Democracy

A Caution in Pursuing the Common Good

Social speech bubble,  Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com
Social speech bubble, Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com

Whenever I hear the term Common Good I think of Thomas Paine’s infamous pamphlet Common Sense,which challenged the British government and the royal monarchy, but did not challenge the institution of slavery. As an African-American woman I enter the Common Good conversation cautiously because I know that in our society we have a habit of taking what is good for Western hegemony and making it the standard for everyone else.

As we pursue the Common Good, let us remember what was once considered common and good during earlier points in American history: chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and institutionalized sexism. To truly come to a Common Good, we need to honor a diversity of voices and challenge our assumptions about what is common and what is good. Our default is to take what is good for our culture, gender, or community and make it the common standard for all. I have experienced being invited into organizations that were aiming to do good in the world, but an expectation existed that I would be silent about my unique concerns as an African woman. I know that denying my reality can never be good for my spiritual, physical, or social well being.

Power and the Poor

THE RICH AND THE REST OF US is a stirring call to arms on eradicating domestic poverty. Co-authored by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, the self-described "poverty manifesto" seeks to convince readers that economic mobility is increasingly difficult for three demographics—the long-term poor, the new poor, and the near poor. Who are the poor in America? According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 150 million Americans are at or below twice the federal poverty level, which is $22,040 for a family of four.

Smiley and West invoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy throughout the book. King's imprimatur legitimizes their attempt to translate the Occupy Wall Street themes of the wealthy 1 percent and the financially fragile 99 percent for a general audience. Interestingly, the book contains a motivational quality reminiscent of self-help books. Each chapter and subsection opens with an inspirational quote or pithy observation. The authors employ statistics, personal anecdotes, poems, and trend analysis to demonstrate the magnitude of poverty in America.

Making poverty history, to use a popular phrase, is an important ideal. To achieve it, we must ask: Who is responsible for eradicating poverty? The co-authors argue that engaged citizens, an active civil society, and a proactive government are the principal agents for helping impoverished families. In several instances, President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty represents the promise of the aforementioned three-pronged approach to mitigating the structural causes and personal implications of poverty. From 1964 to 1973, the writers note, the Johnson administration reduced the national poverty rate from 19 percent to 11 percent. Smiley and West successfully contend that government programs play an indispensable role in eradicating poverty.

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Is Democratic Optimism Grounded in Reality?

Think positive illustration: Anson0618 / Shutterstock.com
Think positive illustration: Anson0618 / Shutterstock.com

I’m a fan of TIME Magazine. It offers concise, intelligent summaries and opinions on the news that help keep me up with current events. They had an interesting article in the last few weeks about the factors that seem to affect a political party’s election results in the upcoming cycle. From their findings, it’s the party perceived to be most optimistic about the nation’s future that tends to come out on top. A fascinating bit of psychology, if not necessarily scientifically rigorous in its conclusions.

And then, in the most recent issue, there’s a pages-long piece by Bill Clinton called “The Case for Optimism,” which outlined five reasons to look ahead with hope toward our collective future. Coincidence? Maybe. But the timing of the two pieces, particularly only weeks out from a presidential election, seems more than a little bit opportunistic.

Call me cynical, but never let it be said that I’m above holding the Democrats’ feet to the fire when they pander. Yes, both parties do it, but it seems to me it’s most effective when it’s a little less in-your-face about it. President Obama rode a tide of optimism into the White House four years ago, only to watch his support erode after the reality didn’t live up to the speeches in many cases. But we wanted to hear it, and it worked. So it’s no surprise they’re giving it another go-round.

But are there grounds for such high hopes?

Survey: Syrian Rebels Seek Islamic Democracy

Members of the Syrian opposition generally want a democratic government that protects the rights of minorities, though many also want a constitution based on Islam, according to a recent survey.

Their aspirations are important because the Obama administration has said it is refraining from arming the opposition, which has been pummeled by Syrian security forces for 18 months, in part out of fear of igniting sectarian violence. There's also fear that weapons would reach Islamist radicals who would threaten allies in the region.

The survey by the International Republican Institute, which trains democracy activists around the world, found high support for a government that "respectfully acknowledges religion" and treats all religions equally. The second-most popular model of choice was for a constitution "based on Islam."

"Most of the opposition is Sunni Muslims and they are democratically minded, but they want a government based on some kind of Islamic law or that follows Islamic guidelines," says Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who helped the survey writers find contacts in the opposition movement.

Voting Rights, Voting Wrongs

Ballot box barriers, Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock.com

TODAY, THE RIGHT to vote is under assault across the country. From photo ID requirements to restrictions on voter registration, there are new barriers to the ballot box. While proponents of recent election law changes claim those changes are “race-neutral,” the measures will have a disproportionate impact on minority voters.

In Florida, for instance, African Americans made up 32 percent of those who voted on the Sunday before Election Day 2008, often in “all souls to the polls” drives organized by historically black churches. They were among the nearly 8 million Americans who voted early. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have since passed legislation reducing early voting.

The tea party-infused True the Vote, reportedly bankrolled by Far Right billionaires Charles and David Koch, plans to bring lawsuits to purge the voter rolls of allegedly ineligible voters. While the fear-inducing image of non-citizens voting has little to no basis in reality, it has real consequences.

In Florida, a law passed last year effectively stopped the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and similar groups from conducting voter registration drives this spring. The law imposed restrictions on voter registration volunteers and subjected groups to $1,000-a-day fines if they didn’t turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours of completion. While parts of the law were temporarily blocked at the end of May by a federal judge as unconstitutionally “harsh and impractical,” it has already prevented civic groups from registering voters for some months. Registration drives encourage voting among the young and people of color, who often vote Democratic.

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A 'Buy-Partisan' Problem

Money, Ryabitskaya Elena / Shutterstock.com

IN OUR DEMOCRACY, the first Tuesday in November is supposed to be an election. Unfortunately, it is turning into an auction, with government for sale to the highest bidders. Powerful interest groups buy clout with big campaign contributions.

Recently, the billionaire owner of the Minnesota Vikings persuaded the Minnesota legislature to build a new stadium with public funds. It was an enormous gift: It works out to a $72 taxpayer subsidy for every ticket, to every game, for the next 30 years!

This huge subsidy passed with votes from legislators of both parties, despite strong public opposition. Along with a multimillion lobbying campaign over the past decade, the Vikings owner, Zygi Wilf, with his family and lobbyists, contributed thousands of dollars to the Republican legislative caucuses and the Republican gubernatorial and legislative candidates.

They also contributed thousands of dollars to the Democratic legislative caucuses and the Democratic gubernatorial and legislative candidates. Why would they give to both parties and even to candidates running against each other? They say it is because their interests are bipartisan. Perhaps this might be more appropriately spelled “buy-partisan,” since they were trying to buy favor with both parties.

Did those contributions make a difference? Imagine what would happen if Wilf tried the same strategy to get his way at an NFL game and made $1,000 or $1,500 “contributions” to each of the referees before the next Vikings-Packers game. The NFL would kick Wilf and his team off the field and fire the officials without waiting for proof that the money affected the officiating. The conflict of interest is obvious.

Yet in politics, Wilf’s conflict of interest didn’t raise any eyebrows. Insiders are so accustomed to the practice that it doesn’t even cross their minds that there might be a problem.

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Trade Agreements vs. Democracy

THE ANONYMOUS DEATH threats phoned to Archbishop Pedro Barreto and others in March told them to stop speaking out about the foreign-owned metals smelting plant in La Oroya, Peru.

Barreto, a Catholic archbishop of the Andean region that includes La Oroya, has been a leading advocate for the health of the 35,000-person town, which the plant has made one of the world’s most contaminated places: 99 percent of children there have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

However, in an unconscionable move made possible by the 2009 U.S.-Peru trade agreement, it is the polluter who claims to be the victim. The massive New York-based holding company Renco Group Inc., whose subsidiary Doe Run Peru owns the smelter, last year filed an $800 million trade-tribunal lawsuit against the Peruvian government, claiming it violated the company’s rights by enforcing environmental regulations in La Oroya.

It’s one of a growing wave of such arbitrations being filed all over the world by extractive-industry foreign investors. In a similar case, the transnational corporation Pacific Rim has filed a $70 million case against El Salvador, after local communities and activists—four of whom have been murdered—opposed gold mining that could contaminate one of the country’s largest rivers.

The suits circumvent nations’ environmental laws by exploiting so-called “investors’ rights” chapters of trade agreements; such provisions are common in bilateral trade agreements, such as the U.S.-Peru pact, and regional agreements such as NAFTA.

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Stifling the Persian Spring

WE IRANIANS ARE a cynical, paranoid lot. Conspiracies are something of a sport for us. Whether it is the price of wheat or the threat of war, Iranians know nothing is exactly as it seems.

You can’t blame us; we’ve had our share of foreign meddling. Iran’s first attempt at democracy, which started in 1905, ended after troops commanded by Russian officers shelled the building in which the parliament was sitting; a second attempt, in 1953, was crushed by a CIA coup that reinstalled the country’s dictator, Muhammad Reza Shah. Iran’s third attempt at democracy, in 1979, was hijacked by the country’s own religious establishment, but only after Saddam Hussein launched a surprise attack a few months after the Shah was ousted.

But ask most Iranians who was responsible for thwarting the revolution of 1979 and they will point the finger not at Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini, but at the United States. They have a point. After all, the U.S. encouraged Saddam to attack Iran, giving him satellite imagery and military intelligence. (Remember the famous photo of a smiling Saddam greeting Reagan administration special envoy Donald Rumsfeld?)

The U.S. government’s intention then was to curb the spread of Iran’s revolution, but it had the more disastrous effect of curbing its evolution. As happens in wartime, all the vibrant discussions in post-revolutionary Iran about how to build a new country came to an abrupt end the moment Saddam invaded. In the name of national security, power became centralized in the hands of the religious establishment. By the time that war came to an end eight years later, the dream that had spurred the revolution had given way to the reality of an authoritarian state plagued by gross ineptitude.

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'Do Not Grow Weary or Lose Heart'

"Fading Obama" photo by Heather Wilson

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Jesus, who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. —Hebrews 12:1-3

Are there any remaining glimmers of hope in politics today? Such questions seem to me to be absolutely connected to the passage from the letter to the Hebrews. One thing that it says to me is that we do not have the luxury of falling into despair. There are too many folks who have fought too long and given too much and found their way through too many disappointments and seeming failures for us to say, oh, it just didn’t work, and, I’m finished with that stuff.

When you’re surrounded by Fannie Lou Hamer and Amzie Moore and Septima Clark and Malcolm X and Martin King and Ella J. Baker, and when you take seriously those lives and the thousands like them, then it seems to me that the first response to what we’ve been through in these last few years is the question that one of my friends said she is always asking: What is the gift? For she assumes that life is full of gifts, sometimes absolutely disguised gifts. She assumes that whatever we are in the midst of, especially when it’s fear-provoking and despair-encouraging, it is so necessary, so important, to keep asking, “What is the gift here?”

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Egypt's Bumpy Road to Democracy

Initial results from Egypt’s first round of elections produced an unexpectedly large showing for Islamists. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood gained approximately 37 percent of the seats selected from political party lists, in line with predictions. The real shocker was the 24 percent vote obtained by the al-Nur party of the Salafi movement. The Salafis are extreme conservatives who favor restrictions on the role of women and Saudi-style controls on public morality. Liberal-left parties in the various party blocs gained about 37 percent. The results are very preliminary, with two more rounds of voting still ahead.

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