The Middle Class and the Poor

December 19, 2017

This is a season in which many of us make donations to help those with less than we do. But in the larger context, we need a better understanding of the poor.

For years now, politicians have been talking about the middle class. Being in the middle class doesn’t mean that one has it made. There are unfulfilled hopes and potential financial shocks that could knock almost any of us down and out. We know that and many of us are rightly concerned about it. The market has no feelings. It dispenses with people like so much trash. That should leave all of us concerned.

But when politicians talk about the middle class, I hear something else. I hear them telling us that no one else counts, especially not the poor. Many people treat the poor like trash. We even have names for it. A lawyer working for me once described his own family as poor white trash. He was nothing of the sort of course and his family couldn’t have been either – they brought up a very decent young man.

Tom Paxton wrote a song in which he says “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” I had the pleasure of telling him after one of his concerts that song was very meaningful to me. I spent about ten years as a poverty lawyer in various positions in three different states. My clients weren’t trash and they did matter. They were decent, hardworking people who had suffered some reversal. Often, just as hard as the loss of income was the blow to their pride when they were out of work. The poor don’t have a financial cushion when things go bad. They can’t retire and rely on the pensions they don’t have. I remember working to get one of my clients who did have a right to a pension – it was thirty dollars a month.

With no money coming in, they spend most of their time trying to find things cheap enough to squeeze into their meager budgets. When people are poor, they are also very vulnerable not only to emergencies but also to fraud – they have little time or capacity to compare or investigate. Everything looks like an opportunity, even though too many offers are a mirage, squeezing out what little people have left.

We in the middle class are also linked to the poor because the worse they are treated, the worse we can be treated. That’s hardly a new observation. Free laborers in the pre-Civil War north objected to the way slavery lowered what they were paid for their labor. We are all affected by everyone’s wages. When the minimum wage goes up, so do lots of other peoples’ wages as well. When wages are set or negotiated it is always done with an eye to what other people are being paid.

The poor matter in another way. It’s very damaging to all of us to treat people like trash. Treat people like trash and train them to behave like it, and train ourselves to misbehave. George Mason spoke from experience when he told the Constitutional Convention that slavery made tyrants of the slaveholders. Civilization and civility require civilized behavior from all of us.

It’s also political. For all our fussing about corruption, Commonwealth United, respect for people of all backgrounds, and other issues of concern to those of us who feel like we are in more comfortable circumstances than the poor, who are our allies? And if we want allies, are we theirs?

Tom Paxton was right, if the poor don’t matter then neither do I.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 19, 2017.

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From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.


Dealing with Hate

October 24, 2017

Dealing with Hate

Steve Gottlieb

 

Group epithets darken our world. It is particularly dangerous because the president encourages it. Trying to revive the language and practice of hate is shameful regardless of whom it comes from. How can we deal with it?

 

Somehow I grew up curious and sought out people who seemed different. I deliberately left New York City for college and law school to mix with people from other places. Students here come from distant parts of the country for the same reason. We discover our new companions have no horns and deal decently with us, although there are always exceptions.

 

I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for it but brotherhood makes sense. And it’s a survival strategy. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His words urge us to stick together as a survival tactic – we can be selfish and altruistic at the same time and should be because brotherhood is valuable to us all.

Most of us learned not to generalize – branding people en masse makes little sense and lots of damage. Our language is full of ethnic slurs like welching on deals, Indian-givers, patty-wagons, not to mention all the ethnic slurs which most of us now regard as unmentionable but to which all our ancestors were subject. In other words, it’s too easy to break down into mutual distrust.

I’ve broken bread, worked and played with people around this country and across the globe, as an attorney, a Peace Corps Volunteer, tourist and student. It’s an education. Decent, caring people come in all colors, speak all languages, and worship in all kinds of places. That was as true in Iran as it was at college – I was a religious minority in both places but gained by both experiences as I learned to understand the needs, fears, desires and beliefs of others.

Unfortunately it’s too easy to fear what one hasn’t explored. We usually notice what goes wrong first, while what goes right seems too ordinary to notice. But that leaves lots of dangerous misimpressions. I grew up in an era when violence spewed out of white ghettos, from gangs in Black jackets but white skin. Should I fear every white American or every cleric because some went wrong? I’ve known a large number of wonderful African-Americans as well as people of other faiths and nationalities – some as clients, friends, colleagues and I’ve worked for several. The goodness of different peoples obviously doesn’t prove that none ever make mistakes but equally the mistakes of some don’t imply the absence of other wonderful people.

More significant than arguments, we need to condemn, resist and speak out. Hatred reveals the hater’s weakness. Our joint condemnations reveal how hatred destroys those who do the hating, costs them respect and other social and economic rewards. We must stand together.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 24, 2017.


For Peaceful Counter-protests

August 21, 2017

There is a debate that follows political activism – whether to be peaceful or violent. I’ve seen reviews of contrary scholarship. One view is that the old KKK used many of the same tactics as the modern “Alt-right,” using clownish outfits to draw in supporters so that laughter just helps their strategy and is an unhelpful response: The Ku Klux Klan Used the Same Trolling Tactics as the Alt-Right: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-ku-klux-klan-were-memelords. Instead that scholar argues that Klan opponents at the turn of the 20th century literally beat them up. There were communities that kept the Mafia out the same way. But that view underestimates the impact of the Klan. Literally it kept a large part of the U.S. intimidated, quiet about their depredations, and unwilling to investigate or convict for a century. I don’t see good evidence that violence held the Klan in check.

The reverse view is that violence feeds the Alt-wrong. This is the same point many have made about violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. Violence feeds the sense of discrimination that is a large part of the Alt-wrong rhetoric and sense of grievance. Thus it becomes a recruiting tool. Plus the Alt-wrong appears way more ready to use violence to harm and intimidate than any other populations in America:  Don’t respond to fascists with violence. A German town offers some helpful tips. See:

The Civil Rights Movement put a very large effort into staying nonviolent. Violence was always the tool of the enemy and demonstrations were arranged to highlight that violence for a national audience, preferably on television. That effort was much more successful in shutting the Klan down than the earlier confrontations.

I would add that the contemporary American public is much more hostile toward violence than it was in 1900, despite the posturing, violence and intimidation of the Alt-wrong. So it is very important to avoid becoming the perpetrator of violence, and to follow the tactics of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. By contrast the antiwar movement, against the war in Vietnam, did resort to property destruction and my judgment was that they lost support in those demonstrations. I much preferred demonstrations carrying candles to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or the reading of the names of American servicemen killed, and similarly powerful, but nonviolent demonstrations. I would follow the insight of Dr. King and the Civil Rights demonstrators in the present struggle and keep ourselves peaceful.

With all good wishes for you and for our country, Steve


On Egos in Skin, Muscles and Race

December 31, 2016

Years ago, when I was working out in a gym, a younger woman was obviously putting more weight on the equipment and doing more and faster reps than I was. I did not know this woman and there was no conversation between us. But as she passed me, she commented that it was OK because I would be stronger on the upper body exercises. When people catch me off guard with a comment like that, I often say nothing, and I don’t think I responded. But I have often wanted to say to her that I don’t keep my ego in my muscles.

Some do of course, people who can do all sorts of things that I can’t, great athletes but also people who move furniture and other heavy work and they have every right to put their egos in their muscles.

But why would anyone put their egos in the color of their skin? I hope everyone has other things to be proud of. That leads me to feeling mostly pity for the people who base their lives on racism, as if their own race is special, not just as good, but superior. That is as shallow as the cosmetics that people apply to their skin.

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens told the House of Representatives that he hoped people would be judged only by their character and ability. By that standard of course, whites, or Caucasians, are all over the map, from killers and thieves to statesmen and scientists. The same is true for other so-called races. If that leaves people feeling like the ground has been knocked from under them, they need to hike onto firm ground, but it isn’t going to be the color of their skin. The people who kept repeating that President Obama couldn’t figure anything out only revealed their own inferiority complex, a struggle they tried to hide by claiming to belong to a supposedly superior white race, and by their inability to see the qualities of an African-American man.

The great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, made a very revealing comment when he pointed out that what had really upset some ballplayers when Jackie Robinson broke in to the majors was not the color of his skin; it was his education – Robinson had been a four-letter man at UCLA and came to the Dodgers as a well-educated African-American at a time when most ballplayers had little education. The antagonism of some ballplayers was jealousy concealed as racism.

By the same token, I think what bothered many about President Obama was not just his race, but his accomplishments – an ivy-league education capped by the top position on the Harvard Law Review, a job with a corporate law firm followed by a career in public service. These are accomplishments most of us could envy. But most of us are happy to admire the man without demeaning his obvious accomplishments because somehow his skin color diminishes us. Truly I think racism both masks and reveals the inferiority of the racist. They need to get over it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 27, 2016.


PC

December 31, 2016

I first heard the term political correctness when we were looking at colleges with our daughter. It was a term raised by other parents. I didn’t know what it referred to. Now it’s so common it’s just called PC. I just think of much of it as manners, and at the root of manners is kindness.

Kids tease each other mercilessly. Some of that becomes so concentrated on particular children we call it bullying. Words can, and do hurt.

I admit that sometimes the search for euphemisms seems useless, where the new term simply picks up the meaning of the old leading to a search for still newer ones. But there is a difference between terms that describe a problem and terms that invest that problem with an insult. It is a problem to be born deaf, blind, or retarded. But there are wonderful, decent, loving people with every one of those problems, and many who are very creative and effective.

And in virtually every case, other people can make that condition more or less severe or disabling. Race, religion, national origin, gender, of course, are only problems to the extent that others make them so. But why would we do that when we could reach out to the very folk that others belittle for such nonsensical reasons? Why when we could be helpful? Why when we can make our surroundings more pleasant rather than more hateful?

Isn’t that the message that all of our faiths teach us? Doesn’t gratuitous meanness simply make hypocrites of us all?

Is our culture so competitive that everything has to be turned into rankings, insults, failures, and, to use Trump’s favorite term, losers? I know that people justify that to encourage others to be strong. But what is strength? Is strength simply the ability to survive the taunts of others? Don’t we have enough challenges without taking each other down.

There is another possibility, that our own egos are so tender that we can only feel good by putting others down. That life is just a set of opportunities to insult everyone except our friends, and perhaps those people who would know that our taunts are insincere jokes.

It is interesting that President Obama cultivated just such a hard shell at his mother’s urging because of their experience in Indonesia. But Obama has never endeared himself to the taunters here. Clearly racial taunts and racial disdain aren’t for the purpose of strengthening people – they are designed to hurt, as if by hurting others we justify ourselves.

Just the opposite: hurting others undermines our own claims on this world. We are in the holiday season. This is the time when Christians are encouraged to find peace and good will toward all men. Jews embody that message most strongly at the Passover, closer in time to Christian Easter. Both of us are exhorted to love our neighbors. Similar prayers are in Muslim worship. We all share our origins in the story of Abraham. And one of the most crucial problems of this world is for all of us to find ways to live peacefully together.

Ultimately that is what good manners are about. Peace on earth; goodwill toward men – even though one of our friends was arrested not far away for wearing a t-shirt that said exactly that. Let’s start making this a better world. There are demons enough in this world without demonizing each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 20, 2016.


The Don in Giovanni

November 30, 2016

Hi folks,

I don’t usually tell stories, but sometimes an ancient story seems to have contemporary relevance.

We know the character I’m thinking about as DON Juan. In Italian it is DON Giovanni, the title character of a Mozart opera. Don is an honorific title. Like some people with whom we share this world, DON Giovanni is a braggart. Leporello, his servant sings “Mille et tres” – in English, “a thousand and three.” Leporello counts the women all over Europe that DON Giovanni has dishonored – six hundred and forty in Italy alone; two hundred thirty-one in Germany; a hundred in France; ninety-one more in Turkey. And in Spain, oh in Spain already one thousand and three. Leporello adds that these girls came from all ranks of society – girls from the city and the country, maidservants, and noble women, members of the aristocracy. DON Giovanni uses different lines for women of every hair color, shape and weight.

The first half of the opera is light-hearted. Peasants dance in preparation for the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto. But DON Giovanni sends Masetto off with a combination of claims that everything will be fine because he, the DON, is a nobleman, plus thinly veiled threats with his sword. Then the DON dangles enticements before Zerlina. Zerlina sings “I would, but I would not.” I remember seeing a young couple sing that duet on the lawn at Chautauqua – I can no longer remember their names but never forget how well that Zerlina sang, coquettish but embarrassed at her own desire, completely understanding Zerlina’s predicament. Zerlina knew that this nobleman might be insincere, merely to dishonor her, but finds herself unable to resist. That first Act ends with others, who know and resent the DON’s tricks, rescuing Zerlina. DON Giovanni comments that the Devil is playing with him.

The second half of the opera is quite different. DON Giovanni has escaped those angry with him and taken refuge in a graveyard near the statue of the character known in italian as il Commendatore, commemorating a man killed by DON Giovanni, and the father of one of the noblewomen who has rescued Zerlina. An inscription at the base of the statue demands vengeance. There in the graveyard, the statue speaks, warning DON Giovanni he is near the end. Cool and fearless, DON Giovanni invites him to dinner. Sure enough, il Commendatore appears at dinner as a white shrouded statue – we could call him a ghost – demanding repentence. DON Giovanni refuses to repent, claiming he fears nothing. They scream at each other, “Repent;” “Never;” “Repent;” “Never.” Like the Donald we have to live with, the DON that was Giovanni [quotes] “loved” women too much to regret dishonoring them.

Mozart, often thought of as writing music that ranges from merely pretty to soaringly beautiful, grabs musical lightning from the Lord and hurls it at DON Giovanni, pulling him down and taking him to Hell.

Mozart’s opera ends with the characters in chorus making clear that is exactly where the DON belongs.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 29, 2016.


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