Friday, March 11, 2005

The great Joe Conason

Thank God there are a couple of real journalists left in this country. Perhaps the best writer working today is the great Joe Conason. Here's his piece from today's Salon:

The gospel of the rich and powerful

Backed by the religious right, Republican lawmakers are now officially giving hell to the average American.

By Joe Conason

March 11, 2005 Watching the behavior of Republican politicians during the past several days, we are learning the true meaning of "compassionate conservatism." Not the public-relations version promoted by George W. Bush and his party propaganda apparatus, but the core philosophy enunciated by the deep thinkers of the religious right.

With legislative maneuvering designed to punish and deprive the least fortunate among us -- working people at the lower end of the American economy and their children -- the Republicans don't seem to be upholding the caring Christian ideals often proclaimed by the President. They're pushing down wages, snatching away tax credits and food stamps, slashing Medicaid and children's health insurance, and removing bankruptcy protections from families that suffer medical catastrophes. But they're extending tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, and making sure that those bankruptcy laws still protect the richest deadbeats.

In short, they are stealing bread from the mouths of the poor and stuffing cake into the maws of the wealthy.

The bankruptcy "reform" currently pending in the Senate, for instance, would compound the misery of Americans already ruined by enormous medical expenses, which is what drives most filers to seek legal protection. The sponsors of this punitive act, which will further inflate the profits of credit-card companies, rejected every amendment to discourage deceptive and extortionate lending practices, as well as every amendment to soften the impact on destitute veterans and others whose misfortune might ordinarily stir feelings of compassion.

Yet while the sponsors claimed that their only purpose was to stop "abuse" of bankruptcy laws, their bill will still allow every grifter to lawyer up and sequester his pelf in an "asset protection trust," an investment vehicle that limits legal liability, often by using offshore bank accounts. The clever rich will thus be exempt from the same laws that will be used from now on to denude poorer people. (At least a dozen Democrats also have signed their disgraced names onto this billion-dollar gift certificate for the credit industry.)

Those poorer people won't be seeing any increase in their pitiful wages any time soon, either, thanks to the Senate Republicans. Voting almost uniformly along party lines, the majority killed what would have been the first increase in the federal minimum wage since 1998. A recent poll showed that more than four out of five Americans favor this measure, evidently because they cherish the quaint notion that people who work for a living should be able to feed and shelter their children.

Led by Senator Rick Santorum, R-PA., some of the Republicans supported an alternative bill that paired a small increase in the minimum wage with clever language stripping wage and hour protections from millions of workers, and largely negating the effect of the raise. Indeed, Santorum more or less admitted that his bill was a fraud, designed to give Republicans cover while they killed the real increase: According to the Detroit Free Press, "Santorum discouraged senators from voting for either proposal, indicating that an upcoming effort to update welfare laws would be a better vehicle for the minimum wage."

Meanwhile, the House Republicans are not hesitating to trample upon those who are already beaten down. In their version of the 2006 federal budget, Medicaid would lose as much as $20 billion, at a time when state governments already are under severe pressure in sustaining the program. This will inevitably mean depriving poor people of health coverage. Those cuts will also diminish the states' capacity to enroll low-income kids in the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Their parents shouldn't expect too much assistance from the government at tax time, either. The Republican budget decrees reductions in the Earned Income Tax Credit program, a highly successful effort to supplement the income of the working poor that was even supported by the late President Reagan.

None of that money will be wasted, of course. Every dollar taken from poor and working families pays for the preservation of tax breaks on dividends and capital gains for investors, most of them earning no less than $200,000 a year.

The savage litany could go on, and no doubt will.

Appalling as these policies may be, however, they are in no sense inconsistent with the cosmology of the religious right, which melds laissez-faire economics with fundamentalist orthodoxy. Underlying these conservative attacks on the poor by professing Christians is a worldview that dates back to earlier centuries, when the church defended privilege and declared that the wealthy and powerful were God's elect. From that perspective, minimum wages, subsidized health care, and other such laws and regulations only corrupt the poor, who must earn charity by their temporal and spiritual submission.

If these ideas sound a bit old-fashioned -- or even primitive -- be assured that they represent the latest thinking on the evangelical far right, which is where "compassionate conservatism" originated. Guided by the most literal interpretation of Old Testament law, the preachers who have influenced the President are determined to undermine every modern protection enjoyed by poor and working-class Americans. Let's hope they draw the line at bringing back public whippings and debt slavery.

"Freedom on the march" -- only where it's convenient for us

I've been following the horrifying case of the woman in Pakistan who was raped by six men after some tribal council ordered the men to commit this crime because the woman's brother allegedly had had sex with some woman from the neighboring tribe. The details are unclear -- it's like pre-medieval times in that country, apparently. Evidently the men had been convicted, but then the conviction was overturned.

Isn't it interesting that the United States is so concerned with promoting "freedom" in places such as Iraq, yet we have very little interest in the freedom of the women of unbelievably backward countries like Pakistan? If we're so committed to spreading freedom, I have an idea how we could do it. Let's arm the women of Pakistan. Hand out weapons, but ONLY to the women, and stick around to teach them how to use them. Let's even the playing field a little bit against the animals who force the women of that country into such a gruesome hell.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The greatest outrage: That so few care

To those of us who abhor the recent descent of our country into a kind of nihilistic, profoundly anti-intellectual, materialistic madness – as long as I’ve got a new SUV and a fancy new cell phone every couple of years, I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything else! I steadfastly refuse to educate myself about what’s really going on in the world! – there is perhaps no greater outrage than the significant lack of outrage over the crimes our government has committed in our name.

Most Americans, we are forced to admit, really don’t care that much that we launched a war of aggression against a country that didn’t attack us. Dazed and dazzled by video games and reality TV, many people only dimly remember that there was a guy named Osama bin Laden who supposedly was the real culprit in 9-11. We never caught him, but at least we got the other guy, Saddam Hussein, and, since he looks almost equally swarthy, he’s probably almost equally guilty, right? I mean, wasn’t Saddam hiding some kind of weaponry over there in Iraq? No? Oh well, it’s over and done with now. No point in getting worked up about it. At least we provided a lesson for anybody else in the Middle East who might decide to screw with us: We will not hesitate to bomb you even further into the Stone Age, so you better watch yourselves.

The Red Cross estimates that we – and by “we,” I mean exactly that, since the government has acted using our tax money, and in our name – may have killed 100,000 civilians in Iraq. Most of these people were relatively poor, people who had already been victimized by Saddam Hussein’s regime. We went in there and we blew up their houses, killed their livestock, destroyed whatever fragile livelihood they had, maimed and killed them by the tens of thousands – FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER. Well, except to provide an excellent business opportunity for Halliburton and other U.S. companies, which I believe was the real reason for this war. And very, very few Americans care.

To get a better sense of how great an obscenity this is, imagine a scenario in which we in the U.S. are the victims of such an invasion. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this, and it’s hardly a comforting thing to envision. Imagine that here in suburban Massachusetts, suddenly one day, paper flyers rain down out of the sky, informing us that in 48 hours, the bombing will begin. My husband has been conscripted into the army, so I am left to confront this situation on my own. How am I supposed to make it out of the neighborhood before the bombs fall? If I’m lucky, I’ll still have our car, and it will be working, and I’ll have money for gas. If not, I’ll have to somehow get out of here on foot – carrying a five-month-old child and whatever food and other personal articles I can manage to drag with me. How far would I get, lugging the baby, several canisters of formula, diapers, bottles, bottled water, and some snack items for me? Could I possibly carry our wedding album as well? What about clothing and blankets? And where would I go? Who would shelter us from the coming carnage? If my husband managed to make it out of the army alive, how would he find us after the battle? What would we do if our house were destroyed in the bombing – where would we go? What if our workplaces were destroyed – where would we work?

There are no answers to these questions. That so few Americans have bothered to ask them speaks volumes about our values. This is the thing that I find it hardest to get over. Most people simply don’t care that we have done this to innocent civilians. Can we doubt that in the coming years, we will suffer the consequences of our apathy and hard-heartedness when terrorist attacks against Americans increase?

Why people turn away from politics

So today in the Globe we read how the Senate has allowed the latest proposal for raising the minimum wage to die on the floor, keeping the minimum wage at the same level where it’s been since 1997. It’s $5.15 an hour, or about $10,000 a year for a full-time worker. Imagine trying to live on that amount of money. Would you choose to pay rent on the kind of dump you could afford at that income level, or would you choose to buy food? You certainly couldn’t do both.

This, I believe, provides the best possible illustration of why so many people turn away from politics in disgust. What is the point of bothering to get involved in the political process when, repeatedly, year after year, we see this kind of class warfare being waged against the non-rich? Of course, this is exactly what the Republicans want. They only want the rich to be involved in the process, because if everyone else is powerless and utterly disenfranchised – exactly the situation we’re in now – they only have to worry about making policy that suits the needs of their base. There is no accountability, because no one else has any power. This might as well be medieval England; those of us who are not rich have the same amount of clout, and the same chance of exerting our will to change the system, as the serfs and peasants of that age had in relation to their monarchy.

Ordinary people turn away from politics in disgust because they see that for all the rhetoric we constantly hear about democracy, what we have in this country is anything but a democracy. We have a professional political class that exists solely to do favors for large corporations and rich individuals, so that those corporations and individuals, in turn, will finance the reelection of the politicians. We see utter scumbags like Rick Santorum standing up and screaming about how the business community will suffer irreparable damage if it is forced to pay its workers a living wage. At the same time, the Republicans are pushing legislation that would make it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy. I read recently that the leading cause of personal bankruptcy is cancer. People get cancer, their health insurance doesn’t cover all their medical care, and they are forced to declare bankruptcy. The Republicans want to increase these people’s desperation and misery.

Ever since the Clinton years, the professional hand-wringers who run the Democratic party have been standing back and being polite and hoping the Republican blitzkrieg against middle-class America would go away on its own. These people deserve just as much of our contempt as the Republicans do. I find it revolting that so few in the Democratic party can be counted on to stand up and speak the truth. They are so terrified that if they talk about these issues, they will be accused of trying to set off a class war.

Well, I’ve got news for them – in the middle class, we are fighting this class war every day, and we have been for some time. The Republicans are the ones who started this war against the poor and the middle class. Will we wait until the next Depression to start speaking the truth, in plain language and loudly enough for ordinary Americans to hear? Will vast swaths of the middle class have to end up living in the streets before there’s an outcry that is equal to the gravity of the situation? When will we have an active opposition to this insanity?

Pictures of Bevin

Your image is everywhere in the photographic history of my life. There we are together in 1990 in Paris and in Ireland. There is your smile, beaming out at me across the years. There you are, happy, celebrating, on all those Christmases, Thanksgivings and Fourths of July our families spent together. And, heartbreakingly, there you are in my wedding album, in the background of the picture of my first dance with Mr. Fraulein. It’s been a year since you left us, and the hole in my heart is still there. I think it may be permanent. You never got to meet Little Peanut. I don’t even think you knew I was pregnant when you died.

It’s never going to go away, this feeling of wrongness. Something cracked in the universe when you left, and it’s never going to be put right. How I wanted to dance at your wedding. How I wanted to get to know your children. How very much I wanted you to be a part of my daughter’s life.

But now you’re elsewhere. I still think about you all the time. I just want to sit down and have a beer with you again. Someday, in another place, we will meet again and have that drink – I know that we will. In the meantime, I try to take some comfort in knowing that you are out there somewhere, a guardian angel for your niece and nephew, and hopefully for Little Peanut as well.