Saturday, March 23, 2013

Members of the Club

George Bernard Shaw, in his fabulous book, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism," gives many wonderful answers as to the causes of economic inequality and illuminates many of the conundrums of human nature. One such conundrum is how, in a glaringly unequal society like the United States, so many people do not do what they can to make it less unequal. Shaw points out that many people, in the employ of the 1%, do not want to bite the hands that feed them.

The doorman, for instance, doesn't want to take his grievances to the owner of the luxury hotel, both because he fears for his job and, secondly, because he is persuaded by the argument that, even if the owner makes hugely more than his staff, he still is the employer, and his profits trickle down to the doorman. This necessarily brings up how labor unions act to level the playing field and exact a better deal from the employer. Owners, however, have been very successful in persuading many, if not most, workers that they are better off without a union to even the score.

They do this in a variety of ways: by buying off or firing key employees who could be organizers, by using propaganda to convince workers either that company profits are not sufficient for a raise, or that the owner will move or close the company, or by taking advantage of internal union strife to turn one worker against another. Then there's an even more insidious way to co-opt the union: by convincing union leadership that their financial security depends on the oppressive and exploitative system itself. That's easy to see when it comes to the management of employee pensions.

Should pension funds be invested in the banks which wrecked the economy and relentlessly squeeze or ordinary credit card or checking account customer, or should those funds go into socially responsible investments? The employer says no -- socially responsible investments won't generate as much of a return as an investment in Chase (where I bank) or Exxon/Mobil. Why not? Just trust me, they won't. This big lie -- that exploitative companies are better money makers than socially responsible ones -- is at the heart of the oppression of the 99%. Their pension, savings, and mutual fund accounts could be used to make investments in firms that are making money off renewable energy, using the internet to create jobs and opportunity, or making scientific advances to promote human welfare. Yet the investment advisers retained by the large union and municipal employee funds are not eager to shift funds into these types of firms.

To progressively invest is to check out of the exclusive club of the 1%. Just as the doorman doesn't really want to challenge the owner of the luxury hotel, the union members and their representatives don't really want to go up to the big investment advisers and question their investment strategies. We haven't seen any big pension funds following the lead of the college students who are getting their schools to divest from fossil fuel companies in the name of stopping global warming. I'm sure those colleges are finding safe havens for their cash. It's time for unions to do the same, and leave the cozy clubhouse where they may be tolerated, but are certainly laughed at once they leave the room.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Full-Throttle Schools

Schools are for functional kids. For the non-functional, other approaches must be tried.

Functional kids are like functional cars: they run, they get on the road, and they negotiate the terrain of life. They may not all run with the same speed or energy efficiency, but they run. This is analogous to the students who are preparing to become adult citizens. Like the cars in the analogy, they are being equipped to meet fundamental standards: they must know how to read, write, do basic math, engage in critical thinking, have an awareness of science and the environment, and of our history and civic institutions. How well they can do beyond these basic standards is analogous to whether a car can meet new and rigorous environmental and safety standards. Some may, others may not. But they all have a right to be on the road.

Just as car manufacturers want to improve the quality and efficiency of their products, so educators want to improve the quality of their students' educations. So they set certain standards, hoping to gradually improve the quality of learning as time goes on.

But this is where the analogy breaks down. Because students are living, conscious beings. Unlike cars, they must be allowed to fail. If school is like life -- if life is a school -- failure teaches lessons that can ultimately make the person stronger. But there are two types of failure -- a failure that derives from lack of teaching ability or lack of concern on the part of the teacher or lack of resources on the part of the institution, and failure that comes as the knowing consequence of the student's own behavior. If a child is not ready, or willing, to apply him or herself, of if his home environment is so difficult as to preclude his being successful in learning, this is not the fault of the institution. And it will be unavoidable in some cases. These students will have to learn from these setbacks in their own way and under their own power. Can a school substitute for a loving home? Sometimes, and sometimes not.

So because schools are not the same as factories, and students are not the same as cars, educators must be prepared to realize that some students will not succeed and must be allowed to fail. Not easily, not without the greatest effort to stop failure from happening. But with the knowledge that if there is a benchmark for success, it must take this reality into account.

An educational benchmark can't be 100% success -- 100% on or above grade level -- because this means one of two things: if the benchmark is set too low, achieving it will not challenge most students and the institution will be failing in its mission. If tests and standards are dumbed down to allow everyone to pass, the school will be failing the student who needs the edge of difficulty to hone their skills and stimulate their intellect. If the benchmark is set too high, pressure on teachers and students becomes unbearable, and ways have to be found to expel the poorly performing students, while teachers will face discipline which is unfair and punitive. Punitively high standards will create a permanent underclass, as those who fail will be marginalized.

If the benchmark is set to an appropriate level of difficulty, the demand that both students and teachers meet unrealistic goals will not have to be satisified. Occasional failure will be accepted from a relatively small group of students -- failure that does not mean ostracism, but that means acceptance and understanding. These metaphorical cars may not meet the toughest standards, but they can still be permitted to ride the highways of this land and find their own destiny.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Making the Scene at Macy's

Today I made the scene with Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Macy's, the world's largest store (OK, maybe GUM in Moscow is larger, and I'm sure they have something in Dubai that makes Macy's look like a bodega, whatever) on the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday aka "Buy Nothing Day." Rev. Billy and his choir preached (Don't support those Corporate CEO's!) gave out a Buy Nothing Day Fun Page for the kids, and I gave out a slightly more edgy flier about environmental crisis.

What struck me as soon as I got out of the D train from Brooklyn at 4:45 AM(which opens right into the JC Penney at 32nd Street and 6th) was the pleasant mood everyone was in. Two ladies coming up the stairs with me were joyful. "It's open already!" they said about JC Penney. It was all light and happy above ground (except for the guy selling counterfeit DVD's on the sidewalk; for him it was just another day.) A big crowd of at least 750 people was packed into a 60-foot wide pen in front of Macy's. Rev. Billy was exhorting people not to go inside: "It's not too late to save your soul."

I started giving out my fliers about species extinction and consumerism. People took them gladly. After giving out a few, I adopted a new pitch: "Special offer today." Now, everyone wanted one of my fliers, which showed an extinct species of frog. Rev. Billy liked the flier, too, and changed his message for a bit, preaching about, "Global Warming inside -- all these products, they're harming the environment. It's not too late to shop shopping and save the earth."

A young and enthusiastic Latino couple walked by and I trust one of my fliers at the woman, about 25 years' old, accompanied by her boyfriend. She had the same twinkle in her eye as everyone else. "What's is about?", she asked. I explained that not only were many of the products at Macy's producing poisons that were harmful to animals and plants, but that the world's growing population was pushing native species to extinction. She nodded. Her boyfriend or husband got my argument immediately. "Yeah, he said, when they make the products, the chemicals they use are toxic," he said. "Too many people," he agreed. "there's not enough room for the animals."

His girlfriend gave me a big smile. With a thumbs up, they went into Macy's.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Letter to Bob Herbert of the New York Times

Dear Mr. Herbert,

Let me introduce myself. I’m a 52-year old New Yorker, who has worked in public relations and tried a few times to pitch ideas (unsuccessfully) to your column. I primarily write for labor unions in the New York City area. I am a registered Democrat, and have voted in every election since I was 18.

I am a fan of your column, and the consistently progressive views you put forward. But with your latest column, “No Recovery In Sight,” on the need to create jobs for the 30 million unemployed and under-employed, there’s a fly in the ointment – a very big one. That fly is the connection between economic growth and climate change, and the necessary connection between jobs and economic growth.

It isn’t hard to make the argument that economic growth is bad for the planet, because it uses up irreplaceable natural resources and creates pollution, including greenhouse gases. Can economic growth be good for humanity, if it is bad for the planet? Does the fact that we are ushering in the sixth great extinction of other species important? Are we bound to honor the life with which we share the planet? Is managed economic growth possible, which is both good for us and good for the natural world on which we depend? What if it isn’t? What if we’ve already gone too far?

My objection to your column is its implication is that any new job is a good job, no matter what it means for the environment. You can buy a dozen brands of toothpaste in Rite-Aid, but I suppose you would champion it if I created the Brooklyn Toothpaste Company and put 20 kids to work making yet another brand. The net effect of all this extra toothpaste would be to use energy and create packaging that isn’t renewable, and produce pollution that is hard to clean up. But at least the kids are getting a paycheck!

Economic growth has brought with it a revolution in how work is done. It takes many fewer people today to do work that occupied large armies of laborers in the past. This is especially true of agriculture. Yet we have many more people in the world than ever before, with much less necessary work for them to do than ever before. Bring on the toothpaste factories, and more mountains of stuff!

Continuing economic growth, which you advocate, is leading us towards environmental disaster. If you believe the scientists – and I notice you haven’t written much on global warming – we can expect sea levels to rise by between 3 and 6 feet by 2100 – and perhaps much more, if the west Antarctic ice sheet and the ice covering Greenland melts. We could see a rise in sea levels of 60 feet by 2100, if the worst predictions come true. That puts much of Manhattan under water. About the only places that would be spared include my comfortable digs in Sunset Park, the highest point in Brooklyn. But I wouldn’t be able to take the subway into the City, assuming there would be anything to visit.

The question is, how much credence do you give these predictions, and are you willing to modify your economic growth flag-waving to accommodate them? Ignoring the contradictions between economic growth and responsible environmentalism isn’t a stance for a responsible journalist. Please write a column illuminating this issue.


Alan Saly
Sunset Park

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Worst that Could Happen

No, it's not that old song by the Brooklyn Bridge, although that was a wonderful tune.

It's another meditation on life.

I've got my kit bag and my crank radio (not the one tuned to Rush, the one that's hand operated so I can do without power). I know about the maximal spread of fallout and what a dirty bomb can do. I know how to purify water. Would a terror attack be the worst that could happen?

I'm often reminded of my mother's account of the seige of Budapest. It was a time of privation -- but those who lived through it came out of the experience with their hopes and dreams intact -- the same way we would come out of a terror attack, if we survived. During the seige no one had anything, just enough food for survival -- lipton soup. And after the war, of course, everyone's property was gone. There was no money, only the determination to find a way to give that would create a cycle of giving and receiving, and, ultimately joy and prosperity.

How much worse it would be -- that suffering through a difficult time -- to know that you have actually done something that compromised your dreams or your ability to hope.

The worst that could happen would be to lose your spiritual bearings, to no longer know what was meaningful or -- even worse -- to know that you had betrayed what, in your heart of hearts, was the best in you: the ability to give love and honesty without holding back, and without fearing the consequences of being your best.

So as we strive to avert economic calamity, let's remember that the money thing is often not the important thing, necessary though it is. The important thing is striving to realize our inner value.

Monday, January 05, 2009

What People Do

Another commonplace essay that states the obvious.

I recall a wonderful quote – I’m not sure who said it, perhaps Juliet Schorr – that this is the first generation of which it’s commonplace to frame the basic question, “who are you?” in a way that sets an entirely new standard. In ages past, one had a profession and was identified by it; I am an artisan, a bricklayer, a warrior. Today, one may have a job, but the question of what one is, is still undefined. I work for the City of New York as an Engineer; I’m a Caribbean American. But what is my essence? I only “do” what I aspire to do, and what I aspire to do is not defined by my job. Individual unfoldment has taken center stage.

Hey, it’s a long road. If life is a climb to reach mountain peaks, I was never satisfied with it. So I sought fulfillment in the moment itself. And I found a lot of it. Very true that most people see their lives defined by what they lack – especially in the Western world. Comparisons become overwhelming; the reason to strive, and the way to define where one has been. Then, as one grows very old, the mere experiences of pleasure seem to become defining. But still one may be impelled to compare one’s pleasure with that of another – confounding and confusing. The only person whose pleasure can be compared to your own is your lover’s, because you know her, and her pleasure often becomes yours. But this isn’t really a comparison at all, it’s a unity in which comparison disappears.

I remember with some embarrassment one afternoon where I sat on a sofa between two beautiful women – the two most beautiful women I knew. Each one knew me, appreciated me, and wanted me (at least one of them did). I relaxed and let my arms out on the ridge of the sofa; the moment was timeless. Here was my mountain peak. The women got annoyed (at least one of them). The purpose of introducing two supremely beautiful women to one another, simply because you know they are beautiful, had no purpose. It was discordant; the women didn’t understand it.

So, it’s in this context that I have always wondered what people do; I mean, what is truly the meaningful, satisfying activity of life. Like one of those many cinematic or literary parables, when everything up front is revealed to be a façade: what do people really do, what is the clear relevance at the heart of life? Ivan Illych, in Tolystoy’s great novella, remembers meaning in selfless impulses and sacrifice – or just in honest communication, without artifice. This is a beginning, in the quest to understand just what it is that we do.

I have an artificial profession, or an extremely real one. The dignity of work is diminished, it seems, if you don’t make an actual product; fashion something that is useful. Yet I bring people together in shared understanding, comfort those who worry that their labor doesn’t mean much, find ways to strengthen the framework that surrounds their job. This has dignity, because it has a worthwhile purpose.

And now, the simple answer: People go on trips with friends and family. They raise children. They go to work and come home. They read the paper. They take in a night of music. They enjoy themselves at parties. They get married, make vows, set goals and accomplish them. They exercise. They worry. They eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They get involved in causes and intense conversations. They worship. They find art. They exalt each other. They make money, take it in and spend it in ways both sensible and frivolous. These and many more things go into what makes up a life. These are the things we all do. They add up to lives, like multicolored sands add up in a tall glass; filled to the top, it’s the sum and measure of all of our years and experiences.

The moments live, each of them. Make the most of them. Focus. Relax. Call in the good, the best. Let fear blow out through the window with the dust in your home.

Monday, December 29, 2008

An Insoluble Conflict and an "Impossible" Answer

My grandfather predicted World War III for the Middle East, to commence in 1987. That was back in the early 70’s. He was a war correspondent and newspaper editor, back in the old country, having covered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 as a cub reporter (the anarchist Gavrilo Principe fired at the royal carriage from 100 feet, with a Baby Browning, an impossible shot. That one bullet killed both the Archduke and his Duchess). It appears that Deszo baci (in Hungarian, baci is a term of respect for an older man, pronounced just like it is in Italian, where it means kiss) was wrong when it would start. Maybe 2009 would be a better prediction.

Because – make no mistake about it – just like in Planet of the Apes, we could blow it all up. It would be a sad ending for so much enlightened striving for what is great, beautiful, and possible. Against a nuclear war, global warming is mild in comparison. Paradoxically, a nuclear war would probably end the threat of global warming, both by creating the famous “nuclear winter,” and also by ending most industrial production, and certainly a lot of consumer demand.

The Gaza Strip is a rectangle about 7 miles wide by 30 miles long. Within those borders live 1.5 million people. On Google Earth, it’s a huge city, and looks a lot like the South Bronx, before the boom of the 90’s. But you can get out of the South Bronx, and you can’t get out of the Gaza Strip. It’s not just the fault of the Israeli state, if one has to ascribe fault at this point in the essay. The Egyptians have the other border sewed up tight, too. It’s like a sausage that’s being cooked and that will eventually burst, like the best Hungarian sausages.

According to a Jewish friend, the Palestinians are “an irrelevancy,” which is a cold-hearted comment I don’t quite understand. Don’t the Jewish sages say, whosoever saves one, saves the whole world? And isn’t there a special place reserved in Israel for the gentiles who heroically saved Jews during the Holocaust? Are the Palestinians any different? I mean, can’t one Palestinian save another one and save the whole world?

No, and here’s the first principle: every person is of equal value. That concept begins the discussion. If the human race were wiped out except for a tribe of Hottentots, those Hottentots would eventually populate the world, and they would have their own Beethoven, Shakespeare and Einstein. So we must reject any ideology that says that any people are special. Isn’t that self-evident? So, we must bring the curtain down on religious beliefs that say the contrary – Orthodox Judaism, right-wing fundamentalist Christianity, and radical Islam. The claims of specialness in religions are atavistic. The idea that I have a moral ground to reject you, because you do not believe as I do, or because you were not baptized, circumcised, or adopted in my special way must go.

Religious differences are not religious. Hateful right-wing racists, or the hateful actions of the State of Israel, or the fatwas of an Imam who sanctions the killing of unbelievers, are not religious. Religion means reconnection – spirituality in the best sense, the sense of being part of a web that includes all living creatures, and holds all that lives as sacred. The actions against global warming may seem to be about people and property, but they are more properly wider than that – because a catastrophic warming would so do much to wreck the delicate ecosystems that make the earth so beautiful. It would not be right to call Israel “the Jewish State,” because while it may be true on one level, it’s false on another. Many Jews are praying for peace to break out, and are doing everything possible to promote understanding. Just as the continual refrain during the Bush years from foreign peoples was that we love Americans, but not your government, so it is with Israel. We must distinguish the actions of the State of Israel from the beautiful spirituality of Judaism.

Is it true that the Palestinians are an irrelevancy, because world oil prices are down, so the industrial giants don’t really care about the potential that a Middle East conflict has to raise oil prices in the near term? Maybe for geopolitical considerations, they are, but not from human considerations. Remember the value of the Hottentots; we must take care not to diminish any human being

So, let’s turn away from any religion which promotes differences. Maybe we should all become Anglican, or Unitarian Universalist. Bring everyone into the tent, and then abolish the tent. We must agree on the definition of a human being, and honor that, in a way reminiscent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And use our know-how to resolve problems of food scarcity, lack of access to water and health care, and surmounting the population bubble of about 9 billion later this century, before the human race can adjust its numbers peacefully to sustainable levels.