Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Obama Foundation and a Constitutional Exchange Program


My wife recently pointed me to the Obama Foundation, an exciting new group which will function around the upcoming Obama Presidential Library.  The latter will not open until 2020 or so, but in the meantime it appears that the Foundation is chomping at the bit to get started with civic initiatives.  I think a lot of people are like me in that they've been inspired by the recent protoFascist turn in US politics to become more actively involved in creating a more just, merciful, and prosperous society, but they don't know where to start or what to do.  It looks like the Obama Foundation is trying to harness this momentum to create innovative programs.  I am eager to see what they come up with, and perhaps to participate in it.

For now they have a portal where people can share their ideas.  Below is what I wrote.  It's been forming in my mind gradually over the past few months, and more actively so in the past few days.  I know these online portals receive a lot of traffic, and my idea may never even be read by anyone there, but I think that it's innovative and promising enough that I want to share it with the general public.  So here it is:
I think what's most needed in today's US citizens is a sense of sympathy, of collective identity and identification with one's neighbors, of grace and a desire to help others in their difficult times, rather than disqualifying people from our circle of caring based on their race or language or religion, or more perniciously based on their perceived character flaws or the other shortcomings that we all possess (though often only see in others, not ourselves).  Membership in the human race and in the fold of the American family should be enough for someone to merit our goodwill.

An important corollary to this sympathy in the US context is a better awareness of some of the fundamental precepts, not just of our Constitution and our particular system of government, but of some universal Enlightenment-era concepts like human rights.
My proposal to begin to address both of these points is to create a Constitutional Exchange Program.  The "Constitutional" part refers to study groups that would meet regularly, initially a group of young people in a given locality, to review and discuss different aspects of the US Constitution, the state Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human rights, always referring these principles to current events and the group's local context.

The "Exchange Program" would come later, as different members of one group would stay for a week or more at a time with members of a faraway group, and thus get to share both the day-to-day experiences of another social group, as well as share and challenge the reflections of that group around the aforementioned documents.  This would function much like a typical study abroad exchange program, except that instead of going to Germany to live and learn with a German family for a year, we would be connecting families from across the social spectrum within the US, probably for shorter stints but with more regularity of contact. 

We could start within a state, such that a black middle class kid from Chatham in Chicago could get to know a poor white family in Danville, or the child of Mexican immigrants in Cicero or Aurora could stay with a Pakistan-born college professor's family in Bloomington, or a young person from the ghetto of East St. Louis could host a dairy farmer from northwestern Illinois.  Eventually this could expand across state lines, such that a Central Wisconsin working-class kid could visit and later host a teen from the posh section of Glenview, IL, or recent black transplants to Iowa could meet Syrian refugees in Detroit.  Militiamen and Muslims, native-born and immigrants, people of all colors would share and confront their viewpoints, and hopefully be transformed to better understand and even be convinced by the ideas of their compatriots.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Chicago tourism

Apparently Chicago surpassed its all-time record for tourism revenue in 2016.  This is great news for the city.  From afar, most of what I hear and read about my hometown is bad news.  High taxes, high crime, racism, police brutality, population decline.  So I am happy that the city is being appreciated by visitors, and I hope that some of these people will stay on to become residents, to add to the city's ever-evolving mix of people.  The article points out the paradox that this boom in tourism has come despite a 20-year high in total murders.  On the one hand, I don't want the city's crime problem to negatively affect tourism, since the latter is one of the few bright spots that could potentially improve Chicago's economy in the short term and thus lower the murder rate over time.  But on the other hand, I don't want the city to keep pushing a few sectors and prospering in these, while huge swaths of our residents are terrified of stepping out their front door in the neighborhoods that the city isn't investing in.  This would cement the trend I've seen for the 30-odd years of my life, whereby the well-off in Chicago enjoy all the great things the city has to offer, while most of the city's inhabitants are excluded from the cycle of prosperity.  If this continues, Chicago will continue to lose population and to become more violent and unequal, despite any bright spots in a few areas of the city and a few sectors of the economy.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The end is nigh

Following up on the rather morose tone of my last blog post, I am linking to the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends report.  They put this out every four years, in part to help incoming presidents of the US brush up on what's happening in the world (fat chance that Trump can get through more than 2 pages of anything, much less 235 pages from the intelligence agencies he so reviles).  You know that sinking feeling you've had in your gut over the past few months?  You're not alone, and you're not far off the mark.  The report talks of rising internal and international tensions, economic stagnation, sociopathic actors empowered by technology, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and general anti-democratic sentiments.  It's all pretty grim, or as the report says, there will be "deep shifts in the global landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future".

I am in a funny place in my life right now.  On the one hand, I am fulfilled professionally, enjoy living where I do, I have a great time with my wife and kids.  I live in a pretty perfect bubble.  But in the meanwhile, I am often very worried and even depressed thinking about the state of the world, particularly the United States, where I don't live anymore and thus can't do much to help in its current travails.  This report only adds to my uneasy sensation.

That said, the final phrase of the executive summary (which is as far as I got or intend to get) gives a note of hope:
The most resilient societies will likely be those that unleash and embrace the full potential of all individuals—whether women and minorities or those battered by recent economic and technological trends. They will be moving with, rather than against, historical currents, making use of the ever-expanding scope of human skill to shape the future. In all societies, even in the bleakest circumstances, there will be those who choose to improve the welfare, happiness, and security of others—employing transformative technologies to do so at scale. While the opposite will be true as well—destructive forces will be empowered as never before—the central puzzle before governments and societies is how to blend individual, collective, and national endowments in a way that yields sustainable security, prosperity, and hope. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sobering thoughts from Dr. King



Here is a rather sobering video from the Reverend Doctor.  It seems that toward the end of his life he was becoming increasingly aware that the fight to end poverty and unjust war was a million times more difficult than the fight to change a few formal discriminatory laws in the Jim Crow South.  Ironically, it seems that where Malcolm X became a bit more reformist, tolerant, and even optimistic in his last year (which in turn earned him a death sentence from his old, intolerant colleagues), Martin Luther King Junior seems to have veered Leftward, becoming more radical and necessarily less optimistic.  This too earned him death, from those who wanted the status quo preserved.  Malcolm and Martin began to converge from their different ends of the spectrum.

I don't see Dr. King too hopeful in this video, and I believe that if he were alive today, he would sadly acknowledge how prescient his pessimism was.  We are on the tails of a pretty depressing year, heading into the dawn of a new age of racism and systemic oppression under a new president.  The guns of war still entice too many, and the war on poverty is replaced by a spiteful war on the poor.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Meritocracy and grace

Here is a good article that gets at something I've long felt but couldn't put my finger on or succinctly describe as such:  the moral bankruptcy of the modern economy based on narratives of meritocracy and ultra-competitiveness.  In short, the current US economy is not in fact very meritocratic, since the wealthy and the well-educated  get good jobs that keep them above the fray of the most fierce competition, while the poor are stuck in crappy jobs that offer little hope of advancement, regardless of their hard work, and they are kept from the educational opportunities that would endow them with the "merit" to access better jobs.  But the meritocratic ideal serves to exalt the well-off as more worthy, more meriting of success, and scorn the losers of society as lacking in character, ability, and drive.  In short, the ideal of meritocracy does more to entrench a stark separation of the classes than to really provide equal opportunity for all.  Beyond this, meritocracy is often taken to mean that some people are more deserving than others of basic human dignity.  What of those who don't have as much "merit" according to the standards of a given society (those who are less smart, less educated, less ambitious, less white, less beautiful, less Brahman, whatever)?  Should they not enjoy the same rights, comforts, and benefits of a given society?

I like the author's proposal that we should all inject more grace into our lives.  This means that we should look to improve life for all, not simply those we deem to be more deserving according to some arbitrary standard.  I think that we in the US particularly are very quick to "excuse nothing" (to quote from the article), to look for reasons to blame the victim of a given situation, or to disqualify someone from our sympathies because of some perceived deficiency that makes them "deserve" their misfortune. 

But at the same time, I think many of us live situations in which we recognize that a meritocracy is not a valid system.  That family member or child of yours who for whatever reason can't take care of himself without cash support from everyone in the tribe?  You don't simply let them rot, because despite their flaws, you love them and feel responsibility for them.  The crazy guy on your block that people give food to and let stay in their garage on cold nights?  You feel a collective duty to take care of him.  People's mere humanity entitles them to a certain share of dignity.  Their humanity is its own merit. 

Societies that work well manage to expand this sense of shared responsibility for one another to include everyone in the society.  In the US I feel this expansion of consciousness often runs up against our own racial prejudices.  The sympathy many are now feeling for the white underclass, afflicted as it is by outsourcing, deindustrialization, drug abuse, and violence, is a good thing, but where was it when blacks and Latinos were going through the same things starting in the 1960s?  Too many of us that are now talking of treating rural opioid or methamphetamine addiction as a public health problem were eager to treat inner-city crack or heroine addiction as a failing of individual character, to be met brutally with incarceration and humiliation. 

I'll close with another quote from the article: 
"the people who could learn from grace are the prosperous and college-educated, who often find it hard to empathize with those—both white and nonwhite—who live outside their sunny, well-ordered worlds. When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins—cultural and economic—they can deal more kindly with one another".

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Feuds among the just

This is an interesting article I saw about the World Wildlife Fund, a major international NGO that works to preserve natural areas and biodiversity.  It appears that another important NGO, Survival International, which is dedicated to working with indigenous communities around the world to protect their human rights, has placed a demand against the World Wildlife Fund for its support of anti-poaching squads that are harassing and threatening the Baka people that live in the rainforests of southeastern Cameroon.  From my reading, Survival has a sound case, which doesn't mean that World Wildlife Fund is totally invalid and its work to be dismissed, but simply that they need to clean up their act and right any wrongs in this particular case involving the Baka, and more generally anywhere in the world where their work to preserve nature runs counter to the right of indigenous people to manage their land as they see fit.

I wanted to share this with my readers because it looks to be one of myriad situations that show the great ambiguity in development work, and perhaps in any human endeavor.  Here are two groups that I consider good guys, two groups doing very valid, valuable work, but they are at odds because the noble cause of one group isn't being properly nuanced or tempered by the realities on the ground.  Most people in the world probably aren't even aware of either WWF or Survival Int., and may not entirely understand the subtle difference between protecting natural areas and protecting the rights of people in natural areas.  But these differences do exist and they do give rise to conflicts, and it is important to be aware of them.

This reminds me of another little-known historical conflict, namely that between women's suffragists in the US and advocates for human rights in the black community.  It appears that some very noble people who were fighting to win the vote for women, held quite unsavory and despicable attitudes about race, and even took advantage of the fear of and oppression towards blacks in the US in order to advance their cause.  Here is an article about the struggle between Ida B Wells, a key advocate for black rights, and the [white] women's suffrage movement in the US.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Screaming the truth in opposite land

This is a simple, quasi-manifesto from Charles Blow.  In it he insists on the importance of continuing to speak the truth, to not soften or accomodate our relationship with things we think are fundamentally wrong about Mr. Trump's ascendancy and impending presidency.  The present situation is not normal, and we should not allow ourselves to become comfortable with it.  This is an important, inspiring counterpoint to the personal and collective compromises people make in a state of emotional, misleading propaganda.

My own little addition to Mr. Blow's insights is that recently I've been dismayed by the tendency in US society, both in the very public political and media sphere, but also on a personal level in our daily interactions, to discount or even disdain decency, honesty, insistence on what's right, and the pursuit of the common good.  Those who speak out in favor of human rights, who fight against discrimination of all kinds, who say it's wrong to cheat the system for personal gain, or who argue against faulty logic or destructive passions, can be easily dismissed as being unrealistic, idealistic, "politically correct", or even elitist.  It is a sad state of affairs when those who advocate oppressing, swindling, and excluding the vast mass of humanity (both inside and outside the US) based on their incomes, or their skin color, or the religion they practice, are considered to be "of the people", while those who speak out against oppression and exclusion are considered to be elitist.  A rich kleptocrat whose fortunes are based on dishonesty, bad dealing, and a huge inheritance is framed to be the populist, and the grassroots organizations staffed by ill-paid, decent, working people who struggle to pay bills are framed as being out of touch with the very populations from whom they have sprung and whose interests they represent. 

This inversion of roles represents the ultimate triumph of destructive ultra-Right Wing tendencies, by their successfully labeling progressive causes and people with all the bad qualities in fact held by those who oppose those noble causes.  If the Right-Wing dictatorships of 1980s Latin America had been smarter, they wouldn't have persisted in their use of brute force to control society, but instead would have followed today's playbook of very publicly labeling those who fought on behalf of the poor masses as somehow being pretentious and scornful of the people.