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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Garbage In/Garbage Out: A Culture of Violence

From CommonDreams.org comes an article, titled “A Culture That Condones The Killing Of Children And Teaches Children To Kill,”  by Lucinda Marshall, Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network, posted on Dec. 15, 2012.  It is a summary of many of the elements that make-up our culture of violence.  Because it is set forth in a staccato-type manner, I have chosen to quote most of it to introduce today’s subject.

“The Sandy Hook massacre isn’t just about the need for gun control laws, it is about a culture that condones the killing of children and teaches children that killing is okay.”
It is about a country addicted to violence on television and movie screens.
It is about cuts in education spending.
It is about environmental and health policies that expose our children to all manner of toxins in the air, land and water.
It is about thinking we have the right to kill children with drones or by dropping toxic munitions on their countries that cause birth defects and miscarriages.
It is about telling boys (and men) they have to be tough and to fight and kill for what they want or think is right.
It is about a national policy that denies children basic rights and systemically teaches them that violence is okay.
And it is about a media so insensitive that it thinks it is okay to shove a microphone in the face of young victims in the name of sensationalized 24/7 cable “news” while under-reporting the root causes of this tragedy.
Sandy Hook did not happen because of a lone, disturbed young man and it is not an isolated incident. It is an epidemic and we are all to blame. And today (and tomorrow and every day after that) is the time to confront this self-inflicted tragedy.”

Unfortunately, it is about even more than that.  Our culture of violence has grown and prospered through many phases and over many decades.  And, the elements of that culture are ingrained in us so deeply that we do not recognize either their origins or their cancerous growth.  We are, in some sense, destined to repeat what we inherited because we accept without question the premises and the myths and the ideologies that have been handed down.

It is about a culture and a government that was conceived in a revolutionary war  against its own ruling country, but is mostly seen as a new nation and government conceived in liberty, freedom and equality.  Yet, that new nation was mired in a system of enslavement of native peoples from Africa, about which we did nothing at our founding.  The violence against America’s own native people was oft repeated when this nation’s white settlers ran into, and violently destroyed, the lands, families, settlements as well as the peaceful culture of these native Americans.  We were unfortunately as much conceived in violence as we were in liberty.

It is about a culture that had violence in its background as well.  That is, the violence of European culture was transferred to the new world.  Bull-baiting and cock-fighting, hangings, drawing and quartering, the glorification of the military, and the violence visited on many countries by invaders, by conquering armies, by marauders, by bands of thieves, by the elite overlords of the manors, and by kings and queens who had to protect their holdings and lieges (not so much their citizenry).  In most cases, our settlers brought cultural violence with them.

Do we even have to mention the “Wild West”, where lawlessness was epidemic at times, and where individuals often had to join together in posses and associations and antagonistic groups in order to defend their property and their livelihoods (e.g. sheep herders vs. cattlemen).  We need to recall the many skirmishes and battles fought  against native Americans to keep them on reservations and to end their battles against settlers and each other (Wikipedia mentions around 90).  And, how about drunkenness (yes, alcohol-induced violence was a problem), or the violence perpetrated on women who had few rights even in their own homes.  (Did you think all those men & women settlers got along like the Engle’s in Little House on the Prairie?) 

The frontier was not the only place where our violent culture reared its ugly head, after all, there were major urban areas growing up in our developing nation, and the crowding, the menial jobs and the threat of new immigrants taking those jobs, were factors in urban violence.  When the industrial revolution moved in, so did the violence of child labor, low wages, long hours, and few rights. 

We could go on like this, but there is little room and your time is precious.  Shall we just mention: the prejudice and discrimination, not only against blacks and native Americans, but against the Irish, Chinese, Roman Catholics, Italians, etc.   And, don’t forget the Civil War during which we afflicted violence upon each other for several years.  Yes, I know: at least we freed the slaves.  But do you recall Southern Reconstruction during which freedmen were subject to laws that demeaned and treated them as second-class citizens?  Oh yes, and then there were the “carpet-baggers” and other charlatans from outside the South who came to take advantage of the defeated South. 

Are we a bellicose nation or a peaceful nation?  We like to think of ourselves as the latter, but our history of war with peoples, nations, and religions belies our tendency toward peacefulness.  Shall we mention a few, beginning of course with the Revolutionary War, and moving onto:

War of 1812
Mexican-American war
Civil War
Spanish-American War
Philippine-American war
Panama
China
Occupation of Haiti
WWI
WWII
Occupation of Japan
Korean War
Cuban Missile Crisis
Vietnam War
Sinai multi-national
Grenada
Panama
Haiti Operation: Uphold Democracy
Bosnian War
Desert Storm (Kuwait)
Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
Operation Iraqi Freedom

Are there some in that list you didn’t recognize?  That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  If we count up all of the Battles with Native Americans, the putdown of Slave revolts and insurrections, range wars and boundary disputes, labor-management disputes, state secessionist attempts, riots and public disorders, plus counting all of the extraterritorial and major domestic deployments, as well as deployments in other countries to protect U.S. interests, we are left to wonder when we ever had time for anything other than violent intervention.  It is not an inspiring record, and it reads like America was simply an armed camp ready to fight about everything! (Take a look at Wikipedia’s Timeline of Military Operations).

So where do we begin to change this culture of violence?  There is no one answer that stands alone.  Perhaps we should think a bit about a few concepts:

We must examine the history books we use in our public schools and rid ourselves of those that teach myths, distorted facts and ideology, rather than the true facts of our culture and history; we must not continue to hide from our history and heritage of violence, but must face its implications for our culture head-on (a “People’s History of the United States 1492 to Present” is perhaps a place to start).  Better that young people understand our flaws from the beginning than discover later that they have been fed untruths.  After all, is it not a stronger argument for our greatness as a nation that we have forged admirable outcomes in spite of our flaws, and that reform is achievable even against great odds?
  
There is a saying from the early years of desk-top computing which may have some relevance here: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”  In the realm of physical health, we say that a healthy diet of food that goes in our bodies will help to produce a healthy body.  Yet, we do not often enough hear of the bad effects on our minds and spirits of a constant diet of violent images from news, movies, books and video games. 
In fact, there are those who say that such images might only affect the already disturbed mind and “trigger” a violent episode, but they do not produce violence in otherwise healthy individuals.  While I do not argue with that hypothesis on its face, I do wonder if any in-depth studies have been conducted to show the long-term effects of such violent images on our minds and our psyches?  It is my contention that we are all affected in mind and spirit by a steady diet of violent images and programming going into our heads, not necessarily in terms of triggering violent acts, but in terms of skewing the way we perceive our culture and the way we look at what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of other violence that is prevalent in our culture.  Have you ever seen the short documentary reports on television about ordinary students or adults of solid backgrounds who were led to give electric shocks to others in ever increasing doses, simply on the suggestion or command of an authority figure?  Most did do so, in spite of the painful cries of the recipients. 

In other words, I’m concerned about how this bombardment affects our outlook on violence in all its forms.  There is some evidence that we are becoming immune to many forms of violence, including attacks on women, for instance.  Are we more tolerant of damage being done to the environment (hydro-fracking, for instance) because we are more accepting of violence done to our planet in exchange for profit?  What manner of violence lurks in our minds because of what we are fed constantly by media?

“Garbage In, Garbage Out” is for me a phrase that should not be ignored as too many wish to do.  And, I have to wonder: how much of our ability to ignore violence in our culture is partly the result of the steady input of violent images into our minds by our entertainment culture?  I believe we are fooling ourselves when we recognize the truth of this phrase in terms of data entry and physical health, but ignore its truth when we discuss our mental and intellectual health, as well as our cultural health.  According to AlterNet.org, “Neuropsychological science has discovered that either seeing, or imagining actions directly impacts our neurology. Repetitive viewings of violent occurrences can install trauma triggers, even inducing nightmares and flashbacks typical of post-traumatic stress. While it’s important to follow trustworthy news sources to serve as a well-informed citizen, repeated viewings of violent scenes without any clear purpose engraves terror into the neurology of the populace.”

Is Ann Curry’s “26 Acts of Kindness” suggestion on Twitter partly “the cure” for our culture of violence?  Perhaps some would say: “not to a great extent“, but there is definite validity in attempting to replace our tendencies toward violence with kindness and charity and positive feedback as more appropriate responses to fellow human beings.  After all, responses to other humans is what determines the kind of world we are building, and that extends to relationships with other cultures and nations.  Take Iran, for example.  We are engaged in an effort to change the direction toward nuclear proliferation by that country’s government.  Our approach has been, as it so often is, to use sanctions and threats and negative feedback and hyperbole as the way to get a foreign government to change its ways.  Will it work?  Probably not.  Will it come to some kind of attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?  Probably.  Does that advance world peace, and the security of our nation?  Hard to say: on the one hand, it will appear to stabilize the situation in the short-term, but long-term be assured that memories of past violence against such countries are not forgotten.  We are still paying the price of enmity from such middle-eastern countries for interventions and insults by Western countries in the past.
 
So what can we do?  Try “diplomacy” it is suggested by some.  Is that the best we can do?  Or is there something to be said for fostering relationships with countries built on acts of kindness?  Sounds very far-fetched, but it has worked before: the Hoover Plan and help for refugees and other projects through the United Nations, the Aids Project funded under George W. Bush.  These are but examples that come to mind of acts of kindness still remembered by recipient countries. 

So perhaps it comes down to how we want to be perceived and remembered in the world.  Acts of kindness rather than bellicose actions could change our image.  Unless of course, one prefers bellicosity and war and enmity as strategies for getting along with others.  Maybe I have missed the point: is the point to control the actions and destinies of others so that our lives are safer and more secure?  Is national security, and not national pride or international peace, the primary consideration in our relations with nations?  And, is bellicosity the way to get to that desired outcome?  Perhaps we should ask some hawkish Republicans, like John McCain or Lindsey Graham.  At least, they would mince no words in telling us how naïve we are!  But hawks are predators, and therein lies the problem!
 
Here are some other possible considerations for changing our culture of violence:
-- Enlist entertainment media in making documentaries and theme films that reveal the devastation caused by violence in our culture and that reveal the importance of acts of compassion

-- Toleration of bullying in schools and sports must be reduced to zero tolerance, and perpetrators must have do community service, see a counselor, apologize to the person(s) bullied and join with them in a project of caring and community uplift.
Dr. Philip E. Humbert says it is important to “acknowledge the connection between sports and violent behavior. Again, sports is a sacred icon in American culture, but it seems that sports have been separated from athletics. Instead of every child participating in gym class and competing in intramural sports, we have a culture of super-hero super-stars who are virtually above the law. Hockey, basketball, football and other sports all tolerate behavior that would result in arrest for assault outside the sports arena. Competition and fitness are valuable; organized violence is not acceptable!”  (Source: http://EzineArticles.com/8109)

-- Video games must be further regulated to keep them out of the hands of children, of troubled teens and young adults, and should be required to be scored for violence by appointed groups of parents and mental health practitioners.

-- Violence toward children must be dealt with severely; too often perpetrators of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and spiritual abuse are treated as though this can be excused, overlooked or reduced in some way; the time has come to let child abusers know that they are in danger of going to prison for life. 
-- Violence against children must include the topics of homelessness, malnutrition, starvation, and lack of health care; thus, responsible leaders and office-holders must also be held liable for their actions and inactions on behalf of children: is impeachment, community service, even jail time too much to ask for them upon proof of negligence or malignant intent?

-- We must also assess our own personal “violence footprint”; how often do we ourselves contribute to our culture of violence?  Can we do something to stop personal behaviors that are not appropriate to a compassionate life?  The answer is Yes and No: sometimes we can on our own; sometimes we need help.
 
On peaceandbread.org, writer John Hoffman comments: “To help reform our violent culture we can find strength and courage in a less dominant, far less celebrated and practiced American tradition: the culture of peacemaking, what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised as “unarmed truth.” From the Quakers to the civil rights movement to our other religious and secular conscientious objectors to our famous anti-war politicians, we have many fine examples of nonviolent virtue in public life. And not all of our art, literature and entertainment depends on the shocks of gratuitous violence and the well-armed cowboy. Teaching peaceable conduct and the practical use of nonviolent resistance is possible.
“For we cannot depend solely on government to change our culture, however much we need better regulation of guns and other issues related to violence in our society. It is our own hearts and minds that have to change; if we want far less violent communities, a more peaceable nation and world, more of us must reform how we think and act, what we read and watch, what we fear and own.”

-- The effectiveness of incarceration as a strategy for reducing violent crime is limited. There is evidence that for many youth, the experience of serving time in a large detention center may actually increase the likelihood that they will commit violent crimes again in the future.  More emphasis is needed on rehabilitation while juveniles are in custody, and  on re-entry programs when they return to their communities.   This is an opportunity to educate and train young people who may have missed out on a public school education, but we must have more funding and especially more trained teachers.

--  The United States is the only major democracy that permits the killing of convicted criminals, and this too is part of our culture of violence.  The “death penalty” has long been touted as a deterrent to crime, but there is little evidence to support that concept.  It is undoubtedly a “hangover” from our brutish past that somehow we cannot let go, even though we continue to hear of the absolutely brutal nature of the procedure itself, and we continue to hear about innocent people being put to death.  It is simply a way of extracting revenge, having little to do with justice.  Using the State as an avenger and outright killer is an illustration of the hold that violence has on our culture.  It is nothing short of irrational, and must be abolished if we are to make progress on reforming our violent culture.

--  Violence against women and girls cannot be tolerated; it is a sign of deterioration in our culture and of failure in our governing structures.  Domestic violence is one thorny issue that continually impinges upon our commonweal.  Restraining orders, police intervention, forced counseling are not very successful in addressing this issue, partly because they are all reactive and not proactive.  We must begin our proactive stance in the schools, by producing curriculum and situations where boys and girls can learn the value of all persons.  Girls must be put in positions of responsibility in group exercises, in academic projects, in team functioning.  Boys need to have greater opportunities to work with girls in team functions - labs, sports, projects, etc. - that enable them to practice skills that promote equality and equanimity. 
We must, of course, promote legislation at all levels of government to give women equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, and equal protections under law.  An attack against women’s rights and opportunities, such as recently emerged from a radical Republican agenda is not worthy of a democratic government system.  Any legislator who votes for legislation that targets women and girls for a discriminatory outcome should be targeted as unfit for representative office.

This subject is far too complicated to make a comprehensive set of suggestions here.  Suffice to say that we have a long and arduous task ahead of finding ways to promote non-violence against women and girls, including legislation to prevent sex trafficking, legislation to step-up punishment for domestic violence, legislation that confronts work-related, health-related and equality-related standards.  As one article put it, “the challenge now… is how to create the social, material and structural conditions in which women and girls can develop to their full potential. The creation of such conditions will involve not only deliberate attempts to change the legal, political and economic structures of society, but, equally importantly, will require the transformation of individuals, men and women, boys and girls, whose values, in different ways, sustain exploitative patterns of behavior.” (Beyond Legal Reforms: Culture and Capacity in the Eradication of Violence Against Women and Girls 2 July 2006, Bic.org)

Those words are perhaps applicable across-the-board in terms of the need of our society to confront the internalized, mythological, discriminatory stereotypes that plaque our society in terms of our unexamined, and perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless destructive internalizations, of the outward purveyors of violence in our society.  “Garbage In, Garbage Out” -- it is way past time to take-out the trash!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mental Health System Is Unhealthy

In the past week, we have been bombarded with articles and opinions about the fact that we must, in light of the Sandy Hook School shootings and similar massacres, pay in-depth attention to the Mental Health system in this country.  The point is well-taken. However, it is not well-taken that we can resolve the problem of mass killings with an emphasis on just one or the other of gun control, mental health reform, and the changing of a culture of violence. We must see them working together as necessary elements of an overall plan for cultural change.   

It has come to light that the mother of Adam Lanza had experienced some difficulties with the local school system in terms of the services offered for Adam.  The reports of her disgruntlement or perturbation, and her subsequent moving of Adam to home schooling, seem to imply that it was she who was the problem.  Having gone through a similar situation with a family member (who is listed on the autistic spectrum, but not prone to violence), I am quite sure that Adam’s mother was experiencing the same difficulty that afflicts so many parents of children with a mental disability or challenge: services are often very limited, and too often there are no choices for the kind of help that is warranted, particularly when episodic violent behaviors are involved.  And often, if an appropriate service is discovered, it is not covered by health insurance or any other grant or subsidy.  Such services often can not be accessed by parents because they are simply too expensive.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 20 percent of young people are affected by a mental health problem and nearly two-thirds of them do not get the help they need. Without treatment, these children often find trouble with the law, fall in with the wrong crowd or drop out of school.  We have seen over and over in the last few years, a pattern with the perpetrators of these massacres: they exhibit anger at their circumstances (taking out that anger and pain on innocent victims); social ineptitude, isolation, loneliness, and anti-social behavior often symbolized by their all-black clothing and their lack of meaningful community or individual relationships.

Before we move on to explore this subject, let us make very clear that Adam Lanza’s reported disability is not a disorder associated with violence.  An article dated 12/17/12 by Nancy Chumin for Dallasnews.com explains this distinction and other pertinent facts.
Much has been made of Adam Lanza “as having Asperger Syndrome, a high functioning condition on the autism spectrum which has recently been reclassified as autism. Experts and parents who have children with Asperger’s Syndrome want everyone to know that there is no correlation between autism and violence and express concern that autism is a developmental disorder and NOT a mental illness. Parents of those with autism, who are already too often stigmatized in our society, are worried that this will lead to their kids being further shunned and misunderstood.”

A statement made last Friday by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network supports this: “Recent media reports have suggested that the perpetrator of this violence, Adam Lanza, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome… or with another psychiatric disability. In either event, it is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence. Americans with autism and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.”

Let us now turn to the story of the mental health system in the last 30-40 years: it is one of deinstitutionalization, the gaining of rights for the mentally ill, the evolvement of community-based services that are still evolving because of drastic cuts in state budgets, and the re-institutionalization of certain people with mental aberrations who ran afoul of the criminal justice system and were incarcerated. 

Based on 25 years of experience with the NYS Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (which started out as part of the NYS Office of Mental Hygiene), I believe that the lack of a full-blown, well-financed plan for de-institutionalization of persons with mental illness, an over-emphasis on certain rights which sometimes mimicked the absurd and often endangered ordinary citizens, plus a community-based service system that was never able to meet expectations or the special needs of those who needed it, meant that something close to chaos ensued.  On the other hand, with less emphasis on rights to live as one wished, and more emphasis on “normalization” to live as closely as possible to what is normal for others, OMRDD was able to establish a community living experience for persons with developmental disabilities by utilizing small residences, community-based programming, and integration into public schools. 

In contrast, the separate Mental Hygiene department was saddled with a movement for rights which ended up with persons living on the streets after de-institutionalism, people not taking their much-needed meds, with few opportunities for programs that met their needs, and with fewer housing choices.  Strict restrictions on initial institutionalization, or re-institutionalization, practically made beggars and antagonists of those caregivers who could not cope with abusive and dangerous behaviors, and who tried to find help, often with no affordable results.  In 1980, landmark legislation -- the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 -- fostered the continued growth of America’s Community Mental Health Centers which allow individuals with mental illnesses to remain in their home communities with minimal hospitalization.  Subsequent and continuous cuts in funding at the state and federal levels prevented a full-blown community mental health system from being fully realized.

Not only did the Mental Hygiene system have to deal with a radical set of freedoms that sometimes ignored the rights, safety and protection of the general public, it stumbled in terms of the volume and adequacy of community services able to be funded and made available to those who had been de-institutionalized.  In many states, it did not help that de-institutionalization offered an opportunity to cut state budgets.  Those cuts became draconian in some areas, and added to the already inadequate community-based mental health services. 

Along came new generations of applicants for services, and the system was strained to the breaking point.  In my humble opinion, it has never recovered, not only because of the factors I have mentioned, but because in our culture, mental health has never been well-understood, nor accepted as important enough to spend the money needed to enhance it, nor accepted on a par with physical health.  And unfortunately, our culture has long demonized mental illness, looked at it as dark and evil ( Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and cast some who portrayed symptoms as monsters or as animalistic (Pyscho, Silence of the Lambs;  Jeffrey Dahmer, many others).   We tend to fear the unknown, and we can only blame ourselves for the on-going ignorance and mythical approaches to the subject of mental illness that endure in our culture. 

All of which leads us back to current events, and the need for a plan to look after people who begin to exhibit violent or aversive behaviors and attitudes at young ages.  Adam Lanza is just one more example of the lack of, the unavailability of, and the inadequacy of mental health services. 

It is indicative of where we stand, and of what we need.  We are told by ehow.com that one in five American adults will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. However, only 40 percent of them get treatment. People do not get treatment for mental  disorders for many reasons but difficulty paying for treatment is one factor.  So perhaps that is where we need to begin to change the system:

1) The Affordable Care Act must be amended to require all health insurance carriers to cover all aspects of mental health treatment without imposition of limitations or caps on the number of days they will cover in-patient mental health care or on the number of outpatient visits to counselors or psychiatrists; parity of mental health benefits with other health coverage is imperative
2)  Early intervention and preventative measures are also imperative.  We cannot make substantial progress in mental health reform without this, and trained clinicians are key to making early diagnoses as well as appropriate referrals to proper services. 
3) We need an integrated health delivery system that attends to both physical and mental ills and behaviors, and which follows children with symptoms in an on-going manner, particularly those who get mixed up with the juvenile justice system.  Identifying and integrating mental health needs into traditional health care, social services, community, and work-site settings is particularly important for youth and those who have experienced trauma;
4) We need many more community health centers that are staffed with doctors and nurses trained in both physical and mental health and healing; access to such a system must be made to be as open and easy as possible;
5) We need a data system that tracks the healthy and unhealthy symptoms of patients, along with treatments that work and don’t work; that system must be applicable across all jurisdictions
6) We must educate our adults and our young in the realities of mental illnesses
7) We have to develop new protocols for reporting episodes of violence to an authority that is equipped to act, to counsel, to protect others, to coordinate a plan for services.
8) We must have residential centers, other than institutions or jails or emergency rooms, that can fill a need for short-term, emergency in-house care, and respite care, as well as longer-term stays.  The Affordable Care Act, (Sec. 2703 & Sec. 19459(e)) already calls for States to build person-centered health homes that can result in improved outcomes for beneficiaries and better services and value for State Medicaid and other programs, including mental health and substance abuse agencies, but funding is still key, and on the federal level, Medicaid is under attack.
9) We must acknowledge, and build upon, the many advances already made in the Mental Health field, and must enlist mental health organizations -- that have already influenced and brought about many positive changes through a combination of public education and support for ground-breaking legislation -- into a broad coalition of such organizations to  further the cause of reform
10) We have to encourage more research into the causes of violence in individuals; this cannot be overlooked, since we also need to find ways to treat particular types of violent disorders, but we must also take great pains to deal with a common misconception that all people with mental illness are violent or dangerous. 

“In 2005, a Canadian journal published a review of all relevant past research on risk assessment for violence among people with mental illness. One dominating theme of the review was that violence can be much more accurately predicted by attending to non-mental health variables compared to mental health factors. These variables include age, gender, socioeconomic status, education, and environment. Additionally, a history of violence is a much stronger predictor of future violence than any mental health-related variables. 
“Researchers point out that, more than substance use disorders alone or mental illness (particularly psychosis) alone, it is the co-occurrence of the two disorder types that seems to escalate the risk for violence. In fact, having multiple diagnoses of any kind increases violence risk factors. People with co-existing diagnoses, depending on the number of conditions they have, are up to six times more likely to commit a violent act in the past year than people with one type of disorder. The reason behind this link is not yet fully understood.
“Furthermore, current studies indicate that alcohol and substance abuse far outweigh mental illness in contributing to violence in society. For example, citizens are much more likely to be assaulted by someone suffering from an addiction than a major mental disorder such as schizophrenia, notes the review. The report concludes that it is unlikely that a member of the public would be at risk of violence from a person with a mental disorder who does not also have a substance use problem.” (article on Mental Disorders at HeretoHelp.com)  All this speaks to the fact that in-depth research is needed to clarify the causes of violence.

These have been merely a few suggested steps to be taken toward reversing the trends toward isolation, segregation, and inattention to the need for adequate mental health care.  The list is less than adequate and many more in-depth suggestions are needed; the SAMHSA site provides a possibility for submitting such ideas: http://www.samhsa.gov/healthreform
 
In fact, complete resolution is impossible, no matter what we do, but in memory of children, young people, and adults killed in civilian massacres, we cannot fail to do something, and that something must be in the form, insofar as possible, of a common-sense broad-based plan including gun control and mental health reform that seeks to change a culture that makes an idolatry of violence, of rugged individualism, of social Darwinism (that only the strong shall inherit the earth), and that demonizes mental illness.  A strengthened Mental Health system is crucial to a society that wants to deal wisely with troubled individuals who may be prone to violence.  It is one of the legs of a structure upon which we must stand to lend support for our basic concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   A culture of violence is antithetical to the survival of such democratic ideals. 

A December 14th article on AlterNet by Lynn Parramore sums up the situation politically:

“Inadequate gun control is only one half of the story. The other is the shameful job America does of treating the mentally ill. Today, 45 million American adults suffer from mental illness. Eleven million of those cases are considered serious. Most of these people are not dangerous, but if they can’t get treatment, the odds of potential violence increase.
Yet the mentally ill are finding it increasingly difficult to get help. Mental health funding has been plummeting for decades. Since 2009, states have cut billions for mental health from their budgets. As Daniel Lippman has reported in the Huffington Post:
‘Across the country, states facing severe financial shortfalls have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD). It's the largest reduction in funding since de-institutionalization in the 1960s and '70s.’
“Thanks to the misguided austerity policies embraced by conservatives, more people are falling through the cracks. There are not enough psychiatric beds, treatment services or community support programs. Medication is expensive, and insurance companies routinely leave patients inadequately covered.  Mental healthcare workers have been laid off. Vulnerable people are neglected until their situation becomes acute – often after it’s too late. Many are incarcerated, often subjected to solitary confinement because prison officials don’t know what to do with them. Others are homeless – as many as 45 percent of the people living on the streets suffer from mental illness.
“This situation is no accident, and it is not inevitable. Economics 101 tells you that when you have a massive economic crisis, the government must step in to fill the gap until the economy can recover… The U.S…. is well-equipped to provide stimulus money to states to make up for budget shortfalls. What gets in the way of meaningful action is political obstruction, not economics. Federal stimulus dollars and other grants have made up for some of the cuts to mental healthcare, but thanks to constant efforts [of the Right-wing] to block adequate stimulus measures, not enough. And if conservatives have their way, budget cuts to programs like Medicaid will continue to ensure that high-risk people can’t get help.
“The [Radical] Right’s program for public safety appears to be that everyone should have a gun and few should get adequate healthcare. That’s a recipe for death and destruction. Killing sprees are on the rise. How many more people will have to die before mental healthcare becomes a national priority?”   (Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Devastating Day

Newtown, Connecticut was not a town known to me before yesterday.  My wife and I have visited several other quaint and bucolic towns in CT, but not Newtown.  This past Memorial Day, we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in Old Saybrook, CT and got to take part in their Memorial Day festivities.  It was colonial New England, bucolic New England, quaint New England and patriotic New England all wrapped up in one package.  It was a good feeling to be part of all that.

But yesterday was a devastating day, for all the good feeling was definitely missing, destroyed by a disturbed mind and two semi-automatic pistols -- a Glock 9 mm with a 17- shot magazine, and a Sig Sauer P226 also 9 mm with a 15-shot magazine, plus a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle.   As a father and grandfather, I spent much of the day with tears marking my face, with a fit of actual sobs and crying during our President’s very emotional appearance before the cameras.  The nation was sharing the heartbreak of the death of 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

While all of the lives lost are of equal and great worth, it’s mostly about the children.  We cannot easily bear the loss of nascent lives, knowing all that has been lost to us, never to be fully known.  But then, that is the burden placed mostly upon the parents, but also on the grandparents and siblings and uncles, aunts and cousins.  They all have to bear this loss; this gruesome loss.  And there is no way for them, nor us, to take that in without heart-break.  It is incomprehensible and reprehensible, and on either count we are left with few words and more tears.  Our thoughts, and prayers, and sympathy are with them now, and will be in the future, as our President indicated.  The President was right:  they are our children now.

Thank you Barack.  I mean no disrespect in addressing you that way.  In fact, I consider that form of address a major measure of respect:  respect for you as a parent; respect for you as a valuable and unique human being; respect for you as a feeling person who clearly showed those feelings; respect for you as a Leader who is capable of giving comfort.  “Comfort,”, by the way, is a revealing word in this context.  The dictionary concentrates on the usual meanings of relief and consolation.  But, Mr. President, you have also captured a somewhat older and deeper meaning: comfort having to do with “inspiring with hope”, or possibly, giving to another a sense of inner strength, giving a sense of being guarded, cared for and protected.  Thank you.

But what I want to ask you right now is:  what can we do to address this situation which you said has gone on too long?  How can we protect second amendment rights for target shooters and competitors, along with hunters, and trainers while at the same time, controlling access to guns by felons, persons with mental deficits related to violent behavior, emotionally disturbed persons, etc.  What can we do?

Probably not as much as we would hope.  We can’t stop all the violence; we can’t stop all insane acts; we cannot prevent all people from getting guns who shouldn’t have guns.  We are limited in what we can do. 

Accepting that limitation, it is imperative that we begin to reduce, not only violence as a coping mechanism, but violence as a cultural norm.  It is time to examine our laws on violence -- domestic violence,  bullying,  fights with others in athletic competitions, as well as gun control -- and see where enforcement is lacking or non-existent.  It is time to change our cultural norm, much as we did with smoking.  Not so long ago smoking was an accepted cultural norm.  It was shown on movie and TV screens; people we admired - like doctors and movie stars - smoked.  Smoking was acceptable, but even more, it was heralded in strange ways -- it was seen as glamorous.  Health concerns of smoking and of second-hand smoke were basically ‘pooh-poohed‘, just as bullying is in many areas of this country where it is still seen as youth hi-jinks.  Today, smokers are isolated from others, seen as less than glamorous, seen as threats to the high cost of health care and are disrespected for their addiction.

So, Mr. President, how and where should we begin to change our cultural acceptance of violence?  I’m no expert, but permit me to offer the following suggestions and opinions:

Immediate:
-- enforce existing laws that limit violence; especially gun control laws already on the books;
-- by Executive order, ban the import of assault rifles like the AK gun;
-- provide immediate support for Carolyn McCarthy’s legislation that calls for: reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004; banning high-capacity magazines; requiring criminal background checks on gun buyers at gun shows; and improving instant background checks to more thoroughly catch people with histories of mental illness; push no waivers, no loopholes, no excuses. 
-- push investment in educational programs -- use of non-violent coping mechanisms for young people, for example.  There are many such programs dealing with alternatives to violence.  Let’s get behind them, first by pointing a spotlight on them, then, by bringing them together to share successes, and by providing federal grants and supporting private aid to encourage more of them;
-- bring together organizations and individuals who have a stake in reducing the culture of violence and let them speak to you about legislation and goals and activities, and particularly about best practices that work. Include in this national conference, organizations like the Mayors Against Illegal Guns and first responders against gun violence; we must build a larger coalition on this subject.  Involve Rep. Carolyn McCarthy from New York’s 4th District, and Mayor Bloomberg of NYC, among others, as sponsors and participants.
-- and finally, promote federal legislation that would ban gun owners from bringing concealed weapons to schools, churches and other areas that are currently gun-free
 
Intermediate:
-- we need a federal law (overriding all existing state laws) that requires every gun to be registered, no matter its purpose;
-- we must also move toward identifying, and getting immediate help for, persons exhibiting potentially adverse or harmful behaviors, but “profiling” will be a factor to be restricted; and, we will need to search out additional funding for organizations that can assist in this;
-- the NIH must do more research on what we can do to control violence -- gene therapy, stem cell therapy, psychiatric treatment; can we find the part of the brain or a gene that leads one to violence, and act upon that knowledge?
-- we must have an integrated computerized system for sharing information between law enforcement agencies at all levels; what are we waiting for?

Long-term:
-- we must move to support the NRA in its educational endeavors to train in marksmanship, firearm safety, marksmanship events, hunting, and law enforcement training; we must openly support their reasonable and responsible efforts to defend legitimate 2nd Amendment rights;
-- we must at the same time seek to restrict the political lobbying that this organization is allowed to do, even if it means restricting other organizations that lobby in the form of “education” or “instruction.”
-- with particular emphasis on the NRA, because they have been described as having the most effective lobbying of any organization, there must be on-going scrutiny of their lobbying efforts in terms of compliance with existing and future laws;
-- we must also seek to cap the amount that can be spent on lobbying, supporting candidates, or supporting particular legislation (this is broader in scope than gun control per se);
-- we must re-examine the definitions of 501(c)(3) organizations to make sure that lobbying in any form is prohibited; and, we must severely restrict lobbying allowed to 501(c)(4)s
--  the actions of the NRA that promote or imply support of violence in any form must be brought to the attention of the public by federal, state and municipal authorities.

The following description of the NRA is from Wikipedia, quoted at answers.com:

“The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) is an American non-profit 501(c)(4) lobbying group that advocates for the protection of the Second Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, and the promotion of firearm ownership rights as well as marksmanship, firearm safety, and the protection of hunting and self-defense in the United States. The NRA sponsors firearm safety training courses, as well as marksmanship events featuring shooting skill and sports.
According to a 1999 Fortune survey, lawmakers and congressional staffers considered NRA the most influential lobbying group.  Its political activity is based on the principle that gun ownership is a civil liberty protected by the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and is the oldest continuously operating civil rights organization in the United States. According to its website, the NRA has 4.3 million members.”

“In 1975, recognizing the critical need for political defense of the Second Amendment, the NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action, or ILA.  In 1990, the NRA made a dramatic move to ensure that the financial support for firearms-related activities would be available now and for future generations.  It established the NRA Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that raises tax-deductible contributions in support of a wide range of firearms-related public interest activities of the National Rifle Association of America and other organizations that defend and foster the Second Amendment rights of all law-abiding Americans.  Contributions to the Foundation are tax-deductible.” (NRSfoundation.org)

Why do I suggest supporting and “targeting” the NRA at the same time?  Because their legitimacy must be recognized in order to criticize fairly their illegitimate undertakings, such as “concealed carry”  laws which do not advance 2nd Amendment rights, but do advance a “wild west” approach to self-defense; and, their intransigence on banning assault weapons. Targeting the NRA’s illegitimate activities is not anti-2nd Amendment rights, but is equivalent to opposition to rule by a plutocracy.

In my opinion, the main issue is not the NRA per se; it is the acquired power of this organization that is at issue.  Their ability to intimidate legislators, to spend enormous amounts of money on lobbying, and their immunity from scrutiny are all topics for discussion and debate.  I, for one, believe that their mission or purpose to protect a constitutional right to arms puts a special responsibility on them to act not only on behalf of gun owners, but to act on behalf of all citizens who also have rights protected by the constitution, such as the right to privacy, the right to free speech, and the right to governance by elected representatives and not by a small elite or cadre of self-appointed advocates.  Beware of people or organizations who believe that they have a corner on certain rights!

“The NRA and its supporters say the problem is not easy access to guns. To the contrary, they often argue that the problem is a shortage of guns. If only we had more guns in circulation, fewer would die. However, there is no evidence to support the NRA’s contention. Those countries with much lower death rates do not achieve those rates by allowing free and easy access to guns by almost everybody, regardless of training. Quite the contrary. Those few countries in which guns are even more ubiquitous than the United States — countries such as Iraq — have much higher death rates.” (Atlanta Constitution-Jay Bookman Blog)

What is the NRA doing to protect the other millions of our citizens who are not their members but who are in the line of fire from guns used as instruments of death and devastation by people who have no inner controls?  Is the NRA the new 2% who are dictating national policy on guns for the other 98% (4.3 million out of 314 million)?  And why are contributions to their Foundation tax-deductible if even a portion is spent by the Foundation on activities that should be defined as “lobbying”?  And what proportion of the NRA’s own members are now in favor of reasonable gun controls?  Apparently, in light of this shooting of children, the numbers are growing.  Has the NRA reached it’s “tipping point”?

Perhaps, the final question to be asked should be:  What has the NRA done since yesterday to console the parents of the 20 children killed by semi-automatic guns in Newtown, CT?  To this moment, as far as I can determine, SILENCE - no thoughts, no prayers, no consolation or sympathy.  It is that silence that speaks volumes as to their unspoken support for a culture of violence.  The time to overturn that culture has come.  The twenty children of Newtown, after all, are our children too.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shame, Shame, Shame!

On Tuesday, December 4, 2012, something happened in the United States Senate that can only be described as shameful.  By a vote of 61-38, ratification of a U.N. treaty protecting certain universal rights of disabled people -- titled the “UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” -- was defeated.  Six Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of ratifying, but 61-38 in favor was five votes short of the constitutionally required two- thirds necessary to join more than 120 other countries that have already ratified the treaty. 

Not only is it shameful that the Senate could not come up with a two-thirds majority to ratify, it is even more shameful that they chose to place us in the regrettable position of being one of only 28 out of 156 signatories that has not yet ratified the treaty.  And the shame doesn’t end there.  This treaty was supported by a bi-partisan group, including the US Chamber of Commerce, George W. Bush who signed the original treaty, former Senator Bob Dole (a disabled war veteran) who showed up on the Senate floor to encourage passage, and the following Republican Senators who risked their seats by joining Senate Democrats in voting Yea, thereby repudiating the right-wing nuts who opposed this treaty:

Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire
John Barrasso of Wyoming,
Scott Brown of Massachusetts,
Susan Collins of Maine,
Dick Lugar of Indiana,
John McCain of Arizona 
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska

First, let’s take a look at what this bi-partisan group was supporting.  Essentially, they were supporting the extension to other nations of the gold standard established in this country by the Americans with Disabilities Act, as to the rights of persons with disabilities.  Having read the Convention in its entirety (available at www.un.org), I find it to be a comprehensive enumeration of the rights of persons with disabilities which every Member State is strongly encouraged to address.  Notwithstanding, the right-wing nuts, like James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have found therein frightening threats to our sovereignty which just simply do not exist.  We shall address opposing views forthwith.  First, let’s be clear on what is at the heart of this Treaty.  Here are the basic areas being addressed:

Article 3 - General principles
The principles of the present Convention shall be:
Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
Non-discrimination;
Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
Equality of opportunity;
Accessibility;
Equality between men and women;
Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.
 
Article 4 - General obligations
1. States Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. To this end, States Parties undertake:
To adopt all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention;
To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities;
To take into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programs;
To refrain from engaging in any act or practice that is inconsistent with the present Convention and to ensure that public authorities and institutions act in conformity with the present Convention;
To take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability by any person, organization or private enterprise;
To undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities, as defined in article 2 of the present Convention, which should require the minimum possible adaptation and the least cost to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities, to promote their availability and use, and to promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines;
To undertake or promote research and development of, and to promote the availability and use of new technologies, including information and communications technologies, mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, suitable for persons with disabilities, giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost;
To provide accessible information to persons with disabilities about mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, including new technologies, as well as other forms of assistance, support services and facilities;
To promote the training of professionals and staff working with persons with disabilities in the rights recognized in this Convention so as to better provide the assistance and services guaranteed by those rights.
2. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, each State Party undertakes to take measures to the maximum of its available resources.
3. In the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities, States Parties shall closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations.
4. Nothing in the present Convention shall affect any provisions which are more conducive to the realization of the rights of persons with disabilities and which may be contained in the law of a State Party or international law in force for that State. There shall be no restriction upon or derogation from any of the human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized or existing in any State Party to the present Convention. (emphasis is added to bring attention to the fact that this Convention does not seek to overturn the laws or rules of a member nation that already protect the rights of persons with disabilities).
5. The provisions of the present Convention shall extend to all parts of federal states without any limitations or exceptions.

What was it then that evoked such criticism of this treaty that doomed it to rejection in the U.S. Senate?  Once again, right-wing nuts managed to find threats and problems that really do not exist in this treaty, unless you read it through the lens of an ideologue who sees the UN as a threat to national sovereignty generally.  Here’s what the nuts have said:

Republican lawmakers spoke out against the treaty, suggesting it would infringe on US sovereignty or allow the state to dictate the actions of families with children with disabilities.  A comprehensive reading of this treaty produces just the opposite effect; that nowhere are there any mechanisms for enforcing or forcing compliance by member countries.  In fact, the treaty indicates what the member countries themselves need to do to enforce the standards, but there are no UN personnel with blue helmets that are going to come to someone’s home or school or other public institution or private association and force them to do something that is in the treaty.  It is pure fantasy that the U.S.A. is giving up any sovereignty to the UN. 

However, this Convention will definitely create obligations for member states who ratify.  States will be obligated to introduce measures that promote the human rights of persons with disabilities without discrimination. These measures would include anti-discrimination legislation, eliminate laws and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities, and consider persons with disabilities when adopting new policies and programs. Other measures include making services, goods, and facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.
 
Oh yes, there is a section in the treaty that requires an initial two-year report to the UN through its Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to indicate what progress has been made on the standards.  Thereafter, the report will be made every four years.  And there is a provision for sharing those reports with the UN Committee, with members states, and with the agencies, funds and programs of the General Assembly, not to “embarrass” member states, but to enable signers of the treaty to make use of best practices and positive outcomes to move forward on their own progress toward meeting the standards.  In other words, there is more emphasis on cooperation, consultation and internal improvement than on embarrassment, competition or enforcement.  Reports are shared “in order to address a request or indication of a need for technical advice or assistance contained therein, along with the Committee’s observations and recommendations, if any, on these requests or indications.”

Senator Jon Kyl, a retiring Republican, objected to what he called the "disability diplomacy" on show with the treaty, saying there was no need for the country with the world's best record on disability rights to sign a pact that made no changes to US law and was "not enforceable."  How strange that a usual proponent of US exceptionalism would simply dismiss the great importance of  signing a treaty that touts the achievements of this country as regards the treatment and rights of persons with disabilities.  What a missed opportunity; indeed an opportunity turned into a liability.
 
Democratic Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican John McCain, sought to convince wavering Republicans that the treaty would have no legal effect on the United States.  Kerry said: "This has no tying of the hands of America, there isn't one law of the United States that would be negatively affected."
Instead, he added, "it will push, it will leverage, it will require other countries by their commitments to be held accountable to the standards that we have set, and take our gold standard and extend it to the rest of the world."

"It is a sad day when we cannot pass a treaty that simply brings the world up to the American standard for protecting people with disabilities because the Republican party is in thrall to extremists and ideologues," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, adding that he would plan to bring the treaty to a vote during the next Congress.

Another objection was raised by the junior Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, who is to the right of Utah’s former Republican junior senator.  He said that the home-schooled would be told by a foreign body what was in the best interest of a disabled child schooled at home.  No such problem exists anywhere in the Convention, but Sen. Lee somehow managed to find something that he could use to fit his preconceived notion of UN programs.

Further speculation and fantasy produced the specter that the CRPD would have created a new layer of bureaucracy on the international level to take care of disability issues. Supposedly, new regulations, ordinances, social services would have been created over those of the US government without the consent of the American people.  Accordingly, such a massive change could have threatened America's sovereignty, by having to listen to unelected foreign technocrats without popular consent.  Certainly an objection that might need serious consideration, except that there are no provisions calling for the UN to establish  regulations, ordinances or social services to take care of disability issues.  Instead, there are suggestions made to member states to do this within their internal structures and institutions, but not for the UN to create and impose. 

The States Parties will meet regularly in a Conference of States Parties in order to consider any matter with regard to the implementation of the present Convention.
And, no later than six months after the entry into force of the present Convention, the Conference of the States Parties would be convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Subsequent meetings would  be convened by the Secretary-General biennially or upon the decision of the Conference of States Parties.  One objection to the Treaty centered around these meetings, which were characterized as opportunities for other nations to criticize and belittle the United States; and, to display before the world any delays or failures the USA might demonstrate.  This objection obviously comes from an international paranoia that afflicts certain right-wingers. They cannot admit that any other nation might have something to teach us; nor can they admit that the USA might be lagging behind in any way.  What they miss, as always, is that consultation with other nations, sharing information and practices in an equitable way, is what will blunt unwarranted negative criticisms of certain nations directed at us. 

Therein lies the basic issue with this kind of fantasy and ideology:  it creates untruths which become the basis for undermining consultation and agreement with other countries in many areas, but especially in this case, to work toward standards and rights that will enhance the lives of millions of persons who happen to be disabled.  And, to be very practical, it undermines opportunities for U.S. businesses to grow and thrive as they meet needs in other countries for the equipment and devices that we have developed.  The Chamber of Commerce will not be happy with that oversight!

According to Senator Reid, this is not going away just because certain Right-wing nuts made a poor showing and a poor decision.  The new Senate, with 55 members who will caucus as Democrats, will not only have the opportunity to approve the treaty, but will also have the opportunity to undo the shame brought upon this country by the actions of 38 of the current batch of Senate Republicans.  For your information, and to focus your long-term enmity for the shame they have perpetrated on us all, they include:

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Roy Blunt (R-MO)
John Boozman (R-AR)
Richard Burr (R-NC)
Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
Dan Coats (R-IN)
Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Bob Corker (R-TN)
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Mike Crapo (R-ID)
Jim DeMint (R-SC)
Mike Enzi (R-WY)
Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Dean Heller (R-NV)
John Hoeven (R-ND)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)
James Inhofe (R-OK)
Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
Mike Johanns (R-NE)
Ron Johnson (R-WI)
Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
Mike Lee (R-UT)
Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Jerry Moran (R-KS)
Rand Paul (R-KY)
Rob Portman (R-OH)
Jim Risch (R-ID)
Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
John Thune (R-SD)
Pat Toomey (R-PA)
David Vitter (R-LA)
Roger Wicker (R-MS)

SHAME ON THEM ALL!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The “Fiscal Cliff”

Some Politicians are very adept at inventing phrases to describe particular issues or situations, especially when they prefer not to deal directly with those issues.   Unfortunately, those phrases often do more to hide the real issues than they do to describe them.  Take the phrase “fiscal cliff”, for instance.  While it clearly portrays an approaching crisis and an extreme solution for that crisis, it hides more than it reveals.  For instance, while it illustrates a steep fall we face if we do nothing about fiscal matters like taxes, tax reform, over-spending and on-going issues of government insurance for the elderly and the disabled (misnamed “entitlements”), it clearly does not illustrate the steep climb we face to get back into a balance of disciplined spending, effective regulation of business and labor, and adequate revenue to accomplish what must be accomplished.

Secondly, as is true of our two-party system, the phrase serves to narrow options to too few rather than too many.  Sequestration is certainly a great narrower of options; rigid ideology is a second culprit, and partisanship is a third culprit.  These narrow approaches lead us to fewer and fewer options for acting in a manner that will facilitate a balanced and effective approach to fiscal crisis and help us to climb that steep slope that exists even after a fall over the fiscal cliff. 

One example of a narrow option, that is really not an option, is GOP reluctance to cut the military budget.  Instead, Republicans want to raise it.  Some option!  Not a very smart approach to cutting government spending in a time of “fiscal crisis.”

Some of the narrow choices being ballyhooed include: raising effective or actual tax rates on the rich or cutting deductions for the rich; closing tax “loopholes” (no one has suggested which ones!); cutting or reforming “entitlements“; cutting many governmental “social” programs like food stamps, and returning several programs to the states (like Medicaid).  In addition, there are some who want a “balanced budget” amendment to the constitution to enforce fiscal discipline for all time.  Others talk of certain caps, one on annual spending, another on spending in relation to GDP. 

Of course, there are those who say: just let us all go over the fiscal cliff and then we will be forced to solve our “spending crisis.”  In the meantime, the recession will grow, unemployment will rise, austerity measures will be put in place, and the crisis will have metastasized beyond our ability to resolve it in reasonable ways.

What we need at this juncture is not a phrase that illustrates narrowed options and hidden agendas.  What we need is a vision of where we want to go in terms of principles and goals.  I have some thoughts and suggestions for such an approach, although I must admit that I do not have, nor ever expect to have, all the answers.  I simply want to suggest by this that there is another way to act than by narrowing options.  We must attempt to broaden perspectives and options for action.

1)   Revenue must be increased, not just from taxes, but from closing of tax loopholes: such as hedge fund tax breaks; tax incentives for certain depreciations claimed by businesses; tax breaks and subsidies for big business such as Oil companies. 
2)    No corporation should be able to get away with paying $0 in taxes; there must be a minimum corporate tax and a minimum tax for the richest individuals among us, unless we can actually do away with the very tax breaks that allow corporations and rich individuals not to have to pay at a rate that is reasonable.
3)   All entitlements and tax subsidies must be examined, and reformed or eliminated, depending on their demonstrated outcomes.  According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the federal treasury is losing over $100 billion annually because the wealthy and large corporations are stashing their money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere.  We must pass real tax reform that ends this outrage. 
4)   The military cannot be exempted from budget cuts, but must find ways to eliminate outmoded weapons systems, close unneeded bases, and streamline private contracts based on demonstrated outcomes that are tied to money provided
5)    All three branches of government must be the first to reform, reduce and re-invent before any cuts are made to programs that benefit the middle class.  
Congress, in particular, must eliminate all entitlements that have been granted it through the years such as: special transport and free parking, extra health care by the military that is not available to other citizens, and the automatic cost-of-living increase in their pay, which is now about 3.4 times as much as the average worker earns. Members of Congress are also eligible for two types of retirement plans and a retirement health care plan, all of which are far more generous than benefits typically offered to private-sector workers (one research group estimates that fringe benefits alone are worth about $82,000 per year to a federal legislator).  Finally, Congress must permanently ban legislative earmarks when their temporary ban expires in 2013.  The Executive must consolidate departments and agencies that essentially accomplish similar objectives; the Judiciary must remove special privileges that accrue to them and no one else such as their own police force.  They must also give up lifetime tenure, a luxury at best.
6)    All grants and contracts, including foreign aid, must be based on demonstrated outcomes with monies assigned based on a goal plan to achieve those outcomes; an evaluation and assessment of every grant or contract plan by outside citizens or citizen-based groups could determine whether continued funding is warranted
7)    Citizen audit groups must be assigned to every inspector general’s office, to all congressional offices, to oversee all contracts with outside agencies; charged with reducing costs, assessing outcomes and recommending needed changes to  operations.
8)    All budgets must be based each year on zero-based funding and not on prior year funding.  An inflation rate shall not be included in any budget automatically, but must be justified with corresponding outcomes expected.
9)   Lobbying and lobbyists must face strong restrictions on their activities, and the sooner the better if we are to see needed reductions in the budget.According to USA Today, for every member of Congress, there are about 22 registered lobbyists who donate money, throw fundraisers and manipulate legislation to the benefit of corporations and interest groups.  Some of the most powerful lobbyists are former members of Congress, who form a "shadow Congress" that has more influence over current lawmakers than pressure from voters does.  
10) So-called “entitlements” must be dealt with, but not in the manner that conservatives favor, such as cutting them, privatizing them, or pushing them off to the states.  Government insurance programs are what entitlements happen to be  (rates or premiums are paid in by workers with the expectation that certain benefits and protections will accrue to them, such as social security as retirement insurance; Medicare as health insurance, Medicaid as long term care and disability insurance).  Essentially, the principle that should hold sway here is that these insurances must not be treated as something one must qualify for (entitlement), but as basic governmental insurance against the exigencies of age and disability and long-term care, and the losses that result.  Rather than always discussing means-testing, or age changes or arbitrary taxing rates, perhaps it makes sense to pay more attention to benefits, coverage and life expectancy (actuarial) tables. 

Thus, we have proposed ten principles.  Why must politicians continually narrow options to a few talking points or tired phrases rather than establish overall principles that need to be maintained and honored so that change is not unprincipled, and undisciplined?  Why can’t we solve problems within a framework of principles, goals, and standards that make sense?

After all, budgeting is not simply a matter of crunching numbers.  Too many in Congress believe that “across-the-board” cuts are inevitable, but they are also nonsensical because they don’t deal forthrightly with endemic problems.  Too many in Congress also believe that we can simply impose caps on spending; others believe that we can set an arbitrary cap related to something like the GDP.  Then, of course, there are those who truly believe that a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution will resolve all of our fiscal problems.  It will not; and in fact will create other problems: emergencies will not be able to be met quickly; some programs, such as food stamps, will have to be cut to keep the military budget bloated beyond its capacity.  In fact, a balanced budget amendment can be seen as nothing more than an austerity measure meant to reduce social programs in lieu of  reductions in other areas such as the military.  Crunching numbers - or simple mathematics - is not the best approach to a balanced budget, or to a humane and effective budget, for that matter.

And there’s the rub.  Budgeting is people-enabling; it is institution-supporting; it is problem-solving and need-meeting; it is patriotism personified and made real; it is democracy and representation indemnified.  It is much more than simply putting together pages of numbers that will add up. That is our main problem: that we allow the bamboozlers in Congress and in the media and elsewhere to lead us astray as to what we are talking about when we debate fiscal responsibilities. 

In his message attached to his 2013 Budget proposal, President Obama made clear that it is much more than numbers that he is presenting.  He declared:

“This Budget reflects my deep belief that we must rise to meet this moment--both for our economy and for the millions of Americans who have worked so hard to get ahead.
“We built this Budget around the idea that our country has always done best when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.  It rejects the “you’re on your own” economics that have led to a widening gap between the richest and poorest Americans that undermines both our belief in equal opportunity and the engine of our economic growth.  When the middle class is shrinking and families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down our entire economy. 
“The way to rebuild our economy and strengthen the middle class is to make sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success.”

Now we have heard similar words from our President in other contexts, but in this context, they matter even more than in a political campaign, for instance.  Why?  Because establishing a budget based on principles is much more important than political rhetoric.  It is “putting our money where our mouth is”; it is the equivalent to “walking the walk, not just “talking the talk.”  When money is put behind principle, it changes the dynamic immediately.  For instance, had the Peace Corps not been adequately funded, it would have remained just a seminal and principled idea.

Likewise, when we fail to fund something adequately, such as inspectors of food, or border patrol agents, or regulators of wall street firms or big banks, we reap negative consequences in real time and in real life.  Take the recent example of complaints from Republicans about adequate intelligence being unavailable to us when our embassy in Libya was attacked and four US citizens were killed, including the Ambassador.  It came to light that the people who were criticizing our Intelligence agencies were the very same people who had cut their budgets leading to fewer agents in the field!  You simply can’t have it both ways: you can’t expect adequacy in any area if you are not willing to pay adequately for it!

The same people who rail against entitlements and “welfare programs” (the “welfare state”) are those who support the rich in not having to pay their fair share and who provide welfare to the rich in the form of tax breaks, loopholes and subsidies.  In my opinion, they are the very same ones who reject the idea of budgeting based on positive principles, goals and outcomes.  So let us not be drawn into the narrow categories and rhetoric of the radical Right.  Instead, let us stand where we have always stood:  dedicated to the proposition, paraphrasing Lincoln’s words, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that government of the people, by the people and for the people is that which must not be allowed to perish from the earth.

Translated to today’s budgetary debates, it means using government policies, programs and budgets to enable all people to advance, not just in terms of income, but in terms of opportunity.  It means supporting and lifting up those who are beaten down by life’s exigencies, whether they be physically or mentally disabled or challenged.  It means establishing programs that address the needs of people so that they can not only advance their own cause, but can contribute to the welfare of the nation and of other persons. It means acting as though we are interdependent and mutually responsible for one another; as though we have a contract with each other to enhance other lives as we enhance our own; and not to think of ourselves as somehow more deserving or privileged, or independent from others because we have achieved success.  Success is not just an individual achievement, but an achievement contributed to by many helpful and caring people along the path to that success, even if they are merely clients or customers. 

Elitism is the bane of democracy.  Acquired special privileges are equal to rewards stolen from all those who contributed to success and who remain unrewarded.  Not paying one’s fair share of taxes is equivalent to robbing the poor to compensate the rich.  Castigating union laborers is equivalent to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.  Our Commonweal cannot be sustained if we continue the principle of protecting the rich and successful despite all the obligations that riches place upon them:  “of him to whom much is given, much will be required”. 

Let the principles of shared responsibility prevail; and let the elitism of those who believe in special privileges for the successful be undone.  The “fiscal cliff” is the rhetoric of nay-sayers, the privileged and the uninspired.  It is the invention of the few to bamboozle and frighten the many.  It is a device for holding hostage and subduing government programs for the poor and middle class.  And “Sequestration” is the facile way out of a fiscal responsibility that demands evidence-gathering, reasoning, scientific method and principled planning, as well as some common sense!   It is time to approach budgeting from a new perspective, and that is the perspective of meeting the needs of 98% of the people, rather than accepting the narrow dictates of an elite 2% of the country whose primary concern is their success and their rewards.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

“Citizens United” Undermines Free Speech

“The Court's ruling effectively freed corporations and unions to spend money both on ‘electioneering communications’ and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates (although not to contribute directly to candidates or political parties).” (Wikipedia).

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it is clear that the majority argued that the First Amendment keeps the government from interfering in the "marketplace of ideas" and "rationing" speech, and that it is not up to legislatures or courts to create a sense of "fairness" by restricting speech.  Such hogwash!  Legislatures and courts restrict and regulate speech all the time.  For instance, try planning to foment an action that could be interpreted as terrorism.  Use face book or E-mail to communicate the plan with friends.  The Patriot Act will come into play and you will be arrested.  Try slandering your ex-spouse by calling him a child-abuser.  Will you be liable for slander and will he sue you for slanderous speech?  Is fairness involved?  Of course it is, as there always is in the finding of the courts against a plaintive or defendant in a slander trial, or hate speech trial or false advertising trial.  Try harassing someone by what you say or write. Think you can get away with it by pleading “free speech”?  Not likely. 

Speech is already restricted.  There is no such thing as completely free speech, because some forms of speech can lead to consequences that are criminal.  Take  a perpetrated scam for instance.  Try getting out of that particular criminal behavior by pleading innocence on the basis of free speech.  Think you can say anything you want to, even though it might harm someone else?  Think again.  You can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater if there is none. You can’t slander someone; you can’t scam someone; you can’t claim something for a product or a service that is patently false as in “false advertising.”  Try speaking malevolently about a group of people such as gay persons, or about an ethnic group such as Afro-Americans.  Hate speech is now restricted and penalties are in place.  Try malevolent speech aimed at harming a politician or an office-holder; you will risk being arrested even though you actually never carry out your threats. 

Oh, and try speaking on-line in any way you choose.  There are many websites that do not allow “inappropriate speech” and you risk being disengaged from that site if you insist on violating their restrictions or are reported as doing so.  Free speech?  I’m sorry.  Your free speech ends at the point where it impinges on someone else’s life in a harmful or distorted or abusive way.  “Free” speech is not unlimited speech or  unrestrained speech.  Justice and fairness are always being judged by legislatures and courts.  To say otherwise is simply fantasy.  And, the Supreme Court conservatives are full of such fantasy judgments.

The conservative majority challenged the reasoning in Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce  that the "distorting effect" of large corporate expenditures constituted a risk of corruption or the appearance of corruption. Rather, the conservative majority argued that the government has no place in determining whether large expenditures distorted an audience's perceptions, and that the type of "corruption" that might justify government controls on spending for speech had to relate to some form of "quid pro quo" transaction: "There is no such thing as too much speech."  Justice Stevens in his dissent argued that independent expenditures were sometimes a factor in gaining political access and concluded that large independent expenditures generate more influence than direct campaign contributions. Furthermore, Stevens argued that corporations could threaten Representatives and Senators with negative advertising to gain unprecedented leverage.

The conservative Justices apparently do not live in the modern world.  To even say that corporate expenditures do not have a risk of corruption or even the appearance of corruption is to believe that corporate money does not have a distorting power at all.  Yet, take a look at corporate advertising in TV commercials particularly.  TV commercials are rampant with psychological gambits that distort reality.  They are rife with claims that cannot be substantiated.  They are meant to persuade and cajole the viewer into a state of belief in what they are selling; what they fear most is that the viewer will not accept the corporate “pitch”.  TV commercials are intended to distort one’s own reality into the reality of the corporation doing the advertising.  They cajole, they distort, they lie, they pander, they tend to “corrupt” one’s own beliefs and principles and actions if they can in order to sell their service or their product.  One might even go so far as to say that corporate speech is all about corruption in the broadest sense:  a corrupting influence.  Corporate ads tend to influence one toward acceptance of a distortion of one’s reality in order to be able to sell us a product or a philosophy or a way of living.

Take cigarette advertising from our recent past.  It tried to make you want to smoke, not by lauding the contents of the cigarettes, but by distorting your own view of reality.  The tobacco industry sold much more than cigarettes; they sold a style of life; they sold sophistication; they sold a distorted reality that one could be considered to be like the Marlboro Man; they sold the idea that smoking was healthy and showed smoking doctors to prove it.  Cigarette advertisements, and their progenitors, were the epitome of distortion and corruption.  My mother died at age 52 from a cerebral hemorrhage because her life and her beliefs were corrupted and distorted by the tobacco industry.  She knew tobacco was not her friend; that it was contributing to her ill health.  But she still sent me to the store for a carton of cigarettes whenever she was running low (two packs left in the old carton).  She was addicted to tobacco because the industry sold her the lie that smoking was not injurious to health.  The conservative Supreme Court Justices have perhaps forgotten the corrupting influences of the tobacco industry who kept Congress, state legislatures, and even the courts “in line” with their lies and distortions by spending great amounts of corporate lobbying money until finally it all came to a conclusion that could no longer be hidden or ignored:  too many were dying of smoking-related causes, and scientific reality caught up to distorted reality.  

But somehow the conservative Justices missed the boat by arguing that corporate money does not corrupt the market place of ideas, or that governments should not decide whether large expenditures of money by corporations distort an audience’s perception, or that only a “quid pro quo” constitutes corruption, or that there is no such thing as too much speech.  Too bad they forgot all the legislation that resulted from the lies and distortions by the tobacco industry.  Too bad they forgot all the court decisions that shot down laws made under the influence of tobacco industry lobbying money that distorted reality.  Too bad they forgot the summary judgments issued by the courts against the tobacco companies for their lies and distortions.  Too much free and unfettered speech by means of corporate lobbying is worse than “quid pro quo” because it goes to the corruption of reality, beliefs and principles of sound living.  Free and unfettered speech can destroy as well as preserve or innovate.  It is the mission of the legislatures and the Courts to determine which is which, as they finally did with the curtailing of false advertising by Big Tobacco. 

Fortunately, Justice Stevens in dissent reminds us of the nature of corporations.  Stevens argued that the unique qualities of corporations and other artificial legal entities made them dangerous to democratic elections. These legal entities, he argued, have perpetual life, the ability to amass large sums of money, limited liability, no ability to vote, no morality, no purpose outside of profit-making, and no loyalty. Therefore, he argued, the courts should permit legislatures to regulate corporate participation in the political process.  Hooray for Justice Stevens!

The conservative judges also asserted that the public has a right to have access to all information and to determine the reliability and importance of that information. Additionally, the majority did not believe that reliable evidence substantiated the risk of corruption or the appearance of corruption.  What fools these mortals be!  Reliable evidence and information is not what corporations are peddling.  Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Whatever are not in the business of providing reliable evidence so that the public can make informed decisions.  In fact, the “Bigs” do not want the public to be well-informed lest they make decisions that do not turn a profit. 

Natural gas extraction from the earth is now a major issue because Big Energy sees big dollar signs whenever they discover more shale deposits from which they can draw natural gas.  Unfortunately, the process by which that gas is being extracted (“hydro-fracking”) has not been proven to be environmentally safe for the people who live on the affected lands.  The chemicals used in the extraction process are potentially hazardous to drinking water, land use, and human consumption of produce grown near those fracking sites.  Are the corporations involved providing all the information necessary for the public to make a decision about hydro-fracking?  Not on your life.  They are instead using corporate money to lobby for drilling rights, to promote hydro-fracking as a safe procedure, to distort the results of studies of the effects of such extraction, and above all to convince the public that job-creation is more important than environmental safety. 

The corrupting influence of the Natural Gas companies is reminiscent of Big Tobacco, but more so of the Chemical company involved in the Love Canal debacle of decades past (1970s) when a local newspaper brought to light that a 36 square-block area of  the city of Niagara Falls was contaminated with 21,000 tons of toxic waste buried underground by Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation) in the 1950s.  Liability for the toxicity was denied by Hooker Chemical until the deaths and birth defects became overwhelming enough to spur real investigations and a finding of negligence and the settlement of subsequent lawsuits brought by individuals.

The corrupting influence of corporate speech begins with the distortion of information, not with a quid pro quo.  That is what the Justices missed.  They themselves distorted the issues in this case in order to protect the coercive and blatantly distorted speech of the corporations.  There is no such thing as undistorted speech from corporations that deal in profits, selling, and marketing.  Distortion is their bread and butter.  It is how they get us to buy, and to feel good about spending our hard-earned dollars.  The conservative Justices are naïve in their belief that there is no corruption or appearance of corruption when distortion and coercion are at the heart of corporate speech and influence. And why is that?  Justice Stevens in dissent alludes to the reason:  corporate spending on politics should be viewed as a business transaction designed by the officers or the boards of directors for no purpose other than profit-making. Stevens called corporate spending "more transactional than ideological".

Apparently, the majority opinion also relied heavily on the reasoning and principles of the landmark campaign finance cases of Buckley and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, in which the Court struck down a broad prohibition against independent expenditures by corporations in ballot initiatives and referenda. The majority argued that to grant First Amendment protections to media corporations but not others presented a host of problems, and so they concluded that all corporations should be equally protected from expenditure restrictions. 

And now, we all are bearing the consequences of the decision of the five conservative Justices.  We now have unrestricted third-party political advertisements by corporations and individuals through the advent of Super PACs.  Unfortunately, those advertisements are not meant to support a particular candidate or a particular issue, but are overwhelmingly negative in nature, meant to distort one’s view of whatever issue or candidate the donor opposes.  These advertisements follow a pattern of distortion, misleading and false information, outright lies, and innuendo.  They are not in any way constructive.  They are a form of corruption.  That is, they distort the process of sorting out the best candidates; they distort the character of the opposition, and most of all they are secretive.  There is no requirement that the perpetrators of such ads must come forth to approve the ads or to reveal their intent, or even to say who is funding them.  One of the aspects of “secretiveness” is that of concealment; another is that of “not open”.  The majority of Justices has willingly consented to a falsity, a covering-up, a reduction of the amount of information that they said would contribute to the public being able to make informed decisions.  So here they are contradicting themselves, and providing the very means by which corruption can take place. 

In spite of the Justices’ decision, corruption is not the main problem.  The main problem with the free political speech granted to corporations (as individuals) is that their ability to spend enormous amounts of money on political advertising is a distortion, and indeed a corruption, of the right of other individuals to an equal quantity of free speech, and to the equity of one‘s vote.  By granting free speech rights to corporations, and allowing them to spend unlimited amounts of money, the Supreme Court has unwittingly distorted and minimized the free speech of all those who cannot afford to equal those expenditures.  In other words, the Court has given an enormous advantage to the rich that is not available to others.  They have distorted the electoral process so that “one man, one vote” no longer has meaning.  It is now one substantial corporation or rich person against whom only a huge association of other persons can stand.  Our speech, our voices, our political clout has been undermined by a Court decision that by its very nature, introduces inequity into the electoral process.      

The conservative wing of the SCOTUS missed the point of this in more ways than one.  They said that corporate spending was not corruptive.  They claimed it does not even approach the level of the appearance of corruption.  But the very nature of corporate advertising is to distort and corrupt.  The justices said that we should have all the information we need to make political judgments, but they missed the point that corporations tend to limit the amount of information provided the public so that the public can be lured into their reality.  The five conservative Justices unwittingly allowed secretiveness to conceal, not only truth, but the perpetrators of negative and false advertising about candidates and issues.  They thus introduced into the electoral process the very thing they had touted: the concealment of substantive information from the public. 

In my opinion, Citizens United is not just a bad decision; it is a corrupting decision because it distorts the electoral process and destroys the one person, one vote principle.  Ill-conceived is too polite a phrase for this failure to understand the coercive power of money, and the corrupting influence it has on our electoral process.  Citizens United must be over-turned!