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Archive for January, 2010

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations and special interests can purchase as much campaign influence as they can afford… as can private citizens.  On the surface that sounds reasonable, but stop and consider how unequal that really makes the playing field.  We the People simply don’t have the nearly unlimited amounts of cash to try to match that available to corporate interests.  The net result of that is that political speech isn’t free but goes to the highest bidder because very few individuals can amass the cash needed to produce TV ads and then buy the air time.

The United States of American might as well be renamed The Corporate States of America.  I’m not surprised that the current court decided in favor of the corporations.  But I am bitterly disappointed.

Do read Ruth Marcus’ piece in the Washington Post.  She excoriates the justices on a number of fronts.  What fascinates me about the reaction to the ruling is the near glee of the very same conservatives who decry judicial activism when a decision isn’t to their liking.   This ruling is clearly an example of judicial activism in that it overturned both precedent and settled law — things that both Roberts and Alito claimed in their confirmation hearings to support.  And it turns on its head Chief Justice Roberts’ stated judicial philosophy of incrementalism — a preference for ruling narrowly whenever possible.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a staunch supporter of free speech.  But with rights come responsibility.   Yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater is not protected speech.  I wonder how the justices can justify that their ruling protects the free speech rights of individuals whose megaphones cannot possibly match those of corporations with deep pockets.  Sure, there are a few individuals who can, but there are hundreds of millions who cannot.  And what in the ruling is to stop a multi-national corporation, let alone a wholly foreign owned one, to purchase air time in an attempt to sway American voters?  This ruling seems to be a case of unintended consequences writ large.  Do the Justices not have the responsibility to consider the implications of their rulings?

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Last week, there was a discussion on this blog between me and Joshua Trevino, communications director for Chuck DeVore.  Our discussion might be characterized as mutual chastisement.

However, he did raise an important point — that it’s easy for well-meaning countries and individuals unintentionally to slide into paternalism.  Over the weekend I’ve been reading Greg Mortenson’s new book “Stones into Schools.”  If you’re not familiar with him, Greg is the founder of the Central Asia Institute, an NGO whose mission is building schools in rural villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  His organization was active rebuilding rural schools after the earthquake in Kashmir as well as building schools in the midst of a war zone.  While other aid organizations tended to concentrate their efforts in the larger towns, CAI followed their usual pattern of beginning at the end of the road and working back towards the towns and cities.

But the point I want to make is an important one that applies equally to Haiti.  CAI doesn’t assume they know the needs of the people.  They ask the elders and make a point to talk to the people and even the children.  During the earthquake in 2005, schools were among the buildings that often collapsed, and girls’ schools even more frequently than boy’s schools.  The casualty rates for children of school age frequently reached 50% in these rural areas.  CAI brought in tents so that the schools could begin operating again sooner than if they waited until new buildings could be constructed.  But the students didn’t return immediately.  He asked one of the children who had returned what was keeping the others away.  He expected to hear that they were too afraid, but the answer surprised him.  They wanted desks because desks meant that even though the school was in a tent, a desk represented a return to normalcy.  As soon as desks were provided, the children flocked back.

I still believe that we have a moral obligation to help Haiti recover.  An obligation that extends far beyond “treating the wounded and burying the dead.”  They were making great strides before the earthquake, but all that is gone.  However, we also have the obligation, as Trevino pointed out, to treat them with respect.  Both goals can be accomplished if we listen to the Haitians.  If we ask them what they need in the way of help and then provide that.

Too often USAID has assumed what people need.  In Granada, after we invaded there, USAID supplied air conditioning units.  These in a country that lacked reliable electrical power supplies and that relied on trade winds to provide natural cooling!  That is paternalism writ large.  Or perhaps it’s simply indicative of a sweetheart contract that, like so many others, were of more benefit to the donors than to the intended recipients.  One wonders who, if anyone, bothered asking the Grenadians what they needed in the way of development aid.

I’m not sure who the aid organizations talk to when the infrastructure and even the government has been shattered.  But I am convinced that we need to listen to what the Haitians think they need rather than assuming.  In my experience the old saw about assumptions making an ass of u and me has a great deal of truth to it.  And it’s the same idea the Steven Covey expresses when he says “First seek to understand, then to be understood.”  Haiti is in for a very long recovery.  I heard this evening that the Jubilee Project favors grants rather than loans.  That echoes my concern in a question to Joshua wondering just where Haiti is to find the capital to rebuild.  Since it took them generations to pay off the reparations the French imposed upon them when Haiti gained its independence, more IMF loans don’t seem to be a viable answer.  If you’re wondering where the Jubilee Project got its name, check out the concept of jubilee in the Bible.

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I’ve lived in California most of my life, so earthquakes are a fact of life.  We pride ourselves on our aplomb when one hits — in fact, a quake generally needs to be at least a 5.0 even to get our attention.  Additionally, I live where sonic booms rattle the windows on a regular basis.  I know the basics of preparedness, and I have a level of security in knowing that our buildings are designed to withstand all but the most severe of quakes.

But the extent of damage in Haiti is almost beyond comprehension.  That beleaguered nation’s minimal infrastructure has been decimated.  Following major quakes in other countries, we’ve seen heavy equipment arrive within hours to assist in rescuing people trapped in the rubble, and while there have frequently been hundreds and even thousands of deaths, there has been a sense that the possibility exists for rescues.  Here it is, with the first 48 hours nearly gone, and the arrival of the needed heavy equipment has been stalled.  The good news is that the cause is too much air traffic — too much help on the way.  But that doesn’t bring any comfort to the thousands of people who may still be alive under the rubble.

Americans and others have opened their hearts and their wallets, donating millions of dollars to relief efforts.  The United States has, to our credit, taken a lead role in coordinating the international efforts and has pledged an ongoing effort in helping Haiti recover.

But against that backdrop, a few noteworthy sour notes have been heard.  First came Pat Robertson’s pronouncement that, in effect, the Haitians deserved their present suffering.  The irony in Robertson’s comments is that the Louisiana Purchase was a direct consequence of the Haitians’ rebellion against their French slave masters.  I can’t help but feel some sympathy for Don Imus’ suggestion that it might be time to put the good reverend to sleep.

Not to be outdone, Rush Limbaugh showed his understanding of Christian compassion and charity for those in need by suggesting that President Obama’s rapid commitment of US assistance was done to cement his standing with people of color.  As if that weren’t bad enough, he then claimed that the relative pittance of foreign aid we send to Haiti in foreign aid via our taxes was more than enough and that people shouldn’t bother to donate any more.

Limbaugh’s compassion was echoed by the communications director for Chuck DeVore, a GOP candidate here in California who announced that our efforts (and that of the world community) should be limited to burying the dead and tending the wounded before beating a rapid departure.

These people are certainly entitled to their opinions.  They’re even entitled to communicate them via whatever means at their disposal to as many people as possible.  That doesn’t mean, however, that they should be unanswered.  We’ve just lived through an administration that came to power initially on the claim of being compassionate conservatives.  Compassion and charity are hallmark Christian activities  — as they are of most religions.  Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, for example.

If any readers are interested in showing the sort of compassion and charity that can help to relieve the suffering in Haiti, here are some opportunities:

  • American Red Cross — how simple they’re making donations!  Text Haiti to 90999 to donate $10.  The charge will show up on your next cell phone bill.
  • Similarly, Haitian-American musician has set up a relief fund.  To donate $5, text 501501.
  • Oxfam is also accepting donations.  Go to http://www.oxfam.org.uk.  Just be aware that the amount is in pounds sterling not dollars.
  • And here’s a link to long list of organizations accepting donations.

Give early and give often.  The need is staggering and will continue long after the initial rescue and recovery.  How about setting up an automatic contribution plan?

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