Category Archives: Blog

When Fear & Arrogance Come Together

It is a deadly combination when fear and arrogance come together in America. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic theologian, said that “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether they are worthy.” This particular thread of Christian thought has been buried in an avalanche of judgment and division coming from people who call themselves Christians but behave like Pharisees toward anyone who is not of the same faith or does not follow the rules as they set and practice them. Merton’s words address one of the greatest sins of humanity: judging and demonizing others. No “side” of any argument, no party, and certainly no religious community is right to do that, but people forget (or never learn from) the atrocities of history that result when fear and arrogance gain a political platform. Donald Trump today tweeted something to the effect that the NFL should “force” players to stand for the anthem. That word “force” ought to give us pause when uttered by the leader of the free world. Sadly, I don’t see much evidence in history that a society’s being “forewarned” is enough to avoid carnage and catastrophe.

From the Thomas Merton Center web site:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a writer and Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. His writings include such classics as The Seven Storey MountainNew Seeds of Contemplation, and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Merton is the author of more than seventy books that include poetry, personal journals, collections of letters, social criticism, and writings on peace, justice, and ecumenism.

 

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Oligarchy is the New Democracy

We have a problem in America. A handful of powerful people, exemplified by Donald Trump, have decided that the nation is best preserved by serving them. They have taken practically all of the profit of a massive labor force for themselves, and under Donald Trump, they continue to gain freedoms to pollute the environment, cut the benefits of working people (including health care and full-time jobs), and evade taxation to keep the basic infrastructure and social safety net of this country viable. And when the social fabric begins to fray, and the protests begin, they will inevitably blame black people, poor people, immigrants, and the first black President Barack Obama. Sadly, desperate people who don’t follow the news cycle and investigative reporting will probably go along with this creeping tyranny. It has happened before. Ask Europeans.

When corporate earnings are strong, as they are now, but the “economy” is sluggish in terms of the number and quality of jobs created, what does that tell us? Stockholders of this new oligarchy in America are thriving because they are not reinvesting in workers or worker security. In fact, profit and stockholder confidence are directly tied to how cheaply corporations can get away with the payroll. No one is working to turn the tide of part-time jobs with no benefits as a model for the marketplace. In fact, the economy is sluggish and working people are demoralized because jobs that provide benefits like leave, health care, and pensions (so common after WWII) are rare for the average worker. Unemployment is not just about the need for job creation; it’s about the need for quality working and middle class job creation. You can’t do that without giving up some of the enormous profits our American oligarchs are raking in.

This might have gone on for years without being exposed for what it really is–the rise of an American oligarchy disguised as nationalism and working class simple values–a turd wrapped in a Republican cloth coat. I never would have put the words “oligarch” and “American” together if Donald Trump was not demonstrating every day that Vladimir Putin is his mentor and likely puppet master. Clearly, Trump is using the Presidency to advance his family’s financial and political power, and he is drawn to Putin as a model for how to make Democracy a profit center for a handful of individuals, especially himself, and how to pardon his family and himself for criminal and treasonous acts. An oligarchy is a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution. A turd by any other name is still a turd.

The question is: will the American people and our elected leaders eat it?

American prosperity should create the healthiest and most humane nation in the world

Republicans have no public service agenda except tax relief, which doesn’t build anything except more luxury for those who receive it, and Democrats only weakly advocate for what used to be the American ideal: that the more prosperous our businesses become, the more substantial the contribution should be to the common goods of infrastructure, safety, and the health of as many Americans as possible. Taxation is not punishment; it is investment. The United States Government, for years before the great lie of  Ronald Regan’s “trickle down economics” fooled a generation and blinded the next, that far from being inept, it can deliver infrastructure, health, and national security IF it can collect the taxes necessary to fund them. Without adequate contributions from the greatest profit-makers, the government’s effectiveness is indeed limited and its power ultimately destroyed, leaving most Americans unrepresented and unprotected from ruthless “gouging” in all marketplaces, including health care. Isn’t it beginning to feel like that already for most middle and low income Americans?

ObamaCare was rare, broad-based public service legislation. It was about making health care available for the largest number of Americans, with attendant benefits outweighing the costs. The latest Republican Health Care bill is not for the benefit of the American people. Instead, its primary constituency is insurance companies. It proposes to make it easier for insurance companies to offer less coverage or no coverage to older, sicker, and lower income Americans while providing tax cuts that allow rich taxpayers to continue resisting a fair “tithe” (in Christian terms) for the benefit of the community, and to serve none but their own interests.

Why is this even called a Health Care Bill? Its main objective, as Republicans have been saying all along, is not to use American prosperity to create the healthiest and most humane nation in the world, but to create and protect profit for corporations and very rich individuals. The quest to eliminate regulation and taxation from every major profit center in the American economy has been the Republican agenda for decades. Therefore, this is only a “health care bill” because it addresses the health industry profit center–not the legitimate health care needs of Americans living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Sadly, our leaders and their prosperous and powerful masters, seem unmoved by the fact that going cheap on health care hurts the greatest number of Americans the most. Whatever happened to the notion of a nation’s riches benefitting the most (rather than the fewest) people?

And why can’t the Democratic Party effectively turn the tide on this stingy, luxurious deception of the American people?  As much as I admire and appreciate the few individuals in Congress who are speaking out passionately from time to time, I can’t help wondering why Democrats can’t get past the outrage to articulate an alternative rhetoric that harkens back to what we accomplished after WWII in terms of social welfare and education, but also looks forward to what is even more possible with the resources and technology we have today.  Don’t rail against Donald Trump. He doesn’t need the name recognition. Rail against the Republican Party’s exclusive service to a fraction of the American public they are elected to represent.

The Founding Fathers tried to build a government structure that would not allow “factions” to rule the majority, but that is exactly what the Republicans have allowed to happen. They serve a right-wing minority and a tiny but powerful constituency of the wealthiest individuals and corporations, and the rest of us are just so many wealth-generating units whose “entitlements” to benefits like sick leave, vacation leave, parental leave, child care, health care, and pensions need to be eliminated as much as possible to maximize the profits of the top one percent.  Look at the Republican legislative and regulatory agenda over the past thirty years, and then look at the quality of life for middle and lower-income workers in this country, and it seems obvious that our interests are nowhere on the Republican radar.

That doesn’t mean that the Democrats are ready to save the day, unfortunately. I’m hoping for a Democratic Renaissance of public service ideals–not holding my breath, though.

 

Now that the White House and the Cabinet are full of Billionaires looking to reform the tax code, hmmmmm . . .

Now that the White House and the Cabinet are full of Billionaires looking to reform the tax code, hmmmmm . . .

Why don’t Billionaires and Corporate Giants come out of the closet? Why do they use the working and middle classes as their human shields when going into battle with Congress to get more of the American economic pie? What don’t they just come out and say, “We deserve 99% of the wealth produced in this country, and we don’t want to share it with people who are not like us and are not capable of creating jobs. The 99% should just be content with wages and tighten their appetites, and if they have mental and physical disabilities–that’s what charity is for, not government. Billionaires are an endangered species, far outnumbered by the rest of the population, and we need protection and special treatment.”

Instead, these self-described “job-creators” use the working stiff, the veteran, and the traditional Mom and her apple pie as their foils. They pretend, and we let them, that all the tax cuts and profit protections that they have purposefully carved out of the economy are essential to the survival of us all. They argue, and too many believe them, that American workers’ wages, pensions, government services, and infrastructure must be sacrificed so that they can do their jobs of “creating jobs.” And yet the jobs they create are not living wage jobs or, more truthfully, are not created at all. Benefits like paid leave, health insurance, and pensions have gone the way of the Dodo bird except for executives and top management in this country. And when Americans are thwarted and angry at their dwindling opportunities and benefits, our friends, the Billionaires, tell us to blame government regulation, immigrants, minorities, gays, abortion–anything and anyone but them. And many people do.

My mother had a phrase when she wanted to warn me about friends who might take advantage of me. I think a paraphrase of her wisdom applies here:

With “friends” like these Billionaires, us working stiffs don’t need enemies.

 

View from the Alley: Let’s Make Congress Part-Time & Cut Their Benefits!

Why not? They seem to have no idea what it’s like for a substantial portion of the American workforce. We do full-time, professional quality work (I’m thinking of adjunct professors because I am one, but also administrative and clerical, blue-collar and service workers –well, that covers just about all of us who are not Congressmen or Senators, doesn’t it?

We do full-time, professional quality work, but our job descriptions limit us to just under the number of hours it takes to qualify for benefits like leave, health insurance, life insurance, pensions, and overtime (because they DO expect us to put in those extra hours out of “professionalism” if a crisis arises). This is what American workers have settled for to do our duty for “the economy.” And yet, statistically, the economy is only profiting the 1% at the top.

Meanwhile, many of the tired, angry workers of this country have spent several decades  now in a systematically controlled exercise in distraction from who is really screwing whom–trying to get government to control gay people, birth control generally,women’s bodies specifically, and where people pee. This has yielded a “denial script” for Republican leaders about stopping people from doing things that they consider should not be their right to do, taking something away from people that Republicans think they don’t deserve, and cutting taxes for the rich so-called “job-makers.”

While the Democrats failed to counter this juggernaut of negativity in the last Presidential election, that is not to say that they don’t have what it takes to do so. I’d like more of them to argue (much as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have done) that these are not the best pursuits (or even the legitimate pursuits in some cases) of government. In a country as rich as ours, we ought to be thinking about how to keep the poorest, most vulnerable people among us (children, elders, and the physically and mentally disabled) from destitution–not how to judge them like we are all God at the Gate of Heaven. We should not want to cut them off.  First of all, we are paying for them anyway! Those who choose to go uninsured, for example– either because they don’t want to pay or can’t afford to pay for health insurance–still get sick and still get old and still end up getting medical care that the insured pay for. So, how is their “freedom” from health insurance so great for the economy? It’s only great for the health care providers and the prescription drug companies.

The idea that in a powerful and economically strong nation, we should all accept some “pain” to take care of each other, is not a radical notion. It is fundamental to just about every religion, and yet there is little evidence of it in our political rhetoric, especially not in the so-called religious right wing of the Republican party. So much judgment and so little humility . . . and over the past several years an astonishing evangelical promotion of Right Wing “values”that amounts to “social engineering,” a term Republicans like to reserve for Democratic programs and policies but view with a blind eye when it comes to their own.

Meanwhile, look at our jobs . . . and look at our leaders’ jobs. And while we’re at it, look at the jobs of CEOs and the super rich, and the benefits including freedom from taxation, that they enjoy. Are they ever in danger of losing income, hours, or benefits? And yet they wield the axe over the rest of us like there’s no tomorrow! This is what I’ve been thinking about as I watched the repeal of Obamacare sour and curdle like very old milk. In the end, not even Paul Ryan wanted to drink it–at least not in public. So, I suggest that Congress socially engineer itself into a part-time workforce without benefits. And, by the way, I don’t care which bathroom they use as long as they behave decently. So, no need for legislation on that.

 

What’s New in the Alley_March 2017

Looking out over the urban landscape in these days of political division and inertia, I have a literary reaction.

My book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things is about a boy with a knack for making something out of nothing, and the great “junk horse” he creates for the Powderhorn Parade is a metaphor for the power of a child’s love and imagination to make something beautiful out of other people’s trash. But there is more being “recycled” than the debris that accumulates in the dumpsters and alleys of Powderhorn Park.

I tried to suggest this with my original title for the book: The City of Paris. My beta readers didn’t find my play on words as clear or engaging as I did, so I gave it up. I think, however, that with the recent rise in negative public discourse around immigration and diversity, I’d like to share what that title meant to me and what I was trying to get across.

This narrative is more than a coming-of-age novel about the individual identity quest of a young boy. It has always been equally important to me that this story represents the dynamic and essential, ever-changing face(s) of a community—specifically an urban American community. The Powderhorn neighborhoods and the “Parises” who live in them are not unique to my imagination or to Minneapolis; and, that is why I wanted to feature “the city” in my title. In my opinion, “the city” suffers from a negative stereotype that I wanted to challenge. I also hoped that readers would see Paris and children like him more clearly and empathetically, and recognize that it is they who make the cities of America hopeful places, full of creativity, resourcefulness, and families created not necessarily through blood but through need and empathy.

Based on responses from my readers of all ages, the message gets through regardless of the title—so I’m not going to change it! But I think it’s important in light of today’s divisive political climate to stand up for the array of ideals embodied in America—not only individualism but also community; not only America first ahead of all others, but America first to be humane. Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things is about the challenges facing all of us, to make something out of nothing—a “coat of many colors” for Lady Liberty woven from the threads most of us should remember with humility that we have carried from someplace else to these shores.

In Response to My Middle School Readers: Why you write is as important as what you write

Recently, middle school students at a charter school in New Jersey, who also happen to be writing novels, read my book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things and invited me to visit. It was gratifying to meet people who took the serious issues seriously, laughed at the comedy, loved the characters, and begged me to write a sequel. But before I arrived, they sent me a list of questions and comments that gave me a chance to look at my story with fresh eyes.

I realized that writing Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost things was very much influenced by a book of photographs I received as a prize for winning an essay contest in high school. It came from a famous 1955 photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Family of Man.” They were vivid black-and-white images of people of many cultures and colors from around the world— working, playing, laughing, crying, eating, dancing, falling in love, getting married, celebrating, and sometimes mourning. It was a moving representation of the idea that in spite of our different appearances, religions, abilities, and traditions, we all share these experiences. Growing up in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War reminding us every day that differences and fears can lead to violence, I knew I wanted to stand against that in my writing.

Respect for diversity, and love for what is good in humanity is at the heart of my writing. The dictionary says that diversity means, “being composed of differing elements or qualities,” but in America today that word suggests a lot more. It’s about people—and the racial, cultural, sexual, and ability-related “qualities” that make each of us unique and yet part of the human family. The trouble is the human family is often dysfunctional. Nevertheless, we humans have our moments of excellence. I found many in Powderhorn Park, the inner city neighborhood where my novel is set.

In Powderhorn Park “family is who shows up.” It isn’t always what we might expect—two working parents and a nice house in the suburbs. Often, it’s a mix of people coming together to help each other when the “usual” supports are missing. Maybe, there’s one parent, or no job, or no house and not enough money; or, maybe bullying, war, and prejudice, have turned the world upside down for a lot of people all at once. Those are the harsh realities that sometimes, in some places, create new families and new communities.

Powderhorn Park has always been that kind of place. Negative TV and movie images of the “city” are not the whole story of what goes on there. It is also refuge for people when they get lost in life, when they might not be welcome anyplace else because they’re poor or sick or troubled. It’s a place of hope as well as problems, where people do turn their lives around, where people do help each other.

In the book, there is a Powderhorn Parade based on a real  parade (the May Day Parade) that has been going on for forty years. It is a yearly event in which most of the costumes and floats come from recycling and repurposing things that might otherwise be thrown away, and the people bring to it all their cultural influences, colors, and rhythms like pieces of a mosaic. It’s a way to refresh and hold on to traditions and share them with new neighbors.

It is not just “stuff” that can get lost or “thrown away” but also people. It is hard to accept, for example, that anyone or anything we love can be truly lost to us, but it happens. It’s not always easy to know what we can do about the bad things that happen in the world, but the students I met let me know that they were glad to read about a fatherless “brown boy, wiry and strong, with dark eyes shaped like almonds, clear and alert, wide-set in a face the color of coffee with cream” and named Paris Thibideaux, who gave it a try.