Saturday, February 4, 2012

More on polarization

The justice system in the USA is predicated on a couple of major foundation stones:  the accused are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and a willingness to let the guilty go free to prevent the innocent from being unjustly punished for a crime.  This automatically creates a conflict between those willing to run roughshod over American judicial requirements in order to punish those guilty of crimes and those willing to run roughshod over the rights of crime victims in order to free those who may be guilty.  This has been a difficult tightrope to walk along and has become a very divisive issue in our society.

We have a huge population of people in prison today, with overcrowded jails and a massive bill to our society for warehousing all those imprisoned.  The cost of their medical care included that for catastrophic illness that may require very expensive procedures (e.g., heart transplants).  Many in our prisons have been convicted for drug offenses - victimless crimes - in the ridiculous and wasteful "war on drugs" in America.  Some fraction of our prisoners in jail for violent crime are, in fact, innocent - perhaps because the police and prosecuting attorneys are more interested in "solving" crimes than they are in justice.  Even at that, we find ourselves in a nation where violent criminals are freed routinely after serving only a fraction of their sentences (overcrowding plays a role), and they go on to commit more violent crimes, including on those seen as responsible for sending them to prison (i.e., victims).  Politically polarized debates on "law and order" versus "rights of the accused" strike me as perpetuating a system that serves justice only coincidentally.

When I was on jury duty some years ago, it became clear to me that the biggest barriers to justice are the lawyers and the judges, as well as the legislators who create the laws.  I was surprised and very pleased by my fellow jurors, who uniformly tried to do as good a job as possible within the confines of the system.  At the time, it seemed to me that the legal system was designed to thwart justice, not serve it!  I don't know of any simple fixes for this problem that I can recommend, but becoming increasingly polarized into "tough on crime" and "easy on crime" camps isn't very useful in our national struggle to achieve a criminal justice system that works for everyone, including the accused as well as the victims.

A similar problem exists regarding the social welfare system in the USA.  There are those who would eliminate the whole system in order to prevent even a single instance of welfare cheating, and they clash with those who would make eligibility easier to qualify for and expand the eligibility list.  This argument has been cast by some in terms of the futility of eliminating poverty.  It's true that there will always be poor people, and some of them choose to remain poor because they get support from the social welfare system.  But the real purpose of the welfare system is not to eliminate poverty - rather, it's to provide humanitarian support to those who would otherwise find themselves unable even to survive for lack of sufficient income.  Characterizing welfare as a program to eliminate poverty is simply a straw man argument that only serves to polarize, not solve the problem.

This debate has become increasingly ugly in the "conservative" and "liberal" camps.  It has become entangled with the whole range of issues that describe the collective platforms of these opposing points of view.  I find it really bothersome that anyone would adopt wholesale the array of policies spouted by pseudo-pundits and politicians identified with the conservative and liberal positions.  The very words conservative and liberal have become hopelessly ambiguous and, in my view, increasingly irrelevant to today's politics.  There's no political party candidate that coincides precisely with my views on a variety of issues, and neither of the two major parties have ever entertained the candidacy of a person who seems even remotely acceptable to me.  Is this a path to solving our problems?  Can we resolve the clash over social welfare by each side labeling the other with emotional epithets?  Is it "socialist" to support the notion that our society should provide for the welfare of the inevitable disadvanted part of our population?  Is it "fascism" to seek to reduce the role for government support of those disadvantaged?  Is it realistic to expect candidates to match us as individuals, point by point and issue by issue?  We can never resolve this issue in a reasonable way without compromise - a historic cornerstone of American democracy in the past.

Now we collectively seem to have lost our commitment to compromise as a political solution.  From where I sit, both parties engage in legislative and executive activities primarily as partisans, not elected officials serving the needs of all their constituents.  We traditionally have been a pluralistic society, treasuring freedom of expression for the reason that no one has a stranglehold on truth and understanding.  The GOP seems especially inclined to create a monolithic society, not a diverse one.  If you have a different viewpoint, you're accused of being a socialist and marginalized.

I'm not whining about "Why can't we just get along?" - the point is that it's becoming more important than ever to embrace the idea that not everyone agrees about things.  If the majority accept position A, that doesn't mean that position B supporters get nothing and are pushed to the edge of extinction, to say nothing of supporters of positions C, D, E, and F!  Our two-party, bipolar system, which is not constitutionally-mandated, seems to be increasingly destructive and useless.  Americans need more alternatives than what we're being offered by the two-party system!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Are we responsible for whatever happens to us?

All human beings have some measure of control over their lives.  We make a big deal of accepting personal responsibility for our lives.  I happen to be one who often has made a point of selling the notion of personal responsibility for what happens to us.  But things of late have conspired to make me reconsider what I've been saying.  There's a famous saying that appears frequently in self-help groups:

God (as I understand him) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The significance of this, as I see it, is that many of us suffer needlessly by accepting the blame for what happens to us as a result of things that are outside of our control.  When I started smoking cigarettes many years ago, I rapidly developed a 2 pack per day habit.  I knew that cigarettes weren't good for me, but nicotine is an insidious, addictive drug and I found it difficult to break the habit.  Eventually, I quit for good, but after my years of dependency, I realized that I couldn't control the drug at all.  If I smoked one cigarette, I would smoke 40+ per day.  I know people who can smoke one or two cigarettes per day (or even less).  For me, though, I know just what would happen if I picked up another, so I've remained cigarette-free (since 1972).  My only way to control it was to abstain completely.  For some reason, having utterly nothing to do with my personal responsibility, I'm unable to control a nicotine addiction.  It's apparently an affliction with which I was born. Similar things can be said for drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, and so on.  Some people can drink or gamble in a controlled way.  Others can't.  There likely is some genetic explanation for that difference that would be outside of anyone's control.  It's not simply a lack of personal responsibility!  Almost anyone who tries cocaine or methamphetamine becomes addicted, so I understood clearly that I should never, ever try it (or a number of other things), even once.

There are other things that happen to us (or fail to happen, as the case may be) that are outside our control.  Many people can't control their weight properly, for instance.  Some of those who are able to do so often look with undisguised contempt at overweight people, thereby reinforcing the overweight person's perception that being overweight is simply a matter of laziness or revealing a lack of personal responsibility.  This attitude reinforces the self-loathing that many such people feel, almost certainly making it even more difficult to take steps to fix the situation.

And some of us, through no fault of our own, have found we have a debilitating physical condition (such as cerebral palsy - CP) that many people find disturbing or even disgusting.  As it turns out, I know a number of people with CP and have come to recognize their outward manifestation is very different from the person trapped inside that damaged body.  Aphasia resulting from various problems can create the impression that someone is stupid or ignorant.  It turns out there are many debilitating disorders, such as fibromyalgia, that have been seen in the past by many in the medical profession as a form of self-delusional weakness, but which slowly are coming to be recognized as real disorders and very much physical, not mental.  However, the sufferers still are viewed by many with that undeserved contempt.

It's been my observation that many women see themselves as ugly or even repulsive because their bodies don't match the "cover girl"/"Barbie doll" look.  They engage in all sorts of complex treatments to improve their self-image (botox, breast implants, etc.) and spend a fortune to buy a seemingly endless array of products to cover over their "imperfections".   Whole businesses have sprung up to prey on this self-imposed lack of self-acceptance.  And body image discomfort is not restricted to women!  Many men have an obsession about their penis size whenever it's not big enough to qualify as a porn movie star!  They cover up for this with puerile false boasts about the size of their "tool".  Just for the record, I don't have a particularly large penis - porn movie producers won't be beating a path to my door.  It seemed to work just fine for the specific tasks it was intended to serve, though.  Why should I be reluctant to admit a condition that was entirely outside of my control?  Does it diminish my image?  As time has passed, I've come to recognize the foolishness of being concerned about such things.

We humans seem inclined to fail to follow the wisdom of the old saying I mentioned above.  We should absolve ourselves for the responsibility for things we don't control, while at the same time working to do something about the few things over which we do exercise control.  It's not our fault but we have a personal responsibility to ourselves to make the most of what we do have, rather than dwelling on what we don't have.  There are people who can and will love us and appreciate us for what we are, not caring about what we're not, if we just let them.  Learning how to recognize the difference between what we can and can't control usually takes time and experience, unfortunately.  We shouldn't let the negative attitudes of the ignorant cause us to doubt ourselves.  Whatever our failings and inadequacies, we each have something valuable to contribute, and that we can control!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

OK folks ... One more time

If you offer comments about any of my blogs, you must include your full, real name (e.g., Bill Murray).  I will not publish comments from people using incomplete names (e.g., BillM), or pseudonyms (e.g., GroundHogDay)!  If you're not willing to abide by this rule, don't waste your time and mine by sending comments on my blog entries.  I won't publish them!  If you use a false full name and I find out about it, your comments will be deleted immediately.  I have no use for "keyboard warriors" hiding behind anonymity to say whatever.  If you're not willing to own your own words, why are you bothering me?

The big American educational lie

I clearly have been the beneficiary of a lot of good fortune ... it definitely could be called "luck".  For many years, I congratulated myself because the educational process I went through culminated in my obtaining what was for me a dream job right out of graduate school.  I like to think I used that opportunity productively and became a contributor to science as a result.  At the time it happened I realized how fortunate I was - in fact, it was hard to believe things worked out that way.  But the notion that "luck is the combination of opportunity and preparedness" is only valid when there's an opportunity!  As time has passed, I've reflected on that good fortune and I've become aware of several stories of people who have not been so fortunate as I.

The big American educational lie often is part of what is spouted by the right-wing conservatives and their sycophants who oppose vehemently any social welfare program (unless it's for the benefit of rich people and corporations).  They portray the recipients of social welfare as cynical parasites, feeding at the trough of governmental largess at the expense of the rest of "hard-working Americans".  They've produced extended arguments that are little more than stereotyping of welfare recipients.  I've seen within my circle of friends some of the people who like others are unable to find good jobs and so would be included in the right-wing category of lazy layabouts.  Some of them refuse to accept welfare, in fact!  They just keep on struggling, too proud to take what they could receive from government programs.

As an example, I know one young man who went to extraordinary lengths to obtain his diploma from a university program of national repute.  In order to pay for this, since he had no financial assistance - no one to pay his academic bills (to say nothing of the cost of living) - he has had to work at menial jobs after school to pay for his education and support his family.  These jobs are far below his intellectual capability, and his wife had to help support the family by working as well.  His earlier diploma from a lesser university wasn't enough to satisfy him - he felt he had to earn a diploma that carried more clout!  So he stayed the course and graduated from this more challenging program, in a process that demanded years of sacrifices from him and his wife.  So what does he have to show for all that effort and sacrifice?  He must be living the American dream by now, right?  Actually, he has precisely ... nothing!  His diploma guaranteed him absolutely zero, of course, and he's been unable to find work in the discipline for which he worked so hard and sacrificed so much.  Seeing his plight makes me very sad, but it also makes me very much aware of the good fortune that worked in my favor during better economic times.  And to think the right-wing ideologues would unhesitatingly classify him as a parasite if he accepted welfare makes me furious!

This young man surely deserves something for all his hard work and, according to the mantra of the right-wing advocates I know, it should be his reward for all the effort he put out.  He isn't shiftless and lazy in any way - far from it!  But the big lie is that hard work and education are the keys to success in America.  The reality is that they aren't much of a guarantee of anything.  I'm not so arrogant as to infer that my good fortune was due only to my efforts - I worked hard to be prepared but I'm also willing to admit that I was the beneficiary of luck.  My young friend has not been lucky - he worked hard to obtain an education and his reward is nothing more than an empty promise.

It's infuriating to hear all this patronizing crap from the right wing about how the jobless need to get a job and earn their place in the American paradise.  It's outright rubbish to paint everyone in need of welfare as some sort of social parasite, and to preach the mantra of "Get an education and get a job!"  Even if they can somehow manage to pay the educational system what it costs to receive the "benefits" of a diploma, those institutions who were delighted to take that tuition money from their students, will shrug their shoulders when that diploma doesn't land their graduates a good-paying job in the subject area of their academic degree.  The universities hire only a small fraction of university graduates - the rest must look elsewhere.  In hard times, many graduates have a tough time finding that good job the universities seem to promise, but which is actually beyond their capability to give.  They take in that tuition money but it's no guarantee of anything!

Many welfare recipients are ashamed and embarrassed to be forced to depend on social welfare programs to survive.  Must we make needy people be ashamed of their condition, even when they did all the right things and by bad fortune, were not rewarded with their share of the American dream?