Thursday, September 24, 2009

Race and Economy

In the past two weeks, two former presidents have weighed in on the question of race in America. Jimmy Carter stated that much of the hysterical opposition to health care reform can be attributed to racism. Bill Clinton thought that racism was not such a big issue. At Fox news sponsored teabag parties, many participants carry overtly racist signs. While no doubt some people are opposed to regulating health insurance for ideological reasons, it doesn’t seem likely that these people are aware of policy nuance. I do have a Republican neighbor who fears that health care reform will put insurance companies out of business. I was so shocked at this pronouncement I didn’t know what to answer. While President Obama may be right in saying insurance execs aren’t evil people, I am unconvinced. Pacificare in California denies 40 % of claims, according to Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi. While Pacificare is concerned with profits, and not sick people, that in itself seems sociopathic.

Questions of race are linked to questions of economy. When liberals, in the late 1940’s, finally began to address questions of racial inequality, they were attacked by Republicans. Racial equality was viewed as a communist plot. While that sounds laughable today, it’s important to remember that racial equality was a platform of many socialist and communist governments. Castro, in the Cuban Revolution, fought for three things: universal healthcare, universal literacy, and an end to racism.
Historians will debate the outcome of the Cuban Revolution for years to come. It would have been nice if universal suffrage was one of Castro’s platforms. But then, it would have been great if the United States hadn’t tried, for over fifty years, to overturn the political situation in Cuba. Castro has fought tirelessly for African liberation. Revolutionaries worked for pan-Africanism as well as pan- Americanism.
Freedom House, which since 1941 has evaluated freedom around the world, has been studying the plight of freedom in the United States. One reason the United States doesn’t rate as high as people think it does is the legacy of racism, economic inequality, as well as the civil liberties we have sacrificed since Bush.

Capitalism, contrary to popular belief, is no guarantee of freedom or democracy, any more than socialism is. Economic theory doesn’t correlate with individual liberty. Crony capitalism works just fine in totalitarian regimes like Russia and China. Heck, China loves Sarah Palin.

It’s wonderful to have an African American president. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I can’t help thinking that if the American left hadn’t been decimated by Taft Hartley and McCarthyism, the United States might have made as much progress against racism as Cuba. Anti Communist hysteria prevented anti-discrimination from being legislated sooner. Republicans seem as opposed to racial equality now as they did back then. Even many Democrats are afraid of discussing economic equality, a topic that goes hand in hand with racial equality. Jim Crow laws and institutional racism have prevented the progress this country should have made. Leftists, as well as all people of goodwill, must make racism unacceptable. I don’t believe in “thought crimes,” but I am often horrified by my own racist and sexist thoughts. It’s important to be aware of our internal monologue. Like the struggle for peace, the abolition of racism is primarily external, but extends to the internal.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Work and Labor

Labor Day is an under appreciated holiday. Yes, there are picnics and good food. At its heart, Labor Day is recognition of work, and the price our ancestors paid to form unions. The first Labor Day celebration was a Tuesday in 1882. It was started either by Peter McGuire, co-founder of the AFL, or Matthew Maguire of the International Association of Machinists. Workers at that time were struggling to get the eight hour day. In 1884, the holiday was changed to the first Monday in September.

The rest of the world celebrates labor on May 1st. In 1886, Chicago’s Commercial Club open fired on strikers. The next day, the Haymarket riot began when someone threw a bomb at police who were trying to break the worker’s strike. At least four were killed, and many more wounded. America, run by big business and terrified by social reform, has never celebrated May Day in a meaningful way, although the holiday celebrated around the globe commemorates an event in this country.

In 1945, 1/3 of American workers were union members. By 1979, that number dwindled to 24.1 per cent of workers. In 1998, only 13.9 per cent of workers in this country belonged to a union. There are many reasons for the downward trend, but, needless to say, the stagnation of wages and benefits in this country might be due to the decreased power of unions. In 1935, American workers got a boost from the Wagner Act. In 1947, protection of unions was altered by the Taft- Hartley bill, which was vetoed by President Truman. Congress overruled this veto, and this act was passed. One of the central problems with Taft Hartley was that it forbade members of the Communist party from being union officers. This was the first nail in the coffin of the American Left, which was later persecuted by Senator McCarthy.

Labor can be distinguished, perhaps, from work. Work is what we do if we are lucky enough to have a job. Labor is the struggle, the good fight we engage in. Labor is the cause, work is the means to an end. As this country once again engages in health care debate, it’s all too easy to get discouraged by the circus clowns who fight reform. But, as Ed Schultz says, health care reform is a generational struggle. The cause began a hundred years ago with Theodore Roosevelt. Conservatives opposed to reform are a symptom of what Freud called the “death wish.” Those who want reform are examples of the life force. While American psychologists disregard Freud, these two directional pulls are clearly at work here.

We don’t know how our struggle for progress will end. We can’t jump ahead to the end of the book and see the final chapter. It seems like we never achieve lasting change, either in our own hearts or in the world. Maybe our existence is random and meaningless, and we are here by chance. But maybe, just maybe, there is cultural evolution. Progress is slow, but the overarching direction of history is positive. George Eliot once wrote “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts. The fact that things are not so ill with you and me as they might be is due to the number of people who have faithfully led hidden lives, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Well said. May it be true of us all.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Reflections on Senator Kennedy

Senator Kennedy’s passing is the end of an era. He was known as the “Liberal Lion” of the United States’ Senate. As a man, he was complex. On September 14, his autobiography will come out. According to excerpts, he frankly discusses the darkest moments of his life, and writes of his regrets. He was devastated by the tragic deaths of his brothers, and battled alcoholism. Senator Kennedy’s failings are well-known, and it serves no useful purpose to enumerate them. One of his worst episodes left a young woman dead. Kennedy was connected and powerful; had his misadventures been committed by a less prominent person, the consequences might have been worse.

But Kennedy changed. Most of us have not been given the advantages he was born with, and our temptations, and opportunity for bad behavior, have not been on the scale of an American aristocrat. Kennedy could have slunk off into oblivion, but he stayed in the public eye, and did good. Kennedy was on the right side of history, whether the issue was race, poverty, disability or any aspect of civil rights. A loyal Catholic, he challenged church teachings with which he did not agree. Life for many of us would have been far worse if it hadn’t been for the actions of this reformed man.

Reform, repentance, revolution--- all of these are charged terms. But like the word “salvation,” they have straightforward meanings. Reform and revolution mean simply a turning. Salvation means to make whole. Kennedy seems to have found both—he turned, he changed, and he became whole. He worked hard to make others whole. No one can ever know what inner demons Kennedy, or indeed anyone, faced or faces. Kennedy changed.

As we approach the Days of Awe, I find myself reflective, not just about Kennedy, but about myself. In Gates of Repentance, we read the wisdom of the rabbis, who remind us that the gates of prayer may not always be open, but the gates of repentance, or turning, are always open. I am ambivalent about prayer: a good God would not need to be cajoled to help people. Whatever God is, God either can’t, or won’t, intervene in human affairs. It’s up to us. At every moment we have the opportunity to turn, to change, to spark an inner revolution. We’re told that one hour of repentance and good deeds in this life is worth more than all the hours in the world to come. For one thing, we don’t know anything about the world to come, if there is one.

Senator Kennedy changed, and I find that hopeful and comforting. Change, repentance, reform--- these are all possible. We can aspire to one hour of repentance and good, and then, with practice, two hours. We work for the salvation, the survival, of ourselves, our species, our planet. Senator Kennedy, your memory is a blessing. May we find the strength for our own repentance, and may we work to help the underdog, as you did.