Monday, July 27, 2015

Are we a Christian nation, a nation founded on religious principles or a secular nation with lots of believers?

In One Nation Under God, Kevin M. Kruse, a Princeton history professor, reconstructs the story of the growth of the twin ideas that the United States is a Christian nation and that a free-market, deregulated, de-unionized United States fulfills the ideals of Christ. 

Kruse starts his history with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who Kruse says was the first to bring religious language into political speeches. FDR associated religious—and specifically Christian—ideals with the New Deal. Corporate interests fought back by spending enormous amounts of money to associate Christian values with free market and anti-union principles. They failed miserably, but that did not end the attempt to use religion for political ends. Eisenhower consciously inserted religion into politics, but it was a wishy-washy ecumenism that boiled down to “We are one nation, under god.” A general consensus formed that included politicians of both the left and right to support the idea that the United States was founded on broad religious principles shared by all monotheists. Many added a stark contrast with godless communism to their rhetoric. Some manifestations of the 1950’s religious consensus were the placement of “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance and attempts to insert specific prayers into the public school curriculum.  

In the early 1960’s, Kruse relates, a series of Supreme Court decisions essentially ended prayer in public school. The justification for both the state laws that injected school prayer into the curriculum and the defense of school prayer in court was that the customs of the United States, e.g., placing “In god we trust” on money and starting Congressional sessions with a prayer, demonstrated that we are a religious nation. Opponents to prayer in school included many prominent clergy of many religions, most of whom feared that a specific prayer in classes would establish one religion as the state belief, thereby suppressing all other faiths; for these purposes, every Christian sect counted as another religion. 

The court cases essentially split the loose religious coalition of the 1950’s into left and right, the left proposing that we are a religiously secular nation in which individuals are allowed to practice any religion and all religions are allowed to thrive.

Enter Richard Milhous Nixon, who revived the idea of connecting right-wing economic values to Christianity. With the help of Billy Graham, Nixon used corporate money to organize those Christians who believed in prayer in school and other governmental manifestations of Christianity to support the basic economic principles of the extreme right-wing.  That’s where Kruse’s story essentially ends. 

As we all know, Nixon’s coalition has endured and grown into a powerful force in American politics, representing about 20% of all voters, although it is an aging constituency. This 20% of the voters now controls the Republican Party. While virtually all politicians of all ilk invoke god, only the Republicans want to follow fundamentalist Christian ideas in teaching science and mandating social mores.      

Kruse makes a convincing case, except for one thing: His premise that corporate America invented the concept of America as a Christian nation is not correct. The view that America is fundamentally Christian, founded on Christian principles, has a long history.  

For example, Another book I’ve been reading, Figures publiques, by French cultural historian Antoine Lilthi analyzes the attempts of the very early and popular biography of George Washington by Mason Weems to transform our first president, an avowed nondenominational deist, into the incarnation of a Christian evangelist. Weems made up a pack of lies about Washington’s private life and beliefs, essentially setting in stone most of the myths we learned as children about the general, e.g., the cherry tree incident. As his source for this distortion of history to serve ideological ends, Lilthi cites Francois Furstenburg’s In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, which studies how the publishing industry in early America helped to establish America’s civic culture. FYI, Lilthi’s book, which unfortunately is only available in French at this time, is a valuable guide to the creation of the contemporary concept of celebrity from 1750-1850 in France, England and North America. 

Among other examples of the imposition of religious values on the political scene in American history are the abolitionist movement, the movement to stem the growth of unions, the opposition to giving women the right to vote and prohibition. Plenty of rich folk with real estate and factory holdings funded these movements. To marvel that corporations from 1940-1970 introduced the concept of “American the Christian,” requires one to forget that on one level corporations are merely organizations of convenience for the wealthy. 

Weems book is still worth reading because his documentation of religion in the public square during the years before and after World War II is detailed and fascinating. More importantly, he reminds us that Richard Nixon was instrumental in the creation of the ultra-right coalition that assumed power with Reagan and has succeeded in transferring enormous amounts of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, destroying our public education system, turning us into a near police state, re-establishing a Jim Crow system in mass incarceration and puttering away more than 30 years in the fight against human-induced global warming. Although they all portray the United States as a devoutly Christian nation, if Reagan is the devil and Bush II, Cheney and their crew the devil’s spawn, then Nixon is the devil’s father.



Sunday, July 26, 2015

OpEdge Redux: New book documents how jellyfish are inheriting the oceans, with a lot of help from humans

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on October 14, 2013.

If even just half of what Lisa-ann Gershwin reports in Stung! is true, then many younger readers may be telling their grandchildren stories about the long ago days when humans caught ocean fish and ate them. Stung! gives the depressing news about how we’ve managed to pollute the oceans probably beyond saving. By beyond saving, Gershwin means a return to Earth’s oceans some 500 million years ago when disgustingly slimy and stingy jellyfish ruled.

Gershwin catalogues overfished areas, red tides, jellyfish blooms, heated and oxygen deprived waters, waters polluted by fertilizer and other human wastes and man-made catastrophes that collectively are killing many fish species and destroying the ocean’s delicate cycle of life.  She gives copious examples of all the problems we have created:
·         Over-fishing, which means taking so many fish out of the water that a species is doomed to extinction.  Included in overfishing is the problem of bycatch, which occurs when fishing for one species leads to the capture and destruction of other species.  There is also bottom trawling, which essentially runs a large rake across the water’s floor, picking up delicacies like shrimp but destroying plant and other animal life.
·         Eutrophication, which is a type of pollution caused by excessive fertilizer and sewage runoff causing an accelerated growth of algae and other plant life, leading to a disturbance in the balance of underwater life.
·         Other kinds of pollution which causes deformities or contaminates fish and other sea creatures.
·         The decline in oxygen levels in the oceans, which leads to the death of virtually all higher forms of life.
·         The increasing acidification of the ocean, which dissolves shells. Particularly alarming is the fact that ocean acidification destroys diatoms, tiny creatures at the base of the food chain of higher order animals like fish, whales and penguins. Acidification also makes it more conducive for the type of tiny creatures upon which jellyfish love to graze.
·         Climate change, which is warming the waters, again upsetting nature’s balance and leading to the imminent extinction of many sea dwellers.

As it turns out, each of these conditions makes the waters more conducive to jellyfish, since jellyfish can live in many environments and adapt well to a lack of oxygen.  Moreover, once jellyfish get a hold on a body of water, they multiply to the point of crowding out other life forms.

Stung! holds out absolutely no hope that we can fix the oceans. Gershwin’s last words in the book are “If you are waiting for me to offer some great insight, some morsel of wisdom, some words of advice…okay then…Adapt.”

But what does adaptation mean? I’m guessing that it means giving up on eating any creature from the ocean and figuring out how to eliminate the pollution from industrial fisheries, which right now contribute to the problem by dumping waste matter from production into the water. We’ll have to limit water sports to pools and other manmade structures, which we can keep clean of pollutants and jellyfish.  We’ll have to figure out how to keep jellyfish from destroying the filters of a variety of operations sited on bodies of water. It might mean developing technologies that actively clean carbon-dioxide out of the ocean water. It certainly will mean ending our dependence on burning fossil fuels, which is both warming the waters and injecting carbon into them.

Another recent book, Countdown by Alan Weisman, tells us what else we have to do: reduce the human population. We currently have about 7 billion people in the world and counting.
Some biologists think we can sustain 1.5 billion people living the kind of life we live in industrialized countries. My own back-of-the-envelope, seat-of-my-pants, pulled-out-of-thin-air estimate of the earth’s carrying capacity for humans is 1.0 billion. I pick that number because it’s the number of people on the earth in 1800.

My own belief—and it is only a belief—is that humans are so smart that we will survive, even if that means a return to living lives that, as Thomas Hobbes once put it, are “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  I assume that survival of humans will only come at the cost of a great decline in our population. My only question is whether war, epidemics, famine and chemical poisoning—the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—will cause the decline in our numbers or if we will take matters into our own hands and do it through birth control and family planning. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Editorial: Obama Earns His Nobel

President Obama finally earned the Nobel Peace Prize he was given in 2009 and it’s driving Republicans crazy.

Secretary of State John Kerry also deserves credit for leading the 20 months of talks, along with representatives from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, getting Iranians to sign onto the deal to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons and agreeing to allow UN inspectors to check their work. Now the challenge for Obama and Kerry is to get Congress to give peace a chance.

A solid majority of Americans support the agreement; a poll for the Washington Post and ABC News (July 20) showed 56% in favor and 37% opposed. While Republicans hope to make inroads into the Jewish vote, a poll conducted in June for J Street, a progressive Jewish group, found that 59% of American Jews support a final agreement with Iran that increases inspections in exchange for economic sanctions relief. And Jewish support grows to 78% for an agreement that imposes intrusive inspections of Iran and caps its enrichment of uranium as a level far below what is necessary to make a nuclear weapon in exchange for phased relief from US and international sanctions, as the final deal does.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains implacably opposed to the Iran deal. The leading Israel lobby group, AIPAC, is expecting to spend as much as $40 million on an ad campaign through the cover group “Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran” to put pressure on Democratic members of Congress to nullify Obama’s policy.

Many former senior intelligence and national security officials in Israel disagree with Netanyahu and believe the historic agreement is in the national security interest of the State of Israel.

Jonathan Alter in (July 21), quoted Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, and a former chief of the Israeli Navy, saying the issue “‘is not black and white,” but he reeled off a list of former defense ministers and chiefs of Shin Bet and Mossad who agree with him that “when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capability, this [deal] is the best option.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street told the Washington Post the battle shapes up as “The foreign policy fight of a generation… It pits folks who brought us the Iraq war and whole neocon worldview versus the Obama worldview and the concept that we can confront enemies with diplomacy.”

Israel’s allies against the deal include military contractors who would profit from war with Iran and oil companies, who lost billions of dollars in the value of oil reserves after the UN Security Council unanimously approved the deal on July 20. Crude oil prices fell below $50 a barrel for the first time in more than three months on speculation that Iran will add to the global glut of oil.

While some oil companies hope to move in to help Iran rev up its production, others see the infusion of Iranian oil blotting out their hopes of returning to $100-a-barrel oil anytime soon.

Relaxation of sanctions on Iran not only will allow Iranians to improve their standard of living and potentially increase exposure of young Iranians to Western influences; reopening oil markets will help keep gas bills low for American drivers.

If Congress overrides Obama’s veto and kills the deal, no one seriously disputes that the sanctions regime would collapse. “Russia is already planning its new business deals with Iran and the Europeans aren’t far behind,” Alter noted. “The idea that a tougher United States could by itself force better terms is a dangerous fantasy. With rejection, we would get the worst of both worlds. Iran would have much of its oil money back, but without the most intrusive inspections in history (24/7 monitoring of its nuclear facilities), 98% reductions in uranium stockpiles, and the many other provisions that sharply reduce its existential threat to Israel.”

If Israel and the Republicans risk a war full of unintended consequences to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capacity, Israeli intelligence estimates that US bunker-buster bombs would at best set back Iran’s nuclear program by two to four years, or roughly a fifth as long as required by the terms of the new deal, Ayalon said.

As for Israeli security concerns, the predominantly Jewish nation has at least 10 years to demonstrate that it is not a threat to Iran, which has no inherent enmity for Israel, beyond its concern for fellow Muslims in Palestine. Jewish communities in Iran date back to Biblical Persia. From the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 until the fall of the Shah in 1979, Israel and Iran maintained close ties and Israel viewed Iran as a natural ally as a non-Arab power on the edge of the Arab world.

Relations suffered after Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah, but Israel still provided logistical support and sold arms to the Islamic Republic during Iran’s war with Iraq from 1980 to 1989. Hostility between Israel and Iran increased after the defeat of the Iraqi army during the first Gulf War in 1991.

The best way Israel could improve its security is to jettison Netanyahu, explore the opening to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran and start negotiating seriously with duly elected Palestinians to recognize each others’ authorities.

US Isn’t Greece

There are many lessons to be learned from Greece’s struggles to get its economy back on track, but debt hawks are wrong to claim that the Greek troubles should stand as a warning that the US is in trouble because of its mounting national debt.

Greece’s problem is that it does not control its own economy, being beholden to the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank, which administers monetary policy for the Eurozone. Greece also has a problem in getting revenues from wealthy citizens who for generations have dodged tax collectors.

Greece owed official lenders $271 billion in June, while private investors also held $42 billion of Greek government bonds. That compares with a GDP of $238 billion in 2014, which ranks 45th in the world and 13th in the 28-member European Union.

The United States expects a national debt of $18.6 trillion at the end of FY 2015, compared with a $17.4 trillion GDP in 2014, which makes the US the biggest economy in the world.

But Greece, which was required by the ECB and IMF in 2010 to adopt austerity measures to bring the deficit under control, saw its unemployment rise from 11.9% of the workforce in 2010 to 27.5% in 2013 before falling to 25.5% in April.

The US, on the other hand, saw its economy recover after President Obama and the Democratic Congress stimulated the economy with $800 billion in spending in 2009 to pull the country out of the Bush Recession. Republicans have tried to impose austerity measures in an effort to stall the economic recovery and they have succeeded in cutting government jobs and programs since they took over the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but the unemployment rate still dropped to 5.3% in June.

US Treasury bills are still considered the safest investment in the world, with interest rates ranging from 0.04% for three-month notes to 2.33% for 10-year notes because, unlike in Greece—whose 10-year bond rate was 11.22% on July 20—there is no serious question that the US can pay off its debts. The biggest threat to the T-bill’s stability is the Republican majority in Congress, which threatens to default on the debt if President Obama does not agree to further austerity measures when the next debt-ceiling fight comes up in November.

Who gains from higher government bond rates? Hedge fund speculators, who have complained that T-bills have been low-performing under Obama. Some invested in Greek government bonds when they were yielding upwards of 12%, betting that the ECB and the International Monetary Fund would backstop them.

Beware of Republicans who again are threatening a government shutdown, which will hurt government workers and the people who rely on them to provide services—who tend to be at lower income levels—but might nudge up T-bill rates as a favor for the Wall Street speculators. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2015

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Selections from the August 15, 2015 issue

COVER/Roger Bybee
4 bad things Scott Walker did in Wisconsin

Obama earns his Nobel; US isn’t Greece


Big Pharma decides who lives and who dies

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
Those who remember the Civil War fondly

Kasich joins the fray;
GOP selective on vets’ feelings;
Clinton loses ground, Sanders competitive in swing states;
Racial justice is hard;
GOP faces Latino gap;
Medicare, Medicaid still hugely popular;
Beware butt-dial;
How many unarmed people do police shoot?;
Immigrants less likely criminals;
More states sign onto Medicaid expansion;
Small business lending program nears cap;
Embargo still bans business in Cuba ...

Wall Street, Kochs and progressive alternative

Trump, sadly, is no sideshow

Is the Culture War over? 

Trump’s badmouthing deportment

Iran deal gives Dems opening (if they’ll seize it)

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Yelping for a doctor

Walker messing Wisconsin only the beginning

The world according to Brooks

Trashing Greece — and Europe?

Captives of commerce in a shooting gallery

Clocking in for justice

Smashing the Austerity Idols

and more ...

OpEdge Redux: Moving in retirement to avoid school taxes is the epitome of the politics of selfishness

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on September 19, 2013.

Last time we cited Tom Sightings, self-proclaimed retirement expert, he was conjuring images of the various dream retirements to which he assumed the American public might aspire.  His catalogue of utopias reflected the pro-suburban ideology that dominates the mass media: golf communities, small university towns, beach fronts and suburban houses. Not one of Sighting’s dream retirements involved living in a city with great mass transit, an abundance of public spaces, cultural activities and entertainment, top-rated healthcare systems, the exciting buzz of cultural diversity and tremendous resources for seniors. In Sightings’ world, cities just don’t exist.

The latest view from Sightings highlights an ideological principle that has dominated U.S. public discourse since the election of Ronald Regan in 1980: the politics of selfishness, the idea that everyone should pursue his or her own private agenda, no matter how harmful it might be to others or to the community at large. Symbolic of the politics of selfishness is Reagan’s favorite joke about not having to outrun a bear, just one’s companion (who will then get ripped to shreds by the bear).  

Sightings doesn’t come out and explicitly say, “Care only about yourself” in his recent U.S. News & World Report article.  What he proposes, in a soft-shoe, gently prodding kind of way, is that retired people move out of their communities to avoid paying high school taxes. 

After all, their kids have long graduated from high school, so who cares about the next generation!

Sightings employs the increasingly irritating rhetorical device of building the story around himself (the writer) and his situation. The article begins when he receives the school tax bill which has increased by four percent. He grumbles that his income has not increased by that much.  Continuing the article as a first person narration, Sightings tells us of a dinner his wife and he shared a few days later with a couple who had just moved to a new town to avoid high school taxes.  Sightings quotes the husband: “Who needs to pay those high school taxes, he ventured, when your kids are grown up and gone away?” Sightings continues: “Left unsaid was the other question: Who can afford those school taxes when you're no longer pulling in a paycheck, and instead living on a fixed income?”

After some wishy-washy discussion of the pros and cons of moving to avoid school taxes and a spackling of information about states that reduce property taxes for seniors, Sightings ends the column fully on the side of moving: “But then I see that school tax bill sitting over there on the corner of my desk. It's due by the end of September. And our youngest child graduated from the local school system four years ago. Maybe it's time to start looking for our place in the sun, after all.”

What Sightings doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see, is that when he sent his children to school, large numbers of his fellow townspeople were paying property taxes to fund public schools who had already sent their children through schools and many more who hadn’t had children yet or never were going to have any. Even parents who sent their children to private schools contributed to educating Sightings’ children. Now it’s his turn and he wants selfishly to shrug his responsibility.  After all, he got his.

There are many great reasons to move in retirement: to be near grown children or to live one’s dream, be it on a quiet shore or in a high rise co-op overlooking the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. “Chacun sa chimère,” as Baudelaire once said (which translates into “To each, his or her illusion.”) It’s also true that some people move to smaller homes in retirement or are forced to move to cut expenses.

But to move just to avoid taxes is as anti-social as robbing a convenience store or embezzling from a nonprofit organization.