Ongoing budget cuts threaten research mission of university, political science a glaring example

Bobby Jindal has made cuts to higher education routine procedure in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Scott Olsen/Getty Images.

Bobby Jindal has made cuts to higher education routine procedure in Louisiana.
Photo courtesy of Scott Olsen/Getty Images.

Originally published 26 November 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

Note pads, a staple in offices around the country, were nearly a casualty of budget cuts for the political science department at the University of New Orleans.

The department’s financial situation is so precarious that it had to go over budget to buy this cheap necessity. If something as small (and inexpensive) as a piece of paper is not able to fit into the budget, then readers can begin to understand the predicament many departments at UNO are facing.

Cuts to funding for higher education in Louisiana are changing the way the University of New Orleans serves students, and the consequences are grim according to many current faculty and students.

A prime example of the troubles facing the university lies in the political science department. It has been directly affected by these budget cuts on multiple levels, particularly the department’s graduate program.

Many people Driftwood spoke with did not want to make comments on the record, but several former employees of the university were able to provide comments about the budget cuts.

In the past two years, budget cuts have been drastic. The 2012-2013 UNO budget was cut by $12 million. For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the state is providing $11 million less for higher education, which will further impact the financial stability of UNO. According to Jim Beam of the American Press in Lake Charles, the state funding for higher education was $1.4 billion for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, but now stands at $284.5 million for 2013-2014. This constitutes an 80 percent drop.

Bob Worth, the president of the Political Science Graduate Student Association and a Ph. D. candidate, has seen the damage caused by budget cuts. Most recently, graduate enhancement funds—which allow for students to receive tuition waivers and pursue research—have been under attack.

“Based on my experience and from what others have said, the suspension of graduate enhancement funds has been a big blow,” Worth recounted. “This, as far as I know, eliminates dissertation improvement grants for things like data, conducting surveys, etc., which limits the quality of the research we’re able to produce.”

Graduate enhancement funds are one of the strained lines tugged at by budget cuts. Their value, according to Worth, is priceless.

“These funds are crucial for attending conferences to present that research; I can think of several people, including myself, who cancelled plans to attend conferences this year because of the cuts,” he told Driftwood. “This harms the school in several ways: first, it limits students’ job prospects, and thus the visibility and prestige for UNO that comes from placing graduates in positions at prominent schools and think tanks; second, the less research we present to our colleagues, the less visible UNO’s graduate departments and research are in their respective fields. If we’re not engaging with the field at conferences, when people think political science research, they probably won’t think UNO. Finally, the loss of faculty has presented challenges in forming dissertation committees.”

Indeed, the loss of faculty has made the demands of a graduate program, like the one for political science, daunting. Many former political science faculty spoke to Driftwood through email, providing their perspective on the situation facing UNO.

Former Assistant Professor of Political Science at UNO, Matthew Jacobsmeier, who taught at UNO from 2008 to 2013 agreed that the budget cuts were pushing faculty away.

“I would almost certainly still be at UNO were it not for the repeated budget cuts and associated threats to the PhD program,” Jacobsmeier told Driftwood through email. “I am very happy in my new position at WVU, but I would not have sought the position if it weren’t for the [budget cut] issues. I had a lot of great students, I was proud to work at UNO, and I was sad to leave.”

Outside the political science department, the only other response for this article came from the dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Darrell Kruger. The other deans from the other colleges at UNO were contacted for comment, but none responded to an email from Driftwood.

“The take away from all this is very simple: the COEHD has too many different programs of study, with too few fulltime faculty to teach in those programs, with too few students spread across the plethora of programs,” Kruger explained. “That stretches faculty. It will eventually further erode the quality of programs. We have a charge from the administration to look at our local contexts using responsibility centered management (RCM) as a tool to make decisions locally about our program array. In the COEHD we have convened 3 hour-long, separate department meetings to look at longitudinal data for each of our programs and make some decisions as to program array and configuration of programs.”

In fact, according to Dr. Kruger, from the fall of 2005 to the fall of 2013, there has been a 60 percent decline of fulltime faculty within the COEHD. This major loss of faculty happened while student enrollment remained relatively the same over this time.

While this decline has occurred, Kruger also notes that the COEHD hired two new fulltime faculty members last year, and that they are currently in the process of hiring two more this year. He sees this as a positive development despite the state budget cuts.

Just as the COEHD has endured faculty loss and a lack of focus on which programs are vital, the graduate program of the political science department has suffered in this same vein. Former Assistant Professor of Political Science and Graduate Coordinator of the department, Daniel Lewis, assessed the situation facing UNO in much the same way as Kruger.

“A major factor in my decision to leave UNO was the continued erosion of support for academic programs and faculty across the board,” Lewis divulged. “Much of the decline of resources is obviously due to state political decisions by the legislature and the governor combined with the drastic changes to the student body following Katrina. However, the UNO administration consistently failed to strategically plan for these new realities.” Lewis noted that he had personal reasons for leaving UNO as well, but that the pairing of the two realities helped him make the choice.

The reality is that Louisiana has a Republican governor who has cut money for higher education consistently, following a trend from conservative politicians to enact austere budget cuts. According to many who spoke off the record, it is a widely known secret among faculty that the UNO administration has failed to accept this reality.

“When I arrived in 2008, it seemed that the administration assumed that the major cuts to the university had already been made and the university could continue on its pre-Katrina track towards reaching R-1 status as a major public urban research institution,” Lewis continued.

“However, the student body never came close to bouncing back to pre-Katrina levels, making the continuation of the wide variety [of] academic programs (especially graduate programs) very difficult. Instead of making strategic choices as to which programs to develop and support, and which to cut, the administration just continued to cut all programs across the board.”

This lack of strategic cuts is what set UNO up for the mess it finds itself in, and it is glaringly exemplified by the troubles of the political science department.

“We ran a PhD program, an MA program , and an MPA program with fewer than 10 faculty,” Lewis continued as he explained the effects of across the board cuts. “Other comparable doctoral departments have at least 15 to 20 faculty. This undermined the effectiveness of nearly all our programs as faculty were spread way too thin. The administration wanted to maintain these programs but was unwilling to dedicate the resources to it to make it effective. Indeed, they cut resources in critical areas (e.g., firing our only comparativist) and ignored the concerns of the faculty. In short, UNO was a highly unstable working environment that left its faculty and students with no ability to plan for the future.”

The aforementioned comparativist was Liz Stein, a former Assistant Professor of Political Science. Stein was told before the start of the 2012-2013 academic year that her contract would not be renewed, and she relayed the sentiment felt by many in the political science department.

“It’s completely demoralizing for faculty and students alike. There were constant threats we could be let go. They even talked about us having to provide our office supplies at one point. So it’s inevitably hard to keep junior faculty who are usually more mobile.”

Despite how demoralizing these cuts might be, the graduate programs for political science, public policy, and public administration have come up with a comprehensive restructuring plan, in hopes of keeping these programs alive. Stein points out that this is not the first time the program has had to rebuild in recent years.

“The department was rebuilding from Katrina when all this happened,” she continued. “We had a really good group of young faculty, in my opinion, who all got along with one another and whose work complemented one another. Had we been able to make a couple of hires over the next few years, we could have built up a decent program.”

And with these budget cuts came more responsibilities for a limited number of faculty. Added course loads and committee duties all contributed to less time for research to be completed by faculty members.

Losing faculty over the last several years has also led to a loss of talented students, according to Stein.

“It makes it hard to recruit good grad students or to retain them because we can’t fund them; faculty leave and so students also leave,” Stein made clear in her email to Driftwood. “Students also get delayed or rushed because they can’t get sufficient course offerings or for those who still retain us on their committees they have a 2-year window in which we’re still on the grad faculty. So I have students who should be applying for fieldwork, which would make them more competitive on the job market and more knowledgeable when they go to teach, but they’re too stressed out about finishing on time to do that.”

According to many who have left the political science department, lack of effective communication with the administration is a major impediment towards tackling the budget cut dilemma.

“I had very little interaction with the administration over the past few years,” Lewis remembered.

“The Dean would, from time to time, inform us of budget cuts, but there seemed to be very little consultation with the faculty—especially in trying to create long term plans for the programs. We were constantly in limbo trying to make the most of our resources while trying to plan for the next few years. In many ways it would have been easier for us to plan if the administration would just decide whether they wanted to really support the programs or cut them. Either way we could have then made real plans to shape our programs around the resources we did have and could count on in the future.”

As far as advice for how UNO can move forward, Lewis offered his assessment.

“The administration needs to accept the new reality of being 10,000 student institution with little state support and make a plan for how to best serve those 10,000 students for the foreseeable future,” he stated. “UNO will not be a 20,000 student high research institution anytime soon and pretending otherwise only hurts the current students and faculty.”

budget cuts 1

After snubbing Medicaid, Jindal and others silent on new research predicting failures

Originally published 30 October 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

Governor Bobby Jindal, along with twenty-five other Republican governors, has turned down the Medicaid expansion option of the Affordable Care Act. This will leave 242,150 Louisianians without any type of health coverage, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation entitled “The Coverage Gap: Uninsured Poor Adults in States that Do Not Expand Medicaid.” This decision will adversely affect an estimated 400,000 people according to multiple sources, including the Louisiana Budget Project.

In addition, the RAND Corporation has released a study—dubbed “The Affordable Care Act and Health Insurance Markets: Simulating the Effects of Regulation”—which finds that states which decline federal money for Medicaid face a rise in private health insurance premiums of 8 to 10 percent.

In order to see how this predicted rise in insurance premiums will affect companies, Driftwood contacted Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, one of the state’s largest health insurance providers. A phone call was made to their offices on October 14. After being given the email to John Maginnis, vice president of Corporate Communications, Driftwood contacted Mr. Maginnis’s office on October 18 to ask him how this predicted rise in insurance premiums would affect the Blue Cross marketplace. Mr. Maginnis never contacted Driftwood.

Without word on how this move will affect health insurance companies, Driftwood investigated how it will affect individual citizens and what Governor Jindal’s stance is in light of these two new studies.

According to an op-ed Governor Jindal wrote for The Times-Picayune on July 23, the philosophy behind this form of welfare is flawed, its cost is too high, and the estimated impact of not expanding Medicaid will not be devastating.

This new research, however, calls into question Jindal’s skepticism over Medicaid.

An email from Driftwood to the Governor’s office seeking comment on the RAND Corporation findings—highlighted in a Forbes article entitled “How Rick Perry’s And Bobby Jindal’s Medicaid Snubs Boost Private Insurance Costs”—was sent on September 24. This email received no reply.

After not receiving a response, Driftwood called the Governor’s office on October 4 and was redirected to Jordan Gleason, who works in the Governor’s press office. On October 7, an email from Driftwood to Mr. Gleason was sent, asking for the Governor’s comment. Once again, there was no response.

On October 21, Driftwood made an in-person attempt to speak to Mr. Gleason. At the Capitol building, the Governor’s secretary told the Driftwood reporter that Mr. Gleason was unavailable for the entire day. As of the date of this writing, the Governor’s office has not responded to Driftwood.

However, Governor Jindal did elaborate on his decision about Medicaid in his op-ed. Here are some of the specific criticisms he offered.

“First, as a general principle, we should not move people from private insurance onto government-run programs. It seems a matter of common sense that we should want to encourage self-sufficiency and target taxpayer spending only for those most in need. But Medicaid expansion would have moved up to 171,000 Louisianians off private insurance and stopped another 77,000 people from obtaining private insurance. To cover 214,000 low-income uninsured people in Louisiana, Obamacare would add more than twice that number—more than 450,000 people—to the Medicaid rolls. This makes no sense.”

The number of people receiving different forms of welfare is always a contentious issue between Republicans and Democrats, and Jindal’s decision remains consistent with the conservative consensus as expressed in his Times-Picayune op-ed piece.

There is, however, a reason that Medicaid rolls would increase. The number of people added to Medicaid would increase in order to prevent people from falling into a coverage gap. The new healthcare law would allow people with income up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to obtain Medicaid, because oftentimes they do not qualify for subsidies and cannot afford the cost of private insurance.

In addition to the philosophical differences on welfare’s recipients, Jindal also is consistent with the mainstream conservative view that welfare costs too much.

“Medicaid expansion could cost Louisiana taxpayers up to $1.7 billion over the first 10 years of implementation, and the cost will keep rising,” Jindal wrote in the same op-ed.

That figure, from a 2010 Mercer Government Health Services Consulting analysis, does not recognize that the bulk of the cost lies with the federal government, which would shoulder $25 billion over that time period.

Under the new healthcare law, Medicaid expansion will be paid for in full by the federal government until 2017, a change in the former Medicaid policy which shared the cost between the state and the federal government. After 2017, 95 percent of the cost of this revamped program will be covered by the federal government, and 90 percent starting in 2020.

Not only does Jindal believe the cost to be too high, he also sees a limited impact on the poor.

“There are better ways to improve health care outcomes for the uninsured and to do so in a more cost effective manner,” he went on to write in the July 23 op-ed. “In Louisiana, the remaining low income uninsured will be less than 6 percent.”

While Jindal places the number of uninsured at 6 percent, he does not attribute this number to a source.

The KFF study does not tally the total number of uninsured in Louisiana, but it does describe those who are uninsured in the coverage gap. According to the study, the number of uninsured nonelderly adults in Louisiana in the coverage gap as a result of not expanding Medicaid will be 34 percent. Among the poor, that number will be 87 percent.

Jindal also makes the case that Louisiana is “unique” when it comes to handling healthcare in the state.

“We have been operating a system of 10 state-owned charity hospitals that is now being transformed via public-private partnerships,” explains Jindal in his op-ed. “We are closing two hospitals, providing services instead in local privately run hospitals, and transferring the operations of seven other hospitals to the private sector. We are expanding services, for example offering level one trauma care in Baton Rouge for the first time and expanding outpatient services, while saving taxpayers millions of dollars.”

As some services at LSU Hospitals may be expanding, Jindal does not directly address the preventive care that Medicaid would help provide.

Driftwood also wanted to look into some of these claims, and the implied claim that not expanding Medicaid would not affect LSU Hospitals’ ability to care for the poor.

Driftwood placed a phone call to LSU Hospitals on October 11 and spoke to Doreen Brasseaux, the assistant vice president for public policy, who then followed up through email, writing, “you can contact Dr. Frank Opelka…to ask questions about the LSU Hospital Redesign. However, he will not be commenting on Medicaid Expansion.”

An email was sent to Dr. Frank Opelka, the LSU System Vice President, on October 14, drawing his attention to the article in Forbes. Dr. Opelka did not respond to this email.

Silence from state institutions was across the board.

Before contacting LSU Hospitals, Driftwood had emailed the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals on October 2 requesting comment and did not receive a response.

While Driftwood was unable to obtain comment directly about the LSU Hospitals functionality without Medicaid expansion, Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, did respond to email. In his email response to Driftwood, Moller wrote about the number of people who will be affected by this decision on Medicaid and provided clarity about the number of people that Medicaid expansion would help.

“Keep in mind that the people in this ‘gap’ population, who would be dropping their private plan, are poor by anyone’s definition,” Moller explained, referring to the 400,000 people who will feel the impact of not expanding Medicaid. “Most are employed. And the coverage they would be dropping is most likely either insufficient, expensive or both.”

Moller finds value in the inherent purpose of Medicaid, a differing voice to Jindal’s.

“I should also point out that—unlike what critics claim—giving Medicaid coverage to a low-income adult does not reduce their incentive to work,” Moller said in defense of Medicaid. “At least according to a double-blind research study [“The Impact of Medicaid on Labor Force Activity and Program Participation: Evidence from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment”] released this month.”

For all his criticisms of Medicaid expansion, Jindal does state that he believes in some form of security for the poor.

“We certainly need to provide a safety net for those truly in need and a helping hand to get folks back on their feet, but our policies should be focused on growing the economy not simply redistributing a shrinking pie,” Jindal wrote to Louisianians.

The idea of picking oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is a common refrain in conservative circles. However, economic research suggests that this is not a path to development and growth.

Jeffrey Sachs—one of the world’s leading economists, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Special Advisor to the U.N. Secretary-General—has described six areas of capital which leave the poor devastated and constantly mired in their condition. This is known as the “poverty trap,” and in order to escape from it, Sachs argues that the poor need a boost up on the “development ladder.” The six kinds of capital he vouches for are human capital, business capital, infrastructure, natural capital, public institutional capital, and knowledge capital.

In Sachs’ book The End of Poverty, he describes the human capital component as “health, nutrition, and skills needed for each person to be economically productive.” This, along with the studies from RAND Corp. and KFF, leaves open the question of whether embracing Medicaid expansion would be beneficial to Louisiana, and it casts serious doubt on many of Governor Jindal’s apprehensions.

Principles without actions are empty

Originally published 26 September 2013 in The Advocate, Baton Rouge (http://theadvocate.com/news/opinion/7085340-123/letter-principles-without-actions-are)

After the Rwandan genocide, the world said, “Never again.” Almost 20 years later, most people seem to have forgotten that promise in Syria.

Critics will say that we cannot solve every injustice in the world with our military. Nicholas Kristof rightly points out, however, that this is not “every injustice.” And let’s be clear: We have tried diplomacy for more than two years in Syria, and it will still be needed, but more than 100,000 dead, 5,000 people killed per month, and 2 million refugees demands action.

I understand the reluctance to use our military for fear of losing loved ones. I also understand the frustration that others in the international community have not stepped up. But these are not legitimate excuses for inaction. If we believe in the principles we espouse, we must protect others who cannot protect themselves. We cannot hide from the world like hobbits.

Many Americans forget how fortunate they are to live in the United States. The fact that one was born in the U.S. instead of some war-torn land is pure luck. The tables could easily be turned.

If we accept this randomness of the universe, we can then begin to accept our connection to everyone in this world. We are not simply American citizens; we are global citizens. Our duty is to help those in crisis.

Romeo Dallaire, the U.N. general in Rwanda during the genocide, wrote, “As soldiers we have been used to moving mountains to protect our own sovereignty from risks to our way of life. In the future we must be prepared to move beyond national self-interest to spend our resources and spill our blood for humanity. We have lived through centuries of enlightenment, reason, revolution, industrialization, and globalization. No matter how idealistic the aim sounds, this new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, religion and national self-interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe.”

In the spirit of that sentiment, I pose the question that Raphael Lemkin once asked: “If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 3,000 miles instead of a hundred?”

Lemkin’s question was on point. At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, 15 young boys were kidnapped by the secret police for spray-painting messages of revolution on a school building. When the fathers of these boys went to the police chief, he told them, “Forget that you have these kids. Go and make other ones.” Right now, these words may as well belong to us.

 

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/syria-behind-the-lines/

To understand and protect the home planet

Photo courtesy of Giff Johnson/AFP/Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Giff Johnson/AFP/Getty Images

Originally published 2 October 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

The mission statement of NASA once contained the phrase “to understand and protect the home planet” from 2002 to 2006. Dr. James Hansen, who has been a leading voice on climate change and a longtime NASA scientist, may have been the reason this line was removed.

Hansen had spoken out too many times on the effects of climate change, upsetting the balance of power between government and the multi-national corporations who profit from fossil fuels.

Neil deGrasse Tyson once jokingly commented that “All climate scientists should announce they’re going to take their entire life savings and invest in industries that will thrive under the conditions of global warming. All those in denial of global warming—which tends to be some of the wealthier people of the nation—won’t do that. As global warming unfolds, that will be the greatest inversion of wealth the world has ever seen.”

I won’t waste any time trying to explain the validity of the science which shows climate change is real (you can search “climate change” or “global warming” in any database and read through the overwhelming evidence). Only a confirmed blockhead could deny the facts at this point.

The focus must be on fixing man-made climate problems, and there are enough sensible people to take action on this global challenge.

I think.

At the United Nations this past week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued another definitive report detailing the “unequivocal” effects of global warming.

The IPCC report states that there is a 95 percent probability that human activity is responsible for warming on earth since 1950.

Thank goodness someone said it. This should be front page material of every major world newspaper until things begin to improve. The situation is that grave.

In places like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, sea level rise is already threatening to destroy homes and displace people. People living in south Louisiana have already gotten a taste of the effects of climate change. Looking at images from these Pacific island nations, they can literally see their future.

If policies on carbon dioxide emissions aren’t taken seriously by every government of the world, these dramatic changes will affect everyone, not just those on the coasts. We can’t ease up on our elected leaders just because our doomsday clock has yet to explode.

“The changes in these times won’t affect us all equally,” remarked Vicki Arroyo, Executive Director of the Georgetown Climate Center and New Orleans native, at a 2012 TED talk. “There are important distributional consequences, and they’re not what you always might think.”

Such distributional consequences are easily forgotten in a land of plenty such as the United States. The ability to recover (through FEMA and private wealth) from disasters is easier here in comparison to other parts of the world. For middle to upper-class Americans, having to relocate or build another home after a natural disaster precipitated by climate change doesn’t affect lives quite the same way as it does for those with lower socio-economic status.

“In New Orleans, the elderly and female-headed households were among the most vulnerable,” Arroyo continued, furthering her point by referencing Hurricane Katrina. “For those in vulnerable, low-lying nations, how do you put a dollar value on losing your country where your ancestors are buried? And where will your people go? And how will they cope in a foreign land? Will there be tensions over immigration, or conflicts over competition for limited resources? It’s already fueled conflicts in Chad and Darfur. Like it or not, ready or not, this is our future.”

With such testimony, you can begin to see how devastating climate change is for every continent. Commitments like the Majuro Declaration need to be standard for every country. It seeks to bind nations belonging to the Pacific Islands Forum to standards in emissions reduction, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy access. This is the level of support needed.

After reading the IPCC’s report last week, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, proclaimed, “The goal is to generate the political commitment to keep global temperature rise below the agreed 2-degree Celsius threshold.”

I sincerely hope that the leaders at the U.N. were listening. Even more, I hope they care enough to act.

Everything in this life is fleeting, but this doesn’t give humans the right to destroy the earth through reckless ignorance. Let’s elect people who understand science and will work with other world leaders to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and wean us from total fossil fuel reliance.

I know many of you love your hometown the way I love mine, New Orleans. We came close to losing the Crescent City in 2005, and I can only imagine the hopelessness of some island nations already being taken back by rising waters.

While I do not have children of my own, I know I will someday, and I love them enough already to take the warnings of scientists seriously. I want them to have a connection to somewhere they can call home and not have to worry about the threat of having to lose that connection, simply because we let global warming and climate change become political talking points rather than an understanding of facts.

Keep the pressure on politicians to take care of the earth.

If someone like Bobby Jindal pushes for creationism in schools or science contradicting global warming, as he has done with the Louisiana Science Education Act, vote him out.

If someone like Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma rails against global warming, citing a scientific study that in fact contradicts what he is saying, then vote him out.

In the cases where you are not in position to vote someone out of office, participate in the discourse by writing to newspapers or getting involved in grassroots campaigns to raise awareness of these issues. In this way, you can expand the minds of people who can vote them out.

Shout down the liars from their ivory towers, their castles of ignorance.

NASA may have abandoned the phrase “to understand and protect the home planet” from its mission statement in order to pander to multi-national corporations and government sycophants, but it doesn’t mean we have to do the same.

Understanding socialism

Originally published 3 October 2012 in The Daily Star, Hammond, LA

“A drunk audience is a magician’s best friend.”  Words of wisdom from “How i Met Your Mother.”  In today’s political circus, we could refine this to say, “An uninformed audience is a Republican’s best friend.”  Both slogans aim at the same thing: deception.

Republicans have the market cornered on deception.  These days, Mitt Romney is performing an old right-wing trick.  You may as well call him Professor Harold Hill, the flim-flam salesman from The Music Man.  Oh ya got trouble!  At least that’s what he tells us.  Romney’s sales trick is telling Americans to be afraid of redistribution and socialism.

It is time for the uninformed to become informed on this matter.  I’ll begin by introducing the brilliant ideas discussed by Tony Judt in his book Ill Fares The Land.  Judt describes the irrational fear associated with socialism and welfare.  Nowhere else in the world besides the United States does “socialism” illicit such fear.  Using it in conversation is like dropping a “brick” on the discussion; there is no hope to maintain any structure and direction in this dialogue.  The evils that have occurred under so-called “socialist” regimes this past century were not necessarily caused by the ideas of socialism, but rather the maladroit leadership using socialism as its sword and shield.  We must look in the mirror when making absolute statements about the follies of socialism.  Have not worse crimes (colonialism, slavery) been executed by self-described capitalists?

Even if a careful examination of the idea of socialism versus its history doesn’t convince you, let me put it another way.  We do not have socialism in this country.  What exists (to some extent) can be called “social democracy.”

As Judt describes it, here’s the difference between the two:

“Socialism was about transformative change: the displacement of capitalism with a successor regime based on an entirely different system of production and ownership.  Social democracy, in contrast, was a compromise: it implied the acceptance of capitalism—and parliamentary democracy—as the framework within which the hitherto neglected interests of large sections of the population would now be addressed.”

Doesn’t sound too bad to me.  Filling in for the shortcomings of capitalism (of which there are many) and helping provide basic needs.

Remember, we are talking about basic needs.  Human rights.  Healthcare, housing, food; you know, the things it takes to live.  Our society should be able to provide these things.  Paul Krugman mentions in his book End This Depression Now! that from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% in the US had its income increase by 277.5%.  Does this sound like a group of people who would really be hurt by being asked to pay a little bit more in taxes that contribute towards the common welfare of society?  To help ensure that basic human rights are met in the 21st century?

So ask yourself, will you join uninformed masses who shout “Trouble, trouble, trouble!” along with Professor Harold Hill Romney? Or can we move ourselves towards an enlightened understanding of reality?  Society is not a gated community or a country club.  It is a place we must all inhabit and to which all must contribute.

State department, president took right course: an account of the days following Benghazi

Originally published 15 September 2012 in The Times-Picayune, New Orleans (http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2012/09/state_department_president_too.html), and 2 October 2012 in The Advocate, Baton Rouge

The assassination of a U.S. ambassador is cause for great concern. Certainly, it should elicit recognition of the heroic work of diplomats and Foreign Service officers, individuals who are unheralded and forgotten in our hyper-masculine society. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, this sickening act should “shock the conscience of people of all faiths around the world.” Or how about, simply, a solemn response after this tragedy?

Cue the Romney rancor.

Mitt Romney broke his political cease-fire from campaign potshots on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. He criticized President Obama for supposedly apologizing for “American values.” From day one in the White House, President Obama has led a foreign policy that seeks to engage countries using diplomacy, to build bridges where differences may exist and to employ the resources of the United Nations and NATO. Moderates and undecided voters, take notice.

Mr. Romney would like to take us away from such noble goals. He would prefer to go back to the blowhard, hawkish days of George W. Bush, when the United States made enemies worldwide with its blundering foreign policy.

The fact of the matter is the State Department has made all the correct statements. It was the right thing to condemn the ill-conceived video meant to incite Muslims. This statement was made before protesters stormed the embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi. Soon after, the situation turned violent. Not a single person in the State Department or in the White House sympathized with those who committed crimes (details are still emerging as to whether this was a planned attack using the protests as a guise).

By making statements to the contrary, Mr. Romney has added gas to the fire, and he has shown no respect to those who died serving their country.

President Obama is not perfect in his decisions on foreign policy, but his philosophy is vastly superior to Mr. Romney’s Wild-West lunacy. To my heroes who perform the diplomatic work of our country and to the recently departed, I give you these words from Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Intervention now for Syria

Originally published 28 February 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

Ibrahim Qashoush, a well-known singer in Syria, was kidnapped by Syria’s secret police on his way to work in July 2011.  He was found dead in the Orontes River a few days later; his throat and vocal cords were ripped out, leaving a gaping hole in his neck and his head dangling precariously.  Qashoush had popularized the anthem of anti-Assad protestors which said, “Screw you, Bashar, and screw those who salute you.  Come on, Bashar, time to leave!”  His heinous murder was intended to send a message to protestors that their voices would be silenced and that the regime would stop at nothing to crush insurrection.

Two years later, the message Bashar al-Assad hoped to send to Syrians with the murder of Qashoush has only emboldened the Syrian rebels.  As of mid-February 2013, the death toll in the Syrian civil war stands around 70,000 according the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Put another way, this is tantamount to 9/11 happening twenty-three times.

Shamefully, no one really seems to care.

What happened to those Kony 2012 enthusiasts?  Was their taste for human rights justice as ephemeral as any passing fad?  When the public suddenly became aware of Joseph Kony and his band of crusading charlatans last year, they had already been largely decimated and contained.  Present before us is an opportunity for action.  This time the crisis is only getting worse and the situation is not contained.

What are we doing about it?

We know that the U.N. Security Council has failed to act on the Syrian crisis due to Russian and Chinese vetoes.  However, this should not stop the international community from helping the Syrian people.  Instead of using Chapter VII UN authorization, we can build a coalition of willing countries.  The United States, France, and Great Britain should take the lead due to their status on the Security Council.  The Friends of Syria Group has amassed over ninety countries, and many of these countries can help militarily.  This newly formed coalition should seek NATO military authorization under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.  Turkey has been attacked by Syria during this conflict, and since Turkey is a NATO member, a military response is justified.

Allowing Assad to continue killing his own people is a betrayal of humanity, because the world is capable of stopping him.  The Free Syrian Army simply needs the playing field to be leveled.  Massacres by government forces in Homs, Houla, Hama, and all across Syria have shown the barbarity of this regime.  Assad cannot hide behind claims of sovereignty any longer; sovereignty has been forfeited.  Kofi Annan once remarked, “The [UN] Charter protects the sovereignty of peoples.  It was never meant as a license for governments to trample on human rights and human dignity.  Sovereignty implies responsibility, not just power.”  With a level playing field, Syrians will be able to determine their own destiny.

The world does not need to wait any longer to help Syrians from being massacred.  The Nuremberg Military Tribunal validated the principle of universal jurisdiction, and the US Tribunal in the Einsatzgruppen Case–held before the NMT–gave clear reasoning to this principle: “[T]he inalienable and fundamental rights of common man need not lack for a court […].  Humanity can assert itself by law.  It has taken on the role of authority […]. Those who are indicted […] are answering to humanity itself, humanity which has no political boundaries and no geographical limitations.”

Let us not sit idly any longer.  We are only limited by our convictions, not by our capabilities.  Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word “genocide,” once remarked, “If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help?  Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 3,000 miles instead of a hundred?”

Lemkin asked the right question.  Something has to change in the hearts of people who do not see such atrocities as the ones occurring in Syria.  At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the secret police kidnapped fifteen young boys who spray-painted messages of revolution on a school building.  When the fathers of these boys went to find out what had happened to their children, the police chief said, “Forget that you have these kids.  Go and make other ones.”

With our silence, our detachment, and our inaction, are we saying the same thing?

Rape and patriarchy: time for a new paradigm

Originally published 21 February 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

Two recent rapes in early February 2013 highlight the tragic way in which many in society frame the discussion about rape.  In trying to understand why rape occurs, there exists a group of people who tell the story this way: the woman puts herself in compromising situations, and an adjustment to her behavior or way of life can help avoid rape.  It’s what I would call the “blame the victim” paradigm.

Time for some paradigm push back.

Let’s lay out the basics of what happened in these two particular rapes.  In New Orleans, a woman was kidnapped, robbed, and raped by three teenage men as she was making her way home in the Garden District.  In Cairo, Egypt, a woman was raped while participating in a political protest in Tahrir Square.  A mob of men surrounded the Egyptian woman, making escape or help impossible, and the entire episode was captured on camera in horrifying fashion.

According to those participating in the “blame the victim” paradigm, the New Orleans woman should have known better than to try and walk from her car to her house without a man accompanying her, and that the unsafe neighborhood she lives in made her rape inevitable.  Those same critics make the argument that the woman in Cairo should have avoided political protests, because they are inherently too dangerous for women.

My head hurts just describing this absurd logic.

Such critics are part of the sad lot who suffer under the delusions of patriarchy.  Can women do things to help protect themselves from dangerous situations?  Sure.  There are precautions they can take, just as we all can take precautions from danger.  The better question is why are women disparaged for their choices while men are not?

The answer is clear: male privilege.  It is a symptom of patriarchy, and it emboldens the critics who cast dispersions on the victims of rape.  Some arrogant men see it as their birthright to create the order of society and to tell women their limits.  Oddly enough, there are women whose opinions match their privileged male counterparts, seemingly because they have been socialized in a home or an environment which accepts male dominance.

A woman should not have to live in a world confined by patriarchal shackles.  She should not have to live in fear her whole life, making decisions based on a paranoid methodology of avoiding danger at every turn.  In fact, no one should have to live this way.  Should the woman in New Orleans choose to remain in her neighborhood, I would call that courage.  If the woman in Egypt continues her political activism in the streets, this too is courageous.  Already, these women are stronger, more fearless, and more alive than the people who blame them for being raped.

For too long, blaming the victim for rape has helped keep women in the shadows.  But a shadow hides beauty.  Such a life cast in darkness cannot radiate and touch others.  Having the courage to make a choice about one’s own life, whether it be deciding where to live or engaging in political protest, is indeed a beautiful act.  These are the acts of courage that deserve to shine in the sun and to escape the shadows.

Light up the world, ladies.  Light it up.

Gay rights, a road less traveled in Russia

Originally published 7 February 2013 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

Barack Obama recently delivered his second inaugural address, and perhaps the most historic moments came when he referred to the struggle for equal rights for gay people.

He proclaimed, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

We are witnesses to a more enlightened and reasoned form of governance, one where our President embraces a third generation of human rights—a developing international norm which seeks to protect minority rights.  I would like to emphasize that this is a developing norm, because sadly there are many miles still to go not just at home but also abroad.

Consider the current climate for the LGBT community in Russia.  In late January of 2013, the lower house of parliament in Russia (known as the Duma) passed a draft of a law which seeks to ban “gay propaganda” throughout Russia.  The vote passed with astounding ease, with 388 votes in favor, one vote against and one abstention.  This law would make the “promotion of gay events” a crime.  Essentially, it would eliminate gay rights marches, as well as pro-gay television and radio programs.

One member of the Duma, Dmitry Sablin, defended the vote, saying, “We live in Russia, not Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Take a moment to pick your jaw up from the ground.

Yes, people still use this rhetoric, and there are many countries with worse levels of tolerance towards LGBT individuals (see: multitudes of countries in Africa and Asia).  But, this is still a sickening movement taking place in Russia.

The only member of this house of parliament with any courage appears to be Sergei Kuzin.  He is the one member of the Duma to vote against the measure and to debate it in front of his homophobic colleagues.  This is the kind of courage the world needs.  As Russia’s government regresses on issues of tolerance, an individual like Kuzin offers hope.

The world needs more “Kuzins,” brave people who will speak out against injustice and bigotry despite vicious backlash.

President Obama said it best: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Your rights and freedoms are only as valuable as your neighbor’s.  The third generation of human rights is real and it is emerging no matter how loud the ignorance of bigots becomes.  There are troubled times ahead in our own country concerning the rights of the LGBT community.  When it is time to choose a path, I hope you remember Sergei Kuzin’s defiance, and remember as well the parting words of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken:”

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The value and relevance of gay rights

Originally published 1  August 2012 in the University of New Orleans Driftwood

The right-wing has truly mastered the arts of deception, bullying, and ignorance.  Consider two recent posts from my Facebook “friends.”  The first wrote “Unemployment above 8%, 47 million on welfare and our concern today from liberals is about a restaurant owner who thinks gays can’t get married!  Worry about more important things!”  He went on to write that we liberals that “protesters should be beat” and that “a good ass whooping will shut someone up!”  The second “friend” wrote that she was “representin!” at Chick-Fil-A’s Appreciation Day on August 1, 2012.

To address the first fallacy, it is very possible to be concerned about the economy and gay rights at the same time.  Crazy, I know.  In fact, as a liberal, I’m quite concerned about the economy; I’m especially concerned about how Republicans have obstructed anything from getting done in Congress since their takeover of the House in 2010 (led by the “Young Guns”).  At the same time, I am concerned about gay rights, because they are in fact human rights.

The idea that we should just “worry about more important things” is meant to misdirect the discourse, and it minimizes the value of human rights violations.  These are rights that are universal.  Ergo, LGBT rights are unequivocally and inalienably the possession of humankind, no matter what the cultural values of a nation are thought to be.

Those that would deny something so quintessential to a person’s happiness such as marriage on the grounds of religion are completely misguided.  Excusing your bigotry by claiming some religious exemption does not make you any less of a bigot.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16 states, “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.”  We should acknowledge and fulfill the promise of this Declaration.

Concerning the second ignorant remark from a Facebook “friend,” exactly what is it that you consider yourself to be representing? Your homophobia? Your intolerance?  Your straightness? How courageous of you to “come out” hetero.  Allow me to wipe off the gilded throne passed down to you from historical injustice.

Though I am a heterosexual, I do in fact have gay pride.  I am proud of all my gay friends and thankful for the blessing of coming to know their spirits.  I consider it a gift of grace.  So I say to the reader, it is time for more civil disobedience, more protests, and a renewed sense of purpose.

My Facebook “friend” believes protestors should be beat up.  Well, if this happens, the Right will be showing its true colors.  Stand tall, members of the gay community.  Despite the bigotry which festers under the snakes and charlatans controlling the Right, there are millions of heterosexuals who support you and accept you as you are, a beautiful human being.  Love will triumph over homophobia in the end.  The times, they are a-changin’.