Friday, December 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Old Year

I'm back home in Chicago after a week up in Vermont visiting my parents.  Once again I was reminded during my trip of how important the little things are--simple kindnesses like washing the dishes for someone or offering to take out the trash.  In a troubled world that seems like it's on the garbage shoot to hell, these are the oases that keep people going. 

One reason these kindnesses are so important is that they force us off the grid of anonymity that defines much of 21st century life and bring us face to face with another person. 

So many of the horrific stories that filled the news in 2011 were the result of people who lived life as a series of parallel abstractions rather than a number of situations that allowed them to interact as fellow human beings with similar hopes and dreams.  This tragedy is on my mind as I look towards 2012. 

Generally speaking I don't like New Year's resolutions, but I have one for myself this year.  I want to get out of the habit of categorizing people and view each person I meet with a fresh pair of eyes. 

This vulnerability is scary on a number of levels.  It opens up the possibility of being rejected or taken advantage of and also means investing energy in staying in the moment.  However, it feels worth the effort.  I'm tired of the self-righteous self-absorption that surrounds me and this is my humble effort to cut through the fog. 

We'll see how I do.  Like anything worthwhile, this change in behavior will assuredly take some time to gain a firm foundation in my life.  I'll just take it one day at time.

Happy New Years to all my readers and I look forward to sharing more of my rambles through the news with you in 2012.  Remember, if you drink, don't drive.  And try to wake up next to a woman and/or man whose name you can remember.  ; )

Friday, December 23, 2011

We Were Not Aware.....

Up in Vermont with my parents this week and one of the major stories in the Burlington area is the death of a homeless man near the Church Street Marketplace.  Paul O'Toole's death from exposure, he froze to death on a heating grate, would not ordinarily draw much attention.  But the approach of the Holidays combined with the proximity of where he died to a major tourist shopping area has prompted some soul-searching in the Queen City. 

A conference was held at City Hall last week to determine what might have been done to prevent the death of Mr. O'Toole and what changes (if any) were needed in the city's response to its homeless population. 

What spoke to me about this otherwise back page story was how it typified the way we as a society tend to deal with major issues.  Either someone has to die or a catastrophic breakdown needs to occur before people come together in search of solutions.  This reactionary stance hasn't helped us much over time.  It will certainly not help solve the "problem" of homelessness in the Burlington area. 

My wish for all my readers during the Holiday Season is that they will stop looking at those around them as part of groups and instead view them as individuals with life stories similar to our own.  Mr. O'Toole might have lived if he had been viewed as Paul rather than "a homeless man."  His life is not a problem to be solved but a reminder that community as a concept has fallen out of favor. We all live too much within ourselves.  People die on the periphery all the time and are quickly forgotten. 

Look outside of yourselves not just today but in the weeks and months to come.  Reclaim your humanity in the new year and share it with others. Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy

On Wednesday the last hope of blocking the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was shattered when President Barack Obama not only declined to veto the bill but said he would willingly sign it into law. 

Typically this annual appropriations bill for the Department of Defense is passed by the House and Senate without controversy.  This year, however, a new clause added that would redefine the United States as a theater of operations in the War on Terror led such disparate figures as Occupy Wall Street, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even Ron Paul to decry its passage. 

They argued that the bill would gut the right of Habeas Corpus without officially suspending it and would also come dangerously close to overturning the Posse Commitatus Act of 1877, which prohibits the armed forces from serving as a police force on United States soil except in cases of National Emergency. 

NDAA 2012 essentially creates a permanent state of emergency in the United States in which the Department of Defense may now join the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in arresting and detaining U.S. citizens on our home turf. 

Defenders of the bill argue that only those associated with terrorist organizations need be concerned.  They also claim that revisions to the language of sections 1031 and 1032 of the bill offer sufficient protections to U.S. citizens to prevent them from being arrested, imprisoned and tried by military authorities.  This, however, is cold comfort. 

Under the expanded powers afforded to the Justice Department since 9/11, it is now possible to be suspected as a terrorist for giving money, donating time, or otherwise offering services to charitable groups that are on a mysterious "watch list" that only those in the upper echelons of power have access to.  This tragically ridiculous state of affairs has led former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter to fall under Justice Department suspicion for his work on behalf of the Palestinians.

How did we arrive at this sorry state of affairs where the Bill of Rights can be waived by simply calling someone a "terrorist?"  It was a slow creep that began after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act and, as Obama's recent actions show, it cannot be blamed solely on George W. Bush and his associates. 

We all carry a share of the blame for indulging in an unhealthy fear that led us to fight a Quixotic War on Terror.  The world is inherently a dangerous place and no amount of military hardware will ever change that.  In fact, the existence of this military hardware probably makes the world less safe. 

With the war in Iraq coming to an end and an exit from Afghanistan on the horizon, it is time to retire the War on Terror as well.  Police and judicial processes are needed to find, arrest, and prosecute the criminals who kill innocent people in the United States.  This is not the duty of the army, an institution designed to protect the nation from attacks by other nations or from internal insurrection. 

In this instance we have met the enemy and it is not Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group.  The enemy is us and our own irrational fears.  Somewhere in hell Osama Bin Laden is laughing at us as we throw away our civil liberties one by one to get even with him for getting lucky.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Good Time Blago's Got the Blues

Just in time for the Holidaze, another Illinois governor is soon going off to the federal pen. On Wednesday, U.S. District judge James Zagel sentenced former governor Rod Blagojevich to 14 years in prison for attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. 

Blagojevich doesn't have to turn himself in to federal authorities until February 16 and it is not yet clear where he will serve his lengthy sentence.  Perhaps he'll get to be bunk mates with his predecessor, former Illinois Governor George Ryan. 

Blagojevich is now the 4th Illinois governor to be convicted of corruption.  This prompted Judge Zagel to give a lecture to the courtroom along with his delivery of the ex-governor's sentence.  Declaring that "the fabric of Illinois is torn," Zagel made it clear that his harsh sentence was meant to send a message to other state politicians.  Corruption in any way, shape, or form will no longer be tolerated. 

Zagel then went on to criticize Illinois voters, saying, "the American people usually get the government they deserve."  Without voter support, he suggested, corruption like that engaged in by Blagojevich would not have been possible.  Our acceptance, he implied, fueled the man's audacity.

Whether Zagel's lecture to the courtroom will be heeded by Illinois voters remains to be seen.  Nearly every generation has lamented the corruption in this state and particularly in Chicago from which most of it seems to emerge.  Yet despite these laments little seems to change.  Different faces.  Same old story.  So it goes. 

But before we throw up our hands in despair, it's worth noting one of the ways that politicians like Blagojevich come into power and stay there:  Voting the party line.

Most voters in the United States are (to be polite) quite uninformed about who and what they are voting for.  In Chicago, Ward Bosses long took advantage of this ignorance to mobilize armies of voters for "their guy."  Typically that guy was a Democrat.

Even though the Ward Bosses are mostly gone, replaced by white collar boardroom movers and shakers in the Loop, voters still tend to vote party rather than person or platform.  Case in point, Jose Berrios.  The man openly admitted during the campaign for Cook County Assessor that he was corrupt.  Did this prevent him from being elected?  No.  Why?  Because he's a Democrat.

What happened next makes me want to laugh and then cry.  Voters complained not long after he took office that (wait for it) Berrios was corrupt.  Holy Christmas Batman!!!  What a surprise.

If you don't want a repeat of Blagojevich in the near future, it would pay to vote with the same degree of care that you would take shopping for a new electronic gadget or gizmo.  Those who run your local, state, and federal government are at least as important as the Apps on your phone. 

Would you play Angry Birds if it cost you $500 to download?  I think not.  Yet this is the same thing voters do every year when an election comes around.  Keep this in mind next time you stand in line to vote.