Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mental Illness and the Homeless

It has recently been reported that 1 out of every 17 individuals in the U.S. suffers from mental illness - that translates to approximately 20.5 million people.  This is a significant number of individuals plagued by this galaxy of diseases that disrupts mental processes.  Those of us who function “normally” do not fully recognize how much processing - within the circuitry of the human brain – is ordinarily required to perform even the most mundane activities.  The daily tasks that are required to work every day, for example, include waking up on time, preparing for the day doing such things as showering, brushing one’s teeth, preparing clothes, planning for the day’s eventualities, taking a bus or train or driving a car.  All of these tasks must be performed in an orderly, precise and timely fashion.  These functions are required simply to get to a place of employment not to mention all the social skills, capabilities, human interactions, use of learned abilities and reliable memory, timeliness, prioritizing of goals etc. that are the minimal requirements to accomplish rather complex work-related functions successfully.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.” This compares to the 6% of the general population that is afflicted with mental illness as reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, 2009. In addition, a survey was conducted in 25 U.S. cities in which the question was posed as to what were the three major causes of homelessness for single adults. The results of this investigation indicated that mental illness was ranked as the third largest cause.  In addition, mental illness was also indicated as playing a significant role as a cause of homelessness among families.  This is not surprising given the fact that living with a mentally ill individual places significant stresses upon the entire family.  Additional fallout from these and similar studies is that individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are particularly vulnerable.
There is yet another level to this issue that adds further complexity and concern –a strong correlation exists between the state of mental health in an individual and the corresponding status of overall physical health.  Individuals that are constantly distracted, confused and disoriented by mental disease are far less likely to pay attention to their physical well-being.  They are far more likely to ignore significant warning signs that would ordinarily send people to their physicians.    Furthermore, they are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis or other communicable diseases.  They pay less attention to their personal hygiene and often place themselves in dangerous situations that often lead to bodily harm. 

In addition, it has been reliably estimated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that approximately one-half of the mentally ill homeless in the United States also are substance abusers.  It is a well-established fact that many sufferers from mental illness use drugs as a form of self-medication.

These extensive studies regarding the real implications of mental illness demonstrate that the individual overtaken by aberrations within the functioning brain experiences a satellite of related conditions including substance abuse and the resulting poor physical health.  These conditions when taken together make it very difficult to find reliable employment and ultimately adequate shelter.

In spite of the fact that the scientific disciplines of Neurobiology and Neuroscience have elucidated many of the biological and biochemical mechanisms that are responsible for the galaxy of symptoms that are collectively regarded as mental illness, there remains a great deal of suspicion and the resulting stigma that is associated with those who are afflicted by mental illness.  This kind of fallacious preconception regarding mental illness obscures the indisputable reality that mental illness is a result of definitive imbalances in the biochemistry and function of the human brain.  The society, at large, has inadequately addressed this issue in a way that could produce meaningful help and remediation for those who suffer from mental illness.  A reevaluation of the status of the mentally ill and homelessness would certainly be in the public interest. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu is known for his work as the chairman of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission formed by President Nelson Mandela shortly after his election in South Africa that put an end to Apartheid. Throughout his involvement in the battle against Apartheid, Tutu was instrumental in convincing many of the need for pursuing non-violent opposition against the white regime that had repressed the black majority for so long. Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp in the Transvaal into a multiethnic household. To arrive at a better understanding of Tutu’s contribution to the causes of peace and social justice, it would be fitting to describe the nature of Apartheid. In the year 1652, the Dutch came to South Africa where they referred to themselves as Afrikaners. They were later displaced by the British in 1820. The Afrikaners ultimately rebelled against British rule; this opposition led to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The Afrikaners ultimately prevailed. The white minority population in power realized that their vulnerability lied in their small number. In 1923, the Native Urban Areas Act was passed. This act deemed urban areas in South Africa as “white” and forced all black African men in cities and towns to carry permits called “passes” at all times. Anyone found without a pass could be arrested immediately and expelled to a rural area. These harsh methods that the government employed proved to be inadequate over time as far as the white power structure was concerned. As a result, the principles of Apartheid were formulated in 1948. It was instituted by the National Party under the platform of the so-called “Black Peril.” Its aim was to insure continued white domination of the black majority and other segments of the population including “Coloreds,” Mixed Race peoples and Indians. The laws crafted under Apartheid held that blacks, coloreds and Indians were to be segregated in the cities where they lived. Blacks were required to live in designated townships and could not live in the suburbs or the major cities. They were allowed, however, to live in urban areas. A notable example of the extremely repressive environment imposed by the system of Apartheid is the Pass Laws Act of 1952. This law made it compulsory for all black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a “passbook” at all times. This passbook was knows as a dompas; it served as an internal passport and contained extensive identification information. According to this statute, an employer could only be a white person. The law came to be hated throughout South Africa and inspired mass protests leading to the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21, 1960. On that day following massive demonstrations by the blacks in the township of Sharpeville, the South African police opened fire on the crowd killing sixty-nine protestors. The repressive character of Apartheid was enhanced by the so-called “Grand Apartheid.” This overarching social architecture was designed by Hendrik Verwoerd in the mid 1950s. This scheme began to be implemented in the late 1960s. According to this master plan, all blacks in South Africa were to be forcefully relocated to their tribal homelands and kept there. Ultimately, eighty percent of the South African population was forced to live on only thirteen percent of the land. The other part of this plan was that blacks would lose their South African citizenship as they were absorbed into their new tribal homelands. This was the social environment in which Tutu was raised. His reaction to the conditions of his countrymen was informed by his spiritual beliefs. He is an essential optimist and believes in the existence of a moral universe. He is an advocate of the principle of Transfiguration that holds that conditions can change radically and abruptly. In regards to his ideas concerning human nature, the following aptly describes his view - “The ideal society is one in which its members enjoy their freedom to be human freely, provided they do not thereby infringe the freedom of others unduly. We are made to have freedom of association, of expression, of movement, the freedom to choose who will rule over us and how. We are made for this. It is ineluctable. It cannot ultimately be eradicated, this yearning for freedom to be human. This is what tyrants and unjust rulers have come to contend with. They cannot in the end stop their victims from being human. “Their unjust regimes must ultimately fall because they seek to deny something that cannot be denied. No matter how long and how repressive their unjust and undemocratic rule turns out to be, the urge for freedom remains as a subversive element threatening the overthrow of rigid repression. The tyrant is on a road to nowhere even though he may survive for an unconscionably long time and even though he may turn his country into a huge prison riddled with informers, but the end cannot be in doubt. Freedom will break out. People are made for it just as plants tend toward the light and toward water.” The following statement that Tutu made, exemplifies, in my judgment, his worldview, “What is needed is to respect one another’s points of view and not to impute unworthy motives to one another or to seek to impugn the integrity of the other. Our maturity will be judged by how well we are able to agree to disagree and yet continue to love one another, to care for one another and cherish one another and seek the great good of the other.” He has an all inclusive view of humanity and the family of man. He feels that what is needed is to extend the concept of family to include all of humanity. According to Tutu, “The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow beings.” He continues, “In Africa recognition of our interdependence is called Ubuntu in Nguni languages. It is the essence of being human. It speaks to the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.” Originally, Tutu wanted to practice medicine, but he contracted tuberculosis and endured an excruciating twenty month recovery. On account of this untimely onset of health issues, he modified his plans and in 1955 he got married and started teaching. In 1960, Tutu went into the ministry in the Anglican Church and was ordained as a Deacon. During this informative period in his life, he was deeply moved and inspired by the courageous work of Father Trevor Huddleston, who became one of the first leaders of the resistance against Apartheid in South Africa. Throughout the momentous years that ultimately led to the long-sought dismantling of Apartheid, Tutu had been sent to London and the Kingdom of Lesotho where he was Bishop. In 1976, he was Dean of the Anglican Church in Johannesburg and was deeply concerned about race relations. He sent an open letter to Prime Minister, John Vorster. This letter was a passionate plea to the government to reconsider its policies. As anticipated, his heart-felt message was ignored. Five weeks after this letter was sent, the Soweto Riots ensued with disastrous results. Soweto was a southwestern township outside Johannesburg - a black-only residential area with a population of three quarters of a million. The residents lived in squalid and oppressive conditions. The Afrikaner government had decreed that black students in Soweto would be instructed in Afrikaans as well as in English. Afrikaans was regarded as the language of the oppressor. Riots began on June 16, 1976; it was the anniversary of the black resistance movement begun in 1952 with the help of black leaders like Nelson Mandela. Thousands of people, mostly children and young adults, took to the streets. The government reacted violently and in the end dozens if not hundreds of children were killed or injured. Tutu rushed to Soweto as soon as he heard. He pleaded with the government to pull back, but he did not have the political clout that he enjoys today. His entreaties were ignored. Although Tutu was not involved in the African National Congress (ANC) - founded in 1912 - and the resistance movement that began in the 1950s under the guidance of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, he collaborated with them during the resistance of the 1970s and 1980s. On December 10, 1984, Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts towards social and political reform in South Africa and in the following year, he was chosen as Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg. In this period of time, the South African Government was coming under increasing economic pressure from the world community in regards to Apartheid. As a result, the government became more intransigent in its position and intensified its repressive tactics. The level of violence escalated and on a number of occasions Tutu risked his personal safety to intervene. In one particular instance, he personally rescued a man, who was suspected of being a police informant, from being “necklaced” - burned alive from a gasoline-filled tire placed around the victim’s neck. The presiding South African Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, came to understand that change was inevitable and began to relax the pass laws. Along with these changes, Nelson Mandela was released from solitary confinement. Blacks, however, continued to be segregated into tribal homelands. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, as exemplified by the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a compelling indicator that long-held assumptions regarding race and power were no longer tenable. Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison in February, 1990 after spending twenty-seven years in prison. Following his release, Mandela began having discussions with President F.W. de Klerk who had replaced P.W. Botha. In spite of these discussions, the South African government was quietly inciting violence. In addition, The ANC was also involved in an internal struggle with Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. These were very difficult times, and Tutu was very outspoken against this violence and feared the worst. In the spring of 1994, despite the turmoil and violent unrest, an agreement was reached to hold elections in April of that year in which all South Africans would participate. The opponents in that election were Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. The outcome, of course, was a foregone conclusion. Tutu’s work, however, was not over. On account of the years of horrific violence and suffering of the majority black population at the hands of the Afrikaners, there was a considerable residue of hatred felt by the many victims of Apartheid. Fearing that this might lead to violent upheaval and bloody reprisals, President Mandela asked Tutu to be the chairperson of the newly created Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was suddenly faced with an awesome responsibility. It was the mission of this commission to expose the truth and yet find the wherewithal to let the past go. It was decided to limit the scope of the investigation to the years between 1960 and 1994. The commission not only looked into the transgressions perpetrated by the white regime but also the violence initiated by the resistance. Tutu insisted that all findings be made public and on October 29, 1998 he presented the five volume report to President Mandela. Desmond Tutu made a remarkable contribution not only to his country but to a world grown weary of war and violence. He persisted in pursuing his vision of peace and reconciliation in spite of events that seemed to suggest otherwise. He retained his optimistic vision, and that vision ultimately prevailed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was without a doubt the most influential voice for peace and social justice in the twentieth century.  For the people of India, he is regarded as the “Father of the Nation.”  He was instrumental in securing freedom for the whole of India from the British Empire.  He helped to accomplish this without the use or threat of violence.  For him, it represented a thirty year campaign.

He was born on October 2, 1869 in Probandar, India, a country that had already been dominated by the British Empire for centuries.  For one hundred years before his birth, the control of India was in the hands of the British East India Company that was licensed by the Crown.  It was afforded a free hand to pursue its commercial fortune by any means including raising an army and waging war.  By the year 1757, it had secured the control of the whole of Northern India.  The control exerted by the British East India Company often operated furtively behind puppet regimes with the net consequence of draining the wealth of the country.  This behavior is at the very heart of the colonialist mentality.  Some historians claim that England’s Industrial Revolution was financed by the exploitation of India.  As a consequence, Indian society showed the extremes of wealth and dire poverty.  Calcutta was built by the East India Company while village life was severely impacted, especially since farmers were coerced into producing crops designated for export.
To give an idea of the extent of the consequence of British rule, the following table compares deaths by starvation over the course of 175 years.

Time Frame
Deaths by Starvation
1825 - 1850
1850 – 1875
1875 – 1900

By 1857, Northern Indians began to openly rebel.  The strategy of the Empire was to keep India divided, for India was seen as the “Jewel in the Crown.”  Shortly thereafter, India became an Imperial Colony, for it was too important to be left in the hands of the British East India Company.  The psychological impact of centuries of occupation left its scars on the psyche of the Indian population.  This was the social climate and the real politick into which Gandhi was born.

As a teenager, Gandhi was sent to London to study law.  At that time, he was an anglophile and quickly took on the dress and customs of the British.  After he passed his bar exams, he returned to India; by that time, he was married and had a four year old son.  He did not fare well as a lawyer in his home country.   He was offered a job by a group of Moslems from his home village of Porbandar.  They wanted to send him to South Africa in regards to a law suit, and he arrived in Durban, Natal in May of 1893.  It was here that a singular event transformed the man, his thinking, his attitudes, his personal future and ultimately the fate of his people.

At that time, there were a small number of successful Indian traders in South Africa and some one hundred thousand indentured Indian laborers working in the fields and in the mines.  He boarded a train to Pretoria and was unaware of the severity of the laws establishing segregation based on national origin or color.  In the midst of his journey, he was ordered off the whites-only section of the train that he happened to be on.  He refused to do as he was told and was beaten in the process.  He was so impacted by this singular event that upon his arrival in Pretoria, he summoned all the Indians in that city to a meeting.  There he gave his first public address and urged his fellows to forget all distinctions between them and unite behind a common cause.  Regular meetings were held thereafter, and thus began the beginning of his journey of a lifetime.
In three years, Gandhi had become a prosperous lawyer and a well known figure.  He was seen as the spokesman for indentured laborers.  He developed a considerable reputation.  His success was in many ways due to the fact that he could appeal to the common sense and morality of his opponent.  According to Gandhi, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.”  In 1896, he went back home to fetch his wife and family and returned to South Africa.  At home, he traveled to gather support for his work in South Africa.  He was so successful in doing this that he took back 800 free Indians with him and sailed back to Pretoria.  Word of his success reached the South African government.  The government tried unsuccessfully to prevent the ship from landing.  Gandhi was so feared by the white population that he was badly assaulted.

The secret of the essential Gandhi was his strategy of rebuilding, healing and unifying.  In describing his strategy, Gandhi said, “If we get our house in order, dependency would fall like a ripe fruit as a natural consequence.”  He also cautioned, “Begin at home, begin with yourself, correct underlying conditions and suffer the consequences.  The rest will fall into place.”  He was resolute and persistent.  In regard to Gandhi’s beliefs, the centerpiece of his philosophy was the Bhagavad Gita that he envisioned as the Song of God and represented to him an infallible creed of conduct.  Out of all his works, he published one book while in South Africa – Satyagraha.  He defined Satyagraha as love in action and the technology of peace.  An essential ingredient to this approach was respect for one’s adversary.  Gandhi thought it was important to never attempt to diminish an opponent, for this would prove to be a real obstacle to peace.  In his own words, “A Satyagrahi (those who live by Satyagraha) bids goodbye to fear.  He is therefore never afraid of trusting the opponent.  Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the Satyagrahi is ready to trust him for the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of the creed.”
An important part of Gandhi’s strategy in his opposition to the South African government’s discriminatory policies was the use of the press.   Indian Opinion, a weekly journal, was employed in this way.  It was published in English and Gujarati.  Gandhi was instrumental in the creation of this publication.  In 1904, a few months after its founding, the publication was having difficulties.  In response to this problem, Gandhi journeyed to Durban where it was published.  There he happened to meet an Englishman, Henry S. L. Polak who gave him a copy of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last.  According to Gandhi, “That book marked the turning point in my life.”  The contents of this book resonated with his own convictions.  He understood the teachings in this book to be that:

·         “The good of the individual is contained in the good of all
·         That a lawyer’s work has the same value as a barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihoods from their work
·         That a life of labor - the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman - is the life worth living.”

During his time in South Africa, Gandhi began the gradual process of simplifying his existence.  This kind of change reflected a spiritual transformation that was happening within.  The changes Gandhi undertook operated on many levels.  He exhibited remarkable patience, persistence and a gift for moral persuasion. 
A significant test of his resolve came when the so-called Black Act or Asiatic Registration Law went into effect in March 1907.  This act required all Indians to get fingerprinted and keep registration documents on them at all times.  On the first of July, 1907, the permit offices were opened.  Gandhi had organized mass meetings before this fateful date.  The community decided to picket each day at every office.   Many of the protesters were beaten and arrested. The certificates were burnt and thousands went to jail.  After seven years of struggle, the Black Act was repealed in June 1914, demonstrating the effectiveness of Satygraha.  He finally left South Africa on July 18, 1914, never to return.

He then began the long struggle on behalf of his own people at home.  Within India, he demonstrated as a teacher that persistence, courage, determination in the face of repression and intimidation, non-violence, patience, self-reliance and respect for their British adversaries would ultimately produce a successful conclusion.  Gandhi led by example; he showed his followers just how powerful and effective acting out of moral principle could be.  This is the essence of Satyagraha.

The struggle he led lasted thirty years.  Gandhi not only faced the British oppressors, but also took on injustice that stemmed from his own people, especially in regard to the issue of the so-called “untouchables.”  Along with this radical departure from the conventional way of thinking, Gandhi made major changes in his outward appearance that made him more readily fit in with the dress of the overwhelming majority of Indians.  With this change, the people became more receptive to his message.  Gandhi gave the untouchables a new name – Harijans, literally meaning “Children of God.”  Gandhi had made an unprecedented decision to accept an untouchable family in his Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmadabad.  Following that decision, all monetary assistance to the Ashram stopped, but Gandhi persisted.  The message was clear – the Ashram would not countenance untouchability.

During the protracted struggle, Gandhi applied continual pressure on the British authorities always insisting on non-violence.  In Gandhi’s words, “If India attains what will be to me so-called freedom by violent means she will cease to be the country of my pride.”  The most well known event that is so characteristic of Gandhi’s approach is the Salt March.  On March 2, 1930, Gandhi wrote a fateful letter to the then British Viceroy, Lord Irwin.  An excerpt of this letter follows, “Dear Friend.  Before embarking on Civil Disobedience and taking the risk I have dreaded to take all these years, I would feign approach you and find a way out.

“My personal faith is absolutely clear.  I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less human beings, even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine.  Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India
“And why do I regard the British rule a curse?

“It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinous expensive military and civil administration which the country can never afford.
“It has reduced us politically to serfdom.  It has sapped the foundations of our culture.  And by the policy of cruel disarmament, it has degraded us spiritually…”

This letter went on to inform the British authorities that it was Gandhi’s intention to put pressure on the British to revise the revenue system.  He would begin by defying the Salt Law that forbade Indians from making salt and taxing the salt they did purchase.  In Gandhi’s words, “The tax shows itself still more burdensome on the poor and when it is remembered that salt is the one thing he must eat more than the rich man.”  It was obvious that he felt compelled to oppose it.

Early on the morning of April 5, the ashramites accompanied Gandhi to the sea in the now famous Salt March.  Thousands accompanied him.  From that point, all of India began making salt illegally.  In response, the British authorities arrested some sixty thousand offenders, and, finally, Gandhi was arrested as well.
This demonstration of Indian resolve made it clear that Indians were quite capable of making orderly British rule untenable.  January 16, 1931 had been the date fixed by the Congress Party – the Congress Party was formed in 1885 and eventually assumed the leadership of the independence movement - as the official day of Independence, for on that date a Declaration of Independence had been issued.  On the same day, Lord Irwin released Gandhi from prison.  After this, Gandhi was invited to a series of discussions with the Viceroy in his palace.  At the end of this parlay, the Irwin-Gandhi Pact was signed.  This represented a significant victory for India and a turning point in regards to British rule.

In 1941, the Second World War took center stage.  At the war’s end, it became clear to the British that they could no longer reasonably hold on to India.  On July 26, 1945, the newly-elected British Labor Government announced that it was ready to expedite self-government in India.  On August 12, 1946, Lord Wavell, the British Viceroy, commissioned Jawaharlal Nehru to form the new government.  Nehru approached Mohamed Ali Jinnah, the President of the Moslem League, to join the government but Jinnah refused.  On September  2, Nehru became the Prime Minister of India, and Jinnah proclaimed that day a day of mourning and instructed Moslems to display black flags.  As a result of this schism between Hindus and Moslems, horrendous rioting ensued, especially in Calcutta.

Although Gandhi spent most of his adult life struggling for India’s independence from the British Empire, using non-violence as an essential part of his methodology, he was only one man and could not heal the growing rift between the highly polarized spiritual communities.  As independence was coming close to a reality and fear and suspicion mounted among members of these two different communities, violence was inevitable.  And sadly, Gandhi was assassinated on January 25, 1948 by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a thirty-five year old Hindu and a high-degree Brahman.

The impact that Gandhi had not only in India but throughout the world can best be summarized by the comment made by Albert Einstein, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Relationship between Peace and Economic Equality

The current distribution of wealth in the United States is extremely skewed towards the wealthy – more so than in any other developed country.  This inequality results in the unavoidable reality that there are insufficient economic resources available for the majority of the nation's citizens.

This situation has been severely exacerbated by the economic downturn precipitated by the Great Recession that began in 2008.  This economic reversal was caused, for the most part, by the unwise, cavalier and often extra-legal activities of the major financial institutions that led to widespread unemployment and a rash of home mortgage foreclosures.  The consequences of this monumental economic catastrophe were so severe that a bailout involving vast sums of public money was required.

Notwithstanding this most recent event, the core issues gravitate around fundamental problems that have been in evidence for many years.  These include:

-          -Large numbers of low wage and minimum wage jobs that are inadequate for survival within the modern economy

-          -A national health care system that fails to effectively serve tens of millions of vulnerable and at-risk men, women, children and the elderly

-         - A housing market that is geared towards maximizing profit and, therefore, fails to build low-cost housing in sufficient number to serve those in need of affordable shelter

-         - Public policy at the local, state and federal level that invariably caters to the needs of the affluent and corporate classes to the exclusion of those with the most need.  These policy choices are dictated by the intimate relationship that exists between politics and money.  The net impact of this collaboration is the paradoxical dismantling of the Commons.  This is, in effect, a form of reverse socialism where resources flow from the many in need to the few who have an abundance of wealth to begin with

-         - A lack of social resolve around the important issue of gun control

The net effect of these intrinsic factors is a dangerous increase in poverty especially among the most vulnerable, personal bankruptcy that is often triggered by a major health crisis, homelessness, infrastructure collapse, the rise of a thriving black market and the indiscriminate use of deadly firearms against innocent people.

It is, therefore, not surprising that this array of economic conditions and their natural consequences promotes social instability.  The fact the wealthiest nation in the world can tolerate this severe disparity between the living conditions, well-being and longevity of its citizens based on economic status is suggestive of a deep-seated malaise that undermines the real prospects for peace.