“A Poor Substitute for Democracy”

Leave it to the great historian, Howard Zinn, to remind me of my progressive roots and to remind us all that elections are a fundamental part of democracy but are not a substitute for democracy. From The Progressive:

[Election frenzy] seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.

And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.

Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid the subject of the Presidential elections?

The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press, glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.

Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system won’t allow them in.

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a “betterâ€? candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore….

Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.

They offer no radical change from the status quo.

They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.

They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.

None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.

So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.

Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [full text]

In the Absence of Trust

Trust matters. If an individual cannot trust those upon whom they are in some significant measure dependent, that is a problem. In families in which there is incest, it is not unusual for the non-offending parent (if they know or suspect what is going on) to overtly or covertly encourage their child to remain silent about the abuse. Or, if the parent is truly clueless, it is not unusual for the child to keep the secret to themselves nonetheless, out of fear that they will get in trouble, be ignored or disbelieved, or receive even greater harm. However real or perceived the mistrust, it tends to make a bad situation worse.

The same is true in the less personal arena of politics. When the citizenry does not trust that those who (ostensibly) represent them will consistently put public interests ahead of self-interest or the interests of an elite minority, participation in democratic institutions and practices falters. Given the abuses of the Bush administration and the polarizing politics that have become all too common in the last decade and a half or more, there is reason for the governed not to trust those who govern. And while that may not be reason enough to simply abandon speaking up and speaking out, it is understandable that many would resign themselves to silence. There is a reason, too, that Obama fever is sweeping the nation. This candidate, unlike any in a very long time, is giving voice and hope to those who have led lives of quiet desperation.

Another area in which mistrust has become problematic is health care. In today’s New York Times, Amy Harmon writes about how “Insurance Fears Lead Many to Shun DNA Tests.” An excerpt follows:

Victoria Grove wanted to find out if she was destined to develop the form of emphysema that ran in her family, but she did not want to ask her doctor for the DNA test that would tell her.

She worried that she might not be able to get health insurance, or even a job, if a genetic predisposition showed up in her medical records, especially since treatment for the condition, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, could cost over $100,000 a year. Instead, Ms. Grove sought out a service that sent a test kit to her home and returned the results directly to her.

Nor did she tell her doctor when the test revealed that she was virtually certain to get it. Knowing that she could sustain permanent lung damage without immediate treatment for her bouts of pneumonia, she made sure to visit her clinic at the first sign of infection.

But then came the day when the nurse who listened to her lungs decided she just had a cold. Ms. Grove begged for a chest X-ray. The nurse did not think it was necessary.

“It was just an ongoing battle with myself,� recalled Ms. Grove, of Woodbury, Minn. “Should I tell them now or wait till I’m sicker?�

The first, much-anticipated benefits of personalized medicine are being lost or diluted for many Americans who are too afraid that genetic information may be used against them to take advantage of its growing availability.

In some cases, doctors say, patients who could make more informed health care decisions if they learned whether they had inherited an elevated risk of diseases like breast and colon cancer refuse to do so because of the potentially dire economic consequences.

Others enter a kind of genetic underground, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars of their own money for DNA tests that an insurer would otherwise cover, so as to avoid scrutiny. Those who do find out they are likely or certain to develop a particular genetic condition often beg doctors not to mention it in their records.

Some, like Ms. Grove, try to manage their own care without confiding in medical professionals. And even doctors who recommend DNA testing to their patients warn them that they could face genetic discrimination from employers or insurers.

Such discrimination appears to be rare; even proponents of federal legislation that would outlaw it can cite few examples of it. But thousands of people accustomed to a health insurance system in which known risks carry financial penalties are drawing their own conclusions about how a genetic predisposition to disease is likely to be regarded.

As a result, the ability to more effectively prevent and treat genetic disease is faltering even as the means to identify risks people are born with are improving. [full text]

Brighter Days

By the middle of this week we will have eleven hours of daylight, and we are just about a month away from the vernal equinox.

In honor of the sun, here is some good news on the solar energy front from Scientific American…

The energy benefits of solar photovoltaics will only improve as the technology continues to boost its efficiency at converting sunlight to electricity or proves to last longer than the 30 years anticipated by manufacturers. “There is no reason for this not to last a lot more than 30 years,” Fthenakis says.

If solar energy begins to power its own production—a so-called PV breeder cycle, in which PV-generated electricity goes to produce more PV cells—the outlook is even sunnier. “I think 30 percent of the energy consumption in the [manufacturing] facilities is easily met from the land they have available [on] the roof and in the parking lot,” Fthenakis says.

Wow! Can’t you just feel the singularity coming? Of course, with all that energy production, we’ll need some big batteries to store it. Good news there too…

VRB will start mass production this year of a longer-lasting rival to the lead acid battery currently used to store energy for example produced by solar panel, Hennessy said.

Low carbon-emitting renewable energy is in vogue, driven by fears over climate change, spiraling oil prices and fears over energy supply and security.

While the supply of the wind and sun far exceeds humanity’s needs it doesn’t necessarily match the time when people need it: the sun may not be shining nor the wind blowing when we need to cook dinner or have a shower.

Soaring production of solar panel and wind turbines is now spurring a race to develop the winning energy storage technologies which will drive the electric cars and appliances of the future.

Wouldn’t it be great to tell the rest of the world, especially those nations that don’t like us, that they can keep their oil, we don’t need it. Remember when a young, visionary and daring president led our country to put a man on the moon? Now we just need a battery. We can do it. Now is no time to build more nuclear power plants — that’s so 20th century. We need to invest in solar.

And if you are thinking local as well as global, check out Natural News Network for what is happening in a neighborhood near you. Today’s headline is an amazing photo of last week’s lunar eclipse, by Kathy Hodge who braved the cold to take it.

Getting on Board with Barack Obama

There are many reasons why I am choosing to support Barack Obama in the March 4th primary in Rhode Island. His foreign and domestic agenda is strong and his voice is genuine. He speaks as an experienced legislator, but also someone with an open mind, someone willing to learn. He is giving us a chance to become a better country again, and I am one of the many people willing to take that chance.

While it saddens me that I am not supporting a woman Democrat running for President, I am taking the leap of faith that Obama’s presidency would mean more leadership roles for women, and the possibility of more gender diversity in future presidential races.

I chose this video of Obama to include with my endorsement because the tone of his approach to foreign policy is key. The way he talks about how he would lead America and work with other nations is both hopeful and unconventional, and yet grounded in his own experience living abroad and having ties to family abroad. I also like the way Obama speaks of the need to avoid the petty stuff of politics, the scoring of cheap political points and the bickering for no good reason. I am so tired of seeing good people hurt by petty politicians on narcissistic power trips. I really hope Obama’s intelligence, kindness, and awareness of the larger picture carry him through all the garbage that politics sends his way.

The Right to Quit an Abusive Employer is Under Attack

I say to my colleagues, nurses and nurses aids, that health care is something you have to be suited for. You can screw up at the supermarket, or at the factory, but if you screw up really bad in health care you don’t get fired. You get arrested.

Bad nurses are dangerous, and they should be fired if they can’t correct their problems. Abuse, neglect, or any other criminal offense should be prosecuted. The least powerful position in health care is lying in a bed looking up. Patients need to be protected.

But some of the worst patient abuse happens far from the bedside. It happens in corporate offices and secret meetings. The law is not vigilant in the prosecution of corporations and individuals who cause widespread harm by greed and mismanagement. It took ages for the blame at the Hillside Nursing Home to find its way up to the owners, Antonio Giordano and John J. Montecalvo who were skimming and defrauding. Almost a million dollars, but how much more was taken legally? Cutting staff, cutting supplies, stretching care so thin that 87 year old Germaine Morsilli developed bedsores. She went untreated so long that even a transfer to another nursing home where she was given decent care couldn’t save her life.

There are national nursing home chains that make huge profits by cutting cost, and staffing is one of the biggest costs. Cut staff, cut quality, Is it a crime when you sit in an office and shuffle papers and the people who suffer are far away? Easier to blame the nurses.

So, two recent stories show health care workers as pawns in a global market. First, from the New York Times

Rich countries are poaching so many African health workers that the practice should be viewed as a crime, a team of international disease experts say in the British medical journal The Lancet. More than 13,000 doctors trained in sub-Saharan Africa are now practicing in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia, leaving behind colleagues with impossible caseloads.

A crime. Strong words from The Lancet.

Second story from the L.A. Times, which still has a few reporters left…

For months, the nurses complained that they were subject to demeaning and unfair working conditions – not what they were promised when they came to America from the Philippines in search of a better life. So they abruptly quit.

But in doing so, they put more than their careers at risk: Prosecutors hit them with criminal charges for allegedly jeopardizing the lives of terminally ill children they were in charge of watching.

The 10 nurses and the attorney who advised them were charged with conspiracy and child endangerment in what defense lawyers say is an unprecedented use of criminal law in a labor dispute. If convicted of the misdemeanor offenses, they face up to a year in jail on each of 13 counts, and could lose their nursing licenses and be deported.

The case has unfolded against the backdrop of a chronic nursing shortage in the United States. All of the defendants were from the Philippines, which exported 120,000 nurses last year.

Note the word, ‘unprecedented’. This is a novel approach to managing those human resources. Or maybe we’re taking a page from American history, pre-Civil War.

Democratic Underground, links to a news broadcast that covers some important facts. Most important, none of the patients were harmed by the nurse’s action. Clearly, the facility was able to get other nurses to cover the immediate need. The home served severely disabled children, some on ventilators. The staffing ratio was unconscionable. The home had one or two nurses each shift. How they kept those children alive I don’t know, but all of them were severely stressed and unhappy. For months they tried working through the system, having to argue daily with the supervisors about the dangerous workload, but only came to fear that giving notice would result in reprisals. They actually felt that in two weeks their employer would find a way to take their licence. Finally, on the advice of a lawyer, they all resigned. The last nurse on stayed four extra hours so the children would have some care. That is more than enough time for the manager to call a temp agency and hire some temp nurses. It’s expensive, but I assume they did that since there was really no other choice.

The news video includes an anguished mother wondering who will take care of her daughter. For a parent in that situation the safety net is very thin.

The most interesting part of the DU post is the comments. One reader asked if nurses take some kind of oath. Actually we do. And we’re held to a high code of ethics. And we can get sued, or lose our licence as well. But we don’t lose all our rights as workers when we choose this work. Forced overtime, threats, danger to nurses and patients from understaffing — these are not acceptable. Some nurses posted comments about unsafe situations they refused, or jobs they had to quit. If you want to know what’s really happening with health care, you’ll want to read them.

Some say that immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do. That’s nonsense. Americans will do any kind of work. But we don’t have to suffer being underpaid and overworked if we can quit and find another job. Getting prosecuted for quitting a job is a new development. This seems like a test of the power of an employer to use the law to punish and intimidate a worker who simply wants to quit. If you work for a living, you should watch this case. Guest workers today, who next?

What Would Obama Do?

I’m reading the surreal story of how the Clinton campaign is barring Mayor David Cicilline from attending her Sunday appearance, and I’m wondering what, in similar circumstances, Obama would do? In fact, if Cicilline does change his endorsement from Clinton to Obama, will Obama allow him to attend his events?

I’m surprised that the Clinton campaign has taken such a strong stance in barring Cicilline. The way things are going, it would seem they can hardly afford the negative publicity and inevitable backlash. We’ll see how Clinton, Obama and Cicilline handle things from here, but I’m betting that a migration of support is in the works.

Alien Nation

It’s the pre-dawn, a light snow is falling, I’m all caffeinated and I have to be at work soon. No time to put it all together, so I throw out the things that wake me up early.

I’m wondering about the half dozen people who picketed Michelle Obama’s campaign appearance at CCRI this week with signs that said, ‘Stop Illegal Immigration’. Were they with the man who held the Ron Paul sign?

I’m thinking of a post I want to start called, ‘Why Don’t They Just Learn English?’ I see some of my elderly clients struggle, and partly succeed, or give up and accept a kind of segregation. It’s definitely harder when a person is old. Add a stroke, or trauma, and sometimes it’s not possible. But just throwing it out as a question, what are the barriers? Have any of our readers learned English as a second language? Want to comment?

A friend wrote a letter to the ProJo in defense of immigrants and received hate mail at his home.

We the taxpayers are funding a Great Wall of Texas. When Pres. George Bush first took office it actually looked like he was going to talk with Pres. Vincente Fox of Mexico and address the problem of the joblessness that drives people over the border in the first place. After Pres. Fox refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ things got frosty. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, and saner, for our next president to re-open communications and build a legal temporary worker system that is safe and open? Also, I’m worried about the Canadians. They’re so quiet. They must be up to something.

Lani Guinier’s remarks about ‘demonizing’ those we disagree with have a synchronicity with a number of articles about the revival of exorcism in the Catholic Church. What’s up with this? As an ex-Catholic, and a former Pentecostal, I could tell a few stories about exorcism. Been there, done that. Is this all part of a new wave of xenophobia? Has WWII taught us nothing?

Finally, for no particular reason, a heartwarming story, sort of…

Walter Adler was touched that Hassan Askari jumped to his aid while a group of thugs allegedly pummeled and taunted him and his three friends. So Adler has invited his new friend over to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

The two new pals – Adler, 23, with a broken nose and a fat lip, and Askari, 20, with two black eyes – broke bread together and laughed off the bruises the night after the fisticuffs.

“A random Muslim guy jumped in and helped a Jewish guy on Hanukkah – that’s a miracle,” said Adler, an honors student at Hunter College.

“He’s basically a hero. Hassan jumped in to help us.”

It all began when Adler, his girlfriend, Maria Parsheva, and two other pals boarded the subway at Canal Street bound for Brooklyn and someone in another group wished them “Merry Christmas.”

Adler and his pal Angelica Krischanovich responded: “Happy Hanukkah.”

Apparently, those were fighting words.

“They just came at us so fast. The first thing that came into my mind was, ‘Yeah, this is going to be violent,’ ” said Parsheva, 20.

Ten people were arrested in the underground attack on Friday night – including two men who have been arrested for race crimes before.

I saw a patient this week. She came here from Russia, she struggles with English, but she managed to say these words, “Thank you, America.� Crazy as we all are, I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world.