Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Choosing Freedom over Fear

It is a well-known and well documented strategy of those in power to keep the masses in a constant state of fear. This is nothing new. However, we seem to be approaching an era of such mass paranoia that I wonder whether we'll ever be able to actually recover. The most recent manifestation of this crushing reality was initiated on September 11, 2001. Since that day, we've been terrified of terrorists and anyone who looks like them. But that was only the beginning. Between gay marriage, terror alerts, the "Axis of Evil," and bird flu, it is amazing that society has not begun constructing bomb shelters or committing mass suicides.

We now stand on the precipice of a new nadir, one to which I truly believed us incapable of sinking. Make no mistake about it, the US Congress, who seems to have nothing better to do than dismantle our civil liberties and freedoms, is about to pass the "Fugitive Slave Act." No, they are not naming it that, but they may as well be.

This atrocious proposal (HR 4437) would destroy families by dividing parents from their U.S. citizen children, and husbands from their wives. It would prevent our country from providing safe haven to families seeking refuge from war, persecution, or violence. It would expand immigrant detention, prosecute and imprison U.S. citizen family members, deport legal residents (those holding green cards) for minor criminal offenses, and turn our local police into immigration agents. This bill makes all undocumented immigrants felons and requires all employers to verify the immigration status of its employees. This proposal would turn our nation into a police state. We already look twice at every Arab walking down the street. This bill requires us to do the same with Latinos.

This is not simply anti-immigration. HR4437 (and its counterpart in the Senate) plays heavily on our fears: fears regarding our rapid job losses and declining quality of life, fears of creating a new permanent underclass, and most directly, fears of millions of poor, non-English speakers pouring through our borders. President Bush actually had the audacity to say,"Part of enforcing our borders is to have a guest-worker program that encourages people to register their presence, so that we know who they are and says to them, 'If you're doing a job an American won't do, you're welcome here for a period of time to do that job.' " Our borders are now open for people who want to come do the menial jobs that are below us. "The job an American won't do." Once their job is done, we are done with them.

This is the sequel. The prequel consisted of Native Americans being assimilated, African Americans working plantations, Chinese Americans building the railroad, Japanese Americans rotting in internment camps, and Arab Americans all being terrorists. We do need to regain control of our borders, but this is not the way. This Act does nothing to resolve the serious immigration issues our nation faces: it merely drives the problem underground. It destroys human dignity and eliminates the beacon of light that the United States has shown to countless generations.

Immigrants now are what they have always been. Our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. They work in our fields, our farms, and our factories. They serve as police officers, firemen, doctors, attorneys, strawberry pickers, janitors, waiters, teachers, and small business owners. They volunteer, run for office, and serve the public. They are here, like all of us, to make a good life for themselves, their family, and their community. They have the same thing they have always had: an unparalleled work ethic and a desire to improve their lives.

In 1883, Emma Lazarus penned words that came to symbolize a nation and visualize a dream. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" These words were like a warm blanket for most of our ancestors, welcoming them to the land of the free as they sailed past the Statue of Liberty. Read them again. These are words of inspiration, not fear. They are words of welcome, not deportation. Call your Senator and Congressional Representative and tell them we will not be afraid. Fear cannot coexist with freedom. We choose freedom.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Is There Room for Hope?

Several years ago, I wrote that “we are in the midst of a blip in a century that saw civil rights, suffrage, worker rights, and the environmental movement blossom. A century that created Social Security, Head Start, the National Park System, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Clean Air Act.”

The 20th Century was so wrought with dichotomy. It witnessed two world wars but also the most positive steps toward equality for women, minorities, and homosexuals in the history of our race.

My essay continued: “The backward steps we are taking right now are nothing more than a blip; we are simply inextricably entwined in a thousand year struggle to free the slaves and the serfs and the overworked and the underpaid from the injustice and inequality in which they have endlessly and ceaselessly toiled. We are in the midst of recognizing the value and dignity of each other and of our precious natural resources and finding a way to harmony and to balance. We are in the midst of a struggle for the soul of humanity, and the resolute consummation of this struggle is locked, bound, and cloaked, in hope.”

My wife and I were about to have our first child. I was thinking about the world in which we lived and wondering whether I could progress past the seemingly insurmountable wall that had, to this point, kept me from becoming a father: the fact that I wasn’t sure I wanted to bring a child into this world. Upon ultimately deciding to bring another life into this world, a decision that I took so seriously that it took me ten years of marriage to finally reach, I found myself having to convince myself that humanity is on the right path. That when one pulled himself from the trees of the day to day and looked at the entire forest, there was much to celebrate. Reason for optimism.

Now, almost three years later, I am forced to wonder whether I was seeing truth or, with a baby due a few months later, merely grasping for a mirage. Last week, the governor of South Dakota signed into law a bill that will outlaw abortions in all cases except those that protect the life of the mother. Even a rape by a family member will be insufficient cause for a legal abortion. With two new conservatives on the Supreme Court, where a challenge to this law will ultimately find itself, we have no choice but to think about implications for all of us.

I am against abortion. In fact, despite a philosophical battle that forces each side to the extreme, every reasonable person on earth is against abortion. This fight is not about being pro or con. It is about basic, equal rights and the continued struggle for equality. It is about the return to a society where the rich can fly to Europe and the poor are forced into back alleys. According to the UK Ministry for Health, 6,000 Irish women traveled to Great Britain last year to have an abortion. Of the 46 million abortions each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 19 million are unsafe, resulting in 600,000 deaths.

Can you guess where the 19 million unsafe abortions are conducted? Not surprisingly, nearly all are in the developing world. South Dakota did not declare war on abortion; they declared war on the poor. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, two-thirds of US women having an abortion say they cannot afford to have a child.

The most shocking reality is that abortion is illegal primarily in countries where religious fundamentalism, usually Catholicism or Islam, is dominant. If abortion were not the banner issue of the religious right, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion in the United States. The irony is that the there is no strong foundation regarding abortion in any of the world’s great religions. Other than belief in God, the common theme that resonates most profoundly in religion is intolerance of poverty.

The vast majority of human beings are pro-life. We are caring, compassionate, social creatures. Unless some emotional schism is introduced, like war, abject poverty, or brainwashing religious fundamentalism, most humans would more likely reach into freezing waters to help a stranger than not. Most would dial 911 upon seeing a stranger suffer from a heart attack. We don’t take the time to determine religious or political affiliation. We don’t take the time to wonder if they are pro- or anti- choice. We just react. This is cause for celebration: without some unnatural (albeit common) rupture in our development, the human biological imperative has evolved to the point where we view life as sacrosanct.

There is a common ground here. Pro-choice or anti-choice, we are all pro-life. As reasonable people, we know that our common ground lies in the root causes behind abortion, not merely in the abortion itself. So instead of moving backward, let’s continue our “thousand year struggle” for hope and equality. Let’s focus on ways to address poverty and prevent unwanted pregnancies. It is through this path that we can reduce the number of abortions, which is what we all want, rather than reducing the number of safe abortions, which merely becomes another assault on the poor.

It is through this path that I can regain hope in the world I am about to bestow to my beautiful child.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Nine Steps to Democracy

The Democratic Party is in serious trouble. The 2000 and 2004 elections were extremely close, but I do not think our current reality can be measured in those terms. There are a few simple facts that cannot be denied:

  • We have lost the South. Southern Democrats were never really Democrats anyway, but now they are outright hostile to the party. It does not matter if our candidate is from there or not, the vast majority of southerners now more closely identify with the Republican Party. For much of the South, moral issues have become the primary concern.
  • Despite the absolute horror that has been wrought upon our country since Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America, the Republican Party has not only claimed control of the House and Senate, but that control continues to grow.
  • We are losing more and more Statehouses.
  • Bill Clinton did not win because of his party, policies, or platform. Bill Clinton won because he was Bill Clinton – he connected with people, had amazing charisma, and was an extraordinary public speaker. Take him out of the picture, and the Democrats have not won the Presidency since Jimmy Carter in 1976--against Gerald Ford.

We are in crisis. It cannot be denied or spun any longer. I see several major strategies that we need to begin developing immediately. It may take us more than four years, but we must begin now and stay true to our course for as long as it takes. We can take comfort in the fact that we know we are right, so we simply need to move forward with such conviction.

(1) We must immediately cease and desist from being “Republican-lite.”

  • If I want a President who “hunts” and wants to “hunt down and kill the terrorists,” I am going to vote for George W. Bush. We never had a prayer with the NRA or the people who like seeing the word “kill” in a sentence. Our stance on guns should be clear: guns are destroying our inner cities and wreaking havoc upon our nation. The second amendment is about the militia, not a crack dealer.
  • Our stance on terrorism should be clear: we have acted inappropriately through the years and thus have created an entire group of people that are willing to die because they hate us so much. Killing more of them only reinforces and builds that hatred. It is time to recognize our mistakes, determine why we are hated, and take actions that decrease that hatred. That is simply the only way we will defeat terrorism.
  • John Kerry did everything he could to not look like a liberal. So did Al Gore. It didn’t matter. We can’t run from it. If we do, all that happens is that we are called liberals AND flip-floppers.

(2) We have ceded moral authority to the Republicans. Given the absolute certainty that we are the sole occupants of the moral high ground (among the two major parties), I have no idea how this could have happened.

  • Our answer to abortion must be straightforward and clear: we do not like it. We hate it. Who would like it? However, we live in a world where difficult choices sometimes must be made. We simply cannot return to a society where the rich can fly to another country and the poor are forced into back alleys. So let’s work together to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Family planning IS the moral high ground. We should claim the “pro-life” moniker for ourselves by being pro-family, pro-child, anti-capital punishment, and anti-war.
  • We also must make Americans understand the Biblical, religious, and moral significance of taking care of the Earth, our community, and each other.
  • We cannot be against gay marriage. We must firmly commit to the institution and to the fact that we have gay couples living together and raising children as we speak. Denying them the benefits of marriage is not merely anti-gay; it is anti-child. This is not a “states rights” issue. It is a national issue, and we all know it. This is another example of Republican-lite. People who hate gays will never vote for us, regardless of what we say. That’s okay, we don’t want them anyway.

(3) We have ceded patriotism to the Republicans. “Peace is Patriotic” is not enough. We have got to demonstrate that good communities, schools, and jobs are just as valuable as a new jet fighter. Republicans have three apple pie issues: gays, god, and guns. We need to choose our apple pie issues and scream them from the mountaintops. If we stick to our message we will begin to win back the flag.

(4) It is stunning that we are now seen as the Elitist party while the Republicans have somehow cultivated an image of being of and for the people. George W. comes across as being an ordinary, average guy who would rather drink a beer on his ranch than read a book and listen to opera. Al Gore and John Kerry were the opposite. We simply must have a candidate who can connect with people of all walks of life (Bill Clinton was perfect). I am not sure we can ever win another election with an intellectual who comes across as better than thou or intellectually superior. Sadly, most Americans no longer consider intelligence a key characteristic in our President. We must recognize this reality. That does not mean that we choose an idiot to run; merely, our choice must be able to connect to regular people.

(5) We must retake the media. CNN should not be trying to figure out how to be more like Fox. They should be trying to figure out how to be more like Mother Jones. We know the facts. We have got to get the mainstream media to hammer those facts, over and over and over again, into the minds of Americans.

(6) We must give up on white males. The ones that will vote for us will vote for us. The ones who watch Nascar religiously, believe guns and hatred of gays are their god given right, and dream of owning a Hummer, are lost. We need to reclaim women, and make an absolute, dedicated, concerted effort to get minorities, especially African Americans, to the polls. John Kerry won a vast majority of the African American vote, and we know that a few million more would have changed the result of the election. It is inexcusable for women to believe that W. stands for Women or that there is any chance he would actually keep their children safer. We must choose our audience carefully and cultivate our customers well.

(7) It is time to slap America across the face. We must drive home that we need to look inside ourselves and determine if we are really happy. Do we really think we are moving in the right direction? Do we really want to live in a world with crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating schools, increasing debt, more and more cultural wars, and less tolerance, respect, and honor? Where are we going? Why are we so afraid all of the time? If the Republicans are hell bent on becoming the Party of fear and hate, then let’s drive home that we can offer an alternative of inclusiveness and respect. If we can convince people that we can deliver, I am profoundly confident that we are the party Americans will choose.

(8) It is time to clarify that Republicans are not about personal responsibility and Democrats are about government control. We are about personal responsibility. We cannot tolerate living in a country where a person works three jobs but cannot afford health care for his family. We cannot look like the Democrats of old; we must cultivate a new image that connects personal responsibility with the need for some reasonable guarantees.

(9) We must become the Free Market Party. Let’s take the Republicans’ free market arguments and use them to our advantage. We need to become the party of less government intrusion – tax incentives, subsidies, and loopholes for large corporations and industries must end. We need to do the math and tell the story in dollars. Hit people right in the pocketbook.

  • We can link environmental improvements to economic advancement. We know gasoline costs society somewhere between $8 and $14 a gallon, when we factor in all of the unintended, but very real, costs. We must convince Americans that this IS what they currently are paying for our car-based society. Let renewables compete on that playing field, and let’s see how they measure up.
  • Free markets would dictate that housing criminals is far more expensive than preventing crime.
  • Free markets would insist that preventative health care would save significant dollars versus our current health care environment.

I do favor a multi-party system, but for now, it is clear that we only have two. However, if we do not take swift and powerful steps and change our direction entirely in the very near future, it will become increasingly likely that we only will have one.

Saturday Morning on Allied

Five young African American kids look up, mostly uninterested, as I climb the hill toward the porch stoop on which they sit. It’s 10 am, Saturday morning. One of the first great days of spring, it’s sunny and clear, in the mid 50s. There are two girls, three boys, and a dozen pieces of broken glass strewn about the grass on which they play. I say hello and they say hi back. A young woman, maybe in her late 20s, leans out the window beside the porch and looks at me like I am crazy. By the way she interacts with the children, I guess at least a couple of them are hers.

I walk past the kids and into the entry hall. The door is old, lifeless. It has cracks, missing chunks, and holes. Whether the holes are from a stray bullet, an angry fist, or some other source, I cannot say. The building is brick, but cracking and neglected. The hall is plastered with cheap, industrial carpet that looks a hundred years old. It is stained and covered with litter… gum wrappers, empty bottles, a torn piece of newspaper, a beer can.

I take care of business and walk away, wishing the children a nice day.

The next apartment is worse. It looks like it has been vacant for years. I can tell that people live there, which somehow makes it more disturbing. It looks like the worst parts of Chicago, of southeast DC, of Latin America. It isn’t.

It is Madison, and it is two diametrically opposed realities at once. It is Allied Drive, less than three miles from my cozy little upper middle class neighborhood on the near west side. And it is another world.

I am dropping literature for the upcoming City Council election. I find few places to drop. Most of the buildings are multi-family. There are no mailboxes, no baskets, no welcome mats under which I can conveniently slide my "Get Out and Vote" card. I don’t want to litter, and I don’t like ringing bells and hoping someone will let me in.

So I do what I can. I find kids playing, and ask if they’ll open the door so I can leave a couple fliers on the floor of the halls. The halls are all the same. Uninviting, dark, frightening. Peeling paint and cheap, stained carpeting. Littered.

There are four young men hanging out at the next building. They look up at me, wondering what on earth I could possibly be doing there. I tell them, "I’m dropping literature for the election coming up this Tuesday."

"What election?"

"City council."


"Can I put a couple fliers in the hallway?"

"Whatever." There is a fierceness dwelling behind the apathy. I can smell it. Like a vicious pendulum, swinging back and forth between anger and fear, anger and fear, anger and fear. I have the urge to somehow "fix" this, which just makes me sicker. I want to cry. My little baby is on my back, in a Kelty carrier the likes of which few in this neighborhood have probably ever seen. I ask her to say hi to the boys. She waves as we walk away.

I know these kids are shipped all over town to different schools – a vague recollection tells me at least 20 or 30 schools around Madison. The kids bring that forced separation back home. I can see it all around me. I know these families are constantly on the move, migrating from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood. There is a fleeting sense here, as if everyone is just trying to be somewhere else. I can’t blame them.

The next building is locked; I can’t get in or drop any literature. There is a sign on the door. It is taped up, inscribed in black marker, "Read this. Get seen in this hall; watch how fast the cops get called. No more warnings." I can’t shake the desperation with which this sign leaves me. I think about my daughter, so safe on my back. I think about the little girl her age that lives in this building, and what life is like in her world.

There are lots of dead patches of grass, litter, cigarette butts, and empty bottles. It seems every building has an overflowing dumpster. A car flies by with music blaring out its open windows.
I turn the corner and am surrounded by the familiar. The southwest bike path cuts a clean, neat, middle class swath right through the heart of this world. I’ve biked it a thousand times, on my $2,000 road bike, looking left and right as I sail through this community that is only surreal, peripheral. "It’s not so bad," I’d mumble under the echoing din of guilt -- white guilt, rich guilt, easy life guilt, don’t do enough guilt… I don’t know which. I’d pat myself on the back for my willingness to even bike through this neighborhood. "That says a lot," I’d tell myself, probably thinking I deserved some award.

I come back to the present and watch a white family bike by. They look happy. Safe. Seconds later, they are gone. I can’t escape that easily; I have more rounds to do. The Latino family I see ahead of me, sitting on their porch, seldom safe, can’t escape at all.

My baby takes this all in, my wife walking slowly behind us.

There are two women talking as I drift toward the next building. I offer both a flier. They readily accept the flier and ask why they should vote for my candidate. He’s helping to move the Supersaver development forward, I say, and has helped secure new money for a high quality day care in the neighborhood.

Right here, right now, they seem like such small things; such distant things. "That’s what it’s all about," I tell them, "lots of small steps in the right direction." I want to believe it.

A car drives by at about 50, accelerating. The silence never lasts long.

"I’ve lived here for seven years," one of the women tells me. "How is more housing going to help me? I work hard. I have a job with the state. But no one else will accept my Section 8 voucher in this city. I want to leave, but I can’t."

I know this is a common story. Here is one of the good ones, I think. And all she wants is to get out. I want her to be able to leave, but at the same time I am frightened at the prospect of what that means for those left behind. It’s the good ones that are needed here. I don’t know what to say. I want to solve her problem, solve our problem, solve the world’s problem. But I’m so helpless; I just stand there in dumbfounded silence. Great white hope, I am not. But I can’t help the fact that I want to be exactly that.

A middle aged Hmong man is hanging out his window. I run up the hill wincing at the condition of his building’s front door. I ask him if I can drop some literature in the hall. He is very friendly, and runs through his apartment, to the hall, and opens the door for me. I thank him as I walk back down the hill. He is smiling and waving to me.

There is a middle aged, African American male sitting on the porch stoop in front of me. He reeks of alcohol, but I offer him my hand. "Do you live here?" I ask. "No," he says, "but I do live in District 10." Another stereotype shattered; I’m truly shocked to hear he knows his district.

"Are you going to vote for my guy?" I ask.

He says, "Probably. But I have a question for you."

"What is it?" I ask.

"There’s a woman opening the door across the parking lot, better hurry if you want to get in there." I thank him, run across the lot, drop some fliers, and run back. "What was that question?"

"I don’t remember," he tells me. "But thanks for coming by, and have a good day." The smell of alcohol is strong, especially because it’s still the morning. I shake his hand and start walking.

A door is propped open at the next building. I lean my head in. A white male, mid-40s, is moving in today. He’s happy to take my literature. I turn around and see another moving truck. Two African American men are working it into a tight spot. I offer them a piece of literature. "We’ve been involved in every single good thing that’s happened in this neighborhood," they say. I say that’s great, and thank them for their work. I want to talk more, but can see that they are busy. "We’ll probably vote for your candidate," they tell me as I walk away.

My baby is getting tired and is starting to cry. I want her to know how lucky she is.

We turn around and start heading back toward the car. I want to take every single child in this neighborhood with me to a place that’s safe. I’ll bet every one of their parents wants the same thing. I look back at the side of the street I’ve just walked. Old mattresses, chairs, furniture lines the street. Endless rows of junk, trash, debris. How had I not noticed that? I wonder if there’s something special about today, or if every day on Allied Drive looks the same.

A lot of people talk about Allied Drive. I wonder how many have actually seen it. I have talked about Allied Drive, but this is my first time here. I’ve lived in Baltimore and worked in southeast DC, so I have seen this all before. But not here; not in Madison. I deliver Meals on Wheels on south Park Street. It’s not the same.

I testified last week, before the Madison Common Council, and said that "using TIF to support a grocery store on Monroe Street is appropriate." I acknowledged that it was not the highest need, but it was a legitimate one.

I unlock the car and think back to that testimony and my editorial two days later. As I buckle my baby into her car seat, I wonder what $2.3 million of my taxpayer dollars could do here. And I wonder whether it’s appropriate to spend one cent of city dollars in a neighborhood like mine, while a world like this one exists just three miles away.

Author’s note: My wife, baby, and I bike the southwest bike path the following day. We bike right through Allied and I look at the buildings with a new appreciation. They look different from the bike path, just as I’d thought while walking the day before. I remember who I talked to and who lives where. I point out the building where the Hmong man lived. Thirty minutes later, I’ll see him at the playground with his daughter, niece, and nephew. His children will play with my baby and he and I will talk. He flashes his huge, beautiful smile one more time as we say goodbye and bike away. I point out the apartment where the apathetic young man lived, the building the new guy had just moved into, and the yard on which the kids had played in the broken glass. Seconds later, I see the five kids and their mom, walking on the bike path. I say hello to the five children I’d seen 24 hours earlier. I remember all five of them, but doubt that they recognize me. It’s amazing. Just two hours of walking slowly through this neighborhood and interacting with its residents, and I now feel like a part of this community. Allied Drive is no longer a theoretical concept on which to hang my guilt; I now know some of its people. Maybe that connection is the first step toward something bigger. I can only hope.

What Would Jesus Really Do?

I think about people who allow certain aspects of their religion to guide their beliefs at the exclusion of all else. Those who would cling with indomitable vigor to their positions and cloak themselves in their absolute conviction that God is on their side. Those who are absolutely positive that gay marriage and abortion are more important to God than war, poverty, and the death penalty. We are in a moral abyss, and someone has decided that abortion and gay marriage are the reasons why. I cannot fathom what collusion of events has made this so.

It is my profound belief that those who are most vocally wrapping their ideals in Jesus’ name are those who are most corrupting his teachings. If Jesus were alive today, what would he really do?

First and foremost, Jesus spoke of God. Immediately beyond that, he spoke of love for all people. I am certain that those beliefs would still dictate his teachings today. Therefore, it seems obvious that Jesus would stand firm on issues like war and the death penalty. There is little nuance here. Both of these institutions require that someone in power make the choice to take life from another. This would clearly not sit well with Jesus, especially given the fact that there are almost always alternatives.

I cannot accept that Jesus would ever support war. Diplomacy is a closer path to love and peace
than killing, and this is the path that he would demand. Given that diplomacy was working in Iraq, there is no question that he would oppose that war.

Jesus would not condone suffering. The notion that countless billions of people around the world suffer abject poverty, have a difficult time caring for themselves and their children, and go to bed hungry at night, in a time when the planet had the resources to actually do something about it, would not sit well with the man who healed the sick and spoke of love for all people.

In Matthew 25:31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus makes absolutely clear that drink must be given to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and companionship to the ill and imprisoned. There is simply no question that Jesus would be unable to tolerate poverty, hunger, or the lack of compassion we demonstrate today. "I was in prison, and you came to me" is wholly inconsistent with the death penalty.

In Mark 12:28-31, Jesus speaks of loving God as paramount. But then he says, "The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’" In John 13:34-35, Jesus says "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." It is clear in the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus says "Go and do the same," that Jesus meant all of mankind in these statements, not merely neighbors.

Jesus would probably oppose abortion, but everyone opposes abortion. If this were a perfect world, there would be no need for it, and we all could lay this issue to rest. But this is not a perfect world. Jesus would support family planning to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies – a pro-life, pro-child, and pro-family agenda.

However, while he would probably oppose abortion, there is no way he would support hatred, anger, or class privilege. As long as those with means have access to an abortion (which they always would as long as it was legal in any country on earth), those without means must have the same options. This is about compassion for those in need with no other options. Jesus would not stand for the rich having the opportunity to jump on an airplane while the poor were forced into the back alley.

I cannot accept that Jesus would oppose gay marriage. "Loving your neighbor," means treating him or her with the same dignity and respect that you would have bestowed upon yourself. Jesus may not condone homosexuality, but there is no question that he would treat loving, caring, respectful people with love, care, and respect. I believe Jesus would insist that gay couples be given the same rights as others.

It is incomprehensible to believe that Jesus would speak of some God given authority for the U.S. How anyone can actually believe this is beyond me. If anything, Jesus would look unfavorably upon those nations that have vast wealth and resources but are unwilling to share them with the billion plus impoverished people of the world. It would be entirely inconsistent with his beliefs for Jesus to show favoritism for a country of excess and greed in a world of need.
Universal love was at the heart of all of Jesus’ teachings. Why would we presume it would be any different if he were alive today? I am disgusted at those who would pervert his teachings and use them so speciously.

Morality cannot be wholly wrapped in the cloak of anti-gay and anti-abortion sentiment. There is an entire world around us with a thousand issues, very few of which can fall on a black and white scale of morality. Most fall along a vast continuum, with very complex shades of gray.

However, one thing is certain. Were Jesus alive today, he would profoundly condemn any policies that favor war over diplomacy; tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the poor; any law that divides humankind; any economic plan that devalues the planet, natural resources, or the disadvantaged; and any statement that judges how others should live their lives.

Jesus was a teacher, and all teachers would want their students to think. It’s time for us to think. To think about what he’d want and what he’d believe were he alive today. And there is no question that universal love, respect, and a desire to bring all people together would form the absolute core of his beliefs now, just as they did two thousand years ago.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ethics and Vegetarianism: Why What We Eat Matters

Leo Tolstoy said, "A vegetarian diet is the acid test of humanitarianism."

It is an interesting concept, that of connecting the food we eat to morality. When we look at it from an individualistic point of view, which is what we pretty much do, it’s easy to just make the choice – to eat meat or not to eat meat. Because, like most other things, what difference does ONE person really make?

Like all other decisions, it’s not that easy. When we look at what we eat from a broader perspective, and consider the realities involved in the decision, it provides a different picture.

  • 9 billion chickens per year in factory farms will never have the chance to do one thing that is natural to them. They will never build a nest, take a dust bath, breathe fresh air, or meet their parents.
  • 41 million cows will be burned and castrated, then transported to the slaughterhouse. Many die on the way. Those that don’t are shot in the head with a bolt gun, hung by their legs, and then have their throats cut. They are often conscious through the entire process.
  • 170,000 pigs die in transport each year, 420,000 are crippled by the time they reach the slaughterhouse. Many are still fully conscious when they are dipped in scalding water for hair removal.
  • 300 million turkeys are killed each year in the US. Before this, their beaks and toes burned off with a hot blade, they are then crammed into filthy sheds.
  • Every year in the laying industry, 280 million newly hatched male chicks – who can’t produce eggs themselves – are thrown into garbage bags or grinders, to suffocate or be crushed or hacked to death.
This is an ethical conundrum right from the start, because we are incapable of meeting our own nutritional needs. We by default act against the interests of others in ensuring our survival. The dilemma is apparent from the get go – we must consume life to survive.

So is there a moral issue? How do we draw the line and decide that animals have some inherent right to life versus, say, a fruit or vegetable? There are several issues at hand.

First, is respect for life. Humans proclaim to maintain a deep respect for life and I do believe, for the most part, this is true. But for some reason our stomachs seem to get in the way, and we use their likes and dislikes as our means for determining right and wrong. I say cannibalism and you say gross. Therefore we can clearly and quite easily place it in the "wrong" column. I say "dog meat" or "horse meat" and most of us have the same reaction. "Yuck" becomes equivalent to "wrong."

I say ribs, bacon cheeseburger, or tandoori chicken, and our reaction is completely different. Our moral opposition drains away in direct proportion to our salivation levels. And while I presume the majority of us do not want animals to suffer, it seems we have an internal on/off switch that allows us to detach from reality when the subject at hand has anything to do with our appetites.

Many cultures can maintain a deep respect for life and still take that very same life. An example is Native American cultures that only killed what they could eat, used every part of the animal, and said a blessing over every killing. Sadly, this would not be possible today without decreasing the amount of our consumption, vastly increasing the cost of meat, or harder yet, requiring a more personal connection to the animals we killed and ate.

We simply cannot truly respect and bless these animals, and by default their lives themselves, when the depth of our connection is a plastic wrapped, Styrofoam container full of hamburger, whose origin or journey we couldn’t possibly fathom.

I know I could not kill an animal with my own hands – so why would I eat an animal just because someone else does it for me? Linda McCartney once said, "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." What do you think she meant by this? My interpretation of this is that we simply would cease support our current treatment of animals if we had to participate more fully in the process.

The second concept has to do with the moral question. Under what moral prerogative are we able to apply the tenets of equality, justice, and right to life to humans, and some animals (such as dogs, cats, and horses), but not the remainder of the animal kingdom?

Think about this quote by Peter Singer: "The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations, or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make this planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are?

Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible?"

There is a principle called the "Sanctity of Life." Albert Schweitzer was a major proponent. His justification for the principle was the following: (a) I have a will to live, (b) When I am healthy and sincere towards myself, I feel reverence for my will to life, (c) All other organisms have a similar will to live, (d) I experience empathy with other life as I reflect honestly, dwelling on its similarity to my own life, (e) My empathy generates sympathy, caring, and a "compulsion" to approach other life with the same reverence I feel for my life, and (f) Hence, reverence for life is a fundamental virtue."

There is a commonly articulated criticism against vegetarians that they claim to respect life but nonetheless eat plants, and plants are living organisms too. There is some substance to this argument, but not much. The argument about right to life does not define life as merely "alive," but rather as sentience and consciousness. Few would argue that members of the plant kingdom have the same level of consciousness as animals. Additionally, many plants can easily weather the loss of an appendage, where as most animals cannot. And, of course, many plants make their usage as food beneficial not only to us, but to them as well. Bearing fruit is of course the most obvious and delicious example.

Some more moral food for thought:

  • The first statement of Buddhism is "do not kill."
  • Hindu scriptures recognize spirituality in all living things.
  • The sixth commandment: "thou shalt not kill."
  • Genesis: "To man and all creatures wherein is a living soul."
  • The Bible also says that "man has dominion over the animals." But think of the meaning of the word "dominion." The Bible spends the majority of its words imparting a reverence for life. Kings and queens have dominion over their people, but I do not believe this imparts in them permission to torture, kill, eat, wear, or experiment on their subjects.
  • An interesting quote by Reverend Andrew Linzey: "Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering."
The third issue deals with whether current behaviors are sustainable given their impact on the environment.

I know you’ve heard all these things before, but I think they bear repeating. As I read these, think about the staggering implications of each one… and the almost incomprehensible implications of them taken in sum.

  • Of all agricultural land in the US, 80 percent is used to raise animals for food.
  • It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat.
  • Audubon estimates that 50% of the water used in the US is to raise animals for food.
  • A vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day. A meat diet requires 4,000 gallons. That’s a difference of 3,700 gallons a day or 26,000 gallons a week. For each person that would move to a vegetarian diet.
  • 55 square feet of rain forest needs to be razed to produce a quarter pound hamburger.
  • 360 million acres of forest in the US alone have been cleared for cropland for farmed animals. The Smithsonian says seven football fields of land on earth are bulldozed every minute to create room for farm animals.
  • Farmed animals produce 130 times the excrement of the entire US human population – without sewage treatment. About 86,000 pounds per second. Much of it ends up in our water and soil. The EPA estimates that chicken, hog, and cattle excrement have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states.
  • 1/3 of the fossil fuels in the US go into the production of meat.

I know these numbers seem almost impossible to believe, but think about it this way. To eat a hamburger, these are the steps required:

  • Grow tons of grain (tilling, irrigation, etc)
  • Transport grain on 18 wheelers to feed mills
  • Operate feed mills
  • Transport feed to factory farms
  • Operate factory farms
  • Truck animals to slaughter
  • Operate slaughterhouses
  • Transport meat to processing plants
  • Operate processing plants
    (There is an entirely additional, energy intensive process to create all the packaging needed)
  • Transport meat to grocery stores
  • Keep meat refrigerated or frozen until ready for use
    (Then there’s the waste of all the packaging)

Here is a question: is it possible to be an environmentalist and a meat eater? In reality, there are few things we could do as a society that would have a more beneficial impact on the environment than to vastly decrease or eliminate our consumption of meat.

The fourth issue deals with whether current behaviors are sustainable given their impact on the remainder of humanity.

Animals raised for food are fed more than 70 percent of the grains the US produces. It takes 22 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

Meat animals of the world alone consume food equal to calorie needs of 9 billion people.
There are estimates that the world currently produces enough vegetarian food to feed 15 billion people. 1.4 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans we feed US cattle alone.
40,000 children die of hunger every day.

We all know, of course, that distribution and politics are a big part of this problem, but are not solely responsible. Even if they were, and we can definitely discuss this topic, an ethical question remains: is it okay to engage in a behavior that wastes resources, when it is widely known that people are suffering and dying because of a lack of those very same resources?

Paul McCartney said: "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That's the single most important thing you could do. It's staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty."

A fifth issue, related to the last couple, just deals with consumption.

I think it’s mostly been covered already, especially in the environmental discussion. But I think it deserves it’s own minute in the limelight. Most people would agree that consumption is, in many ways, related to both waste and equity. Over-consumption results inevitably in waste and, in a world of haves and have-nots, is clearly an equity issue.

Consumption is, thus, an ethical issue. I have a lot of thoughts on this, related to production, productivity, availability, and price, but I’ll leave it with this: most of us believe we live in a nation that is heavy on consumption. In many ways, this is similar to our discussion. One could argue that eating meat, when one can meet their nutritional needs with a vegetarian diet, is akin to buying a Hummer when one really only needs a Corolla. Or to buying a mansion when one only needs a three bedroom.

I think we seldom think about it in those terms, but when one considers the 2500 gallons of water necessary to produce a pound of beef versus the 25 gallons needed to produce a pound of wheat, I don’t think we can deny the depth of the similarity.

Another issue, related but peripheral, is the use of animals in medical research and/or product testing.

I want to spend a second on this, though it obviously could be an entire discussion in its own right. There is no question that animals used for research are basically used as tools for our own benefit. There is an unquestionable ethical question here, similar to the question of how we treat animals used for food. The realities are the same: no dignity, no respect, a willingness to tolerate pain, suffering, and torture, in order to meet our needs. The concept that harming another species for our benefit is okay, or at best, a necessary evil.

However, there is clearly a difference in some ways.

We know for a fact we can meet our protein needs by alternative means. Our treatment of animals for food cannot really be justified on any level, other than the fact that they taste delicious.

Similarly, it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to find any reasonable justification for animal suffering in order to create cosmetics.

There is, obviously, a much more difficult ethical question when it comes to animals used for medical research. If one were to believe that it is inherent upon us to respect all life, then using animals for medical research should be just as intolerable as Tuskegee in Alabama or experiments on Jews during World War II.

Again, it comes down to whether or not animals deserve moral consideration in their own right. Here is one way I like to think about it. Imagine, if you will, that the Neanderthal had survived. Clearly not human, but pretty darn close. Would research be acceptable? Or, an even better example: what if SOME humans evolved again, into a more advanced species, and others did not. Would we be able to justify experiments on our less advanced cousins in order to provide possibly life-saving treatments for ourselves? What if WE ENDED UP BEING THE LESS ADVANCED SPECIE? What would we think about it then?

This is a different topic, but it is related to our main topic. It is similar in that it gets at the ethical and moral issue of not only utilizing a living creature solely for our gain, but doing so in an inarguably inhumane manner.

Obviously, we could spend another full hour just on this subject, but I’ll leave you with that thought.

In conclusion: There is a lot of talk about humans being omnivores. I think it likely that our omnivorous nature served us well during the evolution of our species. It seems likely that there were times in our evolution when our ability to derive nutritional value from as many sources as possible served as a critical survival mechanism.

However, it is clear that we have more in common with herbivores than carnivores, including our intestinal length, the strength of our stomach acid, the shape and size of our teeth and nails, the existence of sweat glands, and other features. And we have clearly evolved to the point where a vegetarian diet is not only easy to come by, but better for the earth, more sustainable for the environment and the long run survival of our species, and more justifiable on pretty much any moral basis.

If you do think we are truly carnivorous by nature, imagine a wolf or lion stumbling upon a day old cow carcass in the woods. Imagine the profound joy that this animal would feel upon its discovery. Now imagine how you’d react, were you to stumble across the same thing.

Now, with all that said, I not only think our omnivorous nature served us well in our evolution, but actually didn’t contain the volume of moral issues that it does today. When there were fewer humans, each of whom was having a direct connection to the animals they killed and ate, one could certainly argue that the implications were not as dire.

Two examples of this still exist: consuming locally produced, free range, organic meat and hunting or fishing for your own food.

Organic farmers often, but not always, treat the animals with more respect and dignity, and actually offer them some quality of life. Most of the time, the environmental impacts are far less pronounced -- though the reality remains: it will always take more land, water, and resources to produce an animal for food then it would to produce a vegetarian alternative. The other reality that remains is that we have to consciously make the moral decision that the life of an animal is not as meaningful as the life of a human.

Hunting and fishing are a different story. We might have other moral issues with these behaviors, but in many ways, they are the closest example of an equality-based paradigm. While we are still taking a life, and making the moral decision that that life is not as valuable as ours, we are at least offering full respect for the quality of that life prior to its taking. The animal has lived its life, and it’s time has come. One could argue that, were it not a rifle or bow, it could have been a lion or wolf. No resources went into the production of this animal, and its life had full meaning until the very end.

I must allow that there is something to the concept that dying is okay when a life has been well-lived. It’s not like we have a choice about the dying part. There is an ethical issue with leading a cow to a slaughterhouse, but I would argue, had that cow lived the good, true, and happy life of a cow, that the ethical issue is much diminished from the one we face with our current food production techniques.

With all that said, I think this issue comes down to three main questions:

  • What is our moral responsibility to respect life, and how far does it extend?
  • What is our ethical responsibility for our natural environment?
  • And, what is price of our behavior on the human race?

I think we could all agree that there is an ethical responsibility on all of us to help those who cannot help themselves. Then the question asks how far down the food chain this must extend. Ethics is, in the end, almost always about choice. And with that, I leave you with an Albert Schweitzer quote: "A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to aid all life which he is able to help."

Who's Killing Christmas?

Invoking yet another "eventually we'll tire them out" strategy, the religious right and their pandering mouthpieces (Fox News, et al) have now managed to turn the Constitutional right for religious freedom into an assault on Christmas. This is really pretty simple: Courthouses and Capitol buildings represent the citizens of the state and nation in which they reside. The dollars to construct, maintain, and staff these institutions come from all taxpayers, regardless of their religion. We do, last I checked, live in a nation that contains citizens of numerous religions, including followers of the "no religion at all" denomination.

Christmas, contrary to popular belief, remains a Christian holiday. The fact that it has more in common with Wall Street than Bethlahem does not change this fact. Neither an annual holiday, a national Christmas tree, nor a "Christmas shopping season" changes this fact. The actual holiday itself, on religious grounds, has as much meaning to a non-Christian as Rosh Hoshana does to a non-Jew, or Ramadan does to a non-Muslim. A National Christmas Tree makes a statement, this simply cannot be denied, and that statement overtly confers secondary status upon all non-Christians.

Concerns regarding this inappropriate activity do not represent an attack on Christmas, they rather signify an attack on Christmas being celebrated as though it had national (meaning "functioning of the nation") significance. And the trappings of one religion simply cannot carry significance in a nation that was formed with an essential guarantee that no religion shall be forced upon its people.

But, as in all things, there is another side to the story. I do not celebrate Christmas in any meaningful, religious way. This is because I am not a Christian. Therefore, when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas," I must admit that there is a part of me that cringes, just a bit. I'd prefer, "happy holidays." But an onlooker would never know. The reason is because the person wishing the sentiment upon me is, as far as I can tell, trying to be civil and kind. And kindness is a good thing. Therefore, it is really no problem at all for me to smile and say, "Thank you, you too." So, while our national celebration of Christmas is definitely inappropriate, this much is also true: if you get offended when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, you need to check your priorities. Life is too short to get offended when someone says something nice. So, if you are wasting time filing lawsuits to prevent someone from saying "Merry Christmas," you have entirely too much time on your hands.

The sad thing for Christians (and, I'd argue, for America) is that Christmas is not really a Christian holiday anymore. Yet another reason non-Christians should cease to be offended (on religious grounds, anyway). Christmas is now a cultural phenomenon tied more closely to our rampant consumerism than anything else. I hate to point out the obvious, but Christmas is more about a pretty tree, lights on houses, a few days off work, a shopping season that stretches longer each year, presents, and new movies at the theater than anything else. Look me in the eye and tell me I'm wrong. It is nothing more than another junked car, that once drove really well, at the salvage yard that is our consumerism. The Capitalism monster is so big that I'm not sure Christmas ever had a chance. I think the real reason I'm off-put when someone says Merry Christmas to me is because it reminds me that I have yet to spend $500 on meaningless junk in order to meet my "good person" quotient for the season. Everyone, except maybe Wall Street, should be offended by Christmas.

My neighbors have a sign in their yard that reads, "Keep Christ in Christmas." A friend asked if that bothered me. Bothered by a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus? Celebrating someone who, in Matthew 25:31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, makes absolutely clear that drink must be given to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and companionship to the ill and imprisoned? Someone who, in Mark 12:28-31, speaks of loving God and then says, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " Someone who, in John 13:34-35, says “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Keeping Christ in Christmas sure sounds better than keeping Wal-Mart in Christmas. Spend the day volunteering. Take some of the $8 billion we spend on Christmas decorations every year and use it to help someone in need. "Give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and companionship to the ill." Take the month of December, and instead of rushing around like fools trying to get your shopping done, "love one another." Translate the celebration of Jesus' birth into something of which he'd be proud. And then sign me up; I will be honored to make it my holiday too.

Next Step in Evolution: The Sick Leave Debate

March 6th, 1930. It probably doesn't ring a bell for most of us. I have to admit, it wasn't ringing a bell for me. 75 years ago seems like another world. A postage stamp cost two pennies. It was the year Pluto was discovered. A man named Clarence Birdseye put his frozen food on sale in a store in Massachusettes. The Great Depression had just begun. Unemployment shot to 25% and much of America would face hardships most of us can scarcely imagine. It would last for nine additional years.

On March 6th, 1930, over one million demonstrators took to the streets (this would be the equivalent of 2.4 million people today). One hundred and ten thousand took to the streets in New York City, 100,000 in Detroit, 50,000 in Chicago. There were huge crowds in numerous other cities, including Milwaukee. They were poor and unemployed and tired of it. Their banners were emblazoned with "Work or Wages." Huge empires of wealth had been arising, for years, at the expense of workers. Seventy five years ago.

January, 2006. The United States is generating a staggering 6 trillion in income annually. The top 1% of Americans own 40% of the total wealth. Dane County, Wisconsin is generating upwards of 10 billion dollars in income per year. This is just income, it doesn't even include already-owned wealth. Despite numbers incomprehensible in 1930, some things have not changed. These ten billion dollars are not shared evenly, and empires of wealth continue to grow. Workers continue to go to work, two or three jobs oftentimes, leaving children at home, worrying how they'll make the next rent payment or even buy dinner that night. Hoping against hope that nothing bad happens: a cold winter, a dead furnace, or, worst of all, a family illness. Health insurance is non-existent for many, and time off work impossible.

In 1930, following the demonstrations, workers began to organize. In what must have seemed like an impossible, overwhelming battle, they won the Fair Labor Standards Act. It outlawed child labor and estabished a minimum wage.

In 2006, when my child gets sick, she goes to the doctor. She receives among the most advanced care that any child in the history of our planet has ever received. I can't imagine it any other way. I'm pretty sure most of the people who oppose Madison's sick leave policy can't either.

In 1930, the future of our economy was being debated. It was said that a 40 hour work week and minimum wage would decimate our economy. It was the same argument made seventy five years earlier, when slavery, and its impact on our economy, was being debated. Seventy five years later, it can safely be said that our economy was able to grow despite the passage of what most of us now believe were common-sense protections and basic equal rights.

In 2006, the debate is not about sick leave. It is about taking the next step in our evolution. Taking the next step in our commitment to effectuate a society where "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Taking the next step to realize the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this very weekend, that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

There is simply no excuse, when we have far more than sufficient income and wealth, and live in a community where we consider ourselves to be truly compassionate, to send the very real message that it is acceptable for a parent, who is working 40 hours or more, to be forced into going to work instead of caring for her sick child.

That is what this debate is about. Whether you support or oppose this ordinance, I'm sure we can all agree that Madison, in 2006, can do better. The sponsors of this bill admit that it is not perfect. They want help drafting something that protects our city and supports our businesses. Let's work together and find a way.

Despite the fact that most of us can't imagine a world in which a mother can't take a day off of work to care for her baby, it exists all around us. This debate is about taking the first step toward eradicating that world from Madison. Actually, one could argue that we took that first step in 1930, in New York City, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Let's come together, and make Madison, 2006, the place we take the next step.