You are browsing the archive for poverty.

by Peterr

Speeches on Deficits, Then and Now

6:22 am in Afghanistan, Countries in Conflict, Economy, Education, Elections, Iraq by Peterr

Way back in January 2008, a certain presidential candidate gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation once served by Martin Luther King Jr. . . .

. . . “Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exits in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. Talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Pause for a minute and let that sink in: “the empathy deficit is the essential deficit that exists in this country.”

We have an empathy deficit when we’re still sending our children down corridors of shame, schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education. We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than ordinary workers are making in an entire year, when families lose their homes so unscrupulous lenders can make a profit, when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their children are stricken with illness. We have a deficit in this country when we have Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others, when our children see hanging nooses from a school yard tree today, in the present, in the 21st century. We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities, when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur, when young Americans serve tour after tour after tour after tour of duty in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. We have an empathy deficit in this country that has to be closed. We have a deficit when it takes a breach in the levees to reveal the breach in our compassion, when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed, the sick that He calls on us to care for, the least of these that He commands that we treat as our own. So, we have a deficit to close. We have walls, barriers to justice and equality that must come down, and to do this, we know that “unity is the great need of the hour.”

These words were spoken in 2008, but they seem even more appropriate today. Those schools that were in trouble three years ago are in worse shape now, as every state in the country has been cutting back on funding, leaving every district to axe teachers and staff, raise class sizes, and defer maintenance. That “tour after tour after tour after tour of duty” has had at least one more “after tour” added onto it, and atrocities continue to pile up. Foreclosure fraud is rampant, the facts of the global financial crisis show serious legal problems for the bankers that created it, and yet the SEC is “taking a light touch” with the banks and bank executives apparently are getting Scooter Libby justice. (Have you heard the news? Goldman Sachs is likely to “face fresh embarrassment” over their role in the global financial crisis.) And as long as we’re talking about military action without congressional authorization, meet Libya.

If the need was great in 2008, it’s off the charts today.

But back to that candidate . . . skipping ahead in his remarks a bit:

However, all too often, when we talk about unity in this country, we’ve come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. . . We offer unity, but we are not willing to pay the price that’s required.

Of course, true unity cannot be so easily purchased. It starts with a change in attitudes. It starts with changing our hearts, and changing our minds, broadening our spirit. It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our own differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. What makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart, that puts up walls between us. We are told that those who differ from us on a few things, differ from us on all things, that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The Welfare Queen, she’s taking our money. The Immigrant, he’s taking our jobs. The believer condemns the nonbeliever as immoral, and the nonbeliever chides the believer for being intolerant.

[snip]

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The divisions, the stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame the plight of ourselves on others — all of that distracts us from the common challenges that we face, war and poverty, inequality and injustice. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It’s the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late. Because if Dr. King could love his jailer, if he could call on the faithful, who once sat where you do, to forgive those who had set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time and bind up our wounds and erase the sympathy deficit that exists in our hearts.

But if changing our hearts and our minds is the first critical step, we cannot stop there. It’s not enough to bemoan the plight of the poor in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It’s not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block real reform in our health care system. It’s not enough — It’s not enough for us to abhor the costs of a misguided war, and yet we continue to allow ourselves to be driven by a politics of fear that sees the threat of an attack as a way to scare up votes instead of a call to come together in a common effort. . .

Boy, did he nail it on that one. As far as I can tell, the politics of fear is what makes DC run these days, not only on terrorism but on the budget, health care, social security, and everything else.

I wonder what ever happened to that guy. We sure could use someone like this in DC to take on the fear-mongers.

Say, did you hear that President Obama is going to give a speech on Wednesday, addressing deficit reduction? As the Washington Post headline writer summed things up, “Obama’s New Approach to Deficit Reduction to include Spending on Entitlements.

Before he speaks on Wednesday, maybe Obama should go listen to what that presidential candidate had to say at Ebenezer Baptist Church a couple of years ago.

by Peterr

Raising a Glass to an Honest Man on his 250th Birthday

8:01 pm in Culture, Economy by Peterr

With the odd conjunction of the State of the Union address and the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, I can think of no finer way to honor the Scottish poet than to ponder his poem “A Man’s A Man for A’ That“:

Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, an’ a’ that
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Our toil’s obscure and a’ that
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
The man’s the gowd for a’ that

What though on hamely fare we dine
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man’s a man, for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that
The honest man, though e’er sae poor
Is king o’ men for a’ that

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord
Wha struts an’ stares an’ a’ that
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word
He’s but a coof for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
His ribband, star and a’ that
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that

A prince can mak’ a belted knight
A marquise, duke, an’ a’ that
But an honest man’s aboon his might
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
Their dignities an’ a’ that
The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth
Are higher rank that a’ that

Then let us pray that come it may
(as come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that

(The Robert Burns World Federation helpfully provides an English translation.)

*raising a glass of a fine single malt whisky*

To a right honest man, Robert Burns!

*ding*

*sip*

As Scarecrow so painfully notes, many’s the man not noticed tonight in DC where the princes, dukes an’ a that all gather to hear Obama’s speech. But as both Scarecrow and Burns remind us, whether one is sitting on fine leather in the House chamber or sitting on a cold park bench in Lafayette Park across from the White House, a man’s a man for a’ that.

*sip* (My, but that’s a fine glass . . .)

To Robert, and to Scotch Drink!

*ding*

Happy Birthday, Robert. ‘Tis a pity that more o’ the men (and women) in silk in DC haven’t taken your words to heart.

(photo h/t to Mykl Roventine)

by Peterr

DOD Wonders if MLK Would Understand Today’s Wars?

12:37 pm in Afghanistan, Countries in Conflict, Foreign Policy, Iraq, Military, Religion by Peterr

Terri Moon Cronk, a reporter for the Armed Forces Press Service, has a story currently in major front page rotation at the Department of Defense website about a speech given by DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson that is appalling to anyone who has read or heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech.

[Update: The DOD front page is still featuring the MLK observance ceremony, but they scrubbed Cronk's story from the highlight box, though it is still available at the direct link.]

From the DOD story:

If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he understand why the United States is at war?

Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, posed that question at today’s Pentagon commemoration of King’s legacy.

In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings.

“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.

Let’s wind back the clock, shall we?

In his April 1967 speech (both text and audio at the link above), King makes it clear that the war being fought in his day and the world in his day was anything but simple. He lays out seven reasons why he was speaking out in opposition to the war, and first on the list was this: war saps the resources and the will of the nation to address glaring issues and needs at home.

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Second, and related to the first, is the toll of the war on those communities who are supplying the troops to fight the war:

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.

Yes, we have a volunteer force now as opposed to a military built around the draft as we did then, but the economic forces today are just as powerful as they were in the 1960s. Then, the rich had ways of avoiding the draft, while the poor did not. Today, the rich have options in difficult economic times that the poor do not. To a poor young person looking unsuccessfully for a job, that military recruiter’s pitch sounds more and more attractive. The Great Recession seems to have solved the military recruitment problems rather nicely. As John McCutcheon’s song about World War I put it, “the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame.” True about the Great War, true about Vietnam, and still true about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then there’s King’s commitment to non-violence and his own intellectual consistency.

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

King was very blunt: how can I preach non-violence and accept the violence of my own government? Call me crazy, but I don’t think today’s wars with their drone strikes, indefinite detentions without appeal, and government sanctioned torture (called such by everyone but our own government) would induce King to make an exception to his commitment to non-violence.

Then there’s that whole Nobel Peace Prize thing:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.”

Moving on to specifics of the Vietnam war, King continues:

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators.

Substitute out the Vietnam references and replace them with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the corruption of the Karzai government, the massive “embassy” in Iraq, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, and King’s language continues to speak very clearly and appropriately. Going on, King asks some rather pointed questions himself:

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? . . .

Gosh, that sounds like it might fit today’s wars, too. King speaks eloquently about the double standards of those who tried to justify Vietnam without applying those standards to themselves:

Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. . . . How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts. . .

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

Maturity. What a novel idea.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of the — for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

This does not sound like a man unfamiliar with war — and not just the war of his generation.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala — Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan fit nicely into that list.

As the Pentagon tries to twist King’s legacy to their own ends, it seems they only serve to demonstrate the wisdom of King’s words. We are indeed beset by “a far deeper malady,” to which the Pentagon apparently continues to turn a blind eye.

Here’s a link to the full text of Jeh Johnson’s speech, the relevant portion of which is this:

People like to speculate about what Dr. King would believe and say if he were alive today.

I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.

To our individual servicemen and women who wonder whether their mission is consistent with Martin Luther King’s own message and beliefs, I refer you again to his very last speech in Memphis, the night before he died.

In it Dr. King talked about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan on the dangerous road to Jericho.  With great effect Dr. King drew a parallel between the priest and the Levite who passed by the man on the road to Jericho, beaten and robbed and in need of aid, and failed to help him, and those in Memphis in April 1968 who hesitated to help the striking sanitation workers because they feared for their own jobs, for their own comfortable positions in the Memphis community.

He criticized those who are “compassionate by proxy,” and said to those in the audience in Memphis that night “The question is not, if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?  The question is, if I do not stop the sanitation workers, what will happen to them.”

In 2011, I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes.  Those in today’s volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road, and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people.  Every day our servicemen and women practice that “dangerous unselfishness” Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968.

In accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our President recognized that, in response to an unprovoked terrorist attack, war is inevitable to secure peace, and that the role of the military is to keep peace.

Fine words, but not supported by my reading of King. There was no asterisk next to King’s words about non-violence, and no footnote to his condemnation of war as a vehicle for social change.

Let me close with one last excerpt — one that picks up the image of the parable of the Good Samaritan to which Jeh Johnson referred:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Our policies in Iraq and much of that region are not designed to transform the Jericho Road, but to make it safe for the corporate powers to travel. We did not build a mammoth embassy in Iraq to transform the place, but to guard our ability to exploit it. Whether napalm or drones, the message of King does not change: this way of settling differences is not just.

And the DOD attempting to say otherwise is offensive as hell.