Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Rape of Hope

Today's Los Angeles Times (10/31/09) included a story horrifying in its brutality -- in more ways than one.

Recently, a 15-year-old girl was gang raped outside a high school near Oakland, California, while a homecoming dance proceeded peacefully nearby and as many as 20 onlookers jeered, took pictures, and messaged their friends to come join in the fun. Two hours passed before someone witnessing the event decided to call the police.

Columnist Sandy Banks tried to answer the obvious questions. How could such a callous (not to mention criminal) occurrence take place, and why on earth would it take two hours for someone to come to their senses sufficiently to put a stop to it? She interviewed a junior at the school, who opined that "A lot of them, they don't think they're going to be successful. They've already been judged, so they go with that. They drink, they smoke, they pop pills. It's the 'bad boy' culture. That's how they see themselves."

I can't help wonder how widespread this feeling is. Are there, in fact, thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of young people who face the future with a brooding face and a heavy heart, uncertain whether any portion of the American dream will ever collide with what currently passes for their lives?

We are told by the so-called experts that the widespread and gargantuan inequality that pervades American society today will never cause unrest -- at least partially because people at the bottom of the ladder perceive the potential for upward mobility.

Do they?

Please note: regardless of the attitudes and emotional predispositions of the perpetrators of this indecent affair, their actions are in no way justified. Those directly involved should be prosecuted, and the voyeurs should be grounded until they mature. For some of them, this might entail missing next year's dance.

Side note: the school board is planning to install security measures now -- after considering them for years. And, rest assured, a campus police officer has proclaimed that "We have a safe environment at Richmond High." The educational bureaucracy at its finest!

What should really be happening in the classrooms when things return to "normal"? Should teachers focus on social responsibility, communication and collaboration skills, conflict resolution strategies, and critical thinking? Well, that might be nice, but some parents would complain, and besides, the students need more math, science, history, etc. so they can improve their scores on those all-important standardized tests. That way we'll "Leave No Child Behind" -- except the unfortunate young lady who was brutally raped.

When things finally erupt in this country, we're going to have the best educated rioters in the history of the world. They'll be full of knowledge -- potential "Jeopardy" champs all -- because that is what our educational policy makers think is important -- but hope will be in short supply.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

From Whence Do We Come?

If it's true that Americans suffer from an advanced case of evolutionary "mismatch," responsible for many of the ills of our egocentric and essentially selfish society (at least by comparison with many other developed countries), then something must differentiate us from the citizens of some other countries, who seem to understand better than we do the value of cooperative, caring behavior on an organized basis. Why would we cling to no-longer-adaptive behavior patterns established thousands of years ago if people in selected other countries don't (or at least do so to a lesser degree)?

What separates Americans from, say, Scandinavians, I suspected, was at least partially the result of our frontier heritage. Some confirmation of this hypothesis comes from the book "Wilderness at Dawn -- The Settling of the North American Continent" (complete reference upon request).

In 500 pages or so, Ted Morgan recounts an overabundance of detail about his topic, starting about 15,000 years ago and moving inexorably, sometimes laboriously, through the 18th century. Generally he is content to describe events, rarely lapsing into analysis. On page 483, however, we find this stunning conclusion: "Mix well these ingredients: three expansionist European powers, a native people refusing subjugation, and a population of slaves brought agains their will from West Africa. The result? A recipe for strife."

Indeed, the preceding pages tell the story of people with often vicious and aggressive tendencies, creating government on the fly, often violating their own laws almost as quickly as they make them, seeking fortunes and the freedom to practice religions not favored in their native countries while simultaneously denying tolerance to others.

"Whatever their destination, as they occupied hundreds of different habitats and climates, the various groups [of settlers] had one thing in common: the quest for food was their organizing principle" (p. 24). Fast forward a few hundred years -- and find some people scrounging for food in garbage bins, the slightly more fortunate accepting baskets at non-profit pantries and hoping the provisions will last out the month, and the very fortunate never satisfied even with huge fortunes, allegedly demanding multi-million dollar bonuses for moving money and securities around the world in ways inscrutable to the average person, stockpiling hundreds of millions of dollars in banks around the world to evade legally imposes taxes, and complaining all the while about over-regulation and large government deficits.

"Around A.D. 1100, at the peak of their power, the leaders of Cahokia [a settlement apparently near what is now Wisconsin] ordered the building of a stockade around the inner city. They cut down an estimated 80,000 trees...and didn't replant. Losing its cover, the game fled at a time when the human population was increasing...By A.D. 1300, Cahokia was abandoned, and its splendid mounds were covered with weeds and underbrush, monuments to man's overreaching" (p. 41). Fast forward a few hundred years, with industry still resisting efforts to mitigate the ravages of environmental destruction. We are the children of our forefathers.

"Like Columbus, the settlers of all of North America -- of Quebec, Jamestown, and Plymouth -- would believe that the white men didn't have to treat the Indians the way they treated one another" (p. 50). "In each village he visited, De Soto repaid the hospitality of the chief by taking him hostage, along with other captives who were used as porters" (p. 73). Fast forward to today. Every oppressed minority -- ironically, with the possible exception of some Native American tribes -- is still struggling with vestiges of past injustice, current-day bigotry, or both.

"On February 12, 1599, [Juan de] Onate pronounced the sentence [to Indians who had lost a battle]: All the men over the age of twenty-five would have one foot cut off and would have to serve twenty years of serfdom. Those between twelve and twenty-five would simply have one foot cut off" (p. 83). Fast forward to Texas, 2009, where commissions are disbanded just in time to prevent official findings that a convicted arsonist, since executed, was actually innocent. (I presume you saw the articles in the paper about this recently.) Don't see the connection? It's a mentality that basically says "we will have law and order here, at any cost, and if we make a few mistakes along the way, so be it."

Welcome to American, then and now.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Just the Juxtaposition of Facts, Ma'am

You might need to be at least 50 years old to understand the title's reference to the perennial tagline of the old TV show "dragnet" ("just the facts, ma'am," usually spoken to a lady highly motivated to explain why her petunias are blooming so colorfully before she tells the detectives about the murder she just witnessed). However, all you need to draw conclusions from carefully juxtaposed facts is the ability to see that 2+2 = 4.

Fact #1 -- low wage workers are frequently screwed by the business establishment. According to the New York Times (9/2/09, p. A11), a new study documents frequent and egregious violations of work rules affecting people earning, on average, about $8 an hour. More than 4,000 workers were interviewed, across the country, in a variety of industries. Among the results: only 8% of such employees claimed workers' compensation benefits following a work-related injury -- the others mostly didn't report as a result of pressure by their employers not to file; 12% of workers who earn tips reported that their employers steal some of the tips; 76% who had worked overtime the previous week were not paid the proper amount; 57% had not received mandatory pay documents that would have indicated they were being properly paid; 43% in the apparel and textile industries reported being paid less than the minimum wage. Workers surveyed, in fact, lost on average 15% of the pay to which they were legally entitled.

Fact #2 -- more recently, it has come to light that wealthy Americans have hidden large sums of money in Swiss banks, illegally evading taxes. According to the Los Angeles Times (10/15/09, p. B6), 7,500 people have voluntarily disclosed such accounts in order to take advantage of an IRS amnesty program that would preclude them from being criminally prosecuted and possibly spending time in jail. No doubt thousands more are hoping that their names are not among those to be disclosed by banks "in 70 countries and on every continent except Antarctica."

Fact #3 -- According to the New York Times (5/16/09, p. A9), business groups were opposing legislation that would guarantee workers seven sick days per year if they work for employers with 15 or more employees. The authors of this bill claim that three-fourths of low-wage workers do not currently earn any sick days. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the head of the Republican Party oppose the bill.

Fact #4 -- According to the non-partisan California Budget Project (reported in the Los Angeles Times 10/12/09, p. B1), "the bottom fifth of taxpayers -- those earning less than about $18,000 -- paid about 11.7% of family income in state and local taxes. By contrast, the top 1%, earning $430,000 or more, paid only about 7.1% on average." (So much for California being a "high tax state" -- yeah, for whom??) The article goes on to point out how many state services (education, transportation, the entire law enforcement/correctional system, etc.) benefit the wealthy at least as much as they benefit the poor.

Try to keep these facts in mind the next time you recite the Pledge of Allegiance: "...with liberty and justice for all."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dear Mr./Ms. Corporation

My friend,

I understand that you want to be treated like every individual American -- imbued with all the rights and privileges included in the U.S. Constitution. For example, I understand that you'd like to be protected by the First Amendment and that you advance the view that "corporate free speech" should include the right to contribute to political candidates without limitation.

Let me point out that you already have more than half of this "cake." You have all the legal rights required to do business -- purchase and sell property, hire and fire employees, enter into contracts, advertise, etc. Although you are supposedly prevented from making certain kinds of political contributions, there are more ways around this than there are (or at least were) fish in the sea. You hire lobbyists in vast numbers and pay them so much that they just can't help attending political fundraisers and contributing to political action committees.

In fact, you even enjoy benefits individual people do not, e.g. perpetual life (hence, the ability to accumulate unlimited wealth and never be subject to an inheritance tax) and limited liability. Human beings do not have the right to sever their actions from their brains; in court, it is not considered a good excuse to say "my right arm may have hit you, but my brain was not involved." Yet, dear corporation, when you violate the laws of society, you have the right to shield your brains (your executives) from legal consequences. They do not go to prison unless they personally violate laws; mere malfeasance on your part (e.g. violating laws against pollution) only results in fines (paid, ironically, by shareholders who are not at all involved in your daily management). Even if your executives were to be subject to litigation individually, you undoubtedly protect them with general liability insurance (again paid for by your owners, the stockholders).

Unlike real human beings, if you are caught violating a law, you say you never did it, promise never to do it again, pay a small fine, and be done with it. You probably don't even feel embarrassed or ashamed, first because you are organically incapable of it, and second because you were just doing what the capitalistic system says you should do -- maximize profit!

Yet, with all these advantages, you continue to lobby for more -- usually with great success. According to a book by Dutman and Cray ("The People's Business," published in 2004 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.), you and your siblings handcuff the regulatory agencies by blocking sufficient funding for them to do their jobs adequately, and you promote legislation designed to block legitimate lawsuits (p. 202).

In summary, you want all the benefits of being an individual but none of the responsibilities. Is that fair? Does that work to the advantage of all citizens of this country?

Oh my, now I've gone and done it. In addition to wanting the rights of people, soon you might want the rights of citizens -- say, the right to vote. I can hardly wait to see what process you will use to determine who you will vote for.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Shh, it's a SECRET!

I wish I could divulve my sources for this particular blog post, but my discussions with them are sensitive, confidential -- and in some cases downright classified! LOL. In protecting these sources, I am continuing a long-standing American journalistic tradition.

President Obama suggested recently to New York State Governor Paterson that he drop his campaign for election. How do we know? New York Times reporters spoke to administration officials and a Democratic operative who "spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions with the governor were intended to be confidential" (NY Times, 9/20/09, p. A1).

Former Senator John Edwards (as of 9/20/09) might or might not announce that he is the father of his mistress' child, but "Mrs. Edwards has yet to be brought around," said one family friend, who like others spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity, pointing to the complicated and delicate nature of the issue (NY Times, p. A1).

A terror probe appeared to be concentrated in the New York area, according to the New York Times (9/22/09), according to a federal law enforcement official and others, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the high level of secrecy surrounding the investigation.

According to the New York Times, (9/23/09, p. A1), New York police have been using an immam for intelligence purposes: "Several officials -- all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because much of the investigation is classified -- have said that the inquiry, which had been under way for several months, could well have continued, tracking communications, meetings, plans and associates of the suspect." Unfortunately, the imam betrayed the police.

According to the New York Times (9/23/09, p. A9), President Obama had a meeting in the situation room with his top advisors. "They reached no consensus, so three or four more such meetings are being scheduled. 'There are a lot of competing views,' said one official, who, like the others in this article, requested anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations."

Here are my thoughts: Whatever happened to ethics? If people are privy to documents and discussions that are legally classified, family conversations intended to be confidential, law enforcement operations that are secret, and the like, what motivates them to talk about such details to reporters? Is it really appropriate, even for a newspaper dedicated to printing "all the news that's fit to print," to utilize anonymous sources so frequently, on such delicate subjects?

I don't have answers, folks, just questions. Do YOU have answers?

**Note: did you miss me last week? Sorry, I was out of town the entire weekend and returned exhausted. And how much are paying to read this blog anyway? (Haha, just kidding.)