Friday, September 30

Presidential

The president is expected to serve all US citizens, and it's disturbing that a candidate could single out individuals for a few humiliating insults. Namely, Donald Trump's bizarre obsession with comedian Rosie O'Donnell and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado during the first presidential debate. 

Trump hurried to squeeze in a comment as the moderator posed the debate's final question: "You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it's said in entertainment. Some of it's said -- somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her." 

Trump is at a disadvantage for such discussions. On one hand, his disagreements with the two women have nothing to do with policy and everything to do with vindictiveness. On the other hand, repeated attempts to convince others while standing on a stage before a global audience that the two women deserve scorn and ridicule is a disturbing display of sexism, pettiness, bullying, debate ineptitude, a lack of serious priorities and more.

He persists on the wrong issues, and regardless of what was said or done in the past, individuals do not deserve the scorn of presidential candidates. No one requires thicker skin than the president of the United States.  

Perhaps Stephen Colbert said it best when he noted that Trump had managed to alienate yet another key US demographic, the obese. About 35 percent of American are obese, reports the National Institutes of Health. And demographics overlap. Criticizing one group can siphon off supporters from another group regardless of ethnicity, gender, age and more. Consider that three out of four adult men of voting age are overweight as compared with two out of three women.

More than one pundit has noticed that Trump often lashes out difficulties he has shared, though he may not recognize these in obesity, adultery, or lack of workable plans or stamina during a debate.

The best leader is a good role model. Leadership embraces sacrifice, a sense of calm and resolve with a willingness to listen. Good leadership is about a vision for potential that encompasses dignity, humility and consideration for others. Such leaders promote journalism, education, science, good citizenship and democracy over conflict and entertainment.

Consider the words of George Washington, "There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."And then Abraham Lincoln: "Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in." And also from Lincoln, "I am in a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

The country must strive to organize around a common sense of facts. Polarization, promoting a sense of otherness and relying on a crutch of ideological alignment, threatens the country's greatness. There is wisdom in the simple golden rule and the sentiment of "There by the grace of God go I..."

Fear of Beauty is the story of a fictional and remote village in Afghanistan,where a woman defies her family and a small group of extremist bullies by secretly learning how to read. 

Wednesday, September 21

Brazen

Allure of Deceit is about charity going awry, serving personal agendas and warping incentives. Of course, charities are a tool and so much of their purpose and worth depend on the creator's vision and managers' skills.

The leading candidates in this year's presidential race each have ties to major charities bearing their names. We have commented about the Clinton Foundation, and the Washington Post now investigates the Donald J. Trump Foundation: "Donald Trump spent more than a quarter-million dollars from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits that involved the billionaire’s for-profit businesses, according to interviews and a review of legal documents," reports David A. Fahrenthold. "Those cases, which together used $258,000 from Trump’s charity, were among four newly documented expenditures in which Trump may have violated laws against 'self-dealing' - which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses."

Essentially, the article claims that donors receive tax deductions on what they give to the foundation and the foundation turns around and uses those funds to settle various business expenses.The funds were also used to purchase portraits of the foundation's namesake. "More broadly, these cases­ also provide new evidence that Trump ran his charity in a way that may have violated U.S. tax law and gone against the moral conventions of philanthropy," Farenthold concludes.

Many charities serve worthy purposes with dedicated staff and scrupulous research into problems and accounting of expenses. The wisest, most caring charities should support an end to tax deductions for charitable contributions because the charlatans are threatening all giving and charitable programs. Ordinary donors are hit with an unending stream of requests by mail and phone for contributions, and it's easy to say no. 

With increasing numbers of charities emerging to take advantage of tax write-offs, hundreds of thousands created in the last decade alone, too many tackle problems in flighty and inefficient ways.  Or, they don't tackle problems at all: "for every dollar donated and deducted by wealthy taxpayers paying taxes at a 35 percent marginal tax rate, the US loses 35 cents of potential income tax revenue," even as "the government struggles to provide essential health and education services,"  I wrote in 2011.

The essay contributed to the ideas about charity in Allure of Deceit. A murder victim in Allure of Deceit is a wealthy woman whose research focused on cross-country comparisons of charitable giving versus government spending and efficiency. She did not like how the notion of charitable giving could reinforce inequality: "The origin of the word forgiving was giving and traced how charitable practices over the years implied that recipients were wrongdoers who were weak and deserved no control." The victim's mother-in-law disregards such principles, starting a foundation and using its resources to investigate the reasons behind the murder.

"An open public process, prioritizing projects based on needs, would provide more efficient funding than relying on the whims of a few. Individuals passionate for a particular cause or innovation (or those thrilled to see their family names on a museum, clinic, or university hall) would still give – and should," the 2011 essay concluded.

Some basic services like education and health care are too vital for personal agendas and the scattershot approach. Tax deductions for charitable contributions can't end too soon.

Copy of the painting Charity Relieving Distress by Thomas Gainsborough, 1727 to 1788, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Thursday, September 1

Progress

Many appreciated Fear of Beauty, published in January 2013, because of the novel's hopeful message about characters in the midst of  a war against religious fanatics who imposed senseless rules and controls, often targeting women with prohibitions on employment, education and family planning.

But even in the darkest moments, the human spirit can persevere. Women use the available setting and tools at hand to satisfy the natural human yearning to learn and grow and improve.

So it's gratifying to read an article about women organizing small village farm unions in Afghanistan and diversifying crops, a development foreshadowed by Sofi's furtive work in Fear of Beauty. 

"The unions, in updating age-old agricultural traditions, have helped ensure a more reliable and diverse food supply in an often famine-struck region. In the process, the women who run the groups are finding new status and empowerment," explains Mujib Mashal for the New York Times, who describes farms adding cauliflower, tomatoes, beans, all kinds of vegetables in addition to wheat and potatoes. Such diversification boosts both economies and nutrition.  "The unions have put the women of Bamian on the front line of a critical struggle: the effort to shape a sustainable Afghan economy, away from dependence on foreign aid."
 
Foreign aid and the dangers of hidden agendas and over-dependence are also explored in Allure of Deceit.  

The article's descriptions of Afghanistan are reminiscent of those in both novels - from the narrow and winding roads against treacherous mountainsides as well as the descriptions of support and lessons on new techniques from the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, so similar to the novel's stories about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Do check out the article - the story is inspiring, and the photos will bring a rush of memories about fictional Laashekoh.  

Photo of Afghan village, courtesy of US Air Force, Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor,  and Wikimedia Commons.