This blog contains reflections on the current state of American society and culture from an educated observer who lived outside the USA for many years and has now returned to the USA, to find a sadly deteriorating society. My purpose is to identify problems and discuss creative solutions with others of like mind.

Location: Somewhere, NY, United States

Born and raised in the NY metro area, I am a 58 y.o, white male academic now teaching at a small college in New York State. Prior to this, I studied in Iceland and taught at colleges in Japan and Eastern Europe. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to not only visit but live in other countries. I believe the perspectives and experiences of other nations are entirely relevant to thinking about the state of America today, and we all benefit from communication, comparison and interaction with other countries. As a scholar, supporter and participant in modern-day Paganism, by which I mean forms of religion derived from native European religions, I am interested to see what can come from applying Pagan perspectives to political issues, and political perspectives to our Paganism. My own political perspective is left-of-center liberal, and this colors and informs my postings on this blog. Others with different political perspectives are encouraged to add comments, and will not be censored or dismissed unless their comments are seen as off-topic, incoherent, disruptive or excessively rude.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

International News Coverage:Going, going....gone?

I am saddened to report that my hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, announced this week that it was closing its international news bureaus as a cost-cutting measure and re-focusing its surviving journalistic staff on local and regional news. As a professor of international studies, I had only one week ago assigned my students a weekly task of clipping and saving international news stores for class discussion from either the New York Times, the Boston Globe, or several other trustworthy news organizations and their online versions. Sadly, I now must remove the Globe from my list of suggested sources. While it is true that the newspaper will still run some international coverage and still send some journalists abroad to cover international issues and events, the depth and quality of coverage can only go downhill with the loss of foreign correspondents who stay long-term in locations abroad, developing contacts and contextual knowledge.

I see this as part of a very disturbing, as well as depressing trend, toward "dumbing down" mainstream media discourse, and a further closing of the American mind to knowledge about and interaction with the rest of the world. Strangely, this is occurring at the same time as issues such as international terrorism, the energy crisis and global warming make international cooperation and coordination more important than ever. Increasingly, the only aspects of the world outside that Americans learn about are war-zones where American troops are stationed. Not surprisingly, I find many of my students coming to class with an attitude of disrespect, fear and/or insecurity toward the other nations and peoples of the world. Thankfully, human curiosity does sometimes win out, and I find many students do become interested in knowing about other regions of the world when given some encouragement. I do fear however for the future of the United States if our people are to become increasingly ignorant and narrow-minded toward the rest of the world, because the media has encouraged and reinforced such narrowness.

Here is an excerpt from a January 12, 2007 speech made by the journalist Bill Moyers in Memphis, Tennessee which touches on these and related issues. The full text is available at

"By no stretch of the imagination can we say the dominant institutions of today's media are guardians of democracy. Despite the profusion of new information "platforms" on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretive, are contracting rather than expanding. I'm old fashioned in this, a hangover from my days as a cub reporter and later a publisher. I agree with Michael Schudson, one of our leading scholars of communication, who writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review that "while all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media." But newspapers are purposely dumbing down, driven down - says Schudson - by "Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, and seems determined to eviscerate newspapers." Meanwhile, despite some initial promise following the shock of 9/11, television has returned to its tabloid ways, chasing celebrity and murders - preferably both at the same time - while wallowing in triviality, banality and a self-referential view."

"Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It has been verified by history: from the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge has been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest."

Sobering words, well worth pondering. Maelstrom.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Root of Many Problems: The Reagan Revolution

In reflecting on the kinds of problems facing America today, such as were noted in my previous posting, I trace many of these issues back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the subsequent eight years of his Presidency, which proved extremely influential, even fateful for America. Many conservative Americans, such as the current President, look back to the Reagan era, particularly its tax cuts and assertive military, as kind of Golden Age and speak fondly of the "Reagan Revolution." I see it rather differently. I view the Reagan era as the beginning of a 20+ year period of American social decline that only now do we seem ready to get beyond and put behind us. Here are what I see as the negative legacies of the Reagan years that still hang over us like a curse.

(1) The policy of tax-cuts and "trickle-down" economics. The Reagan rhetoric was that "a rising tide lifts all boats," and that across-the-board tax cuts would benefit everyone in society by putting more money into Americans' pockets to do with as they chose, not as the government saw fit. It was acknowledged that the wealthy would reap higher rewards than the less fortunate, but this was justified as still beneficial because more money in the bank accounts of the rich would result in them investing in businesses and thus creating more and better jobs for the poor. The result since then? The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, with the gap in wealth and income between the upper and lower tiers of society continually widening. That is to say, the policy has made America more unequal and divided, and only consolidated the wealth and power of the upper classes.

(2) The rhetorical denunciation of "big government" with the pithy but misleading phrase, "government is the problem, not the solution," and the corresponding faith in the "free market" of private enterprise as the panacea for all social ills. Let us ask, what was so wrong with "big government?" In the 1930s, "big government" saved millions of Americans from starvation and assisted businesses in surviving and reorganizing with new government programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the National Recovery Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Social Security retirement pension, which for the first time extended a social safety net to protect the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged. In the 1940s, "big government" won the war against Germany and Japan, and afterwards, paid for millions of homecoming veterans to receive education and buy homes, a key contributing factor to the post-war economic boom that continued into the 1960s. In the 1950s, "big government" created the national highway system that we take for granted today. In the 1960s "big government" put America on the moon, took action to end racial discrimination and protect civil rights for all citizens, and created the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs to ensure health care for the poor and elderly. In the 1970s "big government" created the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation to reduce air and water pollution and the Energy Department to begin addressing the problems of energy supply and demand in America.

These are the great accomplishments of "big government" that almost all Americans now take for granted and rely upon, but which the Reagan Revolution took up arms against, with false tales of "welfare queens" cheating the government and a constant drumbeat of rhetoric championing free enterprise, private business and individual opportunity, over the supposed inefficiency and wastefulness of "big government." It emerged from disclosures made by David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, that one of the main goals of cutting taxes was to "starve the beast," that is, to cause a gradual shrinkage of government programs by cutting off the funding for all government programs except the military, which has always been the one form of "big government" that conservative Americans hold above reproach, despite demonstrated problems of waste, fraud and abuse within the ranks of the armed services that equal or surpass the supposed frauds of the "welfare queens" and others who rely on government assistance. Your humble blogger is as opposed to fraud and abuse as much as anyone else, but he believes that government programs should constantly be retooled, reformed, reviewed and improved, NOT dismantled.

The message from Reagan was loud and clear: social programs at home to help the American population are bad, while military invasions abroad to subdue other country's populations are good. This is exactly the plotline which the Bush-Cheney regime is following.

Reagan and his "revolution" were very successful in building up the military, including the hugely expensive "Star Wars" program for extending the American military presence into space, which may be the single most wasteful government program in history. They were however unsuccessful in dismantling programs like Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare, because it emerged that however much Americans liked Reagan and his rhetoric, they did not actually want to lose the benefits that they derived from the selfsame programs that Reagan denounced with such rhetorical relish. However, Reagan did succeed in hamstringing the government with a huge budget deficit, cutting funding and spending caps for many programs and initiatives, and creating a large cadre of up-and-coming conservative politicians, including the future Governor and President George W. Bush, who embraced Reagan's dislike of government programs.

Even Bill Clinton, who had campaigned for President in 1992 with the slogan, "It is time for them (the Reagan-Bush administration and its followers) to go," saw it as politically expeditious to announce, "The era of big government is over," in his 1996 State of the Union address. In this blogger's view, that declaraton by Clinton will always be a black mark on his reputation, as he appeared to give sanction to the dismantling of social programs, which Republicans in Congress have ever since been laboring to achieve, with the election (or installation) of the Bush-Cheney regime in 2000 giving a further impetus to their efforts. This is why nearly every year, Bush or his supporters in Congress have been attempting to scare Americans into believing that free-market, private retirement plans are far superior to Social Security, which, they preach, will collapse under the weight of its ever-increasing financial instability, and that free-market private medical accounts are superior to a national health care system. Make no mistake: the wet dream of the Reagan Revolution acolytes is to privatize ALL social services, OR to rely on charity organizations, particularly churches, to provide such services. This is why, since the 1980s, it has been so difficult to expand government services for poor and needy individuals and communities, and why the Bush-Cheney regime keeps pushing the idea of "faith-based" social services rather than those operated by national, state or local governments.

(3) A reverence for the military that borders on worship, and precludes more peaceful ways of interacting with other countries and settling disputes. If the Reagan Revolution was opposed to government spending on social programs, it had a diametrically opposite attitude toward military spending. As an old joke has it, "Republicans never met a weapon system that they didn't like." This high regard for the military seems to me to be so fundamental that it functions at an almost pre-verbal, pre-conscious level, something embedded in young children when they play with toy soldiers and watch war movies, which stays with them in later years as an irrational , impermeable, unshakable faith in military force as absolutely sacrosanct. This has resulted in a situation in which US military spending is some 20 times larger than that of its nearest rival, Russia.

Fans of our military will crow about how this powerful force guarantees our national security. Critics, like this blogger, note that all the military power in the world did not prevent the attacks of 9/11 and are not likely to prevent other possible terrorist attacks, which are not caused by huge armies on the battlefield, such as our military could easily dispatch, but small, roving bands of fanatics and extremists who can be more effectively dealt with by police and investigative forces. It could also be argued that our military presence in regions around the world has actually inspired terrorists to rise up against us, out of a sense of outrage at our military maintaining bases in their countries and our soldiers marching through their streets. How would you feel if, say, Russian and Korean soldiers had a base near your community, polluted the land and water with spent cartridges and other military refuse, and went carousing in your bars and night spots on the weekends? In my view, we vastly underrate how our military operations around the world work against our security by turning other peoples against us. NO ONE likes to have their national territory occupied by foreign force, and it inevitably breeds resentment. Relying so much on the military also tends to discourage peaceful solutions by diplomacy and compromise.

Putting aside, for now, the international dimension, let us consider how America's bloated military force affects the health of our society at home. First of all, it means that huge amounts of money that could be spent on other social needs like health care, infrastructure, transportation, environmental protection, jobs programs, youth programs, and so forth, are not available because the money is used for military purposes. Perhaps the most glaring recent example of this is the Bush regime's request for additional funds for the reconstruction of Iraq, even though the American city of New Orleans continues to languish in a devastated state after the 2005 Katrine disaster.

President Bush did not even MENTION New Orleans in his 2007 State of the Union address. It simply did not appear on his mental map of priorities. Iraq, you see, is a military issue; success there is VITAL to our "national security." New Orleans is a poor city inside America; ergo, according to the sacred principles of the Reagan Revolution, its needs should be met by private charity and church groups, not by the government. The President has of course promised to help rebuild New Orleans, and funds have indeed been provided. The problem is, the needs are so huge, that the funds allocated thus far have been totally inadequate to address the enormity of New Orleans' needs. In the 1930s, when the whole country was in dire straits similar to those which the post-Katrine Gulf region faces today, President Roosevelt did not go on the radio and call for charity organizations to take care of social needs. He did not cut taxes or budgets, nor seek to turn the nation's attention to foreign conflicts. Roosevelt stepped up to the plate, addressed the social crisis squarely, and created new federal programs to provide assistance where it was needed, with the result that many who might have starved were saved, and businesses, lives and communities were rebuilt. Thanks to the Reagan Revolution, the only part of the national government capable of and empowered to perform large-scale projects is the military. Any attempt to promote large projects to help Americans at home is ridiculed and rejected by the Reagan Revolution acolytes. This is what they call "patriotism:" using military force abroad while neglecting social needs at home. Is that how YOU define patriotism?

It is with consideration of these Reagan-skewed priorities that I ended my first posting to this blog with the warning that we could go the way of North Korea: miserable society, poor and starving masses, bloated, high-tech military. Until we start divesting from our oversized military and begin re-investing in our needy communities, with New Orleans the most extreme example, but only one of many that could be discussed, American society will continue to languish, even while our military grows and grows. The State of the Union will not be good.

Another negative aspect of the emphasis put on military force in our politics is that it brings out the worst in the American character and culture. To be strong, to be aggressive, to be unforgiving and unsympathetic, to kill without remorse, to obey authority without questioning; these are the virtues promoted by the worship of the military. This blogger believes that the rising violence in American society, from gang violence to road rage, grows out of a culture of violence that is intimately related to our worship of the military. What is a street gang, after all, but a warped and twisted version of an army? It has a definite command structure; controls territory; dispenses benefits to its allies; uses weapons to enforce compliance with its commands; kills without remorse. Our soldiers marching abroad and crushing our foreign "enemies," who are all too often civilians, provide a role model for the use of violence at home. Our popular culture picks up the thread and makes a fortune out of selling fantasies of violence and carnage. But let's not take the easy way out and blame Hollywood or the music industry: the glorification of violence originates from the highest levels of government, with the worship of the military.

There is more that could be said about the influence of the Reagan presidency, but I think what I have written suffices to show that there have been many destructive consequences of the so-called "Reagan Revolution." The current President, George W. Bush, is in many ways acting out a script first written in those years. I encourage my readers to reject the popular view that Reagan was a great President. He was greatly influential, no doubt, but his legacy of reducing "big government" programs while seeking to endless expand American military power has led us to our current, dispiriting impasse, our status in the international community as a blundering, misguided giant which directs its resources toward attacking abroad rather than rebuilding at home.

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