Monday, May 18, 2020

Will it be different after?

Will it be different after?

by Ted Miller
(originally published June 2020 in Tumbleweird)

I think it is grief,
this sadness,
this anger,
this fear.

They say the first phase is denial,
but there is no denying the virus is
here, 
no denying it is deadly,
no denying it is real. 

Tell the hundred thousand dead it’s a
hoax.
Tell their families they would have
died anyway.
Tell the million infected it’s just the
flu.
Tell the sick to get back to work.
The virus doesn’t care.

But the virus carries a message, if only
we can hear.
The virus has laid bare the truth, of
what was true long before. 

We are all human, but we are not all
the same.

Some of us are essential, but not
essential enough.

Essential to work the fields.
Essential to butcher the meat.
Essential to nurse the sick.
Essential to serve our food, to mind
the store, to work the assembly
line, to cut our hair, to deliver our
goods, to clean our houses, 
to be invisible,
as our essential wants and needs are
met.

But not essential enough to have
their basic needs met. 
Not essential enough to live without
fear
of poverty, of hunger, of deportation,
of sickness, of death.

The virus knows no boundary
of class, or race, or wealth.

But the virus exposes disparity
among class, and race, and wealth.

Millions now unemployed, no
income, no health care, no
savings, crippling debt
and we blame them for being poor.

“They might get a few extra dollars!”
we cry,
angry that they are undeserving,
while ignoring the billions sent to
Wall Street 
with no strings attached,
believing in the trickle-down that will
never come.

Black, Brown, and Indigenous people
dying at twice or thrice the rate of
whites
and we blame them for getting sick
and dying.

“Make better choices!” we say
while ignoring the centuries of
inequity built into America
denying equal access to health care,
to nutrition, to income, to life. 

And before the curve is flattened,
before the virus is contained, we
carry our signs and our weapons
demanding America be opened again
so we can have our essential wants
and needs
provided by the non-essential
workers.

We want our liberty, but we don’t
want the responsibility.
We want our freedom, but we don’t
want to be responsible for the cost
of that freedom to others.

“Tyranny!” we cry. “Give us our
freedom!”

Freedom from tyranny?

Tyranny is the hunger of millions of
children every night 
Tyranny is voter suppression that
denies citizens an equal voice 
Tyranny is health care for profit, while
millions get sick and die
Tyranny is the oppression that has
upheld systemic racism for
hundreds of years 
Tyranny is people dying, while you
refuse to wear a mask

Give me liberty, or give me death
But whose death is the cost of your
liberty?

I think it is grief,
this sadness,
this anger,
this fear.

Grief for what could have been
if we weren’t divided
by class, by race, by wealth.

Grief can lead to despair, grief can
lead to action
and action leads to hope, now and in
the time after.

Hope that in the time after, when the
world faces pandemic, climate
change, global recession, or war, 
our response reflects we are all
human, essential, the same.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Divided We Fall

Divided We Fall

by Ted Miller
(originally published May 2020 in Tumbleweird)

We are a nation divided, and that division continues to deepen.

In December of 2016, I wrote about how divisive the presidential election had been. I wrote that we should listen to each other with respectful conversations in an attempt to better understand each other. I said that it was possible for us all to find common ground, even if we didn’t agree on everything.

But that was an overly optimistic opinion. The partisan rhetoric has gotten so extreme that objective truth is under constant attack. We all live in the same country but we live in vastly different realities. 

We are in the midst of the worst pandemic in over one hundred years. The novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, infects, spreads, and kills humans no matter what they believe. 

Facing a common threat in the past has brought Americans together. But since the virus was first recognized as a global threat in early January, it has been politicized to the point that the advice of experts is undermined and everything is filtered through a partisan lens. Government response has been inconsistent, slow, and ineffective. And the blame game is rampant. Rather than uniting the country, the president blames the growing crisis on Democrats, the press, the W.H.O., medical experts, or whatever scapegoat he finds for the day. Political pundits exacerbate the rhetoric with breathless, non-stop commentary.

The divisiveness will only make things worse. Instead of focusing on what must be done to continue to flatten the curve, calls for a relaxation of social distancing are ramping up. Protests are claiming an infringement on civil liberties and railing against government restrictions, turning the focus of efforts away from public health and instead casting the pandemic response as government overreach. 

Yet the virus continues to spread and kill. 

The political divisions in this country aren’t new, but they are being weaponized with surgical precision. In 2016, Russia used an extensive campaign of social media disinformation to divide Americans. Although there is little evidence that election data itself was hacked, pitting Americans against each other leads to a breakdown in our trust in government, which in turn leads to an erosion of our ability to unite as a nation. Efforts to undermine the 2020 election are already happening.

Even without foreign influence, the increasingly partisan rhetoric divides rather than unites. Too many of us amplify that rhetoric with “gotcha” memes and Facebook posts that portray half the citizens of this country as the enemy. Is the hatred so deep that we have lost all ability to work together for the common good? Do we really believe that our neighbor is the enemy?

Democrats are not the enemy of the United States. The media is not the enemy of the people. We are all Americans. Those who believe that only they are the true patriots, that those who disagree with them are the enemy, are the most un-American. E pluribus unum.

If we don’t learn to recognize the weapon of division being used against us, we will never be able to defend against it. We must stand together, or we will not only fail in fighting this pandemic, but the future of this nation is in jeopardy.




Saturday, March 28, 2020

Capital Punishment is Never Justified

Capital Punishment is Never Justified

by Ted Miller
(originally published April 2020 in Tumbleweird)

On March 5, 2020, the State of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone involved in his case agreed that he did not kill the three Birmingham police officers he was convicted of murdering. The man who actually pulled the trigger, Kerry Spencer, who is still on death row for the murders, repeatedly claimed that Woods had nothing to do with it.

"Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent," Spencer wrote in an open letter. "I know that to be a fact because I'm the person that shot and killed all three of the officers that Nathaniel was subsequently charged and convicted of murdering. Nathaniel Woods doesn't even deserve to be incarcerated, much less executed."

But Nathaniel Woods was executed anyway. Did he deserve to die? Did his death serve any purpose?

On December 23, 1991, Todd Willingham ran out of his burning house frantically screaming that his three young girls were burning up. The wooden house was quickly engulfed in flame and all three girls died from the fire. Willingham was subsequently accused of murder, convicted in the deaths of his children, and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2004, maintaining his innocence until the end. Since then, investigations have shown that witness testimony was questionable, forensic evidence was flawed, and the fire was accidental and not arson. In all likelihood, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for a crime he did not commit. 

How many people have been unfairly sentenced to death? How many innocent people have been executed? Even one is too many.

On October 18, 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in State v. Gregory that the death penalty in our state is unconstitutional. The court wrote:

“The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. … As noted by the appellant, the use of the death penalty is unequally applied—sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section14 of our state constitution.”

Washington State no longer imposes the death penalty, but twenty-five other states still do. 

Does capital punishment serve any good in society? Does it deter crime? Is it fair? Is it just?

Although some argue that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against certain crimes, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. The South carries out over 80% of the executions in the United states, yet has the highest murder rate of any U.S. region. The Northeast with less than 1% of executions has the lowest murder rate. That doesn’t correlate with deterrence. 

Whether a murder is pre-meditated or an act of heated passion in the moment, it is unlikely the murderer spends any time at all considering whether they will face execution for their crime. In fact, a 2009 article published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88% of expert criminologists believe there is no empirical evidence that executions reduce crime. And as Jimmy Carter reminded us in his April 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, “the homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.” 

The death penalty as a deterrent is myth.

The monetary costs associated with capital punishment are significantly more than those for similar cases where the death penalty is not sought. A January 2015 study published by Seattle University showed that for the 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases in Washington State since 1997, the average costs when the death penalty was sought were over one million dollars more expensive for each case than for similar non-death penalty cases. This was true even when the cost of life imprisonment was included. States which still impose capital punishment spend tens of millions of dollars each year on death penalty cases with no corresponding reduction in crime for that cost.

Moreover, the death penalty is not applied fairly. Since 1973, more than 165 people were released from death row for any number of reasons:  faulty evidence, problems with the conduct of the trial, prosecutorial misconduct, defense ineptness, witness reliability, or other factors. In most of these cases, the individuals were innocent. As in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, there are many cases where innocent men have been put to death with evidence later indicating it was not possible for them to have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to die. 

Is it acceptable to sometimes execute innocent people? Is that really an acceptable cost to society? I’ve always agreed with Sir William Blackstone’s 18th-century principle that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than one innocent suffer. That is the way of a just and fair society – protect the innocent. And with the death penalty, an innocent person executed by mistake is an atrocious action by the state that cannot be undone.

As cited in the Washington Supreme Court ruling abolishing the death penalty, race is a significant factor in application of the death penalty. Black defendants are several times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants in similar cases. For crimes where the victim is of a different race, a black defendant with a white murder victim is fifteen times more likely to be executed for their crime than a white defendant with a black murder victim. This disparity is hardly an indication of a fair and even application of justice with respect to race.

Some argue that there are crimes so heinous that the perpetrator deserves to die, that vengeance is somehow justified at the hands of the state. But revenge should never be the basis for punishment under the law. The law should be applied evenly and fairly to hold a criminal accountable. Accountability and revenge are not the same. The state has no place in executing vengeance.

The death penalty is expensive, ineffective as a deterrent, barbaric in its application, and unfairly applied. There is no rational or compelling reason for the government to kill someone for any crime, no matter how terrible and heinous. Vengeance or retribution is an inadequate argument and cannot undo the harm already done. Criminals can be held accountable without putting them to death. 

And the risk of making a mistake are just too great. 

Johnny Ross, who at sixteen was wrongfully sentenced to death and served seven years on death row before his case was overturned, said, “We cannot trust a system that makes mistakes to decide who lives and who dies.”

Johnny is right. The system that imposes the death penalty can’t be trusted and serves no useful purpose. It’s time to abolish capital punishment in the United States.

Note: data is from deathpenaltyinfo.org unless otherwise indicated

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Pacifism

Pacifism
by Ted Miller
(originally published February 2020 in Tumbleweird)
I have always wanted to live in peace. Not just an absence of war in my own country, but peace among all people throughout the world.
I don’t like war; most people I know don’t. But war has been a part of human history since we first picked up a club and used violence as a way to resolve differences and maintain the power of one group over another. 
Throughout history, man has developed ever more powerful and efficient means to kill one another, often in bloody conquests to steal land and resources from those who couldn’t defend themselves; at other times to violently overthrow oppressive governments, or to stop the advancement of despots and autocratic regimes. 
There is evil in the world, and sometimes the violence of war is necessary, if not inevitable. Some wars are justified, aren’t they?
As the son of a military family, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and a thirty-year veteran, I have always thought that a strong military was essential to ensuring peace. The ability and willingness to go to war when necessary was the price for our national security. That’s what I have always believed.
Until I met Chuck.
Chuck and I had become friends through a shared belief in the transformative power of music. We had worked together with a non-profit in outreach to our community and, as our friendship grew, we discovered we shared a common set of values. We were comfortable enough with each other to talk about anything. 
A few years ago, after reading one of my columns, Chuck asked to meet with me. Something I had written was bothering him and he wanted to talk about it. That conversation led to ongoing discussions on a wide range of topics, including my experience in the military. 
I learned early on that Chuck was a lifelong pacifist. As a teenager in high school, he had read an essay written in 1955 called “Speak Truth to Power, A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.” Although he wasn’t raised as a Quaker, the powerful argument against violence presented in that paper changed his life. When his draft number came up for military service, Chuck declared himself to be a conscientious objector and entered Alternative Service, serving a poor Black community instead of going to war in the military.
“I was willing to die for my country,” he said, “but I wasn’t willing to kill for it.”
I can’t imagine that level of conviction as a teenager. I greatly admire Chuck’s unshakable commitment to pacifism and nonviolence. He has challenged me to question my assumptions about war and about peace. If I ever had more than a passing opinion about pacifists, it was that pacifism was overly idealistic and impractical. Pure pacifism couldn’t possibly be effective in every case, could it? Wasn’t violence the only practical response to a violent attack? Isn’t military might the only way to deter military aggression?
I wanted to better understand what had convinced Chuck so strongly, so I read “Speak Truth to Power” which you can find at quaker.org/legacy/sttp.html. To prepare to write this column, I also read papers by Veterans for Peace, searched for other articles about pacifism online, and discovered a blogger named Jonathan Wallace who posts at spectacle.org. In his essay “Violence is Never Justified,” Wallace makes the case that perhaps violence is sometimes necessary, but it is never justified (spectacle.org/1196/just.html).
In my very limited research, one of the points that I have come away with is this: If violence is sometimes justified, what criteria do we use to provide that justification? Where is the line between violence that is just and violence that is evil? Can we know in advance when violence is necessary, or can we only decide that violence was necessary after the fact when the results of that violent act can be evaluated? Who decides, the victor or the victim? Is the cost ever worth it?
Consider the costs of the so-called war on terror. The United States has been continuously at war in the Middle East for over 18 years. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University (watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/):
·      Over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
·      Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
·      There are over 21 million war refugees and displaced persons
·      The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $6.4 trillion dollars
·      Over 6,900 American service members have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
·      Hundreds of thousands more service members have been wounded or died indirectly, each with families directly affected
I’m not minimizing or ignoring the attack we experienced on September 11, 2001. That day will be forever etched in my memory. But is this continual war our only option? Are we safer today than we were before 9/11? Is the Middle East any more stable?
The pacifist reminds us there are other options.
Today, I re-read the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave on December 11, 1964 after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, titled “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” He said:
I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
In that speech Dr. King also said:
There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.
Fifty-five years later, those words still ring true.
We can’t put an end to wars overnight, but I think we are much too quick to go to war in the first place. Most Americans agree that the war in Viet Nam was a mistake. The invasion of Iraq was justified with false information. We have yet to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.  And the current administration is perilously close to war with Iran.
There are alternatives to war: diplomacy, negotiation, the rule of law, investments in peaceful initiatives to combat poverty, hunger, and corruption in other parts of the world. 
Dr. King said we have the capacity to eliminate poverty and hunger, to make war obsolete, and to live in world peace. He and Ghandi are some of the most notable pacifists who showed us by word and example that change can be achieved without violence. 
In our most recent conversation about pacifism, Chuck asked me a hypothetical question. 
“If you saw your grandmother being beaten, would that be a justification for violence?”
“Of course,” I said. “What choice would I have?”
“And why do you think that would be your only option?” he said.
I didn’t have an answer.

We should listen to the pacifists.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Philanthropy is a Terrible Way to Fight Poverty

Philanthropy is a Terrible Way to Fight Poverty
by Ted Miller
(originally published January 2020 in Tumbleweird)

The word philanthropy comes from combining the Greek philo, meaning love, and anthropo, meaning mankind or humanity. The dictionary says philanthropy is an “altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement.” But is it really our love for all humanity that motivates philanthropic giving?
Americans are notably generous. In 2018, we gave $427 billion to charity (source: nptrust.org). Charity is so much a part of our core values that we even incentivize charitable giving through federal tax deductions.
And a lot of good is done with that charity. Food banks, medical research, homeless shelters, animal welfare, the arts, religion—the list of charities is long and varied. In fact, there are over one and a half million charitable organizations in the United States.
Everyone has a favorite charity. Just scroll through your Facebook feed to see friends asking you to donate to some worthy organization for their birthday.
Most would say all of that philanthropic good should be celebrated, but I recently read an opinion piece that argued against philanthropy. 
Why would anyone be against charitable giving?
Philanthropy relies on the generosity of the wealthy who have the power to decide who is deserving of their charity, and who is not. As the rich amass wealth, they return a small portion to the less fortunate subject to their whim, not determined by the needs of others. Rich donors are celebrated for their largesse while actually doing very little to end poverty.
In spite of America’s generous giving, philanthropy does not feed the hungry, heal the sick, or house the homeless. Twelve percent of Americans live below the poverty line, and 18.5 million of them are in deep poverty with a household income of less than half the poverty threshold (source census.gov). Thirty million people still lack health insurance. One in eight Americans are food insecure. Half a million are homeless.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the wealthiest individual on the planet, recently was praised for donating $98.5 million to his own charity to help combat homelessness. That donation is less than one tenth of one percent of his net worth of $110 billion, a percentage that is insignificant to his wealth. And that donation will have very little impact on the rate of homelessness in America.
A few years ago, I was discussing the importance of the government social safety net with a friend who felt that the government isn’t the best way to provide welfare. 
“Too inefficient,” he said, “and I don’t trust the government deciding who gets my money.”
In my friend’s view, the church should take care of the poor, free from government interference. I asked him which church would be able to administer such a program. Who decides who gets what? In the Christian faith alone, there are hundreds of denominations, each with their own value system and interpretation of scripture. Churches can’t even agree on theology, let alone come together to administer a common program that would take care of the needy regardless of their faith or any other factor. How could any charity possibly be efficient in meeting the needs of the poor if it has to coordinate with a million other organizations, each with its own rules, priorities, and administrative overhead?
Government bureaucracy may get in the way of efficiency, but a government of the people is the best system we have to fairly reach every American. We already have programs in place that work. Social Security and Medicare were enacted specifically to ensure that every senior has a minimum pension and affordable access to medical care. Poverty among the elderly would be devastating without those programs.
Can we really afford to eliminate poverty altogether? 
In his article “How Much Money Would It Take to Eliminate Poverty in America?” Matt Bruenig estimated we could do so with less than $200 billion a year. That’s less than one percent of GDP (source: prospect.org).
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 will cost the federal government over $2 trillion in revenue over the next ten years, with the majority of benefits arguably going to corporations and the wealthy. We could have eliminated poverty in America with that amount.
Eliminating poverty actually would be something that reflected a love for humanity.
I’m not saying you should stop giving to charity. I’ll continue to donate to my favorite charities and try to make a difference in the things I care about. But I know that no matter how much I give, I can’t make a dent in the rate of poverty. To make a difference requires an effort on a national scale.
We produce enough food to feed the world. We have the means to take care of the sick. We have the ability to end poverty. 
If taking care of each other is truly an American value, we can afford to eliminate poverty with a tiny change in our spending priorities.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

We Don't Need a Superhero to Feed Our Kids

We Don't Need a Superhero to Feed Our Kids

by Ted Miller
(originally published December 2019 in Tumbleweird)

No child should go hungry. And yet in the wealthiest nation in the world, six million children don’t know where their next meal will come from (source: usda.gov). 

Childhood hunger is a perennial problem. The National School Lunch Act of 1946 and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 were enacted to help those in need, but 1 in 5 children today still go hungry.

Poverty and homelessness are a problem right here in our community. An unofficial survey recently noted that there are over 600 homeless children in the Tri-Cities. Many more live in poverty. Too many spend too many nights with empty stomachs.

We as a nation believe equal access to education is a fundamental American value, so public education is provided to all regardless of an ability to pay. We believe that an educated society is a better society, that education helps lift people up, that educated citizens make a better democracy. But when a child in school is hungry, they don’t really have an equal ability to learn. 

Last month, Kennewick City Council member and business owner Steve Lee paid off all student lunch debt for Kennewick and Columbia School Districts. Following a Facebook post and local media coverage, Richland City Council member Phil Lemley made a donation toward the lunch debt in the Richland School District. That inspired a group of Richland friends to band together to eliminate the debt for those most in need. Richland School Board candidate Jay Clough recently donated the balance of his campaign funds toward student lunch debt. The generosity is commendable and well appreciated.

In following this story locally, I discovered how much misinformation there is about student nutrition programs. I suppose I thought all kids in need qualified for free or reduced meals and that no child in our town ever had to go hungry, but I really didn’t know much about this issue at all.

I sat down with Richland School District Nutrition Services Director Dawn Trumbull and staff member Julie Soderquist to find out more. Here are a few things I learned:

-       The school nutrition program is funded separately from operating levies and other funds for education services
-       Federal and state funds provide some assistance through the free and reduced meal programs, other students have to pay for the meals they eat 
-       Of the 14,000 students in the Richland School District, 40% of them are in the free or reduced program
-       Six schools provide breakfast and lunch to all students because of the high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches; at other schools, students must qualify on an individual basis
-       There are still many students who are unable to pay for reasons over which they have no control
-       No student is turned away because of a lack of ability to pay, but their account goes into debt
-       Washington State has a “no lunch shaming” policy, meaning students who can’t pay or whose accounts are in debt are not identified and receive the same meal as all other students
-       There is an ongoing total student lunch debt that is thousands of dollars 

So, what happens when a child’s account is in arrears and they need a lunch? 

Sometimes a teacher or principal will pay out of their own pocket. In Richland, we also have a community supported Superhero Lunch Fund to help out. 

Several years ago, local restaurant Hop Jacks (now Hops and Drops) wanted to donate a portion of their kid’s meals to school lunch programs. Combining that with other donations that periodically came in, the district created the Superhero Lunch Fund. Staff members are able to use Superhero funds to ensure every child receives a meal when they ask for it. In cases where the district determines the family is having difficulty and is unable to pay, the Superhero fund can be used to ease or eliminate that debt.

The recent donations inspired by Steve Lee and Phil Lemley were added to the Superhero fund. In addition to community members who have stepped up to help, other local businesses are pitching in. Tumbleweeds restaurant in Richland donates half of the sale of their new “cafeteria burrito” to the Superhero fund. Tommy’s Tap House and Bistro is now considering a program to help.

It is wonderful to see the community step up. But asking the community to fill in the need is only a temporary solution. 

I believe that every student should start and end the school day without being hungry. The federal school lunch programs enacted in 1946 and expanded in 1966 should again be expanded to cover all students. Meals should be part of the cost of education just like books, computers, classrooms, and qualified teachers. 

Last month, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2019 was introduced in Congress (H. R. 4684 and S.2609). Critics say the cost is too expensive. But what is the cost to our children and our future when too many children attend school on an empty stomach?


We don’t need a superhero to solve the problem of childhood hunger, we just need to care enough to feed our children.