Ethics


It might have been out of a dream, but it really happened. I can’t put a precise date on it, but Ronald Reagan was President, and he was constantly reminding us that “government is the problem” and then turning that idiotic proposition into a self fulfilling prophesy.

I was living in Silver Spring not far from the house that I grew up in near the former Xaverian College, which had since become the George Meany Center for Labor Studies. I had received a call from the Center’s Director inviting me to attend a day long songfest of Labor Union songs and poetry. I cleared my calendar and went directly to the event, which was attended by labor troubadours from all over the country, and even some from Latin America.

Well into the morning we were all shocked to see the legendary Pete Seeger stroll unexpectedly onto the stage with his famous 5 string banjo. The place went wild when he launched into the famous ballad “Joe Hill”, and after he finished the Director brought the Great Man over to meet me. Apparently Pete’s unexpected appearance at the event had forced a complete revision of the evenings events, and the organisers were going to have to spend most of the afternoon reorganising the agenda around a living legend’s participation. Since I had always “lived in the neighborhood” I was being asked by the director if I would give Pete Seeger a tour of the area, get him something to eat, and essentially use up some time until he would join the other artists in rehearsing for the evening concert. I had to pinch myself. This had all happened so fast…

We took a walk around the beautiful campus, and I told him of the magnificent role the young Catholic monks from the Brotherhood Order of Francis Xavier played in my development as a student and an athlete on these very grounds. I pointed out the zinc strips that were nailed to the trunks of all of the beautiful old trees lining the roads of the campus, which identified both in latin and english the exact name of each tree. I had been paid 25 cents each as a young boy by the Brother Superior to nail a strip on each one.

My impression of this man remains with me in vivid terms even today. He was, of course, tall and thin. He was wearing Lee jeans which had been carefully patched in several places, and a long sleeve shirt rolled up to the elbows, and ordinary canvas high top shoes. He sported a goatee and an odd little knitted hat which sat high on his head. He listened to everything I told him, and, to my surprise, he seemed interested and engaged in everything we discussed. He spoke very little about himself, and seemed intrigued when I told him about my parents, and especially about my mother, when I told him some stories about her growing up poor on a farm in Kansas. “If we have time, I would like to meet her” he said.

We climbed into my pickup truck and drove the short distance to 9722 Dilston Road, where my mom was in the kitchen, cooking soup. She knew who our visitor was immediately, and told him that she had worked in a children’s store in Glover Park called Young Playways where she had actually sold some of his children’s records. Pete Seeger was now eating my Mom’s soup, and he put down his spoon, his face lighting up as he said with great excitement “I didn’t think those records were still around, and I had completely lost track of them. As if in a dream, my mother produced two disks, and the three of us listened to Pete Seeger sing “This Old Man” and a couple of others that I can no longer remember.

We had more time to kill, and we drove the ten minute drive to the main campus of the University of Maryland where I had graduated. While strolling around the beautiful campus I was amazed by the number of people who approached him to offer their good wishes, and the humble and gentle way that he responded to recognized celebrity. I asked him if he liked pizza, and he responded “Yes, but it is hard to find really good pizza outside New York City, unless you are in Chicago, where pizza is a different thing altogether.” I suggested to him that there might be a song hidden in that proposition, which made him chuckle and say “There is a song in just about everything we do and see.”

Hoping to change the Great Man’s opinion on pizza outside New York City, I drove him to the original Ledo’s Pizza Parlor on University Boulevard in College Park. We shared a large plain pizza and endured the table visits of admirers and autograph seekers until it was finally time to deliver him back to the concert preparation at the Meany Center. On the drive back he thanked me for the time I had spent “baby sitting” him, and found it necessary to admit that Ledo’s Pizza was as good as any he had ever had in New York City.

That night I brought my Mom back to the Center and we saw a first rate production of Labor union songs with the legendary Pete Seeger the star of the show. I went to sleep that night trying to sort out everything that had happened on that extraordinary day, and I awoke the following morning wondering if it had all been a dream.

Pete Seeger died on January 27th at age 94. Earlier this year Bob Dylan had referred to him as “a saint”, to which Pete replied “Oh God!” There will be many many words of praise and adulation written about this genuine American icon in the aftermath of his passing. I had the rare blessing of spending one part of one day with Pete Seeger, and truly believe that Dylan’s characterization may be right on the mark.
Dan Rupli

Our Moral Imperative
by Dan Rupli

Neckties have never made any sense to me. They serve no practical purpose whatsoever, and over the years, a good quality silk necktie can now cost about as much as I used to pay for my suits at J.C. Penny’s. That is why I have gotten into the habit of shopping for these hated neck chokers at the Goodwill Store, where, for a couple of bucks I can buy almost new looking all silk ties that would cost $75 bucks at Macy’s.

Last Friday I had picked out three really nice looking ties at the Goodwill Store, all with prestigious labels, and one made from no ordinary silk, but actual “Imported Italian Silk.” Nothing but the best for $6.97!

While waiting to pay, I was preceded in line by a middle aged lady who had purchased all of her family members’ Christmas presents (consisting of used clothing) at Goodwill, and she was fumbling through her purse to pay for her purchases. She brought forth carefully wrapped rolls of nickels, dimes, and pennies, and shook other loose change from her purse, coming up $3 dollars short of her total bill of $47 dollars. While she was rummaging through the clothing to decide which items not to buy, I quietly slipped the sales lady the extra 3 dollars. The lady making the purchase expressed her sincere gratitude, explaining to us that her husband was quite sick, and that her family was having a very hard time getting through this holiday season.

I have always considered myself blessed to have been born when I was, and where I was, with all of the advantages of being white, and growing up “suburban” in America. I have had the additional advantage of having traveled extensively in our magnificent Country, and throughout the far reaches of the world. I have witnessed both the extraordinary beauty and richness of our tiny planet, and the unspeakable pain and sadness of the impoverished people I met along the way.

All this has shaped my political ethic and beliefs. I am a man “of the left” who is completely devoted in his seventh decade of life to resetting the human table so there is a place at that table for every breathing child of God on this earth. I have concluded that we live in a kind of glorious global cornucopia, where there is plenty enough of everything-food, fuel, fiber, shelter, basic services and facilities so that there is no longer any valid excuse whatsoever for poverty. Anywhere! Especially here! Period!

I am finished making political arguments against the completely selfish and self absorbed corporate cretins of the right and their pimp-like lobbyists. You can never win an argument for equitable redistribution of resources when the deck is so stacked against ordinary citizens, and where the national media is owned and controlled by the very same people who are snuffing the life out of the middle class, and standing on the necks of the poor. My own mother was a child of poverty in rural Kansas in the 1920’s. My young Filipino wife held her 12 year old sister in her arms as she died of starvation in 2000, and her father failed by 90 days in 2002 to fulfill his goal of living to be 50 because of tuberculosis, so poverty is a very personal thing with me.

The only arguments that can win the day are completely moral in nature, and the profound impact of recent positions forcefully advanced by Pope Francis regarding the twin evils of trickle down economics and income inequality is rapidly gaining traction throughout the World. And none too soon.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and others in the Senate are leading the political argument against the “one percent” who own and control such a hideously disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth. And our President is coming out stronger on this issue as well, enjoying the moral “cover” that the Pope is providing.

Now it is time for our Country’s clergy, philosophers, poets, historians, artists, students, and teachers (and lawyers, even)to weigh in loudly and forcefully on the leading moral outrage of our time-the corporate elitist takeover of capital, wealth, and the very institutions that were intended to protect us from all of this. They need to confront on moral, ethical, and religious grounds in the pulpits, in the class rooms, in the courts, and in the streets those issues of social and economic justice that are tearing us asunder. The so called “Christian right” needs to be smoked out regarding their religious hypocrisy, and confronted directly regarding their perversion of Christian dogma, whose basic underpinnings revolve around caring for the poor and the powerless.

If we can approach the New Year making the issue of economic justice a powerful moral cause like we did with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the political solutions will naturally follow, and, as my early hero and inspiration, Martin Luther King, Jr. taught me and my generation “Justice will roll down like a mighty stream.”

My best to all of you in the coming year, and especially to that lady in the Goodwill Store with the rolled up coins and the sick husband.

Dan Rupli
Member, Board of Governors, WNDC

We live in political times of extreme intolerance for the views of others. The media increasingly negotiate the resulting political minefields and dodge the  sniper fire by framing what they are doing as reporting on “the debate” or “conversation” or on calls for “having a conversation”, “having a debate”.  The implication is always clear that “having a conversation” is a practical way to reach a middle ground, solve problems, find a compromise that both sides can agree on.

But is it? Is there any middle ground between the NRA and advocates for the regulation of firearms, for example? Where is the conversation when, following the Newtown massacre,  NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stated that getting more guns in the hands of individuals was the solution to gun violence.

Where is the middle ground when Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, says that the main reason for owning guns is to defend ourselves against the government.  In this thinking, the American government is not America. For Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) the US doesn’t  have a gun problem, it has a people problem.  Anyone who disagrees (in this “debate”) is pushing a political agenda. Huelskamp says he doesn’t exactly approve of children playing video games, but “I am not saying to pass a  single law about that because it would be politicizing the issue.”

It is unacceptable to say that passing laws is “politicizing” an issue.  “Passing laws” is why our founding fathers created an elected legislative body. That is democracy.  At its heart Republican extremism is an authoritarian movement. It is no accident that neither Wayne LaPierre nor the NRA President David Keene would take  questions at their press conferences. Accountability is a core value of democracy, not authoritarianism. A debate shouldn’t be about whether we want to be a democracy.

For the media endless talk about “debate” it is a way to cover themselves. They don’t have to expose that one side, and one side only, is incapable of moving off an extreme agenda.  We shouldn’t, however, avert our eyes from the clear meaning of what is being said just because it exposes the limits of “conversation” and “debate”.

“Having the debate” also means getting out of calling the facts.  The Violence Policy Center conducts research that finds “states with low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws have the lowest rates of gun deaths”: The NRA says that “gun free zones” have higher gun death rates. For the NRA, gun free zones are the problem.  It’s presented as a debate, except it isn’t.

It is important to follow other stories that just follow the facts. For example, the profit gun manufacturers (and hedge fund mangers) make off weapons sales.  LaPierre, in effect, opened a new business opportunity when he said the NRA would finance and fund a program called the “National Model School Shield Program” to train school guards.  This at a time when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has no workable data base of gun owners and registered guns because NRA will not let Congress pass the necessary appropriations.  The NRA doesn’t want to make Americans safer, it wants to make them less safe – for profit.

We don’t need a “conversation” with far right extremists, we need to talk about what they are saying.  What does it mean to say you need guns to defend yourself against (your) government? What is sedition? What constitutes incitement to violence? What is treason? And finally, what about exposing a right wing conspiracy to change America through cover organizations, funded by right wing billionaires, that push anti democracy laws in state legislatures and gett them passed. The American Legislative Exchange Council may drop pushing “Stand Your Ground” legislation after the killing of Trayyvon Martin last year and Stephen Feinberg of Cerberus hedge fund may drop Freedom Group Inc. gun manufacturers after Newtown.  But how many more are still out there pulling strings? We need information, not “debate”.

The Republicans have invented the idea that the election was bought by gifts from the government to “urban” voters― that 47 percent of the population who are “takers” as opposed to Republicans, who are the “makers” of jobs and goods, the wealth creators. For Republicans the reality that tax breaks for the rich don’t create trickle-down economic growth is just another deniable piece of objective evidence invented by the liberal press, just like the polls that said Obama was going to win the election.  But in “reality” it is the rich who are the real takers of gifts. By some alchemy they get to turn their income artificially into capital gains and thereby save fortunes from significantly lower taxes.

The “makers” obviously don’t see it this way. They may think they didn’t get a gift from the government, but rather as good businessmen incurred a business expense, buying this, that, or the other lawmaker. They paid for their tax gifts. They also paid for state legislators to redistrict their states or to pass voter suppression laws to artificially raise the number of Republicans in Congress.

Despite the dismal return on their money in November’s election, Republicans don’t appear to be giving these ideas up. So rather than turning our heads in embarrassment, we need to chase these ideas down every drain pipe until they are flushed out of our system.

We could start with the drains in Sea Gate, a gated community on Coney Island.  The community is asking for government help to rebuild after super storm Sandy.  Sea Gate started out as a retreat for Vanderbilts and Morgans in the 19th century. Current residents are described as middle class. According to a NYT report (11/27/12), whether middle class or super rich, they have chosen to live apart from their neighbor communities―with a vengeance.  They have ringed themselves with barbed wire and armed security check points. Sea Gate and other private communities can apply to get their streets taken off city maps (demapping), at which point such streets become privately owned, the communities assuming responsibilities for infrastructure, including roads, sewers, parks, and even policing.  This is the price for being left alone. Post-Sandy, however, Sea Gate has decided it cannot afford the infrastructure rebuilding costs, so it is asking for city, state, and federal assistance.

 

Sea Gate should get the help it is asking for. NYC’s deputy for operations is probably correct to say, “It’s in everyone’s interest to get these communities back.  If they’re successful, the city is successful.” Maybe some members of Sea Gate are embarrassed they are letting the Romney/Ryan team down by accepting government gifts.  If I were them, I would be more embarrassed by the barbed wire.

Newly invested Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called on Catholics to be very active in the political sphere, condemning President Obama for daring to tell Catholics they should listen to enlightened voices of accommodation within the church. “No,” said Dolan, “if you want to go to an authoritative voice go to the bishops.”

Dolan gets no disagreement from Presidential candidate Rick Santorum on who is the authority in this matter. It is clear how far Santorum will go in defending that authority when he blames the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church on “the liberal culture.” “When the culture is sick, every element in it is infected,” he said (NYT, 3/4).

It is not just a figure of speech when Santorum says John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and faith makes him “want to throw up.” Santorum doesn’t want a separation. In 1960 Kennedy reassured America that he would not be taking orders from the Pope. In 2012 Santorum is not making the same vow. The fears that Kennedy laid to rest in 1960 that Americans might come under religious control seem a wholly reasonable threat to democracy in 2012. Santorum offers obedience to religious authority as the future he is fighting for.

It is the clear meaning of Santorum’s words and back action that he intends, if President, to bring a theocracy to America, with laws and, perhaps, constitutional amendments passed to take away individual liberty from Americans in their human relationships, and to criminalize behavior that doesn’t conform with the new regime. It is also clear that, as in other theocracies around the world, actions that would guarantee the continuation of a regime would be planned, whether democratic or not.

The Authentic Romney?
Santorum may exit the Republican primaries but he is not the sole embodiment of these ideas. It is not only Santorum we need to fear.

The conventional wisdom of the media on Romney seems to be that his flip-flopping is covering the real―moderate―Romney who will be revealed when elected President. However, Romney’s religious convictions are very likely as extreme and authoritarian as Santorum’s. Romney has certainly never expressed doubts about his choice to be a missionary for his Mormon faith in France in 1966-67.

In a New York Times op-ed (1/29), a lapsed Mormon, Carrie Sheffield, told a chilling story about the ostracism by her family and community she suffered when she could no longer accept her religion. “Yes,” she said, “Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church. The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking.”

The Church of the Latter Day Saints does not have the local doctrinal flexibility that exists in Judaism and many Christian churches: it stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements and labels such behavior as “satanic.” A high-ranking Mormon leader told her “to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were ‘worse than pornography.’ I had no place to live a moderated, reformed existence.”

“Religion in America”
Trying to put to rest questions about his religion in the last Presidential campaign, Romney gave a speech titled “Religion in America” in 2006. Underneath a moderate patina, the speech opens a door on a religious ideology that arguably unites a large swath of Republican leadership, including then-President George W. Bush.

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said. In Romney’s view government must be smaller (except in defense), but religion bigger. This, he says, is because despite differences in theology among churches “we share a common creed of moral convictions.” “We acknowledge the Creator,” including, as Romney enumerates, “with religious displays in public places.” “I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from “the God who gave us liberty.” “Freedom requires religion” means an absolute opposition to the religion of secularism. Romney says, in so many words, that all faiths are ok; the only thing that is unacceptable is no faith.

Morality
Romney’s “common creed of moral convictions” does not cover what Democrats generally mean when they use the word “moral” to describe public policy or action. Romney is far from saying that, for example, extending health care coverage to all children is a moral imperative―an action that would reflect our common values as Americans.

It is possible Romney and Santorum would not understand those who use the word “immoral” to describe the vicious attacks by Republican icon Rush Limbaugh on Georgetown Law Student Sandra Flukes for daring to support contraception. Their notions of morality are centered on the nature of human sexuality and obedience to religious authorities. Any means may be used to defeat an enemy. No slur against President Obama is too rancid. Any excuse to impeach President Clinton is fine, however much the office of President is degraded and the reputation of the United States corroded is acceptable in this fight to the death. They are the patriots.

Romney and Santorum are not champions of liberty. They have challenged core American institutions and values. Those who value freedom and democracy must defeat this challenge.

In what was called an “accommodation” Obama made it clear in a February 10 press conference that all women would have access to free contraceptives but offered through their insurance companies and not through the institutions that employ them which may be affiliated with the Catholic Church that opposes contraception. It would be a shame if this explanation is interpreted as Obama on the defensive, having stepped back from “making a mistake.” 

Defensiveness in this case is entirely inappropriate. It is no shame to work to expand the availability of contraception. On the contrary it’s a goal to be proud of. An Institute of Medicine report recommended a major expansion of birth control services to women. Women with unintended pregnancies account for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S., and those women are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed and experience domestic violence. The IOM also said that expanding birth control services to women will cut down on the number of abortions and make women healthier. To be for contraception is to be pro life. 

There was an outcry from the Catholic hierarchy against Obama’s plan to make cost-free contraception available to all.  If contraception is good for women and children there ought to be an outcry from the other side, those who want to attack global poverty, decrease infant and maternal mortality, and strengthen families and women’s self determination.  

Jill Warren, executive director, Methodist Federation for Social Action said it best, when interviewed on the PBS Newshour February 9: “Contraception, controlling whether you can plan your family, whether you can space your children, whether you want to have children, is a basic health issue. It’s a biological fact that women can be impregnated, and against our will, I might add. So it absolutely is a health issue…for me, the policy is just good public policy for the common good.” Warren also said “barriers to education, barriers to the work force all center around whether you can control your own reproductive health.”  In other words working against the availability of contraception is also an issue of discrimination.

The original Obama plan was not a violation of religious liberty.   No one was being urged, let alone compelled, to violate their beliefs and purchase contraceptives.  On the contrary, it is the (heavily government subsidized) private sector religious institutions that seek to impose their will. When the Catholic hierarchy talks about the suppression of religious liberty it is talking about institutions, not individuals, claiming that their religious freedom is being violated (is this like the personhood of corporations as funders?). 

These institutions are powerful. The fifth national survey of American Catholics appeared in National Catholic Reporter on October 28, 2011; a major finding was that Catholics of all generations, and both sexes, have consistently said in five surveys during the past 25 years that they do not see the bishops as the proper locus of moral authority on the matter of the use of contraception.  Rather they believe that their conscience should be the proper locus.  Only 11% look to the bishops.  One Catholic theologian Daniel Mcguire cautions however not to underestimate that 11%: “the bishops have a terrific amount of scare power for politicians.” They have found an issue for their battle in Obama’s birth control decision. Non-Catholics are being told to stay away from the issue. Michael Sean Winters, also in National Catholic Reporter (NYT, 2/10/12), said, “no matter what people think about contraception, that’s an internal Catholic debate. Catholics do not like interlopers.”

To say that non-Catholics should leave the issue alone is not an acceptable position. The Catholic Church cannot arrogate to itself the right to decide this issue “internally” while in the meantime urging on politicians to come down hard on the anti-contraception side. The community as a whole (America) should not facilitate a particular hierarchy imposing its views, even on its own members, especially when those views offend the moral convictions of large numbers of other Americans.

A noted political scientist Sam Bowles (The Santa Fe Institute) has estimated that one third of employed Americans are working to protect private property and that means, inevitably, of the very richest Americans. June 12 the New York Times (“For Executives with Everything…”) reported just how arcane and extreme this protection business can get. Harrison Prather trains very high end guard dogs, so high end that top price can go to $230,000, which is what Julia, one of his German shepherds, sold for. Julia is now guarding John Johnson in his Minneapolis and Arizona homes (he has five other protection dogs). Johnson was, until recently, the CEO of the Northland Group, a debt collection company in Minneapolis. Julia now has a part time trainer, Jeremy Norton. Norton, also works as a firefighter, and ruefully admits Julia cost half the value of his house.

If he were alive, Charles Dickens would no doubt have rubbed his hands in glee at the idea of “Mr. Johnson” for a novel: just how well you could make out with a business built on squeezing those poor, or the about to be poor; just how to teach government employees like firefighters know how little they count for their public service. Training killer dogs, yes, saving people, no.

Also on June 12, the Times Magazine carried an article on the extreme upscale Las Vegas mall, “Crystals”, and on its eerie emptiness, the reporter being one of three humans in a 23,000 square foot Prada store (the other two being a security guard and a saleswoman). The reporter was assured that the fact that the store was empty didn’t mean no one was buying. Personal shoppers for the very rich were sent before the store hours to scoop up, say, a $21,500 chinchilla bolero shrug. The saleswoman shows off some $8,000 gowns to the reporter: “The casino owners buy (them) for their wives”.

In his research and writing Bowles concludes reducing inequality does not compromise efficiency or economic growth. Also against conventional wisdom, the religion of self interested action does reduce the altruism of the individual which Bowles says, on the contrary, must be harnessed and recognized. We don’t know whether Sam Bowles has done research on the gaming industry as a percentage of GDP. But we would not be willing to bet against the chinchilla shrug. The empowered rich show every sign of bidding up the guard dogs.

Next Page »