CONTRA CONTRA-CONTRACEPTION

By Paul

OK, so maybe the above title is a little much.  What I’m referring to, though, is the recent debate between the Obama Administration and Republicans regarding birth control. 

 First of all, who knew that birth control was even an issue in the 21st century?  Yes, the Catholic Church has always been against it, for reasons which baffle me, but the vast majority of Catholic women, some 98%, have used one form or another of birth control.  And then there was the kerfuffle a few weeks back about the requirement that Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools should have to follow the law and provide contraception to those who work for them as part of their medical benefits package. 

Now as an aside, and maybe before I go any further, in terms of full disclosure it might be best if I’m upfront about a couple of things:  first, I’m writing as what is sometimes called an ex-Catholic, and second, I’m also writing as an ex-monk (more about that another time). 

But getting back to the insurance fuss, the argument the church made was that religiously affiliated institutions should be given a pass when it comes to obeying the law, because providing contraceptive aids as part of their medical coverage for employees goes against the teaching of the church and its sense of morality.  I hope that’s fairly put.  I am trying to be balanced here.  And I suppose that the way these institutions might have framed it to the people who work for them would go something like this: if you don’t like our rules, fine, go find another job!  And we all know how easy that is these days!

In the ensuing days and weeks, the Obama Administration made what I thought was a very reasonable compromise, namely, to exempt these affiliated institutions from paying for contraception as part of a healthcare package, and instead have the insurers themselves pay.  Sounds eminently reasonable to me!  I’ll pass over the fact (as Cicero used to say in his Orations) that my personal take on it was to say that Catholic-affiliated institutions are not the Catholic Church, and as such should not have been given an exemption from the law.  They are hospitals, or schools, or social service organizations, not churches.  But, OK, I try to be a reasonable person, and I am willing to engage in a little give and take.  So, with this compromise solution, I figured everybody would be happy, right?  But, no, that’s not the case!

Amazingly, the Catholic bishops are still highly disturbed, as are Republicans generally. The Republican presidential aspirants in particular, too, have all jumped on this same rickety bandwagon, and some Congressional Republicans are even making noises about how contraception itself ought to be outlawed.  Really?  I thought we fought that battle decades ago!

Now, I hope that there are lots of women out there who take this very personally.  Even I take it personally, as much as maybe I shouldn’t.  But for me, the whole scenario harkens back to a conversation I had way back in 1967 when I was twenty-two years old.  I had just left the monastery, and my sainted and now sadly departed mother and I had a deeply personal talk.  She told me that for years our local parish priest had refused her absolution in the confessional, because she and my father had decided to use contraceptives.  The background here is that, when I was growing up, we were poor, pretty much by about anybody’s standards, and my parents had decided that they could not afford more than three children.  They couldn’t even afford the three of us, from what I could see!  But the priest told my mother that she would “burn in the fires of everlasting hell,” if she continued on with this practice, and that if she did not wish to have more children, there was one good way to do so: she and her husband could stop “having relations.” 

Let me remind you that this conversation took place forty-five years ago now, but things don’t seem to have changed much with the Catholic Church of today.  They’re still telling people how to conduct their sex lives, and they’re still telling folks that, if they don’t want kids, they should just damn well stop having sexual relations.  Because that, in effect, is what their argument comes down to.  Can’t afford kids? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!  Young and not married yet, but horny all the time?  Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!  Can’t stop being gay? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!  

Now, again, I want to be fair about things, and emphasize that I am talking here about the “official Catholic Church,” specifically as represented by its bishops and archbishops.  And I should add that I understand that many rank and file Catholics do not necessarily agree with, or follow, the dictates of the bishops.  Still, the fact remains that it is the position of “The Church,” and that’s what I’m making reference to. 

It seems to me that what the question really boils down to is, how do we understand it when we read that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  I don’t have to say that this is a direct quote from the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.  Of course, reasonable people can and do disagree on how to interpret this, and they have disagreed ever since the Bill of Rights was first promulgated.  Maybe this issue will someday come before the Supreme Court for resolution.  But for now, pretty much all we’ve got to go on is, what do you think, and what do I think?  The official Catholic Church continues to preach against sex, as do many other churches, except as they narrowly define it.  And that surely is their First Amendment right, which I uphold absolutely.  But it does not mean that institutions, which are NOT churches, ought to be exempt from following the law, just as that law applies to all other similar, but non-religious institutions.  Everyone in fact has to obey the law, including church affiliated businesses, a thing which, in my view, can in no way be construed as prohibiting the free exercise of religion.          

There are many who say that the Republicans have already achieved victory with the Administration’s compromise on the issue, so why go on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?  But no less a figure than Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has written recently in an Op-Ed piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader (and quoted in the LA Times in an article by Lisa Mascaro): “Government cannot tell someone whether their religion is worth believing.  It doesn’t matter whether the president thinks your beliefs are antiquated; your right to practice them is protected.” 

What I want to know is how does Mr. McConnell get there from the compromise that was offered?  But that’s what the Catholic bishops believe, too. And that is where we seem to be for the moment.  Republicans are hell-bent on passing a law that does away with the provision that insurers must provide free birth control for their members, and the priest who heard my mother’s confession would surely be delighted.  So much for the progress women have made in regard to when and how often they – and their partners – decide to have children. I’ve heard it said that this issue of requiring Catholic-affiliated institutions to provide contraceptives as part of their health insurance package is one thing that unites both conservative and liberal Catholics.  I have to say I really hope that is not the case.  I hope that liberal Catholics – and, well, conservative ones too, for that matter – can see how important it is to treat all people fairly, even those who may have jobs at church affiliated hospitals or schools or social agencies.  I don’t see how that can impinge on the free exercise of religion, but I can see how it keeps Congress from making laws respecting the establishment thereof.

 

SO WHO PAYS?

When my partner’s dad was still living, and we would sometimes go out to dinner with him and his wife, there was never any question of who paid.  He would always contrive to grab the check first and plunk down his cash (he didn’t much care for credit cards, as that meant going into debt), no matter how fast we might have tried to get at it before him.  That’s the kind of man he was, a former navy commander, upright, honest, no-nonsense, and the very definition of responsible.   A Republican all his life in that old-fashioned, now almost quaint, fiscally responsible take-care-of-yourself-and-those-you-love sort of way, he was a man I greatly admired. 

So, I’m left to wonder about Republicans these days and how they treat fiscal responsibility.  Yes, I know, they talk a lot about it, but what does it really come down to?  There’s a report in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times that lists some very interesting facts.  First of all, the way that economists measure debt is, in a sense, not so terribly different from the way you and I might in terms of the family budget.  If you borrow money because you spend more than you take in, you go into debt.  Pretty straight forward stuff. And that’s exactly what happens with the US debt, too.  If we spend more than we “make” – and what we make is measured in a general way by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – and borrow to cover the shortfall, then we’re in debt.  Another thing to understand is that virtually all nations carry some measure of debt.  That’s just the way the world seems to do business. 

What the big question really comes down to is: how much debt is too much debt?  Another way to put that is: how much debt is sustainable in the long run?   According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget, about 60% of GDP is what most countries consider a reasonable and sustainable debt load to carry.  OK, I’m willing to accept that, as much as I wouldn’t want that kind of debt for our household budget.  Still, I get it that countries are not the same as families when it comes to economics.  Now, for a simple guy like me, there are only a couple of ways to handle debt.  You can either a) make more money to cover your expenses, or b) you can spend less money, or there’s c), which is some combination of a) and b). 

It appears as though the Republicans pretty much favor b) by a long shot over a).  Spend less, spend less, spend less!  Reduce the amount of money the government pays out, and all will be well.  But that can only go so far, and like all budgeting, it comes down to a matter of priorities, that is, what to cut and what to keep?  On the other side of the equation, and to be fair about things, maybe the Democrats sometimes do lean too heavily on the a) part of our proposition above.  You can’t only take in more.  So, when it comes right down to it, I guess I’m a c) kind of guy.  Why not spend less AND take more in? 

It’s true that this means that we would have to agree on where and what and how much to cut.  That’s not an easy question, I know, since my priorities may not be your priorities, but in the end we have to come to some agreement.  Another contentious question may be the biggest of all: how do we raise GDP?  How do we make ourselves more productive?  The Republican answer is always to get the damn government out of the way and let the market do its thing, while the Democrats advocate for both increased taxes (especially on the wealthy) and for some measure of government oversight and assistance. These are maybe simplistic ways of putting it, but in the aggregate I think it’s not too far from the truth. 

Now, from what I’ve seen, especially in the free-wheeling Bush era of unhappy memory, when the cat was away, the mice just loved to play.  Government got out of the way, fiscally anyway, if not when it came to social, so-called “values” issues, and look what happened.  The rich got richer and richer, and the rest of us got a recession! So it doesn’t look to me as though that worked so well.  And what’s so unfair about asking those who earn a lot more to pay at least the same percentage in taxes as you and I?

Right now, again according to the Committee for a Responsible Budget, the country’s current debt load is at 70% of GDP, which is maybe shaky at best.  And Pres. Obama’s plan would push us to about 80% in the next decade.  That sounds pretty damning, until we look further and find out where the proposals of the current Republican nominees would take us.  With Romney’s, we’d reach between 85% and 96%; with Santorum’s proposals, we’d get to a dizzying 104%, and with Gingrich’s, we’d hit an astronomical 114% of GDP!  The only guy whose economics seem to work is Ron Paul’s, and even with his we’d still be at 76%.  But remember that his proposals mostly use cuts, and he thinks that raising taxes is another word for jihad

So, the question of who pays still remains.  You can’t go on forever borrowing from people.  Sooner or later, in my experience anyway, they want you to pay them back — with interest!  Again, that’s why, for now anyway, the only choice we may have is to make whatever cuts in spending we can agree on, AND to raise taxes, especially on those who can afford to pay them.  Maybe someday the economy will come roaring back so strong that we can actually lower individual and corporate taxes, but for the moment I’m not counting on it.  And the above numbers don’t lie.  What’s happening now in the economy is unsustainable.  Just ask the Greeks, and maybe the Italians and the Spanish, as well.   

The good commander, my partner’s dad, always picked up the tab.  And we were grateful, as much as we wanted to take them out to dinner once in a while, too.  But let’s not wait until there’s nobody left to pay the bill.  Let’s make the hard decisions now that will set us on the road to fiscal solvency.  And let’s not get duped by a bunch of Republican blather about how responsible they are, when their numbers just don’t add up – or to put it another way – when those numbers add up to just way too much.

Paul

G.O.P. Panic!

REPUBLICANS PANIC OVER THE 2012 GENERAL ELECTION

Backed into deep, dangerous right wing waters by the Tea Party coup, and weighed down with four unelectable candidates left swimming in their presidential primaries, the G.O.P. is descending into an ever more intense state of panic over the 2012 general elections.

The Deep, Dangerous Waters of Extreme Right Wing Positions and Policies:

  1. Foreign Policies and Wars – The G.O.P. exhibits a strange bipolar split between isolationism / withdrawal from the world, and constant threats of military build-up, escalation of hostilities and threats of war. They make fun of their own candidates who are so recklessly international in their interests to learn and speak French (Romney) or Mandarin Chinese (Huntsman.) They threaten to bomb Iran and the current G.O.P. presidential crop makes G. W. Bush look like a global darling.
  2. Birth Control and Women’s Rights – Today’s G.O.P. appears to stand to the extreme right of mainstream Americans with its position against birth control and a woman’s right to choice and control over her own body, health, and reproductive processes. There are even strong indications of Republican opposition to other basic human rights for women in their homes and in society at large. Women vote… right?
  3. Taxing the Poor and Giving the Rich a Big Break – Tea Party manipulated Republicans have clearly demonstrated that they really want to deny tax cuts and a minimum wage to the 99% of us who live in the middle and lower classes and pay 25% to 35% income tax. But they stridently demand tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of Americans who make over $1 million per year and now pay only 13% to 16% tax. Is this a good strategy for winning votes from financially struggling Americans?
  4. Subsidies for Rich Corporations – Republicans monolithically support subsidies for hedge fund managers and for the richest corporations in human history – oil companies that exacerbate climate change, rape the environment, and gouge consumers and our economy. Meanwhile our infrastructure is disintegrating.
  5. Working against Economic Recovery – Doesn’t it seem crystal clear that Republicans do not want the economy to recover, because they’d rather have a failed economy to use as a bludgeon against President Obama? They have worked against all of his efforts and expressed unified condemnation of all the successful policies started under G. W. Bush and continued in the present administration, to save the U.S. and the world from deep global depression. They demand a return to ruinous deregulatory policies that produce smoke-and-mirrors financial products like the credit default swaps and poisoned derivatives that very nearly brought this nation down and the rest of the world with us. Their four remaining presidential candidates are even unanimous in condemning the completely successful auto industry recovery strategy that saved Michigan and the U.S. economy.
  6. Anti-Labor Efforts – Since their midterm election success (and long before that, of course) the G.O.P. has waged an all-out war on labor unions, collective bargaining rights, fair wages, and pensions, for salt-of-the-earth public servants, like firefighters, police, teachers and other public service workers who are the core of the middle class work force, many of them Republicans. Is this any way to win friends, influence people and get votes? Watch what happens to Gov. Walker in Wisconsin to gauge the wages of this sin. He will be recalled and the workers will win their rights.
  7. Head-in-the-Oil-Sands, All-Out, Suicidal Denial of Global Climate Change – Virtually 100% of the world’s climatologists and other scientists urgently warn us of extremely dire consequences if we do not immediately take major steps to stop and reverse Global Climate Change. But most Republicans spend their time denying that it exists at all, as if they had more data and expertise than climatologists. They instead support a suicidal policy of rapid development and consumption of fossil fuels, while working against investment in alternative clean energy sources and ridiculing hybrid and electric cars. They are unanimous in supporting the Keystone Oil Sands Pipeline – a powerfully destructive endgame plan for Earth’s environment.
  8. Racist Immigration Positions – Tea Party members, Republicans, and extreme right wing conservatives exhibit jingoistic, racist fears and reactionary responses to “the browning of America.” They want to stop and harass people of color, deport them, and prevent them from voting. They refuse to recognize the ways in which immigrants have built our country and serve as a pillar of labor in our economy.
  9. Making Education a Privilege Only the Rich Can Afford – Republicans have long advocated closing down the Department of Education. Now they want to remove all Federal and state money from public education, effectively ending the right of the masses to educate ourselves and climb the ladder to better conditions. Republicans prefer the idea of an America in which education is a privilege that only the rich can afford. They want to deny education to our increasingly brown populace, because they don’t want more people of color like President Obama aspiring to power. Accordingly, they are slashing and burning education budgets.
  10. Gay Civil Rights – The most conservative and right wing elements now in control of the Republican Party oppose gay marriage, GLBT civil rights in general, and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But Rick Santorum, the current leader of the pack among their presidential contenders, has pushed the G.O.P. even farther to the right on gay issues, about which he seems to be unnaturally obsessed. Years ago he famously compared gay orientation to incest, bestiality and polygamy. His extreme homophobia is bringing out the worst in Republicans as he urges them toward questioning the goodness and morality of gay citizens who may represent about 10% of the American electorate. Will any GLBT people vote Republican in 2012?
  11. Religion, Dogma and Bigotry – Republicans no longer seem to believe in our Constitutional separation of church and state, as long as it is THEIR Church of Fundamentalist Christian Dogma and Bigotry that controls the state. They clearly believe that Islamic citizens and non-Christian Americans are actually un-American and should not be allowed to vote or hold office… In fact, they shouldn’t be here.
  12. Obstruction of Government – A large part of this problem is due to growing Tea Party and Republican belief that any government and all government activities are bad for America. They seem to be moving dangerously close to proposing anarchy, but it would be a kind of anarchy in which right wing ideologues would run society. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have achieved a nadir in popularity ratings by opposing anything and everything that the Democrats and the Obama Administration propose, even if the Republicans had originally proposed and supported it themselves… and even if it is supported by their own Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell. They have made government so dysfunctional that Congress would be more effective if it closed its doors and went home: anarchy.
  13. Extreme Right Wing Takeover – Ever since the ascendancy of the Tea Party and its ability to hold the Republican establishment hostage, the extreme right wing of the G.O.P. has hijacked their processes and positions and thwarted  the more mainstream agendas of Republican Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell. It has become almost impossible to find a moderate Republican anymore, as mainstream Republicans are forced to parrot Tea Party positions so outrageously and radically right wing that they cannot possibly prevail in the 2012 general election…. Or, if they do, it will be the end of America as we have known and loved it.The 13 deadly sins above are just the short list. There are a lot more. What do all of these positions and policies have in common? They represent a full-out attack on the people – the 99% of Americans – the vast majority of voters. Is it any wonder that the G.O.P. is in a panic about the 2012 election when they can’t stop themselves from alienating a big majority of the electorate? And people are catching on. Many conservatives are worried about guilt by association with the Tea Party extremists.

The Four Remaining G.O.P. Candidates for the Presidential Nomination

Republicans are in a panic about the 2012 general election partly because they have been painted into an extreme right wing corner by the Tea Party. But their panic is even more compellingly fueled by their disenchantment with the four remaining G.O.P. candidates left standing in their presidential primary process, because all of them look like sure losers against the mighty Obama re-election effort:

  • Rick Santorum is now a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination – a fact that seems so unlikely as to be downright surreal. But he is riding a strong wave of momentum because the G.O.P. is so disenchanted with their other three candidates and they have nowhere else to go. (Tim Pawlenty, you dropped out way too soon. You could have been the frontrunner now.) Senator Santorum may have trouble in Pennsylvania, though, where the voters eventually realized how radically right wing and out of bounds his views are. They voted him out by an 18% margin. However, Nixon proved long ago that anyone can come back from a devastating loss and win the presidency. Nobody thinks Santorum can take the White House, but everyone should be very concerned if he wins the nomination, because such a right wing radical extremist should never be allowed to get that close to the presidency.
  • Mitt Romney seems to have been running for the presidency all his life. He and his family look like they were designed for the White House by central casting in  Hollywood. But the Republican electorate does not like him. “The sins of the father are visited upon the son,” and George Romney was a liberal to moderate Republican – a political animal that does not exist anymore. Mitt’s genuine impulses are a lot like his father’s, and Republicans can smell that. They do not believe his conversion to “severe conservatism.” They don’t like the fact that he is a moderate, but worse than that, he is a super rich Massachusetts elitist intellectual who speaks French!
  • Newt Gingrich is universally hated by the Republican establishment. He rose to the top of the polls briefly and had a second surge a bit later, but recently he has fallen like a stone to the bottom of the pile. To know him is to reject him as a mean, scary little man with megalomaniac aspirations. Republicans do not trust him because he is the ultimate Washington insider. And yet, almost nobody who worked with him will support him. The story of his three marriages does not help him. Moreover his intelligence and sharp, articulate, witty attacks do not serve him well in the long run. Again, American voters do not like intellectuals. Ask Adlai Stevenson and John Kerry.
  • Ron Paul himself publicly admitted that he had no chance of winning the Republican nomination or the presidency. He has a relatively small but ardent cadre of supporters and contributors, but the Republican Party has never taken him seriously. This year they snub him at their peril, because if he were to run as a third party candidate for the presidency, he would surely split off enough conservative votes to insure President Obama’s re-election, just as Ross Perot managed to make the first Bush a one-term president and put Bill Clinton in the White House.

So… What’s going to happen?

There are a number of interesting potential scenarios both emanating from and exacerbating the Republican panic over the 2012 general election:

  • Open, brokered convention – An increasing number of Republicans and political commentators are talking about the possibility of an open, brokered convention. It is hard to see how a return to the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear could happen under the Republican Rules, but then, when it comes to elections, Republicans have never been very big on following the rules anyway. Maybe they’ll just change them and say, “Sorry, all you candidates who invested years of your life running for this nomination, and sorry, all of you billionaires and smaller donors who gave lots of money to them, but we are going to throw open this nomination process and draft Jeb Bush as our winning presidential candidate.”
  • Last-minute, Fifth Candidate – Is there any chance of a Johnny-come-lately, last minute candidate entering the race before the Super Tuesday Primaries? Could Tim Pawlenty somehow be resurrected? Mitch Daniels seems to be issuing “non-denial denials” regarding his interest in becoming a late entry, according to Chuck Todd.
  • Dreaded Third Party Candidacy – “Americans Elect” is already mounting a third party challenge for the presidency. They claim that three million people have expressed interest in their website, and they will narrow their list of candidates in May and choose one to run in June. They promise to put that candidate on all 50 ballots. This year anything could happen. We could see a fourth and fifth party, too. Donald Trump could decide that it would be good for his celebrity status and TV show to run on an independent ticket. So could Sarah Palin. Ron Paul might feel badly enough treated at the Republican Convention to spoil their soup and run as an independent. Many of these scenarios would spell re-election for President Obama.
  • Or… Maybe the G.O.P. Will Just Lose – If they continue on their current path, articulating extreme right wing positions and putting forward losing candidates, they may lose more than the presidency in the general election. They might just lose SO BIG that the Democrats would retake control of the House, bolster their position in the Senate, and replace a lot of Republican governors in the states.

 What’s going to happen?… A lot of rough and roiling water will have to pass under the November Election Bridge, along with a floundering G.O.P. elephant before we will know the answer to that question. But it is clear that the elephant is indeed floundering and in danger of drowning in those deep, dangerous extreme right wing waters. And the poor old pachyderm has fallen prey to a profound state of panic. No swimmer was ever saved from peril by giving in to panic. If the Republicans are going to survive this crisis, they are must analyze the needs of the electorate with a clear head and decide how to serve the vast majority of voters and stop alienating and insulting them. Then they need to nominate a mainstream moderate conservative candidate who can articulate a solid case for genuine service to the nation – in fact, service to the planet, and all its people.

— Kevin

POLITICS, PEOPLE, AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE

In the summer of 1971 I was twenty-six years old.  The previous November my mother, whom I was very close to, had just died at the young age of fifty, and I was feeling lost and hopeless.  As a high school teacher at the time, I had summers off, and I decided it would take my mind off things if I learned another language.  I had long been interested  in Russia, its culture, its people, and its literature, so I enrolled in an intensive summer language course at SUNY New Paltz. The first six weeks of it took place on that verdant and inviting campus, but the really exciting part was the second six weeks, when we went to what was then known as the Soviet Union.  We took an Aeroflot flight to Moscow in July of that year, and – believe it or not – when I arrived, I felt like kneeling down and kissing the Russian earth.  Luckily, I refrained, and did not make such a complete ass of myself

 Having grown up in relative poverty, I wanted to visit the Soviet Union because I thought that communism might provide a possible answer to the unequal distribution of wealth that I felt so keenly in this country.  The whole set up, then, seemed to me like a good way to kill several birds with one stone.  I would get to visit Russia, see communism first hand, learn some of the language, and then – well, unfortunately, that’s about where any clarity of thinking on my part ended.  After that, I guess I thought I’d just somehow figure things out later. 

 I should maybe hasten to say that things did not turn out as I had planned.  Not so much in terms of the language.  Although Russian is complex and difficult for foreigners to learn, I worked hard and began to gain a little fluency.  That part was fine, and I was pleased with my progress.  However, once I arrived in the country, along with my professor and the class I was part of, it began to dawn very quickly on me that communism wasn’t what I had hoped it might be.  People seemed depressed and downtrodden, and although I met more ordinary Russians than I had expected, most of them did not seem at all happy with their government.  Anything built at least since the war had a shoddy look too it, and people seemed somehow disappointed.  I remember one person telling me, frankly to my surprise, that he didn’t think much of communism, and he added: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” 

 I started to question all of the premises I had previously held, and by the time I left the country six weeks later, I was depressing aware that communism was pretty paltry as an economic system.  And what was worse, I had also witnessed enough of its totalitarian governance system to know that I did not at all like what I saw. 

 So, I came back to the United States in late August of that year, a little sadder, maybe a little wiser, and just in time to begin my teaching assignment in a rural high school in upstate New York. The point of all this reminiscence is that I felt adrift, morally and politically.  Communism was clearly not going to be the answer, and capitalism had always seemed cruel and greedy to me. 

 Things eventually changed in my life, and I left upstate New York, heading west, settling after a few years in California.  There I decided that you  can’t stay disappointed with life forever, so I plunged in headlong.  Later still, I ended up working at a large public university.  I ultimately rose to hold a relatively responsible position there, in charge of the university’s international programs. 

 But the question remained in my mind, had I ever figured out what was the best way to live?  In the end, there was no getting around the fact that I had embraced capitalism.  I was not a rich capitalist, mind you, but it’s almost impossible to live in this country without taking on the trappings of the system.  I eventually earned a decent wage, not huge, but enough, with my partner’s salary, to live not too uncomfortably.  Now, I’m a pensioner, and although in my heart I often still feel like the shanty Irish stock I come from, I’d have to say that things are okay.

 But I think a lot about other people, right here in this country, those who have not been as fortunate.  I think about the millions who do not have jobs, young people who haven’t been able to start their careers, people who can’t feed their families, or who have to choose between buying food and buying medicine, of those who are serving long prison terms for minor drug offences, those who are sick but have no insurance, or just so depressed they don’t feel like they can go on much longer.  Has capitalism served them well?  Probably not has to be the answer, I think.  Would communism have been a better choice?  Again, I doubt that very much, especially if Cuba and North Korea are any models from which to learn. 

 Contemplating these questions is, in a way, a lot like facing the issues related to global climate change.  You often feel pretty helpless about doing anything that seems all that meaningful.  I guess what I have ultimately decided is that I can at least write about my concerns, and I can give what’s possible to the charities I believe in, and I can vote for politicians who seem better to me than their opposites.  That pretty much comes down to voting for all the Democrats I can.  Not that Democrats are universally wonderful, but they’re a whole hell of a lot better than most Republicans, who cynically use wedge cultural issues to get the working class poor to vote for them, even though it goes contrary to people’s own economic interests.

 So, I’ll vote for Pres. Obama in the fall, and for as many liberal politicians as I can find.  All the while, knowing that the system is awfully far from perfect, that I in some ways contribute to it by accepting it and living according to its rules, and just by leading as happy a life as I can.  But maybe in the end that’s the answer, if there is one: live as intensely and as fully as you know how to, help others whenever possible, do what you can to find the answers to the Big Questions, however you define them, and leave the rest up to whatever Divine Power is beyond the thrust of your everyday routine.  It’s not a political dogma, that’s for sure, at least not like capitalism or communism, but it’s probably the best we can do.   And that, after all, is maybe all that’s expected of us.

Paul

Are You Angry?

It’s not hard to imagine why a lot of people are feeling angry these days, during a time of such great economic uncertainty and fiscal scarcity. Folks are mad because they’re frightened, scared that they will not have enough for themselves or their loved ones, worried that even what they do have might be lost without their being able to do anything about it, and concerned that the future may not turn out to be any better – and maybe even worse – than the present.  So, of course, who among us does not “get” these apprehensions?  And it’s axiomatic that fear can turn into anger, and from there it’s natural enough to feel that we want to lash out.  

 But if all this is so, why is it that some people express their unease – OK, their anger – by joining the Tea Party, and some choose what I would consider better, more human – more humane – ways of channeling that distress?  I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, but I have to admit I’m not sure I have any easy answers. 

 Here’s a story, though, that might have some bearing.  It’s about an incident that happened to me a few weeks ago, the afternoon of Pres. Obama’s State of the Union Address to be precise.  I was walking out of my gym at the same time as this very nice older gentleman whom I know who also works out there.  He’s eighty-seven years old, he told me, and he used to be a high school principal.  He and I often trade jokes about heating up the workout machines so much that the next guy can’t use them, mostly because we know our days of heating up machines, or most anything else for that matter other than maybe an electric blanket, are pretty much long gone.  He’s definitely someone whom I would consider to be a “nice guy,” funny, engaging, and personable.  So, I was a little taken aback when I heard his response to what I thought of as a pretty innocent, even innocuous, question on my part about whether or not he was going to listen to Pres. Obama’s speech that evening.  What he said was:  “Well, I suppose I’ll have to…have to listen to him tell us why he’s giving away so much of our money to people on welfare!” 

 So, what was I to think?  Is the word welfare code for “those lazy people who don’t want to work,” for people who sneak into our country only to use up our precious resources.  Or, more specifically – let’s face it – for those people of “a different color” who sponge off us good, white God-fearing Americans, who worked so hard all our lives and now deserve what we’ve gotten for ourselves, and what “they” now want to take away from us?  A lot of Americans seem to believe that the situation in the country has been reduced to a zero-sum game, that is, one wherein there are only so many goodies to go around.  It’s as if they were thinking:  “I had a third of the pie before, when there were only three of us eating it, but at this point I only get a quarter, or even a fifth of the pie, now that there are for our five of us at the table.  And on top of that, YOU guys didn’t even help MAKE the damn pie in the first place!”        

 Let me say right off that I think these kinds of simplistic explanations don’t do anybody any real service.  They’re a kind of reductio ad absurdum, in which we posit that there’s only so much to go around, and if YOU get some of what I had, then it necessarily follows that I get less.  It reminds me of politicians who compare the federal budget to somebody’s household budget.  You know, the ones who say: “Well, if parents don’t have enough money to take their kids to the movies, then they just make the decision not to GO to the movies!”  Well, of course that’s what they do.  Especially if they don’t have enough money to feed them either!  But these comparisons are not just apples and oranges, they’re more like atoms and whole star systems.  I’m not an economist, but I know that governments have always had to burrow as part of even very prudent and responsible fiscal planning, and they will probably always have to do so.  And a pie, or a movie, is not the same thing as a multi-billion dollar government program, set up to serve millions of people, most of whom, by the way, while they were working, paid into the very program that now helps them when they’re in need. 

 So, I’m not saying to anyone, don’t be angry anymore!  As much as I don’t like to admit it myself, I get mad sometimes, too.  But let’s funnel our anger at what deserves it.  Let’s get really pissed, maybe, at impersonal bureaucracy, at the wealthiest of the wealthy, who pay little or no taxes, at corporate polluters, who poison our air and our water supply, or at holier-than-thou preachers, who use God as a cudgel to beat us up with and who claim to have a monopoly on knowing what God says about how to live.   I definitely could get behind some good old anger at all of these.  But not at people who struggle on a daily basis to find a job, not at those who can’t put food on the table for themselves or their kids, not at those who have to choose between eating dinner and paying for their medication. Oh, and I have to be honest and admit as well, not at anybody who knows how to make a really good pie!  

Paul