Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Oh, it's personal.

President Obama went before the cameras to deliver an unscheduled largely extemporaneous eighteen-minute talk in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal.  He spoke clearly and movingly because Trayvon Martin was not some abstract murder victim.  He was a token for something far larger — something very personal. Obama understands first hand the kind of racial profiling that led to Trayvon's death.  As an African American man he could put himself in the victim's shoes; visualize a son in the same circumstance.  The President's message was simple. For Black Americans, himself included, this killing and subsequent justice shortfall is personal.

When the fictional Michael Corleone declares "it's not personal, it's strictly business", we know he is being transparently disingenuous.  In fact, much of what any of us do whether in business, public or private life is personal.  Nowhere is that more evident than in today's politics, where the highly personal has become the order of every day.  Interestingly, that we have an African American president has much to do with this renewed personalization, including an unspoken and oft-denied racism that is the proverbial elephant in our national habitat.  And like Trayvon, Obama is just a symbol for our changed landscape.  It isn't simply a matter of, what is this guy doing in our white house?  It is also why are his fellow Others — Latinos, Asians, Indians, Gays, Lesbians, non-Christians and "nonbelievers" — coming to the fore and indeed seemingly on the brink of taking over?  What's happened to our world, they ask.

Let's leave the specific issue of race to another (soon to come) post.  What touched a chord in Obama's remarks was how close his personalizing the issue came to what I think is at the root of what we're experiencing in today's politics.  It's a personal that is right out there in Washington (especially in the House) and in a number of mostly, but not exclusively, Southern states like Texas and here in North Carolina.

There is something counterintuitive about this surge of extreme conservatism, one often rooted in religious right ideology.  After all, we do have Obama re-elected to his second term, a potential female front-runner to succeed him and multiple polls that show a shift to the left on public policies.  Fifty-seven percent of us think same-sex marriages should be legal and even more (63%) think they should have equal federal benefits.  According to Gallup, 72% of Americans favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.  The median age of conservative bastion Fox News viewers is 65 plus, while younger people consistently are found to embrace both change and diversity.

What's at play here, and the currently constituted Republican Party is the central character, relates to that what's happened to our world question.  More to the point, the old America, the one that is majority white, male dominant and Christian (especially Protestant), see what they counted on as their way of life slipping away.  Being part that select demographic, and regardless of their economic situation, they feel entitled.  They see both that entitlement and their way of life slipping away.  It has made them angry and desperate to stop the train from leaving the station.  We're seeing it in the House, where a Tea Party dominated GOP majority is seeking to starve programs dear to the President and to stop an Affordable Care Act that would extend benefits to many of the people they see as the Other.   Ironically, many of their constituents will be badly hurt by their actions.

The zeal to turn back the clock is even greater at the local level, especially where Republicans control both the governor's mansion and the state house.  This is what's happening in Texas and in North Carolina where the state legislature has passed bills that will undermine voting (more on that in my post on race), cut funds from education, including teachers' pay and eliminating tenure and rewards for advanced degrees.  Needless to say, abortion the long thorn in their religious sides is being attacked in an unmistakably coordinated restrictive legislative effort across many states including places like Ohio.

There is a mean-spirited element to all of this.  But it is the sense of frantic urgency, which reflects an understanding that the clock is ticking and time is fast running out.  It is always easier to pass legislation than to overturn it and their hope is that much of what they often claim to be "reform" will stick.  With a highly politically uneducated and ill-informed electorate, they may be right in the short term.  But we no longer live in their old America and the underlying changes under way are unstoppable.  Indeed, while the Occupy Wall Street never really became a movement, Republican in their current extremism may ultimately be faced with counter Tea Party.  Will that happen soon?  Americans are so democratically lethargic (especially on the left) that it's hard to say.  Even if it does, thanks to the way districts are drawn, the pain won't be eradicated overnight.  Perhaps that's not so bad because we sometimes need to feel pain before we act.

Looking at the next generation and to the wonderful diversity that is emerging across the land there is reason to be hopeful long term.  But given today's politics especially at some local levels and the support of a politically right Supreme Court, we're in for and are already having a rough ride.  Can things be more personal than that?

On a really personal note:  My late mother Hilde Goldsmith Prinz (1913-1993) was born 100 years ago today.  She was a person totally engaged with her family and with the world.  She would be pleased that Barack Obama is our president and equally appalled by the regressive things that are happening in this country and the divisiveness that abounds.  My interest in the world comes directly from my parents and my sometimes outrage, especially in the face of injustice, echoes their own.  So, too, does my hope.  My mother arrived here as a 24-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany.  She spoke no English, though learned it quickly and used it well.  America gave her a home, one she dearly loved, and she would have wanted other immigrants to find their place too.  Perhaps John F. Kennedy, with rhetorical flourish, proclaimed that he was a Berliner, her birthplace.  She proudly and without fanfare said "I am an American" and that she was, not for an occasion but for a lifetime.  I dedicate this post to her life. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Theocracy under fire.

Ten days ago, The Pew Forum released a report entitled, Canada's Changing Religious Landscape.  It has been tracking our religious landscape for years, documenting a dramatic rise in the unaffiliated.  A similar, but even faster growing, trend is underway in our northern neighbor.  The "nones" whom I call transcenders now account for about one in four Canadians compared with one in five here.

As in the US, participation in religious services is down (27%), but more so than here (46%).  These attendance numbers rely on self-reporting not headcounts, so they may be overstated reflecting that people like to think they're going to church regularly.  In Canada, more young people also live without religion than do their parents and grandparents.  That said, one of the interesting findings in this report is that between 1971 and today, the number of Canadian transcenders 65 and older has actually grown threefold (4% to 12%), which is actually a larger percentage increase than for any other cohort.  Yes 12% senior non-religious is only half of the combined (all ages) total 24%, but it is still a meaningful number.  It may not definitively negate the notion that the older we get the more religious, but it makes one wonder if the attitudinal gulf between generations may narrowing in the years ahead and at an accelerated pace.

All research must be taken with some caution.  Results are highly dependent on who the respondents were, what they were asked (wording counts) and how the study was carried out — there is difference, for example, between telephone and face-to-face interviews.  Pew's report relied heavily on telephone interviews undertaken by the Canadian arm of the highly respected General Social Survey. The two countries' numbers are not direct comparisons since the dates covered differ.  The latest Canadian count of transcenders is as of 2011; the latest US numbers are from 2012.  This in itself is not necessarily significant, but is an indication of the varied interpretive challenges we face in reading research results.

It isn't merely a matter of how to read research; it's also of who reads it.   You and I can encounter the exact same numbers and draw somewhat different conclusions based upon our own bias or interests.  A few days after releasing the Canadian study, Pew reported on another entitled Growth of the Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for American Society.  What they found was the 48% of overall respondents said that the trend was "bad" while only 11% thought it good.  No doubt 48% is "many" but if you add the 39% of Americans who said it didn't matter, then a larger (combined) number (50%) didn't think it was bad.  Let's call it 50-50.  The point is, headlining the people who think it bad as "many" colors the perception — it's true, but perhaps not necessarily as balanced as the body copy that follows would suggest.  In fact, it reports the even split.  We think of the media as the prime source of misleading (eye catching) headlines, but let's not think they are alone in that, or that their motives are sinister.

It is not surprising that citizens in our "religious country" think the current trend away from religion is not a good thing.  Needless to say, active churchgoers feel more strongly, especially among the more orthodox faiths.  Unfortunately, this is a singular study, so we have no way of knowing if attitudes are changing, something we might expect considering the "growth of the non-religious".  Even so, among the numbers that I found most interesting is that, while 74% of churchgoing "white" Catholics thought the growth of transcenders is a bad thing, only 39% of Hispanic Catholics felt that way.

This attitudinal difference between "white" and Hispanic members of the same faith may signal the potential impact of changing demographics in a country that is rapidly becoming more diversified.  And of course the role of changing demographics in the political landscape is of central importance.  That we are finally seeing some action on Immigration reform reflects the growing significance of Hispanics in the electorate, a group that is touted as the fastest growing in the land.  But, as pointed out in earlier posts, transcenders are growing even faster and still outnumber Latinos.  Little is said about that demographic and how it will play in the years to come.

Little is said, but that doesn't mean transcenders aren't noticed or that their growing numbers haven't produced a reaction.  Much of what moves the Tea Party ideology is to combat what they see as diminished religious values.  They definitely think the growth of the non-religious is a very bad thing, but also understand that in the face of rapidly changing demographics theirs may ultimately be a losing battle.  This explains their hyper-aggressive, almost frantic, enactment of anti-marriage equality and anti-abortion legislation in those states whose governments they now control (Texas for some time, North Carolina only in the last year).  Governors and legislators may take cover by invoking state's rights or fiscal conservatism, but these laws are all religiously based, and it's a religion of a certain orthodox kind.  The clock is ticking on their way of life (in some cases a way already passed).  Their only hope is that, once on the books, these laws may be hard to overturn.  There actions are have a terrible negative impact on LGBTs, women and indeed on all of us, but these fringe zealots are on the wrong side of history.  Their religion card just doesn't play the way it once did, their theocratic ways are under fire.

To be sure, the political divisions in this country are rooted in different approaches to economics and even to a clash between federal and state's rights.  But for certain religious orthodox the struggle is just as much between religion and secularism.  The vast majority of mainstream religious don't agree, but for these people God's governance and "traditional" (think marriage) ways based on divinely revealed law are on the line.  And that brings me to Egypt.  Much conventional and digital ink has spent against the proposition that the principle struggle engulfing the Muslim world is between Sunni and Shia.  There is much truth to that.  But an equal, and in some ways more far reaching, struggle is between those who believe in a religious verses secular state.

I am not alone is being torn between what looks like a setback for democracy in Egypt while recognizing that Mohamed Morsi's rule strayed far from the democratic way.  He may not be a cleric, but it would be fair to say he is more of a theocrat (Sharia Law, etc.) than a democrat.  By the way, the same can be said about many of those who now hold power in the states I mentioned, though they would vigorously deny it.  The Morsi government's demise can be attributed to a number of factors including economic decline and its sheer incompetence.  In some respects, his failure can be attributed to the fact that it is easier to criticize than to govern, doubly so if you have been on the outside for so long.   Oppositions like the Muslim Brotherhood that have been denied opportunities to govern at any level for decades simply lack the human infrastructure and experience to do so.  But it was ultimately Morsi's autocratic and undemocratic ways that did him in.  He came to power because Egyptians had just deposed one dictator; they didn't want another.

Seasoned observers like Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen have suggested that Morsi's downfall fits a pattern of growing resistance to religious rather than secular rule in Muslim countries.  The recent demonstrations against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflect a pushback against his efforts to move away from years of secular governance.  The Egyptian situation is still in flux and making predictions about the outcome would be premature.  We also don't know how Turkey will turn out and whether the more moderate elected president in Iran will have any impact on its theocratic regime (though that seems unlikely). We Americans love our democracy and sometimes forget that others may not share our enthusiasm.  Unlike George W. Bush, I don't think a wish for democracy is innate to our species, much less democracy as we define it.  Too many of our fellow human beings have opted for something else.  Consider Putin's Russia as an example of that.

With regard to the Muslim world, we should remember that it is largely dominated by the religious orthodox.  Orthodoxy of this kind isn't democratic, just the opposite.  It fosters top down leadership by an elite and often by a singular autocratic leader.  That's true with the Ayatollah in Iran, the Wahhabi monarch in Saudi Arabia and, yes, the Pope in Rome.  The pope may not be a dictator in the political sense, but once in place is an absolute ruler with extraordinary powers.  Pope Francis just elevated two of his predecessors to sainthood effectively making them super human and potentially the object of prayer.  And he did so by fiat, in the case of John XXIII bypassing one of the requirements.  Absolute rulers can do such things. 

The growth of transcenders is unnerving orthodox religionists in the United States.  In a place where so many "secular" governments have been despotic —Iran, Egypt, Syria or Iraq — the suppressed religious have often led the revolutions.  Now in power, some of their populations seem to be feeling buyer's remorse, albeit not necessarily in rejecting religion from their own lives.  Whether the growth of transcenders in the West will be echoed in the East is unknown (and in the short term unlikely) but whether religious governance can prevail in the world of the Internet where what's happening here is quickly known there and visa-versa is an intriguing question.  Stay tuned. 
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Monday, July 1, 2013


With 8.8% unemployed, fifth highest in the nation, The State of North Carolina just cut off 70,000 of its citizens from long-term unemployment benefits.  Along with that heartless action, the state became the first in the nation to forfeit federal long-term benefits ($700M) for its people altogether.  The Department of Labor estimates that this action will impact 100,000 more of the jobless by year's end.  If that weren't enough, the state is scaling back its own payment program, which will drastically reduce benefits to the eligible.  All of this, with strong Chamber of Commerce support, is being done in the name of accelerating the repayment of its federal debt.  Yes, and its being done on the backs of the least fortunate.  Add to that the lower income and higher sales taxes are still to come.  Who do higher sales tax hurt most?  Right, those with the least.

As Paul Krugman writes in a piece worth reading, what's happening in North Carolina is being repeated in other states many under Republican — often Tea Party — control.  Texas is enacting its own regressive legislation.  Both southern states hope to repress voter turnout with Voter ID mandates, something now possible, thanks to last week's Voting Rights Act decision.  Oh yes, things have changed.

It is a bit of sadistic irony that on the very day North Carolina's benefit cut off was going into effect, the NY Times was reporting on America's 200 most grossly overpaid (my characterization, not theirs) chief executives of public companies with $1 Billion plus revenues.   What Larry Ellison, already a billionaire many times over and the third richest American, has done to merit $96M in 2012 compensation is a mystery to me.  But then, the same can be said for virtually everyone on the list, especially in contrast to the average hard working employee in each of their public companies.

Ninth on this years list, at $36.6M is Marissa A. Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO.  Mayer's compensation is not unusual for newly recruited chiefs of troubled companies.  She is no doubt a very smart and capable executive who played a significant role in Google's success.  Nonetheless, her compensation is still outsized; a further symptom of what has gone wrong in our companies, and indeed in our country, resulting in a totally inexplicable gulf between those at the top and virtually everyone else.  There is no way to justify ether their compensation or more so the disparity.

Some may find it at least heartening that a woman is among this year's top ten.  But lets not break out the champagne.  Only eight others — that’s right 9 out of 200, join Mayer.  Call it the glass ceiling or gender gap, it all adds up to the fact that fifty percent of the population remains vastly underrepresented, disenfranchised if you will.  And that's not all.  The top 200 remains almost entirely the domain of white men at a time when the country's demographics have taken a sharp turn in a different direction.  American Express's Kenneth I. Chenault ($28 Million) has again made the list and near the top (17th), but you'll have to search hard for other African Americans (McDonald's Donald Thompson, $13.8M, and Merck's Donald Thompson, $11.1M).  Ah, is this a great and progressive country or not?

Have we learned anything in wake of the financial meltdown and Great Recession?  Quite apparently, we have not.  Virtually all of the top bananas at those to-big-to-fail banks made the list.  Millions of Americans remain uninsured and everyone is wringing their hands about the mounting costs of healthcare, but twenty CEO's in that category are in the top 200, taking home their millions.

Many of these top earners are ostensibly being rewarded for high, sometimes extraordinary profits, but their companies are only hiring at an anemic pace, if at all.  What is it they say, life goes on.  Well yes, but hardly in the same way.  Those North Carolinians who the same companies are not putting on the payroll will have trouble feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads.  There is a difference between a diet and life style of caviar and humble black beans.  The color of the two foods may be that same but that's where the similarities end.  Sixty associates (7%) along with a 110 support staff members have been laid off at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, one of the country's largest and most prestigious law firms.  Three Hundred partners (average income $2.2 Million) will remain on board though 30 (10%) of them are expected to see some reduction in pay.  Don't lose sleep over any of them, because few of them and their intact counterparts will lose sleep over the associates and support people whose futures are now in doubt.  A job loss today often has larger, even permanent, consequences — lawyers checking us out at Whole Foods or manning the counter at Starbucks (if they're lucky). 

The words "new normal" permeated the Weil story because its cutbacks reflect the problems faced by other mega law firms with bloated staffs and the fees that go along with feeding a large beast.  Business is down and fee pushback is the new normal. Indeed, the new normal has become a popular mantra of our times whether with changed economics or the reach afforded to governments by advanced technology to monitor our phone traffic.  If we should fear anything, it is latching onto that terminology, giving into the new normal as if there is nothing that can be done.  Those 70,000 unemployed in North Carolina soon to be joined by 100,000 more may suck it up and suffer in silence, the new normal.  But this disparity between the top 200 (along with their rarified crowd) and the most everyone else can't go on forever.  Small protests are underway in Raleigh, the state capital, but are sill made up largely of those who sympathize with rather than are the direct victims of cuts.  We aren't seeing Cairo or even Istanbul kind of protests.  Yet!  As the gulf widens and its obvious inequities continue unabated, this acquiescence and apathy can't last forever.  How long do you think it will take the top 200 to get that message?  How long will it take the rest of us?