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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Comfort or Discomfort -- that is the question

“Comfort” is one of those words that has lost its basic meaning; in fact, one could make a case that it is a word that has been reversed in terms of its meaning.  How do you think of comfort?  Are you looking for a comfortable life, a comfortable home, a comfortable and unperturbed existence?  That question is a clue to the definition that has come to be common usage of the word “comfort.”  Let’s look at what the (New World) dictionary offers:

The overarching definition is that of the “soothing of distress, the easing of misery or grief; consolation; a state of ease and quiet enjoyment, free from worry and pain; anything that makes life easy or comfortable.”  I daresay that this captures what most people think comfort means.  In fact, it is sought by most of us at one time or another.  No one is immune to desiring a bit of consolation, ease or freedom from worry.  It’s a part of life.
Unfortunately, the seeking of comfort for oneself can cross a line sometimes.  It happens when some individual or group attempts to foment the concept that comfort is not meant for the many but for just a few.

I submit to you that too many conservative Republicans seem to have little or no trouble with crossing this line.  Or should I say, they take pleasure in denying comfort to others who, in their eyes, apparently do not deserve it.  Somehow, the Republican Party and the rich sponsors who support that Party, have a basic misconception that there is some sort of standard that people must meet in order to be eligible for a bit of consolation or ease.  And so, under their wrong-headed conceptions and perceptions, there are certain people in this nation who deserve to partake of comfort whenever they can, and others who do not.  This Party keeps fighting to keep it that way, as is evident from several of their policies:
  • They believe that the rich deserve the comfort of low, low taxes and they accomplish the same not only by cutting the taxes of the 1%, but by constructing a number of tax breaks and loopholes in the tax code so that they can acquire their comfort by avoiding the payment of their full tax through subsidies, incentives and loopholes that target certain groups, corporations or individuals.  They assure the comfort of their sponsors and resource givers by making sure that corporations are given special privileges not given to the rest of us, like helping to write laws and regulations that affect them or their businesses directly or indirectly. 
  • But, that’s not all. They have acted legislatively and judicially to make sure that the rest of us do not enjoy such privileges.  Example: their misguided opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and all attempts to repeal that Act, which would negatively impact over 8 million of underinsured and uninsured folks who have finally gotten coverage of their health care through the improved insurance plans available to them. 
  • And then there is that opposition to anything that smacks of gaining of civil rights for people they regard as “unworthy”:  all those minorities; all those illegal immigrants, all those  people that are homosexual or transgender; all those “below” them in education, resources and influence, to say nothing of power.
  • One of their most burdensome actions is the withholding of support for, and the actual destruction of, anything that has to do with providing free help to those just mentioned.  They want to destroy all vestiges of the Great Society and the New Deal for a very good reason in their minds – this is a handout, a program of welfare that smells like socialism to them because it re-distributes their riches to the poorest, and their resources to those who are not able to stand on their own (which they abhor) supposedly because of some kind of “lower class inferiority.”   
  • And thus, they are involved every day, it seems, in ways to cut unearned benefits (entitlements, they are called) to the lower classes.  But wait a minute.  At the same time that they object to “welfare for the poor” (or breaks for the middle class), they themselves are taking advantage of “welfare for the rich” through all those loopholes and provisions that I have mentioned in the Tax Code.   The billions they receive in this ingenious unfettered way are far beyond what the poor receive in special programs like Food Stamps or WIC or TANF.  
 It is important to make the point at this juncture that this situation is growing more and more uncomfortable, as the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  What’s more, with the removal of opportunities to enjoy a little comfort and ease, the likelihood of moving “up the ladder” to a more comfortable existence is becoming a dream of the past for the poor and even those of the middle class.  The agency Oxfam reports that the gap between rich and poor is widening throughout the world and that the richest 1% in the world will soon own more than 60% of the wealth that exists. 

Again, it is imperative that we recognize that comfort and ease is not necessarily bad, but those who step over a line to prevent others from an equal opportunity toward that goal are dangerous people because they believe that only they, and a few of their peers, are entitled to the perks of living in comfort.  When they move from that perception to prevent others from realizing their highest potential, they have crossed over into attacking and belittling and destroying the hopes and dreams of others.  Their policies and actions become unacceptable and unconscionable.

I know Republicans and their sponsors defend their world view and their policies by saying that it is not fair to have to turn over part of their hard-earned wealth to the government which then passes it on to people who do not necessarily deserve to receive their help.  Besides,  as perceived by them, government and its bureaucracy wastes much of this tax money going into these programs through inefficiency and ineptitude.  Once again, they ignore the equal inefficiency of their own private corporations and businesses, demonstrated by Enron, BP, Blackwater, too-big-to-fail banks and a myriad of corporations that seem unable to provide adequate products or services.  And, in case you have forgotten, there are many inefficient private businesses taking contract money from our government who neither fulfill their contracts, nor do an adequate job if they do finish it.  Take for instance the private company contracted to oversee the production and operation of the federal healthcare internet site.  They blew it big time and then had the gall to blame it on the national government and on President Obama.  Pure bamboozle! 

What these legislators and their rich sponsors have forgotten, and thrown aside, is the contract theory of government which says that we are all responsible for the welfare of others, and that this societal contract includes the responsible distribution of wealth to all because otherwise the body politic cannot function as it should as a source of strength for all its citizens.  Part of this is the sense that no one has the right to claim all profit for himself alone; the sweat and labor and consumerism of all is involved, as all contribute to the wealth of successful businesses and their owners.  Few owners reach a level of comfort and ease by themselves; they have depended upon, and received support from, the public.  Giving back to that public is the price of success, comfort and ease.  No it’s not socialism; it’s a social contract, going back to philosopher John Locke.

And that brings us to another definition for comfort; a definition that goes back to its Latin roots.  It has to do with strengthening, and in fact, translates something like “strengthen much” or “strengthen with.”  Part of it is to help or aid, not to exploit or make dependent, but in order to give encouragement; to inspire hope.  One is forced to ask: I wonder how many people even know that is a definition?  It changes the whole concept and thrust of this word “comfort,” just as it can change the concept of who deserves comfort and why wealth must be distributed. 

As a society, as a united states, as a commonwealth, we are embarked on the comforting, that is – the strengthening – the encouraging – the inspiring – of all of our people.  That is what government social programs should aim to do.  They are not simply programs of consolation and easing; this is a project of giving people aid as encouragement and an inspiration of hope through opportunities in order that they too can enjoy the rewards and the responsibilities of citizenship.  The rich are not just giving money away, they are investing in the future and the success of our common endeavor, in order to know that no one has been left behind.  Because we have failed to understand the real purpose of government programs for those who are at risk we have failed to nurture leadership, intelligence, investment, innovation and success among certain societal groups.  Because we believe mainly in the wrong kind of comfort, we have failed to achieve the kind of representative democracy that we thought we had produced. 

The Right Wing has put us on the wrong track over and over again throughout our history, only to find that we have not gained from the losses and the regressions, but have fallen backward into a position that requires a sea change in order to progress.

That is what Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to bear on our country – a fundamental change: a strengthening of our people and our democracy.  Those who want us to return to the days before civil rights and voting rights legislation are leading us down a path that is destructive of government, of people, of capitalism, of our influence in a world where many still see us as hypocritical and judgmental, and even as the “Great Satan.”   MLK preached and acted out a paradigm of comfort that was and is not acceptable to many.  He wanted to bring hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak-hearted, inspiration to the down-trodden.  But he did it in a way that demonstrated for equal rights: in education, jobs, and voting; for the opportunity to be judged by one’s character and not by the color of one’s skin.  In fact, he was looking for opportunities for all people, but was fighting specifically for the rights and opportunities for those people of color who had been denied for so long.

We are now engaged in a regression in voting rights and equal opportunity that threatens to destroy all that MLK fought for, and all for which LBJ stood his ground. We are being led to believe that we are coddling the poor and weakening our democracy.  We are being led to believe that there are some who don’t deserve comfort in terms of opportunity and inspiration.  There are some who believe that an Elite of successful, educated, wealthy people should lead this country and make all of our decisions for us.  They pass legislation to protect the wealthy and the banks and the oil companies and the financiers of Wall Street, but they rail and rant against anyone who suggests that everyone should be covered by a healthcare plan, or have opportunity to attend a progressive and well-funded school, to not have to mortgage one’s future in order to pay for college.  They rail against a higher minimum wage, or equal pay for women, or against anything that would strengthen our middle class or poorer folks.  They deny us legislation to create jobs, rejuvenate our infrastructure, or build high speed rail.  They also deny the science that says the earth is getting warmer, and that gases and deposits from our human endeavors are polluting our air and water.  They deny global warming and the need for us to move to alternative energy sources and away from fossil fuels. 

Their kind of comfort – that of ease and convenience and consumption – is not our kind of comfort.  In fact, at this time, it is apparent that what is needed is what Dr. King used to promote:  non-violent demonstrations against those who intend to do us harm, in order to arouse them from their comfortable, somnambulant lives and to forge forces against their control, their power, their status quo.  We face the reality of oligarchy and the trickle-down economy.  Most likely, we will face a steady erosion of all of the things I have mentioned that tend to strengthen and inspire hope. 

In order to be a viable democracy, we cannot take comfort (either “consolation” or “strength”) in:

§  constant harassment of young Black males by police, or anyone else for that matter

§  incarceration of young Black and Hispanic men (mostly) who are receiving sentences for non-violent crimes that far outweigh their offenses, and then

§  continuing to burden ex-felons who have served their time with their offense throughout the rest of their lives, instead of giving them some “comfort” in knowing that they have paid their debt and that they are free to vote and hold a good job and apply for credit, and do all that is necessary to begin a new life

§  ignoring the voices and concerns of particular groups of citizens, and forcing them to find other ways (sometimes unlawful ways) to earn a living or to demonstrate their frustration with the system that oppresses their needs and desires

§  overlooking the special needs of those in poverty or those with disabilities or those with wounds that were acquired in service to their country

§  promoting unequal justice, as when white collar crime on Wall Street goes unpunished, but selling contraband cigarettes on the street in Staten Island is considered a major offense punishable by being choked to death, or stealing some cigars in Ferguson, MO is punishable by being shot to death

Moreover, in a more general context, we cannot expect our system of democracy to function in a credible or inspirational (“comforting?”) manner when we allow:

§  voting rights to be curtailed and restrictions imposed on voting

§  full employment to be a dream and not a reality because we want only the private sector to “create jobs” not government

§  when we cannot bring ourselves to offer universal health care coverage for every citizen as a right rather than a privilege controlled by the private sector

§  when we abuse and neglect the needs of all children for quality pre-natal care, good day care, universal pre-K for a Head Start in life, a quality secondary education in a good school with excellent teachers, and a free college education or at least two years free beyond high school; but we also neglect them when we do not pass legislation that controls gun violence or that which controls violence in schools and universities, such as sexual harassment and rape of girls and women

§  the deterioration of the care of the elderly in facilities that are meant to turn a profit rather than to provide dignity and strength to individuals

§  the deterioration of care and nurturing of our veterans of the armed forces who serve and then come home to neglect of their needs for mental health, physical rehabilitation and re-entry/job training

§  and so much more……

Comforting as it may be to the Plutocracy that now controls this nation, there is little comfort in the fact that the needs and rights of so many of our citizens are being subsumed under the rubric of “conservative values”, when what is clear is that the general welfare of too many people is being ignored, neglected and even undermined by Representatives who do not focus on The People, but on wealthy sponsors who help to assure incumbent re-election.  “Comfort” as strength and inspiration and aid is being overwhelmed by a comfort for the few who are rich and powerful.  This is not what we were meant to be.  This is not what we should be.  This is not what we should allow. 

The time has come to measure our success in terms of the strength, inspiration and hope that we can provide all our people, not in the austerity, restrictions and abusive neglect that clearly are the measures being used by radical Republicans.  The discomfort being forced upon us must be used as the catalyst for the weakening and ultimate rejection of the protectors of the elitist few who want to maintain the non-representative system they have been building over the past three decades.