Monday, September 22, 2008

American Anti-Government Sentiment and False Choices

I work with many Europeans and Canadians who follow U.S. politics, particularly this election, and are positively flummoxed by the kind of anti-government rhetoric that we hear from conservatives.

Case in point - one of my co-workers from the the United Kingdom came into my office, flabbergasted by a quote he read by Ronald Reagan. The quote was "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." From his perspective, this is an insane statement. He is thinking of government in terms of what it does. He is thinking of education, health care, roads, laws and protection for the most vulnerable. He is thinking of governance.

But that, oft cited, Reagan quote is only the beginning of what he said. The rest of that quote from his 1981 inaugural address is:

From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself,then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Far be it for me to agree with Ronald Reagan on anything, but the man had a point. And it is a point that resonates with many, perhaps most, Americans. The majority of us are escapees from bad governments. Quakers and Puritans came escaping religious prosecution by their governments. Mexicans came fleeing from the Mexican Revolution and the parade of bad governments that came with it. German Jews fled the Third Reich and Soviet Jews fled Stalin. Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Argentinians, and Chileans fled the dirty wars. Haitians fled Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

More than a few of these people fled as disillusioned former supporters. Some Cuban refugees had been supporters of Castro and the Communist party, but were disillusioned by the poverty and political persecution that came later. Jews fleeing Russia were often former supporters of the revolution who came to find out that a dictatorship of the proletariat was worse than the aristocracy had been.

And then there are the people who found themselves under the rule of the United States government against their will. For Native Americans and African Americans, the United States government has historically been the mechanism by which they were oppressed, not an institution that protected them from harm. All of which is to say that we Americans come by our suspicion of government, and government power, honestly.

The problem with conservative rhetoric isn't that it creates suspicion where there is no cause for it. There is plenty of cause for suspicion. If the conservatives truly wanted to limit the power of government representatives, I might actually support them. The problem with conservatives (and with anyone else who obtains power) is that they never limit their own power, once they have it. What we have ended up with is the worst possible outcome - a group of "representatives" abusing their enormous power and privilege, without even a modicum of the governance we need.

Americans don't want their lives to be dictated to them. Conservatives have laid out the choice as being between a powerful government that takes your money and tells you what do, and a (theoretically) small government that tells you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Those are false choices, and not just because conservatives have consistently enlarged government.

The other choice is a real democracy, a direct democracy, one in which we all decide for ourselves how our money is spent, and one which understands that it is possible to have governance without relinquishing our power to people who will only abuse it. It requires us to actually invest ourselves in learning about and trying to solve the problems we face. It requires a commitment to work with and try to understand people who think differently. It requires people to do more than (maybe) vote once a year in an election between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Does McCain Want to Replace FEMA with Fedex?

After the appearances of McCain and Obama at the recent forum on service at Columbia University, most of the pundits were saying that there was not "a lot of contrast between these two candidates” (MSNBC) - or something to that effect. Not one person mentioned McCain's comments about the private sector.

When talking about service programs, McCain took great pains to “ doesn’t always have to be run by the government" and then he laid out his philosophy. “My philosophy is, lets not have government do things that the private sector can do or other organizations can do. That’s just my theory of government.”

Let's break that statement down a little. Is there anything that the private sector couldn't theoretically do? The Bush administration certainly doesn't think so. They've been desperately trying to privatize social security. They're giving billions of our tax money in no-bid contracts to well-connected private companies in Iraq. Intelligence is now largely in the hands of private contractors.

In fact, private contracts in general have exploded under the Bush administration and now account for 40 cents of every discretionary dollar in the federal budget. Think about that for a second. Your hard earned money is being taxed and then given to huge private companies. And I'm not talking about thousands of dollars, or millions. They are receiving billions. And what have those companies done with your money?

Blackwater "private security" was kicked out of Iraq after murdering civilians. STIS was given 320 million dollars for building an Iraqi power plant that was never built. Bricks of money were sent to Iraq and just disappeared into the ether. If you want to get really depressed, read Matt Taibbi's article, The Great Iraq Swindle.

To the Reaganites (and as often as they mention Reagan it appears all Republicans are Reaganites) "government does not solve problems, it subsidizes them." To these people, government is always bad, or at least worse than the alternatives. Apparently, they believe that the minute a person steps over the threshold of a government building to take a job, they are immediately evil. It's the Invasion of the Body Snatchers theory of government. (Although that would explain a lot about Cheney.)

Republicans have been telling us that government is evil and inept since I was in diapers, and they have been doing a damn good job of proving their point. Perhaps the best example of this was during hurricane Katrina. FEMA was in shambles after the Bush administration was through gutting it, privatizing it, and appointing political fundraisers to head it.

When McCain was asked about the government's role in disasters, like Katrina, he admitted that “the role of government obviously is the primary role," but then he went on to say that "I don’t think frankly if Fedex or Target or any of these organizations had been in charge we wouldn't have had a truck full of ice ending up in Maine."

Would Fedex have done a better job than FEMA? They certainly couldn't have done worse, but it is not because people who work for a private company are inherently better and more capable. It is because Fedex would never hire a CEO for disaster relief who had done nothing but run a horse track.

I understand peoples frustration with taxes, government, and bureaucracy. When I see the salaries of Halliburton executives, knowing that my tax money is paying that salary, it makes my skin crawl. But rather than just take the Republican bait about all government being bad and all taxes being evil, we need to start having sensible conversations about what government is and should be.

Of course, if we look at many on the left, their feelings about the private sector are a mirror of Republicans feelings about government. As much as I hate the Walmart-inization of everything, not everyone who works for Walmart is automatically evil. And a new government agency for every problem isn't the solution either, Democrats.

Is it that government corrupts or that power corrupts? Is there any organization that would be impervious to greed? Is the problem that we rely too much on "representatives" rather than direct democracy? I'd love to have a real conversation about that, rather than what passes for a conversation in our system, which goes like this:

Republican: They are just a tax and spend democrats.
Democrat: Republicans don't care about you.


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Monday, September 15, 2008

Obama, The Military, and the Dreaded P Word

During the recent community service forum at Columbia University, Obama said the ROTC should be invited back to Columbia and other college campuses who don't currently allow them. He said that he recognized the "differences in terms of military policy," but felt it was a mistake that "young people here at Columbia or anywhere at any university aren’t offered the choice, the option, of participating in military service."

Now it so happens that I agree with Obama, if only because I don't feel I have the right to impose my morals on others. But by copping out with a weak statement about "differences in terms of military policy" he avoided talking about some issues that we really need to be talking about.

First of all there is the dreaded P word. No, I'm not talking about Palin...or Pig...or Pussy. I'm talking about Pacifist. Now I don't expect any politician to be one (god forbid), but it's like they can't even say the word. We revere Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and yet being a pacifist is seen as naive and weak. If a presidential candidate uttered the word, would their candidacy immediately go down in flames?

Perhaps even more importantly, military service is not just about sacrificing and laying yourself on the line for others. It is about taking other peoples lives. It involves joining an institution that expects its members to follow orders, even when those orders turn out to be disastrous. Willingness to serve in the military isn't just about willingness to sacrifice, it is about trust in the people who are going to be asking for your sacrifice.

In my father's generation (he was born in 1929), military service was far more common. World War II was heinous, as all wars are, but soldiers felt honored and honorable when they returned. They felt they were fighting the good fight. People trusted that their government was sending them where they needed to go.

Many Vietnam-era conservatives will tell you that it was lack of support by traitorous hippies that made Vietnam different. (Ironically, the same conservatives who scoff at distrust of the military will swear that government is incapable of doing anything right when it comes to anything else.) But the truth is that any lack of support from the American people was well deserved by a government that lied to us repeatedly (and continues to do so).

Obama speaks often about taking us past the old battles of the baby boomer generation. He talks about revitalizing a culture of service (military and otherwise). He talks about restoring faith in government. If he really wants to do those things, he can't avoid discussing the issues at the root of our distrust, and apathy, and unresolved anger.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why We Can't Talk About Immigration

My boyfriend received a forwarded email from his mother some time ago. The title of the email was "In Just One Year" and it arrived with the comment "So, I thought this was interesting..." The email paints immigrants as criminals and parasites (responses to those accusations can be found in my previous post). Both of her sons were livid when they received it. I can't imagine that she would have sent the email to her sons had she realized how angry they would be. So what is the disconnect here?

A Short History of Immigration Policy in the United States

Americans have a short historical memory, especially when it comes to immigration policy. We haven't always had laws against immigration, although I'm sure many Native Americans wish they had thought of it. In fact, the first immigration law wasn't passed until 1882. Until then, anyone who wanted to immigrate could do so. (I should note that the naturalization laws of 1790 and 1795 restricted citizenship to white people.)

The late 1800s were tumultuous. There was a long depression from 1873 through 1896 and several outright panics. In California, the gold rush was long over and the merchants and railroad barons who had benefited the most were sitting on huge fortunes. The major national railroads were completed and the laborers who had built the railroads (and often died doing it) were no longer needed. Many of those laborers were Chinese.

A worker movement was developing in the face of the tough economic times and the movement took a decidedly ugly, racist turn. (Click here to see a poster from that period telling workers that they should boycott all Chinese businesses or businesses who hired Chinese labor and here for a cartoon demonstrating anti-Chinese sentiment.) Eventually, after much pressure from Californians and considerable violence against Chinese people, the nation passed its very first immigration law. It is known as the Chinese Exclusion Act and it was intended to do just that, exclude people based on their national origin.

As the years went on, further court cases and immigration laws reflected the racism accepted in the United States at the time. Until 1965, when the Johnson administration revamped our immigration laws, they were based on trying to keep the nation as white (ie. Western European) as possible.

The Anti-Immigration Movement is Still Racist

While the target of the anti-immigration movement is now more Mexican than Chinese, the underlying racism remains. If you want proof of the racism in today's anti-immigration movement, just look at the email that kicked off this reply. One of the sources used by the author was the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

FAIR was founded by John Tanton, a man who has said that the fight against immigration is a fight to keep white control. Tanton also founded The Center for Immigration Studies, another source used by the author. See this enlightening (and disturbing) article about the connections between white supremacists and anti-immigration groups for more information.

Tom Tancredo is another source from the emails. Tancredo was called an "idiot" by the (conservative) National Review and voted one of the 10 worst congressmen by the (not so conservative) Rolling Stone. Although the grandson of Italian immigrants, he wants to stop even legal immigration. He also took a bit of heat for accusing the Catholic Pope of trying to increase membership in the Catholic church by encouraging immigration and for referring to Miami as a "third world country."

And while it takes all of five minutes to discover that the above sources are (at minimum) linked to some very nasty hate groups, the mainstream news regularly calls on them to comment. They never ask on air about their qualifications, sources, or methodology. They never explain to the audience who they are or what their philosophy is. So if some people believe these statistics to be true and remain blissfully unaware of the reaction they might get when spreading them, it is somewhat understandable.

But while many non-Latinos may believe the "experts" provided by the media, Latinos personal experiences with racism in this country leave them skeptical of even the more mild arguments for changing our immigration policies. This is not just a matter of hurt feelings. According to 2007 FBI statistics, hate crimes against Latinos rose 35% between 2003 and 2007. Not all of the victims survive, including 25 year old Luis Ramirez who was beaten to death by several teenagers.

Beginning a Conversation About Immigration

After a bit of research, I was able to find the original post of the article "In Just One Year." It was written by an ultra-conservative woman named Carolyn Hileman and published on the American Conservative Daily. Google Carolyn Hileman and one of the links you will find is a site called "Mexicans Go Home."

I hate to add to the click rate on that trash site, but it's one of the most disgusting examples of the hateful, anti-Mexican core of the anti-immigration movement. I felt like I had to expose it. In one post, the site has a Mexican flag where the eagle and serpent have been replaced by a pile of shit. Across the flag it says "Mexico, Land of Shit and Druglords"

We need to be able to speak about immigration, but we won't be able to do it until the hateful fringe elements stop being treated like legitimate sources for non-biased information. People have to stop spreading information without first identifying who it came from (or at least identifying that it may not be true) and we can't allow our media to do it either.

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