The Big Picture
2015 was a year that epitomizes the epic human struggle between evil and good. Syria, refugee migration, anti-immigration backlash, ISIS, Paris, San Bernardino. The headlines screamed terror and death, so the people ran in fear and panic. The stampede of refugees from war-torn areas of the Middle East and Africa set off more panic among those asked to receive the flood in Europe and North America. The world became so unstable that the Pope referred to the situation as “piecemeal World War 3.” For every act of terror/mass shooting, there were the inevitable recriminations – both sides blaming the other and nothing ever being done to address the root causes. The global economy weakened, the recovery looking a little long in the tooth and everyone speculating on how long the good times could last (and who said these times are good anyway?). Pop culture reflected our angst. The two biggest movies of the year were Avengers and Star Wars, both paeans to war.
The world withstood a troubling year. Creeping civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. killed thousands, mostly civilians caught in the crossfire, and prompted millions more to flee. The flood of migrants hit the shores of Europe, creating massive social problems there. The spread of ISIS and other radical Islamists alarmed the West, bringing the U.S. back into combat in Iraq. Tragically, the terrorists visited horror on the streets of Paris and many other places. The response has been angry and punitive, but the problem is not going away. Indeed, overreaction only encourages more aggression.
On a brighter note, 200 nations came together to sign a landmark agreement to tackle climate change, signaling a ray of hope for the future of the planet. Now, we’ll see if these nations live up to the promises they have made. The Iran nuclear deal will forestall another nuclear power in the Middle East, at least for now. The world will be watching both agreements closely.
The presidential election in the U.S. starts two years early these days, so we are fully engaged by now. It has been quite a contrast to watch the two parties this time around. The Democrats have had a mostly polite debate about social and economic policy and strategy to deal with the world’s problems. Bernie Sanders has tugged Hillary Clinton to the left. They now agree on about 90 percent of the policies needed to rebuild the middle class in the U.S. The Republicans have had a slugfest of 17 candidates trying to outshout each other in order to be heard above the din created by Donald Trump. The rhetoric has been inflammatory, inciting fear and hatred among the party faithful. They have fingered plenty of people to blame for our problems, from Mexicans to Muslims, but offer few concrete ideas on how to fix them, besides building huge walls and starting another unfunded war or two. Hating all forms of government, hard right White supremacists are screaming for blood. Just in time for Christmas, they have a new motto: “Death on Earth; Ill Will to All.” Ironically, it is ISIS’ motto too.
For those having trouble keeping track of 20 candidates, you can forget the personalities running for U.S. President. The real contest is between two fundamental forces of human nature: Fear and Anger versus Hope and Compassion. The contrast could not be more obvious, the choice more clear. We shall see which side of our nature Americans choose. For me, hope trumps fear. Yes, I fear being gunned down in public, like most Americans do, but I also fear my car being broadsided and my airplane crashing and my doctor telling me I have inoperable cancer. Yet, despite all those fears, I still drive and fly and live my life with the hope that tomorrow will bring a better day. And if tomorrow does not come for me, I’m OK with that too, knowing I have lived life to the fullest. As Franklin Roosevelt taught us in the darkest days of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Economy & Business
After six straight years of impressive gains, the stock market took 2015 off, leaving investors about where they started the year. Although China and Europe experienced slowing growth, the U.S. economy managed to eke out modest 2% growth. That’s barely enough to keep things afloat, although the Federal Reserve saw enough strength to start raising interest rates at the end of the year. Still, a sense of foreboding overshadowed the global economy as we all await what’s next and contemplate the possibility of an end to the bull market and a return to recession, or even worse, another financial crash.
One area of growth was in the so-called “gig” or “sharing” economy. This new phenomenon, spurred by mobile technology, is most obvious in ride-sharing services like Uber and temporary rental companies like Airbnb. Both promise part-time income to those who don’t mind using their own vehicles and homes. Much has been written and debated about whether this trend is a positive or negative. On the one hand, enthusiasts tout the freedom the gig economy provides to “independent contractors” who set their own working hours and often earn better than minimum wage. On the other hand, critics point out that being independent means receiving no benefits, having no job security and having to provide your own “tools of the trade,” including using your own car and house and being responsible for their maintenance. I’m sure earning a little income on the side is a nice benefit to those looking for part-time, flexible work, but I also seriously doubt that anyone back in elementary school dreamed about growing up so they could drive strangers around in their own car or rent out a spare bedroom to total strangers. It strikes me as the “desperation economy.” The main problem with the gig economy is that the big bucks go to the company owners and investors who run these enterprises, while little trickles down to the freelancers doing the work, at their own expense. And we wonder why we see widening income inequality?
Society & Culture
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the controversy surrounding gay marriage and surprisingly decided in favor of progress for a change. They noted that barring same sex couples from marrying and more importantly, enjoying all the legal rights bestowed on married couples, was a clear case of discrimination and unequal protection under the law. In most states, the news was met with little public display, but in backwoods Kentucky, it was viewed as an abomination, a local county clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples until held in contempt of court.
Policing the Poor
The Black Lives Matter movement continued its aggressive tactics of confronting police shootings of unarmed blacks and other minorities. In Baltimore, things turned ugly after the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after being forcefully arrested for a “crime” for which he was never charged. Nearly every day, a new case of police shooting appeared on the news. In fact, on average, the police killed one person every day in 2015 and wounded two more every day. With the growth of video cameras, more of these killings are captured and broadcast for the world to see. As the nation witnessed more acts of violence, including an average of one mass shooting per day, we have to ask ourselves what kind of country resorts to criminalizing nearly every form of human behavior and relies almost exclusively on the police to solve social problems like poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and domestic violence. There is a name for societies that criminalize human behavior and imprison large segments of their population – they are called police states.
One of the most puzzling social phenomena is the choice of some young Muslims to throw their life away in service of an ideology that wants to drag the world back to the eighth century. Why would anyone choose a suicide mission on behalf of such a reactionary philosophy over the possibility of living a long life and pursuing their dreams? Terrorism experts have offered their opinions about the allure of jihadists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but few have provided convincing evidence of how the process of radicalization works.
Having been raised as a child in an evangelical cult and then later, becoming radicalized in college, I have some personal insight on how radicalization actually works. The key is to get people to stop thinking rationally for themselves and instead convince them that they should follow the dogma of others without question. It starts with discontent, finding something about one’s existence or the state of the world that causes personal disillusionment and anger. For me back in the 1960s, it was the twin evils of segregation and the Vietnam War. I became deeply disillusioned with my government’s conduct of the war and reluctance to confront racism and decided that I needed to take personal action. I found others on the left that shared my views and ultimately convinced me to stop thinking for myself and follow the party line. It was only after I spent time in jail for my activism that I realized I was just being used as cannon fodder in a conflict that would never end.
For modern-day jihadists, the spur of discontent usually starts with the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the perceived mistreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been further exacerbated by the U.S. invasions of Muslim nations and the total breakdown of civil societies in Iraq and Syria, replaced by ancient tribal and ethnic rivalries resurfacing in the vacuum left by the collapse of national governments. The young would-be jihadists are taught that the U.S. is the evil Satan, bent on destroying Islam and killing Muslims all over the world. Having stirred up their anger to the point of action, the leaders of radical movements then go on to the next stage – indoctrinating their disciples in the dogma of their severe version of the faith, brainwashing them into thinking that the best thing they could possibly do is become a martyr for the cause. They are promised eternal life if they prematurely end their physical life in an act of violence intended to inflict as many casualties as possible. At some point, the radicalized choose death over life and carry out their suicide missions with mechanical efficiency. In their brief moment of fame, they gain more notoriety than their miserable existences could ever hope to deliver in a lifetime. In their minds, they go out in a blaze of glory instead of slowly expiring in a dreary, dead-end life going nowhere. Trade unionists used to call this belief in deferred rewards in the afterlife as “pie in the sky when you die.” Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses,” designed to placate working people with promises of a fabulous after-life and keep them from rebelling against the wealthy.
The fact that religious devotees are the targets of radicalization is not coincidence. Religion requires a suspension of logic and a leap of faith. Organized religions rely on “wise men” to interpret the orthodoxy for their followers, be they imams, pontiffs, pastors, monks or rabbis. These individuals wield enormous influence and mind control. When they preach a religion of hate, their followers are inspired to commit acts of hate. Every religion can point to verses in its holy book that justify hatred and bigotry toward others. If you don’t like gays or blacks or Jews or fill-in-the-blank with your favorite scapegoat, there’s a verse somewhere in your holy book that validates your belief. Magically, you are not a racist; you are simply exercising your religious freedom. It doesn’t take much to extend this rationalization to cover massacring your enemies in the name of your version of an Almighty.
If we hope to stop terrorism, we must confront its root causes rather than react to the aftermath of the attacks. We must address the disillusionment of young people who see no future for themselves and the discontent with the political status quo that propels people to act violently. We must address the appeal of jihad, pointing out the fallacy of committing suicide for a reactionary theology whose aim is to make the world a worse place for people, allowing a theocratic elite to run roughshod over personal freedom and human dignity while they enrich themselves from others’ labor. We must confront the radicals directly on the battlefield when all else fails, but we must do so in a way that isolates the radicals and does not drive even more Muslims into the arms of the jihadists. Killing thousands of Muslim civilians in carpet-bombing retribution for attacks on the West only worsens the problem and feeds the narrative that the Muslim and Christian worlds are at war.
Finally, we must confront our own society’s fascination with violence and guns and ask ourselves whether any citizen outside law enforcement really needs to own a military assault weapon. Easy access to these weapons of war enabled two extremists to kill 14 people and injure another 21 in a matter of minutes. What are the legal owners of these weapons planning to do with them? They are not used in hunting and are overkill as a means of self-defense. Those who claim the only way to ensure safety is to put a gun into everyone’s hands would do well to study the history of Tombstone, Arizona, a 19th century lawless mining town where everyone was armed. The famous cemetery recorded 350 homicides for every death by natural causes. And they were only using six-shooters in those days. Modern military assault weapons have only one purpose – to kill human life quickly and efficiently. It’s time we limited them to their original purpose – the field of battle – and limited access to those who truly need them.
Unlike the rest of the world, I had a banner year devoid of drama. I count my blessings for good health, steady work, abundant friends and loving family. My mom lives with me most of the year, having grown allergic to Rochester’s icy winters. Both Vince and Steven are in college, working on their futures. Steven got married this year to Abby and daughter Jade is a delightful toddler who is lapping up the world around her with amazing alacrity. My two rock steady clients – So Cal Edison and ANSI – kept me fully employed. I still found time to take on a few side gigs, including trips to Bangladesh, India, Egypt and United Arab Emirates. Tania and I enjoyed two trips to Dubai. I also got to visit several U.S. states, including: Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland and Virginia. I fulfilled one of my bucket list items when I got to play Pebble Beach Golf Course.
We had plenty to cheer and to jeer in 2015. Here are a few of my favorite things to remember.
To Ebullient Parisians:
Your courage and savoir faire in the face of brutal attacks set an example for all of us. Terror only works if we allow ourselves to become terrorized with fear.
To Kim Davis, Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk:
You claim a higher authority (God) told you to hate gays and refuse to issue them marriage licenses, but your own marriages and divorces to four different men are violations of the seventh commandment – “Thou shall not commit adultery.” To quote another line in your holy book, “He who has never sinned should cast the first stone.”
To Bernie Sanders, Presidential Candidate (D):
The corporate media may ignore you or dismiss you as a socialist, but you have awoken the working classes to the state of their exploitation. Win or lose, your message has rung loud and true – America is a country of, by, and for the billionaires. We need to start making it work for everyone again.
To Donald J. Trump, Presidential Candidate (R):
We may share first and middle names and birthright in the Empire State, but that’s all. I think you are too smart to actually believe the empty promises and hateful rhetoric you are feeding your crowd of irate supporters, but you know that they are eating it up. Better watch out, Mr. Trump, because the monster you are creating may turn on you, just like Frankenstein did.
To Rachel Dolezal, Former President of the Spokane, WA National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:
Thanks for introducing the world to racial ambiguity, a new psychological neurosis characterized by extreme confusion about one’s racial identity. I can certainly see why you identify with African-American culture, since there is much about it that I too admire. But to try to pass yourself off as black when your parents are as white as new fallen snow and then to actually pull it off for decades is a piece of acting worthy of Oscar consideration. When is the movie coming out?
To Caitlyn Jenner, aka the former Bruce Jenner, Olympic Gold Medalist:
That was quite a coming out party you had at the Espys this year. Talk about a tough act to follow. A man in a dress gets them every time. I can only wish you more happiness as a woman than you had as a man. Of course, the fact that you lived with the Kardashians for years could cause anyone to question their identity. At least you’ve ended up better off than poor Lamar Odom.