Sunday, June 30, 2013

Republicans, doing their best to destroy America’s freedom

Last week will go down in history as a significant date in American history thanks to the Supreme Court of the United States and their 5-4 decision declaring the Federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.  Predictably, Republican leaders bemoaned the defeat, declaring the demise of America. Personally, it’s beyond me how giving the same rights and benefits to all people is itself un-American, but remember, these are Republicans we’re talking about. In their upside down world, equal rights is a bad thing while dismantling the guarantee of equal protection for others is a good thing. What I’m speaking of specifically is the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. 

While the death of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is certainly worth celebrating for some time, I fear that most Americans will soon forget (and likely have already have forgotten) about the tragic dismissal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by this same Supreme Court.  The Voting Rights act was enacted by Congress to limit the power of states to disenfranchise individual voters.  Southern, white- dominated states had since the end of the Civil War Reconstruction done nearly anything and everything to keep African Americans from fulfilling their constitutional right to vote. Racist whites in the south put barriers into place such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and limited voter registration access all to keep African Americans from voting successfully. The Voting Rights Act mandated that any law passed by certain states had to have approval from the federal government before the laws could actually be put into place. Now however because of the decision of the Supreme Court last Tuesday, states formerly required to seek approval from the federal government can now do whatever they want.

'Vote!' photo (c) 2008, kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop) - license:
Texas, one of the states formerly covered under the law wasted no time, immediately enacting a Voter ID law and re-drawn district maps that were previously disallowed.   The Voter ID requirement is purported by voting rights activists to be another effort to disenfranchise minority voters while the re-drawn district maps similarly were understood by the Voting Rights law to purposefully limit the voting power of minorities.  Juxtaposed to the decision of the Court on gay marriage, this dismissal of the Voting Rights act seems make it seem like one step forward, two steps back for America.

The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices, five of which were appointed by Republican Presidents, four by Democratic Presidents. Oddly enough, it was the five Republican appointees which made up the 5-4 majority which gutted the power of the Voting Rights Act.  I say oddly because the Republican Party has been preaching a gospel of “freedom” and “liberty” in response to the “tyrannical rule” of President Obama and his supposed “socialist agenda” for the US.   One would think that Republicans of all people, would be for enhancing, not detracting from, one’s ability to vote.  After all, the US Government is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as Lincoln so famously said in his Gettysburg address. The individual voter is essential in our democracy and liberty. Ironically enough, even with the defeat of California’s Prop 8, the loss of the voting rights law will make it easier for unjust and unconstitutional laws like Prop 8 to be put into place.

'I Voted!' photo (c) 2008, Julie Vazquez - license: the conservatives in the Supreme Court, Republicans nationwide are passing bogus voter-ID laws, limiting voting hours, purging voter rolls and enacting 25 state laws making it tougher to exercise one’s constitutional right to vote. Voter fraud is a complete myth, a “problem” created by conservatives as an excuse to enact laws to limit minority voting (who tend to vote Democratic).  It’s entirely hypocritical that a political party so “devoted” to freedom and liberty would purposefully limit the rights and freedoms of others. If Republicans were really about freedom and liberty, they would be celebrating the recent laws in Colorado that make it easier for people to take part in the democratic process and vote.

 If I didn’t know better, I’d think most Republican leaders just weren’t that intelligent, that they can’t recognize the obvious hypocrisy and inconsistency amongst their “freedom and liberty”.  But, I actually do know better. Truth is, when conservatives talk of freedom and liberty, they mean freedom and liberty for themselves only.  Therefore, conservatives can talk of “freedom and liberty” while at the same time limiting the voting and marrying privileges of others, because in their efforts to “restore America” to the time of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, Republicans would seemingly like to see America also go back to the days when the only people who were able to vote were rich, white, males. The only freedom and liberty conservative Republicans really want is the freedom from diversity, equality, and true liberty for all.    

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Please don’t call me lazy…

'Lazy Dog' photo (c) 2010, Stephen Nakatani - license:
Lazy Dog

The other day at work when I was hot, tired and in need of a break I gladly passed off a task to a lower level employee who in turn muttered that my actions (or perhaps lack thereof!) was because of “laziness” on my part.  I recount this not because the estimation of this co-worker matters to me—I care more about Kim Kardashian’s choice of wardrobe than this person’s opinion—but because it seems to speak to a larger culture I’ve seen a play for some time.  It speaks of an attitude where those in power and authority get to throw out labels like “lazy,” “apathetic,” or “stupid.” It’s frustrated me for some time, having words like that carelessly thrown about in the direction of myself or others.

Recently I was reading from the book Fully Awake and Truly Alive, a book on spiritual practices by Reverend Jane Vennard.  In a section on humility—certainly something we all could use a little more of (myself included)—Vennard mentioned that spiritual growth is accepting our own limitations and the limitations of those around us.  She writes that “when we encounter limitations in others, we are tempted to judge and to blame.” It’s just so easy to do, to hold someone to our own set of standards or guidelines. Now I’d be untruthful if I claimed innocence, but as someone who has also been on the receiving end of judgment (and often powerless to do anything about it), I can attest to how unhealthy  and unconstructive such labels are.

Implied within Vennard’s thoughts is that we are mistaken when we assume our norms are universal for everyone. Perhaps I was being “lazy” in the mind of my co-worker, yet I doubt he was aware of how hard I had been working, how I was tired at the end of a long week, how I go home and run a few miles after work, how I come home to take care of my young child and try to keep the house from looking like a nuclear waste dump… He may think I’m lazy, but I bet he didn’t have to change diapers and do laundry the night before. That’s the problem with assuming our standards should be the norm for everyone else.

To counter this temptation, Vennard recommends that we take the wider view and let go of judgment and blame.  She understands this to be an important part of humility—being unwilling to look down on anyone else.  If I’m truly humble, can I really assume I’m better than everyone else? Further, she asserts  that beyond letting go of the judgment and blame we should instead trust one another. “Can we trust that others are doing the best they can at the moment?” she asks. That means letting go of the judgment and mistrust and rather giving one another the benefit of the doubt—simply giving others the benefit of the doubt we would want others to give us. After all, most of the time I would say I am doing the best I can at the moment based on the circumstances.  Can we assume the same for others? So can we be as gracious with others as we are with ourselves? Can we recognize there are circumstances beyond our knowledge at work in their own lives, just as there is in ours?  

Rather than throwing out hurtful and judgmental labels, let us be gracious and generous with one another. Let’s be humble and caring, understanding our own ways might be best for ourselves—but not everyone else. Let’s trust that others are doing the best they can at the moment. After all, that’s really all anyone can ask for isn’t it?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Beware Obama’s coming Liberal Zombie Army

Freedom loving Americans beware, President Obama is crafting a plan to turn “kids into debt zombies working for Big Government and various liberal causes.” You read that correctly, op-ed writer Aurther Herman is concerned that Obama is taking advantage of the growing student debt load to create an army of mindless Obama-drones.  Herman cites a plan by the Obama administration that would limit debt payment for student loan borrowers to 10% of their income after taxes and expenses.  After ten years of making these payments, the student debt would be forgiven for grads working in certain public or private fields. Specifically, that looks like graduates who teach in a public school or work for a 501c(3) charity—not any of the  501c(4)s that have been “targeted” in the IRS scandal as Herman tries to suggest. Also conveniently left out by Herman is the fact that military vets also qualify—further “shooting holes” in Herman’s theory. 

'barak-obama' photo (c) 2008, José Luís Agapito - license:
It’s hard to know what Herman is referring to exactly, since like so many other conservative conspiracy theorists, Herman fails to cite any actual data or writing, but he may be referring to a recent suggestion by Obama to extend a law created in 2007 under the Bush Administration that allows borrowers to limit student loan repayments to 15% of their income for 25 years.  Currently, only borrowers with loans taken out after 2007 can utilize this plan. Obama is proposing enabling borrowers with loans taken prior to 2007 to utilize this plan as well.

Herman asserts that the solution is to get the federal government out of the student loan business. Why? Because the US Government made $51 Billion profit last year? No, it’s because back in 2009, Obama engineered a law change that took private companies out of the federal student loan business.  Prior to this law going into effect, private banks were making $15 billion a year by simply handing out the government’s money. The change was projected to save the US Government $87 billion over 10 years. Seems like a no-brainer right? Wrong. See, what Herman and his other conservative cronies want is to be able to make money off the tax-payer and student loan borrower. Herman cries that the government will lose out on $300 million by 2020 due to the forgiveness program, yet mentions nothing of the $87 billion saved, and rather proposes the program be done away with. Like other fiscal conservatives, Herman likes to talk the talk of “reining in government spending” and “saving taxpayer dollars,” but in reality is all about making the Benjamin’s for himself.

The constant bashing of higher education by conservatives is frankly a bit confusing, since most of the time the common refrain is that the private industry can do things better and cheaper than government can. Yet, strangely enough, private education is vastly more expensive than public college.  So, it leaves me to wonder what conservatives have against college education in general.  Yes, there is the tired charge that college is a breeding ground for liberal indoctrination, but then again, these are the same folks who reject the teaching of critical thinking skills in public schools. Maybe it’s that the fact that since the majority of post-recession jobs pay less than $14 an hour, a less educated workforce will be cheaper to pay.

'Occupy Cincinnati' photo (c) 2011, Rusty Ray - license: thing for sure, I find it all too hypocritical that the folks decrying the federal student loan program never actually had to take out student loans themselves to pay for their education. Sorry Mitt Romney, but not all of us have parents rich enough to borrow money from. Sorry, not all of us had parents who earned enough to pay for our education.  Sorry, not all of us got handed great-paying jobs while in college to finance that education. Why is it that the US Congress, which has a median net worth of over $1 million, gets to decide how much my student loan interest rates should be? Especially when the federal government is handing out interest free loans to many of the same banks that crashed our economy. Oh, maybe it’s because banks are getting an $83 billion a year federal subsidy that in turn boosts profits and lines the pockets of investors, which my friend Author Herman most likely benefits from.

Is college expensive? Absolutely. Has the cost of college rise dramatically? You bet. But how is reducing taxpayer funding to higher ed going to help that? How is reducing student loans and Pell grant availability going to bring the costs of college down? The common conservative prescription of eliminating government programs simply pretends problems go away when the program is eliminated.  College is an extremely important part of growing up, and while it may not be essential for all—it is important for many. Whether it be learning new ideas, meeting new people, growing up to become your own person, or meeting that future significant other college is an essential rite of passage in our culture. So to critics like Herman who can do nothing but complain rather than offering decent solutions to make college more affordable, I suggest the old adage, if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Give more than just money, give a vision!

'Disneyland' photo (c) 2011, Sean MacEntee - license:
Have you ever heard story of Walt Disney and the opening of Disneyland?  The story goes that someone lamented that Walt Disney was not alive to see the opening of Disneyland, to which someone else replied, “he did see it, that’s why it’s here.” This story highlights the importance of visioning—being able to see a new way, to imagine things currently not in existence or unattainable.  Vision—and I don’t mean simply 20/20 eyesight—is essential to growing, achieving, and advancing in life. I’m reminded of a Bible verse I heard so often during my time in Bible college.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18a KJV

These eight words form just the first half of verse 18 in Proverbs 29, which translated from The Message reads a little clearer. “If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.” The verse sits amongst a chapter full of pithy statements and wisdom sayings.  Despite being modernized by Eugene Peterson, the words just seem to have more truth to them when stated in the old King James Version language. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

I’m reminded of a Christian film titled The Second Chance, which tells of an inner city church that exists as a mission church of a large, well-to do suburban church.  The story begins at the suburban church on what is “The Second Chance Sunday,” (also the name of the inner city church). The Second Chance pastor is less than thrilled about being there as he doesn’t want to be just brought in for show in order to appease the conscience of the congregation, so they can feel good about where they send their checks off to.  Speaking in front of the church, when he is supposed to be lauding them for their generosity, he rather exhorts that they come down to The Second Chance and support the ministry there.  He proudly proclaims that if they are unwilling to do so they should rather “keep your damn money.”

What the pastor in this movie was getting at is that people don’t just need funds, they need friends. In his book With Justice for All, author John M. Perkins repeatedly asserts that poor people don’t need just the charity of the rich, they need the relationships.  Perkins emphasizes that successful people should go beyond simply writing a check, rather they should take time out of their schedule to mentor an at-risk teen, help a young adult receive job training, or teach a person a valuable business skill. Most importantly of all, Perkins stresses that people need to be shown that a new way is possible; they need to be given a vision.

'Optometry letters from eye chart' photo (c) 2013, Les Black - license:
Perkins recounts a time talking to a teenage girl, who was determined to take care of her future children and be a good single mother. Perkins was perplexed that she was content settling for so little, yet then he realized that the teen did not know of another way. She lived in a subsidized apartment building, with rental assistance being structured in a way that discouraged two parent families.   All she saw then was single moms living off subsidies.  She was driven enough to realize she wanted to be the best single mom she could be—but it stopped there. She couldn’t imagine life beyond that apartment building, beyond being a single mom. She needed a new vision.

I’m also reminded of a story I heard on NPR a while back, about a woman who was on disability in a small town in Alabama. The woman suffered from chronic back pain, making any job that required a significant amount of standing simply unbearable.  When the reporter asked this woman what kind of job she would like to have, the woman mentioned a job at the Social Security office.  After some clarification, the reporter realized that the woman did not really want to work for Social Security, rather this was the only job in town she knew of which didn’t require standing. Think about that. She couldn’t imagine a job that would enable her to sit and work—other than this desk job working for the SSA.  She couldn’t see another way.

Charity is easy, clean, and hands off. It enables one to soothe their conscience without ever making a real dent in the problem.  Is charity important? Absolutely, but people need more than just your charity, they need your vision. They need you to come down to the community center and teach them the skills they need to get a better job, they need you to come to their school and help them with their math, they need you to come to where they play and spend time with them, but most importantly they need you to give them a vision for the future. A vision that is different than what they know, a vision that is bigger than what they could previously imagine, a vision, which they can claim for their own and see for themselves. Help them to imagine a new way for themselves.

If you really want to make a difference in someone’s life, don’t just write a check, give of yourself and give them a vision.