Monday, December 27, 2010

Mysteries of the New Year

I cleaned the back porch yesterday, rearranging all the items on the pantry shelves so like is with like - all the canned fruits and vegetables are now together. So are the soups and salmon and boxes of pasta and extra brown and powdered sugars and cereals. Paper plates and coffee filters and napkins are stacked neatly.

I'm under no illusion that such organization will last. Usually, we come home from the store and stack stuff wherever it will fit so that you're forced to go on a scavenger hunt whenever you need a can of green beans.

Still, even though January 1 is, technically,  just another boring winter day, I get caught up in making an effort to start off this shiny new year on the right foot. I'm prone to cleaning closets and clearing out files.

But what I love most about January 1 is getting out the new calendars. I get caught up in the potential of all those pristine white squares. They could bring anything. Barring something unforeseen, August 10, 2011 will say "retirement". There could be a day that denotes the selling of my novel (finally!), one of them around Thanksgiving might shout "Jimmie Johnson - 6 time NASCAR champion"! They'll mark off vacations and birthdays and doctor's appointments and race results. Of course, life is always a crapshoot so special occasions come in all sizes, shapes and emotions, the bad along with the good.

The months ahead are clouded in mystery. There will undoubtedly be weather events. Here in Indiana, that could droughts or blizzards, floods or tornadoes. Those things are exceptions though. Mostly, the days will follow a natural path of seasonal change - lilacs to sweet corn to autumn leaves to snowdrifts.

I want all my favorite authors to write books in 2011 and all my favorite bands to make albums (cds, that is, in the 21st century) and all my favorite actors to make movies (although, actually, I only have one favorite actor and that is Johnny Depp).

I long to see the thoroughbred version of Jimmie Johnson come along in 2011 and win the Triple Crown, something I'm beginning to doubt I'll see again in my lifetime. I'd like for the Colts to win the Super Bowl, although that is a wish for my kids more than myself.

I'd like to hit the jackpot on the slots and use my winnings to visit Ireland.

I'd like to get a German Shepherd puppy and a long-haired black kitten and a Cockatiel  or at least, one of them.

That's what I like most about the new year - all those blank squares and all the possibilities they signify.....

Friday, December 24, 2010

Perceptions of Equality

My friend posted on his Facebook page applauding the vast improvements in racism and sexism in America compared to the way things used to be. (This on the heels of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".) All of us Caucasians "liked" his comments but the African-Americans among us were like - "nope, you're wrong, racism is as virulent as ever." I think the whites were shocked, even stunned, by this attitude.

The debate kind of petered out, like people were afraid it would lead to something ugly if they pursued it.

But I still can't help wondering what that determination of continuing rampant racism was based on.

I'm almost 65 years old and I remember racism and sexism. I remember when blacks rode in the back of the bus and women couldn't sit at the bar and it was the rare gay who was brave enough to come "out". I remember being told flat-out that I wouldn't get a promotion to foreman because "women couldn't be foremen". I remember our personnel manager telling me she didn't even schedule an interview with an applicant because she "sounded black". I remember when all the people in all the commercials were white.

I remember when all Miss America contestants were Caucasian; when the merest hint of being homosexual was enough to be denied a security clearance; when landlords advertised openly "whites only". I remember a time when Congress was a sea of pale, male faces. I remember when any Supreme Court justice or presidential cabinet member who was African-American or God knows, female, truly was a "token", when the very idea of a black or woman president was totally preposterous.

I lived the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Movement.

To me, old as I am, anyone who says that great strides haven't been made is just clinging to old resentments. Yes, all that happened to Grandpa and Grandma but now Uncle William is a Senator and Aunt Josephine is on the Supreme Court. We think nothing of black Head of the Joint Chiefs and female Secretaries of State. We take it for granted that a black woman can be declared the most beautiful female in the land, that a black man can be named Athlete of the Year (or Decade, for that matter).

Entertainment and sports probably led the way. I grew up in a small, mostly white community. The first black people I "knew" were Ray Charles and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix and it was love at first song. Musical genius is color-blind.

Likewise, athletic excellence. Racist you may be, but there is no denying the superiority of a Muhammad Ali or a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods.

Of course, progress isn't always as fast as the victims of racism, sexism or homophobia would like it to be. People got hurt and even killed along the way. Pioneers suffered for their willingness to trail-blaze. Forced acceptance is difficult to enforce. You can make it happen, as President Harry Truman forced the military to accept blacks, but it takes time to make forced acceptance truly acceptable.

One of the African-Americans in our FB discussion said, "well, yes, we don't see racism much as middle-class college graduates but it still exists below us." That seems like something of a facile answer to me. I work with the low income, black and white alike. It is a fact of life that the poor always gets screwed, whatever their race, sex or orientation.

Another brought up immigration as an example of on-going racism but I don't really think immigration is necessarily a problem because the illegals flooding our borders are Hispanic. I believe we'd be protesting if millions of poor whoevers were swarming into our country, putting pressure on jobs, schools and medical care. If they were all from the country of Burgoo, we'd be yelling to put a stop to all the Burgooians coming in illegally.

Things have improved, immensely, in my book. Anyone who says it hasn't is focused more on bitterness than betterment.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Authorities versus Anarchists

Well, there seems to be a bit of a war breaking out between the authorities and the rebels as far as the internet is concerned. On one side are the "official" websites of multinational companies that have lined up against WikiLeaks founder, 39-year-old Australian, Julian Assange. (Assange has been accused of rape, molestation and sexual coercion in Sweden and that country is asking for his extradition on those charges.)

For instance, MasterCard and PayPal refused to accept and/or process donations for Assange's defense and Amazon.com revoked the use of its servers.

In retaliation, computer hackers attacked by burying those sites in traffic, causing some of them to become inaccessible for a period of time. The websites of the Swedish prosecutor and the attorney for Assange's two accusers were also affected by the "cyberanarchists" (which is what they call themselves).

I'm on both sides in this. WikiLeaks recently posted over 250,000 U. S. State Department cables that did not always show the U.S. in a good light. At best, it exposed us as hypocrites. At worst, it caused damage to our relations with some foreign countries, forcing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to apologize to world leaders.

A group called Anonymous has taken credit for coordinating the attacks on company websites.

As a babyboomer, I was young during the period of protest that wracked the sixties and seventies - protests against war, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, etc. I was generally in favor of most of the protester's issues. Would Vietnam have ended as soon without them? Would schools and lunch counters and buses have been integrated as quickly? Would women have been given their rights as rapidly. I still think the answer is no.

We no longer march. The internet is the great hope of protesters and rebels in this era. We know much about what's gone on behind the scenes in Iraq and and Afghanistan and China and even Korea thanks to courageous bloggers. Now, instead of standing in front of tanks, freedom fighters blog.

Governments, in general, even in a free country like the U.S., prefer that shared freedom of expression not be so readily available. Governments, even including our own, like keeping their secrets. And it is probably in the national interest that they do keep some vital national security secrets. But the problem is, they don't confine themselves to that. In any debate about shining light on our affairs and keeping what they do under wraps, government officials almost always come down on the side of darkness.  They don't like being embarrassed when their private thoughts about a country with which we play kissy-face in public are revealed. They don't like being humiliated when disgusting pictures of the degrading way we treated prisoners in Abu Graib are made public. Their mantra is - "just trust us".

Yeah, sure. If we've paid any attention at all, we know that governments, even our own, can't always be trusted. Governments, even our own, perform any numbers of acts of which we, as citizens, might be ashamed. Extraordinary rendition even on people that haven't been proven to be terrorists. Torture. Lies.

For instance, are we absolutely, positively sure that Julian Assange isn't being set up for reasons having nothing to do with rape, molestion or sexual coercion? I'm not. I find it easy to believe that a word is passed from one country to another. "This guy is a pain in the ass. We need to neutralize him but it can't seem to come from us. Can you do something?" I wish I didn't believe governments would stoop to such behavior but, unfortunately, I do.

Ultimately, the authorities and the multinationals are in league with one another and have the vast bulk of the power. I think there is only a limited amount of damage the cyberanarchists can do and maybe that's for the best. I don't especially want them to topple a legitimate government but on the other hand, I'm glad they're out there. I do want them to be irritants to established authority. I want the officials to have to watch their backs because the possibility of exposure always exists.

The official world will probably always win in the end but the internet makes it possible for the underground to hold their feet to the fire - and that's a good thing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cutting Off Your Nose.....

I was involved in a contract negotiation at a factory where I worked once. The company's initial offer was something like 10 cents an hour a year (which equals $109 a year) for the three year life of the contract. (One of the years may have only been a nickel an hour. I don't remember the details). We voted it down.

Management then embarked on a strategy of terror. They passed the word that if we didn't submit to their offer, they'd close the plant and move it to another location. As if to prove they were serious, they boarded up the windows of the cafeteria, moved some of the machinery to another facility, brought some of our co-workers from another factory in and made us train them to do our jobs. They played games like letting us see our foremen carrying around the ubiquitous pink slips that signaled lay-offs (they turned out to be old ones from a previous downsizing).

In the middle of December, they called for another vote on the exact same insulting contract, not even bothering to add a little extra an hour as a face-saving gesture. They did include a little pot sweetener though, a $300 "signing bonus". Everyone had Christmas on their mind. They thought of how much nicer it would be with an extra 300 bucks to spend. Workers were already worried about losing their jobs if they refused to sign. That measly $300 turned the tide. We voted for the new contract.

I voted no. I didn't care if they shut down the factory. I didn't care if I didn't have a job. I didn't care if I couldn't buy anything for Christmas. If it would have meant I'd have ended up standing in line at the soup kitchen, I'd still have voted against it. Was I willing to cut off my nose to spite my face to deny the owners of the company their victory? You bet. Because sometimes you have to stand up and fight even if you know you're going to lose. Sometimes, it's worth it to inflict some pain on your tormentors as you go down. Sometimes, you've eaten enough crap that you can't tolerate another mouthful.

This is the same way I feel about the Republicans right now. They had all the power for six years and disregarded every rule, or at least what we previously thought were the rules. The conservative party of "fiscal responsibility" squandered Clinton's surplus and piled up deficits higher than we'd ever had before. They held Senate votes open all night (previously, it was limited to 15 minutes) to twist arms to get their fellow Republicans to vote for the Prescription Drug Plan, the largest social program since Medicare. They shipped pallets of hundred dollar bills to Halliburton in Iraq to spend without any accounting. They rode roughshod over the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law (remember during impeachment when the sanctity of the Rule of Law was their mantra?) They gave their rich buddies huge tax breaks (although most of the mega-wealthy pay taxes at an effective rate of 17% because they have way more deductions they can take than us working stiffs do), thereby ensuring the deficits would soar even higher. (Remember them telling us that tax cuts help the economy? How'd that work out for us?

During the time they were out of power, did they compromise as they are now insisting the President and the Democrats should do? They did not. They continued to stonewall and filibuster just for the fun of it, refusing to pass even programs they approved of if it meant the D's would get some credit (not that I think the Dems deserve much credit).

Fortunately for them, the average American voter has the attention span of a gnat. Obama's been in office two whole years and things aren't perfect so bring the Republicans back!

Now the Republicans are crying crocodile tears again about the deficit even as they insist on extending the tax cuts for the wealthy at a cost of about $900 billion. Now the Republicans, on the strength of a majority in one house of Congress, have offered Obama what is essentially a $300 signing bonus in return for not closing the plant and he leaps at the chance to vote yes. I have not much doubt the rest of the party will eventually go along.

I wish they wouldn't. I wish they'd reach their line in the sand wherever that may be. I wish they'd say, "shut the son-of-a-bitch down then if that's what you think you gotta' do" and vote no on the Republican contract.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Collection of Conflicts

Most of us are a motley collection of conflicting and contradictory beliefs, beliefs ingrained when we were children and too young to apply any kind of critical thinking. As adults, we cling to them even when they are sometimes clearly against our self-interest.

Chances are if we were raised in a Christian family, we still accept what we learned in Bible school as profound truth. Chances are if Mom and Dad were staunch Republicans, we still pull the R more often than not when we vote.

I am always slightly amused when survivors of tragedy are interviewed and the first thing they say is: "it's my faith that got me through." Really? How, I wonder, do they think people like me, who have no faith, manage? Somehow, we survive just the same. Not that I'd ever try to talk anyone out of believing as they do. Whatever comfort you can find in this life is fine with me.

I've never put much faith in either theology or politics. Over all, I think religion has done more harm than good. I think politics has done more harm than good too although I suppose a political system of some kind is necessary or we'd have anarchy. In anarchy, the strong take advantage of the weak. Under capitalism, the strong take advantage of the weak too although with quite a bit more subtlety.

I have always been confounded by the turnabout in God's personality. In the Old Testament, he was cruel and brutal. Plagues and pestilences and sacrifices of first born sons were nothing to him. He was a warrior God, a God of harsh punishment. But come the New Testament and he'd mellowed out. Maybe it was the influence of becoming a parent, although it turned out he wasn't all that kindly of a father. Under Jesus' leadership, the Bible's moral philosophy turned more toward gentle forgiveness and caring for the downtrodden.

So, in the modern world of American politics, we have the Old Testament party - the Republicans - and the New Testament party - the Democrats. Voters tend to lean toward one more than the other based on their own preconceived predilections.

When Democrats are elected, they are all about turning the other cheek. The programs they support are generally of the being our brother's keeper kind. They would like to provide everyone with "loaves and fishes". They believe in "judging not lest ye also be judged." They would prefer to turn all our "swords into ploughshares".

Meanwhile, when Republicans come to power, they are immediately ready to take up the sword and "smite" their enemies. They want to "subdue" their earth and "dominate" it. No soft-headed "turning the other cheek" nonsense for them. They believe in an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" and sometimes, visiting a father's sins upon the child if that child doesn't have the means, whether in brains or brawn or intestinal fortitude, to pull himself up by his own bootstraps.

Our two political parties are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. For me, at least, the Republicans are too hard and hot; the Democrats are too soft and cold.

The Republicans are harsh and  judgmental. Opposing, for instance, every program designed to make life more tolerable for gays, smug in their own moral superiority. They feel supremely confident in denying the rest of us the right to have an abortion or to pull the plug on a long comatose loved one. They will fight to the death for the rich against the poor, as if financial success itself is a sign of God's favor. They'll go to war at the drop of a hat, nodding complacently at torture and extraordinary rendition.

The Democrats are too soft and tentative. Obama is a perfect example. He vowed to bring the parties together when every bit of evidence pointed to the impossibility of that happening. Democrats eschew retaliation even when the circumstances demand it. They don't believe in capital punishment even when perpetrators are a cancer on the body of society. They want to "understand" what caused child molesters to be what they are instead of isolating them so they can't create more victims. They want to give to the poor without expecting them to take any responsibility in return.

There is a balance somewhere between the Old Testament Republicans and the New Testament Democrats but we never seem to find it, instead swinging wildly from one extreme to the other based on beliefs instilled in us when we were too young to give them much thought. And so, our past continues to dominate our present.