Thursday, October 08, 2015

There, but for the grace of God, go I

"When I give food to the poor, I'm called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I'm called a communist." -Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.

America claims to be a Christian nation yet the very un-Christian trend is in vogue these days of snottily looking down on folks who aren't in great situations. It's hard for me to express how much this angers me.
We assume by default that they deserve their misfortune because they are lazy or dumb or made a bad decision at some point in their life or are otherwise less decent than our flawless selves.
I was raised in a Catholic household and was taught to be humble and empathetic toward those who were in less favorable situations than myself. And this chart shows why. There's a very good chance that at some point, that person in economic difficulty may well be you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bernie Sanders' supporters should listen to Bernie Sanders

A few days ago, I published a piece called The Liberal Savior Fantasy, which criticized the lack of political awareness of Bernie Sanders' supporters. It stated that the problem of corporate control of government could not be solved by any president alone, not even Sanders and that a Sanders' candidacy MUST be complemented by a broader movement beyond a cult of personality.

You know who would agree with this sentiment?

Bernie Sanders.

"The reality of Washington, D.C., today is that we have one party, the Republican Party, completely dominated by big money and right wing folks. And you have another party, the Democratic Party, too much controlled by corporate money ... We have no president  that can deal with that. Unless we mobilize the American people and create a strong grass-roots movement that says enough is enough, the billionaire class cannot have it all."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The liberal savior fantasy

Liberals have been getting the rear ends kicked by conservatives (certainly on economics) for the last 35 years. They naively and desperately seek 'our only hope' every few years, rather than trying to build a real movement that doesn't rely on the coming of the Messiah of the Moment.

First, it was Bill, then Barack, now Bernie. They keep making the same mistake and then wonder why things keep moving in the wrong direction. 

I like much of what Bernie Sanders espouses. I really do... unless/until he endorses Hillary, when he becomes persona non grata.

But what happens if Bernie does manage to get elected? He'll facing a Congress controlled by GOP and corporate Democrats that will stymie any real changes he wants to make.
Bernie by himself isn't going to do squat. Elect a bunch of Greens to Congress that share much of his agenda and will push it and then you might have something. 

People who use the (quite amateurish, if you ask me) #FeelTheBern hashtag act as though this is some incidental sidebar. They adhere to the imperial presidency model.

Electing progressive Greens to Congress not is not incidental. It's integral to any chance the progressive economic agenda has of actually being implemented. If the Democrats were interested in this, they would've done it when they controlled the presidency and 59% of both houses of Congress... the most power any party had in 50 years.

But liberals have long proven too lazy to do the hard work. They smugly prefer being right far more than trying to ensure that right actually be done. I'll be thrilled to be proven wrong. I don't for one second believe it will happen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The abortion debate is about controlling women

The conservative movement is neither pro-life nor anti-abortion. It’s about controlling women.
If it were pro-life, it wouldn’t so lustily support various forms of state murder such as capital punishment and wars of aggression.
If it were anti-abortion, it wouldn’t so strongly oppose contraception (which is Planned Parenthood’s main service) because fewer unwanted pregnancies means fewer abortions.
But contraception permits women to have sex for pleasure, which goes against the religious fundamentalists’ beliefs - be they Christian, Muslim or otherwise - that the primary role of women on this Earth is to be baby factories and then caregivers to those objects (whose quality of life becomes irrelevant after birth).

Monday, August 03, 2015

Glens Falls daily continues its death spiral

Here’s a headline you won’t read in the paper: Post-Star jacks up newsstand price by 50%.


Yes, the Glens Falls daily is now charging $1.50 for its daily product. I assume the Sunday paper, with its extra fluff and higher price, will face a similar price rise.


I was told by people I know that the paper yanked up their home delivery rates pretty significantly earlier in the year. The people cancelled their subscription after about 40 years of uninterrupted service.


Why doesn’t the Post-Star follow the advice it dispenses from its high horse to municipalities, counties and school districts. Just tighten your belt, mark hard choices and cut the fat, rather than jacking up what you charge. They make it sound so easy. Lead by example.


Your paid readership is shrinking so you jack up rates by 50%. The technical term for this is a death spiral.

I spent the last week in northern New York. Reading the Massena-Potsdam Courrier-Observer, I was struck by the fact that it contained virtually no wire service copy, aside from one or two sports items. It was almost entirely local content.

This unique content that can't be found for free in 100 other places is exactly what a newspaper in the 2015 media landscape should focus on if it wants people to pay money for its product.


But there’s no reason to think we can expect such forward thinking – really no more than common sense and a little bit of openness to change - with the Post-Star’s current senior management.

After all, I wrote almost the same essay five years ago.



Saturday, August 01, 2015

Fast food workers face the wrath of elitist snobs

"When I give food to the poor, I'm called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I'm called a communist." -Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.

You can have reasonable arguments about whether minimum wage for fast food workers should be set at $15 an hour. I get it. But what disgusts me is the elitist snobbery and condescension toward fast food workers I see.
If the response to this increase were simply "$15 is too high" or "let the market set the rate", I could deal with that. That's fair game for debate. If the response were "the minimum wage for everyone should be $15, not just fast food workers," that'd be fine too.
Instead, the response I'm seeing far too often is that if you're older than 25 and working in fast food, you're a loser, an idiot and a piece of shit and you deserve whatever you get.
I was raised in a Catholic household. I was taught that all work was valuable, so long as it didn't involve harming others. 
Maybe having a work ethic is old-fashioned. Maybe it's more in vogue to say that you won't accept any job for under $40,000 a year and that you'll leech off the system until you do. I think that attitude wrong and I think it's right to incentivize work.
I also keep hearing people constantly bitching about people who'd rather stay on welfare rather than getting off their butts and working. So what happens when people DO get off their butts and work? Are they praised for contributing to society and not leeching off the system? No. They are treated like pieces of garbage if they work at the 'wrong' job.
You people on your high horses should be ashamed of yourselves. I know we live in a nasty, judgmental society but respect and basic human decency go a long way.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Red Cross scandal, reconstruction/development and NGOs

PBS Newshour did a segment on an NPR/Pro Publica investigation into the American Red Cross' activities following the Haiti earthquake of 2011. According to the report, the Red Cross only built six homes in the country despite raising over $500,000,000. The Red Cross cited Haitian government red tape but the journalists pointed out that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with far fewer resources built far more houses.

A couple of personal observations about NGOs based on my experience. Bear in mind, these are general, not absolute.

-Immediate disaster relief is significantly different than medium- and long-term development or reconstruction. The former is pretty straight forward, the latter far less so.

-In medium- and long-term development or reconstruction, smaller is usually better; it's probably not an accident that smaller NGOs did a lot more in Haiti. National, rather than international, NGOs are more likely to be staffed by natives who actually know how to navigate their country's bureaucracy, speak its languages, relate to its people, culture and needs, etc. Because of this, they have more of a stake in the success of the programs and are more likely to be effective. This may make it harder for well-meaning foreigners to identify such NGOs and requires a bit more knowledge and research.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

The 'two-party system' is a Stockholm Syndrome

The so-called two party system is so corrupt that even the body charged with regulating the minimal campaign finance rules has given up hope of forcing the two parties and their candidates of respecting the law. 

It still mystifies me why this system, which is a myth perpetuated by the corporate media and academics, has such a hold on the voters it works so hard to stick it to.


Friday, May 01, 2015

Baltimore charges help civilized society fight impunity

I’ve read a lot of snotty memes this week supporting impunity. If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen them: the pictures of black (always all black) men rioting with wording along the lines of “if you don’t want to be killed by police, then all you have to do is not break the law.”

I’m sure the people sharing these memes are saints of the law who have never texted while driving or gone 1 mph above 65 on the highway.

Not surprisingly, this was shown to be untrue. Today, the Baltimore prosecutor announced that Freddie Gray didn’t actually commit any crime, before he was arrested and died in police custody.

According to her, his very arrest was illegal in the first place. And that's before his alleged murder.

With charges including second degree murder against thearresting officers, I applaud the prosecutor for striking a blow against impunity by forcing the accused to answer for their actions before the justice system.

Impunity has no place in a civilized society. As this week’s riots illustrated, when law enforcement acts like the law doesn’t apply to them, it makes their job harder by giving license to everyone else to act the same way.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Low wages costs everyone money

A recent study by the University of California-Berkeley has two interesting revelations.

-3/4 of all people receiving public assistance belong to a working family

-And that public assistance to these working families costs taxpayers $153 billion a year

That means when employers pay terrible wages to their workers that they cannot live on, we the taxpayers make up the difference.

And this did not merely happen out of nowhere.

Democrats have spent the last 25 years selling out to corporate interests. Republicans, for their part, represented those interests long before that.

With both  major parties owned by the One Percent, it's inevitable that people who worked for a living would get screwed.

Now you know why I'm a Green. Big Money has two parties representing it. Don't working people deserve at least one?

Monday, April 06, 2015

Why 'Never Again' happened again

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here..

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide during which at least 800,000 people were murdered. It was one of the world's worst atrocities of the century and certainly the worst to be covered during the age of cable news television. It occurred a year, almost to the week, after politicians and dignitaries in Washington solemnly promised 'Never again' while inaugurating the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 2004, I wrote a long series of essays on the occasion of the 10th anniversary which gave a lot of information and background about the genocide.

They are as follows (yes, I know the images do not work):

-Ten years later (an intro)
-Pre-genocide history
-How the genocide unfolded
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 1)
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 2)
-The genocide's orphans
-Hate media and their role in the genocide
-International law and American law on genocide
-Post-genocide justice
-The post-genocide government
-Lessons and conclusions

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.