Posts Tagged 'police'

The Politics of Insanity

In the “Politics” Aristotle says, “ The mere establishment of a democracy is not the only or principle business of the legislator, or of those who wish to create such a state, for any state, however badly constituted, may last one, two, or three days; a far greater difficulty is the preservation of it.” Today we are confronted with the preservation of American democracy in the face of an ongoing political assault on behalf of oligarchs and assorted religious zealots. Something has gone terribly wrong in a society when elected representatives of the polity are hell-bent on destroying that polity’s social contract on behalf of sociopathic billionaires.

At the end of the film, “King of Hearts” Alan Bates’ character enrolls himself in an insane asylum to escape the madness of war. Where do we go to escape the madness this country is becoming? Whether it’s a U.S. Representative speaking about an imminent attack on US soil by the ISIS group, “Boca Raton”, or a cop in Jackson, Mississippi feeling sufficiently threatened by a 6 year old child to draw his revolver, or the Georgia legislator who introduced legislation to prohibit the mixing of human embryos with jelly fish cells to prevent creating “glow in the dark” children. We are sailing along the shores of insanity. It’s a refrain from a Pink Floyd tune,”… and everyday the paperboy brings more” that comes to mind.

There are large segments of the American population easily manipulated by shameless politicians and propaganda media outlets like Fox to enflame their emotions and anger. Roger Ailes, the Fox News President, goes so far as to say, “The truth is whatever people will believe.” According to a study done last year, 60% of the information Fox viewers receive ranges from mostly false to “pants on fire” lies which rise to the level of propaganda. Insecurity, ignorance, fear, anger, and resentment are thus driven by outright misrepresentation and lies. And this leads to, as one writer put it, a “… mis-recognition of social orders as natural ways of life, rather than political products.” How can a society function in the wake of such an onslaught? Actually, it cannot as people become angrier and ever more resentful.

Resentment is epidemic as politicians play as many segments of society off against one another as they can devise. It is important to understand that people probably wouldn’t agree to being characterized as resentful but this circumstance has historical precedence. Tocqueville, described the build-up to the French revolution as having been a period of relative affluence and “gratified expectations” followed by “a period of set-back when expectations continued to rise and were sharply disappointed.” We are seeing the same dynamics now as more and more good paying jobs are shipped overseas resulting in diminished wages even as prices for necessities inexorably rise. A trip to the grocer is a lesson in point. Young people and old are looking for work and middle class families with jobs are living on credit with foreclosure breathing down their necks.The result is fear, uncertainty, acted out as anger ready to be manipulated and focused.

To make matters worse legislatures, at the instigation of their wealthy sponsors, are moving to freeze or lower minimum wage levels as they advance so-called right-to-work laws. In New Mexico where right to work is being considered there is even mockery as a legislator had the unmitigated gall to attach an amendment to the RTW bill raising the state’s minimum wage by 50 cents per hour which, over an eight hour day, amounts to less than the cost of a gallon of milk. Such is the disregard and disdain for working class people and why they are being driven to resentment. Resentment against what or whom they aren’t always sure but, more often than not, against the wrong people. People who post nasty on Facebook against any statement in support of the poor or against the looting of the American social contract are desperately afraid that they are next and, in fact, they probably are next.

Oligarchs behind social destruction are using their money to manufacture popular anger and direct attention away from themselves as they manipulate the legislative process at all levels. Resentment of minorities, the under-class, and intellectuals is frothed into anger the energy of which is directed as we see, in the rise of demonstrations of open bigotry and misogyny across the country. Today people feel free to publicly utter vile comments as, for example, the South Carolina legislator who publicly declared women to be a “lesser cut of meat”. In Arkansas, a Republican Legislator, Don Young, told his colleagues who were debating controlling predator wolves, “I’d like to introduce them in your district. If I introduced them in your district you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore.”

Public education and educators are also under attack. Along with other Republican Governors around the country, Wisconsin’s Walker is cutting budgets for state schools, Oklahoma is eliminating advanced placement classes to replace them with bible studies, and in New Mexico and other states a meaningless and counter-productive third grade retention crusade is underway. A Virginia Congressman believes the country doesn’t need to spend money on education because Socrates “trained Plato on a rock”. It brings to mind the film, “Slumdog Millionaire”, and the crippling of children to make them better beggars. Pity the children.

Pity the country also when people on an anti-social rampage work to abolish the most civilized aspects of society – public education, public welfare, health care, safety standards, any and all things public. A jihad against all things civil. If they are successful, there will no longer be a society nor a viable democratic polity.  As one author succinctly put it, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.”

Ripples Into Riptides

John Adams once wrote – “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” The unrelenting war on all forms and manifestations of a democratic social contract has led to bloody revolutions in every era, on every continent, and in virtually every culture. They all begin as slight disturbances, ripples on the surface of daily events, minor perturbations in the status quo that eventually take on a destructive life of their own not unlike the early gentle rumblings of an earthquake.

History clearly demonstrates political Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies, they are contentious and contradictory belief systems. Capitalism has, at bottom, become a quasi-religion as much as an economic system. Whereas Capitalism is amoral imposing no limits on wealth extracted from the commons, Democracy, on the other hand, requires morality of community, civility, and commitment to the common welfare, in a word, “sharing”. Sharing is anathema to Capitalism because there is no monetary profit and so is vilified by calling it “socialism” or worse. Controlling the vocabulary of debate is an old and useful tactic.

When any kind of amorality becomes pervasive, it desensitizes a society with a form of instrumentalism that justifies other amoral behaviors creating a destructive pathology of civil decline. One need only recall the rise of Nazis and their vilification of Jews in pre-war Germany to understand how this dynamic works. For a recent example, how can a society justify killing someone for selling a loose cigarette while lionizing and bailing out with taxpayer money, bankers who impoverished millions with their greed? In the US today 49.7 million people qualify as poor, 80% of the total population is in or near poverty.  In the face of this calamity politicians are proposing cuts in the Food Stamp programs, Social Security, and health care. To what end are we again, it seems, being driven to the intersection of civilization vs barbarism, a society committing suicide.

When a country acts immorally it diminishes its moral authority across the board. When a government offers “facts” contrary to the truth people who are actually living it it relinquishes its moral authority, authenticity, and agency. The innocent adults and children killed by our drone strikes is a truth not ameliorated by the fact that there is always collateral damage during war. Collateral damage is a morally reprehensible argument against justice, a false use of truth invalidating claims of moral superiority over the enemy. Sadly this behavior also speaks in the names of all of citizens of the state causing the harm and that includes you and me. The US is a country in which thousands tout their Christianity and at the same time accept criminalizing feeding the hungry and homelessness. Everything is related to everything else in one way or another.

In Cleveland, police summarily executed a 12 year old boy at a playground. The boy was holding a bb gun. The same cops also threw the kid’s sister to the ground and handcuffed her for wanting to reach her dying brother. The boy died, the cops offered no first aid or care. In a news interview Police Union Chief, Jeffrey Follmer, placed absolutely no value on the 12 year old’s life – none! His callous  response? “How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop … that eliminates a lot of problems.” He added, “I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it.” Listen up, Nation, Jeffrey Follmer has spoken a fact which is truth for many Americans, you live in a police state – do what you’re told – or else we’ll kill you even for selling a lose cigarette. Is this American Exceptionalism? Is it justice? What kind of society have we become? What are we becoming?  We have the facts but are we ready to face truth?

There are many more examples but the foregoing seem to encapsulate a version of the social contract that is in opposition to what we believe to be normal – they portray a new normal in which truth has no moral function and human life has no value. The facts are, do what you’re told and everything will be alright, but the truth is something else. The truth is we cannot be parties to torture abroad or unwarranted killing at home unless we accept our own complicity. It is valuable to note that the most outspoken critic of CIA torture was a Congressman who himself, as a prisoner of war, was tortured by North Vietnam. Is that what it takes for people to understand that inhumanity – to be tortured themselves?

  In all of this, it is essential to understand that facts and truth are not, in fact, the same thing. Facts are devoid of morality, they simply describe and nothing more. Truths, on the other hand, are an integral aspect of moral thought and behavior, truths give facts meaning. Facts exist in a moral void and truths are a moral context. I have personally witnessed many instances of individuals spewing facts and not describing the truth, using facts to obscure the truth, to create cognitive dissonance. Lawyers and politicians do this routinely. It’s a shuck and jive the end result being that an audience or a jury never understands the truth and so defaults to the better liar.

We are, in the 21st Century, engaged in a new round of Democracy vs Capitalism. We must question. We must challenge – each of us. Time is running out on what’s left of this Democracy and what is left of a civil society because we are avoiding truth. We must tell truth to power and demand truth from them lest the ripples turn into waves and the waves into riptides of destruction. Truth is a virtue not an inconvenience, there can be no justice without it.

990

 

The “O’s”

It has been a good long time – 70 plus years since my last encounter with the NYPD. My name-sake Grandfather had his grocery store on West 46th between 9th and 10th. I spent my summers and school vacations with him opening the store at 6 AM after stopping first at the Fulton Street markets. Home was in Brooklyn and the daily drive over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan remains a vivid memory. At the market we’d load up with fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheese. Each vendor would offer a slice or a piece of whatever they were selling – it was the original walking breakfast. We’d next drive through the streets just awakening with activity, to the store. My first job was to sweep the sawdust from the floor and replace it with fresh. Then into the front window to sweep up bread crumbs and put fresh white butcher paper before the bread man arrived. Next began the parade of eponymous truck drivers whose names were Mr. Ballantine, Mr. Borden, Mr. Schlitz, and so on.

One of the morning tasks was to create the display of fruits and vegetables in front of the store’s window. Grandpa did this with care and a bit of artistic flair – it was my Grandfather’s art actually and he was quite proud of it.  I remember people stopping by to chat especially the old Sicilian ladies in black, of course, squeezing everything for freshness including me. West 46th was a neighborhood teeming with interesting characters most of whom stopped to exchange greetings and a few words. At noon the store would fill with dock-workers in for their hero “sangwitches” to be washed down with a quart of beer. It was a wonderful world of characters and personalities for me to have grown up in, these are all my fondest memories which I treasure to this day.

Sadly it wasn’t all thus. Every day, into our world would swagger the beat cop twirling his night-stick walking usually from East to West on our side of the street. Invariably the cop would stop in front of the fruit display, select a gem of an apple, peach, or pear, toss it up, catch it, and walk off without a word. Notice I didn’t include pay for it. In those days most cops’ names began with an “O” as in ’OToole, O’Reilly, O’Neil and so on. I was puzzled, why doesn’t this guy have to pay like everyone else? Grandpa wouldn’t say a word but would make a silent gesture drawing his fingers under his chin. You get the picture. We were the “other” then and silence was the safest response. There have always been “others” in every era and every culture treated dismissively and with scarce if any respect. In the US blacks have been treated as others since long before the so-called “Revolution” of white landowners and businessmen against their king. The Civil War “revolution” of Southern whites to preserve slavery didn’t resolve the matter either nor did two world wars in which black Americans served equally and with valor but came home to the same racism they had left. Yes, the overt legal issues have mostly been resolved but not the essential and foundational social, emotional, or moral ones. Racism was and continues to be deeply embedded in the society as are prejudices against Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics, foreigners of any kind – in short “others”. And, one has to ask, why does it have to be this way?

So now I’m in New Mexico reading the news on the internet when I see the cop who choked Eric Garner was named Pantaleo and what struck me immediately was that his name ends in “O”. Back in the day the racist names began with “O”. Is this progress? Does Pantaleo know how Italians were treated 70 years ago? Have we not progressed as a society since the 1940s or are we just better at pretending we have? The 1948 Kerner Commission report unequivocally stated that racism was then pervasive and as American as apple pie and now, 66 years later it’s clear not much has changed except a few more minorities have been added to the “other” list.  The newly elected Republican majority in Congress seems full bent on harassing and embarrassing our black President to the extent of openly discussing denying him a Congressional venue for his State of the Union address. Armed militias are stationing themselves along the US Mexican border posing for group photos holding all manner of firearms; they are there to prevent children from entering the country. Isn’t this depravity?

Inequality and racism have been the evil twins hovering above every civilization seeking its humanity. Time and again people have struggled to address this reality  – “Liberté, egalité, fraternité” – people seeking truth, justice, equality, freedom, and dignity. These are the qualities of life that define what we wish humanity and thus our societies to consist of. Racism is simply another face of inequality, another facet of injustice, a denial of liberty that chains both racists and their victims to incivility, hatred, and dysfunctional society. In the absence of truth none of the problems of inequality, injustice, or racism can ever be resolved. So it is that the truth must be told, inequality exposed, and racism condemned.

We must not accept that racism or inequality are facts of existence with no resolution. Nothing is gained  by pretending have a race neutral or egalitarian society regardless of John Bohner’s claims otherwise, we are not having truthful discourse about the matter. Truth number one: racial problems are not legal they are moral. We have applied legalistic solutions for years and haven’t come close to approaching the underlying moral issues. I’ll submit that casting and discussing inequality and racism or even better “other-ism” as a moral question will take us further towards the truth. We need to begin now while there is still time. Racism and inequality are by far the most deadly enemies of American society. We cannot continue to impoverish entire classes of citizens while cutting taxes for the most wealthy. We cannot continue criminalizing feeding the poor and homelessness; these are truths – moral truths. Adam Smith long ago clearly spelled it out: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Not even the fantasy of “American Exceptionalism” will save us from the inevitable – it didn’t save Ozymandias and it won’t save us.

Sub-Titles

The sub-title of Mike Lofgren’s, “The Party Is Over”, is “How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted”. The sub-title struck me as a morality tale in and of itself and reminded me of “The Death of Character”, by James Davidson Hunter published several years earlier. The sub-title of Hunter’s is “Moral Education in an Age Without Good and Evil”. While Hunter explores how a lack of moral sensibility leads a society to failure Lofgren details how this is actually happening in the US. The books are closely related, the theme of both being the lack of morality in the social commons. We experience this lack nearly every day in the melodrama of politics at the national level, a cruder version at the state level, antics at the international level, and in the conduct of life in general. Is this a new normal or has it ever been different?

When politics and religion are joined at the hip they become a force, a Trojan Horse within the society causing good and evil to lose their meanings. The ethical contrast between what is right and what is wrong becomes diluted creating a moral morass with no compass pointing the way out. We, perforce, come to be a society adrift, a population set against itself. Tri-corner hats, knickers and white knee socks are not what this country ever was and claiming otherwise is simplistic and dishonest. It is misdirected street theater acting out juvenile fantasies, a dream world that never existed. (Oh, by the way, the original Tea Partiers disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians not middle-class burghers.) The right questions are not being addressed. Our real problems as a country have not been caused by the working poor, unwed mothers, impoverished elderly, nor homeless people. We are being bombarded with the politics of distraction; a cover-up. Moral questions must be asked.

What kind of moral country have we become where an 81-year-old woman can be arrested and jailed for feeding birds on her own property or where a judge lightly sentences a man for raping a girl he knew was underage on the premise she seemed older than she was. Dilution of right and wrong takes place everyday and at all levels of society. A dilution to the extent that public trust of law enforcement agencies and officers is reduced to fear and disrespect, us and them. There isn’t any clear path to trusting police when a bed-ridden elderly man in his 80s is shot to death because a home-invading police officer suspects the guy has a gun, or when a kid answers the door for police and is shot to death because his TV game remote is mistaken for a weapon. There are so many examples it makes a person’s head swim. Dilution is become dissolution and dissolution inevitably becomes disintegration. A society disintegrates when people lose interest in the social contract to concentrate on personal survival.

Lofgren’s book details his experiences over 28 years in the Congressional cesspit of national partisan politics and the narrow craven interests driving a socially destructive political agenda. Lofgren worked as a Republican staffer and as a Senior Analyst for the House and Senate Budget Committee. Elected officials he reveals are in service to insatiable billionaires and corporations for whom there is no “enough”.  More importantly, aside from profit, they have no social contract with America. It was difficult to read Lofgren’s book because so much of what he describes with an insider’s knowledge of detail is discouraging and, more than that, disgusting.

Hunter, the author of “The Death of Character”, posits “History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in elevated values is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy.” What better measure could be offered than the fact that the US has been at war somewhere in the world without a draft military since 1973, since the war in Vietnam? From 2000 onwards, the military budget has just about doubled while budgets and support for public education and health care have dramatically diminished. Who profits from this game?

Together these two books paint a sad picture of America’s devolution from inclusion to exclusion, from the sort of patriotism that motivates individuals to place the common good above self-interest to socially destructive thoughtlessness and selfishness heedless of the commons we must all, like it or not, share. It is especially difficult, I think, for those who have known a better time which, while not free of similar issues, was not defined by them.

There was a time when public officials appearing at political conventions did not cravenly proclaim a direct line to God, mock the President, out and out lie for applause, or shamelessly wave rifles around to demonstrate their manliness or whatever it is they suppose waving a gun proves. It isn’t so much what a person does as what won’t they do that defines them. It would appear the sub-title of American politics has become “There is Very Little Some Politicians Won’t Do, Consequences Be Damned”.


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