Adopt the super-rich – a new reality show?

God warned Israel that they would regret their longing for a king once they had one (1 Samuel: 8:9). Americans had a king imposed on them, and once they won independence, chose representative democracy and the laws derived from that to rule over them in the belief that ‘all men are created equal’.

Not only are all people created equal, but all people are flawed, and so our democratic system has checks and balances on power. No matter the checks and balances and the ideal of equal representation, though, the power of money has always threatened the influence of the votes of the regular people. And this is why the US, and other representative democracies, have laws that attempt to limit the amount of money that any one person may contribute to a party or individual, in an attempt to uphold equality.

Recent decisions of the US Supreme Court have, however, created ‘super citizens’.   The decisions in Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC, and McCutcheon v. FEC, gave corporations the same rights as ordinary voters to contribute to campaigns, and allowed the creation of Super Pacs which may spend unlimited sums to advocate for or against political candidates.

The super-citizens are people just like us. The thing is, they don’t know us. The 1% have quite different priorities than the 99%. For example, lower-income Americans believe that creating jobs is the clear priority for government, whereas the wealthy believe holding down the deficit is much more important. 

Whether we like it or not, we every-day people meet all sorts, including people with different life circumstances and different beliefs, and often we get talking to them. This rubbing of shoulders and shaking of hands gives us firsthand information about lives that are not the same as ours. The super-citizens, however, are cocooned.

I can barely imagine the world of the super-rich – can you? We never see them. They travel in chauffeured limousines and helicopters, private jets, yachts, even submarines. Far from shopping at the local market and joining local organizations, the super-rich are hardly local anymore – they move between residences in New York, London, Ibiza, and Provence. The ‘ordinary’ people they meet are PAs, solicitors, financial advisers, accountants, and servants.

It’s the people we don’t shake hands with that we ignore, and whose problems we discount. Because of this, the super-rich cannot speak for the 99%, and yet their voices can hush all of ours.

Is there anything we can do to have our voices heard above the clink of cash? How about we open our homes to the super-rich to come live with us for a week or a month? What about a reality show? We could  use Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’ – “I see friends shaking hands, sayin ‘how do you do?’ / They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you” as our theme song. I wonder how many would take the opportunity?

Or we can support organizations like Mayday.us which are using various means to overcome the effects of the Supreme Court decisions.

(Image from Elir Deviant Art)

super_rich_kids_by_elir-d56vguy

Love that Muslim as yourself

There were the usual outpourings of hateful bile on social media soon after the start of the siege at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in central Sydney, but just a little later, a movement based on love also deluged the social space. Through the hash tag #I’ll Ride with You, Australians offered to accompany Muslims who felt threatened as they traveled on public transport.  By late the same evening, that hash tag had been used more than a quarter of a million times. It made me proud to be Australian.

The events of 2001 also brought forth bigotry in Australia, but birthed a movement of love as well. Thousands of Australians, led by Christian groups, volunteered to support and assist the Muslims demonized in most mainstream media and by opportunistic politicians. Christians responded to need, not creed.

Many of the  Muslim refugees who had recently arrived in Australia filled job vacancies in areas that were too dirty, too far from cities, or too poorly-paid and so had been vacant, and so they met the rersidents. Rural Australians got to know Muslims face-to-face in their stores, their sports teams, and their workplaces, and neighbors were created. Rural Australians for Refugees was a large organization that grew from this.

The hate-filled attacks also birthed Welcome to Australia, a movement that helps mainstream Australians to get to know Muslims through shared teas, dinners, music, and other events.  Their annual event, Walk Together, now attracts thousands in cities across the country to walk to simply  say ‘welcome everyone’.  Welcome to Australia succeeds in overcoming hatred because it’s very hard to hate those we are close to.

Simply sharing food, music, conversation, and daily activities causes love to grow. Research shows that the mere exposure to a person increases our liking for them.

Australian Christians were led to meet Muslims through their obedience to Jesus’ command to love their neighbors. Meeting them grew understanding and fellowship.

Movements like Welcome to Australia, I’ll Ride With you, and Rural Australians for Refugees create neighbors and incubate love.

Religious leaders call for the peace in the middle east

 

 

 

 

No sweat! It’s Christmas!

I once knew a young boy who loved the  season that brought what he called Christmas ‘cattle-dogs’, because they meant that Father Christmas was on his way. Whether you love them or not, Christmas catalogs are now stuffing mailboxes and fattening newspapers here in America just as they are in Australia. US stores are clogged with the same sorts of nick-knacks as Australian ‘shops’– the chilli sauce packs, the cheap perfume and hand cream sets, the boxes of dominoes- that you grab in desperation and obligation. The same is most likely true in every country where merchants have heard of Santa Claus.

However, Christmas here has an unbeatable advantage – winter. We Aussies secretly acknowledge that we don’t have a ‘proper’ Christmas. Just look at the Christmas cards on sale in Australia.If you love snow, see all you desire at the Hallmark Australia pages! Snow, holly, fir trees, snowmen, hats and mittens – everything you do not find in Australia in December.

This year, I am in the REAL Christmas. Snow, cold to cozy up from, real holly on my front porch, and a live balsam wreath on my front door (mmm… just smell that)! Families rejoice in the warmth of baking cookies and don’t have to turn up the cooling to enjoy Christmas dinner.

Outdoors, the winter nights are lit up with the lighted icicles, reindeer, Santas, Snoopys, and Mickeys. Adelaide is proud of the towns and suburbs where neighbors light up their front lawns, but here one in every three homes is glittering in the dark.

The home of the President of the US has 26 decorated trees, including one 18 foot fir (that’s nearly five and a half meters, my imperially- challenged Aussie friends). Among all the other tinsel and baubles, there is a 420 pound (about 190 kg) gingerbread White House with motorized versions of the First Dog and First Cat frolicking in front.

Last week I saw Santa arrive! The downtown mall on Baltimore St was packed to see the light swoosh down the hill to do its annual duty of lighting the city Christmas tree. Then a search light raked over the tops of the buildings until we saw Santa (that’s American for Father Christmas, by the way)  right on the very top of the Cumberland Arms apartment building. He then climbed down the chimney (at least, that’s what I am told) and the local fire truck picked him up to parade him around town.

There are live performances – the Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, A Snoopy Christmas, music from choral societies and classical and jazz groups, as well as events like the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad North Pole Express ride, and breakfast with Santa. As well, we are blessed to be able to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the many churches.

Best of all, this year my son and daughter’s twin three-year-old half-brothers are visiting from Australia with their Mum – so I can enjoy all the childish things that make Christmas time extra special.

 

Christmas in Cumberland
Christmas in Cumberland

Americans give.

There is a parade of  ‘days’ in the US that starts on the last Thursday in November: Thanksgiving, Black Friday (which is also, ironically, Buy Nothing Day!), Cyber Monday, and of course, Christmas Day. A few years ago the US added another ‘day’ – Giving Tuesday, a national day designed to extend generosity beyond family and friends. In this spirit, the local paper published a six page spread promoting opportunities to give to local charities which provide toys and food to needy families – ‘Helping hands’, ‘Toys for Tots’, the ‘Maryland Food Bank’, ‘Tri-state Toys’, the YWCA, among others.

Americans are indeed a giving people – they donate more to charity than any other nation. It is those with the least who give the most, however. Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donate an average of 3.2 percent of their income, and low-income employed Americans donate 4.5 per cent.  The wealthiest Americans, however, who have earnings in the top 20 percent, contribute only 1.3 percent of their income to charity.

As well, groups serving the poor, like Food Banks, are unlikely to receive any gifts at all from the wealthy. In 2013, all of the top 50 individual donations went to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums.  In other words, the wealthy give to institutions that most benefit the wealthy. Charities that benefit the 8 percent of seniors who experience food insecurity, the 15.8 million children who live in food-insecure households, and the adult poor, depend most on those on the lowest incomes.

In most other developed nations the government provides the main safety net for the poor, incapacitated, and elderly. Government aid to the poor is anathema to many here, including the poor themselves. Indeed, in the USA, only 60% of those eligible for food stamps or school meals take them.

America is a country that believes that individuals make better decisions for their welfare than government, and in many cases, I agree. But there are factors, including social support, that are not served well by reliance on individuals.

Individual philanthropy is admirable, and America is an example to rest of the world. But we can’t rely on  philanthropy to fill all the bellies.

scrooge

 

I give thanks for American healthcare

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving – my first. There are many things to give thanks for here in my new neck of the woods. (Is that an American or Australian idiom, I wonder?) The rich history, beautiful architecture, and magnificent mountain scenery. The politeness and consideration that I meet everywhere in public – doors always held open, offers of help that come as soon as I crouch to fill my tires at the gas station, anonymous neighbors who clear my front path and sidewalk of snow – and, astonishingly, the cost of healthcare.

I just signed up for ‘Obamacare’ and found that coverage will be significantly cheaper than private insurance in Australia – I will pay less than a quarter of what it used to cost me. While there are co-payments involved – for example, $10 per doctor’s visit – these are close to the top-up amounts I needed to supplement Australian Medicare benefits, and in a lot of cases, for example medical imaging, my share will be much cheaper. So I give thanks for arriving after the Affordable Health Care Act that made this possible.

Last weekend the Cumberland Times News printed two stories that caused me to give thanks for the American can-do spirit. The first covered Ron and Linda Robertson whose son died in 2009 of an overdose. The Robertsons are evangelical Christians, and with their son they followed their church’s teachings that ‘reparative therapy’ would change Ryan’s sinful nature. After six years of ‘therapy’, Ryan gave up and became estranged from his parents and his faith, and became addicted to drugs. The good news from this tragedy is that the Robertsons did not give up their church. They have remained there, but are outspoken in protesting the demonization of homosexuality, and they are inspiring others to do the same. That takes courage.

The other good news story was out of the heartbreak of Ferguson. Police forces around the country are training more and more officers in ‘de-escalation’ – the art of using words and gestures to defuse tense situations. The more this happens, the less officers and civilians will suffer.

I am thankful that, as well as hearing the bad news – in most cases the only news that reaches outside the US to countries like Australia – I am here to take note of the other sides of the stories.

turkey dog

The tragedy spreads from Ferguson

I treasure the Cumberland-Times News because within its pages I can read opinion from all sides. Today the News published a piece from blogger Diana West about the Ferguson tragedy.  In the first few paragraphs, West introduces the topic of the right to self-defense, and her belief that the Ferguson grand jury affirmed it by deciding that the evidence before them did not support an indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

Unfortunately, a few paragraphs on, West’s article deteriorates into name-calling.  ‘Barak Obama and an army of racial arsonists’; ‘the Obama administration … is predictably callous or hostile’ and the ‘Obamaites’.

The Ferguson incident was tragic for both for the families and the town, and the tragedy has spread, awakening hatred and division. There has been a flood of unreasoned accusations and defamation. I will not repeat the insensitivity I have seen on Facebook and Twitter – pretty much equally from both sides of the fence.

It seems that I am unusual in hearing from both, however. Emma Pierson collected a sample of more than 200,000 tweets related to Ferguson, and they paint a stark picture of how divided people are.

tweeters_colorcorrected

When she analyzed other content on the Twitter accounts, Pierson found that people who referred to themselves a ‘conservatives’ were responsible for most of the tweets supporting the police action, while ‘liberals’ tweeted support for Michael Brown. The two groups are shown in this graphic, with red denoting conservatives and blue referencing liberals. Two points are connected if one tweeter mentions the other- in other words, who talks to whom. It shows two clearly divided groups.

When we only speak with people we agree with, we have our opinions confirmed – but not only that, we are reassured that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong. This nurtures the attitude of ‘they are wrong, and so they deserve all they get’.

Ferguson has attracted energy across America, but most of it is wasted – or it has actually made things worse. As Gideon Lichfield said, in another piece about the Ferguson tragedy, “… America is fortunate to be a country where one man’s death can still get people angry. All the more pity, then, that nobody has worked out how to turn the anger into action”.

Would I have shot Michael Brown?

In Ferguson, Missouri, the Brown family has lost a son, and I can imagine no worse pain than that.

Police officer Darren Wilson allegedly shot twelve times at Michael Brown, and about six of those bullets hit. Brown was unarmed. To someone used to policing in Australia, on the face of it this seems like a gross over-reaction.

While searching statistics on shooting deaths by police, I came across Jim Fisher, who in 2011 tracked 1,146 shootings by police officers in the US, 607 of them fatal shootings. Fisher commented that ‘a reasonable person’ would think most of the shootings unnecessary.

Indeed, but who is ‘reasonable’ when involved in a confrontation with strangers who are likely to have a firearm within reach? Police in the US are under constant deadly threat because so many people are armed. The FBI says that in 2012, 48 police officers were killed in the line of duty – 44 shot dead. A simple traffic stop can lead to a shooting.   To be safe in these circumstances you must assume the worst, and do your job on constant alert.

Members of the public assault police officers in many ways, and even fists can cause life-threatening injuries. While police officers can keep a safe distance from knives and fists, they cannot put enough distance between themselves and a gun while on duty.

I am so sorry for the loss of Michael Brown, and for the pain of his family and community. This shooting, like so many, was unreasonable. However, I must confess that, if I were a police officer in what I saw as a life-threatening situation, I would find being reasonable very difficult.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/susanmelkisethian/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/susanmelkisethian/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/susanmelkisethian/