is acting abnormally, or shoot a family member in a heated argument, or, in a fit of depression, to blow one’s own brains out? Does it mean that people are free to carry weapons that they may decide to use in an act of mass murder?
– Does “freedom” mean that if you have a lot of money you can use it to corrupt the nation’s politicians so that they distort the positions and policies of government to such a degree that they cease to have any connection to common sense definitions of community or national interest?
The answer is yes. That, in good part, is actually what freedom means in the U.S. And these stupid definitions of “freedom” are slowly but surely undermining the body politic. There are no super heroes out there to save us: no Superman, no Batman, no Catwoman, and the like. There is just us. And if we don’t find a way to, in essence, work our way free of the pseudo “freedoms” that are ruining our political system, no one else will. Things will simply get worse.
Nationalism vs. Capitalism: Guess Which One Wins? – An Analysis (14 July 2012) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Two Ideologies
There are two very powerful, and fully internalized ideologies in today’s America: one is nationalism and the other is capitalism.
Nationalism: Pope John Paul II once remarked that “pervading nationalism imposes its dominion on man today in many different forms and with an aggressiveness that spares no one.” Whatever else you might think of this Pontiff, he makes a good point here–and one applicable to the U.S.A. American politicians never tire of telling us that ours is the greatest nation on earth and, for the world’s sake, we must aggressively (often by war) expand our freedoms, as well as our general culture, to the ends of the earth. Actually, this is a message that has been repeated for two hundred years and “its dominion” here in the “land of the free” is manifest. For many citizens, this assumption is one of the primary reasons we invaded Iraq, hang on in Afghanistan, and swear eternal loyalty to the Israelis. It is probably the case that American political and civic leaders invoke God and national manifest destiny more than those of any other nationality.
Capitalism: This is the world’s prevalent economic system. It is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods and services for profit. Wage labor is an important element on the cost side of the capitalist ledger. So are things like safe working conditions and worker benefits. The capitalist impulse is to minimize costs so as to maximize profit, and so left to themselves, capitalists will pay workers (white collar or otherwise) the lowest possible wages and deny or minimize all other benefits. They will ignore worker safety and deny any responsibility for worker health. The only reason these important aspects of the work place prevail at all is because of the pressure put upon the capitalist system by unions on the one hand, and government regulatory agencies on the other. If you want to maximize the probability of economic downturn, just destroy all effective government regulation of the economy and outlaw unions.
Part II – Ideologies at odds
Nationalism and capitalism are quite different ideologies, yet somehow Americans have mixed them up. Take a list of what are considered the best things about Capitalism: equality, achievement, freedom, growth and even happiness, and then compare them to a list of things considered the best about America: equality, opportunity for personal growth, freedom, a longer and fuller life. What do you know! They’re almost the same. This is odd and not a little illogical. Why so? Well, consider the fact that these ideologies are operating in opposition to one and other. And doing so right out in the open.
Here is a good example. On 11 July 2012 Fred Grimm, a columnist for the Miami Herald wrote a piece entitled “This column was made in the U.S.A.” In it he notes that “last year the Wall Street Journal surveyed employment data from a number of the nation’s heftier corporations…and found that while they were cutting their domestic workforces by 2.9 million over a decade, they had hired 2.4 million people overseas.” What sort of jobs are being exported by American corporate executives with, one assumes, the approval of their largely American stockholders? It turns out that they are not just your mundane factory floor jobs. They also include the work of: accountants, radiologists, architects, mortgage banking officers, computer technicians, and journalists (outsourcing the writing of local news stories to underpaid reporters in places like the Philippines).
As the Wall Street Journal noted, this has been going on for a while now. Back in a 12 January 2004 edition of the Harvard Business School’s online publication, Working Knowledge, James Heskett told us that “arguments based on accepted [those accepting are not named] macroeconomic theory generally come down in support of the free exportation of jobs.” But then Heskett quoted Brad Leach’s observation that “the real question is how to deal with the disproportionality of this impact: the broad, shallow, positive impact on product prices versus the narrow [sic], deep, negative impact on individuals.”
In other words, American capitalism has been sticking it to American nationalism, at least to the extent of destroying a minimum of 2.9 million jobs over the past decade. After all, we were suppose to be exporting our national ideals, not our economic livelihoods. Is this an example of capitalism promoting achievement, or growth, or happiness? Certainly not for those 2.9 million American ex-employees. So just how could American corporations, the executives and stock holders of which are, one assumes, loyal and patriotic Americans, do such a thing?
Part III – Capitalism Wins
Well, it would seem that nationalism has met its match. It has been overwhelmed by that which lies at the heart of capitalism: profit. Thus, consider a hypothetical American corporation A which makes socks in town X and has done so for a hundred years. At some point corporation A finds itself confronted with competition from cheaper socks made abroad and allowed into the U.S. by the millions of pairs because of laws placed on the books by free-market American Senators and Congresspersons. These foreign socks are being willingly purchased, instead of A’s more expensive domestic brand, by red blooded American consumers. So the executives of corporation A face a serious problem. It does not take them long to figure out that if they move out of town X, where the labor costs are relatively high, and relocate to some foreign country with no unions or government regulations, their labor costs will go down and their competitiveness and profitability will go up. But to do so will destroy the economic basis of town X and the lives of its patriotic citizens who have loyally served corporation A for generations. So what do you do? Well, just ask the residents of all the defunct textile towns on the U.S. east coast from New England to the Carolinas.
Very few entrepreneurs or their customers are going to admit that such issues as cost, profit and price are more important than every one of those things listed as the best of capitalism and nationalism. No, they will just ignore the distinctly second place status of equality, freedom, doing your best, growth and happiness, etc., and they will pretend that the economic destruction of workers’ lives is an unavoidable consequence of commonsense business. Blame it on the natural laws of macroeconomics if your must. Also, there is no sense in American victims of this process feeling indignant towards the foreign workers who have inherited their jobs. When the time comes for Mexican or Chinese or Indian workers to organize and achieve regulation of their industries so as to obtain decent wages and benefits, their lives in turn will be ruined as their employers run away to other places with lower labor costs, fewer required benefits and lower corporate taxes. For when it comes to the so-called commonsense demands of business, profits are more important than life itself (except perhaps the lives of the investors).
Part III – Coping Mechanisms
I think that a growing number of Americans, witnessing (among other things) the long running exportation of their livelihoods, do sense that the ground is moving under their feet. A 19 November 2011 New York Times op-ed by Charles Blow, entitled “Decline of American Exceptionalism” reports that a Pew Research Center poll found that just 49% of Americans agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others.” That was down from 60% in the year 2002.
It is hard to see you culture as superior when so many jobs are being shipped abroad. Yet, if we can extrapolate out from the Pew poll, nearly half the nation still seems to manage it. How do they do it? Here are some suggestions:
1. Displacing a sense of powerless. Whether you are the victim or it is your neighbor, one just doesn’t know what to do about the situation. But it helps to believe that, even though jobless, you live in a great country, the power and traditions of which assure that you are better off than some worker in an Indonesian sweatshop turning out upscale Nikes. Holding on to that thought, many of the displaced buck up and start looking for other, usually less lucrative, work. Some of them may also take to beating up their kids or spouses when frustrations of the job search run high.
2. Dealing with cognitive dissonance. One has two contradictory concepts in one’s head at once (the U.S. is the greatest show on earth vs. too many of our jobs are being exported, contributing to the fact that a lot of us are getting poorer) and it is uncomfortable. So one naturally tries to reconcile the problem. For instance, you can tell yourself that the dichotomy is temporary and will disappear after a period of economic adjustment. Or, this is a great opportunity to get retrained for a position better than the one you just lost (ignoring the fact that the effectiveness of retraining programs is now being called into question).
3. The phenomenon of volunteering. For those who have lost their jobs but retain enough of a pension or savings to live on (usually an older crowd hovering around retirement age) one can take solace in the world of volunteers. Actually, this is a pattern of work which allows a lot of non-profit, and some for profit businesses as well, to get free labor. So the worker ends up doing for free what he or she should rightly be paid for–particularly in an avidly capitalist society like ours. It is a cockeyed sort of situation, but it does allow many older, displaced workers, to salvage some self-esteem even while they are exploited.
Part IV – Conclusion
Most often our lives are too narrowly focused to allow us to understand the larger economic and political forces impacting us. We know our local area, we know the work we do (or did), and we know what those in leadership positions tell us. But all of this knowledge turns out to be inadequate when we are hit by debilitating social change. Then most of us feel helpless and passively resign ourselves to what we consider fate, or perhaps God’s will.
We are trained from childhood to behave like this. Remember temper tantrums? When our children throw them they soon learn that it doesn’t work. As adults we seem to have carried over the lessen. Relatively small numbers of us do occasionally loudly protest our situation, but with rare exceptions what do we learn? It doesn’t work. Perhaps we should try harder.
The ideals of capitalism, so ardently believed in, turn out to be false except for (as the current saying goes) the fortunate 1%. And those of nationalism? They too are drilled into our heads from childhood. But, alas, they cannot substitute for one’s supper.
I Come November
Soon it will be presidential voting time again in the U.S.. That four year cycle comes to us with the regularity of a returning comet, accompanied by a shroud of campaign fog that makes a guessing game of discerning fact from fiction when it comes to political promises.
A hefty minority have opted out of this process. Thus, if history runs consistent, when the designated day in November arrives between 38 and 40% of Americas eligible voters will automatically (that is without even thinking about it) stay away from the polls. Voting appears not to be part of their local culture: they obviously do not think the results touch them in a personal way, they feel their vote is meaningless, and they see the candidates as irredeemable liars not to be taken seriously. The behavior of this minority is not in doubt.
However, there is yet another group of eligible voters whose actions in November are in doubt. These are people who are regular voters, but are now so put off by their usual party candidate that they find it difficult to support him. They may either not vote at all or cast a vote for a minor third party. Back in 2000 and again in 2005, when George W. Bush, Jr. stood for election, a good number of moderate Republicans suffered a voting dilemma of this sort. Seeing the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller (whatever we on the left might think of these folks) taken over by a proven neo-con screwball like Bush, Jr. must have made many of them hesitate to vote in their usual fashion. Maybe that is what made the elections so close that only a series of fraudulent maneuvers got George W. elected.
This year an unknown number of progressive Democrats might feel they are facing a similar dilemma. The level of disappointment with Barack Obama among progressives is palpable. He has carried on his predecessors attack on civil liberties, bailed out the banks instead of jailing the bankers, failed to fight for a public option to healthcare, kowtowed to the Zionists, and used drones to kill (mostly) civilians. That is just a partial list of complaints. One can counterbalance this with a list of good things that Obama has done (withdrew from Iraq, endorsed gay marriage, restored stem cell research, etc.), or argue that at least some of the bad things were a consequence of Republican roadblocks. Still, for those on the progressive end of the Democratic spectrum, Obama is a profound disappointment.
Part II What To Do?
So what do you do? Seek out the Green Party and vote for its candidate, Jill Stein, or boycott the polls altogether? Are such responses to the voting dilemma good ideas?
Well, lets take a look at recent history. Robert Parry of Consortiumnews.com explored this question by looking at the presidential election of 1968. In that year, amidst a worsening war in Viet Nam, Democratic president Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection. There was strong progressive support for the partys anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, but his candidacy failed on the Democratic convention floor and the party nominated Johnsons Vice President, Hubert Humphreya man who was closely identified with the war effort. His Republican rival would be Richard Nixon, a duplicitous and dishonest fellow who was also paranoid and egocentric to a fault. Prior to the election Nixon had secretly encouraged the South Vietnamese not to join in Johnsons efforts to open peace negotiations with North Vietnam. After the election he would expand the war into Laos and Cambodia. Ultimately, Nixon self-destructed with the Watergate scandal.
Parry interviewed Sam Brown, a prominent progressive of that time who served as Eugene McCarthys Youth Coordinator. When Humphrey became the Democratic candidate and refused to disown an increasingly disastrous war, Brown and those like him faced their voting dilemma. Humphreys supporters sought to bring these progressives back into the fold by arguing, Humphrey is a good guy, trust us. That went over like a lead balloon and the Democrats lost an unknown number of antiwar voters. Perhaps Nixon would have won anyway, but the situation certainly hurt Humphreys chances for election. Today, Sam Brown is not proud of the fact that in 1968 he cast his ballot for a minor third-party candidate as a throwaway vote. He sees his action as a de facto assist to Nixons campaign
Part III Some Guidance
Brown has his own personal history to look back at and that helps shape his present perspective. Not everyone has this experiential background, nor do many bother to research the past for guidance in a moment of present and personal political crisis. Given this situation it maybe a better approach to consider a few questions that might help resolve the voting dilemma.
1. Is our choice between a candidate motivated by ideology and one motivated by political pragmatism?
A. For instance, when George W. Bush, Jr. was elected, the nation got a president motivated by a mixture of aggressive ideologies. He was/is a Christian fundamentalist, a free market deregulator, a neo-con warmonger, and a government minimalist. These orientations often superceded pragmatic politics and led Bush, Jr. to resist compromise. You could put a million people on the mall in Washington, D.C. to shout their disagreement with his policies and he would just dismiss them as a focus group. Were his Democratic political opponents similar? Or were they more pragmatic politicians open to influence and pressure from various constituencies, including progressives? How do Romney and Obama compare in this regard?
2. What is the probability of a candidate taking the country into another war?
A. For instance, presidents such as Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush Jr. were quite willing to lie through their teeth in order to involve the country in foreign wars of dubious legitimacy. Lyndon Johnson made his misleading Tonkin Gulf speech to Congress which led to the Resolution that expanded the U.S. presence in South Vietnam. Reagan was constantly at war, directly or indirectly, in Central America, the Carribean and the Middle East and most Americans did not even know it until 241 U.S. marines died in Beirut and the Iran-Contra Affair broke in the press. Bush Jr. and his advisers, of course, manufactured the intelligence which justified the invasion of Iraq.
B. Barack Obama ended American occupation of Iraq only to shift resources to Afghanistan. He has set a deadline for withdrawal from the Afghan morass even as he escalates the use of drone warfare. While pushing damaging sanctions against Iran, he has so far resisted pressure to attack that country, or openly support Israeli ambitions to do so.
C. Romney has pledged to follow the lead of Israel when it comes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and there is no doubt that Israeli leaders dream of fighting Iran with U.S. support. Also, there is the fact that Romneys foreign policy advisers are some of the same neo-conservatives who served George W.
So, given a choice between Romney and Obama, which one is more likely to attack Iran? Remember, the question addresses probabilities. Either candidate, if elected, may or may not do so, but which one appears more likely to go to war?
3. What is the probability of either candidate taking seriously issues of social justice?
A. Again, there is no guarantee either way, but is one of the candidates apparently more inclined to support such issues? Here, statements on record favor Obama when it comes to womens concerns, to the poor, to the healthcare crisis, to gay rights, and the like?
B. Which one will protect civil liberties? Probably neither will.
Part IV Defining the Act of Voting
The list of questions given above is far from complete. For instance, an important consideration is whether such a list should include the perceived personal consequences of giving or withholding support? Do I commit some sort of moral breech if I vote for someone I have come to disrespect? Well, it depends on how you see the very act of casting a vote. Is it an act that refers to you as an individual, or to you as a member of a community?
If it is the former, it is your self-image that is at stake. You have to take a stand and live with yourself thereafter. If it is the latter, it is your concern for the fate of the community that is primary. That orientation may lead you away from thinking in terms of moral positions. Instead, it may lead you to accept the need for compromise. Either way you act, you run the real risk of dissatisfaction. Like Sam Brown, you might live to regret a decision that felt right at the time. Or, you might vote for the candidate you believe will do the least harm to your community, and have to live with a nagging sense of cognitive dissonance.
Part V Conclusion
This analysis has not been written to tell anyone what to do. Instead, it is an effort to clarify a real life issue that simply does not have an easy answer. As of yet, I am not sure what I will do. However, it has crossed my mind that, if I do decide to vote for President Obama, I will enter the polling station with a clothespin on my nose.
Post Script: Richard John Stapleton, in a short piece entitled Voting: Duty, Privilege or Right? discusses growing support for a Voters Rights Amendment (USVRA) to the Constitution that [among other things] deprives corporations of constitutional rights and denies the equation of campaign donations and free speech. More details are available at www.usvra.us.