Archive for November, 2011

11/30/2011

Glass House Syndrome

As some of my close friends know, my commute to work is long and tough, no different from many of the other millions of folks who live and work in the Tri-State area. IT takes me traveling 1.5 to 2 hours each way, by way of 2 trains and 1 bus as I shuffle between New York and New Jersey.

Waiting at Newark Penn for the bus home always is the most tedious part of my commute. It’s not necessarily because of the bus ride itself, but it’s some of the things I get to see there that never fails to remind me of the not so pleasant side of the American dream. Now every New Yorker worth their salt has seen the homeless in some of the more prestigious places, trying to sleep and get food – among other things. New York Penn Station at certain times of the night one can find a fair amount of people sleeping in certain spots that you can tell are homeless. I’ve heard some people complain about it, and I laugh thinking – “if you think that’s an “eyesore” (from their perspective), come hang out at Newark Penn Station for a few hours”.

I’ve gotten used to some of the “regular faces” who work the side of the bus lane that I wait on nightly to head home. I do the usual routine of shaking my head to say no when they ask for assistance. The ones that work this side of the lanes are women, even though I nearly cursed out some dude who was flashing me his entitlement card after his “associate” was asking for money and I politely declined. Even though I see theses “regulars” on a daily basis, I’m still not completely desensitized to their plight.

What really stood out to me where two instances last weeknight as to why one of my top ten old Jamaican proverbs still rings true: “if you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones”.

I’m waiting for the bus as usual and I see a hearing impaired women approach me for assistance, and I politely declined. As I continue to wait I seek her walk up to a party of three: a Caucasian male, a Caucasian female and an African-American male talking. This group gave the impression that the “white folk” were either not from the area or not used to traveling by bus. The hearing impaired woman (African-American) did her best to try to get the African-American guy’s attention, and he just kept on talking to his companions. She did her best to get his attention and you could see him move purposely to physically block her from interrupting his conversation. She made three attempts to getting his attention, getting more agitated in her tone. Finally she gave up and left.

What stood out for me was how much efforts he put into  blocking this woman out and how disparaging his comment were to his companions once she left. Perhaps my line of thought is inappropriate, but simply saying no would have been sufficient. None of how he chose to handle the situation was necessary. Often times these folks are highly aware of how degrading and helpless it feels to constantly put themselves out there at the mercy of the public for assistance. Rejection is often brutal in how the public chooses to perceive them. Another layer of this story was pretty telling as well. If one chose to look at the episode from the perspective of someone propping themselves up to look good in front of others – especially with the particular ethnicities involved– I wouldn’t object to that take at all. Could it have been intentional? Who knows, but it was a possibility by virtue of who was present.

The following night I was waiting for my bus and saw a woman sauntering through, talking loudly. She had cup in one hand and cigarette in the other. Based on how her gait you could clearly tell she was drinking. For reasons known only to her she started talking about the things she was thankful for and how she was dealing with “being an addict”. Some guy on his cell phone decided to chastise her, talking about how she should seek God to get her to change if she really wants help. They got into a back and forth with him telling her how much “better than she he was”, and she telling him to mind his own business.

As I listened to the exchange, I almost felt compelled to jump in and tell the guy to back off, because in fact, he ISN’T as better than she is that he tries to claim. If the lady is indeed as addicted as she claims, it’s not as simple for many as “finding Jesus”. Many Christians have told me that “finding Jesus is easy, but walking with Him is hard”. Being exposed to chemical dependency filed has shown me that recovery is a long-term process often characterized by achieving daily milestones. Individuals in recovery aren’t dealing with abstract issues but concrete problems surround their drug of choice and reasons behind ingestion. So just like the man above, his goal was never to help; it was really to pile onto the woman’s situation and prop himself up at the same time.

Both instances to me were small examples in the glasses house syndrome of taking advantage of the less empowered for personal use. The truth is no matter how you slice it, often times it’s done by people who are either blind to their own sense of “relative entitlement and advantage” or even worse by those who know and make a point o stick it to someone else. With how things are, there are many persons who are one or two stone throws away from being in somewhat similar circumstances. Many American walk around with too much on their plate; some often use the “opportunity” to compare themselves to others they feel are “worse off” than them in order to prop of their own self-esteem or escape from the harrows momentarily. That is often such a shame.

I say: help if you can, pray for them if you can’t. Just don’t stone them, especially if you cannot afford to replace your own broken windows if you were being exploited too.

11/29/2011

No Monkeying Around

“The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.” Robert Benchley 1889-1945.

11/28/2011

Guns In, Guns Out

Last night while sitting on my couch and facing an uninteresting football match up, I decided to call an audible and grabbed the remote and went channel surfing. I landed on CURRENT TV, and spent the next 3 hours watching 3 episodes of their Vanguard documentary program. The programs I watched were: Arming The Mexican Cartels, City of God Guns and Gangs, and Guns In America. As I watched all three I couldn’t help but wonder about the sense of entitlement that I has seen as one of the common threads running through the documentaries.

Arming The Mexican Cartels focused on the flow of guns between US border towns and Juarez,Mexico, a town with one of the highest global homicide rates. The crew filmed various homicide scenes, saw how easy it was to obtain high powered assault rifles at guns shows in nearby US border towns,  and even interviewed a contract cartel hitman in Juarez. The documentary took on an even more somber tone as we saw one of the local guide’s cousins became a victim of the drug related homicides.

City of God, Guns, and Gangs takes a look at Rio de Janeiro, a place I would definitely love to go visit. With Brazil the host of the FIFA 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, the government has decided to make some drastic steps to beef up security and tackle crime in some of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods, the favelas (www.macalester.edu/courses/geog61/chad/thefavel.htm). Slated as Pacification, the government’s security forces aim to take back control of 40 of the city’s most crime ridden favelas in time for the World Cup and Olympics to add an increased sense of security to Rio. How successful with this be? Only time will tell.

Guns in America takes an interesting look at gun culture in the US. The film crew went to Knob Creek KY at a gun range and show gun enthusiasts on display and the type of weapons that such a hobby allowed men, women and even kids (9 years old with supervision of course) had access to. Then another side of gun culture was examined with a stop in Camden NJ to see how law enforcement is battling taking guns off the street.

What struck me the most in all three episodes was how pervasive the level of entitlement that existed among the various groups of people involved. Now, one of the core elements of the founding of the US is the (in)famous 2nd Amendment – the “right to bear arms”. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the biggest gun lobbyists here in the US. The amount of power that they wield is just tremendous and they have been a long standing bulwark against many of the much needed gun reforms in the US.

Many NRA members either forget or chose to be unaware of how different gun culture is in different areas. It’s one thing to be a hobbyist and own a collection of guns if all you’re doing is hunting, and sport shooting. Man, you should have seen the range of firepower (including a napalm flamethrower) on display at the Knob Creek gun range the film crew visited. All of the hobbyists were acutely aware of the paperwork needed to maintain their hobby. All other things constant, you basically had to meet 2 requirements: being privileged – I saw only one ethnic group on display there – and a clean criminal record.

Still, it is a different animal when one feels compelled to own a gun when their survival is threatened in the form of limited economic resources and constant violence around them.

And therein lies the type of disconnect that such entitlement breeds. Just because it’s not in your neck of the woods – and couldn’t be because you’d shoot it out there – doesn’t mean that it does happen. I was stunned, but no surprised at how brazen the circular logic was used by various people interviewed in the “Guns in American” and “Arming the Mexican Cartels” documentaries. One person said that the government needs to do a better job of policing themselves. Someone else said that the government should focus more on securing the borders and not attacking individual 2nd Amendment rights. There were conspiracy theorists stating that the government was directly supplying the cartels. WTF?

Even those involved in the criminal activities showed a level of entitlement too. From the drug traffickers in Rio’s favelas to the hit men inJuarez, the prevailing sense was because they were in a position of relative power from being arm, they were entitled to have a say as to how a life was handled. Now I’m not here trying to defend them, but you get the sense that after seeing people die either at your own hands or by others, a level of desensitization to life itself has really morphed their outlook. The socioeconomic issues behind Rio’s favelas and some ofJuarez’s toughest neighborhoods have put some young men in the position to be armed and trade the lives of others for their own survival. Some even seem to relish the position of power of being god with a gun in hand, and that is the most troubling thought.

Looking at the favelas and certain shots of the cities of Juarez and Camden remind me of my own sights of similar places – both back home in Jamaica and in spots of Newark and NYC. Yes, even in NYC there as certain places one can walk through as visually be transported to a seemingly very dingy and decadent place by virtue of the building’s exteriors. It just reminded me that more often than not that one is likely to see more places like these than the prestige to be found in Midtown Manhattan, downtown Rio and Miami’s South Beach.

Still, aren’t people’s basic rights the same, no matter where they live or how their environment looks?

Many people in law enforcement actually support the rights of law abiding citizens to bear arms in the US, and other places as well. The problem is always managing people’s intent. It is a complex issue. Especially in the US, regulations for gun dealers and individual private sellers are markedly different. While gun dealers suffer with (relatively speaking) more bureaucracy for their guns sales, an individual private seller has the right to sell his guns to whomever he chooses that supplies the cash. Many dealers and private sellers have a strong disdain for gun control. But, I am sure that if a gun dealer or gun seller got in a shoot out or lost a loved one to an illegal gun their outlook would be markedly different.

I guess it comes back to “us survive any how we have to” (from Dispear – Nas and Damian Marley) viewpoint. Many of those underlying socioeconomic issues profiled in all three documentaries are highly chronic with long term solutions slow in coming. Still, I cannot be help but be of the belief that if organizations like the NRA were more proactive in being partners in solving some of these problems, change might come sooner. But it may not be in some people’s interest – maybe the dealers, and mid to low level folks engaged in criminal activities – to not offer a replacement income stream. It always does boil down to the way of the capitalist at the end of the day it seems.

Still, I am reminded of a sobering truth by a comment made by the gun dealer interviewed in the Guns In America piece: “it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people.”

11/26/2011

Politics 101

“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Edmund Burke 1729-97.

11/25/2011

Embracing Progress

“Progress, therefoe is not an accident but a necessity…It is a part of nature.” Herbert Spencer 1820-1903.

11/24/2011

Virtues of Hope

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;  man never  Is, but always To be the blest.”  Alexander Pope 1688-1744.

11/23/2011

Power 101: Is the Goal Fear or Respect?

Here’s the final piece in the Power 101 series…

So when someone decides that it is time to take action after a long period of being disenfranchised, there is one question that often goes unanswered overtly in their decision-making process?

Is the goal of wielding power fear or respect?

Both elements are great motivators – seemingly the bellows that breathes air into the furnace or the woodchips that stoke the fire of wielding power. So in the same vein that whatever foods we put in our bodies can either healthy or harmful, so can the goals of power shape how it is wielded and received by all parties involved.

History is littered with the bones and stories of folks who’ve stokes their fiery desires to wield power with the wood chips of fear. There is nothing that can get someone’s attention of being fearful of an individual. Gangs use physical beatings and violent acts as tools to keep members in line. Dictators have preyed on their own people to push forward their own ideals, and parents have used excessive corporal punishment to keep kids in line for years. Still, with all this fear what it really breeds is a uneviable cycle of destruction.

Here’s what you can get by living by the creed of: “I rather be feared than respected” – that at some point someone who isn’t afraid of you will come in and impose fear on you to leave you powerless. A prime example is the plight one of my top 20 favorite books EVER – A Brighter Sun by Samuel Selvon. Set in post WW2 Trinidad, this book chronicles the life of a young Indian couple, Tiger and Urmilla. One of their neighbors and good friends was a black couple – Joe and Rita. Joe has a grand-aunt, Ma Lambie, who use to wear him out with excessive corporal punishment as a child during his upbringing under her care.

One of the book’s most powerful moments was one day Ma Lambie was being her old verbally abusive self, laying into Joe. Joe finally had enough and stood up for himself. But Ma Lambie would not back down and a confrontation ensued, where Joe beat his grand-aunt in a fine fashion. Once that incident occurred, she became a shell of a woman the rest of the way – while Joe was free from her reign, her scars of her abuse never left his heart and played out into his own relationship with Rita.

While I do not advocate excessive corporal punishment or domestic violence, one can see what people will do when fear metamorphoses into something far wore – hate. Some people are driven to wield power with fear in mind because they were the victim of misused power themselves. While it is hard to function fully under such circumstances, some have decided that doing things that way is what gets them ahead – and as far away from those feelings of being taken advantage of as much as possible. It then becomes killed or be killed, and a vicious cycle of usurpation ensues.

I suppose being powerful yet respected is the healthier of both goals. I means, it allows the good leaders to at least sleep comfortable at night. Still, the line between fear and respect is so razor-thin that depending on who you talk to, they both mean the same thing. Maybe like two sides to the same coin they are cautionary tales of how tricky the wielding of power really is.

Perhaps the ultimate aim that we should embrace  is the goal of wielding power with a healthy respect for others and a healthy fear of the consequences of its use.

11/22/2011

Power 101: A Uniform’s Appeal

Does the clothes really make the man? Or does the man make the clothes stand out in a crowd?

There’s nothing more alluring than seeing someone in uniform. Whether it’s a nurse outfit, military garb, a policeman’s hat, a pilot’s jacket, a lawyer’s briefcase or a power suit, something gets the blood rushing in many of us. So what is so special about the appeal of the uniform?

I suppose the pull of power plays on the feelings of the roles that these uniforms represent. Perhaps it is the allure of seeming self confidence that causes our own shoulders to straighten up and for respect and sex appeal to be instantly granted.  The person could be a real sleaze or asshole or a nice person, since the first thing we see are the clothes that’s the impression we go with until proven otherwise.

Is this right or wrong? Hard to say. I’ve got a friend who is a pilot and we crack jokes periodically of the fact that flying has always been one of those sure-fire ways to get the opposite sex after you – even flight students. Perhaps it’s more of the freedom of the job, the ability to master something complex in an adventurous way that often leaves people’s blood engorged.

Power apparently fuels both respect and sex appeal. We have been taught to not only respect power, but it’s ok to want it in a sexual way when it is wielded by people who wear a uniform. I’m always amazed at the differences in reactions I get when I wear a suit and when I don’t. While going on an interview one day, I’ve had a stranger come up to me on the train starting a very insightful conversation about business. He seemed pleasantly surprised that who I spoke matched how I was dressed at the time. The most ironic thing was that he wasn’t in a suit in the first place!

I’ve also seen an ex see me in a suit and had that look of longing even though we had a nasty break up ages ago – just because I was in a suit. Yes, power looks like it will cause us to make fundamental differences be swept aside for a passion filled moment.

It’s interesting to note how significant we view the genders in any uniform. You take a cop in uniform, for example. If it’s the guy in the uni, there’s the allure of being a protector, the apt knight in shining amour capable of saving any damsels in distress. Take a woman in the same uniform and you’re more likely to see the uniform enhances the attraction of the fact that she’s a woman in the first place.

It’s not so much about the uniform itself but what the person in uniform can do for those who see them.  Studies have shown that how men and women read what they are looking for in a partner are often seen in how they interacted with uniformed personnel.  Some of these studies have shown that gender differences in how uniforms are viewed are typically tied to physical beauty for men and prospective financial security and improved status for women(http://www.eurojournals.com/ejss_12_2_06.pdf). Seems like it’s always the old “tricking trade” that is the crux at the end of the day.

On the macro scale, people sometimes underestimate how a uniform’s shine gets tarnished when issues of abuse and misuse of power surface. With some of the recent articles in the news here in NYC, the NYPD continues to have its ongoing love/hate relationship with the general public. Every time there is an abuse of power by someone in any uniform it’s such a violation of trust and what the uniform is supposed to represent. That often permeates into even intimate relationships – hence the popularity of one myth I was exposed to growing up that it’s often “hell and powderhouse to date a cop, solider or preacher’s daughter”. We often lose sight of the humanity of the individual incident and then blanket all those who are doing their best to uphold the perceived integrity of the uniform they wear.

At the end of the day it’s how you relate to power that is important, and the uniform is a means to an end. While the clothes can help to enhance the man, it is often his persona that makes the ultimate difference.