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Guest opinion

Raising the minimum rage: A New Year’s revolution

A tongue-tied TV analyst was talking about salaries some time ago, and she referred to “a rise in the minimum rage.” That would have been a perfect Freudian slip for an America ready to storm its Bastilles. If only.

Hardly outraged, we hand over our keys to self-serving politicians and grasping tycoons who betray our basic values. Police gun down kids with impunity. If we don’t wield pitchforks now, our democracy may soon become serfdom.

We need a New Year’s revolution.

Consider this Facebook note I just received from a friend near Woodstock, in New York, where a ’60s generation imagined a better world:

“The ignorance, lack of concern and of awareness are beyond belief. A huge swath of the population does exactly nothing. I mean nothing. Young adults, many jobless, stay home, watch cartoons, get high or drunk every day and leave the house only if they get a ride and then only go to the food pantry or Social Services.”

And they don’t vote. In the last New York election for governor, turnout was 28 percent. Half of America routinely shuns the polls. This means small bands of party activists can sway a plurality to their side.

For revolution, voting is primordial. We need leaders, whether Democrat or Republican, with the integrity to represent us all in Washington, state capitals and municipalities. If they fail us, we have to sound off. In some countries, protesters camp for weeks in snow facing gun barrels. It is easier in America.

But elections are just the starting point. To ensure that we are led well, we need to follow real news and understand its vital nuances. And we need a firm grasp of the history that shows how we got to where we are.

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This is a call to arms from a reporter who has watched American realities play out at home and across six continents since the early 1960s.

John F. Kennedy inspired my generation with zeal to do the right thing, but, however noble his intentions, Vietnam went horribly wrong. He headed us into deepening debacle. When we finally gave in, 13 years after he died, we missed the crucial lesson: ancient societies reject outside saviors with a shopping list.

Ronald Reagan played his role well, moving us to tears on Normandy beaches and at the Berlin Wall. Yet his Central American “freedom fighters” shielded fascists who tortured and killed. At home, he dumbed down schools, broke unions and opened a widening abyss between the rich and the desperate.

Bill Clinton, worldly as he is, did too little in Bosnia, nothing to stop Rwandan genocide and not enough to corner Osama Bin Laden. But, at home, he left behind balanced books and a solid economy that put people to work.

Today’s mess lies at the feet of George W. Bush. His pointless $5 trillion war in Iraq crippled our economy. Before 2003, only some people hated us. Now organized groups spread virulent hatred of America across the world.

Our biggest fear today is terrorism – more narrowly, the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other Sunnis forged ISIS after being tortured and humiliated by U.S. troops in Iraq. Remember those Abu Ghraib photos? It was far worse than that.

Today, we face so much societal sickness that it helps to fix on a few symbolic examples. Mine are Donald Trump at the top levels and Tamir Rice on city streets.

Even if Trump flames out when campaigning gets serious, the world now sees us take seriously a self-obsessed buffoon, deluded and demagogic. We cannot rally allies or thwart foes if both think we are out of our collective mind.

Cleveland grand jurors excused the cop who, two seconds after arrival, shot dead 12-year-old Tamir as he tried to surrender a toy gun. A leaked evaluation said he was unstable, emotionally unfit for duty. Just one case among many

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Here are some suggested priorities:

– Climate change and ecosystems are paramount. If Earth is unlivable, nothing else matters. U.S. delegates at the Paris summit last month joined others to block legally binding accords. Key Senate Republicans still deny the crisis exists. If political-economic haggling is allowed to prevail over hard science, we’re gone.

Our push for energy independence polluted aquifers, fracked farmland and invaded wilderness. Oil is fungible, sold on a world market. As others kept pumping, prices fell below production costs. Cheap gas added to carbon pollution. Economies tanked. Research toward cleaner alternatives was cut back.

– The terrorism that triggers irrational fear is a symptom not a disease. Harsh repression only limits our own freedoms; that is the terrorists’ purpose. If we treat other societies fairly, the threat recedes with the hatred that feeds it. The greater danger is from unbalanced loners with easier access to weaponry than clinical help.

If we redirected some of the billions spent on security at home into sensible foreign aid, we would drastically reduce the mounting flow of refugees who can no longer survive where they are. Some of these, with no choice, turn to crime or terror.

– A healthy economy requires free markets with domestic regulation that does not favor the greedy, along with international trade accords that allow other rich countries, and poor developing ones, to maintain their own solid economies.

In fact, these three priorities, and others that matter, are interlinked. Drought, freak storms and sea change are only beginning to take a toll. No matter what, at this stage, they will get much worse. Whether we like it or not, the world depends on us to lead the way in confronting global crises.

To begin putting things right, we can each focus on what troubles us most. By sharing conclusions within overlapping circles, we reach millions. By listening to others who think differently, we can refine our positions and seek common ground.

Informing ourselves takes effort, but that is easier today than it ever was. If much of our media mainstream has gone soft, much of it has not. Wondrous new tools give us direct access to solid polyglot sources: incisive reporting and photos from everywhere, databases, video clips, podcasts, books, films.

Forget old distinctions between “foreign” and “domestic.” With issues that matter – jobs and the economy, immigration, climate, terrorism — borders are only lines on a map.

Understand the world for what it is. However different cultures may seem, down deep we humans operate with the same software. Fanatics endanger us all whether they preach holy jihad or sealing off borders with high walls.

America’s military might, by itself, only gets us in trouble. Think of an elephant stomping on ants. However many it kills, it only stirs up more that eventually crawl up its legs and into his trunk.

Drones are a chilling example of how our ignorance and delusion of “power” make us our own worst enemy. For every terrorist killed, more are created in multiples. When victims are kids and noncombatants, whole communities hate us.

Reality at home is unmistakable.

Just after seeing The Big Short, I got a letter from Countrywide telling me I was pre-approved for… blah, blah. It was the same old shit, repackaged as if the mortgage meltdown never happened.

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National politics, which get all the attention, are the hardest to reform. Party organizations, gerrymandering, PACs and big lobbies all protect an entrenched status quo. Still, the Constitution is crystal clear about we, the people.

State governments have more impact on daily lives and are more vulnerable. Because so few of us pay attention, they operate largely in the dark. Demand more light. Municipalities and school boards are within easy reach. Independent civilian boards can oversee police forces, protecting good ones and punishing bad ones.

Living abroad, I am no expert on what makes politicians react. But on visits home, I see how little we do. The only street protest I’ve noticed is an annual Tucson ritual: students get rowdy after a basketball rout; cops violently repress.

Occupy Wall Street dissolved into parody. People whose lives it might have changed saw unwashed Commies. A Wall Street lawyer told me he planned to rally others in three-piece suits to show solidarity. But, he said later, it rained.

Reign by the 1 percent is reason enough for revolution. As Paul Krugman writes, “Oligarchy, rule by the few, also tends to become rule by the monstrously self-centered. Narcisstocracy? Jerkigarchy?” It’s an ugly spectacle, as he says. The more oligarchs and corporations rig the system, the more the rest of us pay.

Political change will take personal involvement: fact-based proselytizing and follow-through: thoughtful letters that reach staff members, published op-eds and viral online letters. For corporate abuses, consumer boycotts go a long way. Whatever we do, however we do it, we had better get started now. Those Bastille walls will soon be too high and thick to storm.

Mort Rosenblum is founding editor of the quarterly, Dispatches. From 1967 to 2004, Rosenblum was Associated Press bureau chief and special correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina and France, reporting from 200 countries. From 1979-1981, he was editor of the International Herald Tribune. Based in Paris and Provence, he returns each winter to the University of Arizona to teach global reporting. Among his 12 books are “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival,” “Who Stole the News?,” “Coups and Earthquakes,” “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light” and the best-selling “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.” He can be reached through MortReport.org.

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