Street art in Brazil
by artist Fernando Garroux “Garu”.
Photo by Fernando Garroux “Garu”.
Why is the world working on clickbait instead of going to Mars?
Here’s a tiny proposition: innovation is in danger of becoming a word that means something like making even more instant instant microwavable noodles
On-demand butlers, maids, chaffeurs, dog-walkers. Pet spas. Tap for a drone-delivered artisanally crafted designer taco. Swipe right for a date with a better profile pic. Swipe up for the economy’s next great, earth-shaking innovation…same day delivery of everything you had to wait two days for.
Let’s take a moment to be painfully honest. The above are fripperies, trivialities, a piffling of the human spirit. Let me present you with a list of great endeavors humanity’s boundless ingenuity should be devoted to. Reversing climate change. Curing cancer (and the like). Ending poverty. Fixing the ills of democracy. Giving every child a life-changing education.
So how did we end up with a generation’s brightest minds slaving furiously over the colossal, world-changing idea of…same day delivery? Right you are: largely, because of short-termism, growthism, and “shareholder” (read: hedge-fund bots programmed to earn a penny more profit even during the implosion of the known universe) pressure.
But those exist in the first place because of a great myth. The Myth of Trickle-Down Innovation. I’d bet that you’ve heard it before, often from venture capitalists high-fiving each other in congrulatory blog posts (“aww shucks, Bob. No, you’re the Thomas Edison of the twenty-first century!!”). It goes like this: today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s necessities. What the rich enjoy today, so the poor will enjoy tomorrow. Hey, presto! Innovate!! Rinse, apply, repeat, problem (aka all of humanity’s greatest and most pressing challenges, issues, and dilemmas) solved.
The problem is that the Myth of Trickle Down Innovation isn’t really true. Like all great myths, it hides a greater truth — and symbolizes an article of faith that we ritualistically repeat, mostly to comfort one another that we are moral, just beings. While it’s certainly true that the majority of innovations trickle downwards through the strata of the economy, to the very bedrock, it’s truer that many don’t — and they are often precisely the ones that should; or worse still, that on its voyage through the strata of the economy, what was once the pure, clean water of prosperity gets polluted into something more like toxic sludge.
I just bought a new TV. Wow! It’s the kind of miraculous gadget six year old me could only have dreamt of in his widest-eyed fantasies. It’s huge, paper-thin, and does wondrous things like making everything on it 3-D. Amazing, right? Right. Innovation trickling down to a humble nobody like me. But. If the hidden cost of my new TV is that I don’t enjoy stability, mobility, opportunity, retirement — which should I want? I know, it’s a tough choice.
Here are three more examples, to make my point. Cars. Everyone has one today. But because society invested heavily in a groundbreaking (at the time) set of highways. No highways — less cars. Lesson: innovation doesn’t trickle down in a magical, unstoppable alchemy —even when it does, it often requires help, a gentle nudge, a spark (read: investment, laws, social norms). Food. It’s true that people today enjoy a cornucopia in their local supermarket. But it’s truer that food deserts exist, and much food is riddled with additives and preservatives: sure, innovation trickled down — but the high-fructose-saturated-food-like products many can afford aren’t quite the pure, clean Whole Foods the rich enjoy. Education. If you’re very rich, you can send your kids to a liberal arts school, where they’ll enjoy careful, personalized one-on-one instruction in classes of a few dozen. But if you’re not…well, fear not, innovation’s trickling down. You might enjoy online classes (read: Powerpoint presentations with canned voice-overs) with thousands of other students, with maybe a scratchy Skype connection and a few multiple-choice quizzes to boot. Not quite the same thing, are they? What’s trickling down at the very bottom isn’t the pure, clean water of life at the top of the economic mountain.
Still don’t accept my tiny theory? Here are just a few things that the richest have, that the middle class doesn’t, and probably won’t in the foreseeable future. Wealth managers, private jets, members’ clubs, private islands, property portfolios, designer yachts. Some things are more like caviar than water: they don’t trickle down the economic mountain at all.
The converse is also true. If what’s trickling down from the top of the mountain is champagne, but the people at the bottom are thirsty for water…then you’re probably not innovating in any meaningful sense. We can make all the on-demand masseuses and pet spas and same-day delivered designer sheets in the world — but they’re not going to benefit people as much as high quality jobs, incomes, savings, rights, mobility, opportunity…happiness, meaning, a planet. While some innovations never trickle down, and some turn into sludge along the way — often, innovations that do trickle down are of little benefit in the first place. Doggy butlers trickling down when most Americans can’t afford $400 for an emergency expense is like smiling and giving a person dying of thirst a designer straw to suck air through.
The trickle-down theory of innovation is essentially the discredited ideology of trickle-down economics restated using gadgets instead of formulas. The latter argues that prosperity will trickle down (it hasn’t), and the former suggests that prosperity trickles down through goods magically getting cheaper (instead of turning toxic, pointless, or simply disappearing along the way). But just as trickle-down economics has been squarely debunked, repudiated even by the IMF, for example, so it’s time for us to update our tired, rusting mental models of innovation.
Rather than employing the illogic of trickle-down innovation, you and I should ask a wiser question: what are the long-term real social benefits of this product, service, idea, project? What does it add in human terms — does it make people smarter, fitter, wiser, closer, happier? Will it change anyone’s life, in even a small way, for the better, and how many lives can it realistically change thus — or is it just another coal in the bonfire of the vanities?
Why? Because the truth is that we don’t get too many shots at groundbreaking things — and it’s those shots that come to define the worthiness of our days. If we’re going to spend our time, effort, money, imagination, our best minds and our brightest spirits, on the grand challenge of…delivering stuff we don’t really need with money we don’t really have to impress people we don’t really like to live lives we don’t really want…a few microseconds sooner…we’re not surely not investing our veryselves wisely: spending our brief time on earth accomplishing things that truly matter. And lest you suggest I’m an idealist, the simple fact is: that is how great institutions, leaders, and lives, those that earn our respect, love, and admiration — and so lend our brief days a sense of greater meaning, higher purpose, and abiding worth — are built.
By David Walsh
30 September 2015
Robert Altman’s film Nashville has been playing in movie theaters across the US recently to mark 40 years since its original release in the summer of 1975.
The nearly three-hour work follows two dozen characters over the course of several days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, the official capital of country music. As was his wont, Altman created a rambling, improvisational film, which includes a number of intertwined storylines.
Psychologically fragile country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is returning to the city and its cutthroat music scene, accompanied by her gruff, controlling manager-husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), after a somewhat mysterious stay in hospital. Various hangers-on and admirers orbit around her. The dreadful Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a veteran country performer, presides over the Grand Ole Opry (a weekly country music concert and radio program broadcast since 1925) and the city’s music industry with an iron fist.
The members of an “alternative” folk-rock trio are in Nashville to record an album. Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), the group’s most prominent figure, pursues or is pursued by several women, including a garrulous British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin), a local matron, gospel singer and mother of two deaf children (Lily Tomlin) and the female singer in the trio, Mary (Cristina Raines), who is currently married to the group’s third member, Bill (Allan F. Nicholls).
A presidential election campaign is underway. The voice of the candidate of the newly founded pseudo-populist Replacement Party, Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), is heard throughout the film, as his campaign van broadcasts his empty, platitudinous message on the streets of Nashville. Two of his representatives, the oily John Triplette (Michael Murphy) from California and local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are making efforts to line up support in the music world for their candidate. A large outdoor rally for Walker, at which all the singers are set to perform (Barbara Jean has more or less been forced by circumstances to show up, others have been bribed), forms the denouement of the film.
Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce various other personalities in Nashville, including Barbara Jean’s bitter rival, Connie White (Karen Black); a Vietnam veteran still in uniform (Scott Glenn); an older man (Keenan Wynn) whose wife has been hospitalized and his niece, a would-be “groupie,” visiting from Los Angeles (Shelley Duvall); a waitress and aspiring singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles); an African American short order cook (Robert DoQui); an estranged husband and wife (Bert Remsen and Barbara Harris); and a young man from out of town (Kenny Frasier) who carries a violin case and seems infatuated with Barbara Jean. The young man turns out to be her assassin.
One of Altman’s innovations, which has its positive and negative sides, was to encourage his actors to write and perform their own songs in the film (and also contribute lines and entire speeches). In fact, in the end, the best of the music is the most compelling single element in Nashville. The emotion and beauty of certain songs is the strongest proof of the enduring quality of popular music, including country music.
Altman’s work was shot in the summer of 1974. The resignation of President Richard Nixon took place during the filming. Nashville is permeated, among other things, with moods produced by the Watergate scandal, part cynical, part hopeful. In fact, the film was released in the wake of explosive developments in American life extending back fifteen years or more: the civil rights movement and inner city rebellions, a series of assassinations of major political figures, the Vietnam War and the mass protest movement it provoked, the strike wave that engulfed American industry in the early 1970s and more.
Altman and Tewkesbury set their sights on the emerging celebrity culture in America, a crass and vulgar culture that was reducing country music and politics alike, in the director’s words, to “popularity contests.” At its best,Nashville sets its struggling and often bewildered, but well-meaning, human figures against the hollowness, cruelty and greed of the existing set-up. Altman had his definite weaknesses as an artist and a thinker, but his instincts in regard to authorities of every kind were invariably hostile.
There is a certain prescience in the film, in its attention to the rise of Nashville and the Sun Belt more generally, with their association with “free market economic thought,” parasitic economic activities of various kinds and the move away from industrial production. One commentator notes that the “Sunbelt boom of the late 1970s paralleled the popularization of country music and auto racing [also present in Nashville] … In sum, the Sunbelt became fashionable in the 1970s.” The 1976 election of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, the first Southerner since before the Civil War who had come to the presidency by election, seems presaged by the film. Moreover, when John Lennon was murdered five years after Nashville’s release it seemed to many horribly like life imitating art.
The director, an inveterate gambler and, at the time, heavy drinker, adopted a semi-anarchistic approach to life and to filmmaking. Actors were brought in at the last moment for key roles. Altman often wrote dialogue for a given scene the morning it was to be filmed. He devised a means, with the help of technicians, of recording the voices of various characters and even “extras” speaking simultaneously. The resulting overlapping dialogue in the final film is a trademark of his. The result, at its best, is a chaotic, amusing tumult in which the many-sidedness and even absurdity of human behavior finds expression.
Certain sequences and personalities stand out. Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese conveys sympathy and dignity at every point. It is a remarkable moment when Tom (Carradine), in a crowded club, attempts to reach her over the heads of three other women through a seductive and, presumably, honestly delivered song. A few minutes before, Mary (Raines) has belted out a song, expressing her own feelings for Tom. Critic Andrew Sarris suggested that Tomlin, Raines and Carradine “turn a smoky café into an arena of yearning sexuality.” Later, in bed, Linnea teaches the self-absorbed Tom sign language.
One remembers, with chagrin and pain, the hapless Sueleen (Welles) perform a striptease before a crowd of hooting male spectators at a Walker fundraiser on the promise that she will be allowed to perform with her idol, Barbara Jean, at the upcoming concert.
Above all, there is the performance of Blakley as Barbara Jean, in the words of critic Molly Haskell, “a white-clad Ophelia whose psychic disorder is expressed in those odd, uncoordinated hand gestures.” Her on-stage breakdown (based in part on singer Loretta Lynn’s problems) is poignant and believable. The immense, unbearable pressure of “show business” claims another victim. Nothing is more destructive in America than success.
As noted above, the music, intentionally or not, is Nashville’s most enduring and endearing feature, and Blakley, a songwriter and singer, provides the best of it. Along with Carradine’s “I’m Easy” and the trio’s “Since You’ve Gone,” Blakley’s “Tapedeck in His Tractor,” “Dues” and “My Idaho Home” are to a large extent what draws one back to the film time and time again.
Altman and Tewkesbury are quite sharp about certain things. They may have been somewhat easy targets, but the noxious patriotism and piety of the country music establishment were in considerable need of a vehement attack. Haven Hamilton (inspired by the figures of Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, among others), who performs wretched songs about America’s greatness and the virtue of perseverance in public, is behind the scenes a hypocritical, conniving, Machiavellian scoundrel, with considerable political ambition.
The filmmakers were no doubt aware of the warm welcome Acuff, for example, had given to President Nixon on the occasion of the opening of a new, suburban home for the Grand Ole Opry in March 1974, a few scant months before the latter’s departure in disgrace.
Altman’s film came in for fierce criticism in 1975 from right-wing sources. The ideological pedigree of many of those who pretended to be speaking for supposedly caricatured Southerners and the abused country music scene was extremely dubious. Those claims blended in with a general chorus of abuse from openly reactionary defenders of the status quo, deeply offended by Altman’s blows against some of the American establishment’s sacred cows. George Will, already turning out his reactionary rubbish, rejected Altman’s work, with its criticism of “callousness, exploitation, [and the] failure to communicate,” as “not a close approximation” to American life.
Right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan (a former adviser and speechwriter in the Nixon White House) also denounced the film, for, among other things, depicting country music’s “public patriotism” as “false and phony.” Buchanan argued that Nashville was “a slander on America; it is a notion that lives only in the jaundiced eyes of men like Robert Altman and the artistic and intellectual community that endorses and applauds what he is saying about the United States.” One obviously has to defend Nashville against these claims.
All that being said, and Nashville’s sporadically extraordinary qualities having been recognized, a re-viewing of the film today brings home two central facts: first, that if it was Altman’s intent to create a panoramic view of modern American life, his effort was audacious and entirely creditable; and second, if such was his intent, that he failed, perhaps inevitably, in the effort.
The numerous exaggerated claims made for the film over the decades, that it is “a masterpiece” and “an epic pronouncement on the state of the union,” that “it might just be the greatest American film of all time” and so forth, need to be set aside. Nashville is not a great film; it is one with a good many strengths and a good many weaknesses. It contains intriguing and insightful moments, along with much sloppy, careless and irritating material. Of course, the film’s sharp and persistent contradictions need to be seen within the appropriate context. Altman’s limitations were not entirely of his own making; they were bound up with the state of political and intellectual life.
In any event, too many sequences and characters in Nashville go nowhere. Its first hour meanders somewhat tediously. The satire in the early airport and traffic accident sequences is rather heavy-handed. The film is stretched too thin in its initial portion for the demands being made on it by dozens of characters and situations.
Bert Remsen, a fine character actor, has nothing to do but look grumpy. Until the final scene, Barbara Harris is also essentially given little to do. Jeff Goldblum’s silent Tricycle Man is a mystery that does not interest one. The relationship between Keenan Wynn and his niece never fully convinces. Altman makes Chaplin’s journalist, critic Robin Wood noted, “as idiotic [and annoying] as he can.”
Altman never worked out his attitude toward society and human beings. He passed back and forth, often in the same work, sometimes in the same scene, between compassion and rancid misanthropy. Wood describes Altman’s all too frequent “smug superiority to and contempt for [his] characters.” In Nashville, one is often left uncertain precisely who and what are being satirized and from which point of view. The problem extends to the music. Carradine and Blakley simply go ahead and perform the songs they want to sing, with sincerity. Other numbers, however, hover confusingly (and ineffectively) somewhere between camp and genuine commitment.
As we noted two decades ago, “Unpredictability, instability, the working of chance, spontaneity, arbitrariness, the lack of logic in the universe—these make up Altman’s sensibility.” In contrast to the many stultified products of the Hollywood system at the time, this sensibility opened the filmmaker up to sides of American life—in The Long Goodbye (1972), Thieves Like Us (1974) andCalifornia Split (1974) in particular—that were unavailable to more staid figures.
But all of this had a limit. And when Altman attempted to make a grand statement about American life, to use Nashville and the country music world “as a metaphor,” he inevitably faltered. Nashville demonstrated the limitations of a far too heavy reliance on artistic intuition at the expense of conscious understanding. One cannot stumble upon the truth about a society and its prospects by accident, nor does a major work, as Hegel points out, come to the artist “in his sleep.”
The failure expresses itself in his ambivalent (at best) attitude toward the American people. One has the definite sense that Altman, like many radical intellectuals at the time, blamed the population for Nixon’s electoral victories (especially for the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972), and for the general shift to the right taking place by the mid-1970s.
Asked in a 1975 interview whether there were any political figures or movement with which he could identify or sympathize with, Altman replied, “I’m a Democrat, if anything. I supported [Eugene] McCarthy, McGovern, [probably Robert] Kennedy. I was very, very angry from the beginning about people like Richard Nixon. I don’t like [Ronald] Reagan or [George] Wallace.”
He went on, “I think change is going to come through social pressure. The anti-materialist movement [“counterculture”] that took place in the sixties is certainly an expression of that.”
A banal outlook, common to the garden variety American intellectual of a certain type. The difficulty, and it is not Altman’s personal difficulty, is the sharp decline by this time already in the influence of left-wing thought and analysis. The Cold War purges, the alliance of American liberalism with ferocious anti-communism, the decline of the labor movement, combined with the crimes of Stalinism that did so much to damage the standing of socialism in the eyes of millions, all this had taken its toll.
Unlike artists of an earlier age, who followed events with an eye to concrete social relationships, to class association, Altman speaks largely in abstract, vague generalities. He proceeds to blame the population for apathy and for its supposed lack of understanding. “The majority of the people … have done what they have been told they were supposed to do.” He speaks rather contemptuously of those who have “worked for their new Chevrolet every two years and they’ve got their house and their barbecue and they’ve sent their kids to college.” Later he suggests, “That’s what the picture [Nashville] is about, really. The whole point of making political analogies to the country-western stars is the fact that people don’t listen.” This is the language of the middle class radicalism of the time, including the New Left, which wrote off the working class in America as hopelessly backward and inert.
In fact, the American working class had just passed through one of its most militant and combative phases in history. The General Electric strike of 1969-70 lasted 122 days and involved 133,000 workers. In March 1970, 200,000 postal workers walked out, in the first national strike by public employees. In the fall of the same year, some 400,000 General Motors workers stayed out for 67 days. In 1970 alone there were some 5,600 work stoppages and 6.2 million lost worker-days.
The chief difficulty in the 1970s was not apathy, or an unwillingness to do what people were not “supposed to do,” but historically accumulated political problems associated with the continued alliance of the trade unions with the Democratic Party, the very party in which Altman continued to have and to sow illusions. The enormously militant movement of workers reached a dead end because it remained within the confines of capitalist politics and capitalist economics. This gave the powers-that-be a breathing space and made possible the vicious counter-offensive against the working population that began in earnest in the late 1970s.
This historical and social analysis was a closed book to American filmmakers. Behind Altman’s claim, in the same 1975 interview, that he has “high hopes, great expectations,” one feels rather, as Wood describes it, that his “gestures toward a progressive viewpoint thinly conceal despair and a sense of helplessness.”
Nashville is a work full of strikingly, almost provocatively unresolved contradictions, some of them more intriguing and richer than others. Whatever its serious failings, however, one cannot come away from a viewing of the film, and of its climactic assassination scene in particular, without a sense of deep social and moral malaise, of a troubled and tormented society headed, sooner or later, for a breakdown. In that general intuition at least Altman was unfailingly correct.
After first refusing to confirm nor deny it, the Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis met with the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Davis’ attorney — who made the news public after the pope’s trip ended — said Francis told her to “stay strong.” And that simple encounter completely undermines all the goodwill the pope created in downplaying “the gay issue” on his U.S. trip.
The pope played us for fools, trying to have it both ways. As I noted last week, he’s an artful politician, telling different audiences what they want to hear on homosexuality. He did that in Argentina as a cardinal — railing against gay marriage when the Vatican expected him to do so — and he’s done that since becoming pope, striking a softer tone on the issue after Benedict’s harsh denunciations were a p.r. disaster for the Catholic Church in the West. But this news about Kim Davis portrays him as a more sinister kind of politician. That’s the kind that secretly supports hate, ushering the bigots in the back door — knowing they’re an embarrassment — while speaking publicly about about how none of us can judge one another.
I would have more respect for the pope if he had publicly embraced Kim Davis and made an argument for her, as he did in his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are battling against filling out a form to exempt themselves from Obamacare’s contraception requirement, claiming that even filling out the form violates their religious liberty — even though I vehemently disagree with the pope on that issue. I’d have more respect if he boldly, explicitly made a public statement (not the vague, general statement he made on his plane on the way home only in response to a reporter’s question about Davis), as he did in trying to stop the execution of a Georgia inmate who was put to death this morning. But by meeting with Davis secretly, and then at first having the Vatican neither confirm nor deny the encounter — and now having the Vatican say it “won’t deny” the meeting while it still won’t offer any other details — the pope comes off as a coward.
He shows himself to be antithetical to much of what he preaches and teaches. He talks about dialogue and having the courage of one’s convictions and the courage to speak out. But he swept this Davis meeting under the rug, seemingly ashamed and certainly not wanting to broach the subject. Even Davis’s supporters should find that insulting to them.
We all knew Francis was playing a p.r. game, and we were fine with that. He was focusing on climate change, immigration and other issues passionate to him — and certainly I, and I hope everyone, still welcome whatever influence he can have on those issues. And it appeared he viewed the LGBT rights debate as a distraction from a focus on those causes. He even told U.S. bishops in a meeting during his trip that they should stop complaining about it and turn their attention to other issues. The sense was that he was probably not passionate about gay rights, but not passionate about attacking them either.
But by telling Davis that she should “stay strong” — if her attorney’s account of the encounter is to be believed — the pope is only encouraging the bigots, even if he’s doing so quietly. We don’t know all the details yet regarding how Davis came to meet Francis — if, for example, it was one of the more vocally anti-gay U.S. Catholic Church leaders who brought her along, or if the Vatican invited her.
But the optics of it are bad no matter what. Rather than moving us forward on LGBT rights ever so slightly, as many viewed the pope as doing, he now, with this meeting, emboldens the haters in the church who will be pushing to make sure church doctrine continues to call homosexuality “intrinsically disordered.” And it sends a message to all those people who’ve experienced anti-gay discrimination — like the Catholic school teachers fired from their jobs in the U.S. simply because of who they are — that this pope is not going to end that discrimination any time soon. Rather than stopping that discrimination, he welcomed, with open arms in the Vatican’s own embassy, the bigots who promote that discrimination but who’ve turned themselves into the victims.
Since the very beginning, Islam has been part of the social fabric of this country.
American real-estate tycoon Donald Trump, pictured June 16, 2013, hit out at New York’s top prosecutor who filed a lawsuit against him for running a sham university, calling him a “political hack”.
Photo Credit: AFP
Not content with alienating single women, Latinos and the LGBT community, the two front-runners for the Republican nomination indulged in some naked Islamophobia this past week.Donald Trump told an audience member at one of his events that he’d “look into” either expelling America’s Muslim population, or the existence of Jihadi training camps on US soil, depending on how charitably one viewed the exchange.
Then Ben Carson appeared on Meet The Press, where he told Chuck Todd that Islam was inconsistent with the Constitution and said that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
This kind of bigotry won’t hurt these candidates in the primary. A YouGov poll earlier this year found that only one in five Americans—and one in seven Republicans—held a positive view of Islam. And according to Public Policy polling, only half of Iowa Republicans “think the religion of Islam should even be legal in the United States.” Ben Carson reportedly saw his donations spike after his interview with Todd.
But this kind of callous disregard for a minority that’s faced serious discrimination—and no small amount of violence—should hurt. The candidates reinforced a central tenet—perhaps the central tenet—of anti-Muslim bigotry: That Islam is an inherently foreign religion that’s incompatible with US citizenship. This view is common among shouty people who protest outside mosques and politicians who push those Constitutionally sketchy bans on “Sharia law.”
In that sense, claims that Barack Obama is a crypto-Muslim are really a proxy for the belief that he was born in Kenya and is ineligble to be president. A poll earlier this month found that 66 percent of Trump’s supporters said Obama is a Muslim and 61 percent thought he was born overseas. (Perhaps we shouldn’t give Trump, an avowed “birther”, the benefit of the doubt in his exchange with that guy in the audience.)
It’s a belief based on the kind of widely debunked “history” peddled by David Barton, a popular figure on the tea party circuit who claims that the United States is a “Christian nation” founded by men whose theology resembled Mike Huckabee’s.
But while Muslims are a small minority, Islam is just as American as Christianity. It’s true that a significant share of Muslims living in the U.S. today were born abroad, but it’s also true that from the very beginning, Islam has always been part of the social fabric of this country.
In fact, it’s possible that Muslims got here before the first Christians. According to the PBS special, some historians believe that Muslims first arrived in the Americas in the early 14th century, after being expelled from Spain. Others say that Christopher Columbus referred to a book written by Portuguese Muslims who had navigated to the “New World” in the 12th century during his 1492 voyage.
Those are controversial claims. But it’s clear that Muslims arrived here in significant numbers in the 16th century, along with large-scale European colonization. Some came voluntarily, but many more were brought here forcibly to work as slaves.
According to the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 10-15 percent of all slaves were Muslims, many of whom were “literate and highly educated,” and “kept the spirit of Islam burning even while enslaved.”
Several Muslims fought for America’s independence with distinction under George Washington. Greg Considine, a sociologist at Rice University, wrote for the Huffington Post that one soldier believed to have been a Muslim, Peter Buckminster, “etched his name into American history at the Battle of Bunker Hill by firing the shot which killed Great Britain’s Major General John Pitcairn.” Muslim-Americans fought in the War of 1812, in the Civil War and in every major conflict since.
From the 1870s until 1924, when the United States severely restricted most non-white immigration, new arrivals from the Middle East—mostly from Syria and Lebanon—swelled the Muslim population. Their descendants have been Americans for many generations.
Thirty years later, when the US once again opened its doors to new immigrants, a new wave of Muslim immigrants arrived here from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
At around that time, the rise of the African-American Muslim Nationalist Movement led to huge numbers of new converts. According to Gallup, 35 percent of Muslims in America today are black—the largest group within the most ethnically diverse faith in the United States.
Estimates vary widely, but there are somewhere between one and six million muslims in the United States. According to a 2004 survey by Zogby International, they tend to “have a favorable outlook on life in America, and wish to be a part of the mainstream.” Almost six in 10 hold at least an undergraduate degree, making them the most educated faith group in this country. Many work in professional fields. America’s Muslim community is believed to be the wealthiest in the world. They have high rates of civic participation, and there’s no evidence that they embrace extremism at a higher rate than Christians or Jews.
According to Gallup, Muslim women are among the most educated in the country, and work outside the home at a slightly higher rate than American women as a whole. One in three have a professional job. The gender pay-gap among American Muslims is smaller that that of any other group.
The Pew report prompted Bret Stephens and Joseph Rago to write in The Wall Street Journal that “America’s Muslims tend to be role models both as Americans and as Muslims.” But to varying degrees, they have always faced discrimination and persecution at the hands of America’s Christian majority.
Muslim slaves were often forced to practice their religion in secrecy. Many were forcibly converted to Christianity. In his book, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815, historian Robert Allison notes that some anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 didn’t want to include religious liberty in the Bill of Rights because it would protect the Islamic faith—an argument echoed today by people like Ben Carson, or Representative Jodi Hice (R-Georgia), who wrote that Islam “is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.”
Sadly, Islamophobia isn’t just a problem on the right. In the Yougov poll cited above, 43 percent of Democrats said they held an unfavorable view of Islam, and Pew found that “a majority of Muslims say a friend or family member has suffered discrimination since the September 11 attacks.” Casual Islamophobia is often tolerated in a way that bigotry toward other minorities is not.
It’s time for this to stop. After 400 years in the Americas, and having helped build and defend this country, we need to accept that American Muslims are just as American—and just as loyal—as anyone else.
By Andre Damon
29 September 2015
The gap in life expectancy between higher and lower-income Americans has soared in recent decades, according to the results of a new study commissioned by the US Congress.
In particular, the study, published this month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, reveals a sharp drop in life expectancy for poorer Americans.
Men in the top fifth of the income distribution have had their life expectancy at age 50 grow from 81.7 years for those born in 1930 (aged 50 in 1980) to 88.8 years for those born in 1960 (aged 50 in 2010). Meanwhile, the poorest fifth of men have had their life expectancy fall from 76.6 years for those born in 1930 to 76.1 years for those born in 1960.
As a result, there is now a life expectancy gap of more than 12 years between the poorest and wealthiest men, compared to a gap of just over five years three decades ago.
The changes are even more dramatic for women. Life expectancy at age 50 for the poorest fifth of women has fallen from 82.3 years for those born in 1930 to 78.3 years for those born in 1960. Meanwhile life expectancy for top-earning women has grown from 86.2 years to 91.9 years for the same period.
Over the past three decades, the gap in life expectancy at age 50 between the poorest and wealthiest women has increased from less than four years to more than 13 years.
The growing discrepancy in life expectancy between the rich and poor is the result of decades of attacks on workers’ jobs, wages and living standards, as well as social programs that benefit low-income households, such as food stamps, Welfare and Medicaid. While the rich have access to the best healthcare that money can buy, the poor are left with substandard care that they cannot afford.
Falling wages for low-income workers have left 16 percent of US households officially classified as food insecure, and the incidence of diseases related to poor diet have soared. The share of US residents who have been diagnosed with diabetes, largely a disease of poverty, has more than doubled, from under 3 percent in 1980 to 7 percent today.
Workplaces throughout the country have slashed decent-paying healthcare benefits beginning in the early 1980s and continuing to this day. Meanwhile, federal programs have been starved of funding as healthcare costs soar, with the ruling class increasingly targeting the principle healthcare program for elderly Americans, Medicare.
The trends revealed in the report (which only goes to 2010) will only be further exacerbated by the policies carried out under the Obama administration. According to an analysis released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the cost of healthcare deductibles—the amount of healthcare expenses that must be paid out of pocket before an insurer will pay any expenses—has increased 67 percent over the past five years, while wages have risen only 10 percent since the 2008 financial crisis.
The 2008 financial crisis ushered in an escalation of the attack on workers’ living standards and healthcare. Corporations responded to the 2008 downturn by eliminating vast numbers of decent-paying jobs with good benefits, replacing them largely with low-wage and contingent employment during the so-called economic “recovery.” State, local and federal healthcare programs have been chipped away at through year after year of budget cutting and austerity.
But perhaps the most dramatic element of the assault on workers’ healthcare benefits has been the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act, the main purpose of which has been to shift the cost burden of healthcare onto beneficiaries.
Among the various regressive components of Obamacare is the so-called Cadillac tax, which imposes high taxes on better healthcare plans to create an incentive for insurance companies and corporations to reduce coverage. The effect of this proposal can be seen in ongoing negotiations in the auto industry, where the corporations are working with the United Auto Workers to establish a mechanism for reducing healthcare benefits to a level where they will not be subject to the tax, which goes into effect in 2018.
The National Academy of Sciences study itself was commissioned as a means of gauging the economic impact of various proposals to slash Social Security spending proposed in various forms by Republicans and Democrats alike.
In particular, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has called for raising the retirement age from its current level of 67 to 70, a proposal that had previously been advanced by the Business Roundtable as well as other Democratic and Republican politicians. This measure, if enacted, would entail a massive reduction in benefit payments, and by extension significantly reduce life expectancy.
The study’s findings are also being used to drive more sophisticated, though no less reactionary, arguments for slashing workers’ healthcare benefits. Peter R. Orszag, the study’s co-chair, who served as Obama’s first Director of the Office of Management and Budget before becoming an executive at Citigroup in 2011, sought to present the higher life expectancy of higher-income earners as a major issue driving rising healthcare costs.
In an op-ed for Bloomberg, Orzag declares, “The life expectancy gap is widening markedly, and this is causing a big change in the pattern of lifetime government benefits. In evaluating any improvements to entitlement programs, policy makers will need to keep these trends in mind.”
Orzag’s argument is essentially a setup for various proposals to introduce means-testing into Social Security, along the lines of that proposed by Republican Candidate Chris Christie or expanded this year for Medicare by the Obama administration.
This argument was spelled out in a column by the Washington Post’s Robert Samuleson, who argued, “Social Security should be a safety net, not a gravy train…. Eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare should gradually increase to reflect longer life expectancies for most Americans. Benefits should be curbed for those near the top.”
The implication of such a policy would be to reduce benefits for all Americans through an increase in the retirement age, while transforming Social Security from a universal program to a means-tested anti-poverty measure, to be chipped away at and subsequently dismantled.