Silencing the Pearl: healthcare for people, not profit

John SteinbeckThe word was passed out among the neighbors where they stood close packed in the little yard behind the brush fence. And they repeated among themselves, “Juana wants the doctor.” A wonderful thing, a memorable thing, to want the doctor. To get him would be a remarkable thing. The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses. Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town.
- John Steinbeck

In the coastal village of La Paz, where Steinbeck’s tragic tale of need and greed, The Pearl, takes place, to want a doctor, or rather, to ask for a doctor, is a rare and memorable thing for the poor families of the brush houses who live off the sea. These people care for themselves, and for each other; when one is sick or wounded, as when the baby Coyotito gets stung by a scorpion, they all come together to help in the cure, or at the very least, to lend their sympathies and support. Theirs are lives of constant maintenance, constant vigilance, for to call for the doctor is simply unheard of, everyone knows that he will not treat them, as they have no money. Thus we watch sadly as Juana, in a desperate act to save her wounded child, brazenly marches to the doctor’s gate with her man, Kino, and the entire village in tow, only to be turned away because the rich doctor cannot be bothered to put down his chocolate and cookies and help a poor Indian family who cannot pay.

The stark contrasts highlighted in this timeless fable, between community and individual desire, generosity and greed, poverty and wealth, ignorance and knowledge, the bonds of familial love and the bitter boundless hate of the oppressor, speak to us in strong, clear tones, because they are the human contrasts that reside within each one of us. They are also simple, ancient themes, that still strike to the heart of possibly every major issue that continues to plague our modern and less modern societies even today.

Basic as they are, these are the themes that should be central to any analysis and debate about how best to reform our healthcare system. These are the themes that we must consider and weigh on our moral scales to find the solution for turning our sick and diseased system into a healthy, vibrant one that functions for all, not just for those who can afford its skyrocketing costs. For, it has been said, the greatest reflection of a society’s ethics is how it cares for its sick, its young and its elderly.

Instead, as we try to overhaul our failing system, the argument about the best approach inevitably finds itself framed in the old capitalism vs. socialism context, with the usual shouting from both ends of the political spectrum, and those in the middle looking both ways and wondering who to listen to. The usual hard-core free marketers say that any intervention by the government in healthcare will put the private insurance companies out of business and put us on the path to socialized medicine. Those of a more progressive view see nothing wrong with this, calling healthcare a basic human right that should not be left in the hands of the free market, but instead provided by the government, equally for all, like education. And, as usual, the politicians in Washington are duking it out over the details, and pandering to their electoral bases and campaign contributors, rather than doing what they were theoretically hired by the people to do: lead. For this is an issue that needs more than a few laws rewritten, or a few policies reworded. It needs a thorough philosophical analysis and overhaul. Much like during past turning points in our history, such as the civil war, or the civil rights movement, we need to ask ourselves, what kind of society do we want to be? We need to look inside, we need to find some answers to some basic moral questions, and we need to elevate the discourse beyond the deafening roar of ignorance. For this, we need philosophers, which, unfortunately – unlike in Norway – are rarely found among our policy makers.

It is indeed disheartening to see the same old games being played out in Washington, and the same old arguments trumpeted for the umpteenth time, when this time, it should be different. We are not talking about the banks, who do provide us with a genuine service, and play a critical role in our healthy functioning as a society, but without which, though inconvenient, each of us could survive on an individual level. We are not talking about who runs the company that you buy your car, mail your package, or catch your train from; again, all valuable services that fill a genuine need in our society, and without the efficient functioning of which our lives and nation would be greatly impacted for the worse, but without the need for which many people go for years, never even giving them a single thought. We are talking about a basic human need, one that binds us all together as mortals, and that every one of us carries in us every day.

Even if you are young and generally healthy, if you are uninsured in this country the thought is ever present somewhere in your mind: what happens if I have an accident? What happens if I am the victim of an attack, or if I suddenly develop some rare disease? More commonly: what happens if I want to have a child? The average medical cost of an uncomplicated birth these days is $7,600 (2004 dollars), but can go much higher, depending on location, complications and level of care, an amount that few middle class couples have stashed away, let alone working class couples. And then, even if you do pay for the baby out of pocket, now you have an uninsured child that you must pray remains healthy, so you don’t have to mortgage your home, if you are so fortunate to own one.

Something is very very wrong with this picture. And it doesn’t even take into account the vast numbers of people who are not healthy, who are sick and need healthcare, but can’t receive it for all of the many reasons that we have heard countless times by now: their insurance won’t cover it, or they were dropped by their provider for some technicality, or, they are just uninsurable.

This is not humane. With all of the hurling of statistics and figures and finger pointing and name-calling taking place, the true, real, honest discussion of what is the best and most humane system for healthcare is simply not happening. There is too much appeasement to the free-marketers stomping their feet and screaming about capitalism being slaughtered, and the profits of the massive, bloated insurance companies being threatened. Those who suggest that this is not – and should not be – the central issue are dismissed as blasphemous socialists. But the truth is, they are not going far enough. Not only should the central issue not be the financial profit of the insurance providers or the hospitals or the doctors or, for that matter, the patients or their lawyers – it should not even be part of the discussion. The central issue should be the people of this nation, and how to provide them with the best possible care given all the resources, knowledge and tools at our disposal. This is, quite simply, a moral issue, something that every other advanced free-market democracy in the world has realized, except us. There should be no profit motive in healthcare.

Yes, I know. Take the profit motive out of anything and the quality declines. Really? Is there truly no other way? Have we really become so cynical and hard about our own nature that we succumb to the power of greed at every turn rather than looking deeper into ourselves and searching for a higher truth? Is it totally naive to believe and hope that this nation of humans can do something for an aim other than personal wealth or material gain?

Kino and Juana and Coyotito had a happy, albeit very simple and modest life. But then Kino, in his mad effort to pay the doctor to cure his sick child, found The Pearl of the World, and it destroyed their happiness. They lost everything they had, instead of gaining what they dreamt of. An old old story, certainly, but no less true in the telling today than ever. We are looking for an answer to our ailing healthcare system, which makes a few rich, and leaves many to go bankrupt or die. We are looking for The Pearl of the World, a solution to healthcare that keeps the rich getting richer, and yet provides universal coverage, a solution that makes everyone happy, capitalists and socialists alike, solves all the problems. It doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, because where there is greed, where there is profit to be made, it always wins out, and someone always loses. In the case of healthcare, what they lose may just be their life.

As Kino struggles to sell his pearl to better their lives, he is tormented by the music of the pearl, which is evil, harsh, yet hypnotic. It changes him, he becomes fierce and brutal in his quest to realize the wealth that should be his, now that he has the pearl. It drowns out the song of the family, that happy music that has always brought him peace, and joy. He must pass through a tragic journey to finally acknowledge that the pearl is not the solution, the pearl brings only evil and wrong, and he must abandon the pearl, if he is to regain the true, right path, if he is to regain any semblance of the happiness and peace he knew before. As he prepares to rid them of it, he hears “the music of the pearl, distorted and insane.” But he does it, perhaps the hardest thing he has ever done, or will ever have to do, he flings that glorious pearl back into the sea. He and Juana “saw the little splash in the distance, and they stood side by side watching the place for a long time.”

The lesson is a simple one, but not an easy one to learn. We cannot put our healthcare system on the right path without letting go of the illusion that it can provide the kind of care that is needed to all people of this country, regardless of race, gender, age, class, or medical history, without letting go of the pearl, the promise of wealth, greed. There is no happy ending if we hold onto the illusion of the pearl, and listen to its evil music. We must toss it back to the sea, and look at what really matters in this whole discussion of reform: people. If we can do that, if we can let go of the Pearl of the World, we can possibly redeem ourselves, and our nation’s ability to care for one another. If we cannot, the droning, driving, maddening music of the pearl will win, as it always does.

“And the pearl lay on the floor of the sea. A crab scampering over the bottom raised a little cloud of sand, and when it settled the pearl was gone. And the music of the pearl drifted to a whisper and disappeared.”
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Dye-it demythtified

Cronos by GoyaBut Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children… These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea.
- The Theogony of Hesiod

A few years ago, I befriended a stray cat while vacationing on an island in the Adriatic. She was a small, delicate creature with a bright, happy little face and an open and loving disposition. When we first arrived at our island retreat, she appeared to my delight accompanied by four or five little kittens, who frolicked and played joyfully as they followed her about the arid landscape. Each day I waited for them with anticipation, as the entertainment of the kittens’ play was irresistible, and my fondness for the little mother was growing fast. But as day after day passed, I noticed fewer and fewer kittens in the group, until finally there were only two. I was puzzled by this, but assumed that the woman who had rented us our little cottage, and who came every day to look after the place and feed the cats, was taking the kittens away to some new homes. This idea didn’t quite make sense, as cats are not normally house pets in that part of the world, and these kittens, born to a stray mother, were destined to a hard life living off the land. But when the mother cat finally appeared alone, with no kittens anywhere in sight, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to know. I waited for the landlady to arrive, and in my broken Croatian I asked her what had become of the kittens. She said she did not know, but she assumed that it was a male cat, most likely the father of the litter, who was killing them off. I was horrified, and distraught. I went back and looked into the face of that little cat, hardly more than a kitten herself, and wondered about how power, ambition and greed brings out the cruel beast in all creatures.

For we humans are hardly superior to the animal world in this respect; though we may not individually devour our young outright, we often act collectively in ways that are, by all methods of logic, contrary to our species’ interests and survival. Man’s desire and attempts to remain all powerful forever is a truth of human nature that plays out endlessly throughout literature and legend, as well as in the daily news. In Greek mythology, the Titan Cronos, Father Time, ironically tries to conquer time by devouring all of his offspring, so that his power over the gods will never be usurped by the next generation. Today’s paper no doubt will be full of stories about more acts of short-term greed causing untold amounts of pain and deprivation for countless numbers tomorrow.

And while our minds are spinning from the sensationalistic and inconceivable figures that bombard us daily regarding the latest financial misdeeds of Wall Street or the latest political maneuverings on K Street, we somehow miss or shrug off the most troubling statistics of all, those regarding our health, and more specifically that of our nation’s children: nearly 5% of children between the ages of 6 and 17 are now diagnosed with ADHD, documented cases of autism in children has increased about fifteen-fold in as many years, and an unbelievable estimated 23 million children are overweight or obese.

The culprits causing our kids to be overweight are easy enough to pinpoint, and are obviously related to high-fat diets and little or no exercise. But determining what factors are contributing to the astounding rise in behavioral and cognitive issues in children is not as obvious, and results in a distressing maze of unanswered questions for parents and teachers, as well as many health professionals. With medications like Ritalin all too easily prescribed for children exhibiting hyperactivity, and parents desperately trying to control their child’s behavior and intimidated by school and social service officials, a whopping 2.5 million kids end up on some form of stimulant drugs, most of which have not been fully tested, and whose long term effects are totally unknown. “Although the drugs are widely viewed as safe, many parents were alarmed when the Food and Drug Administration ordered in 2006 that stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta carry warnings of risk for sudden death, heart attacks and hallucinations in some patients.” (nytimes.com)

Some other less severe possible side effects of these drugs are well documented: decreased appetite, weight loss, insomnia, abdominal pain, and personality changes. However some potential effects are much more ominous. “In a 1995 study by the government’s National Toxicology Program (NTP), the most popular ADHD drug, methylphenidate (Ritalin), caused malignant liver tumors in male mice and benign liver tumors in female mice… Although there is no evidence that methylphenidate causes cancer in humans, no good studies have been done.” (cspinet.org) Our children have become our medical guinea pigs, and as is typical in our western approach to healthcare, we choose as a society to throw dangerous medication at the symptoms, rather than investigate and treat the underlying causes.

In truth, some studies have been done, specifically on the effect of diet on hyperactivity, and their results, though not indisputably conclusive, do indicate a link between some foods and food additives and hyperactive behavior in some kids. In particular, research has shown that artificial colors and preservatives in foods can contribute to attention deficit and hyperactivity, information which has caused the UK and the European Parliament to recently take action, asking for the voluntary recall of six artificial food colors by food manufacturers, as well as the labeling of foods containing these additives. “These actions were spurred by a study published in September 2007 in the medical journal The Lancet supporting what some parents and scientists had suspected for decades – that food dyes are linked to hyperactivity, even in kids who don’t normally exhibit this behavior.” (latimes.com)

But the FDA is holding fast to their claim that these additives are safe, citing findings from 30-year-old studies to support their policy. Perhaps more astounding is the public’s lack of accessible information about what these additives truly contain, namely petrochemicals and coal tar! The next time you take a bite of those bright orange cheese puffs or pop a few lime-green candies in your mouth, ask yourself if you wouldn’t rather be ingesting some pretoleum, because, in fact, you are. Especially if they were made in or for the USA. “Kellogg’s strawberry Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars that are sold in Britain now contain beetroot red, annatto and paprika extract, while those sold in the U.S. are tinted with Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1.” (latimes.com)

Petitions to the FDA to review their policy on artificial food dyes are underway, but so far to no avail. Many food manufacturers have been moving away from the artificial colors on their own to satisfy international markets, replacing them with natural dyes, the majority of which are vegetable-based, however “the most popular of which is cochineal, a dye made from insects that are ground up and added to foods to make them rosier.” (usnews.com) Cochineal, also known as carmine, is made “by scraping female bugs and their eggs off cactus leaves and grinding them into a powder.” (usnews.com) Whether to ingest petroleum or crushed bugs should not be part of our decision process when making food choices, for ourselves, or for our children. Until the FDA wakes up and decides to re-evaluate its priorities regarding the food industry vs. our national health, one would do better to avoid all packaged foods that contain either artificial or natural colors.

Phantoms making our kids sickIt’s little wonder that even the most attentive and aware parents become demoralized, for even if they do manage to keep these additives out of their children’s diet at home, what to do about the hundreds of meals served every year to millions of our kids at school? These school lunches are notoriously high in saturated fats and sugars, and provide very little in the way of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which are vital for humans, and especially growing children, to thrive. “According to the Society for Neuroscience, recent studies reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory. Unfortunately, foods with saturated fats are often the most affordable and widely available in schools. French fries, sugary desserts, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and other cafeteria staples are filling kids with food that actually lower their brain power before sending them back to class.” (publicschoolreview.com) Not to mention the high levels of preservatives and artificial colors that are packed into these low-cost mass meals, which may be contributing to kids’ hyperactive behavior in the classroom.

In recent years there have been some encouraging initiatives to improve the quality of school lunches, including the “Healthy School Program,” which has been incorporated into many public and private schools across the country. One school on the program reported that “after serving healthier foods, there were ‘no discipline problems, no acting out, no violence to speak of,’… Also, since the studied implementation of healthier school plans in 1997, the ‘Healthy Schools’ across the country report lower incidences of dropouts, expulsions, drug use, weapons, and fighting, with a simultaneous rise in student performance, as grades have also improved and gone up at these schools.” (publicschoolreview.com)

Not surprisingly, however, many schools find themselves up against considerable obstacles from the government when trying to implement healthier lunches. “One longstanding barrier to schools serving more healthful meals is the USDA’s commodity foods program, which distributes large quantities of unhealthful ‘entitlement foods.’ Every year, the USDA purchases hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pork, beef, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol animal products, primarily as an economic benefit to American agribusiness. In 2005, for example, the USDA allocated close to 60 percent of food program procurement expenditures to meat, dairy, and egg products, while providing less than 5 percent to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.” (healthyschoollunches.org)

Our elected leaders pay endless lip service to the fact that our children are our future, that we must invest in them at all costs, yet we have allowed our schools to continually pump them full of nutrient-empty, energy-draining calories and line the halls with chemical additive-laden snack food and soda vending machines, all so that major food manufacturers and agribusiness can cash in. We look the other way as these little representatives of the future line up in the nurse’s office to take their prescribed stimulant courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, as if we cannot see the obvious, horrible truth. Could it be more evident that proper diet and exercise are critical aspects to our children’s health, and that schools need to step up in this regard immediately? How much more of this disregard for our children’s welfare at the profit of big business are we going to tolerate before we finally say enough? ADD, ADHD and the numerous other current issues that our kids are facing may not disappear, but it would at least give them a fighting chance.

little-mama-macka2“After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men.” If Rhea had not finally acted and fed Cronos a stone instead of their last child, Zeus, he may be king of the gods to this day, and we would have had none of the marvelous myths that unraveled under the rule of his son. Male cats may continue to kill their offspring in the wild, but humans can rise above our bestial drives and stand up to power and greed, especially to protect our young. When you look at how our government prioritizes big business’ interests over our children’s health, and how our schools don’t know the first thing about nutrition but certainly are well versed on all the latest pharmacology, it’s high time to pick up our own proverbial stone.

The pursuit of Happiness: an inalienable right for the straight

The Declaration of IndependenceWe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- The Declaration of Independence

With the hotly debated passage of Proposition 8 in California, which amends the state constitution to prohibit marriage between members of the same gender, as well as the passage of similar propositions in Arizona and Florida, a lot of people are asking the question: what is marriage?

We each have our own personal definition of marriage, which may cause us to embrace or reject it in our own lives, but how we define it legally and as a state-issued license is really what lies at the heart of the issue. In a country founded on equal rights, how does sexual preference give the state authority to grant or deny its citizens their rights? What interest does the state have in limiting the definition of marriage to only apply to heterosexual couples? The answer is: none. The interest lies elsewhere. These state bans on homosexuals’ access to the same legal and social status as their heterosexual compatriots are simply unconstitutional.

As we analyze what marriage means in our society, perhaps the marriage that most pressingly needs to be examined is the messy one that has plagued our nation from its inception: that between church and state. One of those murky issues that spans the two, how we define marriage is a good representation of where our society stands today on the relationship of religion and government, which, although clearly spelled out as separated in the Constitution, continue to drag out their centuries-long divorce, battling and baffling the sober, secular members of the population. For secularists, the definition of marriage is simple: a governmental institution requiring a legal contract between two people, and affording them privileges and protections under the law regarding areas of property rights, healthcare, childcare, citizenship, etc. However, as with most aspects of human life, the definition of marriage becomes much more complex when regarded through the prism of religion.

Religion battles gay marriageAn oft-repeated phrase of those who oppose gay marriage is that it is a sacred institution “between one man and one woman.” This personal belief, however, is not explicitly supported by scripture, as many would claim. Numerous quotes are tossed about from the Bible attesting to this supposedly divine institution, but the institution of marriage was created by man, just as the Bible was written by men. And that Bible does not state that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, but rather makes many references to polygamy (or, more specifically, polygyny) in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 21:15, Solomon with his famous 700 wives and 300 concubines in 1 Kings 11:3, among numerous others), and the New Testament does not explicitly refute it. The “one man one woman” belief is an adjustment to the institution, polygamy only becoming illegal in the United States in 1862, with the passage of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act.

If the definition of marriage can be altered from “one man, many women,” to “one man, one woman,” why can’t it be altered to “one human, one human?” From the state’s point of view there should be no difference in a marriage contract between two people of the opposite or the same sex, just as there can be no difference in a business contract. Hence, a ban on same-sex marriage is outright religiously-informed state-sanctioned homophobia, masqueraded as acceptable because the majority of voters bought into the propaganda. In California, the religious right spent millions to mobilize volunteers and get out the message across the ethnic spectrum to pass the ban, with a campaign that “had begun with white evangelical churches but had spread to more than 1,130 Hispanic churches whose pastors convinced their members that same-sex marriage threatened the traditional family.” (NYTimes)

Moreover, members of the Mormon Church, the very religious sect that practiced polygamy in the United States until the late 19th century, were huge contributors to the cause, donating roughly half of the $40 million raised by the Yes to 8 campaign, “including a $1 million donation from Alan C. Ashton, the grandson of a former president of the Mormon Church. The money allowed the drive to intensify a sharp-elbowed advertising campaign, and support for the measure was catapulted ahead; it ultimately won with 52 percent of the vote.” (NYTimes) Interesting, given that the Mormons’ defiance of the outlawing of polygamy led to the 1878 unanimous Supreme Court Reynolds v. United States decision which declared that “laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” (findlaw.com) In other words, you can believe what you want to believe, and you can practice your religion, so long as you do not engage in any activity contrary to the law of the land. Denied what they felt was their right to practice their religion as prescribed by their doctrine they now want to expand that law of the land to prohibit others from practicing their beliefs, specifically because it is contrary to their religious doctrine.

With laws banning same-sex marriage now on the books in 30 states, it is time to take a truly sober look at what is happening to our government, and to our society at large. The Religious Right rants against so-called “secular fascism” destroying the moral fabric of our society, but it is the Religious Right that want to defy the founding principles of the nation, and pick and choose what rights and privileges are granted under the law, according to their own “moral” values. The Declaration of Independence stated that to secure the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Granted, these state laws or amendments to state constitutions have been passed through the democratic process, with the majority consent of the governed (after the most expensive campaigns for their passage (as well as their defeat) have been waged). But are these laws even legal? Can the majority vote to deny legal rights to a minority? These questions will undoubtedly be raised and tested in the courts, the hopeful result of which will be the barring of any religiously motivated laws from becoming destructive to the safety and happiness of any portion of the population.

The ninth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which, under our federalist system of government, trumps the individual state constitutions, clearly states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In exercising our rights, including, most emphatically, our right to freedom of religion, we must not deny or disparage any of our other rights, such as our inalienable right to the pursuit of Happiness.
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Are we free at last?

Maya AngelouIf growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.
- Maya Angelou

When I was seven or eight years old, I watched a documentary on television about the civil rights movement. Until that time, I had never seen skin as having a color. My father was a jazz musician, his buddies, black and white, were often at the house. Louis Armstrong records provided our evening music. My very first “boyfriend,” in first grade, was named Oscar. We held hands, and he kissed me on the cheek. It didn’t occur to me until years later that his skin was a different color than mine. That night when I saw the marchers in Alabama being beaten by the police on our little black and white television, I woke up to what race meant in my country. I buried myself in my mother’s arms and wept, “I don’t want to be white.”

We have each of us experienced race in our own, personal way. From the moment I awoke to the reality of the racially divided world that we live in, I have carried the sadness that I felt that night, watching those brave men and women defy oppression, and walk toward the violence, anger and hatred that stood between them and freedom; sadness, mainly, for the heinous wrongs that were committed against the Africans brought to this country as slaves and all of their descendants treated as much less than equal, but also sadness for all of us, that our entire country had to bear this burden, and deal with the ugly prejudices that separate us, holding all of us back from being truly free.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou wrote: “In Stamps (Arkansas) the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed. I remember never believing that whites were really real.”

Segregation in public institutions has been illegal in this country for half a century, but segregation of racial and ethnic communities continues to exist. Perhaps it is a basic human instinct, to gather with one’s own ethnic group, for safety and comfort; however it fosters ignorance, on both sides of the racial divide. What we do not know, we fear. It can also have a powerful impact on our psychology as a society, promoting negative stereotypes, both of the racial other, as well as within each racial community. Psychological examinations of young black children were used as evidence of the negative effects of segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that ended segregation in the public schools in 1954. Sadly, resegregation of our nations schools has been on the rise since the early 1990s, most notably in the Northeast and West, and it’s not simply a black and white issue anymore. “For Latinos, California and New York have the dubious distinction of ranking first and second respectively as the most segregated states for Latino students. Forty-seven percent of Latinos in California, and 58% in New York, attend schools that have… ‘intense segregation’ — schools with 90%-100% non-white students.” (USAToday)

Living in segregated communities may give us the illusion of safety and security in our neighborhoods, but it is not good for us as a society, and it shouldn’t be passed on to the next generation. How can we break down the barriers of ignorance and distrust if we do not live together? Today we are one huge step closer to proving to ourselves, and to the world, that we are ready to be free at last of the racial inequalities that have tethered our society’s progress. But that dream of a perfect union will forever elude us as long as we remain so separated from one another.

When Maya Angelou’s little brother asked their Uncle Willie why the whites hated the blacks so much, he responded, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.”

Obama and supportersI have often wondered what would happen if our collective memory was expunged, if we, as a nation, or world, suddenly developed amnesia, and all of the old prejudicial grips on our minds, hearts and consciences, passed down through the generations, just disappeared. Would we return to that innocence of childhood where we truly judged one another not on the color of our skin, but on the content of our character? It is impossible, of course, to erase the centuries of history, bias and fear that each generation passes down to the next. But today I do believe it is possible to move beyond them; we have proven that as a society we can recognize the errors of our fathers and mothers, try to repair what we can in our present, and teach our children to be at once wiser and more innocent and trusting than we have been. By electing a man with black skin to be the leader of our country, and in many ways, the world, we haven’t forgotten, but perhaps we have forgiven, each other, and ourselves.

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Change in all things is sweet.
- Aristotle

With just days to go until the most important election of the century, or of our lifetimes, or of the history of the world, depending on how you want to look at it and who you are listening to, the tension is getting almost too thick to cut with a hatchet (never mind a scalpel). And as poll after poll hammers home numbers implying the results of the election a foregone conclusion, the excitement, anxiety and desperation in both camps seem to be focusing in not so much on what the results of the vote will be, but on whether those results will be accurate and untainted.

A fraud-free election clearly benefits the winning party, as it can then claim a mandate to govern the people without question; an election shrouded in suspicion of fraud, however, logically benefits the losing party, as it can then claim grounds for questioning the results, the winner’s legitimacy, and even legal action, not to mention whining rights for the next four years. Thus as the shouts grow louder and the nail-biting intensifies the closer we get to November 4, it is important to examine not only the allegations of voter fraud, but also who is making them, and what their true motives are. It is important, too, to ask how can we still have a system that allows such instances of fraud or potential fraud to exist? For no matter what party benefits from the fraudulent actions or allegations, the ones who truly lose are always the same: us.

Anyone conscious during the last two presidential elections knows that voter fraud, in all its permutations, whether investigated and prosecuted or relegated to the eternal rumblings of perceived paranoid conspiracy theories, is indeed threatening to “destroy the fabric of our democracy,” as John McCain stated in the last presidential debate,* even if only in our minds. The power of suggestion should never be underestimated, and the repeated accusations and subsequent widespread belief that the elections in this country are less than a fair and accurate reflection of the will of the people is a demoralizing force with many ramifications on the electorate, and thus the functionality of our democracy. In other words, when people think their vote doesn’t count, they don’t vote. Studies have shown that in actuality, occurrences of voter fraud, i.e. ballots cast under a false name or identity, are “extremely rare,” one study “found a voter fraud rate of .00004 of a percent, saying, ‘Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.’” So if voter fraud is not actually happening, why all the fuss about it, and what can we do to change the negative psychological impact it has on our country and at the polls?

For one thing is clear: while we vociferously defend and project our democratic ideals, both at home and to the world, nearly half of eligible voters in the US do not vote. This can be attributed to many reasons, among them disenchantment, indifference, contentment, socio-economic and hereditery factors, multiculturalism, education, even weather. It is a complex study to determine why, for instance, voter turnout in Western Europe averages 77%, in Australia 95%, while in the United States it approaches 50%. But regardless of the complexities, the numbers still beg the question: if voting is a critical aspect of democracy, and nearly half of our electorate does not vote, does that not imply that nearly half do not want democracy? And if not, what do they want?

Democracy is, simply put, rule of the people, and that power to rule is exercised through free elections. If people are not voting, then they are relinquishing their power, and they might as well live in a monarchy. But are they relinquishing it out of a rejection of democracy, or a rejection of our implementation of democracy? If the former, then we need to revisit some of our basic assumptions regarding our society. If the latter, a better system for registering all legal citizens of the US to vote, once they reach eighteen or have achieved legal status through naturalization, would patently go a long way to improving our voter turnout numbers. Why not make it mandatory? We should not need these voter registration drives that allow for countless inaccuracies and fraudulent registrations. Eliminate the need, and you eliminate the fraud and accusations of fraud that help strip our electoral process of legitimacy. Voting is compulsory in Australia, and many other countries, with varying levels of punishment for those that don’t comply, resulting in the highest voter turnouts in democracies on record. Perhaps mandatory voting is an infringement on the freedoms that we jealously enjoy here in the US, but would mandatory voter registration be such an infringement? Yes or no, we could certainly go a long way toward involving more of the population in the electoral process by revamping the voter registration process and educating the public on their right, and civic duty, to vote.

Even more in need of an overhaul than how we register voters, however, is how we actually vote. Voter fraud may not be happening as much as we think, but voter suppression, intimidation and ballot error absolutely are; even if voters make it to the polls, there is no guarantee that they will successfully cast their ballots in the current system, which is already being stretched to the breaking point under the weight of higher turnout this year. How do we fix this? With the same ingenious tool that allows you to read these words from the other side of the world: the internet. Is it so far-fetched to think that we, the country that produced eBay, online banking and income tax e-filing cannot conceive of and implement a method of voting via the internet?

If part of the reason that millions of people don’t vote on November 4 is that it’s a Tuesday, or the lines are too long, or the weather is bad, if part of the reason that hundreds of thousands of ballots do not get counted is because absentee ballots arrive too late, or disappear, or machines malfunction, if part of the reason that untold numbers of potential voters get turned away at the polls is because they don’t have the right kind of ID, or they are minorities intimidated by a police presence or threatening partisan behavior, it can all be resolved by pulling our antiquated, haphazard, disparate and frankly desperately broken system of casting and counting ballots into the twenty-first century with an internet-based system that employs state-of-the-art encryption and identification technology, that produces a verifiable paper trail in quadruplicate, and that provides the results in seconds, versus hours, days, or even months. Sure, there are challenges to creating such a system, sure it raises questions about vulnerability to hackers influencing election results, yes, it absolutely would require the best minds and talents that this country possesses to architect a system that could be viewed as trustworthy by all the people, of all political affiliations, while also protecting our right to privacy. But given that our current system is so riddled with problems and errors, is already so vulnerable to partisan influence and electorate distrust and is quite literally incapable of handling the number of voters in a growing population, could it really be worse? And the benefits of moving both a voter registration** and a voting system to the internet would be so huge, that if successful, we just may see some real upward movement in the number of people who participate and therefore fulfill the promise and potential of our democracy.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” So wrote Aristotle in 350 B.C. Over 2300 years later, are we not finally ready to make this a reality here in the US? Whatever happens four days from now, we must keep trying to make fears of voter fraud and voter suppression part of the past. Every vote should count. Except Mickey Mouse’s, and of course, Homer Simpson’s.

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* In his debate statement, McCain was referring to one particular organization, ACORN, which is now under federal investigation on charges of nationwide voter registration fraud, though there are numerous potentially more egregious examples of fraudulent voter registration, and, even worse, voter suppression, underway, that are not getting near the coverage that ACORN’s activities are. Check these out for more information:


Group’s Tally of New Voters Was Vastly Overstated: New York Times, 10/23/08

McCain’s Warning About Voter Fraud Stokes a Fiery Campaign Even Further: New York Times, 10/26/08

A Myth of Voter Fraud: The Washington Independent, 10/28/08

Election fraud fears: the cure: The LA Times, 10/27/08

Vote watchdogs warn of troubles on election day: The LA Times, 10/30/08

Party Lawyers Ready to Keep an Eye on the Polls: The New York Times, 10/27/08

Black America may get a president before black Americans get to vote: The Guardian, 10/27/08

** Many states already have some type of online voter registration in place, but ideally we will move toward all 50 states adopting similar systems so that voter registration can be updated easily as people move about the country.

Barack Obama is a capitalist pig

When the rich are outvoted, as frequently happens, it is the joint treasury of the poor which exceeds their accumulations. Every man owns something, if it is only a cow or a wheelbarrow or his arms, and so has that property to dispose of.

So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Essays, Poems, Addresses of 1844. Today we are witnessing an unprecedented pooling of the people’s treasury in the revolutionary financing of a candidate for president in what could be seen as the clearest outvoting of the rich by the poor(er) in our nation’s history. And, in an undeniably ironic twist, Barack Obama’s record-setting figures for fundraising from average contributors is the ultimate example of capitalism at work in an American election, an election in which the Republican candidate has taken government regulated public funds, while painting his opponent as a socialist.

Let’s take a closer look at exactly what the Obama campaign has accomplished. Their just released figures for the month of September are staggering: over $150 million dollars raised, all through private citizens, with an average donation of less than $100 per contributor. In that one month alone, they added 632,000 new donors, totaling over 3.1 million contributors to the campaign. Their largest contributing groups are retirees and students, neither of which make up the wealthiest demographics of society.

For the first time in the history of US elections, regular people are able to directly impact a campaign by opening their wallets. Nurses, firemen, schoolteachers, and yes, even plumbers, have paid for this candidate’s run for the highest office, giving sometimes as little as $5 or $10, and if he succeeds, he will be beholden to their interests, and not to those of the large corporations or wealthy donors that usually make up the majority of a campaign’s bank account.* If one of the principles of democracy is that “all members of the society have equal access to power,” can it not be said that we are finally truly witnessing democracy at work in our presidential elections?

So who, or what, is to credit for this historical democratization of the campaign financing process? The candidate himself, as the leader of his campaign, certainly is due some credit. However his responsibility for this unprecedented feat can only go so far; he obviously put the right people in place to handle it, and it is their know-how, coupled by the timing in the evolution of web-based technology that should be congratulated for the achievement here. Additionally, perhaps, is the element of readiness on the part of the people. We are the eBay, amazon.com and Facebook generation, whether twenty-one or seventy-one, Americans increasingly do everything online, from networking with friends, to planning a party, to getting our news, to buying a car. Perhaps not even as recent as four years ago were we ready for the revolution in politics that the internet could offer. Or perhaps we were, but no candidate knew how to take advantage of it. In any case, here we are, with an amazing 46% of adult Americans getting involved in the political process via the internet, whether it’s simply following the candidates’ campaigns online, or pulling out their credit cards to help their chosen one cross the finish line.

John McCain’s campaign, by contrast, did not pull in a huge number of small contributions by ordinary citizens, but rather opted, as all presidential candidates have done since Watergate, to accept public financing, which greatly limited what they could receive, and spend. As they try to compete against the Obama juggernaut which is overwhemingly outspending them in the most crucial final leg of the race, they are looking to increase their coffers through campaign finance loopholes that allow them to collect large donations from wealthy donors. Obama is also receiving contributions from wealthy donors, though the numbers pale in comparison to what his campaign has collected from small donors.*

McCain has admitted to possessing very limited knowledge of computers and the internet, so he is clearly not the candidate to helm an online fundraising force like Obama is. Due to the obvious imbalance in the two campaigns in this regard, it is impossible to draw any tempting conclusions in reference to people voting with their wallets, we have to rely on the old-fashioned polls for our gauge of the political temperature on either side. But let’s say that the Republicans take a page from Obama’s playbook and build their own populace-based fundraising machine next time around (and I don’t doubt they will). I think it is safe to assume that we are looking at a whole new era of campaign financing. And here, another irony: John McCain famously fought in the Senate to reform a campaign financing system that he rightfully saw as corrupt and out of control. And yet it is during his run for the presidency that the system finally is truly reformed… by his opponent.

“Under the dominion of an idea which possesses the minds of multitudes, as civil freedom or the religious sentiment, the powers of persons are no longer subjects of calculation. A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom or conquest can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions, out of all proportion to their means,” wrote Emerson. From the clear divisions of political sentiment in this country, we cannot say that we are a nation of one mind, or that one candidate, one man, has brought the entire population under the dominion of an idea, or set of ideas. But we can regard what the Obama campaign has achieved in this election cycle as extravagant actions, certainly, as it has studied lessons from the past, embraced the technology and mood of the present and reinvented the future of campaign financing, defying all expectations and odds, and most definitely out of all proportion to its means. “Public” campaign financing is dead, long live campaign financing by the public!

Think about it: what is the public financing system but one of the very socialist constructs that we Americans so vociferously reject? Funds collected from the public by the government are doled out to the candidates with restrictions and regulations attached, while forbidding the use of the free market to get a candidate’s message out to the people. Like all socialist institutions, the aims behind the adoption of such a system were noble ones, but in practice it just doesn’t work in safeguarding against corruption; on the contrary, it may lead to even greater corruption via the need to circumvent the system and appeal to wealthy supporters. Thus to those that buy the claims by his opponents that Obama is a socialist, I would point to his campaign as a bellwether of his likely leadership on policy initiatives and legislation. He understood the current system was broken, he realized the potential of access to unlimited funds via the public, and in the most astonishing democratization of capitalism that we have ever seen in a presidential election, he is riding the waves of the free market to the White House. And that’s an all American pig that doesn’t need any lipstick.

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*A New York Times article this morning examined the contributions by wealthy donors to both candidates via fund-raising committees that allow much higher donations than the campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give to the campaigns directly. The argument could certainly be made that Obama may in fact feel beholden to these individuals that are giving $25,000 or $30,000 each to help him reach the White House. However the article states that there were only about 2000 such contributors to his campaign, for a total of less than $150 million through September. Compared to the 3.1 million small donors for a total of $605 million raised, it doesn’t change the fact that the campaign is still overwhelmingly funded by average citizens contributing less than $100 each. It should be noted that the McCain campaign has raised more money than the Obama camp through these wealthy donors, as the limits on the Republican side were raised to $70,000 per donor in the fine print.

The Screwtape emails

My dear Wormwood,

I am filled with pride at your recent successes. You have made such formidable progress in just these few short weeks with both the male and the female patient, though particularly with the female. Congratulations are in order. You have outdone yourself and made Our Father below rejoice over his recent acquisitions. You truly took to heart what I told you long ago about rejecting argument when dealing with these humans, and relying on jargon as your best ally in keeping them in our clutches. Remember how I told you that by “the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” Those are words to live by, Wormwood. And your hard work is only just beginning to pay off. You will see your success grow immeasurably, as your two patients take the same methods you have used on them and apply them to the large number of other humans that they address in their speeches, thus becoming your foot soldiers and recruiting untold numbers of other souls to our fold. Bravo, Wormwood. Again, I applaud you.

Your success with the female patient is particularly gratifying, given her outspoken allegiance to the Enemy. She claims to be a Christian, one of those of renewed personal faith, or “born again,” as they are called these days. Though normally we are in the danger zone with any creatures who tie themselves to the Enemy, fortunately for us she is of that particular breed that is filled with the righteous arrogance that sometimes comes to those who are reawakened or converted to the Enemy’s path, the firm and unwavering belief that they know the truth, that they are perpetuating the Enemy’s will, and that they have a mission to spread that “truth” to as many other humans as possible. Arrogance, as we know, is ripe breeding ground for our work, and, when coupled with fierce ambition, as it is in her case, it is a golden opportunity to plant our seeds and watch them grow. Thus she is a specially valuable asset to our cause, as she can do our work while maintaining the charade of belonging to the Enemy’s camp. We know that this works wonders with these humans, there is almost no limit to the atrocities that they can commit without persecution, if it is done in the name of Christianity.

Despite your success, you must not rest on your laurels, dear nephew, as it is Our Father’s great wish that these two patients of yours will win this contest and become the leaders of their people, thus giving them unlimited opportunities to spread our messages to the other human animals of their country, and potentially to those of all the world. Just think of all the souls that we shall welcome below as a result of your efforts! You have worked your way to this trusted position, which is why these two precious subjects were placed in your hands, but you must continue your assault without pause. I am continuously observing the behavior of your patients, and want to point out to you a few crucial moments that are most telling of the strides you have made with them, and, consequentially, with their faithful followers.

This is beautiful work. You have obviously listened when I told you that “some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.” And as we have discussed, what better way to inflame them than to play to their fears, fear of the “other,” the unfamiliar, but especially, as this is a nation of humans that is particularly fearful and has suffered from an attack of terrorism in recent memory, fear of fear. For what is terrorism? It is the use of terror, or fear, as a weapon. An incredibly delicious idea. So a fear of terrorism is in fact a fear of greater fear. Your patient’s extremely skillful inciting of this fear regarding her opponent is an exemplary achievement for you, for it displays her willingness to listen to your influence, to play upon and invigorate the fears of her followers, and to encourage in them their most base emotion: fear of the other. Fortunately for us the opponent in this case can easily be classified by this group of humans as the other, as his skin is dark, which for many of them tends to be reason enough to despise, discredit and fear him.

Another moment I would like to analyze, if you would indulge me, is this telling exchange between the male patient and his listening crowd. Here he is also emphasizing that his opponent is unknown, and therefore scary to those that want the comfort of familiar faces and names in their leaders. You did well to encourage this kind of approach in your subject, as it elicits just the kind of ignorant and angry response from his followers that we are hoping for.

If you will allow me this one criticism, your subject does not seem to be entirely pleased with the shout of “terrorist!” that his appeal to the crowd has drawn, as he visibly grimaces and looks surprised. You must try harder, my nephew, for he must not waver in his attack. Keep up the pressure, and he will be fully in your grasp, like the female patient so clearly is. Remember what I told you, “all mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” To your credit, your patient did not condemn the human’s outburst, but continued with his rhetoric, which was a beautiful strategy of accusing his opponent of the very acts that both of your patients are in fact guilty of.

Yes, my dear Wormwood, these displays on the part of your patients and their followers are very heartening to me and to Our Father below, especially as they appear to be increasing in frequency, and in vehemence. It has come to my attention that the human animals attending these gatherings held by your patients are becoming increasingly vitriolic, and even calling for violence towards the opponent. You realize if you succeed in bringing about violence between humans as a direct result of your influence, you will undoubtedly be promoted to the next level. If you manage – and I tremble with excitement at the thought – to bring about murder as a result of your work, you will be forever in Our Father’s graces, and there is no telling where he will place you next.

However I must be harsh with you for a moment, for as you grow closer to realizing your goal, I’m afraid that you might get a bit sloppy from your desperate desire to succeed. You see, your two patients, despite your best efforts, are not winning in their contest. They are winning with their followers, but they are losing with the general population of humans, because their tactics are too transparent. Humans in general don’t like to see our methods being carried out before their eyes, and if it is too obvious, they will reject your patients and turn to their opponent, which may mean that they reject us and become vulnerable to the Enemy. You must stop this. You must be more careful in your work with these two, for although I think we are safe in assuming that their souls are ours at this point, as well as many of their followers, we want to keep our eyes on the greater prize, the vast number of souls we can reach if they attain a position of power. I know I told you to keep up the attack, however you must also be more subtle, stop pushing them so hard so fast. Remember, as I told you long ago, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Bring them along softly, my dear nephew, and we will have not only their souls, but the millions that they bring with them.

Your affectionate uncle,
SCREWTAPE

PS: So as not to leave you too crestfallen or discouraged by my final words, I am including some evidence of the wonderfully wicked ideas and attitudes displayed by some of your patients’ loyal followers. I watch them often, as it warms my heart to know that the ignorance, prejudice, fear and unmasked hatred displayed here are the result of your labors. Fine work, my boy, mighty fine work.

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The above piece is a reference to The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis. Though it does cite some of his phrases, it is solely and completely written by me, in an attempt to approximate his style.

NC

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