American Democracy 2014, part 2

The United States has the best Congress that money can buy. The funny thing about that statement is not the money, which is true, but the idea of the best Congress. The approval ratings for Congress among the polled population of the United States is in the ten’s or teen’s. If we were viewing Congress on Amazon or Zappos, we would not be clicking the “Buy” button.

Congress is not happy with themselves either. They will not sit in the same dining room with each other, nor exchange greetings in the hallway or even acknowledge the others’ existence except as caricatured villains. Why are they unhappy?

They have the same issue their constituents have – they despise the money that funds their legislative seat. Individual senators and representatives must spend hours each day raising campaign money. They must raise between $1,500 to $10,000 each day (analysts disagree on a number) to fund the ever more expensive, longer campaign season. Your legislators sit in a Democratic or a Republican campaign office just off of Capitol Hill every day trolling for money. They will spend more hours asking for money than they will spend legislating according to some commentators.

Almost everybody is unhappy with the system we have now. Almost everyone.

Our national legislators may be compared to hamsters on the wheel in a cage, a very nice cage to be sure. They have to keep going; they have to fill the campaign chest. They also have to write legislation and vote on it. People are on the other end of the phone telling the senators and the representatives how they should vote but it is usually not constituents. Constituents talk to the legislative consultants on staff. Their leadership is telling them how to vote for the sake of the party apparatus, which also needs money. Somewhere, far out there is in the field, is a press secretary telling the constituents that the representative and the senator is doing all he/she can to get it right for them.

The nature of American democracy is that there should be some money involved. People willing to put up money to fund a candidacy is a legitimate test of worth and electability. However, we are far beyond the reasonable test of money in campaigns. The extremely high bar for dollars that we have now has invalidated and corrupted what was once a worthwhile hurdle.

American democracy 2014 is the most expensive Congress that money can buy. We expect Congress to help us when it seems that we need to help them more.

American Democracy 2014

Every year I take High School students to Capitol Hill to lobby on issues of Social Justice. Watching the students engage and and argue their points with the legislative consultants in the offices is an uplifting experience. However, none of these students will be making donations to their legislator’s campaigns and that niggling fact pesters we as I walk the halls of the Canon and Rayburn buildings, especially after the Citizen’s United decision from the Supreme Court allowing corporations to make unlimited donations.

I was wrong. Citizen’s United did not change voting patterns in the U.S. Congress. The twist is that the voting patterns had already changed a dozen years earlier. A new study out of Princeton University compares opinion polls on issues and bills before congress with money spent by lobbyists in the employ of specific interests whose opinion was contrary to the constituents. The special interests won more often – a lot more often.

The radical conclusion of the new study is that the United States is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy. Legislation is passed that reflects the opinions of the very wealthy and disregards the opinions of the rest of the citizens.

The study is found here: http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

A synopsis of the study is found here: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/04/14/us-oligarchy-not-democracy-says-scientific-study

Ray Rice and Wife

            Ray Rice has been released from his NFL football team and banned indefinitely from the NFL – this week. Based on previous footage from outside of the elevator, he was banned for two games and then welcomed back into the fold. Only when the footage of the violent left hook took out his fiancé, smashing her head into the side the elevator was he given the boot. Domestic violence has a new face for the moment.

            With all of the conversation about domestic violence since the 1970’s (some argue Bela Abzug in the 1960’s) that exposed the terror of such abuse, why is domestic violence still so prevalent?

            An article appeared in Aeon online magazine written by Rebecca Onion that examined the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” advice column in the Ladies Home Journal from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The column was dominated by a man who believed in the pseudo-science of eugenics, Paul Popenoe. He submitted the cases that the Journal considered for publication and all of them were overseen by his counselors. The rock-solid conclusion was that the woman was always to blame.

            “Sue” was wrong for denying “Jack” sex after he hit her. She should have known that her refusal would only escalate his anger. Most of the columns that mentioned domestic violence and male anger minimized the violence of these incidents. The woman was seen as the spark of the incident and the one who had to change or compromise to resolve the issue.

            Fast forward to Ray Rice and the woman he slugged who is now his wife. Like the dated advice columns, the NFL minimized the incident at the casino. I have no doubt that the original punishment was more of a business decision meant to show while the League was paying attention but that they wanted to move on to other subjects. The focus was business and not about an abused woman and an abusive man.

            A comparison between the two teases out the real reaction of a good chunk of American culture – minimize domestic violence and hide it away. Outrage won the day this time although it was a slow and uneven process. Too many times, the woman ends up dead as the man’s anger continues to escalate.

            For advocates against domestic violence, we did not win anything this time but a few minutes of media attention. This case demonstrates how thoroughly domestic violence is still tolerated in many neighborhoods of our country. Then as now, wishing it would disappear is a fool’s hope.

“Fit” to print

The United States has a long history of compromised journalism. Yellow journalism in the 1890’s trumpeted pseudo-science, underdog plots, specific politicians, and political parties with outrageous and misleading headlines, unnamed sources, and damning innuendos.All of it was a competition between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst for readership of their respective newspapers.

The famous “muckraking” at the beginning of the 1900’s was an unscrupulous and unsavory methodology for obtaining damning information on politicians and celebrities. Even President Teddy Roosevelt got swept up in the mess in 1906. The impetus behind the muckraking was the corporate interest in the new mass-market magazines, which were lucrative as long as the stories were salacious.

Standing in 2014, the business model is a bit more complicated but the corporate interest in newspapers and magazines remains steady. These are “for-profit” enterprises and the most important desks at these businesses are the advertising desks. No one is surprised when magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Time, which are owned by conglomerates, are accused of killing articles that put their advertisers in a poor a light. The further accusation is that the reporters are told to write stories that highlight their advertising customers with a positive spin. Those who do not comply are terminated. There is enough compelling evidence from a number of unique sources to make one pause.

Accusations of bias have been leveled at New York Times over the Hamas-Israel conflict, which is still ongoing. The tone this time is more than journalistic favoritism of Palestinians. The same accusations have been leveled at the AP and their large bureau in Israel. In this case a former reporter from the bureau details pictures suppressed and articles killed that were disproportionately negative against Gaza and the West Bank. Many media observers see the pattern of the glossy magazines being emulated in the news sheets.

Everything fit to print may not be fit for consumption.

I will leave you this little fact. The AP has not filled its stringer position in Congo. Stringers live in African countries among the inhabitants for $300 a month. The named reporters for the AP live in hotels across the continent at nearly $300 a day and they cover six to ten countries from one city. The AP pays for the big stories but not for the daily investigative journalism that matters more in the long run. It’s a business and therein lies the inherent problem of news consumption in the United States. It’s a business.

A Member of the Tribe

The eulogies are fast and furious as the news of Joan River’s death continues to spread. All of the major internet sites have clips of her appearances and routines from the past fifty years along with remembrances and biographical analyses. There is a lot to say and hope that in the coming days the writers and the commentators will not be able to agree on one single narrative to eulogize her life.

             I have a small footnote. Joan Rivers was a real Jew – not a pious Jew, a synagogue Jew, nor an ethnic or cultural Jew. She was a member of the tribe, an offensive term when non-Jews use it but a high compliment when it is bestowed by one Jew upon another. To an outsider, tribalism is a derogatory term reeking of exclusivity and condescension. To proclaim someone a member of the tribe within the Jewish world is to mark that person as being remarkable and proud about being a Jew.

            Joan lived a philosophy that many rabbis preach but few rise to embrace. Joan embraced everything Jewish from food and family to politics and Israel. The term “Judaism” is a definition imposed upon Jews by outsiders. There is no “ism”, no specific religion for the Jews. We are a people and the sphere in which we dwell is called “The Jewish World”. Joan embraced this entire sphere, sometimes with high regard and sometimes with low profanities.

            She called her career as a comedian a calling. She skewered any and all who dared to flaunt themselves for fame, fortune or power. She skewered herself. She spoke truths with a capital “T” and I believe that these public expositions of truth dressed as jokes were the source of her influence and media power through these past fifty years. This trait alone made her a leading member of the Tribe.

The Symptom or the Source?

From India emerged a story of two women who were gang-raped and then hanged in the middle of the night in a rural hamlet. The local police were slow and hesitant to respond. Outrage across India has been vocal and the State finally stepped in. Arrests have been made. However, the estimate of the moment is that a woman is raped every half hour in India, mostly in the rural areas. Prosecuting one case of rape/murder does not appear to affect this criminal behavior.

The first solution, arrest followed by conviction, has failed to change behavior even though we think it should. Fear of punishment should prevent crime from happening. This is not the best model of morality, not doing something out of fear of getting caught, and it does not work in any case. There is little fear.

The source of the problem is that women are isolated and alone in a largely lawless, violent area. India is unable to impose law and order in these rural areas and therefore rapists will be deterred. Since the rapists cannot be stopped, the better solution is to change the women’s circumstance.

The solution is toilets. Yes, toilets. There are no privies in these rural areas and relieving of human wastes is done in the fields, in the open. Modest women will wait until it is dark to go out into the fields to relieve themselves, some in the middle of night for complete privacy. This circumstance makes women utterly vulnerable and indeed, this is when the rapes usually take place. A non-profit group is now installing outdoor toilets in these rural areas, allowing these women to relieve themselves during the day and under the watchful eyes of family.

The community is given the tools, in this case a sanitary toilet, to protect and police themselves. The land is still lawless but the women are safe. With the immediate threat to life averted, perhaps the Indian government will be able to address the issue of corrupt police forces and crimes against lower castes.

The task of Taking Nude Pics

Over the long weekend in the USA, an Indian hacker released nude pics of A-List celebrities on 4Chan and on Reddit, large social networks. An uproar ensued over privacy, personal rights, and widespread prurient interest in examples of naked females. The hacker is fleeing incarceration and has promised more stills to anyone willing to pay in bitcoins.

Pictures of naked people are “naughty” as the Brits would say. Many artists would argue that eroticism of the human form is a severe and limiting use of the body. The nude body can express a universe of emotion and of ideas that have little to do with sex. This episode has no redeeming artistic value though. The release of these photos is exploitation and profit.

While human life is upheld as the utmost of sacredness, the human body is not treated the same. Judaism does not recognize shame for the naked form nor vanity of its presentation in a non-exploitative circumstance. God gave you this body and because it is God-given even with its flaws and imperfections, the body is inherently good.

The body is a tool. It holds hands and manipulates tools. The body acts out deeds of love and friendship and raises up to meet threats and adversity. This is how we were created.

Modesty is a much maligned virtue these days until someone’s nude pics are posted are the internet against their wishes. Celebrate your bodies with those you love and avoid sharing or even the possibility of sharing with the rest of the world. This advice does not rise to the level of a religious dictate, the suggestion is simple common sense.

Winning the Peace

Thomas Friedman of the NYTimes predicted that Benjamin Netanyahu would win the conflict but lose the peace. The latest status of the third cease-fire with Hamas seems to confirm the opinion writer’s assessment. Israel made vague promises and will open the border crossings a little bit at a certain times, actions that Israel already took before the conflict. Friedman blames the prime minister and he misses the point.

There is no honest broker representing the Gazans, at least one who has the bodyguards to protect him when he is labeled a collaborator. There is no one with whom Israel can straightforwardly negotiate. The video interviews with the people on the streets of Gaza during the first and second cease-fire make obvious that no one is free to speak their mind in Gaza, especially if their words have the slightest hint of anger or dismay at Hamas.

I believe most Gazans just want to go to jobs or school during the day and spend the evening with their families and friends in the evening before going to sleep. In this little corner of the world, nothing so simple is ever easily obtainable.

Bombing Libya and more

The NYTimes just announced that Egypt and U.A.E. air force are the ones bombing targets in Libya, targeting Islamist militias. Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, published on the Op-Ed page of the NYTimes this morning that Qatar is the major funder of Hamas, even threatening to deport Hamas leader, Mr. Meshal if he agreed to a long-term cease-fire with Israel. Whatever one thinks about the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, none of these Arab players have any moral credibility as they fight among themselves, often using proxies. At one time, the manufactured hatred of Israel was enough to contain the internecine violence within and between the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. No longer. Israel could be compared to a sideshow alongside the civil wars and civilian massacres of the countries surrounding her.

On the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ice bucket challenge has gone viral on the internet and may raise $100 million for the ALS Foundation. Curing a disease is a worthy endeavor but there is a lot more to consider when giving to charity. ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain and the body, an awful, unstoppable death. There are approximately 5,600 new cases a year in the United States compared to an estimated 96,830 expected new cases of colon cancer this year. The ALS Foundation has funded research for thirty years and there is no cure in sight. Medical research is not $100 million away from a cure if there is even a cure. Contrasted to colon cancer, there are curatives and early screenings that promote positive, long-term outcomes from a colon cancer diagnosis.

This newly-raised money for ALS will not be spent immediately. Some of the funds may be spent on “awareness” but there really is no need for awareness because of the success of the challenge. Further, ALS does not spend money on patient care because their focus is research. There are charities, small and usually local, that help with patient care of chronic diseases but the ALS Foundation is not that type of charity.

Most if not all of these funds will be back-loaded. Because medical research is better understood as a decade’s long project, paying for a year’s worth of research is useless. To commit funds for a decade’s worth of study is a process fraught with a lot of negative possibilities including no positive outcomes. Imagine giving a significant amount of money for disease research and being told after ten years “we know x, y and z aren’t possible cures and the elimination of x, y, and z furthers our understanding of the science.” Many givers do not wish to pay for the elimination of non-cures when they thought they were paying for possible cures. The science is correct but the expectations of the givers is contradictory. Nonetheless, ALS Foundation is funding research and legitimate research is going forward.

The most prominent concern is the set amount of charity households donate each year. If money is given to ALS Foundation that normally would have gone to a food bank or a social action advocacy group, then the food bank and the advocacy group are out of luck this year. The truth is that the pot of donated funds is not an ever expanding amount. Based on the economy and the wherewithal of the middle class, the amounts given every year will wax or wane. Even though the tax credit on the IRS Form 1040 rewards giving, if the discretionary income is not available, then the household will not be able to give or give as much. The end result will be that the smaller charities will lose income.

Giving to charity is one of the highest of obligations and every dollar can make a difference. The responsibility of the donor is to make sure that every dollar he or she gives counts.