Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gratitude with Latitude: Giving Thanks for Curmudgeons and Other Realists

I think by now most of us realize that the historical reality behind the Pilgrim Myth is one of the many horrifying chapters lurking in this country's past. It would probably be best to give thanks on any day other than the one that celebrates the theft and ongoing brutality perpetrated by our Anglo-Saxon founders against the indigenous people of this continent. But I'll save that rant for another day (lucky you).

So how does a non-theistic, peace- and compassion- loving, politically progressive realist come to terms with "Thanksgiving"?

The answer, for me, is to attempt to remember how fortunate I am as much of the time as possible. I can't compress all of my gratitude into a sentence or two; I can't remember all of my blessings at once; I can't will myself into a state of thankfulness on this one day. The reality is that there are so many aspects of my life that inspire gratitude that I can't contain them, nor would I want to do so.

There is a constant ebb and flow of opposites in our lives: good days and bad days, income and expenses, joy and anger, friends and enemies. It is easy to feel grateful when things are going "my way". But remembering my good fortune when things are falling apart is the real challenge and, I would argue, far more important in the big picture. Do we only feel love for our fellow creatures on Christmas or New Year's or (insert holiday of your choice)? Of course not. We need love, gratitude and (I would argue) compassion to be our constant companions, as difficult a goal as that may be.

A couple of years ago I listed many of the things I felt grateful for at that time. Today I am deliberately omitting this ritual. Reciting my private list of "gratitudes" would not be an act of thankfulness on this day, this year. Saying thank you out loud for specific people or things doesn't make me any more or less thankful - right now it would feel cheap and inauthentic to do so.

Much like the rigorously enforced nationalism of the 4th of July, there is a palpable social pressure to perform public pronouncements of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. I would argue that we'd be far better off to spread the good vibe year-round rather than use it all up at one dinner.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bill Moyers on the Health Care Public Option

More and more members of the mainstream media are coming to their senses and starting to report the real story of Max Baucus and his committee. They've been bought and paid for by health insurance company lobbyists and we cannot trust one damn thing they say. What they're offering is not what the majority of the American people want, and what I'd argue, need.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Health Care Is A Human Right

Today I am inspired by a recent editorial by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, in which he eloquently (and not for the first time) makes the case for the so-called “public option” in our nation’s pending health care reform legislation. Mr. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, are the Pulitzer prize winning authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I will have more to say about this book in a future post.

Kristof and WuDunn are human rights advocates. In the Times piece, Kristof offers a common sense argument for expansive health care coverage for all Americans:

“Throughout the industrialized world, there are a handful of these areas where governments fill needs better than free markets: fire protection, police work, education, postal service, libraries, health care. The United States goes along with this international trend in every area but one: health care.

The truth is that government, for all its flaws, manages to do some things right, so that today few people doubt the wisdom of public police or firefighters. And the government has a particularly good record in medical care”.

He cites both Medicare and the Veterans Administration as examples of efficient, effective and highly rated government-run health care systems. Kristof continues by gently pointing out the most regressive and egregious problem with our current system:

“But the biggest weakness of private industry is not inefficiency but unfairness. The business model of private insurance has become, in part, to collect premiums from healthy people and reject those likely to get sick — or, if they start out healthy and then get sick, to find a way to cancel their coverage.”

In plain English, the current paradigm can only be described as criminal. Any business that financially benefits from withholding medical care from people who need it, refusing to insure those who are already ill (those pesky pre-existing conditions), or canceling coverage for people who have the audacity to get injured or sick is corrupt, anti-democratic and cynical to the core.

The health insurance industry (backed up to a great extent by the for-profit health care providers and the giant pharmaceutical companies) is engaged in a life-or-death battle to ensure that their morally indefensible business model is preserved. So its no wonder that they will use any means at their disposal to save themselves and protect their billions in profits pilfered from the American populace.

Exhibit A: Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. According the NY Times,

“Mr. Baucus has successfully strong-armed several lobbying groups into muting their criticism of his health care legislation, part of a concerted strategy of reassuring [health insurance industry] interest groups. Even as Mr. Baucus has tamped down criticism, he has continued collecting campaign contributions from industry interests, including drug companies and insurers.”

This week, Chairman Baucus presided over a committee that produced a health care bill that is “an absolute gift” to the insurance industry, according to Wendell Potter, who went on to say that “the bill might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act." You can read the full article HERE.

Mr. Potter, by the way, is a man who knows the industry from the inside. He enjoyed a nearly 20- year career as the chief public relations representative for Humana and Cigna, two of our nation’s largest health insurance companies. After a crisis of conscience in 2007, Wendell Potter is now a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. He is putting his intimate knowledge of the health insurance industry’s insidious PR strategies to good use combating the misinformation being fed to and spouted by the opponents of substantial health care reform. Here’s his pithy decoding of the arguments being used by these folks to pummel health care reform:

“whenever you hear a politician or pundit use the term "government-run health care" and warn that the creation of a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers (or heaven forbid, a single-payer system like the one Canada has) will "lead us down the path to socialism," know that the original source of the sound bite most likely was some flack like I used to be.”

I highly recommend that you read the text of a speech Potter recently gave, called How Corporate PR Works to Kill Health Care Reform

...or watch this excellent video:

The battle over health care reform should not be about politics, federal deficits, ideology, “creeping socialism”, or anything other than the simple fact that, as human beings, each of us deserves access to excellent, affordable health care. It is not a privilege, it is a basic human right. This right is not only guaranteed by our constitution but is also an essential part of what it means to stand for liberty and justice for all.

The ongoing public debate often conflates health care reform and health insurance reform. This country must have the kind of reform that will provide equal access to health care for all Americans, regardless of the consequences for the health insurance industry. The days of the hegemony of business interests over the needs of people must end. Americans of all political persuasions, ethnicities, geographical locations, ages, sexual orientations etc need to come together on this. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be bullied, fooled or coerced into accepting a health care policy that doesn’t address the real needs of ALL of us.

Here is a video in which Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, explains the “public option” and debunks the idiotic criticism coming from the health insurance companies:

I have to add a hearty thank you to the public figures who are standing up for justice with regard to health care for all. This list is not inclusive, but these people are heroes in my book:

Quentin Young, M.D., physician, human rights activist, strong proponent of a single payer health care system

Michael Moore, filmmaker, whose film Sicko has galvanized millions of Americans to improve health care in the U. S.

Representative John Conyers, author of H.R. 676, legislation that would establish a single-payer, Medicare for all type of system.

T. R. Reid, author of The Healing of America

Senator Dennis Kucinich, tireless champion of a single payer healthcare system

Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, presidential candidate who crusades for the interests of real people over those of large corporations

Wendell Potter, former Cigna exec now working tirelessly for a better solution to our healthcare crisis

Nick Krystof, author and NY Times columnist who is helping shape public opinion using facts and high ethical standards

Monday, June 29, 2009

21st Century Bully: Resistance Is Futile

Friends of mine in the literary community are embroiled in a harsh, long-standing battle of words with a bully, who I will call Mr. X. (I will keep real names out of this discussion in order to avoid fanning the flames of this imbroglio. It is the underlying psychological nature of this conflict that interests me, so names are unnecessary.) Mr. X is a man who demonstrates many of the traits of megalomaniac paranoia. The community has been unable to develop a successful strategy for defusing the conflict, so the question is: What does one do to thwart an online bully?

Mr. X runs an influential website, which he uses to publicize events and to publish gossip and his brand of literary criticism. Both in person and in his voluminous writing, Mr. X engages in a variety of malevolent behaviors, including: the distortion of facts and outright lying, ad hominem attacks and verbal abuse of numerous individuals, procuring web domains for the express purpose of diverting traffic from other legitimate literary sites, scheduling live reading events to conlict with events run by his perceived "adversaries" and organizing boycotts of events or journals that he has disagreements with.

In short, Mr. X does everything in his power to control, exclude and divide members of the local literary community. I hesitate to refer to him as being a member of that community, because the people he abuses are not his peers. He writes lies and injurious gossip about people who are actually writing and publishing their work, while he is essentially a hobbyist. He dabbles in the art form but spends a lot of his time slamming people whose work is far more successful than his own.

According to Random House Dictionary, paranoia is a "mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions and the projection of personal conflicts, which are ascribed to the supposed hostility of others, sometimes progressing to disturbances of consciousness and aggressive acts believed to be performed in self-defense or as a mission."

American Heritage puts it this way: Paranoia is a "psychotic disorder characterized by delusions of persecution with or without grandeur, often strenuously defended with apparent logic and reason." Colloquially, it is an "extreme, irrational distrust of others."

Wikipedia's entry is: "(T)he term paranoid addresses a range of mental which the subject is seen to generalize or project fears and anxieties onto the external world, particularly in the form of organized behavior focused on them".

If one reads the content of Mr. X's websites or his comments on other people's blogs, his paranoia is obvious. One after another, he chooses individual writers to be the focus of his delusional attention. He accuses people of excluding him from readings or of sabotaging his efforts to promote his events. He personally attacks people based on their gender, political persuasion and body size, while claiming that other performance events are racist or elitist. All of these behaviors are the result of his projections, for the reality is that no one has done him any harm. He regularly accuses others of perpetrating the deeds he acts out against them.

When people respond to his accusations directly Mr X exhibits a level of violent defensiveness that is overly exaggerated and dramatic. He can reduce a rational complaint or criticism to an imagined personal affront in the turn of a phrase. When folks ignore his gossip mongering he progressively ups the ante by finding a new target, stealing a domain name, urging people to boycott an event or a publishing house and generally finding new ways to alienate members of the creative community from one another. The guy is relentless, and very accomplished as a disseminator of deception.

While Mr. X's actions may not rise to the level of libel, his words and deeds have certainly created an atmosphere of distrust, anger and divisiveness in the community he purports to serve. But the quandary persists: how should the rest of the creative folks protect themselves so that they might get on with their work without fear of a sneak attack from this online bully? This is no playground conflict that can be resolved by parents and teachers; this is real life, where there is no "authority" available to adjudicate, and people's personal and professional reputations are at stake.

I am not directly involved in this "scene", so it may be far too easy for me to offer some possible solutions. Nevertheless, and at the risk of sounding glib or patronizing, here are my ideas:

1) Become non-resistant. Do not pay Mr. X any attention. Let him do or say whatever he wants without responding. Bullies need victims, so take a lesson from Gandhi and don't give him anything to push against. In the words of the Borg, resistance is futile.

2) Kill him with kindness. Invite him with open arms to every event. Cheerfully attend the readings he organizes. If he invites you to read your work at his venue, graciously accept. Write nice things about him, his events, and his website. If he does something offensive, bite your tongue and smile.

3) Court him as your new best friend. Buy him dinner, take him to a ballgame, get him laid (if you can). After you have gained his trust, tactfully suggest that he seek therapeutic help.

4) If all else fails, take him to court. If you can find a lawyer who will take the case, sue him for libel and try shutting down his website. Murder isn't a viable option, but seeking censure is possible.

I believe that finding a way to be in relationship with truly vexing individuals is one of life's huge challenges. Every fiber of one's being wants to resist, to strike back when attacked and to defend oneself in every way possible. Unfortunately, those emotional responses nearly always backfire. I will grant that there are times when one must stand one's ground and fight like hell for what one believes or to protect the safety of loved ones. But when there are long-term consequences and when the options for escape are limited, more sophisticated strategies are called for. Sometimes the situation demands that we act out of our compassion and rationality rather than out of our animal instincts.

Addendum: This post is not specifically about the phenomenon known as "cyberbullying" but there are some good suggestions on strategies for dealing with online bullies HERE.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Higher Standard? Israel, Palestine and the U.S.

This morning brought news that the recent Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip have taken the lives of more than 500 Palestinians, many of them civilians. The rocket and mortar attacks launched by Hamas have killed a small handful of Israelis. In fact, the total number of civilian and Israeli Defense Forces deaths is less than 10. This includes the 3 IDF soldiers who were killed by so-called friendly fire yesterday.

Humanitarian NGOs are universally stating that the living conditions in Gaza are desperate and getting worse. Aid organizations, the United Nations, and the vast majority of governments around the world are condemning the actions of the Israeli government with regard to local access to clean water, sanitation, health care and food. The only government sitting on the sidelines is our own.

Let us leave politics out of this for a moment and examine this situation from a humanitarian perspective. Whatever the stated reasons, the notion that it is morally acceptable for any entity (person, ethnic group, government) to impose this level of death and destruction on any other entity is indefensible. The “scratch” doesn’t fit the “itch” in any way. While Hamas’ incessant lobbing of ordnance across the border cannot be defended, the Israeli government’s response is a wild and heinous over-reaction. The numbers don’t lie. Neither do the comparative living conditions in Gaza and southern Israel.

As an American and a Jew, I am appalled and enraged both by the actions of Israel and the business-as-usual attitude of the Bush administration. The silence of president-elect Obama is equally chilling. Whatever one’s stance regarding our national interests in the middle east may be, the simple fact is that these attacks on Gaza should be opposed by all who value human life and dignity.

The crisis has yet to reach the dimensions of Rwanda or Somalia or Bosnia, but the humanitarian implications of Israel’s actions are no different. Mr. Obama made a huge campaign issue out of his opposition to the war in Iraq. How this situation is any more defensible is beyond comprehension. Where are those brave words now?

The United States prides itself on the principles of democracy, equality and justice invoked by our constitution. We are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. We are supposed to represent the civilized world. We are not a theocracy, we believe in the rule of law and in humanitarian principles. Have we learned nothing in the past 225 years? Have we no sense of history or decency or empathy? Does self-interested politics have to dominate all of our actions as a nation?

The Jewish people regard themselves as the “chosen people”. Our religion compels us to behave in a moral, just, and principled way. We have a long history of being oppressed and dispossessed. Have we learned nothing in the past 2000 years? Have we no compassion? Is everything allowed in the name of national defense?

What has happened to the higher standards we as Americans (and some of us as Jews) are supposed to uphold? To our shame, we have forgotten. We have allowed our insistence on the hegemony of political and economic power to override our sense of ethics. We have lost our belief in justice and equality. We have sunk so low as to accept that the imposition of our political agenda, no matter how corrupt, represents the greater good.

If these events make you feel sad, ashamed or just plain angry, then make your voice heard. Nothing can be done about the Present Occupant, but we might have a chance to influence the incoming administration. You can do all the usual stuff: write an editorial or op-ed, call your representatives in Washington, talk to your friends, blog. President-elect Obama, to his credit, has made it easy to submit ideas and critical comments HERE.

Let’s hold our government and ourselves to a higher standard.