Posts Tagged 'US Congress'

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.

Let Us Now Praise The VA

  veterans-administration-logo

The Veterans Administration is a large and sprawling organization –  a bureaucracy by definition and like all bureaucracies, it has both faults and virtues. Speaking for myself I have had nothing but a good VA experience, great care givers, and excellent care over many years.  On September 10th of this year I had a heart attack and was taken by ambulance at my request more than 100 miles to the Albuquerque, New Mexico VA hospital. It was the best call I could have made. From the moment of my arrival through discharge three days and two stents later I received the best medical attention imaginable. The caring, professionalism, and attentiveness of the staff carried the day. Because of their dedication and professionalism here I am writing again, being productive – laying up block, building and now roofing an addition, splitting firewood, taking my daily mile and a half walks. It’s a new, slower normal but it is a normal – and thanks to the VA I’m alive to do it.

None of the foregoing, however, negates what seem to be legitimate concerns with the care and attention reported by others. To be sure, in a system as large and unwieldy as the VA, there are going to be problems – people are going fall into cracks, there are going to be good people and bad people employed in the system, and there are going to be people complaining no matter what. There will be people like me who think the world of the VA and those who hate it. No matter which side of the divide anyone is on, there are irrefutable truths which must be acknowledged and dealt with in a timely manner. First and foremost, the new Director needs all the support and input he can get from all of us and adequate funding from the US Congress, far too many members of which have never served in uniform.

Next, if this country is going to continue on its path of unending wars around the world, a solid and dependable veterans’ health care system must be in place for those sent into harm’s way, regardless of the cost. If we can afford $1.5 trillion for a fleet of F-35s, we can well afford to provide world class medical care for those doing the dirty work – to do less would be immoral. Consider for a moment the disparity between the $600 billion 2015 Department of Defense budget and the $168 billion allocated for the VA, which cares not just for those returning from current military adventures but vets going back to World War 2. I wasn’t born yesterday and am well aware that politics and morals are generally mutually exclusive. It’s going to take public pressure brought to bear by all those who appreciate and understand the sacrifices required by military service to ensure that Congress ponies up. American service men and women are not stateless mercenaries, they are serving this country, they are serving all of us.

Of course, better than any of this would be to heed General Eisenhower’s warnings and put an end to the war industry. Put $600 billion into public education, health care, infrastructure, and other socially necessary programs. Just imagine what this country could be like. Then and only then would we be truly “exceptional”.


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