Saturday, February 28, 2009

Everybody Knows...

With apologies to Leonard Cohen. Here are a few more things that "Everybody knows..." but not everybody admits.

1) People know what is right and what is wrong.

2) It's hypocritical to whine about "welfare queens" scamming a few food stamps while turning a blind eye to the massive white collar crime that completely dwarfs welfare fraud in this country.

3) Hard work and talent will give you a comfortable living, but it will not make you extremely wealthy.

4) To become extremely wealthy, you need to be lucky, manipulative, and/or corrupt.

5) Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, and many other white-collar criminals have caused more harm than an entire prison full of drug dealers. But white-collar criminals are rarely -- if ever -- given the sentences they deserve.

6) Regular people have a lot more power than they think. Those who benefit from the status quo do not want large numbers of people to stand up for what's right.

7) For that reason (#6), a lot of talking heads divert our attention from issues that really matter, and ridicule or harass any attempt to organize.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Are Ancient People Less Human than I Am?

In this post, I rattled on about a disturbing political trend of valuing the lives (or well-being) of foreigners as less important than our own.

Now let's talk about religion. It's not surprising that religious perspectives are so closely related to political stances on such matters of "foreign relations." Open a Bible, read a few pages, and you'll be smack-dab in the middle of the argument.

Some Christians contrast the "Israel-centric" nature of the Old Testament with the "universal" audience of the New Testament. And, in fact, it's true. The Old Testament is, in large part, a history of the wars that Israel fought against anyone and everyone. Sometimes they attacked, sometimes they were attacked. Sometimes God ordered Israel to kill civilians, sometimes God used Israel's enemies to slaughter Israel's civilians. Or to be more accurate, in God's eyes, no infidel was a civilian.

While there are some notable exceptions, the idea that people in ancient Israel were more valuable than anyone else is fundamental to the Old Testament.

Much has been claimed about the religious revolution the New Testament writings initiated. But foreigners had always been permitted to join the Hebrew religion, as long as they joined the nation of Israel. If the New Testament really was revolutionary, perhaps it was not so much in a religious sense as in an ethnic sense. In a culture whose religion preached that non-Jews were worth little, Jesus and his followers suddenly asserted that human value is (at least relatively) independent of nationality or culture.

In modern politics and religion, the liberal-conservative split still seems to revolve around this issue. How much is your life worth compared to mine?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Are Foreigners Less Human Than I Am?

In a recent interview, Dick Cheney criticized the new political climate in which people "are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States."

That statement is worthy of ridicule. Cheney pretends that a large majority of US military captives are "Al Qaeda terrorists." But the real concern is that non-terrorists may be locked away without a fair trial. The US military has no business snatching up people and incarcerating them (and perhaps worse) for an indefinite time period. The time has long since passed for the US military to either put up solid evidence against those folks, or to let them go.

The bottom line: Dick Cheney wants you to assume the folks in Guantanamo deserve to suffer until it's proven otherwise. You don't know them, and they haven't been given a fair trial. The Bush administration convinced us that those prisoners do not deserve (what many Americans would consider) the basic human right of a fair trial.

Here's a related, all-too-familiar story. Hamas shoots rockets into Israel. Israel responds disproportionately, and many civilians are killed because they "got in the way" of the lesson that Israel needed to teach Hamas.

The bottom line: Any "disproportionate response" that involves civilians requires a calculus of human lives. Israel made a decision that the lives of Palestinian citizens were of small value compared to the lives of Israelis.

I'm sure there are terrorists incarcerated at Guantanamo, and I have sympathy for Israel and other nations that are attacked by terrorists or otherwise. But, Cheney aside, there's more to the story.

It's well-known that, in wartime, demonizing the enemy will stir up public support of the war. But in these cases, the demons are not soldiers or political leaders. We have demonized ordinary people who were unlucky enough to get in the way.

The distinction is as fundamental as the American creed "innocent until proven guilty."

Will we continue to follow Cheney's lead in assuming that foreigners are guilty until proven innocent? If we do not consider other nations and ethnic groups to be worthy of the human rights we claim for ourselves, who will defend us when we are in need?