This is not a good Christmas story: homeless children in New York City

Posted on December 14th, 2013 in Biography,Economy,Politics by Robert Miller

Today, the City of New York has a population of 22,000 homeless children, the largest number since the Great Depression. Many of the homeless take refuge in city-run shelters that provide grim, often unsanitary living conditions. We do not know how many homeless children in the city have to rough it by sleeping in cars or in the complete absence of any public shelter. New York City is a city that has given up thinking seriously about the poor and homeless and has decided to tough it out and make do, comforted by the Republican slogan, that the poor have only themselves to blame and prefer welfare: if not they would go out and get a job.

Dasani, homeless child in New York City

Dasani, homeless child in New York City

The NYT has just completed a five-part piece on a young homeless girl, Dasani, named after the bottled water. Her mother named her Dasani at birth thinking that perhaps someday her daughter might even be able to afford buying and drinking the water, something she herself has never been able to do. The Times started to follow her when she was 11 years old in 2011. She is a bright, very energetic girl, the oldest child in her family who wants to earn enough money to buy her parents a house so that the family can be together and live in a home, something that remains an elusive pipe-dream. When the Times started following Dasani, she was living in a city shelter described as, “a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.” The article is written by Andrea Elliott with photographs by Ruth Fremson.

You cannot read the story of Dasani without realizing that something is terribly wrong in America.

I never heard of homeless people of any scale until Ronald Reagan was elected President.

RFM

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Nelson Mandela

Posted on December 11th, 2013 in Biography by Robert Miller
A Younger Nelson Mandela

A Younger Nelson Mandela

There is little doubt that Nelson Mandela stands tall among the pantheon of national leaders bridging the 20th and the 21st centuries. America, true to form, played an important role in his development: our national intelligence system (CIA) provided information to the apartheid government of South Africa about his whereabouts in the 1960s, leading to his arrest and a life term imprisonment. He was released in 1990 after more than twenty-seven years in prison through public pressure, and the threatening influence of the disinvestment policies of a global community, a campaign that began with workers in the Polaroid Corporation. If you find America’s role in his imprisonment surprising, you have failed the 101 class on how the foreign policy of your government actually works (we prefer dictatorships over democracies—much better for business). In fact the African National Congress (ANC) which Mandela led for several years, was classed as a terrorist organization and Nelson Mandela himself was not taken off the terrorist watch list until 2008! On his release from prison, he negotiated with F. W. de Klerk, President of South Africa, to abolish apartheid and write a new constitution for South Africa, one free from racial discrimination.  If ever there were two people who deserved the Nobel Peace Prize (shared in 1993), it was surely Mandela and de Klerk, whose negotiation avoided a blood bath for the country.

THINKPROGRESS has listed things that Mandela said that you won’t hear about in the U.S. press:

1) Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism. Mandela called Bush “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly,” and accused him of “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war in Iraq. “All that (Mr. Bush) wants is Iraqi oil,” he said. Mandela even speculated that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was being undermined in the process because he was black. “They never did that when secretary-generals were white,” he said. He saw the Iraq War as a greater problem of American imperialism around the world. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care,” he said. [G.W. Bush attended Mandela’s funeral].

2) Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.” Mandela considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere. “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils,” he said. He considered ending poverty a basic human duty: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life,” he said. “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

3) Mandela criticized the “War on Terror” and the labeling of individuals as terrorists without due process. On the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008 himself, Mandela was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s war on terror. He warned against rushing to label terrorists without due process. While forcefully calling for Osama bin Laden to be brought to justice, Mandela remarked, “The labeling of Osama bin Laden as the terrorist responsible for those acts before he had been tried and convicted could also be seen as undermining some of the basic tenets of the rule of law.”

4) Mandela called out racism in America. On a trip to New York City in 1990, Mandela made a point of visiting Harlem and praising African Americans’ struggles against “the injustices of racist discrimination and economic equality.” He reminded a larger crowd at Yankee Stadium that racism was not exclusively a South African phenomenon. “As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, it is intolerable, unacceptable, that the cancer of racism is still eating away at the fabric of societies in different parts of our planet,” he said. “All of us, black and white, should spare no effort in our struggle against all forms and manifestations of racism, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.”

5) Mandela embraced some of America’s biggest political enemies. Mandela incited shock and anger in many American communities for refusing to denounce Cuban dictator Fidel Castro or Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had lent their support to Mandela against South African apartheid. “One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies,” he explained to an American TV audience. “We have our own struggle.” He added that those leaders “are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.” He also called the controversial Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat “a comrade in arms.”

6) Mandela was a die-hard supporter of labor unions. Mandela visited the Detroit auto workers union when touring the U.S., immediately claiming kinship with them. “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here,” he said. “The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.” [that’s the one I like the most]

At one level, Nelson Mandela had good instincts on what to do to fix the country once apartheid had been eliminated. But it was if he had made a Faustian bargain with the neoliberal devil, for he couldn’t get the impoverishment in South Africa eradicated or even addressed.  For the vast majority of blacks in South Africa, Mandela had little influence on their lives.

Slavoj Zizek, writing in the NYT, has a somewhat different take on Mandela’s life and his Faustian bargain, while recognizing that he, as much as anyone else, was entitled to the ongoing beatification taking place in South Africa, attended by all the leaders who helped shape his memory into that of someone who succeeded in every way to change the country he was President of for a single term in office. Zizek states “In South Africa, the miserable life of the poor majority broadly remains the same as under apartheid, and the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence, and crime. The main change is that the old white ruling class is joined by the new black elite. Secondly, people remember the old African National Congress which promised not only the end of apartheid, but also more social justice, even a kind of socialism. This much more radical ANC past is gradually obliterated from our memory. No wonder that anger is growing among poor, black South Africans.”

Zizek goes on to say “South Africa in this respect is just one version of the recurrent story of the contemporary left. A leader or party is elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” — but, then, sooner or later, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos, and the rest. This is why it is all too simple to criticize Mandela for abandoning the socialist perspective after the end of apartheid: did he really have a choice? Was the move towards socialism a real option?

From Zizek “At a more directly political level, the United States foreign policy elaborated a detailed strategy of how to exert damage control by way of re-channeling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints – as was done successfully in South Africa after the fall of apartheid regime, in Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto and elsewhere. At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.”

Finally Zizek concludes, “If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to. We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter, old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.”

The government that Mandela helped shape was the government that fired on the Marikana miners’ striking workers in 2012 leaving 44 dead and many severely wounded. These mine workers belonged to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). It was the single most violent action of South Africa’s security forces in more than fifty years.

RFM

 

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Detroit enters into bankruptcy as America erodes its democracy

Posted on December 4th, 2013 in Economy,Politics by Robert Miller

Yesterday, a ruling by US Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, allowed Detroit to officially become the largest US city ever to enter Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings and with this ruling American democracy took it on the chin. John Nichols has written on this American tragedy in The Nation. He covers much the same territory that I did recently in a somewhat more expansive view of the topic. This decision is likely to mean deep cuts in the retirement packages for city employees, many of whom are already on marginal retirement benefits.  This ruling will undoubtedly increase homelessness in the city. By reducing payments to those most vulnerable, the bankruptcy is more likely to increase the fragility of the city rather than help stabilize it. In addition, the debt the city owes has been inflated by the bankruptcy court. The reality is that it would only take about $198 million to keep the city in positive cash flow. The acute problems Detroit faces were brought on by the Great Recession and the bad investment advice given to city managers by banks and financial institutions.

Detroit is bankrupt because of its cash flow problem, not because of its debt. When Mayor-elect Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council take over leadership of the city on January 1, 2014, they won’t have much to do, because the city is being run by an emergency officer, Kevyn Orr, who reports to Republican Governor Rick Snyder who, in the election of 2010, lost the city of Detroit by a 20 to 1 margin. This is the same governor that this year signed into law the conversion of Michigan into a right-to-work state which is a euphemism that will lead to diminished worker representation by labor unions and reduced wages for workers who were once part of a vibrant middle class in America. The Detroit Free Press did an analysis on how the city went broke, which you can read here.

RFM

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