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Active McFarland: Exercising Democracy

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Canada and the American Dream

September 18, 2017

Ron Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Sept. 18, 2017

During the 1950s to 1970s, social scientists were interested in the question of “national character,” that is, whether people in a nation could be characterized as having a common sociocultural orientation that structured the way they view the world and that penetrates individual consciousness or personality. Although this line of inquiry fell in disfavor by scholars who felt that the concept lacked empirical verification and was prone to overgeneralizations regarding people in a given society, it was later given more serious foundation by scholars such as sociologist Alex Inkeles (1920-2010) in his book National Character: A Psycho-Social Perspective, published in 1997.

Social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) advanced a similar concept with his notion of “social character,” which I first came across in Escape From Freedom, his book about the psychology of Nazism, published in 1941, and updated in his book To Have or To Be?, published in 1976. Fromm defined social character as “the character structure of the average individual” that is interdependent with the social structure in which he or she is embedded. Theodor …

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Watergate: The Benchmark Political Scandal

May 5, 2017

Ron Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, May 2, 2017

We are currently in the midst of a political scandal that has the potential to rival the infamous Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. A political consensus has emerged, based on available information from U.S. intelligence agencies, that Russia hacked email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign with the intent of damaging Clinton’s candidacy. Suspicions about something nefarious afoot have been fueled by Donald Trump’s positive comments about Vladimir Putin. And information about contacts between members of the Trump campaign and presidential administration and Russian officials and businessmen are under investigation. That the Trump administration has recently been critical of Russia’s support for the murderous Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad does not necessarily undermine these suspicions. In fact, Trump’s recent criticism of Russia may, in part, be intended to deflect this evolving scandal.

The noted journalist Carl Bernstein, whose work with Bob Woodward during the 1970s helped expose the Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon administration, thinks we are in the early stages of a cover-up. He be…

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Reflections on Fake News

April 18, 2017

Jeff Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Apr. 17, 2017

Recently I read an article by Sharon Noguchi in my local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury, about teachers helping students to distinguish between fake news and real news. The article focused on teenagers who naively get their news from the internet. The key paragraph in the article reads: “Lessons on fake news fit right into the state’s Common Core State Standards, which encourage primary-source research, discussion and critical thinking—answering the why questions over the what. Social studies teachers hope the debate will prompt a resurgence in their subject, which has taken a back seat in an era focused on math and English test scores, said Rachel Reinhard, site director of the UC Berkeley History Social Science Project. ‘If there ever were a mandate for meaningful history instruction, we’re in it right now’, she said.”

Knowledge of history is crucial to all analysis of what we read in the news. Without this knowledge, there is virtually no way to determine why something is happening. Everything that happens today is a consequence of the past. And yet, teenagers have very little first hand-experience of the past; and most of t…

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Climate Change and Nonviolent Resistance

February 28, 2017

Ron Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Feb. 27, 2017

Last November Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist, delivered the inaugural Jonathan Schell Lecture at the New School in New York City. The lecture, which was entitled “On the Fate of the Earth,” was co-sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Gould Family Foundation; and the text of the lecture was adapted for a December 2016 issue of The Nation magazine. McKibben is the author of many books, including The End of Nature (1989), the first book on global warming written for a general audience, and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007). He is also the founder of 350.org, an international environmental group that takes its name from research that indicates that 350 parts per million (the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to all other molecules) is the maximum “safe level” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently we are around 400 ppm and counting. With the confirmation of Donald Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, McKibben’s message becomes even more important.

Jonathan Schell (1943-2014) was the author of numerous books on the environment, nucl…

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Letter to Editor: Donald Trump a Catalyst for an Avalanche of Hate

February 15, 2017

Sheila Plotkin

This letter was published in The Cap Times on Feb. 7, 2017

Dear Editor: One step on a slippery slope dislodges a small cascade of stones and mud. The minority president banned some Muslims from entering the country. A mosque in Texas was set ablaze and burned to the ground. His statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention Jews. More than 20 Jewish centers across the country received bomb threats during the past week, including in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. All were evacuated. The FBI has been called in.

The intellectual responsibility for these terrorist acts belongs to the minority president and his closest advisers. They have given perpetrators tacit permission to act. Criminals now have the unofficial blessing of those in power. Defensive Republican members of Congress wrap themselves in the flag or remain silent. Republicans are now accomplices in domestic terrorism. The minority president has created a scenario wherein hate crimes are patriotic. This is no longer a small cascade. It is an avalanche.

U.S. Immigration Policy and the Jewish Refugee Crisis of the 1930s

February 8, 2017

Ron Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Feb. 6, 2017

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The mere act of remembering, however, does not guarantee that the lessons of history will be learned. Thus, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day of January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump engaged in two actions that remind us of Santayana’s warning. One was his call for remembering “the victims, survivors, heroes” of the Holocaust, which omitted specific mention of the killing of Jews; this omission was a departure from a bipartisan precedent set by previous presidents. The other was that Trump chose this day to issue an executive order banning Muslims from seven countries, including desperate refugees fleeing deprivation and persecution, from entering the United States.

The omission issue is notable because Trump’s chief political advisor, Steve Bannon, has a history of promoting anti-Semitic, white nationalists who deny that Jews were the particular target of the Nazi extermination program known as the Final Solution. To be sure, Jews were not the only civilian population that was victimized during the Nazi era, but critics think tha…

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How Much Is Enough?

February 3, 2017

Bob Bates

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Jan. 26, 2017

Most thinking humans for a long time have known an effective societal problem-solving process: (1) identify needs, (2) identify ways these can be met, (3) apply analysis, prioritizing, and strategic planning to deliver solutions, (4) coordinate necessary labor, equipment, and distribution operations to address the problems, and (5) continue follow-up procedures to work out any bugs and improve each part of the overall system.

Hardly anyone could argue that, if there are problems to be dealt with, such an approach is not only feasible, but doable, especially given the brainpower, expertise, and available resources we can nowadays bring to the fore. In this “information age” comprehensive, sophisticated, and detailed computer programs can easily be designed to do initial run-throughs (virtual formats and revisions) to streamline the process. Such applied intelligence can not only be done over short periods of time, but pave the way for efficiency in various subsequent applications.

We, at different levels of society, are already doing much of this—but evidently on a limited basis. Surely such actions are not extensive enough or there would …

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Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert Reich

November 2, 2016

Ron Berger

In his most recent book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015), Robert Reich aims to explain how “the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite…has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs.” He lays the groundwork for this case by introducing readers to the field that was once called political economy—“the study of how a society’s laws and political institutions relate to…a fair distribution of income and wealth was a central topic.”

An understanding of political economy begins with the recognition that the existence of a so-called “free market” independent of government is a myth, because it is government that sets the rules of the market. In other words, according to Reich, government does not “intrude” on the market but rather “creates the market.” This view stands in marked contrast to the one espoused by contemporary conservatives and libertarians who believe that the market exists as a natural force by which economic actors compete to advance their self-interest and in doing so produce beneficial outcomes not only for individual competitors but for society as a whole.

Whereas conservative and libertarians belie…

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He Has Brought It All Back

October 14, 2016

Sheila Plotkin

Women assaulted by Donald Trump are finding their voices. Hearing him say that he did not do what he proudly said he did was the last straw for them. They knew he was lying. He did it to them. I understand the place these women have been and why they are speaking out now. 

In 1978, while having lunch with a colleague in a small restaurant in Milwaukee, a well-known circuit judge took a nearby table with a young woman. When she went to the restroom, he rose, strode to our table, and said "hello'. I thought he might be running for re-election. He asked my colleague her name, then kissed the hand she had expected he would shake.

He turned to me, asked my name, then suddenly grabbed the nape of my neck, pulled my head backwards, leaned into my face, and said, "If I had a woman like you at home, I'd never leave." He returned to his table, sitting down before the young woman rejoined him. 

My colleague and I were shaken. She asked me if I knew him. I said only by reputation. We talked about what to do, and tried to finish our meal, but we had lost our appetites. We told colleagues and family of our experience, but didn't know what else to do or who else to tell. We both felt angry, belittled, and frustrated …

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What's Happening to My Country?

October 13, 2016

Sheila Plotkin

I have wanted to write something about this election cycle, about Donald Trump and his deplorables, about what has happened to my country. But, as the cesspool rose to my knees, I was dumbfounded. I have never seen anything like it. 

Harry Truman was the first President whose existence registered in my childhood consciousness. I cast my first Presidential vote for John F. Kennedy. I have always believed in the ideals expressed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, knowing full well that, as a nation, we have never and may never live up to them. They define who we say we want to be, not who we are. 

Therein lies the struggle. People of good will disagree about how to "form a more perfect union", but most make the best decisions they can in the service of that ideal. They understand the value of cooperation over confrontation, common ground over ideological strongholds, and loyalty to principle over blind devotion to the next election.  

In my lifetime, people of good will have held sway most of the time. But, each new generation brings its own ideals to the public square. When their ideals threaten those of preceding generations, fear of change and the unknown begins to overwhelm rea…

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