By Michael I. Niman
I’m sick of endless pontificating about body language at debates, who “connects” with voters, who’s polling better with gerbil owners, or any other nonsense that diverts us from discussing crucially import issues.
I think we’re all pretty much in agreement that we’re at a scary juncture in human history, though we might disagree about what scares us. (Sometimes I think it’s mostly each other.) The reality is, if we’re going to move forward sharing a fragile planet, fragile economy, and fragile democracy, we’d damn well better upgrade our political conversation.
Toward that end, I’ve put together a list of 12 issues that should be central to political debates and discussions but are being ignored or fatally downplayed by our media and politicians.
The Supreme Court is at the top of my list because it has the power to nullify laws that address the problems listed below or sustain laws that exasperate these problems. If the court is corrupt, beholden to environmental criminals, anti-democratic forces or ideological zealots, then the damage it can do will make this list moot. The winner of the 2012 presidential election will select at least one and probably two justices. These justices could conceivably serve on the bench into the 2060s.
I’m sick and tired of all of this endless babble about the supposed middle class, as if poor and working-class Americans, who now arguably outnumber members of the middle class, do not exist. Yes, it sucks to be struggling in the middle class today, with so many middle-class families descending into poverty. This is why we need to stop ignoring poverty, which sucks even more. Our social inequality numbers are off the charts, with the one percent amassing wealth at a greater rate than even during the Gilded Age, while the number of Americans in poverty skyrockets, and the desperation of that poverty continues to fester.
Tens of millions of Americans regularly suffer homelessness, food insecurity or malnutrition, and a lack of access to healthcare and decent educational opportunities. This is more than an issue that true values voters should abhor. Such social disparity is corrosive to a democracy and threatens to unravel the very fabric of society. Poverty leads to desperation, violence, pandemic health issues, and social and political disengagement. It is shameful that candidates, in their rhetorical obsession with the middle class, choose ignore the poor—or worse, scapegoat them as if it were the scraps we throw to the poor, and not our wars and corrupt financial sector, that crashed the economy and grew the debt.
Over a century of campaign finance reform laws were shredded in 2011 by corporatist judges on the US Supreme Court. These activist judges used the now famous Citizens United case, challenging a prohibition against the use of corporate money to fund a political hit job documentary, to revisit prior court decisions and overturn restrictions against unlimited campaign contributions. The new political terrain, unlike anything any of us have seen in our lifetimes, allows unlimited, untraceable, anonymous, “dark money” contributions to political action committees supporting or opposing candidates. Since last year, we’ve seen our airwaves and mailboxes filled with propaganda. Bottomless pools of right-wing and corporate money fund near total information dominance, which is the holy grail of propaganda. Corporate-funded puppet candidates are currently passing legislation in statehouses across the country changing the face of environmental laws, consumer protection laws, and civil rights laws, including those protecting voter rights. Since it’s impossible to compete with a well-funded candidate, candidates in both parties now chase corporate dollars, making political corruption the norm.
The Republican primary wasn’t so long ago that we should forget how unpopular Mitt Romney was and is with Republican voters. But they will turn out to support him in the general election because Barack Obama is even less popular among Republicans, to put it mildly. On the Democratic side, people concerned about tar sands, hydraulic fracking, the growing surveillance state, civil and human rights, assassination by presidential decree, and drone wars are pretty disgusted with the Obama presidency. But to them, the alternative, a Romney/Ryan White House and a Republican House and Senate, is unthinkable. Hence, many Democrats will vote for Obama just to have the space to keep their struggles alive.
Off the table are alternatives ranging from the far-right Libertarians to the environmentalist, egalitarian Green Party, because neither stands a chance in a gamed system that guarantees a Republican-Democratic lock on our major elections. Adopting an inclusive parliamentary system, which is the norm among industrialized democracies, would require a constitutional convention and probably a civil war.
There is another alternative that can be adopted on a state-by-state basis: runoff elections when no candidate secures over 50 percent of the vote. Under this system, a vote for a Ralph Nader or Ross Perot would not be a “wasted” vote or a vote for a “spoiler.” Voters could vote their conscience instead of their fears in the first election round, greatly expanding the political debate and possibilities. The top two vote winners would fight it out in a final round. Instant runoff elections could even allow voters to choose first and second choices on the same ballot.
Imagine how dynamic our politics could become with active Libertarian, Conservative, Green, and Liberal parties added to the mix. This is exactly the inclusive debate that would address the issues on this list, and which the funders of the Republican-Democratic duopoly desperately want to avoid, and want to keep their media cronies from discussing.
Politicians should make policy decisions, especially about environmental issues, based on empirical evidence. This seems like basic common sense. But many of our policy makers today ignore overwhelming scientific consensuses on issues such as global warming, instead choosing to make policy decisions based on the myths, dogmas, ancient texts, or prophetic visions of their chosen religions. We now have government leaders in charge of scientific policy who publicly argue that the universe was created 5,000 years ago. What this has led to is a party, now in control of the US House of Representatives, and possibly, pending the outcome of next month’s election, the White House, whose environmental policy can only be described as rapture dependent.
I’ve prioritized the preceding five issues on the top of my list because they hamper our ability to address the next seven, which I believe are life-or-death issues for humanity.
Environmentally, this is the elephant in the room. The more people on the planet, the more energy we need, the more land we recklessly develop, the more garbage and sewage we produce, and so on. When Jesus was born, there were approximately 200 million people living on earth. There were 700 million at the time of the American Revolution. By 1950 there were 2.5 billion. This year we surpassed seven billion, and our virus-like reproduction rate is still trending upward.
To accommodate the needs of this population, we are consuming our few remaining ancient forests, destroying the very lungs by which the earth breathes and produces oxygen, not to mention causing extinctions and wrecking delicately balanced ecosystems, including those on which humanity relies for its survival. Religious zealots, who have historically relied on breeding new followers, maintain a sacred right to breed themselves and the rest of us into annihilation.
Energy-wise, we’re like dying, toothless meth heads snorting our poison to our last breaths. Our global energy addiction, driven by our childlike refusal to give up our toys and our zombie-like hunger for consumer trinkets, has driven us to reckless frontiers in energy exploitation. The new “extreme energy” comes from removing mountain tops to expose coal, removing thousands of square miles of earth to expose tar sands, and injecting a toxic slurry of chemicals deep into the earth to frack for both oil and natural gas. The new technologies not only extend our destructive carbon-burning culture for another century; the technologies themselves are carbon- and water-intensive, adding even more carbon to our atmosphere and oceans.
Lots of money is being made right now on fracking, tar sands, and deep-water drilling. The people making this money would rather we didn’t talk about these issues.
Global warming, or if you prefer, climate change, is now our reality. We are well beyond being able to do anything to avert catastrophic climate change, and probably were already well on the warming road back in the 1960s when the public first began debating the effects of atmospheric carbon. The most optimistic models now argue that we still have time, if we act immediately, to perhaps avoid tipping points that would put us on the road to extinction. In the short run, the climate change we are already experiencing mandates that we upgrade our infrastructure. With 500-year floods now becoming regular events, we need to move populations to less vulnerable areas, rethink transportation tunnels, raise highway beds, etc. With storms becoming more frequent and more intense, we need to engineer and build beefier buildings. With our food system threatened by floods and droughts, we need to explore new agricultural options.
The earth is becoming less hospitable. We can continue to survive and prosper, perhaps, but it will take a massive collective effort to retool and adapt to this new environment. And this will be expensive. The carbon industries would rather we not have this discussion, instead partying on as the world burns around us and reaping massive profits, the survival of their grandchildren be damned.
This is another one of those empirical science issues. Just like with global warming, we’re seeing a consensus among oceanic studies predicting mass extinctions of sea life. And as with global warming, it’s all happening a lot faster than almost anyone predicted. A World Resource Institute study projects that all of the world’s coral reefs could be gone by 2050. The sum effects of warming water, loss of ice cover, acidification, a plethora of pollutants, overfishing, and oxygen depletion are threatening, according to a comprehensive 2011 report from the International Program on the State of the Ocean, “the next globally significant extinction event.”
They compare the upcoming oceanic cataclysm to the five global extinction events experienced during the past 600 million years. The oceans don’t just provide a tasty alternative to beef and chicken±our very survival on land is tied to the health of the seas. Most of these gloomy studies have an upside, however, arguing that if we act quickly and swiftly, we can probably avert the most dire scenarios and salvage a debatable amount of ocean life. But if there is going to be action, we need to discuss this issue, not hide from it so that BP can continue its deep-water gambles and plastic manufacturers can continue flooding the world with disposable products that wind up in Texas-sized floating garbage patches.
Fresh, drinkable water is arguably the earth’s most important resource. Overdevelopment in arid areas is depleting water tables while extreme energy exploration threatens aquifers with fracking fluids. Toxic agricultural runoff, industrial wastes, burst oil pipelines, mine tailings, etc. are poisoning fresh water around the world, threatening half the world’s population with water insecurity. The US National Intelligence Council warns that over the next 10 years, this water insecurity will increase the risk of political instability and the possible collapse of nation states.
We need to take immediate steps to protect fresh water at home and abroad. Hence, we need to talk about this issue. Developers, mining companies, oil and gas extractors, and pesticide manufactures would rather we didn’t, and we don’t.
Since the start of the George W. Bush presidency and the “global war on terror,” we’ve begun to take all sorts of violations of our rights to privacy and free speech for granted. The US has become a surveillance state, with not only government agencies but private data miners watching and recording our lives. Americans who dare venture out and peaceably exercise their right to protest regularly face violent repression backed up by judicial harassment. For many Americans across the political spectrum, this new Big Brother apparatus represents the antithesis of American values. So do assassinations by presidential decree, where people, including American citizens, are executed without the benefit of any due process. Greens on the left and Libertarians on the right have both tried to force the issue, but it’s still a nonstarter in presidential politics, and the media is not raising the question with either major party candidate. Corporations profiting from our growing prison-industrial state and politicians with fantasies of fascism would rather we talk about something else.
The problems discussed here, such as shortages of fresh water and extinctions of ocean life, threaten our global food system. Suburbanization and destructive resource mining are removing agricultural land from cultivation as the population continues to grow, all adding stress to the food supply. Agribusiness industries have converted a once diverse food supply into one that more and more is dependent upon an ever decreasing handful of profitable crops. This lack of biodiversity exposes the food system to major disruptions should blight hit one or more of the handfuls of crops upon which we now depend so heavily.
The wholesale adoption of genetically modified organisms that have not been thoroughly tested poses another threat to the food system. The long-term health effects of consuming some GMOs are questionable, yet we are now seeing windborne genetic pollution of heritage crops. While farmers have historically rotated crops to ward off soil depletion, agribusiness farms often practice monocropping, planting the same crop in the same place year after year, depending on fertilizers to replace depleted nutrients. Opponents argue that this practice depletes the soil while exposing watersheds to toxic fertilizer runoff. These arguments and discussions are about threats to an ever increasingly stressed food system. The agribusiness and pesticide industries that are profiting from fertilizer intensive monocropping, the spread of GMOs, and the farming of a select handful of supercrops don’t want us to talk about these issues.
There are a few important issues such as education funding, reproductive freedom, the Afghanistan war, Social Security, healthcare, taxation, and student debt that candidates and the media actually sometimes discuss—that from time to time break through the endless vapid chatter. Hence, those issues aren’t on this list. Also, because this is a top dozen list, there are a plethora of other issues that are absent but certainly shouldn’t be forgotten. Nuclear power, for example, would be my choice for number 13.
Unfortunately, this could be a very long list. These issues are engulfed in a deafening silence, both on the part of candidates and the media. This is inexcusable. This toxic silence prevents us from having national policy discussions about crucial issues at the only juncture, election time, where we the people have a voice. The future demands more from us right now.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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