Tag Archives: Ann Gaylia O’Barr

Donald Trump, a New Andrew Jackson?

The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was a short drive from my elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Every year or so, our teacher would lead the class on a field trip to the Hermitage.

We toured the mansion’s rooms, my grade school colleagues and I, reveling in our release from school routine. Guides led us past rooms furnished in the upper class style of the early nineteenth century. Only later did I realize the slave labor required for Jackson’s comfort.

Jackson is known as a populist, the first president who was not one of the Massachusetts/Virginia founding fathers of the country. He represented the westward movement of the country by those who hadn’t inherited wealth.

Many of that day looked to improve their lot in life by settling west of the Appalachians on new land. No doubt they cheered Jackson’s forced removal of most of the native Americans from land their people had called home for generations.

In a time of rapid population growth and new inventions, the cotton gin led to the planting of more cotton. Plantation owners fought any attempt to abolish slavery, fearing loss of the unpaid laborers who supported their lifestyle.

The inconsistency of the American ideal of freedom with the subjection of an entire class of people was already leading to political battles.

According to reports, U.S. President Donald Trump has placed a picture of President Andrew Jackson on the wall of his office in the White House. Trump also is often called a populist, touted as breaking the power of government elites, an outsider.

Today also is a time of rapid transformation around the globe, caused by the computer age, globalization, massive immigration for economic and security reasons, and the entry of more women and minorities into the work force.

Economic inequality has increased, leading to prosperity for some and the loss of jobs and adequate wages for others. Those left behind feel alienated and abandoned by their politicians.

In the recent election, Trump took advantage of these trends by encouraging divisiveness and anger rather than offering a vision of cooperation for change.

We are not bound to follow the direction he has set. We can talk and respect each other and work out differences to real problems. Or we can hammer down the other “side” in anger and truly see our American dream vanish.

Capitalism: Neither God nor Satan

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s incisive book, Strangers in Their Own Land, portrays citizens in Louisiana caught between watching the industrialized devastation of their beloved state and their need for jobs. “It’s the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” one says.

Some of us see capitalism as some kind of god that we must serve. One may also worship socialism or money or government. In fact, all, it seems to me, are neutral, capable of either evil or good, depending on the type of allegiance we give them.

A saying of the early Christian missionary, Paul, is often quoted as “money is the root of all evil.” That is not what he said. He said “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” It’s the love of money (or capitalism or government or whatever) that is the problem.

Capitalism is neutral. It can be used for good: money from individuals pooled to form companies and create jobs. Or it can be used for evil: the extraction of maximum profit no matter what ecological or human damage it causes.

Government, I believe is similar. It is neither good nor evil in itself. Rightly used, government protects us from foreign enemies, crime, and economic predators. It can create programs that serve its citizens, like social security, in a way that private industry can’t.

Wrongly used, it can take from workers in order to give to the wealthy. Without adequate oversight, its resources can be wasted or riven with corruption.

Workers, needing jobs, tend to worship capitalism and hate government. Others, seeing only the tragedy of ecological devastation, tend to reverse their worship.

In fact, worship is a poor choice for either. Better is a watchful use of both.

The New Elites

We common people watch as the new government elites, those who won political power in 2016, battle among themselves.

Will the family clan, represented by Jared Kushner, win? Will they defeat the ultra conservatives, led by Steve Bannon? Or will Bannon’s group claim victory and bring down government as we have known it since our recovery from the 1930’s Great Depression?

Yet the battle over healthcare suggests an outside chance for ordinary Americans to influence outcomes. How will their interests fare in the looming battle over tax reform?

Will tax changes benefit mostly the wealthy, including the Trump family? Or will changes lead to the wealthy paying their fair share and taking some of the burden off working and middle class families?

Will popular government programs like social security, benefitting ordinary Americans, survive or will we continue our slide toward the inequality of the robber baron era?

Will tax breaks, sometimes used by big corporations to pay little or no taxes, continue to feed our deficit? Or will we ask for a level playing field for the small businesses that provide so many of our jobs?

In the 2016 election, voters supposedly defeated government elites. Now we will see if they can defeat business elites.

Short Term Thinking; Long Term Problems

Terrorism is an evil we can see and fear, unlike more insidious evils. After a terrorist attack, the media instantly portrays dead bodies and grieving families. We are angered, as we should be. We pass legislation for a strong military and sometimes send our armies to foreign countries to fight terrorists.

Other evils are harder to grasp because the results may not show up until years later: inferior schools or inadequate mental health facilities or lack of drug rehabilitation services.

Though most of us would say we believe in “good” schools, we don’t instantly see the damage to our country of a poorly educated work force.

Unless we have a mentally ill family member, we may think of mental illness only when we quickly pass by a troubled street person.

Throwing young drug offenders in prison is less costly than providing rehabilitation and job training for them—in the beginning.

What if we had not decided to invade Iraq after we were already involved in a war in Afghanistan? What if we had invested the money we spent for that war in schools and job training?

What if we had invested more in mass transit and less on securing oil fields in the unstable Middle East?

Going further back into our history, what if early settlers in Virginia had not decided to use slaves to work their tobacco fields? Suppose they had kept to small farms instead of large plantations?

We pay later for those easy choices, sometimes generations later.

I’ve Never Been Hungry . . .

The only time I’ve gone to bed hungry was when I was on a voluntary fast for medical or religious reasons. I’ve never wondered where my next meal was coming from.

I’ve always owned or rented housing with a warm, secure place to sleep.

Except for a few years in my early twenties, I’ve always had health insurance.

I’ve never been jobless, except voluntarily to raise my small children.

For these blessings, I can claim no special goodness or intelligence. I did not choose the parents who loved and nurtured me. I did not choose to live in a time when a college education was affordable for the average family or when most corporations provided health insurance and adequate salaries, and the government began a pension program for all its working citizens.

A society is fair and just only if every child has food, clothing, a secure place in which to grow up, health services, and proper education. Jobs should provide parents adequate salaries as well as the time to nurture their children.

Our religious and voluntary organizations encourage the sharing of blessings. The U.S. Constitution, also, in its preamble, makes the government a partner in these efforts. One of the reasons for our union is to “promote the general welfare.”

Our government is not a business run by a boss to gain material profits for a few owners. It exists for us all, not for a favored few.

Are Free Elections All We Need for Democracy? What Is Illiberal Democracy?

On April 16, Turkish voters gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, greatly increased powers. Observers believe Erdogan, already attacking dissent and the free press, will act to further erode civil rights in his country, even becoming something of a modern day sultan.

Turkey is a democracy, a Muslim majority nation located where the Middle East meets Europe. It is a member of NATO and thus allied militarily with the United States and other western nations.

The election in Turkey is the latest in a series of democracies moving to limit civil liberties, including Russia and Hungary.

Two decades ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 1997). At the time, U.S. embassies in the Middle East, where I was serving, championed free elections as an answer to many of the problems there.

Zakaria sounded a warning about the consequences of free elections without other safeguards. “It has been difficult to recognize this problem,” Zakaria wrote, “because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”

Free elections alone, Zakaria pointed out, may produce dominance of one ethnic group, or the election of leaders from a single family corrupted by crime, or the suppression of free speech and religion.

Along with free elections, Zakaria said, we must include other measures such as a constitution granting protection to all, regardless of ethnic identity, religious preference, or other identifiers. A judiciary unconstrained by the need to be reelected every few years in partisan contests is also necessary.

Is the recent election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency a move toward illiberal democracy and the protection of favored groups? Or is it a correction, instead, toward a government that includes those left out of a changing economy and culture? Both?

Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan. Most other western democracies were more restrained. Russia, however, also congratulated the Turkish leader.

Safe Places

What if girls and young women at risk of unwanted pregnancies found safe places to gather and grow? What if such places offered guidance often missing in dysfunctional families? What if they provided an alternative to all that advertising suggesting that a woman’s only concern is attracting a male?

If those at risk could gather in safe places, they might discover a more mature vision of their purpose. They might find practical help—with their homework, with ideas for careers, with the motivation to set goals for their lives.

Older women could tell stories about finding their place in life and their need for maturity before allowing males into their lives. They could model motherhood as a responsible choice.

Working with young women before an unwanted pregnancy might bring together both sides on the abortion issue.

Not Waiting on Washington (D.C., That Is)

According to our utility company, more of our local electricity is derived from solar energy. Some of it will be produced from a converted former Navy housing site that will sell this newer form of energy.

Still another solar farm is replacing coal-fired plants. It is reported to cover over 600 acres and is among the largest in the country. It will serve more than 17,000 homes.

Executive orders from the Trump administration have rolled back environmental regulations. At the local level, however, changes to less polluting forms of energy continue.

The administration has promised legislation to update our infrastructure and produce more jobs. Hopefully, whatever measures are passed will include support for jobs in the newer energy industries.

The two most populous countries in the world, China and India, are searching for solutions to unhealthy levels of pollution. Think of all those potential customers.

Death is Still Certain; Taxes—Who Knows?

The famous quote: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes” is attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Today taxes are still certain. It’s the kind of taxes and who pays them that appear up for grabs.

Few would disagree with the complaint in The Economist (April 1, 2017) that “the most striking thing about tax in America is its complexity.” Much of the complexity, the article suggests, is because of the number of tax breaks. The U.S. congress has passed multitudes over the years, many of which benefit the wealthy.

The chief source of income for the average American is the wage he or she earns for a job. One criticism of the U.S. tax system is that it tends to tax this kind of income rather than wealth. The wealthy can afford tax advice to take advantage of the myriad—and legal—tax breaks.

This is not to say that the wealthy should be criminalized. Many wealthy individuals donate to worthy causes and use their money to create jobs. However, if tax reform is to take place, it should result in less burden on the working and middle classes and a fairer share paid by the wealthy.

If the Trump administration found healthcare to be more complicated than expected, tax reform promises to be even more difficult. Like healthcare, tax reform should be fair to ordinary Americans. The U.S. deficit does not need to increase because more tax breaks are given to wealthy citizens.

You’re Not From Here, Are You?

As I shopped in a supermarket in my northwest U.S. community, a woman asked me where she might find a certain item. I gave her the information.

“You’re not from here, are you?” she responded.

I admitted my birth and rearing in Nashville, Tennessee. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived all over the United States and in several foreign countries for decades. The accent remains.

I was reminded of my origins when I read an article in The New York Times, “The Passion of Southern Christians” (April 8, 2017) by Margaret Renkl.

One paragraph especially moved me, reading it as I did after returning from a church service a week before Easter. The service had reminded us of Jesus’ disciple, Peter, and his actions following the arrest of Jesus by the authorities.

Fearful of consequences if he was seen as a Jesus person, Peter denied all connection with him. One person thought Peter had to be a follower, though, because his Galilean accent betrayed him.

Renkl wrote: “I have a lot of sympathy for Peter these days. Here it is nearly Easter, and for the first time in my life I don’t want anyone to know I’m a believer. To many, ‘Christian’ has become synonymous with angry white voters in red hats, personally responsible for handcuffing all those mothers and wrenching them out of their sobbing children’s arms.”

Yes, I’m a Southerner, still following Jesus, the person I first learned about in a church in Nashville, Tennessee. So it’s not just my accent but my religious persuasion that may mark me as “not from here.”

Despite the accent and the religion, I didn’t vote for Trump. As Renkl writes, “Watching Christians put him in the White House has completely broken my heart.”

On the other hand, with Renkl, I believe in resurrection. The accent matters no more in the Christian faith than those early differences between Jew and Gentile.

Third Horseman of the Apocalypse

In the Christian Old Testament, seeking food for self and animals is often a part of the stories. Herdsmen like Abraham moved to find better pastures for their flocks. A famine in Israel sent Jacob and his large family fleeing into Egypt. Lack of rain in the time of the prophets led Elijah to a miraculous encounter with a poor widow.

Obviously, areas with less predictable rain, as in much of the Middle East and parts of Africa, are more likely to suffer famine than countries in temperate climates. Sometimes, however, famine is not caused by weather but by conflict.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who follow each other in the book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament, are sometimes depicted as conquest, war, famine, and death. The third horseman, famine, is not the result of weather but of conquest and war. It is human caused.

This kind of famine is afflicting millions of people in the countries of South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. In Sudan, they flee power struggles, often over oil revenues or ethnic rivalries. In Nigeria, people flee terrorism. Somalia’s looming famine is partly a problem with lack of rain but is increased by struggles with the terrorist group, al-Shabab.

Yemen, a country in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, suffers fallout from rivalry between Saudi Arabia and its arch enemy Iran. The two countries are supporting rival factions that are tearing the country apart. Terrorist groups also have made inroads, as they often do in areas of conflict.

Some relief is possible if food shipments can be unloaded in one of the ports. According to reports, Saudi Arabia has so far been unwilling to allow shipments to the people they are fighting.

The United States has supported Saudi Arabia in this struggle. If we are truly a compassionate nation, we will exert as much pressure as possible on Saudi Arabia not to use starvation as a weapon of war. Else, we will be collaborators in the resulting deaths.

Syria: No One Wants to Own It

A previous post “The Graveyard of Empires” pointed to the number of empires throughout history that bogged down after entry into the Middle East. But the Middle East continues to thrust itself onto the world’s stage, like some black pestilence.

Today, it’s the horrendous deaths in Syria apparently caused by a gas attack on civilians. Most nations are condemning the attacks, and especially Bashar al Assad’s rule there, abetted by Russia.

Perhaps things will change, but as of now, no one appears to know what to do to prevent future attacks. No one wants to own the problem.

Recent interventions to “fix” international problems have often made them worse. Unlike World War II, a powerful alliance working together seems nonexistent. Militarily, an immediate fix might tumble Assad, but where’s the will for another Marshall Plan? That effort, after World War II, used billions in aid, not for war, but to build the economies and governments of post war Europe.

The saying is: “If you break it, you fix it.” And no one wants to risk the cost of fixing Syria.