Friday, August 20, 2010

Lazio Takes the Low Road

Rick Lazio has always had boyish good looks and a charming personality. I discovered this working with him on the World War II legislation—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act—of which he was the co-sponsor, and which was signed into Public Law 106-451 on November 7, 2000. Lazio was able to work with Democrat Eliot Engel and others in the House of Representatives, and, as a Republican, seems to have had some influence with then-Judiciary Committee Chairman, Henry Hyde, in granting the Una Storia Segreta project the critical Judiciary hearings that ensured the bill’s passage. For all this I was and am grateful, as is the entire Italian American community.

Recently, however, in his attempt to become New York State’s governor, another side of Rick Lazio has come to the fore, and it is neither handsome nor charming. Though he seems to have repudiated the Tea Party in his state (partly, at least, because his primary opponent, Carl Paladino, has become their darling of the moment), Lazio has concluded that the silly flap over the building of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero can be a winning issue for him, and, despite vigorous criticism from all sides, is milking it for all it’s worth. Some have accused Lazio of being so desperate for campaign funds that he has sunk to this level to raise money. Whether or not this is true, his words and his position in this controversy make clear that Lazio’s moral compass can easily go missing when he senses an opportunity. In this, of course, he has ample company—including most of the Republican Party and a large number of Democrats as well.

To briefly review the controversy: plans to build a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center once known as Cordoba House, now known as Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero, were recently approved by the New York State landmark preservation board. Tea Party activists including Sarah Palin, have raised hell about this “insult” to the memory of 9/11 victims and the alleged sacrilege to what is called “hallowed ground.” Notwithstanding the fact that the structure is the brainchild of Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf—a man so associated with bridge-building among faiths that he was chosen as an ambassador without portfolio to help the Bush Administration reach out to Muslim nations and promote the American image abroad—and notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, the project is being compared to planting a Nazi sign at Auschwitz, or building “a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.” (this last from Carl Paladino, Lazio’s opponent in the Republican primary.)

Incredibly, Lazio has taken the accusations several steps further. Claiming that his objection is not religious (President Obama has stated publicly that religious freedom guarantees Muslims the same rights to build a center as anyone else), but involves only a plea for “transparency,” Lazio has raised the issue of “safety and security.” He has therefore attacked his expected opponent and current Attorney General of New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for failing to investigate the “books” of the project to find out who is funding it. This call for transparency is clearly shorthand for raising the issue of terrorism—a barely veiled warning that mosques should be suspected as fronts for terrorist groups bent on harming New Yorkers. Here is how he framed it in an appearance on the PBS News Hour on August 16:

“What I’ve been calling for is transparency. There’s a certain defiance about the need to put it right there…This Cordoba initiative has $18,000. right now for a $100 million mosque…Where is this money coming from? Who’s behind this?....Let’s open the books, let’s find out where it’s coming from, whether it’s a foreign government or militant organizations that are funding this. The question here is whether or not we should feel safe, this is about safety and security…This is about what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair, and from a standpoint of safety…”

Thus, where most criticism of the Islamic Center project focused on its alleged insult to the memory of the dead, Lazio, though he refers to “what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair,” has abandoned ethics, decency and fairness to foreground the element of fear: is this project funded by the same terrorists who funded 9/11?

As if to amplify his verbal raising of the fear factor, Lazio has recently released a two-minute video described as “a collage of various opinions from people filmed near Ground Zero,” featuring “images taken on September 11, 2001 depicting firefighters running into the debris of the former World Trade Center Towers.” So outrageous is this ad that it has incited criticisms from the very people Lazio was trying to associate himself with. According to an August 20 report, both the NY Fire Department and the Police Department have demanded the video’s removal:

“The Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association has sent Lazio letters denouncing the use of the 9/11 footage. ‘We have always been opposed to the use of images from the attack on the World Trade Center in political advertising. Virtually every candidate for public office has honored that sentiment to date. So it was with a mix of surprise and disappointment to see your new video that seeks to capture the attention of the viewer with graphic images of Ground Zero that day,’ read a letter signed by UFOA President Alexander Hagan. ‘For someone whose argument against the mosque is that it is insensitive to those who lost loved ones on that day, it is unconscionable that he would display similar insensitivity by evoking these painful memories for his own political purposes,’ wrote SBA President Edward Mullins.”

Whether Rick Lazio can summon the courage to come in from the moral desert he’s placed himself in remains to be seen. Given the national attention his stance has garnered for him, though, and given the Tea Party competition from his rival Paladino, such an attack of conscience doesn’t appear likely. Rather, in this year when the twin specters of racism and McCarthyism seem to have risen from what we hoped was their grave, we can probably expect more of the same, if not worse. And though the politics are sad, sadder still is what is likely to result from all this—the conviction among Muslims worldwide that our so-called war on terror is really a war on them.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is Democracy Possible?

No one needs to be reminded that we’ve all just been through some pretty depressing times. The economy nearly collapsed and remains anemic, BP pretty much trashed the Gulf of Mexico with its oil eruption, the health care “reformers” couldn’t even squeeze a public option into their pathetic bill, and the promised legislation to begin to bring greenhouse gases under control was just abandoned because of a lack of votes in the Senate. Barack Obama, hailed into office with so much fanfare and hope (at least from progressives) seems shell-shocked at best, and ineffectual at worst. Hounded on the right by Tea Party idiots who call him both a socialist and a Nazi, and criticized on the left by his own supporters as disinclined to fight for his beliefs, his poll numbers have plummeted so rapidly since the BP spill that some of the Democrats running for Congress have warned him to stay away from their districts. As to the congressional and gubernatorial races coming this Fall, most seem headed for disaster, with Republican yahoos threatening to take over one or both houses of Congress—a result that would doom any prospects for reasonable legislation and perhaps result in repealing the few decent items already passed (like health care).

To counteract their catastrophe, the Democrats are doing their usual dance—kowtowing to conservative ideas and slogans, and courting the banks and corporations which brought the country to its knees. With their need for campaign cash as primary, such so-called “representatives of the people” make ever clearer that they represent not you and me, but the biggest, dirtiest, most ruthless elements in the nation: Wall Street operators, corporate crooks, energy barons, health care frauds, and the military-industrial complex which profits from war and terror.

In short, though we all like to think that we the people control our government because we get to vote every two or four years, the sad truth is that our control is illusory, a con game meant to pacify the masses while the same old robber barons and insiders get to set the agenda, invent the terms of debate, and offer up the candidates (in recent years, bypassing the back rooms and seeking elective office themselves—i.e. Michael Bloomberg in New York, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina running for governor and senator in California). And in the few instances where their control fails, they hire armies of lobbyists to hamstring any legislation that might threaten their profits, their incomes, their mandarin lifestyle.

The question this raises is the one in my title: Is Democracy Possible? Or more pertinently, is democracy doomed?

I’m not sure I can answer this question (surprises are always possible), but a recent documentary raises some fascinating alternatives. That’s why I’m suggesting here that you take a look at what average people in several other parts of the world are doing. The basic idea is simple: since those who represent/rule us are captives of the moneyed interests who brought the whole system to its knees, and since our so-called leaders could think of nothing to do but to rescue these same criminals and try to restore the very system of organized thievery that failed, the people themselves are obliged to find other ways. Other ways to survive. Other ways to come together as a society of human beings. Other ways to barter and bargain and aid each other without the mediation—and rapacious profit-taking—of the banks and corporations who care nothing for people or the planet they’re daily trashing but only for their precious bottom line. Other ways; because if the bigs can’t or won’t do it—and they’ve made crystal clear that they will fight tooth and nail not to—it makes no sense to wait until they sink the whole ship; the change has to come from the bottom up.

So here’s the url for the documentary. It comes from the web site,, of Katherine Austin Fitts, a longtime economist and U.S. government official who’s talking some of the most radical economics around. Take a look. I did, and though I’m not yet sure how or if it can apply to me or my community, just the fact that ordinary people are thinking and acting in these ways—opting out of the nefarious system that has us all bound and gagged, and implementing amazing alternatives—made my day. The website:

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shallower and Shallower

Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is must reading for anyone interested in the major transformation ignited by the rise of computers and the Internet in recent years—that is, if there are still people who can concentrate enough to read a full-length book. That’s the idea Carr is promoting, with statistics like these about reading (and “printed works” include books, newspapers, magazines, etc.):

"By 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the time that the average American over the age of fourteen devoted to reading printed works had fallen to 143 minutes a week, a drop of 11% since 2004. Young adults between 25 and 34, among the most avid Net users, were reading printed works for a total of just 49 minutes a week in 2008, down 29% from 2004." (p. 87)

And therein lies Carr’s major point: where the Gutenberg revolution (which around 1439 mechanized printing and made books possible for everyone) changed human brains by making them able to focus for long periods on a single subject (a book, a long article) and plumb its meaning, computers and the Internet are changing brains in the opposite direction. They are inducing brains to jump from one item to another, to become addicted to multiple messages and hyperlinks, email alerts, moving, flashing ads, and countless other media devices in such a way that even Carr, a book writer, confesses that he finds it difficult to concentrate in the old way. In short, says Carr, Marshall McLuhan was absolutely right when he wrote nearly forty years ago about television that “the medium is the message.” That is, the way we absorb material via our computers and the Internet is not neutral; the medium changes our brains, or more precisely, our brains, due to their astonishing neural plasticity, adapt to the electronic medium, and even merge with it: “we program our computers, and thereafter they program us.”

Though some of the science of brain plasticity Carr references is complex—involving the way our eyes convert symbols into meaning or the brain areas where the various functions of perceiving and interpreting occur at split-second intervals—the basic idea is simple to grasp because we are all familiar with it: “Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’” One of the main technologies for this interruption or distraction mode is the hyperlink—those typed portions in blue which signal that by clicking on one, you are immediately transported to an expansion (often the original article) of the point being made. Whether or not we click on the hyperlink, our brain is distracted, even if only to the extent of deciding whether or not to follow the link. Thus, as Carr notes, unlike a footnote, which can be ignored or saved for later (and only provides a reference), a hyperlink actually “propels us toward” the related material; it “encourage(s) us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them.” Rather than the linear, calm attentiveness fostered by reading a book, that is, reading online encourages us to jump around, to pursue one after another distraction. If this makes you think of TV commercials—which every parent notices absolutely transfix children with their colorful, high-volume quick cuts and false excitement—that is no accident. The idea is essentially the same: provide the brain with the hyped-up perceptual stimulation it automatically responds to, and you get “mindless consumers” of data. Carr refers to the Net as a “high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards,” thus turning us metaphorically into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” We go to our email, we go to our facebook page, we go to our news page or favorite website for constant updates about “what’s happening.”

The problem is that the type of intellectual activity this hyped-up perception fosters is not concentration or depth, but superficiality: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” Our thoughts are scattered and our attention distracted. Rather than reading deeply in a way that promotes reflection or meditation, we become pursuers of endless data. Carr explains how the brain’s structure and architecture facilitate this, explaining recent research in memory formation and the two types of memory involved—short-term and long-term—and the brain changes that are involved in both. It makes for fascinating reading. For our purposes, it is only necessary to understand that short-term or working memory (what we remember for a few moments as we perceive it) can be overloaded, and that is precisely what happens in the “cognitive overload” that can result from Net activity:

"When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow." (p. 125)

Carr cites several areas of research leading to the same conclusions: people who read linear text “comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” This is reinforced by studies showing that people on the Net spend an average of 19 to 27 seconds looking at a page before switching to a new one. That clearly does not encourage concentration or thinking, and a related study showed that, for over a hundred well-educated people, reading habits over the last 10 years for most had changed from in-depth reading to “browsing and scanning.” This is precisely what the Internet encourages. When we consider the rise of technologies like the Kindle and Apple’s I-Pad, where thousands of books are readable on a screen—with hyperlinks everywhere—and the Google Book project which has already scanned millions of books that are available for reading online, it is clear that reading from a physical book is well on its way to becoming an anachronism. Indeed, one of the more bizarre situations that Carr relates is the phenomenon of cell-phone novels that started in Japan in 2001, when young Japanese women “began composing stories on their mobile phones by texting.” They then uploaded them to a website, where others commented on them, added new ideas, and created the group novel, several of which became best sellers. One of the reasons for their popularity is their simple love plots and short sentences; one novelist named Rin explained that readers no longer like novels written by professional writers because their sentences seem “intentionally wordy” and the stories “unfamiliar.”

What this augurs for our future is anyone’s guess. Judging by the many studies Carr cites, the prospects are not good. As brain researcher Antonio Damasio notes about a study his lab performed, neural processes that relate to the “higher emotions” such as empathy and compassion are “inherently slow.” His study showed that though the brain reacts quickly to “demonstrations of physical pain,” more sophisticated processes of empathizing with suffering respond far more slowly, because of the time it takes for the brain “to transcend the immediate involvement of the body” and comprehend the “psychological and moral dimensions.” This could mean that the speed and distraction encouraged by the Internet (and everything else in our high-speed world) may well be eroding the uniquely human ability to respond deeply to others via those empathic moral responses that require “adequate time for reflection.” That would truly be a tragedy.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, August 2, 2010

Class Warfare

In case you were wondering where all the money went and why the economy is still in the doldrums, here are a couple of clues. “The 500 largest non-financial companies are sitting on $1.8 trillion in uninvested cash.” That’s a stat from Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, quoted by Paul Buchheit in 7/22 The piece goes on to note that whereas the Republicans blame big government’s lavish spending on the poor, the truth is quite a different story: IRS figures report that “the richest 1% have TRIPLED their cut of America’s income pie” since 1980 (that’s when Reagan began cutting taxes for the rich, and blaming “welfare queens” and big government for everything). From taking 1 out of every 15 income dollars, the rich now take 3 of every 15 income dollars, or a TRILLION extra dollars a year. Put another way, instead of taking $7 of every $100 of America’s income, the rich now take $20 of every $100.

If this sounds like class war, it is, only it’s the rich doing the firing (literally).

Then there’s this, from Bob Herbert’s Sunday column. Top corporations (you know, the guys who have been declared to be “persons” by the Supreme Court, and thereby free to pour as much money—it’s free speech!—as they like into buying politicians) have been using the economic collapse to fire workers in droves. Those who are left are forced to take pay cuts, or else. Here are the stats:

“from the 4th quarter of 2007 to the 4th quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by GDP, fell by about 2.5% but employers cut their payrolls by 6%.”

Worse, when the economy started to rebound (due to that evil government stimulation), the corporations somehow forgot to start hiring again. Herbert quotes economics Prof. Andrew Sum this way:

“At the end of the 4th quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go DOWN by $122 billion.”

In other words, the corporations are “making out like bandits” and, as Fakaria noted, sitting on mountains of cash, saved from not rehiring workers. As Prof. Sum writes: this economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Meantime, the Republicans blame Obama and the Democrats for a “jobless” recovery (demanding lower taxes to stimulate hiring; more “trickle-down”—that’s what we need). And the electorate appears ready to do the same thing.

Isn’t our capitalist democracy a wonder?

Lawrence DiStasi