Tag Archives: Ann Gaylia O’Barr

Thoughts on Reading Atlas Shrugged

I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, several years ago. Granted I did occasionally skim through the dialog, some of which is not dialog but long speeches. (Presenters at writers’ conferences warn novelists to avoid this type of dialog like a mortal sin.)

The main characters are Dagny Taggart, a railroad magnate, and the mysterious John Galt, who, as it turns out, has established a hidden capitalist nirvana, for such people as Taggart. As the world collapses from the weight of the undeserving masses living off the work of the brave capitalists, true capitalism lives on in this heavenly retreat.

As I read Rand’s book, I wondered what happened to people who were handicapped or became ill. Unfortunate accidents do happen to people, rendering them unable to work. Do we leave such people by the side of the road to die? Kill them, resembling Nazis executioners?

Following World War II, capitalism defeated Soviet-style communism, which Rand knew as a child and rebelled against. Capitalism is an efficient way to run an economy, as long as capitalists are understood as humans like the rest of us. Any of us can become dangerous if we have unfettered power—whether we are socialists or capitalists.

Would some capitalists, being human, if given absolute power, not be tempted to worship wealth? To accumulate wealth with little regard for worker safety or clean air and water or the ability of their workers to afford decent housing or send their children to college with the wages paid them?

Read Adam Lee Alternet’s critique of this book in Salon (“10 (insane) things I learned about Atlas Shrugged,” April 29, 2014) for some interesting observations.

Then read other views of Rand’s philosophy in The New York Times.

In the News This Week: Liu Xiaobo Died; Donald Trump, Jr, Sought Scandal

Liu Xiaobo, Chinese human rights advocate, won the Nobel Prize for peace in 2010. The Chinese government refused to let him receive it, eventually sentencing him to prison.

Dying of cancer, he was not allowed by Chinese leaders to leave the country for treatment. Finally, they sent him, in his last few days, to a hospital in northeast China, where he died.

The United States has been, through much of its history, a lodestone for those living under oppressive governments, and who, like Liu, call for changes and suffer for their efforts.

While Liu was in the last stages of his illness, however, the United States was losing the world’s respect. The Trump government was increasingly seen as isolated and dysfunctional, more interested in strengthening relations with strongmen like Russian leader Putin than in serving as a beacon for democracy.

Emails of Donald Trump, Jr., surfaced, in which he said he would love to meet with representatives of Russian interests to obtain incriminating emails on Hilary Clinton. The offer appeared to be a ruse to discuss Russia’s desire for relief from economic sanctions against Russia. Some of the sanctions relate to holding accountable those responsible for the murder of a Russian lawyer involved in uncovering fraud by Russian officials.

The Economist (July 15, 2017) wrote: “It would be nice to think that political campaigns ought not to work with foreign governments who imprison and beat up their domestic political opponents. Nice, but probably unrealistic.”

Another comment elsewhere in the magazine offered a gleam of hope: “The scandal is becoming a clash between the worst aspects of American democracy and the best. The worst is its bilious myopic hyper-partisanship; the best the unrivalled ability of American institutions, including journalists whom Mr. Trump reviles, to hold the powerful to account. Legally and politically, the ending is unclear. Morally, the verdict is already in.”

Using Story to Explore Questions

When I was young, so young I barely remember those times, my father told me stories. I don’t remember that he ever told me fairy tales. He told me stories from history, from the books he was constantly reading. I grew up on stories of middle Tennessee, where we lived, and others from American history, including World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War.

If he had the chance, he would have been, I’m sure, a marvelous teacher of history to young people. Unfortunately, his formal schooling ended two years into high school after he dropped out to support parents and younger siblings.

I never heard him complain about it. He enjoyed the opportunities that came to him. He loved working with young people in our church. He read widely, from history and sometimes novels.

When our family visited historic sites on family vacations, he told us stories that encouraged our imagination about the events that happened there. And he passed his penchant for history to me.

I didn’t become a history teacher, either. I turned to journalism, then other circumstances intervened. My years of working overseas in U.S. embassies and consulates fed that love of history, of exploring how and why countries were different or alike.

As the world changed dramatically in those years, I wanted to know what led to those changes. I explored the events and processes happening years, decades, even centuries ago leading to today’s current events.

I write novels to explore what happened to the people in the midst of those changes. Fiction frees our imagination to see beyond the facts and encourages flashes of insight.

We Love to Hate Foreign Aid

Possibly no program of the United States government is more despised by Americans than aid given by the U.S. to other countries.

A cartoon depicts one taxpayer saying to the Internal Revenue Service: “I hope you give my money to some nice country.”

The cartoon is based on a myth but one widely believed: that the U.S. gives money by the fistfuls to other countries for social programs.

In fact, about one percent of the U.S. budget proposed by Obama in 2016 went to foreign aid, including military aid.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2015 found that the average American thought about 26 percent of the U.S. budget went to foreign assistance.

The five countries who receive the most aid are: Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

Much of the aid is military assistance, overseen by the Department of Defense.

A much smaller percentage of the aid budget is for humanitarian assistance programs, such as those dealing with health and food, usually overseen by the Department of State.

Any program devised by humans can always be made better and more efficient. Certainly changing times demand new ways of doing things.

However, in calling for drastic cuts at the Department of State of about 29 percent, the budget may cut assistance programs that benefit both the recipients and the United States.

They include programs to cut down on infections from AIDS, to prevent maternal deaths from childbirth, and to provide services for improving children’s health. Healthy, educated children grow into productive adults, more likely to contribute to a functioning society, one that resists radicalism and terrorism.

In fighting diseases like the Ebola virus, containment is easier when the U.S. already has established health programs, as well as personnel, in the affected countries in embassies and other missions.

For a better understanding of foreign aid, explore a link from the Council on Foreign Relations.

They’re Walking Out the Door: What “Draining the Swamp” Means

David Rank, senior U.S. diplomat to China, recently resigned because he said he could not, in good conscience, represent President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord to the Chinese government. Walking out the door was a diplomat with twenty-seven years of foreign policy experience and one reported to be fluent in the language of the country where he supported U.S. foreign policy.

Rank said the withdrawal from the Paris accord broke three barriers for him. It was a mistake from a foreign policy perspective. It bothered him as a parent. And it conflicted with his Christian faith.

When we talk blithely about cleaning the government’s house, we should remember the sacrifices some of those supposed “swamp dwellers” have endured. In an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR (June 28 2017), Rank alluded to career duties that caused him to be absent during family milestones: the birth of one of his children and also the deaths of his parents.

Others have given more. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by a mob in Libya as he attempted to carry out U.S. foreign policy in that country. Anne Smedinghoff, a young political diplomacy officer, was killed by a roadside bomb while on the way to deliver books to Afghan school children.

We so often win militarily but neglect the harder issues that follow. The needs remaining after the end of a war require day to day contact with shattered populations trying to rebuild.

The hard work of building a functioning society will be done, if it is done, by the local governments. This is when we need American diplomats to work with them to push again and again for a society that serves its people, not a few warlords, their corruption tempting the re-emergence of radicals. The work needs to be targeted and appropriate. It takes time and it requires a trained, focused diplomatic effort.

Will enough people remain for those efforts after we drain the swamp?

Attacking the Right to Know

Long before the American Revolution, Americans created a free press, enshrining the right to know what their leaders are doing and to comment on their actions.

In the mid 1730’s, the newspaper owner of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, severely criticized a corrupt royal governor. Zenger was charged before the court with seditious libel. His lawyer argued that Zenger had printed the truth, even if it was critical of the governor. Based on that argument, the jury refused to convict Zenger. Over a period of time, this judgement contributed to truth as the principal argument for press freedom during times of controversy.

A Sedition Act in the tumultuous 1790’s, held that anyone who impeded the policies of the government or defamed its officials, including the president, would be subject to fine and imprisonment. Enforcement ended after Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800.

The United States has suffered many divisive periods. What is presented as news has not always been as responsible as it might have been. However, the right of citizens to debate and criticize their officials in the media is a long-cherished stone in the wall against abuse of power by those in office.

President Trump appears unable to accept criticism. Even further, his administration apparently wishes to banish any unfavorable reporting about his administration’s policies. Trump and his officials brand even reputable, long established news organizations as existing to create “fake” news.

Check Trump’s own tweets for a long list of unsubstantiated fake news.

One only has to consider Russia or Turkey to see what happens when people who disagree with officials are silenced.

We Need a Third Political Party, Maybe Even a Fourth

Our two main political parties once cooperated to govern the country. Now, according to reports, Democrats and Republicans are hardening to the extent that parents supporting one party become upset if their children wish to marry someone from the other party.

Third parties have been around for a long time, but they tend to focus on a few issues. What if enough brave politicians (hopefully this term is not an oxymoron) broke off from one or, better, both political parties, to form a true third party. This party would not be tied to a few particular issues but have a broad agenda like Democrats and Republicans do now, but a moderate one.

This new party would be a centrist party. As a minority third party, members would often hold the deciding votes on congressional legislation. They would shore up either Democrats or Republicans at different times, depending on a need to swing left or right to correct extremist views. A third party would polish off the hard edges of polarization and enable Congress to function again.

It might attract those who are so turned off by traditional political parties that they don’t vote.

Alternatively, we might create not one, but two political parties. One would be center left and one center right. They would counteract swings to hard left or hard right.

We need another party (or two) for better choices.

Praise for the Senate Health Care Bill

Dr. Ben Danielson, senior medical director at a Seattle children’s clinic, commented on the current health care bill before the Senate:

“I have to start off by, I guess, congratulating all the millionaires on the incredible gift they are about to get. I always wondered what you get for the person who has everything, and now I know; it’s cutting benefits to young children, poor families, the infirm, the elderly.”(Quoted by Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times, “Doctor Calls GOP’s Bluff on Health Bill,” June 25, 2017.)

The sarcasm of the obviously frustrated doctor aside, what might a truly praiseworthy health care bill look like?

First of all, it would provide preventive based health care for every American. The goal is health care that encourages healthy lives, not just paying medical bills when we are sick.

Compare it to preventive maintenance on our cars. People who care about their vehicles don’t wait to change the oil after it’s become so dirty that it begins to damage the engine. We change oil at set times and perform other maintenance checks as well: brakes, tires, and so on.

Preventive health care requires care for the healthy at least as much as for the sick. It works best when it begins early and lasts throughout life. Requiring all to buy health insurance that pays for regular checkups saves money in the long run.

Today, the money we spend on health insurance for the elderly is more expensive because we didn’t begin it an earlier age.

Starting healthcare at the beginning of a life has the potential to lessen drug abuse, not to mention obesity and other health challenges.

Prevention is so much less expensive than emergency room management.

Abolishing Groupthink—Searching for Loyal Opposition

Each year, a “dissent” award is given to one or more U.S. diplomats for disagreeing with their bosses.

It’s awarded for constructively dissenting from official foreign policies of the U.S. government. So far as I know, it’s unique in government service, begun during the turmoil of the Vietnam conflict.

Perhaps we need constructive dissent awards for Democratic and Republican politicians. They could be awarded to those loyal members of their parties who constructively dissent from the direction their party is heading.

Recently, an article in The Economist questioned groupthink—being so concerned with harmony within a group that no one questions irrational or wrong policies. The article suggested that a group lower the cost of disagreement and perhaps defuse crises that arise in democracies (“Free Exchange: How to Be Wrong,” June 19, 2017).

We tend to become polarized and fall into yes or no positions on issues. Yet solutions to problems are seldom cut and dried. Considering alternates or alterations to policies may yield wiser solutions. More realistic answers are found in the center.

What Is the Alt-Right and Why Did the Largest Protestant Denomination in the United States Denounce It?

“Resolved, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13-14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; . . . ”

Thus, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States announced itself against alt-right white supremacy.

What is the alt-right?

The Seattle Times defined the alt-right, or alternative right, as “a loosely defined far-right movement associated with white nationalism, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and a desire to keep the United States a majority white country.” (November 29, 2016, “What Is the ‘alt-right’?”)

Why did Southern Baptist delegates from an evangelical denomination vote as they did? The denomination was founded in 1845 partly because of issues over slavery, some leaders at the time espousing slavery as supported by biblical texts.

However, in recent years, Southern Baptists have begun dealing with their past history. In 1995, they apologized for their role in supporting slavery. The convention now includes more non-white members.

No doubt a more diverse membership contributed to passage of the resolution. One of the bulwarks of the evangelical belief of Southern Baptists is that people can repent and change.

Hallelujah.

When We Want the Good Guy/Gal to Win, but They Don’t

The good guy or gal traditionally wins in movies and books because we want him/her to do so. Most of us want good to win. We want fairness to win. We want the oppressed underdog to win. Stories that play to this deep-seated hunger satisfy us.

More books and movies today project a dark edge. Evil may win or, as in Gone Girl, the story doesn’t have a “good” protagonist.

Perhaps we are exhausted by the violence and hatred we witness in today’s world, the seemingly endless acts of anger: ISIS, school shootings, road rage, political hatred, slaughter of children in Syria—they go on and on and on. Perhaps the new stories cater to our pessimism.

Choosing hope while working for change during times of hopelessness requires courage. Those who do so are the placeholders. They keep hope alive for better times.

 

Not Your Grandmother’s Cold War

“I Led Three Lives,” a TV show in the 1950’s, was based on the story of an actual person, Herbert Philbrick. He lived as an American businessman, a Communist spy, and an American counterspy for the FBI. In those old days of the Cold War, the different sides used espionage and radio broadcasts.

Today, hacking and cyber warfare have overtaken the earlier methods.

Some worry that politics surrounding the testimony of former FBI director James Comey will blind Americans to Comey’s warnings about the serious Russian intrusion into our elections.

“The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle,” Comey said. “They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.”

Whatever Donald Trump and his election team did or did not do, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates the interference of a hostile power in our election process. European democracies have also been attacked. These attempts should be taken seriously by all political parties.

It seems like an age since the end of the old Cold War in the early 1990’s. Today’s young people weren’t around, and the over thirty crowd have forgotten the euphoria in Europe and the United States when Eastern Europeans danced in the streets and reclaimed their countries from the Soviets.

Americans were going to have a peace dividend and beat their swords into plowshares. Russians were going to have free elections and a free press and join the rapidly escalating democratization of the world.

Instead we seem to have fallen, like Alice, through a rabbit hole into a crazy place of fake news, hacked political systems, and the rise of strong men with dictatorial powers, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Our governments, national and local, are tasked with developing technical methods to neutralize cyber attacks. Citizens, however, have the duty of reading widely and responsibly. Fake news disappears without followers.