Thursday, September 25, 2008

White Privilege and Sarah Palin

Tim Wise, author of White Like Me, and well known speaker on white privilege recently applied his thoughts to the current media treatment of Sarah Palin. You can read his comments here. Wise's tone is strong and a bit acerbic, which is why I hesitate to post it. I trust that Sarah Palin is a decent person, even if she is a political lightweight and one with whom I disagree on many issues. Nonetheless, this article is not really about Palin, as much as it is of the "pass" she gets on criticism because she is white. Wise makes clear if Obama were associated with some of the items with which she is related, the treatment by the media and especially the white public would be vastly different. In the end it is another example of how unbalanced and unjust our white worldview is, and how in many ways worldview is a critical issue underlying this election. When people say they won't vote for someone simply because he is named "Obama" or perpetuate the myth that he is a Muslim(when in fact he is a practicing Christian AND it should not matter what faith he professes)or accuse him of not being a leader because he led as a community organizer and not a military officer, it betrays a deep blindness of whites to their own racist attitudes. Cognitive psychologists point out that often our decisions are based primarily on our emotions (fears, anxieties, anger, etc) and then rationalized later. Such often seems to be the case when it comes to white voters and Obama. Indeed, there are significant philosophical differences between Obama and McCain, so I am not suggesting voting for McCain makes one racist. But to put Palin and Obama in the same league or to grant Palin the "pass" that Wise suggests, shows how far we who are white have to go in confronting our unconscious fears and overt prejudices.

European View of the US Election

We in the United States tend to focus solely on events within our own borders. We are known for being rather ignorant of what the rest of the world thinks about, even when they are thinking about us. Recently, I read this report of a pair of lectures presented at Colby College (Waterville, ME) on the European perspective on the U.S. Election. What is clear from this article is that Europe overwhelmingly is hoping our next president will take a more cooperative and interdependent approach to foreign policy than the go-it-alone- approach of the Bush administration.

You may read of the lecturers' comments here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflections on the Wall Street Crisis

As I have witnessed the financial meltdown on Wall Street over these past 10 days and the subsequent response of the government to this crisis, I have had a number of thoughts and questions, many of which are shared by millions of observers. Will the executives of these failed companies get “golden parachutes” and float away scot free? How significant will the tax increase be to pay for this debacle? How did we get here in the first place? And who has been minding the store? Beyond these obvious questions which pundits far smarter than me can answer, I just have a few observations.

1. John McCain blames the “greedy Wall Street bankers” for the demise of Wall Street. How stupid does McCain think we are? Greed is what Wall Street is about. That’s why we invest in the first place; we want more than we have now. Gerhard Gecko (ala Michael Douglas) in the classic movie, Wall Street, said it best in his speech on greed – Greed is good! At least from his perspective. We may dress greed up and call it “profit” or “return on investment,” but the reason all of us have money in stocks and mutual funds is because we want more. It’s what capitalism is about.

The problem isn’t greed, it’s no boundaries. The practice of selling funky mortgages and getting people locked into high interest rates was well known. This was not a new deal. The practice of “short selling” on stocks was a well established practice. Borrowing money to invest money in hopes of making it back is part of the investment game. These were all dangerous practices (driven by greed) that we all knew about. And if some people were a bit dishonest or manipulative in their interactions, hey all is fair in finance and war. So, we didn’t put a stop to it. We didn’t blow the whistle. We saw greed as the ultimate goal, and if people could get away with it, more power to them.

So why are we surprised? It’s not greed, it’s the game itself that needs correcting. Capitalism is designed for there to be winners and losers. In other words, it is designed for somebody to get bilked. What happened was the big boys got stung by their own game. Interestingly, however, now we have to pay.

2. So who is going to really pay for this bailout? The pundits say the taxpayer, but no politician in his right mind is going to raise taxes, so what will happen is that there will be cuts. Where will the cuts come from? Where else, but from the programs that serve the voiceless and the poor: social service programs, educational programs, student loans, health benefits. We rich and middle class folks can complain all we want, and maybe Congress will throw us a bone, but it’s the poor who will pay….as they always do.

3. Finally, if the government can come up with $700 billion to bail out Wall Street, and $800 billion to conduct a war that should never have been started, why can’t it find a way to provide universal healthcare or equitable school funding or adequate housing for all? Committed capitalists cry “socialism” when such things are mentioned, but today they are quite pleased that the government decided socialism is okay when it works for the well-to-do.

In the end my bank accounts and pension funds are safe, but I wonder at what cost to the most vulnerable in our society. And what do our actions reveal which our mouths are loathe to say. Liberty and justice for all …or just the select few?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Choice of Worldview: A 9/11 Reflection

As we remember the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I am reminded of my 9/11 story. The Sunday following the attacks we had a guest preacher at the small church we were attending. She was a seminarian and a pastor’s wife, and I wondered “Wow, what a tough position to be put in. I wonder what she will say.” Well, she told the story of a conversation she had had that week with a fellow seminarian from Nigeria. In that conversation he said to her, “Now you in the United States have joined the rest of the world. You have now experienced the insecurity and vulnerability that we in Africa feel all the time.” Truer words could not have been spoken by that Nigerian brother, and it’s a message I’ve taken with me every since.

For a while we in the United States were humbled by the 9/11 attacks. We realized we were vulnerable, and we came together in amazing ways to support and honor one another. Not only did thousands volunteer to help in the clean up, but also hundreds of thousands contributed money to help the families, the victims and the rescuers. Every public event I attended in that first year had some ceremony to remember the 9/11 victims and their families, and also took time to honor police and firefighters for their dedicated service. We acted like people who knew that our strength was not in some false bravado, but in our connection and community with each other.

But somehow that sense of humility was turned into a war cry for revenge and retribution. 9/11 became the reason for discriminating against people of Middle Eastern descent and those who looked like them. People were stopped and harassed and detained simply because of their dress and appearance. Laws were passed that allowed the government to tap anyone’s phone at any time simply for being suspicious, and to violate all sorts of civil liberties. Then we entered into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bent on revenge and a determination to “get bin Laden.” While the war in Afghanistan made some sense in that the Taliban were supporters of al-Quada, Iraq was a sham from the start. We now know that there was an elaborate attempt to mislead the Congress and the American people about “weapons of mass destruction” and the threat that Saddam posed to our country. We know that before the tanks got rolling and the bombs dropped, the US government was negotiating with Halliburton and other major corporations to divvy up the expected oil revenues. President Bush alienated many of our allies, such as France, Russia and Germany, who refused to join us in our invasion. We have treated the POWs from that war as inhumanely as any thing that is done by our so-called “enemies.” In many ways we have become the very thing we say we oppose. Five years and 4000 dead and thousands more maimed and wounded later, we are still in Iraq, and the president and John McCain talk about achieving “victory.” Victory over what and for what? A Lie?

As I listened to the two political conventions these past couple weeks, I was struck by the fact that we are not only being presented two distinctly different candidates, but we are also being presented with two different views of the United States’ place in the world. McCain talks about “victory in Iraq” and being a Commander in Chief. He plays heavily on his 5 years in a North Vietnam prison during (I might add) another immoral, illegal war. He thumps his chest at Russia’s invasion of Georgia and invokes the memory of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. His followers wave signs that say “Country first” and “America first”, as they chant “USA, USA” like they are at an Olympic event. In St. Paul the Republicans put forth a pre-9/11 worldview that says we choose to try and rule the world and dictate to the world, rather than join the world.

Obama presents a much different picture. (Now, I will admit that some of this picture is not one that Obama plays up much, if at all. It is the picture that is in my mind. So if you want to blame someone, blame me.) The future I see that Obama paints is a picture where the United States has joined the world, where US leaders actually talk to leaders of countries like Iran and Russia. It’s a world of coalitions rather than cowboy-style going it alone. It’s a world where the leader of the U.S. actually looks like people in the 2/3 worlds, and actually has roots in that world thru his father from Kenya and his childhood in Indonesia. It is a world where people are respected rather than run over in an attempt to expand Western corporate and political interest. In fact it is a world that the U.S. is a full participant, sharing the concerns, the vulnerabilities and the suffering. It is not a world that we in the U.S. like to think about, but in my view it is the world we live in.

These visions of the world are embodied in the messages and images of the two candidates, McCain and Obama, while at the same time being visions that transcend either man. These visions speak deeply of how we see ourselves as a people. No doubt the pre-9/11 vision is comforting and assuring to some, while the post-9/11 vision is uncharted territory and thus frightening. Yet, I believe that if we as a nation don’t choose the multi-national, multi-cultural, one-nation-among-many future, we will be dragged there soon enough through a painful collapse of our society and way of life.

When my daughters were in middle school, I told them they had to learn Spanish because by the time they were adults 25-30% of the US population would use Spanish as their first language. I wish I had had the foresight to tell them to learn Chinese, Swahili and Arabic as well. The world my girls inhabit today as young adults is a much more diverse world than I could have imagined. It is a world where they must know how to communicate and cooperate across racial, cultural, national, religious, and ideological lines. It is a world that doesn’t abide an “America first” way of thinking.

One of my students put it clearly and succinctly. She wrote:

“I feel we are now at a newfound precipice looking into the future. We can choose to be proactive and decide what we want to become as a people--a global community within and without our borders--or we can continue to react and develop our social policies ad hoc. “

Like this young woman, I believe we are at precipice; we can either move backward to a time that exists only in our minds, or move forward to embrace the fact that we are part of a global community and need to do our part to help it become a healthy community. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict, failure, disappointment and the like. But in my mind it is better than denying what 9/11 clearly showed us: that we must embrace being part of the world as it is, or suffer the consequences of living in a Pollyanna past.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

In Defense of Community Organizers and the People They Work With

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.” That line got a big laugh and cheer from the delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this week. At the same time it betrayed an attitude of neglect that has characterized this presidential election campaign on both sides of the aisle.

For Gov. Palin’s information, community organizers are people who take on the responsibility of helping people who have no power or voice in this society, not only to get heard, but also to secure rights and opportunities that are denied them because they are poor. This summer I had the opportunity to attend the annual gathering of the National Organizers Alliance, a network of community organizers. These folks were working in a variety fields: immigration reform, voter registration, environmental protection, civil rights, labor, and anti-racism. Like social workers, childcare workers, inner city school teachers, youth workers, and millions of community and church volunteers, community organizers are committed to securing dignity and rights to the people who are often neglected, forgotten, and, even worse, abused by the U.S. economic and political system. As my wife, a social worker who serves people with HIV/AIDS, says: “We work with the folks that the rest of the society would rather not deal with.”

However, in addition to insulting a whole group of dedicated folks whose contributions are already devalued by this society, Gov. Palin’s statement raises a deeper concern about this election; and in this regard Sen. Obama is equally at fault. While there has been a lot of talk about the “middle class” and the “working class” by the candidates, no one has talked seriously about the growing extent of poverty in this nation. The only candidate to focus on the needs of the poor was John Edwards in the Democratic primary race. Other than that the poor have largely been ignored.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama talked about the mortgage crisis, rising oil prices, jobs being shipped overseas, lowering taxes and the like – issues that impact the middle class. As a person with a “middle class” income, I resonate with those issues. I have not been able to do all I wanted to do, because costs have gone up. I am fortunate to have a secure mortgage, decent health coverage and a good credit rating, but I wouldn’t mind a little more. But the discomfort I experience is nothing compared to those who were suffering before the mortgage crisis hit, because they either didn’t have a permanent home, or because they struggled to pay the monthly rent. The discomfort I experience is nothing to the family that has no health care, and limited transportation, and whose schools are overcrowded, undersupplied, and physically decrepit. Senator Obama has talked about growing up with a single mom on a limited income, but has not fully addressed the complex burdens faced by the poor in this society today. He knows about it not only from his childhood, but also from his days as a community organizer. He tells the stories of people he knew in Southside Chicago in his memoir Dreams of My Father.

So, Obama knows about poverty, but for political reasons he has chosen not to talk about it; poverty, like racism, is not an issue Americans want to be reminded of. Gov. Palin, and the Republicans take the neglect even further, and ridicule those who make it their business to work side by side with those who are marginalized, dispossessed and abused by our system.

However, let me be clear: the issue is not about charity. Republicans are as generous and concerned about the “downtrodden” as anyone else. The issue is not about charity, but rather about social justice. John Rawls, Harvard philosopher who wrote A Theory of Justice, said that a society is judged on how it responds to the needs of the most vulnerable in that society. Justice is about making sure that people have their basic needs met, and that the doors of opportunity are equally open to all. Justice isn’t about giveaways; rather it’s about creating an economic, educational, and political system that gives every person a voice regardless of their station in life. In short social justice suggests that one’s ideas, rather than one’s access to power thru lobbyists and financial contributions, guide the decisions leaders make. In short, social justice is actually practicing the democracy we profess to have in this society

Almost all political speakers end their speeches with some variant of “God Bless America.” Jesus said that the way one responds to the needs of the poor, naked, imprisoned and weak is equivalent to the way one responds to him, and by extension to God (Matthew 25). If this nation truly wants any sense of God’s blessing, we had better open our eyes and our minds to those through whom God speaks and listens: the poor.