Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Giving Up on the News

My husband watches both the local and national news on television every day.  I stopped watching it a long time ago. Yet we're both news junkies. 

We both read two local newspapers, the New York Times online, and the Economist magazine, not to mention dozens of articles suggested by Twitter, Facebook and email friends. We do care about our community, the US and the world. We often watch Bill Moyers' Journal, Rachel Maddow and Fareed Zakaria. Okay, and we watch Jon Stewart.

But how does one find out what's actually happening around the world? Here's a quiz that asks things your news source probably hasn't covered. I can tell you that mine didn't. Click the link and take the quiz to see what I mean.

There's a reason why journalism gets such a bad rap today and why news sources in general, from television to newspaper, are taking a hit. Here's what local and national TV news have to offer viewers:
  • Someone was killed.
  • Someone shot up a place.
  • There was a flood, fire, earthquake or hurricane.
  • Some celebrity got in trouble.
  • A spectacular car, plane or train crash.
  • A criminal trial that goes on and on.
  • There was an election. There were winners and losers.
  • There was a poll. And another poll.
  • There's a new Coke or a new color of M&Ms.
  • A politician made an assertion (that was not fact-checked).
  • There will be weather.
Other than the last one, none of these (unless I live in the area of the flood, fire, earthquake or hurricane) informs me of anything I need to know. None of our news sources informed us of the important developments in the Gapminder Test.

When I taught social studies, I did not teach "current events". I focused instead on "current issues", those ongoing concerns that were shaping our world. An event happens, dominates the news for a day or more, and is replaced by the next event. If it's a violent event, it makes us subconsciously more fearful and suspicious of others. Not a helpful thing. An issue though informs us on a whole different level. We might learn how incarceration rates have skyrocketed since the War on Drugs and Three Strikes laws. We might learn about the struggles to survive in Gaza under the embargoes. Instead, we see footage of a missile strike and the damage it causes without any awareness of the underlying situation.

I get discouraged that tabloids and celebrity rags have displaced news magazines in checkout lines. I get discouraged when so many Americans can quote headlines but don't seem to know any background. I get discouraged when politicians or campaign ads are able to state the most outrageous lies and actually influence thought. 

When I was a kid, my parents tuned in to Walter Cronkite every evening and subscribed to the newspaper. My father was a news junkie and read as many as five different newspapers daily. Trying to keep up with him was impossible but he was my role model for staying informed.

Today my license plate advertises BE N4MD. 

To do so, you have to work a little to locate reliable news sources. Please?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Getting Real

We liberals get so frustrated that others don't see what to us is a key truth: while the left blames billionaires and powerful corporations for corrupting politics and undermining progress, the right distracts us by ridiculing the poor, minorities, women and the unemployed. We are outraged at the role of money in politics and the corruption it brings. We shout about the Koch brothers and their influence. In return we hear that there are equally powerful campaign donors on the left (George Soros, Hollywood celebrities and who else?) and that working people are tired of "the takers" who expect others to pay for their healthcare, daycare, groceries and housing. We on the left are more concerned with "the takers" on Wall Street and those who vacation on the Riviera than the ones sleeping on the streets in Compton.

Seems that this stalemate could benefit from a little additional reality. Don't you ever wonder how costs might compare between social and environmental programs versus expenditures that benefit particular multinationals or the military? Well, I did. Here's what it looks like. Links are provided for the fact-checkers among you.

Cost of…
Compared to cost of…
Food stamps
Foreign tax credits (2/3 manufacturing)
Medicaid for 49 million Americans
$283 billion
Iraq War (2003-2010)
Infrastructure investments proposed by President Obama
Offshore corporate tax loopholes for just TWO well-known companies (Apple and Microsoft)
Pell Grants for needy college students
Doubling of incarceration rates since 1990 (rates per 100,000 people)
Cuts in education spending
Carried interest special tax breaks for banks
Non-military foreign aid
Oil industry subsidies
Total state spending for public colleges
Afghanistan War (2001-2014)
Federal funding for mass transit
Big agribusiness subsidies (90% to top 10 agribusinesses)
Cost to increase wind power to 20% of total electrical needs (now at 4%)
Federal payments to for-profit colleges
$32 billion (2011)
TANF (formerly Welfare) for 4.3 million needy Americans
CIA budget growth in past 15 years
US contribution to all United Nations programs
$3.4 billion
Tax shields for Wall Street banks for risky derivatives
Difference between what Social Security takes in and pays out annually (not including savings of $2,873 billion in the reserve fund)
$28 billion
Social Security revenue lost because of the $107,000 cap

So for my conservative friends, this is why we think our nation could do a better job of building infrastructure, investing in education, averting disastrous climate change and protecting the health and welfare of our most vulnerable. I for one can't see much benefit for you or me from anything on the right side of the chart above but can get much more excited about maintaining or improving the programs on the left.

So can we talk about real possibilities now?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Annoying our Facebook Friends

What is Facebook for?  It seems different for each of my friends. Basically it's either for lurking or sharing the things we do.  As in...
  • People with kids post pictures and stories about them.
  • Animal lovers share favorite animal videos.
  • Friends on vacation share what they're doing and seeing.
  • Talented friends who do photography share that.
  • Those who enjoy youtube videos share some of their favorites.
  • People who like their own faces take lots of selfies.
  • Doing a remodel? Share the photos.
  • Enjoy eating out? Share pictures of your food.
  • Cooks share favorite recipes.
  • Crafters share their finished works.
I enjoy all of that. Please keep sharing with me. 

But while photographers, hikers, parents, cooks and music lovers are welcome to share glimpses into their lives, there is one group whose avocation is unwelcome.   If you don't like what this group (including me) shares, you need only hide our posts or unfriend us. Because after all, we are incorrigible. Like the grandparent who knows her grandkids are the cutest and the photographer who snaps a great shot, we like to share too.

Every few months, I read that Facebook is not for sharing what I mostly share. It's not for...politics. If the world's developments are your passion, if reading the news is your avocation, if researching what's happening with the environment, in Washington, the Ukraine or Gaza is your shtick, don't share.

Sadly for my FB friends, I still do. In a democracy, particularly in one where so few seem interested in the larger world or are barraged with the nonsense that passes for news these days, I am interested in sharing some of what I find. And I'm interested in what you think about it, especially if you disagree with me. 

Let's be civil and respectful to each other. But by all means, in any exchanges between people, the larger world has a place. 

If we don't talk about politics and only want to think about it around election time, is that healthy? When my smart, knowledgeable friends who disagree with me challenge my assumptions, I dig deeper and I learn more. I need them and I hope they gain too.

I don't condone the posts that insult the other side or spread misinformation (like the picture during the government shutdown of a plane covering up Mt. Rushmore). But even those, once posted, can be challenged by the doubters in your friends group. 

Today's rant and enough.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Refugee Responsibility

The discussion so far about thousands of child refugees from violence-torn Central America has failed to distinguish between refugees and undocumented (illegal) immigrants.  I've seen little from the media, from Washington politicians or even from the Obama administration acknowledging there might actually be something distinct about "refugees".

Lest we think of refugees merely as numbers, here are a few prominent refugees you may recognize:

Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State. Refugee from the Czech Republic in 1948.
Isabel Allende, novelist. Refugee from Chile in 1973.
Hannah Arendt, philosopher. Refugee from Germany in 1941.
Bela Bartok, composer. Refugee from Hungary in 1940.
Charlie Chaplin, actor. Refugee from US in 1952.
Frederic Chopin, composer. Refugee from Poland in 1831.
Marlene Dietrich, actress. Refugee from Germany in 1939.
Albert Einstein, scientist. Refugee from Germany in 1932.
Victor Hugo, writer. Refugee from France in 1851.
Peter Lorre, actor. Refugee from Czech Republic in 1933.
Miriam Makeba, singer. Refugee from South Africa in 1950s.
Thomas Mann, philosopher. Refugee from Germany in 1933.
Vladimir Nabokov, novelist. Refugee from Russia in 1919.
Rudolf Nureyev, ballet dancer. Refugee from Russia.
Otto Preminger, movie director. Refugee from Austria in 1935.
Edward Said, philosopher. Refugee from Palestine in 1948.
Edward Snowden, intelligence worker. Refugee to Russia in 2013.
Sitting Bull, Sioux chief. Refugee to Canada in 1876.
Leon Trotsky, political philosopher. Refugee from Russia in 1929.
Maria Von Trapp, subject of Sound of Music film. Refugee from Austria in 1938.

In the words of Maria Von Trapp,
"Overnight we had become really poor; we had become refugees. A refugee not only has no country, he also has no rights. He is a displaced person. At times he feels like a parcel which has been mailed and is moved from place to place."
Source: UNHCR
I got just a glimpse of what it's like to be a refugee several years ago. I was on a train travelling from France to Switzerland with my brother-in-law. Ali is a political refugee from Iran, once a high official who had to flee for his life. He did not live in a refugee camp or have to worry about food, clean water or disease as many do. In fact, he lived in a quiet Paris apartment.  He is a man without country and holds a UNHCR passport. As we approached the Swiss border, guards entered each car, checking passports and interviewing passengers.  I showed my American passport and was treated with great respect, perhaps even deference. My interview was quite brief. Ali showed his refugee passport and was subjected to extensive interrogation. His briefcase and suitcase were opened and every item (underwear, prayer beads, papers) removed and thoroughly examined. The tone of the interrogation was harsh and intimidating, juxtaposed against my own. Without a nation-state to stand up for his rights, Ali was subject to every humiliation.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that there are now over fifty million refugees around the world, more than at any time since World War II. Refugees fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and the Congo flood neighboring states, creating humanitarian crises wherever they go. Providing shelter, clean water, food, medical care and other infrastructure has become an international responsibility. 

Today, Lebanon hosts over a million Syrian refugees, one fourth of the Lebanese population.  Jordan, Turkey and Iraq also share in the burden of caring for the three million who have fled that civil war.  Russia however has sent back Syrians who have sought asylum there, violating the international rules against returning refugees to danger in their native countries. But Russia is an ally of the Assad regime and turns its back on those who flee Assad. (source)

Sadly, the US and Russia share this selective ambivalence about families fleeing friendly regimes. Think about the major waves of refugees to the United States: those fleeing Castro's Cuba in the 60s, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam in the 70s, Khomeini's Iran in the 80s. During the Cold War, the US gave preferential status to those fleeing communist countries.  

"...embodied in the permanent amendment of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which established a preference class for those who “because of persecution or fear of persecution . . . have fled from any Communist or Communist-dominated country or area, or from any country within the general area of the Middle East.” From the mid-1950s through 1979, less than one-third of 1 percent of refugee admissions were from noncommunist countries, and as late as 1987, 85 percent of refugees were from the communist countries of Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Poland, Russia, and Romania."(source)
There are many oppressive regimes that are not communist, of course.  Shah Pahlavi and his murderous SAVAK were overthrown in Iran in 1979 because of their brutality and corruption. But the Shah was our ally and we did not admit refugees from his Iran. When Khomeini's followers overthrew him however, Iranian refugees were welcomed.

So today we have thousands of women and children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They arrive in our southern states with no resources, no money and no high-ranking friends. They claim refugee status based on the brutality from criminal gangs, as compared to international refugee definitions focused on danger from war or one's own government. Whether or not they are granted refugee status, there is no question that they deserve humane treatment and compassion, unfortunately not what met them here recently.

In the United States, we have a quota established for how many asylum-seekers and from where we will accept for resettlement. But we do not accept emergency refugees, those fleeing warfare and danger in their countries but who would likely return when it becomes safer. Unless we have a potential political advantage for accepting refugees, we turn away. This was most notable in 1939 when the St. Louis, a ship carrying 1000 Jewish refugees from Germany, was turned back from the port of New York. Many of those onboard later died in concentration camps.

The United Nations is urging the US to consider these children as refugees, not migrants. Mexico has already expanded its definition of refugees to include all those fleeing systemic violence.  Yet neither Congress nor the Obama Administration appears sympathetic to the plight of these children. Both are pushing to expedite their return to war-torn Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. 

It's time for a more mature approach to asylum, refugees and immigration. Let's stop demonizing anyone not born in the US and weigh actual facts, not populist fears, when looking at policy. Escalating deportations, higher fences, armed border patrols, and intimidation do not become the world's oldest democracy.

See also: 11 Scary Charts