Courage is one thing, heroism quite something else

Several years ago, I wrote a Remembrance/Veterans Day post in which I expressed admiration for the aged veterans of WWII, people whom I came to know through sharing a cardio-fit group with them.

Although my own father had been a combat vet in that war, he and I never spoke about it. When I was young, he was still too traumatized to talk about the war. And when I grew older, he and I had a distancing conflict over my decision during the Vietnam occupation to refuse induction and leave the U.S. permanently. It was through my years on the next recumbent bike to survivors of my father’s war that I came most fully to appreciate their humble but crucial parts in preserving Western democracy, in what is rightly called the last war to ensure freedom.

So it is with a large dose of respect and sympathy for the individuals whom this day honours that on this Remembrance Day I have to agree in large part with David Masciotra’s provocative and hugely controversial Salon article, “You don’t protect my freedom:  Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.”

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It’s hard to wring out the truth

“Flight MH17 went down over territory controlled by self-defense forces of the autonomous regions …”

 

“There are now thousands of mosques throughout Europe. With larger congregations than there are in churches. And in every European city there are plans to build super-mosques that will dwarf every church in the region. Clearly, the signal is: we rule.”

The first passage above refers to the crisis in the Ukraine. The second comes from a speech urging support for Israel in the Gaza conflict.

They are very different in content, but they share at least two characteristics. First, both passages come from material sent to me by e-mail. Second, and much more important, both are carefully crafted to reflect the political biases of their creators.

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Rolling Dunderheads

This is a belated Fourth of July musing. I don’t live there any more, but it’s hard not to look back at an accident that you were lucky enough to pass safely by on the interstate.

I didn’t write a July 1st article, even though I’m a long-time Canadian citizen and feel very lucky to live here. It’s just that most Canada Day celebrations have become too much like what I left–marching bands, swaying flags, troops with big guns and uniforms. Enough nationalism and glorification of the military already, if you ask me, which you didn’t, but that has never stopped me before, so why should it now?

Some of my Canadian friends and acquaintances look a little bit askance (politely askance, of course; after all, they’re Canadians) when I tell them that I don’t celebrate Canada Day because it’s too much like the Fourth. They are keenly aware of all of the differences between our three cultures (Canada has at least two), so they can’t see the creeping similarities. (Thanks for that, Mr. Prime Minister!)

But I digress. Here’s the point that sparked this little diatribe:  How much harm is being done to the public weal by the current venom of American politics?
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Longer prison sentences for African-Americans have the characteristics of an epidemic

Sometimes the best way to grasp the real nature of a problem is to look at it from an unconventional angle. It appears that the U.S.’s incarceration rate imbalance — many more African-American than white inmates per capita — may be one of these issues.

Many reasons have been given for the “race gap” in American prisons, some of them quite extreme. On the right, there are whites who cling to the long-discredited notion that blacks are somehow categorically inferior in one or more crucial ways, from dedication to family values to intelligence. On the left, some activists and commentators have called the U.S. prison system a new kind of slavery, through which an entire cohort of the population is controlled and disenfranchised.

I have to say that, while I have no patience at all with the first analysis, I have some sympathy for the second. There’s too much history behind the “new slavery” interpretation to dismiss it entirely out of hand.

One well-known claim is that blacks are given longer sentences than whites for similar offenses. In this view, jail is much more likely for a young black crack smoker than for a middle-aged white cocaine snorter. Same drug, different sentences.

That’s the claim, but how accurate is it? And if it’s true, are there measureable effects of the different treatments blacks and white receive in the courts?
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Not to be Piketty, but these are the income inequality books to read

 

I’d slogged my way through the first third of Capital in the 21st Century when I gave in and googled the reviews. That shows a disappointing lack of dedication, I admit, but there’s only so much time in a life.

On the not unreasonable assumption that many of you aren’t academic economists, either, and that you have other things to do with the time in your lives, I have a few other book recommendations in the general area of income inequality and, more important, its impacts on society.

The three books that I’m recommending are quite different from each other, but nonetheless their shared conclusion — that too much of how, how well, even how long we live depends on the size of our slice of the wealth pie — justifies grouping them together.

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Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

Big Data, or Big Brother?

I don’t know what you think of the recent revelations about the extreme-seeming scope of the U. S. anti-terror people’s telephone data collection. I’m of two minds, which is an uncomfortable position at the best of times.

It seems that “impending real attacks” have been thwarted by the surveillance. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? But do we really need to let the government into every detail of our lives? I say “our” even though I’m in Canada, for I have no illusions that Stephen Harper has ever hesitated to share and share alike with the Americans. He’s a natural control freak in the first place, and a sycophantic neighbour into the bargain.

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Falling off the cliff on purpose is dangerous for both Republicans and Democrats

Here I am in California, for another few hours anyway. I’m reading the newspapers, watching the news on TV, and listening and talking to real people. Everyone is paying attention to the Fiscal Cliff dramatics, but with less intensity than you might expect, given the hype about how dire the consequences will be if no deal is struck before midnight rings in 2013 in a couple of days. It seems that no one is really engaged; no one is really expecting much.

One thing that I’m noticing is the nearly universal pessimism, not to mention cynicism, that people down here express whenever the subject turns to the dysfunctional U. S. federal government. No one expects a comprehensive deal, and few hold any hope that the likely deal, to extend the middle class tax cuts and the extra unemployment benefits, will do anything more than yet again defer any comprehensive agreement.

And no one here is expressing faith in the legislators, who will, as they always do, calculate their fiscal principles in the currency of their chances for re-election. Continue reading

The one and only election analysis

One of the benefits of my three-month hiatus from this blog is that I avoided all temptation to write compulsively about the American presidential election.

But now that I’m back, I really do have to post one — and only one — analysis of the result, and its implications.

To start, and this is directed to all of my left-leaning confreres and relatives south of the border, Barack Obama did not win anything that could honestly be called a “mandate.” Not a mandate for change, not a mandate for staying the course, and certainly not a personal mandate.

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