Monday, July 18, 2016

"Race in America"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Race in America”
July 18, 2016

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not
be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
                                                                                                            Martin Luther King, Jr.
                                                                                                            August 28, 1963
                                                                                                            Lincoln Memorial

Racism, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, along with sexism, chauvinism and xenophobia remain part of the American scene 52 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed and 153 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. In a nation of 320 million, it should come as no surprise that a small minority harbor such feelings. Nevertheless, we have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow laws that effectively mandated segregation for almost 100 years following the Civil War, and from groups like the Ku Klux Clan that murdered and terrorized African-Americans and their communities.

In the 1950s things began to change. In 1954, the last black U.S. army unit was deactivated. That same year the Supreme Court decided, in Brown versus Board of Education, that the concept of “separate but equal” schools was unconstitutional. The following year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Two years later the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was established in Atlanta, Georgia. That gave birth to the Civil Rights movement and the many bloody marches that ensued. Success finally came in 1964 with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. However, cultural habits are hard to change and, as a society, we will never be fully rid of latent biases. My grandmother, who was born in 1875, once said to me, in the late 1950s, that racial prejudices would likely persist until we were all of one color.

And, in fact, we are becoming (gradually) a mixed-race society. According to a Pew Survey last year, 7% of Americans view themselves as multiracial. I suspect the real number is much higher. In my own family, a two-greats grandfather fathered an African-American child around 1830. That child’s descendants, who are cousins of mine, have multiplied and added to the melting pot. I suspect most African-Americans are of mixed heritage, something on which we should all reflect. Most of us are related, perhaps distantly, but related. Real assimilation demands mutual respect, irrespective of one’s race, color or sex, and an understanding that civil society can only function when its laws are obeyed.

Yet 60% of Americans say that race relations are growing worse, and 69% of Americans, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll, claim that that race relations are “generally bad.” A survey quoted in last Thursday’s The New York Times: “Asked whether the police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person, three-quarters of African-Americans answered yes.” That answer was disputed in another survey (quoted in the Times a day earlier) conducted by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard professor of economics (and an African-American). He found no racial bias when it came to police shootings; though he did find bias in non-lethal confrontations. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 43% of African-Americans are in such despair they are doubtful that the country will ever make the changes necessary for Blacks to have equal rights.

When Barack Obama took the office in early 2009 it was expected by many, including me, that his election would usher in an age of improved race relations. That has not happened. From his calling the police “stupid” in the Henry Lewis “Skip” Gates incident in 2009 to the shootings last week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Mr. Obama has chastised police and blamed guns before all the evidence is in. He accepted the myth of “Hands up, don’t shoot” that emerged from the killing of Michael Brown (and which was promoted by his friend Al Sharpton), even though Attorney General Erik Holder later found that the police officer Darren Wilson was not in the wrong. Political correctness blinds us from obvious truths. When asked at the first Democratic presidential debate to choose between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” Bernie Sanders chose, correctly, the latter. He was harangued, so back-tracked his answer.

Why did the election of Barack Obama not ease tensions? I am not sure that anyone knows the answer. Being a visible minority is difficult. South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott has said that as a Black he must adhere to a higher standard. Also, there is no doubt that a latent prejudice does exist among elements of our society, and there are those on the Right who exploit such biases. But why have things become worse over the past eight years? Why have violent crimes increased? Why have Black-on-Black crimes become so ubiquitous? Homicides in the nation’s 50 largest cities were up 17% in 2015 over 2014. Thus far this year, the number of police shot is up 44% versus the same time in 2015. Was it the financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, with their effects on the Black community? Perhaps. President Obama came to office determined to promote “fairness” and to fight “inequality.” But that has not been the result. Despite promises to the contrary, minorities are worse off. Income and wealth gaps have widened. Before the recent reinstatement of work requirement by forty states, food stamp rolls increased to more than 45 million Americans. Unemployment among Blacks remains higher than for Whites, Hispanics and Asians. Most of the violence is taking place in cities where gun laws are the strictest and social welfare programs the most generous – all cities run by Democrats. My cynicism tells me that rising tensions have to do with Leftist policies that create dependency; and which divide the electorate, so as to make it easier to address differing demands – creating victims whose needs can be assuaged. Both parties play to their bases – generating anger and fear, based on the principal that fearful and angry people are more likely to vote. The situation is made worse by a media that thrives on conflict and polarization.

The answers lie in responsible parenting, in education, and in reforming a culture that glorifies bad behavior and encourages conduct that is antisocial, and which is antithetical for those near the bottom of our socio-economic ladders. One consequence has been a decline in personal responsibility and a rise in out-of-wedlock births, especially among African-American families. In 2012, 72.2% of all Black children were born to father-less homes. This is a problem that Daniel Patrick Moynihan described and warned about fifty years ago. He also argued that affirmative action programs should be aimed at economic minorities, not ethnic groups. While we should be respective of Gays, government should encourage family formations – and the importance of two parents to young children. (Mr. Obama’s family sets a good example.) Education should help children, not support teachers’ unions. Chicago is illustrative of the terrible price being paid by the Black community, due to ill-conceived liberal policies. In 2015 there were 468 homicides in the city. Of those murders, Blacks accounted for 75% of the victims and 71% of the killers. (The problem has worsened in 2016. Through the first week of July, there have been 340 killings in the city.)

The problem is not the police. It is a political, social and educational culture that has made it difficult for Blacks to climb out of a life in which they feel trapped. They need jobs. They need them to eat and to live, but they also need them for the sense of pride and self-respect that work and self-sufficiency bring. They do not need clich├ęs, like “fight inequality,” or “Black Lives Matter.” As we all know, all lives matter. Youth needs heroes who have overcome odds to succeed. Whether those heroes emerge on the Right or the Left should make no difference. The Black community should not be a puppet in this “Game of Thrones” played by craven politicians. The answer lies in providing the means for success, so that all Americans can better themselves. That along with mutual and self-respect are needed to realize Martin Luther King’s dream.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
July 11, 2016

“Balance, that’s the secret.
Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds.”
                                                                                                Edward Abbey (1927-1989)
                                                                                                Author and Essayist

Balance is necessary to life – to nature and to our physical well-being; it is important to our household finances and in our personal/professional lives; it is gained through diversity programs in schools and universities; and, importantly for this essay, it should be seen in our political system. We balance our checkbooks; we measure income against expenses; we consider time spent on this project that cannot be spent on that; we ask ourselves, should we visit these grandchildren, or those? Should we exercise today, or should we sleep another hour? Every day we make hundreds of decisions, balancing outcomes.

Balance is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it suggests an even distribution, and as a verb, it means assessing opportunities equally. As children, we sought balance by playing our mothers against our fathers. At one point we are told to think with our heads, not our hearts; then we are told we are heartless, we should be more considerate. We balance work against pleasure, and family versus friends. As Mark Udall once said, “The balance between freedom and security is a delicate one” – for the sake of national safety, compromise needs be found. Balance means different things to different people, and we don’t always get the combination right. A policeman must balance the need for law enforcement against the rights of those she is charged to protect. Tolerance for Muslims must be weighed against the dangerous intolerance of Islamic extremists. In literature, there is a balance between life and art. P.G. Wodehouse balanced the brainy servant Jeeves against the mentally-challenged master Bertie Wooster. Dickens was aware of the good in society, but wrote about the evil beneath. It is a quest for an intangible that goes on throughout our lives. It may take years to determine whether we had decided correctly.  Other times, we know immediately. As we get older, balance means simply not falling.

Cultural habits and prejudices are hard to change; so balance may be forced upon us. In the school year 1970-71, only 9% of bachelor degrees were conferred on women. Today women represent more than 50% of undergraduate students, the result of a successful program to bring gender balance to higher education. Affirmative action has improved racial imbalances, but the same cannot be said about political philosophies among university students, administrators and teachers. Here we have become unbalanced. To have diversity in race, sex and religion, yet an imbalance in ideas cannot have been the original intent of Affirmative Action. The rise in political correctness – a fear of offending and an unwillingness to confront opposing ideas – has meant that universities have become more tribal than cosmopolitan. They provide “safe places” for those uncomfortable with ideas that challenge conventional thinking. Condemnation against “hateful” speech should be balanced against the right of free expression. The consequence of an imbalance in thought has been less independent students, and graduates who leave college with a sense of hubristic entitlement.

Liberal ideologies, originating in colleges and universities – incubators of future leaders – have drifted into society at large, as those who were students twenty and thirty years ago are now running government, banks, endowments and big businesses. They have become the arrogant “elite,” who may seem non-traditional in outward appearance, but who are conventional and unbalanced in thought.

The Founders were concerned about balance in government, which is why they endowed the three branches with different, but equal powers. However, over the years the Executive branch has assumed ever greater powers, threatening to undo that balance. While the Presidency itself has been in balance – in the seventy-one years since the end of World War II, Republicans have held the office 36 years and Democrats 35 – the Parties have skewed toward extremism, with Democrats far to the left and Republicans to the right. The arc of the pendulum keeps widening. The result has been a decline in party affiliation, and a concomitant increase in independents. A 2015 Pew Research Poll showed 39% of the electorate is independent, 32% Democrat and 23% Republican. In 1985, comparable numbers were 29%, 34% and 32%.

With political polarization has come vindictiveness. In Congress, trade-offs are things of the past. Recall President Obama’s response to Senator John McCain regarding his stimulus package in 2009: “I won. Deal with it.” Well the stimulus, as Mr. Obama admitted a couple of years later, “did not stimulate.” Wouldn’t everyone have been better off if concessions had been sought? Leaders should want everyone to have “skin in the game.” When they have none, they have little reason to make policy work. Would debate still rage if a single Republican had voted for the Affordable Care Act? Debate and bargaining used to be hallmarks of the Senate. Now public and political lives are under constant surveillance.

Lustitia, the Roman Goddess of justice, is the allegorical personification of the moral force of balance in our judicial system. She is pictured blind-folded, holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other. The sword is to defend justice. The scale contains evidence of the case, to be judged solely on their merits. Lustitia is blind as to who represents which side. Today, it appears the blindfold has been lifted. Consider the cases of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus: both careless in the handling of sensitive information, yet only one was punished.

The media has played a role in upsetting the balance. The reason is in part commercial. Bad news sells better than good. Conflict sells better than accord. Why report on a Congressional bill that has joint support, when one can headline the antics of dissension? Politicians claim common interests are greater than differences, yet words rarely translate into actions. The ubiquitous nature of social media has meant that party leaders do not want to be seen canoodling with the opposition. The Senate dining room, for example, is no longer a place where congressional leaders, representing differing political philosophies, mingle – someone might snap a “selfie!”

I agree with Barry Goldwater’s admonition that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, but we have lost political balance. That unhappy fact has many fathers: Politicians who see compartmentalization as a means to electoral success; the rise of a supercilious establishment; a media that thrives on dissension, not unity; and a ubiquitous social media that leaves little space for those of opposing opinions to find common ground. The loss of this balance has divided the country – not so much between the rich and the poor (those differences have always existed), but between those who are privileged to be part of a cultural elite, a condescending band of brothers and sisters who runs our nation: politically correct politicians, cronies in banking and business, educators, Hollywood and media types, and the rest of us. The consequence is an uncomfortable and unsustainable imbalance.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Month That Was - June 2016

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was – June, 2016

                                                                                                                                           July 5, 2016

“Summer is a promissory note signed in June,
Its long days spent and gone before you know it,
And due to be repaid next January.”
                                                                                                               Hal Borland (1900-1978)
                                                                                                               Author, journalist, naturalist

Two items dominated the news last month. One was the terrorist attack at the Pulse, a night club in Orlando. The second was the vote in the UK to exit the European Union. The former was one more episode in an on-going – yet undeclared – war by Jihadists; the latter is, perhaps, a precursor of change yet to come.

Islamists struck again. The Administration first tried to turn the attack into a “gun” incident. When that did not work, they made it a homophobic hate crime. The Pulse does cater to the LBGT crowd and it may well be that Omar Mateen singled out the club for that reason. Islamist extremists are homophobic, but they are also misogynistic and they hate anyone whose religion does not accord with theirs. Of course it was a “hate” crime. Hate is behind all killings. But ignoring the fact that Mr. Mateen was inspired by ISIS is a failure to address reality. In a line that might have been heard in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Attorney General Loretta Lynch expressed the Administration’s means of combatting Jihadism: “Our most effective response to terror and hatred is compassion, unity and love.” I’m in favor of all three, but I also know that Jihadists are an enemy that must be destroyed.

Showing the people to be sovereign, the British voted to exit the European Union. The vote surprised the establishment and proved too much for a media disdainful of those who take issue with their self-claimed wisdom. News reports were filled with dire predictions of financial markets collapsing, economies shuddering, and a rise in nationalism. As least one commentator compared the current scenario to the 1930s – others resurrected 2008. Uncertainty does breed nervousness, but critics overstate the consequences. Financial markets adjust to changing circumstances; economies muddle along, and the Brexit vote should be a wake-up call to a continent whose leaders’ isolation from and condescension toward the people had made them oblivious to a host of concerns: the encroachment of the administrative state; economies growing too slowly to support both the state and redistribution; and an open immigration policy that had let in large numbers of Islamists who threaten their culture and their lives.

The ideal of a United States of Europe is just that, an ideal. It is not the United States and never will be. Nationalist roots go deep in Europe. Language and traditions are embedded in local cultures. Keep in mind, these are countries that have fought one another over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In contrast, with the exception of African slaves, those who came to America deliberately chose to abandon their past, and become part of something new. Ours became a pluralistic society. In Europe, the attempt is to build a multicultural one – a far more difficult task. Can it be done? Perhaps. It should be remembered that a vote to leave the European Union should not be construed as a desire to disengage from the world. It is, rather, a decision to change one’s starting stance. Peaceful coexistence is the main goal. That is achieved when people respect differences, trade, communicate and visit. A common market serves everyone’s economic interests, while NATO plays the same role in defense. Is a political combination necessary? I’m not sure. Federalism has many attributes that a single, unified government does not possess.

The basic reason that the majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU, in my opinion, is that democracy in Europe has morphed into an administrative state, laden with bureaucrats who thrive on regulations. That trend also exists in the United States. When change is perfunctory, as it was, there is always risk. Nationalism may follow, or government could become a kakistocracy, but I suspect that risk is small. The real goal in Europe is stability, along with an affirmation of the values that have given Europe freedom and prosperity. Therein lies the real risk. Those liberties are an anathema to some recent Muslim immigrants who would impose Sharia law that would alter the Christian-Judeo culture that has served the cause of liberty so well. If the citizens of Europe could be assured that the laws that have brought freedom and prosperity would not be amended there would be less disquiet. It was not primarily nativism, xenophobia or Islamophobia that has caused the anxiety that led to Brexit. It was common sense, and a desire to leave unmolested a culture, laws and a system that have worked so well.

In the United States we are settling in for a long summer of having as our November options two reprobate Presidential candidates. One is a corrupt woman who has notoriously lied, has been accused of paranoia in working with those who serve her, and who has used the system to make herself and her family wealthy – a woman who as Secretary of State was, in part, responsible for the rise in Islamic terrorism and for deteriorating relations with former allies. The other is a master of invective, a businessman whose only experience in politics is as a lobbyist, who worked the system for his benefit. He is a man for whom the word “character” does not to fit. In both cases, negatives out-weigh positives. Abuse, slander and half-truths are their weapons, something that may entertain the electorate, but provide little of substance to voters.

The final Congressional report on Benghazi was issued. It produced no ‘smoking gun’ that Mrs. Clinton, thwarted the military from any attempts at a rescue. But the report also made clear that she deliberately lied as to the motive for the attack when she spoke publically, including comments made to the families at Andrew Air Force Base when bodies of the four men killed were returned to the U.S. Not reported in The New York Times was the fact that the minority report on Benghazi – a report allegedly without political bias – contains at least 23 references to Donald Trump! Why?

In a curious bit of beneficial timing for Hillary, on the morning of the day California, New Jersey and three other states held primaries, three news sources – CBS, AP and The New York Times – stated (falsely) that Mrs. Clinton had the necessary number of delegates to win the Democrat nomination. Sanders disappeared from the front pages. Eric Holder made the dubious announcement that, while Edward Snowden should be returned to the U.S. to face trial, he had performed a “public service.” Paul Ryan, without much enthusiasm, endorsed Donald Trump. Floods in West Virginia killed twenty-four. Fires in California burned 65,000 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes and killed two people. One week after the Orlando massacres, leaders of the Democratic Party in Florida allowed the anti-gay Imam Maulana Shafayat Mohamed to speak at their Leadership Blue Gala. Fear of offending Islamists won out over offending the LGBT community.  

Around the world, Islamic terrorism persisted. Including the attack in Istanbul at the end of June, but excluding Fallujah which was finally wrenched from ISIS control during the month, at least 1200 people were killed in June by Islamic terrorists. Nineteen Yazidi teenager girls were placed in iron cages by ISIS soldiers and burned to death. Their crime: refusing to become sex slaves. Not included in the numbers were the bodies of four hundred men and women, discovered in a mass grave in Fallujah, who had been executed by ISIS. The “religion of peace” persists in its demonic ways, unopposed in a serious way by the West where political correctness has become a religion – an impediment to even acknowledging our enemy.

Brexit rocked markets, at least temporarily. That was not a surprise. The bane of markets is uncertainty, and Brexit was a leap into the unknown. On the other hand, it is an opportunity if Britain’s new leaders seize it. The goal should be to increase the rate of economic growth, through empowering individual initiative, and ensuring that regulation is aimed at protecting consumers, not favored businesses. The fastest path to economic growth is to simplify regulation and taxes. All the “wise” people in government, media, academia and banking were expecting Britain to remain within the EU; so were pollsters and markets. When that didn’t happen, markets adjusted, but Armageddon never arrived. The British Pound did decline versus the U.S. Dollar from 1.46 to 1.32 (a 9.5% drop), but it had risen 2.8% in the three days before the vote. By months’ end, it closed at 1.33. (Keep in mind, the BP has not been a pillar of strength. Over the past two years, the Pound had declined 14.6% versus the Dollar, from 1.72 to 1.46.) On the other hand, the FTSE 100, which fell 5.6% in the two days following Brexit, rallied back to 6504.33, or 2.6% above where it had been the day before the vote. In the U.S., four days of volatile markets – two down, then two up – left stocks where they started, increasing commissions for brokers, but doing little for investors.

In other financial news, the U.S. jobs report for May showed a gain of 38,000 jobs, the worst showing in six years, and putting “stop” to the Fed’s plan to gradually raise interest rates. The (admittedly) volatile S&P GSCI commodity index rose 20% for the first six months of 2016 – a harbinger of future inflation? Exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act are proving too costly for some insurance companies. During the month United Health Care pulled out of California, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield exited Minnesota. Swiss voters overwhelmingly (77%) rejected the notion of a universal basic income plan – a concept gaining some traction in the U.S. from both the Left and the Right. A report out from the CATO Institute, quoting statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, showed that in 2014 total average federal wage compensation averaged 78% higher than that of the private sector – $119,934 versus $67,246.

“Hamilton” won eleven Tony’s. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalism – the organization that uncovered the “Panama Papers” – had its budget cut by its parent, the Center for Public Integrity. Were they getting too close to too many “important” people in global political capitals? Stephen Lynch (D – MA) disclosed that 72 people working for the Department of Homeland Security were listed on the U.S. terrorist watch list. London’s new Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced a ban on “racy” ads on the City’s public transportation system. The start of a less open society? The longest rail tunnel in the world (35.5 miles) opened under the Swiss Alps. The death rate in the U.S. rose for the first time in a decade. Bill Clinton met privately with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, despite the fact that Mrs. Clinton is under investigation by the Justice Department. Coincidentally, their private jets happened to be at the Phoenix airport at the same time. Their preposterous claim: They talked about grandchildren. A report from revealed that the number of non-Defense Department personnel authorized to make arrests and carry firearms (200,000) exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000).   

Hockey and basketball seasons finally came to an end, with the Pittsburg Penguins beating the San Jose Sharks to win the Stanley Cup, and with the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA playoffs over the Golden State Warriors.

Iconic figure, Mohammed Ali (born Cassius Clay) died during the month at age 74. My favorite photo, among the hundreds that were published at the time of his death, was the one of Ali dressed in hunter’s garb before the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Forman in Zaire in 1974. He is pictured giving a gentle punch to Rosie Schaap, the then three-year-old daughter of Dick Schaap – a wonderful image of a talented, but human and gentle man. On a more personal note, I lost a good friend when Gerald Walpin died in New York. Gerry, a lawyer and U.S. inspector general, was a friend and mentor to my writings. He represented all that is honorable and true, even standing up to the White House when he felt the necessity. Gerald Walpin was 84.

The summer solstice came and went, bringing with it a shortening of days, as we head into July.