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Monday, October 19, 2015

Our Great Unfinished Business

As civilizations become more inter-connected through the amazing technologies of the early 21st century, the third great crisis in our nation’s history celebrates a significant birthday.  The great crisis of wealth disparity as a result of unequal access to the field of opportunity --- first identified by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 --- is now unfortunately more than 100-years-old!

For the ordinary citizen, the American Dream is at risk like at no other time in American history.  In response, many ordinary citizens are reaching for the pull chord and the alarm bell to stop the train.  Many others, however, believe that such matters lie in the natural order of things --- as a necessary byproduct of an every man for himself mentality of Social Darwinism --- and that everything will work itself out in the end.

The sympathies of President Obama appear to rest in part with the former group.  On August 28, 2013 the president gave a speech on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s march on Washington.  Almost five years into his presidential term, he reminded the ordinary citizen that his eye remains on the ball, as he strives to mold America to a purpose he boldly envisions:

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination --- the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice -- not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?

This idea that --- that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security -- this idea was not new.
Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures -- conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.

What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It’s what’s lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it’s along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.

The president continued:

... the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many ... . To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.

Why does our great unfinished business hearken back the name of Benjamin Franklin?  When he returned home after participating in the secret deliberations to draft the US Constitution, Franklin was said to have had an inquisitive exchange with a Philadelphia woman:

“What have you made for us, Dr. Franklin?” the woman had wanted to know.

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” was his infamous reply.
Franklin understood that democracy was not forever assured --- that active, informed citizenship would be required not only to keep but also to help it evolve.  As the jurist Louis Brandeis once observed, We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.

The challenge of ordinary citizenship, then, is to promote progressive ideas towards the improvement of our democratic ideal, regardless of the politics, regardless of the political party.  That means solving the crisis of achieving meaningful equality of opportunity for all citizens --- and completing our nation's great unfinished business --- once and for all.

-Michael D’Angelo

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pope Francis: Unfettered Capitalism is "A New Tyranny"

(Editor’s note:  Pope Francis makes his first papal visit to the US in a swing through the Northeast --- Washington, DC, New York City & Philadelphia --- September 22-27, 2015.  Upon his arrival, he will be greeted at the airport by President Obama, in a change of protocol which typically rolls out the red carpet only at the White House.) … 

In March 2013 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the new Pope of Christianity’s Roman Catholic Church, at the age of 76. Francis is a pope of many firsts. He is the first pope from the order of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits), the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years.

On the night of his election, Francis reportedly took the bus back to his hotel with the cardinals, rather than be driven in the papal car, in a style that news coverage has referred to as "no frills." He told journalists that he had chosen the name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, out of special concern for the well-being of the poor. He had previously expressed his admiration for St. Francis, explaining that "He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history."

Francis quickly served notice that he was to be a new kind of pope. He chose not to live in the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace, but to remain in the Vatican guest house, in a suite in which he can receive visitors and hold meetings. He is the first pope since Pope Pius X (1903-1914) to live outside the papal apartments.

At the outset of his papacy, in a hopeful and encouraging sign for ordinary citizens, Francis set out a platform for his papacy in an 84-page document known as an apostolic exhortation. In it he attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny,” calling for an overhaul of the financial system and warning that economic inequality and unequal distribution of wealth inevitably leads to violence. Absent a solution to that problem, Francis said, “no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.” Francis attacked the “idolatry of money,” urging politicians to “attack the structural causes of inequality” and strive to provide work, healthcare and education to all citizens.

Francis also called upon the affluent to share their wealth:

Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.  Such an economy kills.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure,” the pope asked, “but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” the pope wrote, “rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

In June 2015, the pope followed up his papacy directive with a 184-page encyclical, termed Laudato Si, calling for sweeping action around the globe to combat environmental degradation and climate change that he said was due mostly to fossil fuels and human activity.

Anita McBride, executive in residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University's School of Public Affairs, says the excitement surrounding this papal visit to Washington is a "sharp contrast" to the last one, in April 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI huddled with President George W. Bush. McBride should know. Previously, she served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. White House aides at the time feared the pontiff might make sharp public comments about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he did not.

It appears that the times finally may be changing, Pope Francis sounding --- and acting --- very much like progressive leaders in the US who are aligned with President Obama. This bodes well --- not only for the poor --- but also for the spirits of millions of ordinary American citizens and people in developing nations throughout the world.

-Michael D’Angelo