A Breath of Fresh Air

The release of convicted Lockerbee terrorist al-Megrahi and Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill’s justification for the release is a defining moment for personal morality.

The Justice Secretary’s decision is clearly open to criticism but it is not flawed. To deny on’es compassion is to deny one’s humanity. Secretary MacAskill acted on representations from both the Libyan government and from English House of Commons. In speaking for justice and compassion, he certainly spoke for me.

Video coverage of the Secretary’s statement and Holyrood (Scottish Parliament) debate are available on YouTube: Kenny MacAskill’s Statement

In a strange way, the Justice Secretary’s defense on grounds of personal morality and humanity, not on some abstract community standard, was refreshing to say the least, and a reminder of what I miss and long for in a “community of faith”.

First Scarcities

The first scarcity is not economic, but sensory. We cannot possibly know, which is to say, we cannot possibly “be conscious” of everything that comes our way.

Because we lack understanding we clothe ourselves in limitations. Our limitations become the reality of our lives, the circumscriptions of our thought.

A second scarcity, is a scarcity of direction, of knowing what to do with what we have. Essential to the growth process, our needs become fuller, more complex, until one day we find that less is more.

Some people believe we are fallen, that our limitations reflect upon a separation from an earlier, purer condition, that somehow the cause of this condition was an error committed in the infancy of the human race and for which we must continually atone.

I think not. I think rather, that we fail to rise to our full potential as sensory humans. Too often it seems that humanity prefers a shared story of failure to the solitary struggle in the present.

Life as Mystery

TAO Walker, a native American visionary who speaks and writes eloquently of the Tiyoshpaye Way and the Living Arrangement of our Mother Earth (and is a frequent contributor to the website Truth Dig ), in speaking about “jumping off a moving train with the doors welded shut” writes

…“speed” is relative, as Einstein “proved”, and [as we] free wild natural human beings have known all along.

Einstein may have proven mathematically what was already known to universal consciousness. And this knowledge may advance Man’s understanding of his condition, his environment and the universe. That however, does not and should not in any way diminish the poetic fact of universal consciousness.

As my father might have said, that and a nickle would get you on the Staten Island ferry. What could it possibly mean that “speed is relative”?

That this should be known to “universal consciousness” reminds me that “science” and “knowledge” are not objective things in themselves, but building blocks in a world view that embraces progress and perfectibility.

A Debate Worthy of a Great Nation in Trouble

The following is a full-text reproduction of an op-ed opinion by Robert L Borosage, published in the www.huffingtonpost.com. For the original, go to A Debate Worthy of a Great Nation in Trouble.

Lipstick on pigs, sex ed for pre-K, earmarks gone wild — this presidential campaign is descending to a bridge to nowhere. We cannot let that happen again. This country is up against it: The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Gilded Age inequality, Iraq and Afghanistan, catastrophic climate change, the lawless presidency and more. The next president will face stark challenges that cannot be ignored. We need a debate worthy of a great nation in trouble. And the only way that will happen is if citizens insist on it.

Today in the New York Times, the Institute for America’s Future begins a series of “op ads” designed to highlight critical crises this country must address — and to enlist others in challenging the media and campaigns to address them. For the first of these op eds, go here. We should all join in this effort. Challenge the gotcha journalism, the politics of diversion, lies and posturing — and demand that this presidential campaign get down to the real questions the next president must face. (Full disclosure: I co-direct the Institute, although I post here in my individual capacity.)

For example: How do we make this economy work for most Americans?

Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the metastasizing financial cancer now threatens global recession or worse. How and whether to bail out the banks, how to avoid a severe downturn should be at the center of our debate.

But for the next president, the financial mess shouldn’t obscure this economy’s deeper problems. Underneath the current crisis is a stark reality: even when it is doing well, this economy hasn’t been working for most Americans. In the last seven years, for example, when the economy was growing, when Treasury Secretary Paulson was hailing the “strongest world economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime,” when President Bush and Senator McCain were declaring — McCain as recent as yesterday — that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong,” working and middle income families did not share in the benefits.

From 2000-2007, corporate profits were up, productivity was up, but incomes did not keep up with prices. For the first time since the Census Bureau started publishing the records in the 1940s, the typical family actually lost ground over the seven years of “recovery.” And the costs of basics — health care, housing, gas and home heating, college tuitions — soared. Poverty spread. More Americans went without health care. Savings were consumed. More added debt, tapping into their home’s equity, providing the kindling for the mortgage inferno. And that’s when the economy was “good.” (For detailed analysis see EPI’s new Stateof Working America) No wonder the Rockefeller/Time Magazine poll released in July revealed that fully half of Americans no longer believe the American dream is attainable by working hard and playing by the rules. Something is fundamentally wrong.

And it isn’t like the weather. It isn’t an act of God. Some blame “technological change,” but America’s middle class was built on the technological revolutions of the post-World War II period; technological change may expand the pie; it doesn’t determine who gets what slice. Others blame globalization. It’s true that the US strategy in the global economy has given corporations a club in negotiations with workers. We lost one in seven manufacturing jobs over the past seven years. But service jobs that don’t compete in the global economy haven’t fared well either. Others say the workers are at fault, for they lack the education they need. But as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, even incomes for college graduates also didn’t keep up over the cycle.

The fact is that the very few captured the benefits of growth. The 15,000 richest families — one one-hundredth of American households — captured fully one quarter of all the growth of national income. The vast majority of households lost ground. (See Scott Lilly’s analysis here)

This hollowing out of the American middle class is rather a direct expression of policies designed to benefit wealth at the expense of work, to empower CEOs and weaken workers, to privilege Wall Street over Main Street.

Over the last 30 years, conservatives and their ideas dominated Washington. Both parties joined in. Under Reagan and Clinton, banks were deregulated and a casino financial system grew in the shadows. Global trade deals protected property rights, not worker rights. Taxes were lowered on the wealth and raised on work. With the crushing of the PATCO air comptrollers strike, Reagan declared open season on unions. The minimum wage was frozen for a decade, lowering the floor. Companies under pressure from speculators and global competitors began shredding the promises once made to workers — cutting health care, abandoning pensions, ignoring rules on hours and overtime. Undocumented workers were easily exploited. Even Microsoft, the most profitable monopoly of the time, resorted to using permatemps — permanent temporary workers — to avoid paying folks full-time benefits. Under Bush, this all came to a head.

What’s needed is a fundamental change of direction. Instead of trickle down growth, we should be driving the economy from the bottom up. Instead of focusing on freeing up capital and executives, we should be empowering workers. The IAF ad suggests three fundamental reforms that reflect a growing consensus among progressive economists.

First, empower workers to organize. Unions help workers gain a fair share of the profits they help generate, and help to enforce agreements on hours, conditions and treatment. Since companies now systematically squelch organizing efforts, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to choose how to organize — either through by getting a majority to sign membership cards or by holding an election, and mandate negotiation of a first contract.

Second, forge a public social contract to replace the private one that the companies are now shredding. Mandate companies to provide basic health care, contribution to a public pension, paid vacation and sick days, a decent minimum wage, pegged to inflation. These mandates can be phased in over time; mom and pop stores can be exempted. The point is to enforce — as other industrial countries do — basic minimums in law so that companies can’t compete on the low road, by driving wages and conditions into the ditch.

Third, make full employment the stated goal of our economic policies — both the fiscal and trade policies of the administration and Congress and the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, with the government acting as an employer of last resort to keep employment levels up. Over the last 30 years, market fundamentalists — reflecting the priorities of Wall Street’s investors — have made inflation the priority, not full employment. But wages rose across the board only — as in the last years of the Clinton administration — when the economy neared full employment. When jobs are plentiful, workers can negotiate a better deal from their employers because they are better able to abandon a bad deal.

The Presidential Debate

How do the presidential candidates stack up on this agenda? McCain declares himself a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” embracing the basic mantra of market fundamentalists — lower taxes (particularly for the wealthy and the corporations), less regulation, less domestic spending. He is skeptical of unions, and has voted repeatedly against raising the minimum wage, much less extending a public social contract to workers. He wants to unravel employer based health care, not mandate it. His basic promise is to shake up government, make it less wasteful, reduce taxes for companies and the affluent, and get out of the way. In this election, he is the proud representative of the course we’ve been on.

Obama, due in part to the contested Democratic primary race, has put forth a bolder agenda. He pledges to support the Employee Free Choice Act, and to reverse Bush’s anti-union executive orders. He hasn’t called for a new public social contract, but favors raising the minimum wage, and pledges health care for all. He’s said little about running a full employment economy, much less about government as an employer of last resort. But he does call for a public investment bank, and large public investments in new energy and conservation, in modernizing our infrastructure and in investing in education and training.

The Debate We Deserve

Presidential campaigns aren’t policy seminars. Candidates need to inspire voters, define themselves and their opponents. Insult, invective, lies and distortions have been part of American elections from the beginning.

But Americans also deserve a debate that exposes the choices each candidate would make on the fundamental questions facing the country. Why not make this a feature of the TV debates, rather than rehashing old distortions or trying to gin up personal conflicts? What if a debate stated with this question:

Most Americans saw little of the benefits of the last years of economic growth. Wages didn’t keep up. Poverty spread. More people went without health care. And that’s when the economy was growing. Both of you claim to be candidates of change. What fundamental changes would you make to insure that this economy works for working people?

Wouldn’t that be a more interesting question than whether Sarah Palin was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it?

A debate worthy of a great nation in trouble. That’s not too much too ask. Nor too much to demand.

The American Commons In One Morning’s Readings

In one morning’s readings I read about how Carly Fiorina disparaged the candidates’ ability to run a large multinational like Hewlett Packard saying that running a large multinational is not like being President. She’s one to talk: she was ousted by Hewlett Packard in 2005 and she has never served as President. What is she doing giving advice?

I also read about U.S. bail-outs for under regulated corporate behemoths like AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, about the acquisition of the banking and real estate assets of the failed Lehman Brothers or the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by BankAmerica.

Such a whirlwind of destruction… Here truly is the collapse of a house of cards, a fantasy of unfettered exuberance and unregulated greed. And here also lies the problem.

I do not subscribe to the idea that greed is a “mortal sin” visiting the wrath of God upon humans, but a selfishness that is endemic to liberal, unregulated capitalism and a selfishness that has cheapened the American commons. It is in fact, the same selfishness that creates inequality at home and in the world.

As far as my personal freedoms are concerned, I wholly subscribe to the idea that that government is best that governs least. But there is a cost to such freedom, and that cost lies in regulating the commons; The role of government lies in, must lie in regulating the commons for the greater good.

The Dangers of Democracy: are we ready for the Internet?

For the original article, see Warning Sounded on Web’s Future

We live in frightening times, in times when decisions affecting the lives of millions are made based on circus contests in which rhetorical artifice trumps the art of rhetoric, in which form trumps content in an endless volley of statement and repartee.

Literacy in the internet world means so much more than multisyllabic intonation, it means filtering and verification, ideas which of themselves, imply focus and values.

A Little Humor, Please!

This morning’s readings brought Colbert King’s OpEd column in the Washington Post, “Jesse Jackson’s Unkindest Cut“, (July 12, 2008, A14) to my attention.

As a born and bred WASP refugee of the New Orleans battle front (see below), I desperately wanted a black man to address the, you know, virility issue. When Colbert refused to go there [he dismissed this, “setting aside all of the highbrow speculation about the deeper meaning of (Jackson’s) words” adding “This whole thing is silly.”], I wasn’t sure I would read any further.

Well I would have been wrong.

Virility is a matter of self-image (just as attractiveness may be for others) and like one’s racial heritage, has absolutely no bearing on whether one is a responsible citizen. Citizenship, not self-confidence is the issue at the bar. So, after ironizing about Jesse Jackson’s remarks and the media establishment’s prudishness regarding race relations and penchant to sanitize denial (my own words) with the politically correct, Colbert concludes:

There’s only one aspect of this episode that still concentrates the mind. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) angrily denounced his father’s comment, saying in part: “I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

Now there’s a bright and courageous young man who, given his father’s predilections, could do with an iron jock strap

After thinking this through, perhaps it is Jesse Jackson, Sr. who should wear the iron jock strap.

A Sacred Conversation on Race

These thoughts were submitted to the United Church of Christ news blog, in response to Pastor Chuck Currie’s comments, “Danville Church Tackles Tough Subject of Race“. For another example of dialogue, have a look at the Philadelphia Enquirer article, “In Pursuit of a Quieter Discourse on Race” (Enquirer, May 19, 2008).

The UCC initiative to openly discuss the “legacy problem” is timely and indeed, welcome.

I left New Orleans in 1995 and moved my family to France (partly because my wife is French and her family needed her…) but also, and in large part because the racial healing dialogue had all but dried up in that city: the city had fallen to mediocrity, abandoned by middle class whites who went elsewhere for work, and before them, by motivated blacks who fled the segregated south for the promising West Coast.

My family and I made repeated efforts to reach out and to integrate (you can read parts of our story elsewhere on this blog). In the end, all was for nought. There was little or anything we could do to change or influence the outcome of a process determined, many would say, from the day Europeans first settled the lower Mississippi.

But the problem goes beyond simply understanding (and that, for some “red state” Americans, could be quite a challenge!). It is as much a matter of re-establishing intra-community, indeed inter-faith trust.

Regardless of skin color, of one’s personal standard for beauty or one’s idea of self in relation to other, there will always be a perception of fairness, or in the case of race relations, of unfairness. And until we can squarely confront the issue of fairness and say we have done our best, the problems of “otherness” will persist.

Otherness can be and should be a blessing. It is the essence of diversity, a sign of wealth and proof of tolerance. Unfortunately, in the legacy cultures of the deep south, otherness is all too frequently a source of insecurity and a threat to self-esteem.

Until we can get over these problems, a “sacred conversation” cannot take place. It is not about “divine intervention” or even about “God’s plan”, it is about trust, acceptance and self-esteem.

I follow these issues from afar but I am truly heartened by the courage of Jeremiah Wright, by the collective intelligence that has been guiding Barack Obama’s bid for presidential power and the UCC for enlarging the debate.

It is not, should not be about electibility

In the “money driven” world of national politics where in November a “winner will take all”, the choice of who to support is both a practical and pragmatic issue. Nobody wants to bet on the wrong horse.

Betting is a matter of risk assessment, of course. But if ever there was a time to “take the plunge” and risk your vote, or your tax deductible contribution, now is that time. The sooner the better, so long as you can sustain (the donations) through November.

Barack Obama, indeed, national healing needs your support.

Of course, “national healing” refers to the black-white dichotomy, the open debate between dominant and dominated cultures, to borrow language from Reverend Wright’s April 28th National Press Club address (for a full transcript see the Atlantic Monthly transcript page).

National healing however, is also about re-cycling urban wastelands and the people relegated by exclusion to live their lives in such environments.

“National healing” is not about handouts or about subsidizing indigent populations. It is about dealing with problems of urban “governance” and social marginalization. It is about the need to mobilize national support for the integration of urban populations and the cities that provide minimum public services into the American mainstream.

The black-white dichotomy and the problems of deficient metropolitan governance were exacerbated in New Orleans where legacy patterns of behavior constituted de facto social and racial preferences. The process of social marginalization works the same in other cities as increasing concentrations of poverty produce a long term trend toward mediocrity.

America’s wealth is the product of an abundance of natural resources skillfully transformed by a motivated, youthful populations striving for the “American Dream”. Not everybody achieves that dream however, and in material terms, most do not.

The Obama campaign is, at least to this observer, about conceiving the American Dream in terms other than “material wealth”. It is about preserving and promoting our urban centers as efficient producers of the national wealth and about integrating urban populations into the American mainstream.

Our great cities must not be allowed to fall to mediocrity.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright: expanding the national debate

As a white person and descendant of pioneer Americans (my Presbyterian relatives arrived from Scotland in 1704), I am heartened by the resonance of the debate sparked by Rev. Wright.

I left the United States in 1995 partly out of family obligations (my spouse is French) and partly because after 25 years, I had no future in New Orleans.

My wife and I were frequent “congregants” at Pastor Paul Morton’s Greater St. Stephen’s Baptist Church, and “worked” hard at cultivating “cross-cultural friendships”, especially where our children were concerned. But after 25 years in the City that Care Forgot” it became apparent that economically and socially we had no future in that city. Legacy “behaviors”, the unspoken behaviors that perpetuate class and racial distinctions were not about to change and no single person could challenge the status quo. Mediocrity ruled.

I can say with conviction that the black church is different but that “different” does not mean “deficient”. The thoughtful defense of Jeremiah Wright’s ministry advanced by John Petty in his blog Hurt Feelings All Around is welcome indeed.

The Obama candidacy and the Obama-Wright debate are truly what we need to awaken from the deep moral sleep brought upon us by great wealth and the industrial transformation of our natural resources, but also by the complacency of a Western world grateful to have been saved twice during the XXth century from total self-annihilation.

For an interesting take on these issues and a book “preview”, readers might have a look at the Boston Globe article by Charles Derber and Yale Magrass(*) which appeared in yesterday’s Boston Globe, “The ‘Wright problem’ belongs to America“.

(*) Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are the authors of Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good