Finding Solace in Nature

W.J. Astore

I write a lot about politics and war, and both are depressing and frustrating subjects here in the USA. But I’m not an intense political junkie, nor am I closely following all of America’s wars. If I were, I might be clinically depressed.

I’m sure my readers find purpose and comfort in something other than America’s tragic political scene and its endless wars. One thing I like to do is pick up my camera and go for walks. And since I live near a salt marsh, there’s always opportunities to take photos of nature.

Here are a few that I took this AM:

Come, sit, let us reason together
A flash of blue below my feet
The marsh at low tide. A warm and windy morning.
Sentinels
Your kindly photographer

I’ve been taking photographs since high school, where I took a photography class and developed my own film (black and white). I had a basic 35mm camera for the longest time. I think I bought my first digital camera about 15 years ago. It’s a hobby and I’m strictly an amateur with the most basic equipment, but I truly enjoy getting outside and taking pictures. The camera forces me to slow down and look more closely; to abide in nature, if you will.

I hope you enjoy these “bracing views” and that you also have a way of escaping, a place of solace.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

Cape Cod Bay, June 2010 (author’s photo)

W.J. Astore

Perhaps my favorite biblical verse comes from the New Testament in Luke 17:21 when Christ says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you.”  You could spend a lifetime thinking about that.

Recently, I googled it and discovered the Catholic church has tried to demystify it, retranslating it as “the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” and suggesting Christ here is trying to awaken the Pharisees to his presence and to recruit more apostles.  So much for looking within at this most profound of Christ’s teachings.

I have many gripes with “modern” translations of the Bible, which largely diminish, even despoil, the poetry of older translations like the KJV (King James Version) or the even earlier translation by William Tyndale.

So I broke out my Catholic Bible from 1962; it renders the passage as “For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”  My NIV Bible from 1984 is the same, except there’s a footnote that says “within” could be translated as “among.”  Is nothing sacred, all you wannabe translators and all you organized church tools? 

Christ’s teaching that the kingdom of God is within you is a mystery.  What does it mean?  This is what it means to me.  In trying to understand God, I think we humans are really trying to understand ourselves. The vast power of our own minds and imaginations. It’s not God that’s limitless: it’s our conceptions of what god (or gods) can be. But even as we humans imagine and conceive of god, we become jealous of our mental creations and then start lording them over others. We conceive of god(s) as jealous and vindictive and violent because we are.

Some will immediately say that I blaspheme; that I’m saying that humans are really god in the sense we create god.  Of course, the Bible teaches the opposite: that God created us. 

It is of course a matter of faith but think about this.  We’re told we’re made in God’s image (even though we’ve been so busy creating him in our image).  Surely this doesn’t refer to our bodies, which age and decay.  Surely this refers to our minds, our dreams, our imaginations, which viewed in the aggregate across humanity continue to grow, to discover new things, to conceive of new ideas.  To create.  As humans, we create.  And when we create, we ignite the divine spark within us.

Yet we are obviously not god.  For I was taught God is good.  God is love.  And we humans are definitely not consistently good or loving.  Quite the opposite.  But of course we can displace our sins onto a fallen angel who corrupts us: Lucifer.  It’s not our fault, or not entirely ours, right?  The devil made me do it.

I prefer to think of god as the absolute best of us, the most mysterious part of us, our ability to create, to conceive of new things, to dream, to imagine.  That human ability seems god-like in the sense it’s truly unlimited.  And if it’s not unlimited, how would we know it wasn’t?

It’s not time to worship ourselves in place of god.  Rather, as Abraham Lincoln said in a different context, it’s time to start looking to the better angels of our nature.  It’s time to tap the kingdom of God within us.  And to share it without jealousy or rancor or exclusivity.

And not only within us; the kingdom of God is also all around us.  Humans are an incredibly destructive lot.  We must not think much of God when we’re so busy despoiling and destroying her creation.

The sacred is within and without.  And if we start thinking that way, and have a proper reverence for the sacred, we can focus on being constructive rather than destructive.  We can honor the god within us by cherishing and saving the god without us.  That means putting life first, all forms of life, including our own, as manifestations of the divine spark.

Postscript 1: I hope God forgives my random capitalization of her/his name.

Postscript 2: A friend notes how much ink’s been spilled throughout history contemplating God’s nature, the lives of saints, and so on.  Theology used to be “the queen of the sciences.”  I sent this back to him:

One thing about studying theology with such fervor — you probably won’t invent weapons to blow the world into a literal Armageddon from above. No — you’ll just imagine Armageddon coming from above. That said, it’s also true that religion can be used so powerfully to condone the murderous mistreatment of others. Knowledge is power, after all, even (especially?) knowledge of god [whatever “knowledge of god” means]. God is good, but humanity? Not so much.

In Christianity, God sent a Gospel or “good news.”  He told us to love one another.  How has such a simple message of goodness and giving become so badly twisted and so often ignored?

My 1st trip to the Continental Divide, about 35 years ago

Censorship and America’s Culture of Treachery

Joe and Hunter Biden in 2010

T.J. Osteen.  Introduction by W.J. Astore

Treachery and politics fit like hand-in-glove in today’s America.  Donald Trump is now calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in the next two weeks. Along with blanket support of corporations, big finance, the military-industrial complex, and other privileged elites, the Republican and Democratic parties share a predilection for treachery.  But is such treachery more common today among liberal elites than conservative ones?  Such is the provocative question raised by Tom Osteen in this essay, his first for Bracing Views.  W.J. Astore

T.J. Osteen on Treachery in America

The recent Biden corruption bombshells are not surprising. That Hunter is alleged to have peddled influence on behalf of Burisma, a Ukrainian company, in return for a no-show “job” that paid $50,000 a month, implicating his father, who was then America’s vice president, is disturbing on its face, but it has also served up collateral damage, putting on full display the alarming problem of censorship by the media.

Censorship by the media has increased dramatically in recent years, whether it be by Facebook, Twitter, or the mainstream media. In this case, Twitter and Facebook initially worked to limit the Biden corruption story; other mainstream outlets ignored it or dismissed it as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This is more than censorship: it is election interference — in a word, cheating. Other examples arrive daily, including (even more recently than the Biden fiasco) Amazon’s rejection of the Who Killed Michael Brown documentary. Per the Wall Street Journal, this was because the documentary did not fit the dominant narrative of White police officers killing young Black men because of systemic racism.

Why the increase in censorship? Because it is a symptom of something even more ominous. Rather than splitting hairs over the definition of censorship, or what Freedom of Speech means, let’s look at the root cause: the new Culture of Treachery in America.

American culture has evolved from honor-based to dignity-based, and more recently to victim-based. Some quick background on those concepts, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Honour cultures, often called honour-shame cultures are cultures like that of the American West or Europe in the era when dueling was common. In such cultures, honour is paramount and when it is infringed upon the offended party retaliates directly.”

“A dignity culture, according to Campbell and Manning, has moral values and behavioral norms that promote the value of every human life, encouraging achievement in its children while teaching that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’”

“According to Campbell and Manning, victim-based culture engenders ‘competitive victimhood,’ incentivizing even privileged people to claim that they are the victims of, for example, reverse discrimination.  According to Claire Lehmann, Manning and Campbell’s culture of victimhood sees moral worth as largely defined by skin color and membership in a fixed identity group.”

Just like the rapid news cycle that we now live with, we are already starting to move into a new cultural phase: the American culture of treachery is upon us. The culture of treachery promulgates a “succeed at all costs” mentality and celebrates the destruction of perceived enemies through power. Traditional values have no place in a culture of treachery. Likewise for liberty and justice. The only value is power: the ability to impose one’s will on another, by any means necessary.

Censorship is just one of the many aspects of a culture of treachery. Others include intolerance, deception, manipulation, and hate. The evidence is all around us now, whether it be “cancel culture” or the Russia hoax embraced by the Democrats in their failed attempt to overturn a presidential election.

So where is the source of the treachery in our society? Often the media focuses on Donald Trump and his circle, but we need look no further than who is doing the censoring. Big Tech, the mainstream media, academia, and Hollywood.

But why? These groups have several things in common. They all lean left, they all deal in power, and they all believe they have the answers. So here is the rub: Treachery arises here because liberals are just as likely to act unethically than conservatives to gain or preserve power. When presented with the opportunity to modify a search algorithm or filter information, a liberal (again in general) will do it just as readily as – or even more eagerly than – a conservative.

A so-called liberal value set makes it acceptable to manipulate search results, indoctrinate young minds toward personal political views, cancel those who have different views, or spin news stories while ignoring the truth. Far too often, it is Fox News and other conservative outlets that are condemned for malfeasance and malpractice when it’s liberal sites and power centers that are the true masters of manipulation.

So it comes down to values. Censorship is cheating. Cheating is treachery. Treachery has become as much a “value” of the Left as it is of the Right, and indeed more so as election day approaches.

The coming election and the divide in our country is not solely about policy and differing points of view. At its core, it is about whether we are going to become a Culture of Treachery or whether we are not. Culture comes from the heart. Only an across-the-board rejection of treachery will allow us to enter a productive new era of American culture and restore America to something approaching greatness.

Tom Osteen is a career technology executive and former military officer.  He holds degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Southern California.  An avid surfer, Tom also writes/speaks on Leading with Honor and Honor in the Workplace.

The Election Without a Future

Their vision for the future is stuck in the past

W.J. Astore

Isn’t it remarkable that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have no compelling vision of a future America?

Both Biden and Trump are retrograde candidates. Biden talks of restoration. He wants to restore comity and decency. To turn the clock back to a mythical time of bipartisan accord. A time when Americans sought to help other Americans. Trump, of course, is about division and carnage but he has his own vision of restoration. Trumps appeals to the America of the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Vietnam War protests, before the Women’s Liberation movement, before Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, and (taking it back even further, to the Roaring Twenties, perhaps), before FDR’s New Deal.

It tells us something that Biden and Trump are so past-oriented. It suggests our best days are behind us, that we know, on some level, the future is in the crapper, what with extreme weather, anti-social technologies, forever wars, pandemics, exploding deficits, and the ever-growing gap between the richest few and poorest many.

The America I grew up in was future-oriented. Space travel would be routine. We’d have a moonbase; we’d have journeyed to Mars and Jupiter; we’d have flying cars; we’d have rewarding work, with more leisure time; we’d live longer, healthier, richer lives. That was a vision of the new millennium, but here we are, twenty years into it, and our political candidates look desperately (Biden) or maniacally (Trump) to pasts that never really existed.

A saying attributed to Yogi Berra is that the future ain’t what it used to be. Now it seems we have no future. Just one day after another, chasing our tails and calling it “progress.”

Why is this? Perhaps it’s because certain powerful forces in American society like things just the way they are. They’d rather have us fighting over which past is more comfortable to us than have us reaching for a new future without them in charge. That’s one big reason we have two presidential candidates in their seventies with their gear shifts locked permanently in reverse.

Biden and Trump both want us peering closely into the rear view mirror (even as Trump’s is more distorted) when we should be looking ahead through the windshield. Put differently, Biden is comity without change, and Trump is American carnage on steroids. Considering both, it’s an election without a future.

Bring Back National Service

Dad in Oregon
My dad (2nd from left) in Oregon with some of the “fellows,” c.1937

With fires raging in California and Oregon, and with unemployment rates high, I recalled the experiences of my dad, which I wrote about twelve years ago for TomDispatch.com.  My dad served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mainly fighting forest fires in Oregon.  The CCC was one of those alphabet soup agencies created by FDR’s administration to put people back to work while paying them a meaningful wage.  You might call it “democratic socialism,” but I prefer to call it common sense and applaud its spirit of service to country.

We need to revive national service while deemphasizing its military aspects.  There are all sorts of honorable services one can render to one’s fellow citizens, as my father’s example shows from the 1930s, an era that now seems almost biblical in its remoteness from today’s concerns.

Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?
Reviving National Service in a Big Way
By William J. Astore

Lately, our news has focused on tropical depressions maturing into monster hurricanes that leave devastation in their wake — and I’m not just talking about Gustav and Ike. Today, we face a perfect storm of financial devastation, notable for the enormity of the greed that generated it and the somnolent response of our government in helping Americans left devastated in its wake.

As unemployment rates soar to their highest level in five years and home construction sinks to its lowest level in 17 years, all our federal government seems able to do is buy up to $700 billion in “distressed” mortgage-related assets, bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (at a cost of roughly $200 billion) or “loan” $85 billion to liquidate insurance giant AIG. If you’re Merrill Lynch, you get a hearing; if you’re just plain Marilyn Lynch of Topeka, what you get is a recession, a looming depression, and a federal tax bill for the fat-cat bail-outs.

But, amazingly enough, ordinary Americans generally don’t want bail-outs, nor do they want handouts. What they normally want is honorable work, decent wages, and a government willing to wake up and help them contribute to a national restoration.

How America Was Once Rebuilt

Before surging ahead, however, let’s look back. Seventy-five years ago, our country faced an even deeper depression. Millions of men had neither jobs, nor job prospects. Families were struggling to put food on the table. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon widely known as the CCC.

From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.

My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.

Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.

Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.

Of course, I’m hardly alone in suggesting the importance of national service. Last year, in Time Magazine, for example, Richard Stengel called for a revival of national service and urged the formation of a “Green Corps,” analogous to the CCC, and dedicated to the rejuvenation of our national infrastructure.

To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, John McCain and Barack Obama recently spoke in glowing terms of national service at a forum hosted by Columbia University. Both men expressed support for increased governmental spending, with McCain promising that, as president, he would sign into law the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” which would, among other things, triple the size of the AmeriCorps. (Of course, McCain had just come from a Republican convention that had again and again mocked Obama’s time as a “community organizer” and, even at Columbia, he expressed a preference for faith-based organizations and the private sector over service programs run by the government.) Obama has made national service a pillar of his campaign, promising to spend $3.5 billion annually to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, while also doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

It all sounds impressive. But is it? Compared to the roughly $900 billion being spent in FY2009 on national defense, homeland security, intelligence, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $3.5 billion seems like chump change, not a major investment in national service or in Americans. When you consider the problems facing American workers and our country, both McCain and Obama are remarkable in their timidity. Now is surely not the time to tinker with the controls on a ship of state that’s listing dangerously to starboard.

Do I overstate? Here are just two data points. Last month our national unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, a five-year high. This year alone, we’ve shed more than 600,000 jobs in eight months. If you include the so-called marginally attached jobless, 11 million Americans are currently out of work, which adds up to a real unemployment rate of 7.1%. Now, that doesn’t begin to compare to the unemployment rate during the Great Depression which, at times, exceeded 20%. In absolute terms, however, 11 million unemployed American workers represent an enormous waste of human potential.

How can we get people off the jobless rolls, while offering them useful tasks that will help support families, while building character, community, and country?

Here’s where our federal government really should step in, just as it did in 1933. For we face an enormous national challenge today which goes largely unaddressed: shoring up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers did a survey of, and a report card on, the state of the American infrastructure. Our country’s backbone earned a dismal “D,” barely above a failing (and fatal) grade. The Society estimates that we need to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure maintenance and improvements over the next five years or face ever more collapsing bridges and bursting dams. It’s a staggering sum, until you realize that we’re already approaching a trillion dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.

No less pressing than a trillion-dollar investment in our nation’s physical health is a commensurate investment in the emotional and civic well-being of our country — not just the drop-in-the-bucket amounts both Obama and McCain are talking about, but something commensurate with the task ahead of us. As our president dithers, even refusing to use the “R” word of recession, The Wall Street Journal quotes Mark Gertler, a New York University economist, simply stating this is “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The best and fairest way to head off that crisis is not simply to spend untold scores of billions of taxpayer dollars rescuing (or even liquidating) recklessly speculative outfits that gave no thought to ordinary workers while they were living large. Rather, our government should invest scores of billions in empowering the ordinary American worker, particularly those who have suffered the most from the economic ravages of our financial hurricane.

Just as in 1933, a call today to serve our country and strengthen its infrastructure would serve to reenergize a shared sense of commitment to America. Such service would touch millions of Americans in powerful ways that can’t be fully predicted in advance, just as it touched my father as a young man.

What “Ordinary” Americans Are Capable Of

My father was a self-confessed “regular guy,” and his CCC service was typical. He was a “woodsman-falling,” a somewhat droll job title perhaps, but one that concealed considerable danger. In the fall of 1936, he fought the Bandon forest fire in Oregon, a huge conflagration that burned 100,000 acres and killed a dozen people. To corral and contain that fire, he and the other “fellows” in his company worked on the fire lines for five straight weeks. At one point, my father worked 22 hours straight, in part because the fire raged so fiercely and so close to him that he was too scared to sleep (as he admitted to me long after).

My father was 19 when he fought that fire. Previously, he had been a newspaper boy and had after the tenth grade quit high school to support the family. Still, nothing marked him as a man who would risk his own life to save the lives of others, but his country gave him an opportunity to serve and prove himself, and he did.

Before joining the CCC, my father had been a city boy, but in the Oregon woods he discovered a new world of great wonder. It enriched his life, just as his recollections of it enrich my own:

“Thunder and lightning are very dangerous in the forest. Well, one stormy night a Forest Ranger smoke chaser got a call from the fire tower. They spotted a small night fire; getting the location the Ranger took me and another CCC boy to check it out. After walking about a mile in the woods we spotted the fire. It had burned a circle of fire at least 100 yards in diameter from the impact of the lightning bolt.

“You never saw anything so beautiful. The trees were all lit in fire; the fire on the ground was lit up in hot coals. Also fiery embers were falling off the trees. Some of the trees were dried dead snags. It looked like the New York skyline lit up at night. The Ranger radioed back for a fire crew. Meanwhile the three of us started to contain the fire with a fire trail.

“Later, we got caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains. We stretched a tarpaulin to protect ourselves from the downpours. You could see the storm clouds, with thunder and lightning flashing, approaching and passing over us. Then the torrents of rain. It would stop and clear with stars shining. And sure enough it must have repeated the sequence at least five times. What a night.”

Jump ahead to 2008 and picture a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Do you see a self-centered slacker, someone too preoccupied exercising his thumbs on video games, or advertising himself on MySpace and Facebook, to do much of anything to help anyone other than himself?

Sure, there are a few of these. Aren’t there always? But many more young Americans already serve or volunteer in some capacity. Even our imaginary slacker may just need an opportunity — and a little push — to prove his mettle. We’ll never know unless our leaders put our money where, at present, only their mouths are.

Remaking National Service — And Our Country

Today, when most people think of national service, they think of military service. As a retired military officer, I’m hardly one to discount the importance of such service, but we need to extend the notion of service beyond the military, beyond national defense, to embrace all dimensions of civic life. Imagine if such service was as much the norm as in the 1930s, rather than the exception, and imagine if our government was no longer seen as the problem, but the progenitor of opportunity and solutions?

Some will say it can no longer be done. Much like Rudy Giuliani, they’ll poke fun at the whole idea of service, and paint the government as dangerously corrupt, or wasteful, or even as the enemy of the people — perhaps because they’re part of that same government.

How sad. We don’t need jaded “insiders” or callow “outsiders” in Washington; what we need are doers and dreamers. We need leaders with faith both in the people — the common worker with uncommon spirit — and the government to inspire and get things done.

The unselfish idealism, work ethic, and public service of the CCC could be tapped again, if only our government remembers that our greatest national resource is not exhaustible commodities like oil or natural gas, but the inexhaustible spirit and generosity of the American worker.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2008 William Astore

Staying Sane in the Age of Trump

parallel-universe

Richard Sahn

As a social scientist living through horrific political, economic, and public health crises, I should be embracing with all my might philosophical materialism, the epistemological model behind science.  That I don’t could cost me personal and collegial respect, not to mention friendships. So, what exactly is philosophical materialism, and why do I find it ultimately non-collegial?

Philosophy precedes science.  It’s impossible to have science (or the sciences) without a presupposition about what is real, which is the arena of philosophy.  Philosophical materialism says that all that is real or factual is material or physical in nature.  And I find this too limiting.

I am more attuned to the Eastern philosophical model, intellectually supported these days by quantum physics, particularly the early 20th-century German physicist Werner Heisenberg.  It holds that non-material phenomena, such as dreams and hallucinations, are as real as physical phenomenon such as rocks and rivers, in one sense, even more real. (My dream is a reality sui generis. It is not electrochemical activity in my brain.) What’s more, all material and non-material phenomena come into existence from individual conscious intention and belief; there is no truly independent universe out there.

The good philosophical news here about the anti-materialist epistemological model is the plausibility of a multi-world or multi-dimensional universe.  If reality is a product of consciousness, rather than the other way around, it seems to me Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s claim that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” is really possible. In fact, the psycho-therapeutic value of that statement is considerable.

But what do I do with my propensity toward progressive activism? And what do I do with those great discussions I have with my friends on how disgusting and horrible the Trump administration is? Can I have both perspectives at the same time? Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And it seems counterintuitive to be, following the Bible, “in the world but not of the world,” to see everyday life as play, as a sort of game created by me and only for me.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for “alternative facts,” as the supporters of Trump do.  I’m not denying science or the dangers of Covid-19.  When I go out, I social distance and wear a mask as needed.  But I also believe there is a reality outside of rocks and rivers, so to speak, a reality created by my consciousness, an immaterial realm that has its own existence, whether for me or for all of us.  Some might call this a “higher” realm; I prefer to see it as linked to the material, for I myself am both physical and mental, both material and immaterial.

Those epistemological paradigms, material and  immaterial, provide me with solace in these dark days.  Not everything is controlled by others, and especially not by the Cult of Trump.  I decide.  And for me that’s an empowering thought at a time when power is being actively denied to so many of us.

Richard Sahn is a retired sociology professor and a regular contributor to Bracing Views.

White Privilege

download
Poster Child for White Privilege

W.J. Astore

As a concept, “white privilege” is disturbing, contentious, insulting, take your pick, assuming you’re a white guy like me enjoying “advanced middle age,” as one of my old friends recently put it.  Me, privileged?  I come from a working-class background, grew up in a triple-decker in a decaying city, started working at age 15, went to college on a ROTC scholarship, served in the military for twenty years, and so on.  I didn’t “succeed” because I’m a cis white male, right?  Where was “my” privilege?

Of course, privilege is often invisible or barely visible; it’s stealthy.  It may mean you’re not being watched because you’re white.  You’re not being stopped and frisked because you’re white.  People don’t cross the street because you’re white.  Maybe you’re not shot at or choked out because you’re white.

The clearest illustration of white privilege I can think of is Donald Trump, and it’s not because I’m a Trump hater.  (I’m opposed to Trump and Biden.)

Think about Trump.  He’s been married three times.  Has had five kids with three different wives.  Brags about pussy-grabbing.  Has had documented affairs with a Playboy playmate and a porn star while paying them hush money.  And none of this behavior has ruined his political chances, even among the “family values” evangelical crowd.  Indeed, evangelicals generally love “bad boy” Trump.

Now, imagine a black candidate for the presidency with Trump’s record.  The multiple marriages, the adulterous affairs, the pussy-grabbing talk.  Would this black guy have a ghost of a chance at being nominated in the USA?  Recall that Barack Obama needed to have the “perfect” family image, monogamous, faithful, wife, two kids, by all accounts a loving relationship, the prototypical nuclear family.  They even had a dog, unlike Trump, who seems to despise pets.  (Trump’s a germaphobe.)

Now, let’s imagine a woman of any race or creed.  What would America say about a female candidate who’s had five kids with three different husbands?  Who’s had adulterous affairs with porn stars and Playgirl centerfolds?  Who’s bragged of grabbing males by the you-know-what?  Would she have a chance to be our president?  To be embraced by evangelicals as their candidate of choice?  Of course not.

With Trump, all this doesn’t matter.  As a rich spoiled white guy, he’s been given a blank check by society to do whatever he wants.  Sure, he’s been criticized for his more outrageous comments and actions, but he still won the presidency — and may yet win again.  You simply can’t say the same of any woman or any person of color with the same baggage as Trump.

It’s amazing what Trump gets away with.  But this is not about partisan politics.  It’s about societal norms and expectations.  Consider John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Both were philanderers; LBJ was especially vulgar.  But all was accepted or at least tolerated because they were white males acting in “manly” ways.

This is just one obvious but nevertheless compelling illustration of white (male) privilege in America.  As my better half reminds me, for white men it’s easier walking down the sidewalk, buying a car, renting an apartment; basically, living.  And that is privilege indeed.

We Put A Man on the Moon …

apollo08_earthrise
Earthrise as seen by Apollo 8

W.J. Astore

Is it possible the U.S. hit a peak of sorts in 1969?  I know – 1969 was a Nixon year, another year of destruction in Vietnam, though the music in those days was far better than today.  But I’m thinking of Apollo, as in our landing on the moon in July of 1969.  Having recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, that momentous event is still on my mind, especially when I think of the old poster I had on my bedroom wall that showed the Apollo journey from earth to the moon, its various stages and maneuvers.  It was all bewildering to a young boy caught up in the space program, but at least I knew my country was at the forefront of science.

In 1969 America reached the moon!  We respected science.  Many Americans were trying to end a disastrous war in Vietnam.  People marched for civil rights, they fought for equal rights, there was a sense America’s potential was nearly limitless.

WTF in 2020?  Many Americans, including our president, don’t respect science.  We fire doctors for calling out quack medical cures.  We put a breeder of labradoodles in charge of our Covid-19 pandemic response.  Wars just go on forever with little resistance.  We’re sliding backwards in rights for minorities, for women, for workers.  And the space program?  Moribund in the USA.  We’re very much stuck on earth, an earth that is less hospitable to life than it was fifty years ago.

The years 1970-2020 has defined a half-century of American decline.  Perhaps we might speak of five bad “emperors”: Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Shrub Bush, and Obama, now joined by Trump, our very own blend of Nero and Caligula.  He fiddles and diddles while America burns.

Joe Biden and the establishment Democrats are hardly the answer.  Even Jesus isn’t the answer unless we start taking His words about the rich (and so much else) seriously.  The Jesus of my youth had no use for greed and money and material goods – He taught us our treasure was in heaven, gained by righteous living through faith while manifesting love.  That sacrificial message is drowned out today by the so-called prosperity gospel, preached by ministers who are cashing in even as they tell their followers that wealth is the most legitimate form of God’s grace.  Back in the Catholic church of my youth, such ideas would have been blasphemous.  At my church I recall the example set by Sister Emily and Sister Jane Elizabeth – they sure weren’t living in luxury.  Forgive them, sisters, they know not what they do.

Here we are, in 2020, in a land of un-truth, in a universe of alternative facts, in belief systems where money matters more than anything, where even ministers stoke conflict, and we wonder why we can’t come together and develop a clear, coherent, and coordinated response to the coronavirus crisis.

How to change this?  How about letting experts lead us?  You know the saying: it ain’t rocket science.  But Apollo was rocket science, and so we deferred to experts, and they got us to the moon and back six times and patched together an amazing rescue of Apollo 13 when it went wrong.  To beat Covid-19, we can’t listen to Trump and his band of grifters and losers.  We must listen to the scientists, the doctors, and act collectively based on sound medical science.  The “rocket scientists” will get us through this, together with the humanists and the selfless efforts of so many medical workers and (mostly) nameless others.

Longer term, we need to re-create our government, because it has, quite simply, betrayed most of us.  Simultaneously, we need to move beyond nationalism and think and act on a global scale to save our earth.  If Apollo taught us one thing, it’s the wondrous value of our own planet.  The moon may be a place of magnificent desolation, but who wants to live permanently in desolation?  We need global vision and action, not only to help prevent future pandemics, but also to preserve our planet as a viable biosphere for a global population projected to top ten billion people in the coming decades.

Nobody said it would be easy; yet if we stay on our current course, just about anybody can guess humanity’s fate.  But if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can come together to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

The year was 1969, and this song by the Youngbloods went gold: “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.  Right now.  Right now.”  It wasn’t – or shouldn’t be — just hippie dreaming.  Indeed, it’s the essence of true Christianity.

America’s Bizarre Cult of Death

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B-2 bomber flies over Kansas City to honor Covid-19 workers

W.J. Astore

A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.”  New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force.  “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.

Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life?  And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.

Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here.  We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe.  Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic?  From an article in The Guardian:

Estimated gun sales also soared to 2.58m in March, Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting reported, an 85.3% jump from the same time last year.

An explosion in gun sales during a pandemic suggests something about the American psyche that is truly scary.  So too do combat jets screaming in the skies as a celebration of heroic lifesavers.

American Health Care Is Wealth Care

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Covid-19 is exposing the American health care system’s greatest weakness: its focus on wealth rather than health

W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans lose their jobs due to Covid-19 disruptions, they also lose their health care, which is tied to their jobs.  Only in America is health care contingent on employment.  Efforts to create a national, single-payer, health care system have failed since the Truman administration in the late 1940s.  Americans have been sold on the idea that health care is best administered by “the free market,” which of course is neither free nor much of a market.

The American health care system puts profit over people; in short, it’s wealth care, not health care.  This is simply fact.  Health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, are motivated by money.  Indeed, health insurers make money by denying you coverage, not providing it.  They raise co-pays and deductibles to unbearable limits.  Meanwhile, they spend liberally on lobbyists to keep Congress in their pockets, as well as on advertising to persuade Americans that health insurers are always on your side.  Until you file a claim, that is, or need expensive treatment.

Health care should be about health, not wealth, and people, not profit.  Back in 2013, I wrote the following article on health care for Huffington Post.  Of course, the system has only grown worse.  America faces a crisis today, driven by a deadly pandemic.  Isn’t it time to embrace single-payer health care for all?

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Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.

And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.

Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).

Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.

America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.

Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.

But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.

Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.”

So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.

I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.

A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.