For One Day, Let’s Just be Thankful

This has been a tough year.  It feels as though no matter whether your candidate won or lost, we’ve all lost a little bit of ourselves.  Many have lost friends, have become estranged from family, have felt threatened or intimidated, or have been overcome by anger and frustration.  American elections are supposed to bring out the best of our democracy.  This election brought out the worst.  It is in this divisive time that we must remember that Thanksgiving – in a sense our most apolitical and secular national holiday – was borne of division.  In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving for all Americans (I’ve posted the entire proclamation for your leisure):

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

This description of the United States would seem foreign to many Americans in 1864.  The Country was torn by violence, a million people would be dead by the end of the Civil War.  Millions more would be in mourning for the loss of their homes, their livelihoods, and their loved ones, and yet – Thanksgiving.

Yesterday morning on the radio, I heard people from all over this great nation – from Spokane to Houston or Oneida – talk about how they would not be going home for Thanksgiving for the first time in 15, 25, 45, or even 60 years.  Each of them cited political strife and disunity as the cause for their choice, yet none of these people sounded happy or proud to make this change.  Rather, they all sounded exhausted.  It is clear that all of us, no matter our politics, religion, or current predicament, need a respite from what seems like an unending political season.  Even here in Northern Virginia, it is not too much to suggest that we simply take a day off.  Stop checking the news, stop making underhanded remarks about some political figure or party.  Just take a moment to enjoy all of the good in the world.  For many, this may be something not done for decades.

So, I propose a simple rule for tomorrow.  No politics.  That’s all.  While this will be most helpful to those with political division at the dinner table, my wife and I will nevertheless be asking our guests to adhere by this rule, even though we believe that they all voted the same way earlier this month.

thanksgiving-turkey-gif-dfubmj-clipartLet’s have a day of Thanksgiving.  Let’s talk about football and theater, about our childhoods and our aspirations, about our favorite recipes and hopes for a white Christmas and a short winter.  Leaving our frustrations and divisions and, dare I say, strong opinions behind, if only for a few hours, may help bring us back together, allowing us to remember that we are all a collective people.  We are Americans.  We are free.  And, for that, we should be thankful.

 

Advertisements

We Can Be Free : My Undying Faith in the American Ideal

The Plot Against America begins with a charismatic Republican taking advantage of people’s fears, preying on their fears, and assuring Americans that the perceived threat, or the conspiratorial threat of the immigrant conspiracy, is the true danger, logic aside.  This novelization of alternative history is, today, beginning to sound more and more like fact.  Philip Roth’s story details how it could have happened that the Jews, rather than the Nazis, became the public’s indicted villains of World War II.  In the story, the United States government silenced and killed off critics to further the constructs of hatred and fear while propagandizing the supposed perfection of the Christian-American narrative.


We will always have hate and prejudice in society.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is arrogant.  Yet, American society has survived religious hatred, racial hatred, sexual hatred, political hatred, ethnic hatred, and class hatred.  We have absolved our nation of none of these deep-seated hatreds, but over time many have been repressed and routed away from the centers of public society.  Generally, we have witnessed fewer and fewer instances of outright endorsements of bigotry, mistreatment, or racism by leaders and officials.  This has been perhaps the greatest success of the last half-century.  For those who see this as oppression of speech, so be it, but it is difficult to believe that our nation has been made worse by greater acceptance of – and greater pressure to accept – the “other.”

While public discussion of people’s hatreds may have departed from the public realm for a while, these seem to be returning to the public conversation, often in the form of charged diatribes.  For the purposes of comprehensive analysis, it may be rightly assumed that this new era of “freedom” began just over seven years ago, with the election of a non-White President.  For context in this conversation, I believe that it was not Barack Obama being Black that caused this groundswell of anger, but more generally the fact that he is not White/European-American.  Somehow, it seems unlikely that an Hispanic or Asian-American president would have suffered fewer indignities and insults related to race and religion.  These include racially-charged theories on comment boards, as well as those promoted by opposition media and political leaders.

When this groundswell of opposition resulted in the success of the Tea Party Patriots candidates in the 2010 midterm election, the anger was legitimized.  Tea Party officials placed full blame on the President for everything, even if he had never been part of the decision, or he did not have the power to make such a decision, or if such a decision had ever existed.  They appealed to the lowest common denominator, convincing their supporters that individual rights and freedoms were under attack.  Despite decades of relatively conservative governments (by United States standards), a socialist conspiracy was supposedly underway to take away guns, make people ultra-dependent on the government, delegitimize our military might, and to destroy the American spirit.

This campaign worked well, despite the lack of evidence to support these claims, until the economic conditions of Americans started improving again.  With a nation no longer wallowing under the forces of high unemployment, low morale, lack of opportunity, and anxiety about the future, the Tea Party has begun to lose their power.  Further, despite continued anti-Obama propaganda, the President – who has only a year left in office – has not acted to take away guns, ban free speech, steal people’s property, or force people into breeding colonies.

(Okay, that last one might be made-up).

So what does a hate-monger do when his propagandizing fails to come to fruition?   Go back to his roots, of course.  If hating one brown person didn’t work, how about hating a whole nation of them?  This reincarnation has been provided thanks to GOP Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson whose eccentric and odd campaigns have become hate-fests, with everything from absurd and unfounded claims about thousands of Muslim-Americans celebrating in Jersey City as the World Trade Centers fell, to religious litmus-tests for everything from immigration to the Presidency.  Of course, intertwined with this concept is a complete misrepresentation of the dynamics and sects of Islam at play in Syria.**

**(For example, the Alawites are a rather liberal branch of Shia and the Druze are not Muslim at all.  ISIS, meanwhile, is made of an extremist, fundamentalist ideology of Sunni Muslims.  Shia and Sunni do not get along particularly well, so to label Shia Muslims as potential members of ISIS makes little sense.  Even most Sunnis do not subscribe to the extreme ISIS/Al-Qaeda/Terrorist-Radical-Extremist ideology.  It would be akin to assuming all Christians adhere to the teachings of the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church missions of hatred and terror.)

Regardless, the hateful rhetoric is increasing.  As this occurs, a buffer is provided to those who want to engage in hateful speech and actions against their neighbors.  This mob mentality is anti-American, as can be seen through early American documents, such as the Thomas Jefferson-authored Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia or the Constitution of the United States.  More recent purveyors of this American ideology include Martin Luther King, who spoke often of equality in a diverse nation, and even George W. Bush, who despite many failings in the Oval Office, fought tirelessly to ensure that Muslim-Americans, many of whom had fled their homelands to escape extremists, and Muslim societies throughout the world, did not become scapegoats for the actions of a few terrorists on September 11th, 2001 who happened to adhere to an extremist and radial branch of Islam.

As Mr. Trump ramps up his suggestions that we register adherents to Islam, place government monitoring on all Mosques, or shutter them entirely, and as Dr. Carson calls for surveillance of “radicalizing” communities, we must be vigilant of the fact that these actions would symbolize an end to American religious freedom.  One of the proudest aspects of American history is our strong resolve never to endorse one religion over another and never to place undue restrictions on a specific religion.  This culture of inclusiveness has provided Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, and countless other minority religions with a free and uninhibited place to practice their religions for well over two centuries.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, it may also be worth considering that Americans are still far more likely to be killed or assaulted by American-born Americans; that your mother, father, spouse, or child is far more likely to be killed by a legally-produced and legally-purchased weapon in the United States than by any homemade device built by a Muslim terrorist.  If we, as a diverse-yet-inclusive melting pot of a nation, can survive the most deadly and painful terrorist attack in our history without losing sight of the American ideals of peace and freedom, then we can find it in our hearts to be compassionate people and save those who are living in fear for their lives and their family’s lives due to attacks from ISIS terrorists.


In the 1930’s, our nation; my nation, chose not to save European Jews from genocide.  Whether this was due to antisemitism or to some sort of fear that these persecuted peoples were instead Nazi secret agents, we will never know.  In the 1970’s, we chose to ignore the slaughters in Cambodia and Bangladesh.  In the 1990’s, we chose not to save the Tutsi population in Rwanda.  At the beginning of this century, we chose to ignore the genocides in the Darfur region of Sudan.  As we time and again have failed to learn from history, we seem forever doomed to repeat our failures.  We again must choose, as we did in the 1930’s, between changing course and embodying our ideology of inclusiveness, or embracing underlying feelings of hate and distrust.  I hope we are able to make the truly American decision and open our hearts and our borders for those suffering.  This response will show our naysayers and detractors who we really are, and will help us to prevent ISIS from claiming even more innocent victims.

When the last child cries for a crust of bread
When the last man dies for just words that he said
When there’s shelter over the poorest head
We shall be free

When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within
When the skies and the oceans are clean again
Then we shall be free

When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free

And when money talks for the very last time
And nobody walks a step behind
When there’s only one race and that’s mankind
Then we shall be free

– Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis, 1992

Because.

A headline in The Atlantic magazine yesterday declared:

When America Was ‘Great,’ Taxes Were High, Unions Were Strong, and Government Was Big

And when considering history, this title is entirely accurate.  The United States became the land of opportunity for millions of immigrants (many of them who may have come here through less than scrupulous means) and for natural born citizens alike through the creation of workers’ rights legislation and unionization.  Hence, those opportunities that were unavailable to the uneducated person in the shtetls of Eastern Europe – such as a decent wage and a steady job – became a possibility if one could only make if across the ocean.  Once here, they could join unions that advocated for things that a few years prior had never existed.  These fancy benefits included a day or two off each week, a reasonable limit on the hours each day that a person was expected to work, pay scales that would allow these workers to feed their families, and repercussions if an employer tried to short-change, threaten, or abuse an employee.  The Lloyd-La Follette Act protected civil servants from abuse, the Keating-Owen Act protected children from abuse, the Adamson Act created the 8 hour workday, and the Fair Labor Standards Act effectively ended legalized slave labor by instituting a minimum wage.  These pieces of legislation all addressed real problems that existed at the time.  Altogether, Congress took up the task of protecting and granting executable rights to the American working class, while unions helped them to fight for fair wages and benefits.  Even with tough regulations and active unions, we as a nation funded and constructed schools, interstates, roads, bridges, hospitals, electrical infrastructure, parks, and millions of homes.  While taxing the wealthiest Americans at or above 90% of income, the largest middle class in American history was born, and through the G.I. Bill, their children got a great education.  For older Americans, Medicare and Social Security became true social safety nets.

And then we got arrogant.  Really, really arrogant.

The nation – specifically the Baby Boomer generation that benefited most from these programs – found faith in a false mythology.  They began to cling to the ideas of an actor from California, who claimed that all of the things achieved in the United States in the past decades had happened…because.  Yes, because.  Because America is just that great.  Because America is just that special.  Ronald Reagan advocated a theology of American exceptionalism that portrayed America as a place where all of these advances – fair pay, opportunity, access, services, and infrastructure – all just happened.  The willful ignorance in regard to the why of these benefits was attributed to conceptual exceptionalism, or because.  Now don’t get me wrong – I think that America is an exceptional country with an exceptional history!  After all, we as a people have invented everything from modern republican government to religious freedom to Weekend at Bernie’s.  We’re not – and have never been – slackers.  Americans not wanting “handouts” is completely aligned with our history of bootstrapping and entrepreneurialism.

Believing in American exceptionalism thankfully does not require ignorance – or dismissal – of our history.  Whether or not you find yourself in ideological alignment with these facts, the United States is a country that has witnessed and gained great benefit from government programs and regulations. We have even taken all of these programs and regulations into our national identity without giving up a system based on capitalism and a relatively free market.

And yet, somehow we still find ourselves capitulating to this false narrative.  As every other civilized nation (and even some of the less-civilized nations) on the face of the earth regulates paid maternity leave, we have none.  As every other developed nation has a national healthcare system resulting excellent outcomes and generally improved costs of services, we have none.  As the other economic powerhouses invest thousands of dollars per capita in infrastructure, we cannot even muster the funds to maintain the roads, bridges, and rails that we have already built.  Since we killed or otherwise weakened the programs and regulations that helped build and create the America of the 1960’s, we have seen a depleted middle class (i.e. a rise in economic inequality), an increase in transportation costs, multiple functionally-obsolete bridges collapse, and a nation where – despite the most productive workforce in our history and the highest average weekly work hours Americans have seen since the Great Depression – wages are stagnant while costs in every sector are continuing to rise at a steady clip.  More education than ever is needed to achieve even a decent wage, and this education is more expensive than ever.  Millennials are drowning in student loan debt and therefore have no money to spend on major investments like houses and children which is further handicapping our economic potential.

If we’re ever going to get out of this rut, we need to be honest with ourselves and our history.  Government spending is not the polar opposite of economic growth.  Government regulations and programs are not the opposite of a healthy economy.  Our once best-in-the-world schools and infrastructure are suffering because of woeful disinvestment.  We cannot keep our government running on life-support through Continuing Resolutions and expect things to get better, and we cannot keep pretending that our success as a nation is simply because.

Our nation’s success has been based on hard work, sweat, tears, protests, ideas, rights, regulations, and an active, pragmatic government.  America spent 200 years (1770s-1970s) aiming for greater fairness and opportunity for all.  If we can return to those principles, I am sure that we can get our nation back on track and be the nation that we claim to be: a beacon onto the world.

The Impoverished Minimum Wage

When discussions regarding raising the minimum wage are attempted by lawmakers or pundits, the response seems to always outline one of the following talking points:

  • “The minimum wage wasn’t meant as a living wage”
  • “The minimum wage wasn’t meant for full-time employees”
  • “The minimum wage wasn’t meant for self-supporting employees”
  • “The minimum wage stifles job growth”
  • “The minimum wage is already too high”

And while we have the constitutional right to dissent, none of these claims happen to pass the fact test.

  • “The minimum wage wasn’t meant as a living wage” – Actually, it was.  The entire concept of the minimum wage was not about worker value but the idea that someone who works full-time should not have to live in poverty.  They should be able to have a roof and food and clothing.  Nothing fancy, just the basics.
  • “The minimum wage wasn’t meant for full-time employees” – Wrong again.  In fact, part of the early attempts and successfully implemented laws included limits on working hours.  FDR pushed for a maximum 44 hour work week.  He and his economic team believed that a shorter week, combined with a minimum wage, would ensure that while people in low-skill jobs made enough to support themselves, they would not be forced to work 80+ hours, as was common at the time.  Child labor laws were also included in these proposals.
  • “The minimum wage wasn’t meant for self-supporting employees” – This is exactly who it was meant for.  Back when people began to push for these laws, most people did not change jobs and did not seek higher education.  There were no burger joints or retail stores offering high-school students preparatory and supplemental income jobs as they saved for college.  The law was aimed to assist and protect industrial workers and miners who were (and still are) often helpless when it comes to salary negotiation.
  • “The minimum wage stifles job growth” – This point is a little trickier, but still incorrect.  It relates to micro- and macro-economics.  When running a business, my goal is to have the biggest net profit.  The lower my costs, the higher my revenues, the greater my profits.  That’s simple.  Except that it’s not that simple.  If we were to rid ourselves of the minimum wage today, what would happen?  Many businesses that hire low-income workers also depend on their business.  Consider fast food restaurants, bodegas, and discount department stores.  If salaries at the lower end decrease, then sales and revenues and profits for many large companies decrease, which means fewer jobs, which means decreased wage growth.  This in turn means more people in need of government welfare funds – even those who still have jobs and are not earning enough to get by.  Of course, this still happens today.  Paying fair wages means more money changing hands, which means more economic growth.
  • “The minimum wage is already too high” – Nope.  If someone is working 40+ hours a week and isn’t able to make it to the edge of being out of extreme poverty, the minimum wage is, if anything, too low. With the wage earned over a 40-hour work week still below the poverty line, employees who work full time but lack the skills (or time) to gain a better education must supplement their incomes with government programs, adding to the deficit and government spending.   In short, it’s a short-term win for these retailers, long-term loss for the nation.  So let’s calculate the wage needed for a worked to support himself or herself and one dependent, then set and tie that to the minimum wage based on a 40-hour work week.   That will mean the government won’t have to provide these indirect subsidies to these businesses anymore, and doesn’t everybody want that?

So don’t buy into the talking points.  Opportunity in America means ensuring that those who work full-time have a shot at a decent life, and that can only happen if their wages are high enough to afford a roof for shelter, a bed in which to sleep, and food to eat.  If workers can earn enough to pay for that themselves, rather than through government assistance, all the better.

Never Read the Comments

The Washington Post published the results of a survey of White Americans last week, noting that progress on racial beliefs has improved drastically in some areas.  And while one might not consider 1 out 4 Americans feeling they should not have to sell their house to a Black American and do not want a Black American marrying into their family, nearly the same proportions believe the sun revolves around the earth and are unsure from what country the United States gained independence.  So considering the massive declines in many categories regarding perspectives on race, I suppose one can say that real progress has been made.

Of course, I made a stupid decision after reading the article, I kept reading.  The comments may very well echo the beliefs held by the 25% of ignorant-prejudiced-arrogant-hate-filled racists.  And yet, I don’t think they do.  My concern for the not racist racists.  The ones who do not actually hate people of color, but rather employ a great deal of propogandized stereotyped assumptions and beliefs to justify the inequalities and injustices that befall their countrymen.  They do this so they don’t have to shoulder any blame.  But such beliefs, of course, ignore many indisputable facts.

The Kaiser Family Foundation monitors poverty rates across the United States.  Did you know there are more than 19-million White Americans in poverty in the United States right now?  That’s nearly double the 10-million Black Americans in the same condition.  And yes, the comparative population sizes mean that a significantly-higher percentage of Black Americans are in poverty, in fact more than 1 out of 4.  But that, by logic, means that nearly 3 out of 4 are not.  That means that the woman on the cell phone in front of you in line at the grocery store that you think she got through welfare is significantly more likely to be living above the poverty line than below it.  And no, welfare does not count towards that household income measure, and it certainly does not raise families out of poverty and into luxury.

But, we do know something much less disputable.  Poverty breeds poverty.  Opportunity is not magic.  It is far more likely the reason that places like Youngstown and Detroit and Camden have seen so many years of disinvestment and so much white flight.  The opportunity disappeared.  Did you know that the entire State of Michigan is losing population?  White cities and suburbs and even rural areas are seeing losses, not just Detroit and Flint.

And no.  Conducting a poll of only one race is not racism.  Especially when that race happens to hold much of the societal power.  This is the conversation (and I really hate that phrase as it sounds so useless) that we need to have now.  As a ruling class in this nation, whites have never been subjugated on a broad scale because of the color of their skin.  Whites have never been told that they would do well as a group if they just worked harder while they were accused of being fraud-mongering drains on the economy.  Think about it – if nearly twice as many White Americans are under the poverty line, that would indicate that far more welfare monies are spent on them than any other race in America.  Where is the decrying of yokels and hillbillies and the jobless and unmotivated in Americas rural areas by the welfare-cutting Reagan conservatives?  His “welfare queen” didn’t live in these areas.  She lived in Chicago.  And the mythology continues.

Some blacks may not like whites. Some whites may not like blacks. I would not suggest that racist thought ought to be illegal. However, for those still wondering why protests have broken out all over the country, and why massive rallies are planned for dozens of cities this Saturday, maybe it’s time you started reading the comments, and give some thought to the impossible paradoxical expectations and overt and covert racism and prejudice that persists towards millions of hard-working Americans, just because of the color of their skin.  Blacks “overcoming” racism is as absurd an idea as Jews overcoming antisemitism, and even with an Ivy League master’s degree – hell, I have no idea how I can end that either.