Friday, December 6, 2013

While celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, let’s not forget that segregation still exists

By Marc Jampole

Segregation is the separation or isolation of individuals or groups from a larger group or from society. Segregation has taken many forms throughout history: refugee camps, work camps, concentration camps, castes, class systems, quarantines, slave quarters, homelands, ghettos, pales, redlined districts, housing development covenants, mass transit seating and classrooms, to name some of the more prevalent means of denying people the right to enter or leave.

Except for medical quarantines, not one of the myriad means to segregate are fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous or tolerable to the fair, moral, ethical, humanistic, righteous and tolerant person. While it enriches a pluralistic society when individuals of a group—say Jews or Pakistanis—move to the same neighborhood and open specialty stores catering to their cultural predilections, to restrict these or other groups to areas undermines any society or nation. The same is true if a group tries to keep others out, either everyone or another specific group. A free society demands free access to everyone to all areas that offer free access to anyone, except of course for private property not engaged in civic affairs, commerce or other public ends.

Nelson Mandela defeated a particularly pernicious form of segregation called apartheid.  He resolutely withstood years of jail to lead a movement that eventually negotiated with the defenders of apartheid and defeated them in a democratic election. He fulfilled the vision of Gandhi, the dream of Martin Luther King.  That he began his public career supporting violence only makes more poignant the story of his achieving the good he sought peacefully. It also demonstrates the caliber of the man—always growing, always improving, always questioning.

In celebrating Mandela’s long life, however, let us not forget the many forms of segregation that still exist today throughout the world, including the abominable irony of an apartheid-like system in a nation controlled by a national group that suffered one of the most horrifying examples of segregation in recorded history.

In the United States, our most harmful form of segregation is the separation of rich from poor in access to education. Educational segregation—enforced by expensive private schools, private lessons and gerrymandered public school districts, has unleveled the playing field, helping to create what is the least socially mobile country in the western world. In the United States, it is harder for people to leave the lowest fifth in income and wealth and easier for someone in the highest fifth to remain there than in any other industrialized country. It makes a mockery of our democratic ideals for it to be so hard to climb the economic ladder. Education has usually been the way that the poor have become rich in open societies; thus the connection between educational segregation and growing inequality of wealth and opportunity.

But educational segregation is merely one form of this pox on society that we need to address. The situation in Israel and the occupied lands is morally intolerable.  The Wikipedia article titled Racial Segregation details legal and de facto segregation in Bahrain, Canada, Fiji, India, Malaysia, Mauritania, the United Kingdom and Yemen. This list doesn’t include prisoner and refugee camps.

The mass media is already trying to homogenize Nelson Mandela, as they have successfully done for Martin Luther King, turning the day of remembering King’s life into a general day of service to the community, which whitewashes that he dedicated his life to one particular kind of service: peaceful disobedience to oppose racial discrimination.  In the same way, the mass media is already focusing on Mandela the peaceful fighter for democratic elections and freedom. But freedom for South African Blacks involved much more than getting the right to vote.  Mandela’s fight was to create a pluralistic post-racial society of equal access, equal treatment, equal rights and equal opportunity.

The only way to appropriately honor Nelson Mandela is to continue the fight—the peaceful fight—against segregation of every kind, wherever it is.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What current media fascination is most like AIDS news coverage in the 1990s? Hint: Lots of K’s involved

By Marc Jampole

To those old enough to remember the 1990s, the phrase “AIDS story of the day” will resonate, because in fact there was a new story about some aspect of AIDS virtually every day of the week in the mass media: research into its origin or cure, its spread, measures to prevent it, art and literature about AIDS or by artists with AIDS, changing cultural patterns, types of condoms, famous people outed because they contracted AIDS, protests by AIDS victims, the impact of AIDS on communities and cities, the spread to the heterosexual community, vignettes of sufferers and their families, the overcoming of prejudices, funding challenges, studies and reports from other countries. Every day it was something new as reporters, magazines, newspapers and TV programs tried to top each other with the new or unusual related to this dreaded plague.

That there was a constant onslaught of news stories over pretty much an entire decade was understandable. It was a worldwide epidemic of a horrible disease that was related to sexual practices or intravenous drug use with an unknown cause. The story of the world’s reaction to AIDS—finding its cause and then the means to ameliorate if not prevent it, while gaining a new respect and tolerance for its victims—represents humanity at its best.

How ironic then that the contemporary news phenomenon that most resembles the AIDS story in its longevity and number of story angles is not a monumental medical epic involving millions, but the private bantering and peccadilloes of a family of rich but garish narcissists.

Only those who ignore the mass media don’t know to whom I’m referring: It’s the Kardashians.

Every day, a story about one or more Kardashians appears on the Yahoo! home page, Google News, the news pages of popular email portals such as Verizon’s and Time Warner’s, many of our finest tabloid newspapers like The Daily News and gossip-based televisions shows like Entertainment Tonight and The Wendy Williams Show. More staid and serious news media such as Wall Street Journal and New York Times cover the family with some frequency.

Their loves, flirtations and breakups, frustrations, life events and parties, purchases, vacations, clothes, cars and other toys, family relationships, faux pas and ignorant statements, rumors, popularity and the very fact that they are a phenomenon are all grist for the Kardashian mill. Even the Kennedy family at its height did not command so much constant attention, partially because they flourished before the age of 24/7 Internet and television media.

And why so much news coverage for a pack of uneducated conspicuous consumers of luxury products?
  1. Their parents are rich.
  2. They tend to couple with famous people, mostly second rate professional athletes.
  3. They have starred in a succession of reality TV programs in which they inelegantly portray garishly ostentatious lives of conspicuous consumption and family bickering.
In short they are pure celebrities, famous for being famous, or more bluntly, famous for sleeping with famous people.  The fact that much of the detail of their lives and adventures may be created by a stable of reality show and public relations writers matters little. The post-modern blending of reality and fantasy is accepted as gospel by so much of the news media that the Kardashian world has become the fulfillment of the Karl Rove dream of replacing a reality-based world with an ideologically determined one.

The Kardashian ideology, embraced by the show’s sponsors and the owners of the many media outlets that cover their antics, is worship of the commercial transaction. Peruse the stories (but not too many) and you will find that virtually all them involve buying or giving/taking something someone has bought. Their many complex but frangible relations all boil down to shopping. What Lamar got Khlo√©, where Kourtney shopped, what designer jewelry Kris was wearing.

There is not a day that goes by when the sheer volume of Kardashian stories overwhelms coverage of more important matters. Just now, for example, I found 69.7 million stories about the Kardashians in Google News, but only 140,000 on the car bomb attack in Yemen and a mere 6,000 about the Illinois pension overhaul. Several months ago I reported a study by some Stanford scientists which demonstrated how to provide enough electricity for the entire world through wind power, which garnered exactly one news story throughout the Googlesphere.

Even the most ostensibly high-minded mainstream news media are prisoners of the need to make money by appealing to advertisers. And advertisers like stories that exhort readers to buy expensive toys. And even more do they like stories which advocate the idea that every emotion and human expression must manifest itself in a commercial transaction—buying something.  And most of all they like stories which glorify the shopper as the person to be most admired and honored.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

So-called bioethicist would rather see people die than change society

By Marc Jampole

In a New York Times Op/Ed column, Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institution, questions the wisdom of extending human life. 
Callahan rightfully calls aging “a public issue with social consequences” and mentions two of the ramifications of more people living into old age: 1) More medical costs for society; 2) Fewer jobs for the young, as the old extend their working lives.

But instead of seeing health care and the workforce as challenges to overcome as we extend the amount of time people can live, he sees them instead as reasons not to extend life. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but his underlying argument essentially throws people under the bus when their usefulness to the economy appears to end.

The increase in medical costs to treat the elderly should not be seen as society’s burden, but rather as our joyous reward for having created a world in which people can live longer and continue to thrive. That so many people live longer is a sign of success, not a reason to stop the advance of medical research. We expanded educational institutions to meet the large increase in the population of children when the Baby Boomers started popping out. What is so different about expanding medical and social programs for our increasing population of the elderly?

The jobs issue is a little more complicated, primarily because our automated economy does not create enough jobs for everyone willing and able to work. But instead of artificially creating job openings by kicking out people at a certain age, we could fix what’s wrong with our economic system. Here are some thoughts:
  • As more people live to 90, 100 and beyond, they will need more caregivers, which creates jobs for younger people.
  • Local organic farming requires more human labor. If we created an agricultural system that relied on a mix of industrial and older techniques, it would create many more jobs for the young. The key, of course, is to make certain that these jobs pay a decent wage.
  • Unless there is a pressing financial reason, those in their 60s, 70s and beyond typically don’t want to work 40-hour weeks. Job-sharing, especially between the old experienced hand and the young go-getter, makes a lot of sense.
  • We are currently not spending enough on many job-creating enterprises, such as fixing our roads and bridges, hiring enough teachers to decrease class sizes, exploring out-of-space and developing renewable energy sources and systems.
To make any of these ideas work requires two actions that give conservatives the willies: 1) More government management of the economy; and 2) A more equitable distribution of the wealth.

When people use economic arguments to justify denying people basics such as nutrition, healthcare or education, I always wonder if they include themselves. Evidently the 83-year-old Callahan does not, as he admits to having received a seven-hour heart operation and to using oxygen at night for his emphysema.  In our current world, the rich—and I include Callahan—can afford to keep themselves alive and have nice cushy jobs from which they can keep drawing income for decades after turning 65.

Callahan’s sole concern is that as currently constructed, our society and economy cannot afford to extend such privileges to everyone.  While he seems to care about the social good, he argues explicitly from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe or want society to improve or change. He is happy living in a world dominated by the politics of selfishness, the idea that “I got mine, who cares about anyone else.” He sees an increase in the very old as a threat to that world, as opposed to being a sign that we are making progress towards a better one.

We all know people whose lives are so filled with pain and suffering that to the outsider it seems as if they would be better off dead. Focus on these poor souls (and don’t ask if they want to remain alive in their pain) and Callahan’s argument that life extension may not be an absolute good makes a tad of sense.

But instead, try focusing on the many vibrant 80 and 90 year olds around. Even those who are not so active can still enjoy their friends, their favorite foods, music, outings and games, sports teams, reading, the changing of the seasons, the chirping of birds, the affection of pets, the delight in seeing the flowers pop up in the spring, in short the sheer joy of existence.  We should be doing as much as possible to extend that joy for all people.

Monday, December 2, 2013

What is the biggest cause in the drop in crime rates?

By Marc Jampole

The latest statistics demonstrate that New York City’s Draconian stop-and-frisk policy has not been the cause for a precipitous drop in the rate of violent crime in the five boroughs. Even after NYC’s finest curtailed stop-and-frisk without cause, crime rates continued to plummet.

I’ve been meaning for some time to analyze why crime rates have dropped and continue to drop across the United States, but especially in urban areas outside of Chicago.  Despite the right’s wails and lamentations about unsafe communities, most of us live in far safer places than we did a decade or two ago. Interestingly enough, the crime rate is down most precipitously in that modern Sodom or Gomorrah, the Big Not-So-Rotten Apple.

Why has crime decreased?

First, I want to discount the idea that crime fell as a result of increased incarceration of individuals, victims to the many 3-strikes-you’re-out and anti-crack laws passed in the late '70s and '80s. We have filled our prisons with a bunch of people—black males to a large extent—who don’t deserve to be incarcerated. All they have done is minor kid’s stuff or drugs. We have the highest incarceration rate in the western world and yet we still have the highest rate of violent crimes. No doubt, some small percentage of those locked up for years for tooting crack might have committed future crimes, but some percentage of those locked up learned criminal ways in prison and became lost to society.  I’m thinking the net effect disproves the idea that locking more people up than any other industrialized nation led to a drop in crimes rates.

One of the gun lobby’s many fantasies is that the increase in open carry and other gun rights leads to a decrease in crime, because the criminals won’t want to run into someone who would shoot back. This absurd claim crumbles to lies as soon as we look at the facts: Forget that the incidents of citizens stopping criminals by pulling out their gun are extremely rare. Consider that the higher the prevalence of guns in any country in the world, the higher the rate of deaths and injuries from guns in that country. More guns equal more violent deaths. Also consider the fact that while there are more guns out there now, fewer households own guns today than 20 years ago, continuing a trend that is more than 50 years old now.  Fewer people own more guns. I think it’s likely that the decline in gun owners may have led to a drop in crime.

So far, I’ve consider some bogus arguments conservatives make about the drop in crime. Now let’s take a look at three legitimate arguments which I think have been factors in the continued drop in crime, but not any as the primary cause.

Let’s start with the end of the use of lead paint: This theory goes that crime increased soon after we started using lead-based paint in apartment buildings, because children would eat the paint chips and suffer one or more of the side effects, which include learning disabilities resulting in decreased intelligence, attention deficit disorder and behavior issues, all predictors of criminal behavior. Once we stopped using lead paint, the crime rate went down (even thought the rate of diagnosing ADD continues to soar). It’s a very believable theory backed by evidence that suggests but does not prove causality. Not enough research has done on the affect of lead paint on human adherence to social norms, but the explanation does sound plausible.

We can also look at the growth of dispute resolution programs in the schools as another factor in lowering the rate of crime. I think it was some time in the '80s when these programs began, first in urban areas. Having sixth grade kids mentor first-graders, throwing middle school kids in with high schoolers, bringing together groups of students from different schools to talk about race, religion and other hate issues, the growth in organized sports leagues—all of this additional socialization had to turn many marginal children away from crime.

My own pet theory is that the growth of video game play helped to lower the crime rate.  The idea is that people work out their anger and anti-social urges playing Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Black Ops.  So while I despair that most video games tend to infantilize young men, preventing their ideas and thought processes to mature, I do think that the games have kept many young men busy and out of trouble.

I do reject one non-conservative theory: A professor has postulated that the legalization of abortion has resulted in fewer unwanted children born and that unwanted children commit more crimes. The problem with this theory is that the introduction of birth control pills assuredly prevented the birth of more children than did the legalization of abortion. But the introduction of the pill paralleled the increase in the crime rate in the 1960s and early '70s, at least at first.

Lead paint, growth in socialization programs and video games all played a role in the decrease in crime, without being the main cause. Sociologists and historians who calculate crime rates in many cultures through centuries report that the rate of crime is primarily a function of the number of 16-29 year old males in the population. Most crime is committed by young men, so the higher percentage of young males in the population, the higher the crime rate.

The facts certainly match this theory until about 2003. When the Baby Boom turned 16, crime rates started to soar. Males aged 16-29 represented the largest percentage of our population in our nation’s history.  When Generation X—otherwise known as the Baby Bust—started to turn 16 and Baby Boomers started turning middle-aged, crime rates started dropping. Now the birth rate increased again with the Millennial generation (AKA Generation Y, although judging from the high achievements of its female members, maybe Generation Non-Y is a better moniker!). But when the Millennials started turning 16, the crime rate did not pick up again.

My thought is that the impact of the Millennials on the overall population is far less than that of the truly outsized Baby Boom generation. So while we have more 16-29 year old males, this demographic segment is not as great a percentage of the whole as it was at the height of Boomer young adulthood.  The end of lead paint, greater socialization, the growth of video games, a decline in gun ownership and other factors still unidentified all combined to keep the crime rate going down.  By this theory, if the Millennials were as large a factor as the Baby Boom generation had been, the crime rate might still not have risen, but not to Boomer levels because of these additional factors.