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Amor Mundi: Extreme Poverty

Extreme Poverty

Philip Alston visited the US as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty. In his report, he thinks about American exceptionalism: “But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.  As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”

  1. I have spent the past two weeks visiting the United States, at the invitation of the federal government, to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens.  In my travels through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC I have spoken with dozens of experts and civil society groups, met with senior state and federal government officials and talked with many people who are homeless or living in deep poverty.  I am grateful to the Trump Administration for facilitating my visit and for its continuing cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council’s accountability mechanisms that apply to all states.

  2. My visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty. The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans.  The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes.  It is against this background that my report is presented.

  3. The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.

  4. I have seen and heard a lot over the past two weeks.  I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction, and I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.””

Self-Inflicted Wounds

David Greenberg argues that President Trump’s attacks on the media are, in part, brought on by the crisis of the media itself.

“With his cries of “fake news,” as in other ways, Trump has taken a longstanding conflict between press and president to a new level. But he’s also reaping what two generations of conservative activists have sown. For a half century, they have tried—and have now largely succeeded—in depicting the mainstream, aspirationally objective media as irredeemably biased. The roots lie in the ’60s, when Southerners seethed at the national media’s reporting on the civil rights movement—one of the first major stories in American public life that unfolded on the nightly news—and argued that a liberal slant distorted the news networks and pace-setting newspapers and magazines. Politicians like George Wallace and Jesse Helms (then a commentator on North Carolina television) turned the so-called liberal media into an arch-villain in conservative demonology. By the decade’s end Richard Nixon, Trump’s only real rival as a presidential scourge of the press, was propounding the idea of liberal media bias from the White House pulpit. He dispatched his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to lacerate the press in a pair of high-profile speeches and used presidential resources to promote Edith Efron’s The News Twisters, the first bestseller to advance this claim.

By the ’90s and early 2000s, with the flourishing of openly right-wing broadcast media—first the talk-radio shows like Rush Limbaugh’s, then Fox News, and finally websites like Breitbart—it had become an article of faith that the aspirationally objective media were hopelessly biased. Over time, as the conservative broadcaster Charlie Sykes has explained, these outlets taught many followers to utterly disregard mainstream news, even basic factual information. Into the void came the “conspiracy theorists who indulged fantasies of Mr. Obama’s secret Muslim plot to subvert Christendom, or who peddled baseless tales of Mrs. Clinton’s murder victims,” Sykes wrote. While endorsing such fantasies, conservative spokesmen deemed mainstream news to be fake—as Trump himself does, too

As the conservative vilification of the media bred a culture of suspicion on the right, the media themselves became their enemies’ unwitting partners. Though American journalism has always boasted legions of heroic reporters and fair and able analysts, the business itself moved aggressively in the post-’60s era into the world of opinion, analysis, and context. Interpreting the news had always been crucial to journalism’s mission, but now what reporters made of the facts often eclipsed the facts that they reported. More and more, front pages highlighted not straight news but analyses and features with a strong authorial voice. TV news segments stressed the correspondent’s take over those of the sources, who were confined to shrinking sound bites. Starting in the ’90s, cable news created an unquenchable thirst for punditry. The tossed-off opinions of professional gabbers, and not the venerable gray rows of type, came to form the public’s picture of what was now routinely called not “the press” but “the media.”

In theory, this shift should have encouraged the flourishing of democratic debate. And at its best, the ample opinionating exposed audiences to stimulating arguments and exchanges. Overall, however, television debates frequently turned out to be superficial, sensationalistic, and dominated by hired hacks. The resulting cacophony eroded the reputation of journalists as disinterested truth-tellers. Increasingly, workaday reporters get sucked in. Today, ostensibly neutral scribes give Trump no greater gift than when they snarkily mock him on Twitter, casually ascribe motives to him while on the cable talk shows, or take gratuitous swipes in analytical articles. When a purportedly dispassionate New York Times article on the tax bill’s winners and losers cites Trump and his family first among the winners, you don’t have to be a fan of the president to see partiality at work.”


Rebecca Solnit estimates that 20 million voters were disenfranchised in the last election. Granted, many of those people would not vote when given the chance. And others would vote in predictable ways. But Solnit asks us to imagine: what might be if a meaningful number of disenfranchised voices were suddenly heard. (h/t Harold Bush)

“Imagine that those 20 million votes were not suppressed. The Republican Party would be defunct or be unrecognizably different from what it is today. But the Democratic Party would be different too. Imagine that the Democratic Party had to answer to more young people, more poor people, more nonwhite people, more people who believe in strengthening human rights and social service safety nets, economic justice, stronger action on climate change. Imagine a country where Democrats weren’t competing for moderate-to-conservative voters because the electorate was far more progressive—as it would be if all those people who lost their voting rights actually had them (and yeah, more younger people showed up). It wouldn’t change something as small as the outcome of the 2016 election. It would mean different political parties with different platforms and different candidates, different news coverage, different outcomes. It would change the story. It would change who gets to tell the story.

We are a country that is increasingly nonwhite, and nonwhite voters are, overall, more committed to social, economic, and environmental justice. I believe that we are a country full of generous-minded progressive people, the people who voted in eight trans candidates in the November elections, who voted in moderate Doug Jones over lunatic-right Roy Moore in Alabama earlier this month. A friend noted that without suppression of the black vote, Jones would not have won by less than two points, but by several points. But had those votes not been suppressed one way or another since, basically, the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote in 1870 and the 19th gave all women that right, who’s to say that two white men, Moore and Jones, would have been voters’ only choice or that Alabama would be what it is today?…

When you change your trajectory by even a few degrees at the outset, it can take you someplace completely different by the time you’ve walked a few miles, let alone gone along for decades, or a century and a half. Stripping citizens of their voting rights has steadily pushed us to the right, and we have ended up someplace we should have never been. Many lives have been crushed along the way, voices have been suppressed, wars have broken out, the urgent crisis of climate change has been denied and neglected. We can’t undo what has been. The story has been told, the line has been walked. But we can correct course. We can start by telling a story that millions of missing votes matter and by working to get those voters back in the game. We can add this story of missing voices to the other story of the missing we’re telling this cold winter, and work toward to a spring when the change begins to set in.”

We Do It Together

Arthur C. Brooks draws optimistic lessons from a surprising confrontation on the National Mall.

“Sept. 16, 2017, had the potential to be an awful day on the National Mall in Washington. It started with a rally, organized by a group of Trump supporters, called the Mother of All Rallies Patriot Unification Gathering. Counterprotesters from a group called Black Lives Matter of Greater New York began shouting at the crowd. The event’s organizers shouted back, and the two sides began moving toward each other. As the situation became more combustible, onlookers recorded the scene on their phones.

Suddenly, however, the confrontation took an unexpected turn. Tommy Gunn, the organizer of the pro-Trump rally, invited Hawk Newsome, the head of the Black Lives Matter group and the leader of the counterdemonstration, onto the stage. “We’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out,” Mr. Gunn said. “Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.”

Mr. Newsome accepted the invitation and addressed the hostile crowd with evident sincerity. “I am an American,” he said. “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.”

When someone in the crowd shouted, “All lives matter!” Mr. Newsome responded: “You’re right, my brother, you’re right. You are so right. All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice. That is why we say black lives matter. If we really want to make America great, we do it together.””

Welcome Mr. Bannon

Luigi Zingales explains why he invited Steve Bannon to speak at the University of Chicago Business School.

“As a university our primary mission is to form new citizens of the world. As a business school our primary mission is to form new business leaders of the world. I can hardly think of a more important issue for new citizens and business leaders of the world than the backlash against globalization and immigration that is taking place not just in America, but in all the Western world. At the University of Chicago, we have some of the best economic minds of the planet. It is our civic duty to engage them in finding the causes of this backlash and in trying to address them. Whether you agree with him or not (and I personally do not), Mr. Bannon has come to interpret and represent this backlash in America. For this reason, I invited Mr. Bannon to a debate on these issues with our faculty. I firmly believe that the current problems in America cannot be solved by demonizing those who think differently, but by addressing the causes of their dissatisfaction. Hate cannot be defeated by hate, but only by reason.”

The Idea of Progress

Ursula LeGuin has died. Her novels The Left Hand of Darkness  and the Dispossessed are essential reading for those interested in reimagining gender and thinking about utopia. You can read a eulogy here. In an interview by David Streitfeld, LeGuin explains why she once said  “I am not a progressive. I think the idea of progress an invidious and generally harmful mistake. I am interested in change, which is an entirely different matter.”

I didn’t say progress was harmful, I said the idea of progress was generally harmful. I was thinking more as a Darwinist than in terms of social issues. I was thinking about the idea of evolution as an ascending staircase with amoebas at the bottom and Man at the top or near the top, maybe with some angels above him. And I was thinking of the idea of history as ascending infallibly to the better — which, it seems to me, is how the 19th and 20th centuries tended to use the word “progress.” We leave behind us the Dark Ages of ignorance, the primitive ages without steam engines, without airplanes/nuclear power/computers/whatever is next. Progress discards the old, leads ever to the new, the better, the faster, the bigger, et cetera. You see my problem with it? It just isn’t true.

Evolution is a wonderful process of change — of differentiation and diversification and complication, endless and splendid; but I can’t say that any one of its products is “better than” or “superior to” any other in general terms. Only in specific ways. Rats are more intelligent and more adaptable than koala bears, and those two superiorities will keep rats going while the koalas die out. On the other hand, if there were nothing around to eat but eucalyptus, the rats would be gone in no time and the koalas would thrive. Humans can do all kinds of stuff bacteria can’t do, but if I had to bet on really long-term global survival, my money would go to the bacteria.”

Posted on 28 January 2018 | 8:00 am

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