Thursday, June 5, 2014

More on Next-Door Renovation, Compassionate Friends, Belarus, Measles Denialism, Wealth Concentration, Unaccompanied Minors

The above photo, a bit fuzzy because it was taken in haste without focus or flash, gives you an idea of the scope of the “renovation” going on next door, but until I got a peek inside, I never realized how extensive those “repairs” were going to be. No wonder so many dumpsters have been filled up! The entire inside of the house has been gutted, floors, walls, the fireplace—nothing left of the interior of an historic 1850 farm house, the first ever built on this block. Only the front façade and side walls remain; I believe the front façade has to stay because this is an historic district—the back is completely open and a beautiful old flowering cherry tree has been removed there. The house is going to be extended and completely rebuilt inside. I mourn for the house that was before and which I knew from more than 40 years of living next door. The current owners have been there only about 3 years. They have a small daughter of that age. I don’t know if they always planned to remake the house or if they came into a lot of money recently or what. They had told me originally that they just planned to expand an enclosed back porch area. Well, things have gone way beyond that. No wonder they’ve moved out for the duration.
The other photo is from our Spanish-language meeting of The Compassionate Friends at Providence Hospital in Washington, DC. Why are so many people smiling? Perhaps out of habit when facing a camera, perhaps also because they’re glad to be together with likeminded souls after losing their children. The woman center-right in black and white, appearing to be laughing, is not a bereaved parent, but Sister Judy, a nun mentioned previously in these pages, the hospital’s chaplain who fled her native Colombia after she was threatened in her work by both guerrillas and paramilitaries. However, she also was mourning the recent loss of her brother, so was not so far removed from the rest of us. One couple there did not speak Spanish, but we provided interpretation, this time into English! Two couples at the meeting, each with Samsung smartphones, exchanged inspirational comfort music by placing their phones back-to-back. Amazing what smartphones can do. They really are pretty smart!
A volunteer Amnesty International USA specialist on Belarus, just as I am volunteer specialist for the Caribbean, talked at my local Amnesty Group, 211. He is a native of that country, which has a population of less than 10 million and became independent when the USSR dissolved in 1991. Its dictatorial President Alyaksandr Lukashenka controls everything, stifles dissent and human rights, but holds nominal elections which he rigs to win and has won ever since independence. There are no term limits; internet freedom is restricted but not entirely blocked. The country has the death penalty by firing squad. Most employment is with the state. The president tries to flatter Putin and maintain friendly ties so that the country won’t be overtaken by Russia, as happened in Crimea. Our speaker said most citizens feel it is better to be ruled by their president, dictatorial as he is, than to be overtaken again by Russia,
Following up on the “denialism” mentioned in the last blog posting, measles has been spreading recently in the US because children are not being vaccinated for religious reasons or because of unwarranted fears linking other maladies to vaccinations. Those opting out of vaccinations who think they are protecting their children are actually putting them and other children, especially those who cannot be vaccinated because of other medical conditions, at risk. (A mother whose unvaccinated daughter died of measles is now warning other parents.)
Denialism is allied with conspiracy theories, holding that outside forces, elites, and government are trying to manipulate and control us either for their own gain or due to evil intentions. Basically, it seems based on an individual’s urge to be independent in thought and deed, never mind if the person is completely wrong and must engage in odd mental gyrations to reach their conclusion. If the state of Hawaii displays Barack Obama’s original birth certificate, officials there are considered to be part of the conspiracy. Of course, some actual conspiracies do exist, which makes it hard to distinguish truth from fiction. But where are all the “birthers” now when Ted Cruz is being touted as a presidential candidate? Unlike Barack Obama, he clearly was not born in the United States.
The increasing concentration of wealth, especially in the hands of fewer and fewer super-rich, who now apparently control most wealth worldwide, is getting to a tipping point. Highly privileged folks may not realize it yet, as they live in gated communities, send their kids to private schools, travel on private jets, and don’t rely on public facilities and services. But their ever-increasing holdings may end up being counterproductive to their own families down through the generations. This is because, unless their descendants find ways to replenish their inherited wealth through selling ongoing services or products, their wealth will dissipate over time, since the overwhelming majority of poor people on earth will be unable to buy whatever it is that they have for sale. Henry Ford recognized this, paying his workers enough to be able to buy the cars they were making and keeping the economic cycle going.  In the present day, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, George Soros, and Mark Zuckerberg are wealthy entrepreneurs who recognize this and who have endeavored to spread around some of their wealth. However, too many super-rich and their political (Republican or conservative) allies endeavor only to increase their holdings by demanding ever-higher salaries far beyond what any human being could possibly spend, denying workers a living wage, promoting more tax cuts, reducing programs like food stamps (which not only allow some families to eat, but provide grocery chains with customers a la Henry Ford), and opposing universal health care.
 Nations that promote more economic equality not only provide most of their citizens a better quality of life, but the wealthier folks among them suffer no deprivations. What about measuring self-worth through projects that improve human well-being instead of those that increase the size of a bank account or involve the accumulation of still more property, as Donald Trump seems to do? Unfortunately, too many of the non-wealthy buy into specious arguments made by those promoting concentration of wealth who depict any discussion of the “wealth gap,” or any form of taxation or rules to protect the environment as unmitigated evils, amounting to socialism, class warfare, and curbs on individual liberty.  However, a reasonable middle ground exists between unbridled Ayn Rand-style capitalism/individualism and the quagmire of despotic systems like those of North Korea and Cuba.  As citizens, it’s our duty to ourselves and to future generations to actively promote that middle ground.
Why do the 99% not object more to the increasing wealth concentration by the 1%? Perhaps because they hope to become rich themselves—they see that as their future, though, quite obviously, the vast majority are never going to make, at best only a very lucky few.
Finally, a word about underage migrants who cross into the U.S. from Mexico, as has been highlighted in the news recently. This is not really a new phenomenon, though perhaps it has now increased. First, in my experience in my capacity as a Spanish interpreter, most are not small children, but teenagers either fleeing gang threats, seeking opportunity and adventure, or looking for parents living in the US, not realizing what a vast country this is. Some never find parents they feel have abandoned them and whom they hope to join. Possibly—and this is just a guess on my part—the prospect of allowing legal status to some undocumented immigrants has also attracted them, even though new arrivals would not be covered under any of the proposed immigration reform bills. My own late Cuban foster son, Alex, was an “unaccompanied minor” who arrived with the Mariel boatlift in 1980.

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