Category Archives: Culture and Society

Empathy and Compassion

Ann Romney has multiple sclerosis and had cancer.  Rick Santorum‘s baby has a major disability.  Both need medical care that is very expensive.  Ann Romney, as the wife of a multi-millionaire, has access to all the care that she needs.  Rick Santorum, assuredly has health insurance and most likely the insurance he was given by the American people as US Senator to cover his child’s health care. We are told their stories over and over to humanize them and to make the “likable” because they suffer.

Yet, Ann Romney is married to a man ,who if elected, has promised to cut the healthcare that is offered under the Affordable Healthcare Act.  Rick Santorum, showed no compassion or empathy with people who do not have access to health care and have sick children.  Before the Affordable Healthcare Act, children with severe disabilities faced the lifetime cap that precluded them from getting anymore coverage.  Some of the children reached the cap at an early age. Compassion and empathy without a commitment to some form of social and economic justice is an empty sentiment.  A cheap Hallmark card.  An empty gesture.

When someone seeks compassion and empathy for themselves and shows no such compassion or care of people who suffer the same condition and have few resources then that is simple sadistic cruelty. Santorum used simplistic analogies of people “expecting free medication”  yet they buy and iPad for $900.  This is exactly the kind of “folksy” oversimplification that is used against people to dehumanize them and to take away a social sense of compassion and empathy for our fellow citizens.  Instead, they become a caricature.

These self same politicians and their wives, want us to see them as humans with real pain and suffering. When you make your life’s work the demonization of your fellow citizens and of the people of other nations, do not cry and beg for my compassion.  Do not try to pull my heartstrings.   So, Mrs. Romney, I do not care about your struggles until I see that you face the heartless policies of your husband.

As far as I am concerned, you are nothing more than the wife of a mobster, Carmella Soprano comes to mind.  You choose to be with that man.  You have free will.  Your struggles are artificial and deserve little of my attention.  I will save my compassion for those who are left out without care, without protection.

Mr. Santorum, your parents worked for the VA, the biggest national healthcare.  They paid for your healthcare as a child from generous public benefits.   If they were so capable, why did they not work out in the private sector?  You have been on the public teet your entire life and you go around scolding others as if you are some type of self-made man.   I know a scoundrel when I see one, and you are one.

To the Republican Party and particularly the Romney household.  Your personal narrative of suffering should be repressed and kept private.  If you follow your core values, your fellow citizens do not owe you one ounce of compassion.    


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Filed under American Politics, Culture and Society, Uncategorized

The Casey Anthony Trial

Medea (about to murder her children) by Eugène...

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, in the 102 degree heat, sitting on the easy chair with clicker in hand I took a tour of the TV nether lands.  An alien area where  people pick one crime, one incident, to re-enact all the social goo we love.  I would not be one to deny anyone their low brow entertainment, but there was something tragic and pathetic with the attention and the devotion to watching the trial.

I frankly know nothing of the case and the characters and do not care to find out. But, for sure, the accused has no chance.  The mobs outside have drawn and quartered her.  The TV announcer, in a sportscaster tone, spewed the highlights and the drama of the day in court.  If I was an alien from another planet, I would think this was the only murder of a child in America, ever.  Ninety percent of America fancies itself to be a forensic expert by merely watching some television shows such as CSI.  People across America are glued to this spectacle of  Roman Colosseum style justice.

Medeas have come and gone and they have alway grabbed our attention.  They offer one balm to the shallow thinker: ” Evil”.  A clear and true manifestation of all that is evil beyond the shadow of doubt, or argument.  It seems calming to offer up to the masses something they can all agree on:  an evil mother.  Annually about 1,400 children are killed/murdered, 60% of those deaths are committed by parents.  Yet, this woman is chosen for the drama.  This pathetic oddity who seems to have wanted to relieve herself from the burdens of parenthood.  So once again, we take our social problems and dilute them down to a melodramatic passion play.  A play that makes us feel superior and cleansed and united in a common social value system.

I am not making excuses for any parent who harms a child.  In fact, there are no excuses.  In the drama spectrum we have the Disney apotheosis of the orphaned child, the ultimate angel.  To the tragic cases such as this, the Medea, the mother that kills her child, the ultimate manifestation of evil.  As our moral compass is tested, time after time, we look for the easy black and white narratives to comfort us.  Our politicians have adopted this language of the grotesque to soothe our confused little brains.

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Filed under American Politics, Culture and Society, Media

In Desperate Times, Remember to Laugh and Sing.

I was out of the country for the week of the “shutting down the government”  fandango.  Times feel desperate and the people in charge do not appear to be capable.

The safety net is unraveling and some millionaires show common sense.  When Warren Buffet says:

But, what the fuck, listen to this song.

I still want to “unfuck it up”, but for a few days, I can just be gloomy.  Thank you Katie Goodman.


Filed under American Politics, Culture and Society

Austerity Double Standard

Greece was bad.  Consecutive Greek governments spent way beyond their means, we are told.  Greece was scolded and put in the corner by the prudent and thrifty leadership of the EU.   It was the public employees, yes.  It was the graft, yes.  It was the corruption, yes.  It was the culture, maybe.  It was that they are not as wise as the Europeans, define wisdom.  The list is endless.

One area that stayed under the radar was the military spending.  Here is a sweet little picture of the Greek military spending:

Greece’s serious financial troubles are going to affect their military spending. The highest in the European Union and second in NATO only to the United States, the Greeks spend 2.8% of their GDP on defense, compared to an average 1.7% in the other European NATO countries. Defense personnel account for 2.9% of the active population against an average 1.1% in other NATO member states.

One little graph from the Economist jumped at me today.  It seems the scolders were right at the table gorging with the guilty Greeks.  Look, Greece is Germany‘s number one customer.  France‘s number three.  Now that we put Greece on an austerity program, reigned in the pensioners, the universities, the hospitals and the sick, maybe we should see how the superior elders of the EU add to the problem.  Just maybe.

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Filed under Culture and Society, Media

Beware of Industry Experts

Our experts are failing us. In three global realms experts convinced us that things are under control. That they know better than us. They have the mathematical models, the scientific know how, the insider track, the intelligence. In all three areas they told us the outliers are not possible.  We were repeatedly told:  “We have modeled and planned for the possible outcomes and we got it under control“.  “Listen to us” , they told us,” we have studied and we have planned for the best outcomes“.

The first example is our global financial calamity. The experts, the financiers and bankers told us they hired all the mathematicians and physicists to model the possibilities. The formulas and the new liberal financial markets, will protect us from busts and keep us on a trajectory of booms.

Yet, my instincts, my experience was telling me the following:

  • American household incomes did not rise since 1978.
  • Household debt was on the rise.
  • All on the idea that property values would continue an upward trajectory.

For example, in Richmond, California a friend bought a house for $550, 000, no cash down. The story was that prices would rise and she could then have equity. I turned a few shades of green and red when she told me that she put herself into this mess. My instincts, and experience in housing told me that for each $100,000 of debt, a household will make payments in the range of $800 to $1,000 per month for debt, taxes and insurance. It’s a simple calculus that I gained from twenty plus years of designing affordable housing programs. At $550,000, she would need to pay out, just for housing, something in the range of $4,400 to $5,500 per month. Remember, these were variable rates, so you calculate for the highest possible interest.

So, my dear friend would need to be able to have a minimum of $52,800 per year to make her payments. Now, this does not include food, health insurance, car payments, repairs, entertainment, savings etc. In the old days, banks would say a family was safe if they spent in the range of 25% to 35% of their income towards housing costs.  Well that went out the window with the promise of ever rising values. Let’s be conservative and say that for a time, families can have a housing payment of 50% of their income. So, she would need an income of over $100,000 per year. The median income in Richmond is somewhere below $50,000. Meaning, at that price, hardly anyone in Richmond could afford a house at $550,000. The expectation that somehow the values would rise and there would be a market in the future, was basically a scam.  For the scam to have worked, incomes in Richmond would have to take a remarkable up turn.

At that rate, the population in Richmond would have to have a rise in incomes that was no possible under any of the economic realities of our time.  The financial experts never bothered to do this one simple calculation: Can people who live in that city where we make loans, buy these over leveraged houses in the future, or even now? Of course, the mathematical calculations told them it was a slam dunk.

Our second set of failed experts were the foreign policy experts and middle east experts.  For decades they collectively droned on and on about what happened in Egypt and Tunisia was not possible. People in those nations were passive; They told us “Arabs like the tyrants because they are stuck somewhere in the crusades, they are so far behind the rest of the world. Time has passed them by and they need to be tortured and oppressed because they will just want to take back the world and impose Islam.”

The story line was convenient and convenience is lazy. No one bothered to listen to the voices of Arabs from the various nations, they made up a story and kept telling it to each other. No one bothered to read. No one bothered to follow the demonstrations in Egypt for the last five years at least, or wonder, who is in the prisons. The same batch of recycled ex officials from Europe and the US perpetuated the narrative. When Edward Said accused the west of being Orientalist, meaning they made up a racist story and stuck to it, he was accused of being a radical and anti-Semite. It was in front of them, but first you did not think it within the capability of the Arab people to desire, demand and demonstrate for the human rights they deserve. The democracy that we purport to support with all the sub clauses that are tainted with racist and colonial overtones as to why we don’t think certain people can manage such rights.  You see, the underlying racist assumptions drowned the experts in the echo chamber of foreign policy talk.

Time after time, in nations where they convinced themselves that people were stuck in the crusades, people of all walks of life proved them wrong. All that the experts had to do is get out of their echo chambers.  All you have to do, is be curious.  Talk to some people.  Read their writings.  Go beyond the bubble of our own experts who are paid to project our self interests.

Finally, we have the nuclear experts and the offshore drilling experts. Look, they told us, these systems are safe. Your doomsday scenarios are just naive and sensationalist. In less than twelve months, the worst case scenarios happened in the Gulf of Mexico and in Japan. Two major industries are proving to us that when the worst happens–that small catastrophic possibility occurs– they are not equipped to manage the disaster. They really did not plan for the worst case.  When the catastrophe happens, they tell us to not panic, that it’s not the time to panic.

They pat, pat us on our heads and tell us not to worry our pretty heads, they are the industry scientists, the experts. They hold the wisdom and the tools for our safety. In truth, we have abdicated our welfare to a bunch of corporate, self serving interests. Sure, we close our eyes because we get a flow of electricity and energy that courses through our veins, so we nod and wink and buy the comfort that Daddy will take care of us.

Next time someone tells you ” I am an expert, let me do the worrying, I have it under control” run. Run fast. Run and engage your instincts, your critical thinking and your advantage of being outside whatever echo chamber of experts is patronizing you.   To rift on the Reagan right wing quote, if you hear ” I am an industry expert and I have come to help”, shut the doors, take cover and hide your wallet.  “We don’t understand the world as well as we think we do and tend to be fooled by false patterns, mistake luck for skills (the fooled by randomness effect), overestimate knowledge about rare events (Black Swans), as well as human understanding, something that has been getting worse with the increase in complexity”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

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Filed under American Politics, Culture and Society, Middle East, Uncategorized

Celebrating The Egyptian Revolution

In the past 18 days, I have followed the struggle of the Egyptian people.  My interest is beyond the casual observer.  I was born and raised in Egypt, although I am Greek/Lebanese, ethnically, my family felt  Egyptian, first.  I watched a peaceful, non-violent struggle against the old order of tyranny, patriarchy and darkness.  A struggle for a democratic and  just society.  A society that respects the human rights of every Egyptian.   I watched as Mubarak and Suleiman used every trick in the repertoire to break down the spirit of the Egyptian people: brute force,  fear, then divisiveness,  paternalism.  None worked .  The game book failed.  The Egyptian people wrote their own playbook.  It was time to remove the tyrants who replaced the old foreign colonials.

The Egyptian people through a non -violent, home-bred “balady”, no charismatic leader and non sectarian revolution, toppled the regime.  Desperate voices from the outside  kept asking Egyptians:  “Who do you want” ” Who are the leaders of the revolution?”.  One after one the Egyptian people kept saying:  “We will see when we start the process of Democracy.”  “When we have parties; when we have free press.”  “We will see when we have a legitimate electoral process, constitution and we have choices.”

The idea of Egyptians having choices has alarmed many  in the world:   “What if they make the wrong choices?”   This is where the hypocritical talk about enlightenment and democratic ideals fails.  How dare you ask such questions?  How dare you deserve an opinion?   It is the choice of the Egyptian people.  I heard an ex-American administration official giving advice on how we should influence the process for outcomes that are beneficial to American interests.  No, thank you.

Authoritarian states are not stable.

I hear rumblings from the American right, that if not for the Bush Iraq war and occupation may have incited the people of Egypt towards Democracy.  This type of thinking is on par with the Mubarak delusional thinking.   Iraq was just another part of authoritarianism.  Treating nations like children.  A policy steeped in violence, force and brutality.  Egypt was the polar opposite of what Iraq was and is in every form.

For now, the Egyptian people and the world need to celebrate the spirit and the strength of  the Egyptians and the Tunisians.

Who is next journalists  ask?  The answer is simple, the people of the various nations get to decide who is next.  Can the world really handle self- determination?

Just as the wall of fear fell in Egypt, I saw as many people around the world, and here in America particularly, realized the human face of the Islamic/Arabic enemy they have been slowly trained to fear.  18 days of seeing real Egyptian men, women and children.  Listening to Egyptian voices beyond the caricatures that we were fed for years, broke down the fear of the  demonized “Arabic Street”.  For the first time, we went beyond the simplistic binaries that separate us and Americans got a chance to feel the humanity of the other.  Now, how do we go to the next stage?   People got to hear the human aspirations of the Egyptian people and gosh darn it, they are not so foreign, or scary.  They are the same human desires and struggles.

Imagine how hard it will be for politicians to fool us if we break down the years of demonizing other human beings?   It’s not easy to choose to oppress and kill people if you see the humanity you share.

This song is by a wonderful young Egyptian singer, Hamza Namira.

( I found the videos via 3arabawy)


Filed under American Politics, Culture and Society, Media, Middle East

Global Lessons From The Egyptian Revolution

This video is disturbing.  As demonstrators walk peacefully, a police car smashes into them and drives on.  This is exactly the state sanctioned behavior that the Egyptian Revolution is trying to stop.

Many “political pundits” speak of the Arab street.  What they don’t tell you, is that of the many who look at the street from their balconies.  When my mother was young in Alexandria, in the 1920’s, she told me she would look from her balcony as truck loads of Egyptian day laborers heading west.  From time to time one, or two would fall off the truck.  When they did, the the boss, under the eye of the English overlord,  would come out with a whip, and beat the men who fell off.  This injustice, lived with my mother.  She was not political, but she knew injustice when she saw it.  She saw it from her balcony.

We are now in the year 2011, almost 100 years later, and the Egyptian people are still treated with the same inhumanity.  And still, Egyptians, watch from their balconies, the same injustices.

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions  are the battle for freedom, democracy and human rights.  A battle for breaking down the authoritarian  model of oppression.  We replaced colonialism with a model of new-liberal economics and we think that tyrants will eventually democratize their societies.   We imposed our financial demands, our market rules, but we have failed miserably to have the same expectation when it comes to civil society.  Humanity is not just a set of economic rules and transactions.  De-buckling economic models from social and civic standards is a formula for catastrophe.

We can all have cell phones, computers and televisions.  But, if we are not free to say, write and see different points of view, or question our society, they are useless toys reduced to mind numbing chatter.  We can educate entire nations, but we cannot keep them submissive and numb.

Our Neo Liberal economics stands as a place holder to perpetuate the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.  In truth, western societies did not advance because of the economic functions, they advanced because we had “Social Democracies”.  Democracies that nurtured civil society and the individual.  Social Democracies that did not just appear, social democracies that took a great deal of work to establish.

Tony Judt, in his last book, Ill Fares The Land, describes how we have placed a blind faith on the markets and we have allowed our values of Social Democracies to wither.  We have closed an eye to the most abhorrent violations of human rights in the name of economic gains.  Shame on us.  In fact, some are hell bent to regress from the core values of social democracies and just create states that are mere vehicles for commerce.

It is time, it is time that we look at the demands of the Egyptian people for self-determination, freedom, democracy and human rights.  The empty shell of exporting Neo Liberal free market economies as stand alones, corrupts everything and strengthens all the authoritarian tendencies of nations.  The Egyptian revolution is the next step to a true global culture.  A system that is not just free markets that help the few, a system entrenched in democratic values.  The young people are trying to smash this cloud of oppression.

The men from the balcony, in total frustration start screaming “sons of dogs”, ” sons of dogs”, then they go into the anti -Mubarak chants.  Do not be mistaken, that feeling of despair is starting to percolate here in America and in other parts of the west, we watch from day-to-day as our gains are taken away in the name of economic expediency.  My mother, could only tell me the story, these men could post it on You-tube using a cell phone camera.  Thank you for the tools, now, how do we keep the avenues open to use the tools for a purpose?

Time to stand up globally to all authoritarian practices that are justified in the name of economic gain and social stability.  Authoritarian thinking uses fear to keep nations and individuals passive.  Look at how fear is used to keep us from uniting and from standing up to those who brought the economic calamity?  As we feel weaker in our civil societies, yet the oligarchic interests are gaining power, we will fall into a state of entropy.  The Egyptian revolution and the young voices from Egypt are waking us up.  Telling us, there are values worth fighting for, values beyond fear and consumerism.


Filed under Culture and Society, Middle East