Sunday, March 01, 2015

Happy birthday Peace Corps!

Today is national Peace Corps Day. In 2004, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medieval saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the 54th anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's the antithesis. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development.

Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive no further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, some themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.

-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.

-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.

-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.

-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.

-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.

-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.

Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa, as I did, are as follows:

-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"

-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.

-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.

-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."

-Elegies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.

-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.

-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.

-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.

(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)

The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.

Update: Just a reminder that in the history of the Peace Corps, 296 men and women have died in service, at least one in every year (except 1986) that the Peace Corps has existed. A website has been devoted to them.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why Obamacare is not achieving its name

This segment on WAMC's Roundtable offers a good explanation of why the “Affordable Care Act” has done little to make health care more affordable. Lots of people in the industry have made out like bandits in recent years. Spoiler alert: those who actually treat patients – doctors and nurses – are not among them.

Journalist Steven Brill, author of  America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System, points out that “not-for-profit” hospitals have higher profit margins than the for-profit ones.

Brill offers a great anecdote of him presenting an explanation of benefits letter to the CEO of his health insurance company and the CEO being unable to explain what it means. This is not what happens in any kind of rational industry.

Until we decide to implement Medicare for All, which removes the profit-motive for those who are nothing but money changers, our sick care system will be a mess.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The bipartisan rogues gallery of Albany

This is a recap of recent developments in New York's legislature.

The Democratic Assembly speaker has been indicted for a massive bribes and kickback scheme.

The Republican leader of the Senate is under investigation, also for his outside sources of income.

The Republican deputy leader of the Senate has been indicted for lying to the FBI.

Every living former Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader has been indicted, all for financial crimes.

So how has that "lesser of two evils" voting strategy working out?

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." -Benjamin Franklin.

If you're tired of the insanity, check out the Green Party of New York. Or if you're so inclined, the Libertarian Party of New York. These are the only two organized alternatives in this state to the two corporate parties.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dr. King's real dream: dignity for all

Below is my annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day essay. Those who turn Dr. King into some sort of saccharine saint, as being solely about government equality under law for all skin colors, trivialize his struggle. He was about that, but about much more than that. His struggle was about the dignity of human beings, in the broadest sense. This New York Times essay says it best: Martin Luther King Jr. Would Want a Revolution, Not a Memorial. My essay Confrontation is central to human rights movements explores another misrepresented aspect of Dr. King.


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.

King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.

King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.

This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.

During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.

Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.

King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.

(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)

To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.

He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:

We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Everyone law-abiding benefits when police wear cameras

I had an essay planned about the slaying of an unarmed Michael Brown by a Ferguson, MO police officer, the hypermilitarized repression of peaceful protesters by the Ferguson "police department," against peaceful protesters, the apparent Omerta surrounding Brown’s killer and his colleagues and the disgusting character assassination of Brown by that department. But it’s going to take a while to put that essay together and I’m not sure when I’ll have time.
Right now, we don’t know what happened. Brown is dead. The Ferguson PD has little credibility left, for reasons which extend far beyond Brown’s killing. Brown himself is not alive to give his side of the story. Brown’s killing is a great illustration of why law enforcement members should wear cameras, at least while on patrol. Then we would know what REALLY happened.
Some departments do and their use has been shown to reduce incidents of conflicts between police and citizens, presumably because both know they’re being watched and recorded.
It’s a shame that many police and sheriff departments  resist this. It offers a layer of protection to the good cops (which is most of them) and provides video evidence to help ensure anyone who assaults them is convicted. 
Unfortunately, the reputation of all cops – including the good ones – is harmed when bad cops get away with crimes. When good cops reflexively oppose accountability for bad ones, it sends a message that they feel their profession is above the law. This tarnishes them all.
Any time any Muslim anywhere in the world does something bad, every Muslim in America is expected to immediately stop what they’re doing and immediately denounce it. Anyone who doesn’t – say because they have ordinary lives to live or because they don’t feel that every Muslim acts in the name of all Islam – is automatically denounced as sympathetic to terror, guilty by association. But most Muslims in America went out of their way to denounce the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks as a perversion of Islam.
The situation in Ferguson is a pretty significant event. And it’d help their own credibility if police organizations came out in favor of the increased transparency in their own ranks that wearing cameras would bring.

Monday, August 11, 2014

How to talk about suicide

In the wake of Robin Williams' death, suicide hotline interventionist Hollis Easter wrote a really important piece about how to talk to people who may have suicidal thoughts. Please take a few minutes to read it here.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Four things you should never say to a non-car owner

Not owning a car is a very non-conformist decision in most of America. Here are four things you shouldn't say to someone who's made that choice.

1) "Have you ever considered getting a car? I can't imagine not having one." 
Seriously? Any licensed driver in the US has spent many years living in this car-obsessed culture whose infrastructure is designed almost exclusively for motor vehicle. They've spent years navigating an infrastructure designed to ignore pedestrians and bicyclists and is, in many places, outright hostile to them. Do you seriously think it hasn't crossed their mind? Is it possible that they do a cost-benefit analysis every so often and conclude that it just doesn't make sense to them? Oh and by the way, you're not the only person in the world. Just because you can't imagine not having a car doesn't mean others can't and don't make it happen. You don't condescend to me about having to biking in the rain once in a while and I won't say anything when you're bitching about how much you spend to fill up your gas tank. Deal?

2) "I'd love to not have a car but (insert 20 reasons why they do)." 

I say this with the deepest respect: No one cares. You don't have to explain your personal decisions to me, so long as you don't expect me to explain mine to you. You obviously feel a little guilty about it or else you wouldn't have felt the need to go out of your way to justify yourself. But unless you want the non-car owner to help you figure out how to change it, don't bother me with it. Not interested. Unless the non-car owner is a priest; then maybe he can absolve you.

3) "Oh you're finally getting a car? Congratulations!"
If a long time non-car owner who finally gets a car, there's a good chance he's doing so reluctantly. Besides, it's silly to congratulate him over something like this. It's not like it's splitting the atom.

4) "Oh you're finally getting a car? Don't do that. It's (20 reasons why it's a bad idea)."
Please see 1) and 3). If he's doing so reluctantly, this comment will make him feel like crap. And again, do you think he hasn't seriously considered the pros and cons?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Uruguay president's comments a slap in the face to the poor

It wouldn't be a soccer World Cup without controversy. This year's tournament in Brazil has been marked by an incident where Uruguayan star Luis Suarez appears to have bitten the Italian Giorgio Chiellini. The international governing body FIFA suspended Suarez for 9 international matches plus 4 months from all soccer activities. It's worth noting that this is the THIRD time Suarez has been charged with biting an opponent since 2010.

Many critics said the punishment was too lenient, for a third time offender. Others in including controversial former Argentine great Diego Maradona, Chiellini himself and, predictably, virtually all Uruguayans felt the sanction was too harsh.

Not surprisingly, Uruguayan president Jose Mujica weighed in. He stated: "We feel that there is an aggression against those who come from poverty. They don't forgive that he didn't go to university. He doesn't have an education."

The leftist Pres. Mujica is internationally known for being the world's poorest president (donating 90% of his salary to charity) and for successfully pushing the legalization of marijuana. I generally have a fairly high regard for him.

But his comments, however understandable in terms of political populism and pandering, are off the mark and his defense of one of the members of The 0.1% does a disservice to those who live in poverty. In most of the world, soccer is the game of the poor and working class. There is no place in the world where biting an opponent isn't considered beyond the pale.

I lived in West Africa and played soccer there as often as I could. I lived in a place where the poverty was far greater than anything you see in Uruguay. In games, I saw people argue, sometimes heatedly. I saw shoving matches and finger pointing and remonstrations. I think I even saw a fist fight. I never saw anything remotely like a person biting another.

In fact, when I lived in West Africa, another famous sports biting incident occurred, that of boxer Evander Holyfield by Mike Tyson. The reaction of poor West African subsistence to this incident was not understanding for Tyson's background or compassion for his poor, misunderstood self but disgust. The universal reaction there was that he was "an animal." And Tyson only did it once.

Pres. Mujica's comments about Suarez, now one of the richest soccer players in the world, are a slap in the face. His contention is that the poor express themselves differently than the rich, that they can't control themselves. His contention is that when poor people get pissed off, it's normal that they express sociopathic behavior like biting. That the poor are teeming rabble who need to be controlled is the message he's sending. Surely without realizing it, he is pandering to, not countering, stereotypes of the poor by the elite. As a real champion of the poor, he can find a better way to defend his country's multimillionaire soccer hero.

Update: Typical of the understated reaction came from Uruguay captain Diego Lugano. He described the suspension of Suarez as "an act of barbarity" and "a breach of human rights."