Monthly Archives: January 2013

CRUMBLING OF THE ARAB SPRING

What came to be known as the “Arab Spring” can be traced back to December 17, 2010. On that day, a young man living in Tunisia, named Mohamed Bouaziz,  came to the conclusion that Tunisian politics were so corrupt, and his economic and other life prospects were so hopeless, that all he could do was go into the streets and protest the sheer bankruptcy of Tunisian living conditions. Being possessed of such total hopelessness and despair, he felt that his only option of protest was self-immolation. Yes, he set himself on fire and burned to death, so the world could see the absolute depths of despair that people living in much of the Arab world had to undergo on a daily basis. And the world did take notice.

Tunisia, as with almost all of the Arab nations in the Mid-East, had been ruled by a dictatorship for decades, which maintained power by paying off the military and other elites, in a corrupt relationship that benefited the few at the top, and caused the masses to live in squalor with no hope of a better life. Some dictators were more corrupt than others; some were more brutal and ruthless, while others were slightly more benign. However, the common thread running through all these Arab states was how horrible their economies were, and the vast extent of poverty and squalor that the masses of people had to live with, throughout their entire lives. But as I’ve said , the world finally did take notice, and the self-immolation of that one person started a wave of protests, demonstrations, revolutions, and civil wars that are on going to this day.

In Tunisia, people took to the streets by the thousands, and then tens and hundreds of thousands, protesting the despotic rule and brutal poverty that existed in their country.  Finally the dictator that had ruled them for decades was forced to leave, and free elections were held in 2011, for the first time since 1956. This was soon followed by more mass demonstrations and new heads of states in Algeria, Lebanon, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Morocco and Jordan, as protests spread throughout the Mid-East. Most protests did lead to new, but not necessarily, improved governments. But, perhaps the largest upheavals occurred in Egypt and Libya. Egypt had been ruled for over 30 years by its President, Hosni Mubarak, who, as dictators go, was probably more on the benevolent side. But the dire poverty and lack of civil rights in Egypt was just as extensive as any other Arab nation. Massive protest began taking place in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Mubarak, now in his 80s, and sick with cancer, was forced to resign in February 2011, with the military taking over the reins of power, and promising free elections. Today, Mubarak is still alive, but too sick to be tried for war crimes, as is the current government’s desire.

Libya had been ruled since the 1970s by one of the more brutal and ruthless tyrants, Muammar Gaddafi. As in the other countries, massive demonstrations took place in Tripoli and throughout Libya, but Gaddafi refused to leave. As a result, civil war broke out between the poorly armed rebels, and Gaddafi’s forces who were militarily superior. When it appeared that Gaddafi’s military would crush the rebels, President Obama vowed that such an outcome would shock the conscience of the world. The U.S. provided military support to the rebels, who were then able to turn the tide in their civil war and defeat the dictator’s army. Gaddafi, to the bitter end, refused to leave Libya, and was eventually killed by rebel army. Elections were held soon after, but today there is now a very weak central government in Tripoli. Most of the country is currently being controlled by rival tribal leaders, with Islamic extremists and terrorists gaining more and more influence and power. Sometimes, a revolution doesn’t turn out well, and can leave a country and its people in even worse shape.

Of course, a discussion of the Arab Spring cannot leave out Syria’s role. Syria has been ruled by a very despotic dictator, Bashar al-Assad for avery long time. His father had despotically governed Syria for decades, and when the old man died, Bashar took over the reins of power. As in Libya, peaceful protests were of no use, so those in rebellion took up arms. Bashar’s response to the rebellion was to start slaughtering unarmed civilians who he felt had colluded with the rebels. His favorite tactic was to drop bombs on apartment houses he believed these people lived in, killing hundreds at a time. Women, children, unarmed men, it really didn’t matter. If Assad believed that you were on the rebel”s side, you became fair game for murder. To date, it’s been estimated that between 60,000-100,000 thousand people have been slaughtered in Syria’s on going civil war. To make matters even worse, Assad’s government has stockpiles of chemical and biological warfare weapons, and threatens to use them on the civilian population. Instead of killing hundreds at a time, chemical or biological weapons can kill tens of thousands or more with one shot. Unlike Libya, however, President Obama has (unwisely in my estimation) refused to provide an form of military assistance to the rebels, so the deadlocked civil war and daily slaughter goes on, uninterrupted.

In the meantime, events have been unfolding in Egypt, but not in a good way. The people eventually forced the military to provide free elections, after Mubarak’s fall. But then, in what was considered a reasonably honest election process, the people chose as their president, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood; a man named Mohammed Morsi. Those of you unfamiliar with the Muslim Brotherhood should know that at best, it’s considered a highly Islamic fundamentalist organization, and at worst, an Islamic jihadist party. The candidate that Morsi defeated was of secular beliefs. It never ceases to amaze me that entire populations will, in effect, voluntarily enslave themselves by allowing religious fundamentalists to take control of their lives. Now, as Morsi seeks to extend his power and spread the Brotherhood’s fundamentalist Muslim beliefs throughout Egypt, massive protests have begun once again. It’s gotten so bad that the military chief has stated that Egypt is descending into chaos and anarchy; and their economy, which was barely functioning on life support, is now in a full-force crash. So the people, who voted for a man that promised to enslave them in religious fundamentalism, are deeply upset that he’s actually making good on that promise. Such are the foibles, dysfunctions and irrationalities, that comprise the human condition in this day and age.

Things aren’t so hot in Tunisia, either, where it all began. Massive protests are starting to take place because there’s been no real economic improvement. In Libya, while it was great getting rid of Gaddafi, the resultant government has been almost completely ineffectual. That lack of functioning partly led to the killing of our Ambassador and three of his aides last September, by murderous Islamic terrorists. The war also goes on without missing a beat, in Syria. In Mali, the French are fighting al-Quida terrorists that threaten to take over the country. So the Arab Spring, which started out with such promise, especially after old despotic tyrants were thrown out of office, is basically crumbling before our eyes, as new tyrants, or ineffectual governments take their place. The only country in the Mid-East that has a democratic, free society, with a first world economy is Israel. But outside of the United States, who doesn’t hate Israel?

 

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SOLUTIONS

As far as the evolutionary process is concerned, man is still fairly low-down on the totem pole. While the planet is billions of years old, and the first humans came on the scene millions of years ago, the concept and actuality of civilizations came into being maybe, only about 10,000 years ago. Evolution in the development of civilized behavior takes a very long time. I can’t help but think that historians a thousand years from now will look back and say- a thousand years ago, in the 21st century, man was still so primitive and barbaric, that people actually ate the flesh of dead animal carcasses. How cannibalistic. And they also constantly engaged in the ultimate failure and folly of the human condition-which would be war. (That’s, of course, presuming that we don’t destroy all life on the planet before the 31st century, a very definite possibility.) So as I said, we still have a lot of evolving to go through to get beyond the prime motivators of human behavior in today’s world; which are fear, paranoia, greed and lust for power. Despite this, I thought I would take a stab at proposing some rational, sensible, and pragmatic solutions to some of the overwhelming problems facing us today.

Take guns. Please. (Taken from Henny Youngman’s opening line in all his comedy acts- Take my wife. Please.) As I wrote previously, if civilized society was thinking rationally, the only guns in existence would belong to the military and law enforcement officials. Who else needs guns? Hunters, who, in slaughtering defenseless animals treat these animals as if they were inanimate objects, instead of living creatures whose desire for life is just as strong as humans? While hunting might have been justified centuries ago as a means of putting food on the table, such is not the case in this day and age. Hunters don’t kill animals for food anymore. They do it for “sport.” Instead of being benefactors and protectors of the animal kingdom, humans are too often their slaughterers. There are a lot of good people out there working very hard to protect animals, especially endangered species such as elephants. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of bad people who continue to slaughter elephants for their ivory tusks, as well as, just the “sport” of it. When we recognize that animals are not inanimate objects, but living creatures that strive to maintain their existence every bit as much as we the people do, maybe then, mankind can shift from a killing to a benefactor status. After that, mankind might even evolve away from being meat eaters, and put slaughterhouses out of business.

People will say they also need firearms for protection. After all, there’s a very nasty  criminal element out there just waiting to rob, rape, pillage and kill if one is unarmed. And you can’t count on the police because more often than not, they will show up after the fact, when the damage has already been done. Which is all true. However, this is where the fear and paranoia set in. Gun owners will refuse to be dis-armed because they’re afraid that the events of any morning could result in another shoot-out at the OK Corral. Yet only a small percentage of the population is ever a crime victim. And the vast majorities of these crimes are simple robberies. Yes, people will be murdered, women will be raped, and the mentally unhinged will perpetrate mass killings like the recent one in Connecticut. But those are still the exceptions to the rule. The vast majority of the population will never fall victim to a crime. That’s why despite the wide-spread proliferation of guns, more than half the population in the U.S. are not gun-owners. And even if  one owns firearms and get into a shootout with some low-life, there’s no guarantee that the victim will prevail. Especially since the criminal will likely have more experience with the use of weaponry.

The vast, wide-spread proliferation of guns in this country makes it all the more easy for criminals to undertake their nefarious deeds. There’s an estimated 300 million guns in circulation in the U.S. which makes it that much easier for those bent on being a professional criminal to thrive in their chosen profession. After all, why pay black market prices for weaponry under risky circumstances, when one can just waltz into Wal-Mart, or any other gun establishment, and pay lower prices under safe conditions. The feeble background checks that may be required are hardly a hinderance. And even these aren’t required if you buy at gun-shows or from a private party. Yes, even with strict gun-control, if a criminal is absolutely determined, he or she will likely be able to obtain firearms in the black-market. Or steal them from gun-owners. But we don’t have to make it so much easier for them with the widespread proliferation that currently exists. However, even modest proposals for gun restriction or control are usually met with incredibly fierce opposition from the fear and paranoia populace. And, of course, leading the charge against even modest gun control is the good old NRA, perhaps the most unsavory large organization this country has experienced since the KKK.

Well, when I started writing this piece, I hadn’t intended to make it all about gun control. I guess I got a little carried away with the topic. I mean, there’s a vast scope of very serious world problems that require urgent solutions as well. Perhaps topics for another blog. (I can only write so much at one setting. That “senior thing” again.) In a sense, however, what I addressed today was really not about guns, but about where we are as a society on the evolutionary stage. Still pretty far down, it seems. Still making bad, irrational and dysfunctional decisions based on fear, greed, paranoia. And in the case of world leadership, on a never-ending lust for power. I guess we’ll have to wait another thousand years or so, and see if mankind is capable of evolving to a higher, more rational level.

 

 

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GUNS AND BIBLES

Barbra Streisand, when she used to sing for a living instead of making crappy movies, had a hit record whose lyrics went something as follows: “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage; you can’t have one without the other.” Well, it seems to me that what also goes together like a horse and carriage, are guns and bibles. (Leave aside, for the moment, that one will rarely, if ever, come into contact with a horse and carriage in this day and age.) I have always puzzled over the fact that a huge portion of the religiously fundamental populace also has an overwhelming affinity to arm themselves to the teeth, usually with racks of handguns and rifles. I guess it all stems from that passage in the New Testament which describes how Jesus carried an AK-47 with him when he went to deliver the sermon on the mount. Just in case some unruly ruffians in the crowd had got out of hand. But I suspect that the religiously pious among us, arm themselves for much the same reason that they pray to God. They fear if they didn’t pray, and show due homage, God would crush them like a bug. And in the case of guns, they also let the full spectrum of delusion and paranoia take firm hold. After all, if they weren’t armed, criminals are just waiting out there in the streets to break into their houses and rob them blind, and then shoot them for good measure. Or worse, the big, bad Government can hardly wait to disarm them, and then ship them off to concentration camps for being troublemakers. Thus, when so much discourse is spilling forth these days on gun control and second amendment rights, I thought it would be useful to look at the facts, and reality as it actually exists.

The rate of homicides by guns in this country, according to the latest statistics, is 3.6 people per one hundred-thousand population. (And maybe, if that six-tenths of a person fully grew up, he or she could have also avoided homicide.) Do the math. That’s an incredibly low percentage, especially in a country where guns flow like the River Ganges. In countries that have strict gun control laws, like Britain or Australia, the rate of homicide is less than one person per one-hundred thousand population. Also keep in mind that certain types of human behavior increase or decrease the risk of being gunned down. If you decide that criminal enterprise will be your field of endeavor, of course, you will likely increase the risk of untimely death. So will borrowing money from the Mafia and not being able to pay it back, or frequently interacting with drug cartels. On the other hand, if you’re like most middle-class or affluent Americans, and live in mostly safe neighborhoods, your risk of homicide probably drops to less than one in a hundred-thousand. In fact, the rate of suicide by gun, is almost double the rate of homicides. Obviously, the easy availability of guns makes it so much easier to succeed if one is harboring suicidal thoughts.

Of course, none of these statistics are of any comfort to grieving loved ones, when random lunatics go on a shooting spree and murder scores of people. As they did in Columbine, and Arizona (the Gabby Giffords shooting), and Colorado, and most recently in Connecticut. And, of course, it’s these incidents that have resulted in calls for greater gun control, and correspondingly, for vociferous opposition from the National Rifle Association and other like-minded gun advocates to any form of gun restriction. They cite the second amendment as giving everyone the right to bear arms. But no rights are absolute. The first amendment gives us the right of free speech. But as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes noted decades ago, this doesn’t include the right to cry “fire” in a crowded movie theater, when, in fact, there is no fire. Also try verbally plotting to kill your annoying next door neighbor and see how fast that will land you in the clink when the plot is discovered. The right to bear arms doesn’t mean I can acquire and roll down the street in a Sherman tank, or put surface-to-air missiles on my front lawn. Ted Nugent, a so-called rock singer who was washed up by the late 1980s, likes to publish pieces saying that the Government “will have to pry my gun from my cold, dead fingers” if it tries to dis-arm him. He likes to show how macho he is by blowing the heads off defenseless animals when he’s out hunting. Kind of reminds me of the images in the 2008 campaign, of Sarah Palin shooting defenseless animals from a helicopter in Alaska. So between the fierce opposition from millions of hunters and gun rights advocates, and organizations like the NRA, don’t hold your breath waiting for meaningful gun control laws to be enacted anytime soon. The GOP, realizing that “thars gold in them thar hills” in the form of millions of supporters and voters opposing any type of gun control, has always taken an anti-control stance. Since Republicans control the House, I can’t see needed-legislation being enacted.

My own point of view is that no one should posses firearms except the military and the police. Anyone else having a gun should be subject to a mandatory 10 year prison sentence. Being a realist, however, I know that’s never going to happen in my life-time. Some countries like Australia have come close to that, and have seen dramatic plunges in the rates of both homicides and suicides. But it’s way too rational for it to become a reality in the U.S. As I’ve written before- violence is as American as cherry pie. (Not my wording, but a concept I agree with.) We have a long history of having a gun mentality which has grown into a gun fetish. It has coarsened our society, and who we are as a people. And as long as anyone, even a lunatic, can walk into Wal-Mart and buy all the guns and ammo he needs to carry out a murderous rampage, we can probably expect more tragedies like the one we all just experienced in Connecticut.

 

 

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A little while back I was in the supermarket picking up some stuff. Ahead of me, on line, was young woman who was noticeably obese. There was no way of hiding the fact that she had a very serious weight problem. She was buying some makeup items that were laid out on the counter in front of her. As all of you know, when you get up near the cashier, the stores have racks of sundry items, including various forms of candy, and “newspapers” blaring forth the news of some movie star’s latest affair, or how aliens from outer-space are destroying the planet. ( I think these “aliens” have now come out into the open, and call themselves- Republicans.) Store owners hope that as people wait on line, some will impulsively add a few of these sundries to their shopping carts. In any event, the obese woman ahead me, as she waited for the guy in front of her to pay his bill,   picked up a candy bar from from the rack behind her and put it on the counter. I think it was a Milky Way or something similar. She stared at it for awhile as if contemplating the wisdom of that decision, and then put the candy bar back on the rack. Then, she retrieved the candy bar a second time and laid it on the counter; and then, a second time thought better of it, and returned it to the rack. Finally, as it became her turn to pay, she grabbed the candy bar a third time, and kept it for good, as she included it among her other items; even though it was obvious that purchasing that candy bar was the last thing she should have done.

Of course, I don’t know what stresses, turmoil, or unhappinesses the young woman was experiencing that led her to conclude that the few moments of relief gained from devouring that sticky sweetness, was worth the resulting cost of adding to her obesity. However, she certainly isn’t alone. Everyone knows that a major problem in this country is the continual upward trend in rates of obesity. Multi-billion dollar industries devoted toward losing weight, or weight-loss supplements have continued to thrive. Yet, we as a people, continue to get fatter. Gyms with high membership fees, continue to proliferate so people can work off the extra calories that are consumed daily. And still we get fatter. In addition, obesity is considered by society to be a much more serious problem for women rather than men. I mean, men are dogs or slobs anyway; so it’s considered no big deal if they have a beer belly gut to go along with their general unsavoriness in the first place. Right? Women, on the other hand, are always more severely judged for any sign of overweight. And the advice often given to women, that even if they are overweight, they should learn to accept themselves and their bodies as they are, and not be self-judgemental. What a crock. I don’t believe that anyone that has ever been seriously obese, would ever be content living out their lives in that manner.

A big part of the obesity problem is that alongside all the gyms and the weight-loss centers, is, of course, the fast food industry. Nothing will put on the pounds faster than the fatty, sugary fare offered at such reasonable prices by all the fast-food restaurants located in virtually every neighborhood. And while it’s usually young people with higher rates of metabolism that frequent fast-food joints, their incidence of obesity is also rising. They are by no means, immune. Couple that with a growing culture of never having to experience self-denial, and the obesity trend marches on. Couple that with all the yummy fast food commercials we see on TV and elsewhere, and the fact that eating junk food is so much cheaper than eating healthy, and you have the perfect storm in creating a nation of over-eaters and obesity. Like everyone else, I used to eat my share of junk food and had weight problems all my life. Now, in my senior years I eat stuff like berries and red grapes, greek yogurt, fish and other seafood and various other types of fruits and vegetables. Not nearly as much fun as pepperoni pizza, or cheeseburgers and fries. And a lot more expensive. But, I figure, that if I want to continue observing the green side of the grass, I need to do this. And, also, go to the gym every day, which is obviously no fun at all.

I have always admired the small number of people in our society who ate only because they were hungry, and once fed, didn’t give food another thought. They were blessed in that they never had to deal with a weight problem. For most of the rest of us, however, food is a major issue. A major form of entertainment for many people is dining out. And we all know how hard it is to stick to a diet when eating in restaurants. Yes, some people can eat only a salad when in a restaurant, but for most, that’s not the case. The more we eat in restaurants the more overweight we tend to become. And for all too many people, food becomes a source of numbing the pain, stress, dysfunction, and general unhappiness that exists in their lives. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs in dealing with these conflicts. But many more people cope by overeating the wrong kinds of foods. Like drugs and alcohol, however, a continual pattern of bad eating habits will often lead to various diseases and shortened life-spans.

Our relationship with food often goes to the very heart of the human condition. Vast chunks of Africa, Asia, and Latin America suffer from hunger and malnutrition. In the Sudan, for example, large numbers of people die from starvation. Yet in this country, food is so abundant at such reasonable prices, that we experience the opposite malady of obesity. And we can’t figure out a way to even out the world’s food market so that both conditions could be alleviated. Life sure isn’t fair, is it?

 

 

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DELUSION AND DYSFUNCTION

The thing to realize about the American psyche, as we begin 2013, is that once a benefit has been delivered to the populace, it’s extremely difficult to retract that benefit. Perhaps this is true for all the world’s populations, but it seems especially true in the U.S. And the fear of losing that delivered benefit, will cause the masses to react in great anger and frustration, which then will result in highly dysfunctional and injurious behavior. It’s a provable fact that actions taken out of fear, anger, or paranoia will inevitably result in some very bad decisions. And so it is with the never ending, and forever ongoing charade known as the fiscal cliff. As it stands at the time I’m writing this piece, the Senate has passed the legislation to get us off the fiscal cliff; but now the House is posturing about how bad a deal it is, and many members have threatened to vote no on the Senate bill, which means we will go over the cliff. My guess is that the House will screw around with this today and tomorrow, and then, protesting the entire time, will wind up passing the Senate bill just as the clock is running out.

The main feature of the fiscal cliff that has so many people anxious, is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, which will cause all tax payers to fork over more of their income to the government. This is the part now, where taking away a benefit, once delivered, becomes nearly impossible. If the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire, tax rates would revert back to where during the 8 Clinton years in the 1990s. At that point in time, tax rates had been significantly reduced during the Reagan years in the 1980s. It’s true that after Bill Clinton became President in 1993, he did managed to squeeze through a small increase in the rates Ronald Reagan managed to get Congress to lower. But even with that increase, tax rates were considerably lower than they had been in all the time since World War II. At one point during and after the war, the top marginal tax rate was 91%, versus the 35% that exists today. Also, if Al Gore had been allowed to take the Presidency that he won in 2000 (don’t get me started on that one), there never would have been the Bush tax cuts, and all of us would still be paying the same amount of taxes that were in force since early in Bill Clinton’s presidency. Rates that everybody became used to, and were generally not a big deal. But people did get the benefit for about the last 10 years of keeping more of their income; and I’ve said, a benefit once given, is nearly impossible to retract.

Now here’s where the fun part, i.e., delusion and dysfunction kicks in. Everyone knows that we, as a country, are producing mind-boggling budget deficits every year, well north of a trillion dollars annually. Nearly everyone agrees that those deficits are unsustainable, and they need to significantly shrink. The common sense approach toward reducing deficits would seem to be in cutting spending and increasing revenue.  On increasing the revenue side, Obama and the Democrats have a modest proposal to increase the marginal tax rate by 4.6% on couples earning more than $250,000 a year, which constitute about 2% of the richest people out of our 310 million population. (You can do the math as to how many people would be affected.) However, tea party Republicans acted as if they were stricken with rabies, by frothing at the mouth at the thought of raising anybody’s taxes, including the rich and super-rich. The bill just passed by the Senate supposedly represents a compromise whereby the 4.6% marginal increase would apply to couples making $450,000 annually, maybe 1-1.5% of the super fortunate among us. House Republicans, in full delusional mode, are saying even that’s too much and are threatening to scuttle the whole deal.

On the expenditure side, it’s the Congressional Democrats that have hijacked the cloak of delusion from Republicans, by pretending that fixes aren’t needed to reign in Social Security and Medicare costs. Those 2 benefits for seniors are literally bankrupting the country, and pretending that nothing should be done to reform those programs reaches new heights in the arena of delusion. Especially since the fixes needed are relatively simple. All it takes is increasing the eligibility age of those programs from 65 to 67, and then eventually to 70. Applying the Social Security and Medicare taxes on all income would also help. Raising the eligibility ages on both programs would be entirely justified since longevity ages have significantly increased since the passage of their legislation. Social Security was enacted in the 1930s, when living to the age of 65 was a big deal. Today the longevity rate for most Americans is approaching 80.

In the end, it’s not so much the dysfunctional behavior of government representatives, as it is the incredibly dysfunctional action of the populace that voted for such a highly partisan and divided government in the first place. Even if, by some miracle, we avoid going over the fiscal cliff, more trauma will ensue as the year unfolds. The debt ceiling will have to be raised shortly, and most Republicans are opposed to raising it unless substantial spending cuts are made, cuts that are opposed by most Democrats. If the debt ceiling is not raised, then large chunks of the government will have to be shut down and shuttered. We are the only country in the world that voluntarily shuts down its government due to partisan bickering. Appropriations bills will have to be passed, again with vigorous partisan divide on on both sides of the aisle. And the President and Congress will constantly be at each other’s throats due to the extreme polarization and poisoned political atmosphere that currently exists.

As I said at the outset, fear, anger and paranoia will almost invariably lead to bad decision-making, and that’s exactly what has happened in both the political and social arenas. And now we have to live with the consequences of that bad decision-making for at least the next 2 years. Happy new-year everyone.

 

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