Monday, March 23, 2009

Where is Aretha when we need her?!

I began this entry in response to yet another drive-by email spewing political drivel from a distant family member who has never made an effort to ask my personal life philosophy, and realized I am addressing a much larger issue – a growing lack of respect for the ideals and sensibilities of others. Society once decreed that politics and religion were off limits for discussion in polite society. No need to cause offense over such personal and possibly inflammatory topics. Save the divisive rhetoric for a gathering of known like-minded individuals.

Not any longer. My email box is full of political rants of every ilk from people I haven’t had a serious discussion with in years – why do they assume I share their often narrow-minded view of the world? Just spew screeds out to the widest audience possible – usually their entire address book – and hurry on to the next rant. No debate, no exchange of ideas, no wondering if maybe they have insulted a recipient or two along the way…or even questioning if the latest politico they quoted even has their facts straight.

And political commentary is second only to the sermons which so many family and friends feel the need to distribute. I realize their version of Jesus called them to proselytize, and I confess to having been guilty of such impositions in my much younger evangelical days, but why does a polite “No, thank you” not suffice to cut off such misguided efforts? I don’t push my beliefs onto others, insisting they follow my ideals. I have learned from my past mistakes; I suppose I am also learning that many others do not. Living by example is far more effective at making a point than lecturing or dispensing propaganda, but it gets harder every day when my own sensibilities are repeatedly trampled by the oblivious or uncaring.

Which brings me back to respect for others. Rather than seeking not to offend, society now seems bent on dividing, on highlighting differences, on supposedly celebrating diversity, yet all the while insisting on some vague ‘right’ to impose what should be personal life choices on others. I don’t expect everyone to share my beliefs or opinions; what a dull world that would be! But calm, rational discussions have become passé. Talk radio and 24-hour sensationalized news cycles thrive on disagreement, not consensus. And that discordant bent has filtered into the offices and living rooms and email boxes of every one of us.

Nearly all wisdom literature in the world contains some version of the Golden Rule, treat others as you expect to be treated, first do no harm, but organized religion almost uniformly, and politics most definitely, seeks first to promote a narrow, often xenophobic agenda before looking to the broader picture of the common good. That’s all I ask from the world at large. From family and friends, I ask that they actually take an interest in my thoughts and life experiences before assuming I share their opinions. It’s how I treat them. I would no more send a political commentary I found insightful to my mother (whose conservative bent clashes severely with my more moderate/liberal stance) than I would share my support for the gay community with others in my life who put religion before compassion.

It would be marvelous to have serious discussions on important topics with people I love and respect, but few in my circle seem open to such possibilities. Those who share my desire for honest, open, respectful debate are cherished – and are far too few.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Empire building, greed, thirst for oil, misplaced media-stoked fear of those who are different, Western superiority complex – whatever the true motivation, one can only look with wonder on an individual, or a nation, which exerts the kind of arrogance displayed by the United States in such historical proportion since the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The country’s collective, “How dare they?!” launched itself against first Afghanistan and then Iraq in a blinding fury that overlooked not only any reasonable justification for such action, but any discernable goal as well. The bogey of terrorism and the oft-trumpeted weapons of mass destruction were effective smokescreens which allowed the U.S. military machine to invade sovereign nations in a supposedly defensive posture. The saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,” variously attributed to people from Samuel Adams to Ronald Reagan, holds true; it all depends on which side of the battle one stands. Rather than admitting that the 9/11 attackers may have reasonable grievances against Western nations, President Bush grouped their alleged homelands in a tenuous “axis of evil” that we needed to destroy. This makes about as much sense as attacking the state of New York after the Oklahoma bombings because Timothy McVeigh was born there, yet such illogical reasoning has served the White House well for eight years.

Now we are mired in Iraq, in a nation devastated economically, structurally and politically by our sadly misguided efforts to save them from themselves, and to impose democracy. Western interests have consistently ignored the lessons of history showing that democracy cannot be asserted from the top down, it must grow from the people up to their chosen form of government. In Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, the reconstruction effort’s senior advisor for higher education, John Agresto, states:
Freedom, democracy and rights are not magic words. The transfer of sovereignty will bring about some form of ‘democracy.’ But a liberal democracy, with real notions of liberty and equality and open opportunity – without strongmen,, or
sectarian or sectional opposition – well, I think that’s doubtful (321)

Saddam Hussein was no better, and no worse, than countless other autocrats throughout the world. Under his rule, Iraqis had food, jobs, education, electricity, and healthcare. In a review of a draft report “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” to be issued by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, New York Times columnists James Glanze and T. Christian Miller note that:
And by the time of the security improvements in 2007 and 2008, electricity output had, at best, a precarious 10 percent lead on its levels under Saddam Hussein; oil production was still below prewar levels; and access to potable
water had increased by about 30 percent, although with Iraq’s ruined piping
system it was unclear how much reached people’s homes uncontaminated. (4)

“How can we care about democracy now when we don’t even have electricity?” an unemployed oil engineer asks Chandrasekaran (174). But as the author points out, sadly and eloquently, in his depressing indictment of the occupation of Iraq, what the people of the country wanted and needed was not the measuring stick of progress. The ruling Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and D.C.-appointed Viceroy L. Paul Bremer were more concerned with sending favorable reports back to the White House, particularly during the campaign years, than with any tangible improvements in the lives of the people they were supposed to help. From the beginning, the rebuilding teams (rebuilding what we bombed and destroyed, in large part), lived in almost total isolation from the neighboring city. Saddam’s Republican Palace and the gated riverfront Green Zone became a “Little America,” where the staff lived in a “bubble” which allowed them to continue to believe their efforts were necessary, accurate and productive while the “real Baghdad,” full of decay and debris and the lingering odor of explosives, was just beyond the Hesco barriers and concrete slabs which protected the conclave.

How could such arrogance prevail in the face of dissonant reality for so long? Political pressure from home was intense. In a statement eerily reminiscent of Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” banner, on June 28, 2004, the CPA announced the end of American occupation of Iraq and theoretically ceded authority to the fledgling Iraqi government. The reconstruction forces held a celebratory wrap-party and departed, confident in their success. They left behind a devastated country in the throes of an unacknowledged (in the West) civil and religious war which is still blamed on an isolated insurgency.

The money spent on the CPA’s less than effective work is staggering. According to Glanze and Miller, “By mid-2008, the history says, $117 billion had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including some $50 billion in United States taxpayer money” (1). Chandrasekaran and “Hard Lessons” both cite the lack of organized preparation for the vast undertaking needed to complete the reconstruction efforts, as well as continued ignorance – intentional or simply misguided – of the needs of the Iraqi people. The CPA and Western forces repeatedly “missed opportunities” and “neglected the big picture” in favor of glowing reports for the White House and the U.S. media (Chandrasekaran 278, 314; Glanze 2).

The saddest part of that “big picture” is the number of lives, American coalition and Iraqi, which have been ruined by this ill-fated effort at empire building. U.S. headlines are just beginning to report on the long-term issues faced by returning soldiers, from physical challenges due to combat injuries, to mental and emotional trauma. The loss of life on both sides is nearly incalculable, as the numbers depend on who is doing the reporting. CBS News reports the number of U.S. Iraqi war dead surpassed the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attacks (2,973, with some 6,200 injured) on September 2, 2006, while a Department of Defense count of American casualties in Iraq stands at 4,200 confirmed dead and 30,871 wounded as of December 6, 2008. Documented Iraqi civilian deaths have reached 98,000; the number of wounded does not appear to be available.

As Chandrasekaran points out, many of the Iraqi youth are driven to join the insurgency out of anger at Western occupation, dire economic straits, and fear. It would seem we are adding to the number of “terrorists” as quickly as we are killing them. But the arrogance continues and Washington continues to insist we are winning…something.

Our Western show of superiority and strength in the Middle East has done nothing to quell the stealthy work of terrorists, however they may be defined. We continue to profile airline passengers and strangers on the street; we dutifully take off our shoes to board a plane; we cede more and more civil rights to a Department of Homeland Security that is not even secure in its own operations. As Jean Baudrillard notes in his essay “The Spirit of Terrorism,” the Other must change the rules in order to win against overwhelming military might, and they have done so. In our arrogance, we just refuse to admit it.

It seems the only hope that remains of escaping from Iraq, or any other formless “war on terror,” is as expressed in Daniel Alacón’s Lost City Radio: “What does the end of a war mean if not that one side ran out of men willing to die?” he asks. “When enough of them died, it was finished” (40, 155). If only the arrogance could die with them.

December 15, 2008

Class matters more than society cares to admit

Reading the New York Times publication Class Matters was disturbing, and all too familiar. In it, the correspondents who spent over a year researching class in America offered facts, figures and faces to support my long-held contention that what they term “income inequality” is the overriding class division in a country that denies the existence of such superficial demarcations. Their work reminds me just how trapped I am in my futile efforts to improve financially.

People who have money (enough to pay average living expenses, maybe take a real vacation now and then) have little concept what it is like to have none. Unemployment and a lack of financial savvy can take a lifetime to overcome, if ever – no cash, no credit, no assets, no real possibility of ever reaching even, much less get ahead. The well-off take for granted the ability to buy a new car ("But the interest rates are so low!") or a house ("You don't even need a down payment!"). Ever try buying a car with a lousy credit rating? A used car purchase two years ago came, with difficulty, at 17.73%; prior to that, in 2000 a loan for a 1997 Pontiac came with a usurious 23.95% interest rate. I suppose that is progress. Our income covers usually covers those little things like rent, food, utilities, insurance, and trying to help two good kids finish college so they don't end up financially hopeless like their parents. No cruises, Disney vacations, or designer clothes for this family. And we'll spend our lives working to pay Uncle Sam for the privilege of being Americans, where the only ones who get ahead are the ones who are born with money or who don't play by the rules.

Class Matters reiterates many of my frustrations and fears, and solidifies my belief that such fears are justified and insurmountable. Unlike many others, I don’t strive to be independently wealthy, although that would be nice; I only seek a level of security in knowing my living expenses can be met each month. We live simply, but never earn enough to overcome the limitations inflicted by our economic class. The various vignettes offered in this collection graphically depict how those financial disparities cast a shadow over every aspect of life: community and family structure, educational opportunities, access to health care, and longevity itself. Erik Eckholm refers to these inherent penalties as the “Ghetto Tax” in his 2006 article from the New York Times. It shows that my experiences with higher insurance premiums and exorbitant interest rates are not unique; rather, they are the price we pay for not being financially privileged.

Joan Didion raises some of these issues in “Sentimental Journeys,” noting the overemphasized alarms of crime which are raised to hide the true issues of poverty and injustice. However, she is quick lay the blame for society’s ills at the feet of racism; on this I disagree. In October 2006, I wrote a letter to the editor of Ode Magazine in response to an end piece, “One Last Thing” by sociologist Dalton Conley which called for slavery reparations. I noted my strong belief that “economic inequality and lack of opportunity are not predicated on skin color”:

My five-great-grandfather and his young family traveled by river barge, wagon and on foot from North Carolina (USA) to the newly-opened Northwest Territory in the early 1800s in search of a better life…My grandfather’s parents were sharecroppers in Ohio, the white trash slaves of the early 1900s. When Grandpa died, he left us the family Bible, a Civil War long rifle, and loving memories – not the “passing on of assets” and “lifetime wealth accumulation” Conley asserts as our expected “gifts.” None of my ancestors ever received 40 acres and mule, much less the economic benefits he takes as a given for American whites.

Did blacks suffer under slavery in the early days of this country, while many whites prospered? Of course they did, as did the Native Americans, the Chinese, Irish, Polish and Italians – any immigrant (forced or otherwise) or minority culture which did not fit the image of an emerging national identity. Easily exploited populations will always suffer at the hands of unscrupulous individuals, no matter what their skin color.

Economic disparity is not a matter of race; it is a matter of social class, as ignored a topic as that is in these United States. We do not all have an equal opportunity to succeed when we start from such uneven beginnings, but it is because of the power of the almighty dollar, not skin color.

Conley concludes by noting, “Money is the best predictor of becoming successful in life, getting a good education and a good job.” I will be paying off student loans for myself, and for my children, with whatever Social Security benefits are left in 20 years. That is my legacy. “It takes money to make money,” Conley says. He’s right, and that applies to us all, not just the ancestors of slaves.

The one, over-arching reason for discrimination has always been, and always will be, money. Money equals power. If you don’t have it, you will suffer – however intangibly – at the hands of those who do. Even the well-to-do segregate and discriminate in their own circles, noting “old” money versus new, or the manner in which new money is earned. Yet if one’s bank balance is high enough, no one cares what about religion, skin color or sex – or character.

For those members of society who struggle just to put food on the table and a safe, clean roof over their heads, no other concerns can take precedent. What reviewer Drake Bennett calls “The Sting of Poverty” will keep the have-nots focused on concerns the haves can only vaguely imagine. “Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems” (1).

Following Abraham Maslow’s (admittedly controversial) hierarchy, physiological and basic safety needs must be met before one can turn to social and self-actualization issues. Studying history or reading the classics is a luxury available to those who have a few minutes to call their own. The Schlegel sisters in E.M. Forster’s Howards End learned this painful lesson from their futile efforts to enlighten the Basts. No matter how deeply Leonard wanted to become acquainted with music and literature, “With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?” (37). This is a vicious circle which keeps less-favored classes “in their place,” as one who is focused on staying alive has little energy left for politics or rebellion against the establishment, which means opportunities to change their basic condition will remain out of reach.

Denying the existence of social classes based on money only sustains a false arrogance that enables Americans to belittle the aristocratic ways of Europe. We can all find a reason to claim victimhood, whether it be race, sex, religion or any other characteristic that makes us different, but in the end such superficial labeling is useless as well. Our capitalistic society is designed to reward those who have capital; it’s as simple as that. To believe any other issue truly divides us from opportunity is unjustified. Class Matters details how the “hyper-rich” have the “power to exclude,” not only from strictly financial prospects, but in politics, education and healthcare as well. The gift of “accumulated wealth” showers not only monetary inheritance on the next generation of moneyed families, but a frame of mind that looks at dollars and cents in a much different way than do those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and see those dollars only in terms of which bill to skip paying in order to put food on the table. Until the very real financial disparities in society are addressed rather than ignored, these class divisions will continue to matter.

December 10, 2008