Corporate Oppression

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Sometimes the stupidity of the American people is breathtaking.

Over the past few years, those on the right have issued dire warnings about America turning into a socialist paradise. They claim that Obama and his cohorts are on a mission (Muslim-influenced, no doubt) to take away our sacred rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to shoot one another from the safety of one’s home. We hear again and again how Obamacare is a badly-disguised ruse to strip us of our freedom to choose whatever incompetent medical professional we want and to deny us our right to pray that the one we choose wasn’t one of the medical professionals responsible for one or more of the 300,000 deaths caused every year through medical errors.

Okay, so I’ve editorialized a teeny bit here, but what I really want to address is the fact that these pundits and politicians actually believe that the Obama government is hell-bent on taking away our freedoms.

What’s so stupid about that notion is that the corporations who pay their salaries or contribute to their political campaigns have already taken away more freedoms than the limited imaginations of those in government could ever conceive.

Corporate health plans now routinely penalize the overweight and the nicotine-addicted by either jacking up their  insurance premiums or by not hiring them at all.Many corporations have personnel policy manuals loaded with rules that deny all kinds of freedoms: the freedom to wear what you want, the freedom to bring your kids or pets to work, the freedom to eat at your desk, and above all, your allegedly inalienable right to freedom of speech.

Although I regularly read the annual polls that tell us that Americans don’t know dick about their history or their form of government, I’m still astonished by the attempts of some employees to assert rights that do not and never have had legal standing in the American workplace. A short while ago, I actually had an employee defend some comments he’d made that amounted to sexual and racial harassment by claiming his constitutional right to “freedom of speech.”

“Have you ever actually read The Bill of Rights?”

“Of course I have!” he replied, lying through his teeth.

“Hmm. Maybe you missed the introduction. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It doesn’t say anything about corporations or other private institutions. Corporations can restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of the press within the corporation. They do it all the time. Plus, if you’ve read anything about The Founding Fathers, you’ll remember that most of them were Masons, an organization that has always had strict rules restricting freedom of speech in order to protect their secrecy. Those guys knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote that little phrase “Congress shall make no laws” into the First Amendment.”

I could have gone on to tell him that a corporation’s right to restrict various freedoms is somewhat limited by laws designed to facilitate unionization and by the need to consider an employee’s religious practices in relation to scheduling work, but for the most part a corporation is given a great deal of latitude to do what it takes to manage the business and the people in it. This is why you can’t do certain things in the workplace even if they are First Amendment rights. You can’t tell your boss he’s an idiot or that you’re not going to do the stupid thing he asked you to do: that’s insubordination. You can’t tell someone that their butt looks good in those jeans: that’s harassment. Many corporations forbid wearing religious icons or “offensive” t-shirts with religion-tinged slogans. You can’t publish an alternative newsletter on the company network sharing your belief that the executives are a bunch of no-talent losers. You can associate with others for the purpose of discussing working conditions and the possibility of unionization, but even that right can be limited to specific times and places.

Corporations also have more power to promote social conformity. Despite the press about all the really cool places to work, most companies still have dress codes, fixed work schedules and both rules and norms about how one should behave in the workplace or interact with co-workers. Modern work life imposes a routine; routines become fixed patterns; fixed patterns deaden the brain. At the end of the work day, once you get through a commute that inevitably worsens with the passage of time, the last thing you want to do is think. You want a few hours of escape before the cycle repeats itself the following morning . . . and the morning after that . . . and the one after that.

The worst part of it all is that unlike the government, corporations have real power over you. They control your paycheck. They control whether or not you make your mortgage payment or feed the kids. Of course you’re going to conform, limit your self-expression and behave appropriately—you need the money!

The reason why businesses are allowed to order people around and shut them up in a country that proclaims the inalienable nature of certain rights is because America is a capitalist country first, and a democracy second, third or fourth. Democracy has never really gained a foothold in the workplace, despite various movements and initiatives that fall under the headings of “employee empowerment” and “workplace democracy.” Even those initiatives are pretty limp; I’ve never heard of one that gives the employees the right to vote on who’s going to be their boss or on who’s going to be the next CEO.

I would love to have an intelligent conversation about freedom in America, but such a conversation would force people to look at some fundamental contradictions in American society that people really don’t want to deal with.

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Time to Split Up the USA

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The primary lesson I learned from the presidential election is that the United States is no longer a valid construct. We are not united and will never be united again.

If there is one truism in life, it’s that you can’t resolve a value conflict. The best you can hope for in a value conflict is to respect the other person’s values and agree to leave each other alone.

That’s not possible in the political climate of the United States of America and it’s not going to change. There are two distinct sides and both are trying to convince the other that their values are right and the other’s values are wrong. That doesn’t work. Just ask the Arabs and the Israelis.

The cause of the division is simple: the introduction of religion into politics. Although most people will blame Reagan for this, it was Jimmy Carter who first made religion a campaign issue with his “born again” proclamation.

Since that time the Religious Right has become more and more extreme, coloring every issue with their paranoia about sex and contradictory beliefs about the sanctity of life (contradictory because it only applies to babies, not adults). In 2012, they expanded their opposition to abortion to opposition to contraception, a move that revealed what was really behind the “pro-life” movement. They’re terrified of sex and believe that all women bear Eve’s curse: the instinct to manipulate and seduce men. Therefore, women must be controlled and their sexual behavior limited to pleasureless reproduction.

If this sounds like something out of A Handmaid’s Tale, it is.

As recently as 1960, the separation of church and state was apparently an accepted truism. John F. Kennedy had to defend himself against charges that he would take orders from Rome. What happened to change things was the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. The Pill gave women more sexual freedom. The changes in civil rights law began the process of bringing minorities into the mainstream. The combination of free women and vocal minorities scared the hell out of the more conservative white people, whose fear turned into a cause when the Supreme Court, bringing the separation of church and state to the local level, banned school prayer.

Jimmy Carter then legitimized the combination of religion and politics, and Reagan and the conservatives exploited the hell out of it. We began to hear people tell us that America is a Christian nation and that we should have policies based more on religious principles than democratic principles. Ironically, the conservatives tried to sell themselves as defenders of The Constitution, a document that states very clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” and specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Groups like The Christian Coalition violated that restriction in every campaign cycle, endorsing only those candidates who met their standards of Christianity.

Despite Romney’s adherence to the Mormon faith, his shape-shifting abilities made him acceptable to the right, if not particularly desirable. He then sealed the deal by nominating the religious extremist Paul Ryan, whose alleged intellectual credentials (extraordinarily biased towards an inflexible economic dogma) gave some comfort to the economic conservatives. The right-leaning electorate, terrified by the very existence of an African-American president who many believed was neither Christian nor American, put all their fear-driven hopes into this odd couple.

The ironic truth is that Barack Obama was the only Protestant among the four major candidates.

The reaction of the right to Obama’s surprisingly clear victory has been to proclaim the decision a disaster, to scream incoherently that the country is going to hell and to buy more guns. They believe they are still right; the rest of the country, who they believe consists largely of people who want handouts from the government and irresponsible sex, has gone mad. They have no interest in letting bygones be bygones or compromising. The concept of uniting behind the President once a campaign is over makes no sense to them. The battle must continue.

In 1964, the conservative Barry Goldwater scolded a crowd at a campaign rally for booing his opponent, President Johnson. He told them that whatever their beliefs, the office demanded respect. That concept seems as dated as Leave It to Beaver. The hard right has never respected anyone who disagrees with them, much less an African-American with an un-American name.

The majority of people on the right believe they are on a religious crusade to save America from sin and deficits. The keyword here is “crusade,” a word that George Bush let slip when describing the war on terror. Religion has been the most common cause of war since time began, for a very simple reason: you can’t resolve a value conflict. Those who are evil must be destroyed, despite the evidence of history that one side has never been fully able to eradicate the other (Rome came closest in Carthage, but people must have slipped out of town before the place was leveled). You can’t reason with anyone who is certain that they hold the truth.

Interestingly enough, most liberals would love to limit government spending if you could find a way to do without hurting those who cannot help themselves. Americans love money and they want to keep as much as they can. With genuine dialogue and compromise, we could fix the deficit, Social Security, Medicare and all these seemingly insurmountable problems in a few months. The problem is that the issues have been contaminated with Puritan values of the virtues of thrift, hard work and obedience to God, and that turns every disagreement into a jihad.

I am more concerned that if we do not divide the country according to shared values, we will make no progress on our problems and that violence will become an even more legitimate option for resolving our differences. The increase in gun sales after the election was an astonishing and frightening response to the outcome.

How would you split the place up? Start with the electoral map. The South, The Great Plains and The Mountain States form one nation; the Northeast, Upper Midwest and West Coast form another (or two). You would have to make some adjustments to state boundaries (combine Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia) or split some states into smaller chunks. For states that are odd fits with the surrounding geography (Arizona) or just plain odd (Florida), let the people decide.

The first reaction of many Americans to this idea is likely to be selfish, particularly if they find themselves in a new nation whose political leanings are not to their liking. “Hey, I’ve lived here all my life. Why should I have to move somewhere else?”

The answer is simple. Why would you want to live in a place that tramples on your values?

Photo Credit: © Yarko12 | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

 

The Fifty States: Alabama to Georgia

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Without much intention of doing so until I hit #45 (North Carolina), I recently completed a journey stretched out over several years through the fifty states. I saw about half of them thanks to business trips that I often extended to take advantage of the opportunity to make a business trip un-boring. Several others were vacation destinations, and a few fall into the category of “What the hell—,” like traveling to Alaska in January to watch the Super Bowl on television.

I’m happy to report that America is still a very diverse country, despite the same-o, same-o shopping malls everywhere and the irritating über-presence of Wal-Mart. Mississippi is still very different than California which is very different than Indiana and so on.

For the most part, Americans are still friendly people, despite the noise of the political and ideological divides. I found the friendliest people in Montana, Indiana, Alaska and North Carolina; the chilliest in the New England states, Oregon and Washington state.

I live in Washington at the present time, and it certainly isn’t for the social opportunities.

The states where I remember the experiences of greatest natural beauty were California, Montana, Vermont and anywhere in the Midwest during a thunderstorm. That said, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a vacation to “be in nature.” I’ll take big cities over nature any time. I’m passionately interested in how people live, think, feel and choose, and you don’t find that many people in the middle of nowhere (though when you do find people in the middle of nowhere, they are often very unique and interesting).

What follows are my impressions of the states, based on my experience, however limited (although I never counted changing planes as a visit). I spent a lot of time in some states, maybe an afternoon or an evening in others. I’ve seen parts of some states and may very well have missed the best parts. My journey was opportunistic and rarely planned, so there are gaps. I will preface my impressions of each state with a brief summary of the experience so you can take my observations in context.

Often I’ve heard people say things like, “Texas? Yecch!” I don’t think there is a single state in the union that deserves blanket praise or scorn; the states themselves contain varying degrees of diversity. You can’t base your impression of the state of New York based on a weekend in Manhattan any more that you can say that everyone in Texas is a flaming liberal because you spent a few hours in Austin.

I’ll go through the fifty states and the District of Columbia in alphabetical order, 10 per post (this one has 11 because I’ve included D. C.). Here goes!

Alabama: I visited Anniston with a friend on a day trip from Atlanta in 1995. Anniston was the closest city of any historical significance; one of the buses carrying the Freedom Riders was burned back in 1961. We arrived about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning and the streets were completely deserted, like the town’s inhabitants had been sucked up by an invisible death ray. Of course, they were all in church. To kill the time we found a flea market outside of town and I bought a pair of rusted wire cutters from a big fat Bubba with three teeth (Pair uh snips? Two bucks!) Afterwards we went back into town and everyone was having iced tea on their front porches, the whites on one side of town and the blacks on the other.

Alaska: An odd combination of events led me to watch the Super Bowl in Anchorage in the dead of winter, 2006. A good friend of mine had blown the whistle on some unethical business people and, as a result, couldn’t find a job anywhere near his home. He wound up throwing everything into a severely abused pickup and rumbled his way to Anchorage to pursue a nursing degree. As it happened, my spouse had a business trip to Anchorage the week after the Super Bowl, so what the hell, let’s do it! I remember flying in over the frozen ocean and thinking we were landing on the moon. We drove through banks of piled-up snow a dozen feet high to our hotel and spent the rest of the first evening strolling through downtown Anchorage admiring ice sculptures. After the Super Bowl, we had a great dinner in a very lively restaurant, and the next day my friend took me down the peninsula to see more of the natural beauty of Alaska. The scale of things is immeasurable there; it’s as if the mountains, the ice and the stillness had all been blown up to ten times their original size. Very friendly, warm, down to earth people who felt like old souls—nothing at all like Sarah Palin.

Arizona: I’ve visited Arizona several times over the years, primarily Phoenix, Tucson and environs. During a two-month stay in Tucson,  9/11 occurred. I remember vividly the haunting stillness of the blue desert sky during the no-fly period. This is why I feel a stronger connection to Tucson than most places; it was home at a time when I had a strong need for home. I’ve been to Phoenix and environs a few times; the most enjoyable trip was going to Spring Training while staying at the Arizona Biltmore, where breakfasts like Mexican Chocolate Waffles make it my favorite breakfast spot in the world. The beauty of Arizona is in the clean lines of the mountain ranges during sunset; it’s as if they were drawn by an exceptionally fine artist with a keen eye for detail. Delightful in winter, dreadful in August (especially during a monsoon), asphalt-melting heat in June. Despite the “mañana” service that is very frustrating to a high-speed city-dweller, I prefer Tucson to Phoenix. Tucson is more friendly and has killer Mexican food in South Tucson.

Arkansas: I drove over from Memphis one afternoon, where I spent the day witnessing the poverty along the Mississippi Delta. Heart-wrenching sights of seven-to-a-shack in ragged clothes, poorly-fed, mostly black. My mother was from Arkansas, so I have some familiarity with the culture, but I probably need to go back and see more of the state to balance a rather unfavorable impression.

California: This is home state, where I lived most of my life until 10 years ago. I grew up in the Bay Area, lived a few years in the Wine Country and eventually settled in San Francisco. California is still my favorite state for its combination of natural and human beauty, to say nothing of its endless diversity. I think I’ve vacationed in all of the vacation spots from San Diego to Tahoe to Mendocino . . . you can do pretty much anything in California (except you have to drive to Vegas to smoke now that the health nazis have taken over the state). The fundamental problem with California is that there are simply too many people there and if 20 million of them decide to leave tomorrow, I’ll be on the first flight home.

Colorado: I’ve taken several trips to Denver and environs. One assignment I had involved following around a pay phone repairman as he attempted to repair all the pay phones that had been vandalized during the All-Star Game at Coors Field. I also watched a game at Coors and it was dreadful to see a batted ball carry so far off the bats of no-talent nobodies. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a strange tension in Colorado, like something is out of alignment. Denver could be a much better city than it is, but has too many rough patches. Why they put the airport a billion miles away from the city is beyond me.

Connecticut: I visited here as part of a New England vacation one autumn and for some reason I can’t remember I traveled along the part that borders Long Island Sound. I thought it was the least remarkable of the New England states and Hartford is the epitome of dull.

Delaware: Dropped in from Philly some time in the 90’s. Spent some time putzing around the countryside and had lunch somewhere in Wilmington. It didn’t leave much of an impression. Felt like a large suburb of Philly.

District of Columbia: Two visits, most recently in 2009. Did all of the sights and museums, all of which are must-see. Horrible weather, moldy carpets on the Metro, nice ball park. Too many government buildings.

Florida: Several trips to Miami and Tampa-St. Pete. Hated the humidity and the corresponding smell. The dominant impression is that Miami is blue and St. Petersburg is pink. Lots of transplants give the place a temporary feel. Great nightlife in Coconut Grove. Tampa has a great airport. No, I haven’t been to Disney World and have no intention of doing so.

Georgia: Several trips to Atlanta and environs. Ate at my first Waffle House outside of Atlanta and used 11 napkins to soak up the grease on my grilled cheese sandwich. Atlanta’s not much; the city center is kind of a drag and the metro area has expanded Silicon Valley style. I took a drive through the country north of Atlanta, which was reasonably pleasant. I do have to say that Georgia has the most beautiful women of all fifty states.

Photo Credit: © Striker77s | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Guilt Kills

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New conclusion: the American preoccupation with health is more likely to destroy the country than terrorists, economic collapse or electing any of the current presidential candidates.

Well, maybe not the last one.

Health nazism apparently came to the fore some time in the seventies as Americans became more fearful about everything under the sun (including the sun). The jogging craze and widespread acceptance of granola were the first signs. As it turned out, Jim Fix, the guru of jogging, died on a jog, and most granola products were found to be no healthier than the far more enjoyable Snickers bar.

However, Americans have a talent for assimilating contradictions, and nothing could stop the movement. We had a racquetball craze and cholesterol panic in the 1980’s, smoking bans, organic markets and the explosion of gyms in the 1990’s, and the identification of obesity as public enemy #1 and various yoga crazes in the new millennium. I submit that all of these movements have been detrimental to American health and recent studies showing that American life expectancy isn’t what it should be after all this attention on living and eating right have left health experts frustrated.

The problem is that the motivation behind health nazism is not health or out love of life, it’s the fear of death. Death is no longer seen as the natural end of life. In America, death is seen as the ultimate failure and entirely your fault. You die not because of a bad break or crummy genes, you die because you ate too much, drank too much, smoked too much and spent more time on your ass watching the tube or playing video games than getting your body fat down to healthy levels and if you want to blame that on your genes, you’re a loser anyway and you deserve to die, so don’t ask me to pick up your health care costs.

So there.

This orientation has created massive guilt in millions of Americans who like to eat, drink or smoke, and guilt does weird things to people. Guilt turns us into liars because we don’t want anyone to know when we show weakness and act on that urge for a juicy cheeseburger with bacon, an ice cream sundae or a cigarette. Then we feel guilty about lying, which only leads to adding a side of large fries to the cheeseburger, whipped cream to the sundae and working our way through a whole pack of smokes. Guilt adds to our already-high stress levels, and because we know that stress will kill us, we try to comfort ourselves with another cheeseburger, a thick milk shake or a cigar. Then we beat ourselves up, punish the hell out of our bodies at gyms and start down that long road to eventual knee replacement surgery.

I find it interesting that health nazism has grown parallel to the rise in the productivity of American workers. No one will convince me that the two are connected, workplace wellness programs be damned. Productivity has risen because financially-driven executives have cut staff and expect the remaining workers to pick up the slack. This has raised stress levels, and because the three-martini lunch is politically incorrect and you can’t smoke in the workplace unless you work at a cigar store, there is only one thing a worker can do to relieve stress in the workplace.

Eat.

I’m not sure if any studies have been done on this, but most people I know complain about how they gain weight once they get a job. Workplaces are now all-day smorgasboards full of stressed-out people looking for a little comfort. Want to get rid of that batch of tasteless lemon cookies your neighbor brought you? Bring them to work. Too many leftovers in the ice box? Bring them to work. Once we had a bash at my place, bought too much food and found ourselves stuck with three dozen brownies, two large pizzas and two of the worst pies ever baked. The next day I put them out in the break room at 8:30 in the morning and they were gone in an hour.

I’m sure everyone who stuffed their faces felt that momentary delight that Billy Pilgrim felt when he spooned the syrup in Slaughterhouse-Five: “Every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.” But an hour later they probably all felt horribly guilty and scheduled an extra half-hour on the elliptical.

Americans are so busy worrying about their health that they’ve forgotten how to enjoy life. Terrified by statistics and the embarrassment of death, we’ve lost touch with our instincts, common sense and the age-old wisdom about moderation. We are now extremists of another kind and when we fail to live up to our unrealistic standards of perfection, we feel stressed out and guilty—and both states are extremely unhealthy.

To become truly healthy in America, we need more laughter, more pleasure, less guilt, less health care . . . and a whole lot more human forgiveness of our so-called weaknesses.