Saturday, May 28, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Dean Walcott

I'm singling out a young man named Dean Walcott as an example of courage in war resistance for these reasons: 1) he is still fighting a battle based solely on his principles, 2) he completed two combat deployments, therefore 3) he is not trying to avoid combat, and 4) I believe that when he succeeds in his efforts to be allowed to remain in Canada, he'll make Canada his home; he'll become a Canadian, and his reasons will be the same as mine – reasons of conscience; good reasons. 

Dean Walcott cannot be accused of resisting military service out of concern for his own safety or out of fear. His is an absolutely principled stand to refuse participation in a war that he believed is immoral. Dean Walcott is not a liberal activist or an anti-war crusader. He simply put his humanity above his allegiance to authority. He made his choice on principle. 

I know what it feels like to not be supported or respected for choices I made based on principle; choices I felt morally obligated to make. I know what a wrenching decision it is to make moral choices that will not be popular with family, friends, co-workers, church members. To be reviled by others for doing nothing more than what conscience dictates. It's hard. And it requires fortitude. 

Dean Walcott joined the active duty United States Marine Corps on August 23, 2000. He deployed to Iraq twice (in 2003 and again in 2005), where he was a machine gunner on a Humvee. In between those deployments he was stationed at a U.S. Army hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, processing paperwork for injured soldiers He was not prepared for what he witnessed there; not only the soldiers who were brought there for treatment, but the families who came to visit them when it was likely those soldiers would never leave the hospital alive. He realized it was all senseless, unnecessary, and morally wrong. 

His last command was at a non-deployable Inspector/Instructor unit in North Carolina. Not in Iraq. Not in combat, and not susceptible for re-deployment to a combat zone. Safe assignments.  When he decided to desert and apply for refugee status in Canada, he did not do so out of fear. 

Originally from Connecticut, Dean arrived in Toronto on December 6th 2006 where he applied for refugee status. On December 3rd, 2008, he was told that he must leave Canada by January 6th, 2009 or face deportation to the United States. The decision follows similar ones in the cases of war resisters Corey Glass, Jeremy Hinzman and family, Patrick Hart and family, and Matt Lowell. 

Dean Walcott appealed that deportation order. On December 14th, 2010 the Federal Court began a judicial review of Walcott's deportation order. On April 5, 2011, the Federal Court of Canada released a decision reaffirming that there is evidence that U.S. Iraq War resisters are targeted for punishment because of their political beliefs if returned to the United States. The judgment in the judicial review of Iraq War resister and veteran Dean Walcott’s case also confirms that immigration officers must consider the war resisters’ sincerely held moral, political and religious beliefs. That decision was the ninth Federal Court or Federal Court of Appeal decision in favour of Iraq War resisters since 2008 and the seventh Federal Court decision to recognize that there is evidence that these war resisters are targeted for more severe punishment because they have expressed their objections to the Iraq War. 

Since that 2011 court decision, Dean Walcott has been in a state of limbo. Now 34 years old, Dean and his wife Vanessa and their four children (2 of their own and 2 from Vanessa's previous relationship) reside in Peterborough, Ontario. Dean is working as a personal support worker and continuing his education, eventually he wants to be a nurse. 

Dean Walcott is still fighting. To be a Canadian.   

Saturday, May 21, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: David Milgaard

                                     David Milgaard and his mother, Joyce, 
                         Outside Canada's Supreme Court in Ottawa, Jan 22, 1999

David Milgaard was a 16-year old hippie from Winnipeg, Manitoba when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1969 for the brutal rape and murder of a 20-year old nurse named Gail Miller. He was convicted because he was a drifter and a no-good long-haired dope-smoking hippie.

Although he was in prison for 23 years for that rape and murder, David Milgaard did not commit that crime.

David's mother, Joyce Milgaard, brought the case to public attention, and actually confronted Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on television to demand a new trial. In 1992, Milgaard was freed from prison after another Canadian Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, directed the Supreme Court of Canada to retry his case, and the province of Saskatchewan then refused to prosecute him before the Supreme Court. After his release, the evidence used to convict Milgaard in 1971 was submitted to new DNA testing methods. As a result of this DNA testing, in 1997, Milgaard was completely cleared of the crime and legally absolved of all charges. The DNA evidence proved he could not have killed Gail Miller. He was completely innocent. David Milgaard was 45 years old when his name was finally cleared. The man who committed the murder for which David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted, Larry Fisher, died in prison one year ago at the age of 65.

Here's where courage comes into the story. During his 23-year imprisonment, Milgaard was given 20 opportunities for parole. In not one of those parole hearings did he make a request for an early release. Not once. Why? Because to obtain parole, he would be required to admit his guilt in the crime and demonstrate remorse to the parole board for his actions, something he absolutely refused to do. If he had accepted responsibility for Gail Miller's death, Milgaard could have been released after only 7 or 8 years. They weren't asking him for a confession; he was already convicted of the crime. They didn't need his confession. They were only asking him to say he was sorry for a murder he didn't commit. He was already doing the prison time, he had nothing to lose by simply saying that he did it, and that he was sorry for what he did. Milgaard refused. In fact, he said that he felt it would be wrong in principle to take a parole. Even if it was offered to him, he said, he would refuse it. To accept parole; he'd condemn himself to a lifetime as a paroled rapist. He'd assume the guilt of a crime he did not commit.

I'm sure he had friends who pleaded with him, "C'mon, David .. just tell them you did it; you've got nothing to lose now ... just say you did it."

He would not. Milgaard wasn't appealing his conviction, or hoping for a new trial, or for new scientific methods that would prove his innocence. He had no way of knowing those things were in his future and he had no hope of either. David Milgaard had only one hope of early release from prison, and the resumption of a "normal" life, and that was to confess to a crime he did not commit. Ironically, his adamant refusal to confess to the crime for which he was convicted was considered proof that his "rehabilitation" wasn't complete. By refusing to admit to that crime, he knew he was dooming himself to life in prison. He refused to make that admission, not for personal advantage, but for a principle. Not because it benefited him personally, not because it was the safe choice, not because it was what "everyone else would do", but because it was right. 

Cowardice asks the question - is it safe?
Expediency asks the question - is it politic?
Vanity asks the question - is it popular?
But conscience asks the question - is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a
position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.

-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

David Milgaard stood fast on his principles and as a result he spent 8,355 days (23 years) in prison. He was in prison from the ages of 16 to 39. Some of the best years of a man's life. Over half of his life to that point. His best years were spent behind bars. For a crime he did not commit.

David Milgaard's story is exceptional because, in reality, most people judge their own actions based on how they were benefited personally, not on whether there was a principle involved or violated. Principles don't matter to most people. Not when it comes to making a living; business is business. Most of the people who read this can remember a time when they violated their principles for personal gain, and it probably happened at the workplace. In most cases, it was a very small thing. What did it really matter, anyway, right? By choosing to act morally in our personal lives, we don't change anything, do we? We are the only ones who pay a price for that; we only hurt ourselves. So, just go along. Play the game.

But here's the thing. If we don't live courageously and morally, every day, in small ways, in the mundane affairs of live; I can tell you this much: when courage really does matter, we won't do any different. That's just the way it is. Courage isn't demonstrated only in extraordinary moments or times of emergency. We can exhibit moral courage in small ways, and every day of our lives. 

David Milgaard may have only discovered his courage when he made one monumental life-changing decision, but I know without doubt that he possessed it all along.

What would you have done if you'd faced David Milgaard's dilemma?  Do you think you really know?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Muhammad Ali (1942–2016)

Moral courage is defined as "the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences." In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger. 

Muhammad Ali in 1967

few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I watched the 1977 movie "The Greatest" for the first time. Muhammad Ali plays himself in the movie. 

Muhammad Ali appeared in Houston Texas on April 28, 1967 for his induction into the Armed Forces. The movie depicts how he refused three times to step forward when his name was called. He was called out of the room and informed that he would be given another chance, warned he'd be committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 if he didn't step forward, and promised he would not have to serve in a combat role. Muhammad Ali refused and he was arrested. That same day the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. He would not be able to obtain a license to fight in any state for over three years ... until the Jerry Quarry fight in Atlanta in October 1970. 

I thought Muhammad Ali did a pretty good job playing himself in the movie, though his acting ability has been criticized, probably by people who remember him well as the colorful figure he was on the 60's. I didn't grow up in a household where we watched boxing matches, or where politics or the Vietnam War were openly discussed. I don't remember any of this ... so I don't remember much about the man, or his heavyweight fights, his conversion to Islam, or his controversial refusal to fight an obscenely immoral war. That made the movie especially interesting to me. 

There's a short video (2m30s) on YouTube that I found very interesting, I don't remember ever seeing these video clips of Muhammad Ali ... his eloquence and his passion: 

Here's what he said at the time:
"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."
And, at the end of the YouTube video, this classic confrontation in which he schools a young white pro-war student:
"If I'm gonna die, I'll die right here, right now, fightin' you, if I'm gonna die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won't even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won't even stand up for my rights here at home."
That young man, certainly much better educated than Muhammad Ali, could not grasp the simple logic of Ali's argument ... that Ali could not support a government that would invent lies to send young American men to kill foreigners who had done nothing to him, who posed no threat to Americans, and who were fighting to defend their own right to self-determination. Not while there were Americans prepared to deny him his own rights to liberty and self-determination. Muhammad Ali was right to oppose the draft order. His conscience required it. 

Ali's choice was crystal clear; his resolve unswayable, his spirit indomitable. The Truth made it so. Morality made it so. 

I remember asking my own opposers, now nearly one decade ago, "Why can't you stand up for my rights as an America citizen?" They could not. Why not? 

It took a lot of courage to do what Muhammad Ali did. At the time, men were being assassinated for their public opposition to the Vietnam War. Ali will always rank high on my list of 100% American heroes. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Brooksley Born

Brooksley Born

I have been surprised at how many women exemplify the type of courage I admire most. Moral courage.  Not the type of heroism that makes the evening news, but the kind of courage we should all be able to exhibit and to emulate. The type of courage we're all capable of. Indeed, courage of the type we are all called to exhibit in our daily lives. 

In 1996, a powerful Stanford-educated Washington lawyer named Brooksley E. Born was appointed by President Clinton to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC had been set up in 1974 to regulate the markets (trading exchanges) for agricultural commodities. In the 25 years that followed, the CFTC added stock index futures and currency options to its scope of oversight. Until Brooksley Born took over, however, the CFTC had largely ignored the fast-growing markets for derivative securities. Derivatives at that time primarily meant credit-default swaps, which were essentially insurance contracts that allowed bond investors to purchase insurance against debt default, contracts that could later be sold to investors. During the 2000's, the derivatives market exploded with the trading of new "synthetic securities" like the collatoralized debt obligations (CDO's) which were packages of "securitized" subprime-mortgages (very risky mortgages). 

When she took her new position as head of the CFTC, Brooksley Born was immediately invited to a private luncheon with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan at his private dining room at the Fed building. At that meeting, Greenspan surprised her by letting her know that she was not expected to do her job in regulating the new markets for derivatives; those markets, he assured her, were "self-regulating". In what way? Basically, he told her that no investment broker would defraud its own clients (by misrepresenting the risks of any given investment) and if a broker did that, those clients would ensure that the broker was punished, by moving their money elsewhere. In other words, he told her that Big Business can always be trusted to do the right thing. How foolish was that belief? How monumentally stupid was that claim? We know, now, don't we? But in 1996, everyone was riding the prosperity wave. We were all going to make money without working for it; we were all going to let our money work for us instead. No one was prepared to call the emperor naked. No one, that is, but Brooksley Born. She left that meeting with the full intent of ignoring Greenspan's advice which was, basically, "don't do your job – just stick to regulating pork bellies and soybeans – but you stay out of our way.

Essentially, no one wanted to question the safety or the honesty of these new and growing markets. No one wanted government regulators ensuring that these markets were safe and honest. Why? Because they were all getting rich. In fact, they all got unbelievably rich. The whole derivative market was designed to be too complex to be understood, much less "regulated." What's the word they loved to use? It was too "exotic," they said, to regulate. The only people who really understood what they were doing were in the business of defrauding others. And then, along came Brooksley Born. 

Brooksley Born wasted no time; she began immediately studying the derivatives markets and coming to the conclusion that they were extremely vulnerable to a market collapse. She was concerned about a lack of government regulation and a lack of transparency in the trading of derivatives. She was also concerned about the risks associated with subprime mortgages, those high-risk mortgage-based derivatives (or CDOs). Her work at the CFTC was strongly opposed by Alan Greenspan (who had blocked tougher government regulations on derivatives before she took office) and those working with him inside the government:  Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary; Larry Summer, Assistant Treasury Secretary; and Arthur Leavitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). 

On May 7, 1998, under the direction of Brooksley Born, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a "concept paper," which brought her concerns before the public, or at least to the financial world. The paper asked for input from regulators, academics, and derivatives traders on "how best to maintain adequate regulatory safeguards without impairing the ability of the OTC (Over-the-counter) derivatives market to grow and the ability of U.S. entities to remain competitive in the global financial marketplace." Greenspan and his cronies were livid. Their response was immediate. Within hours, Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt issued a joint statement condemning the CFTC for the "concept paper." They were attacking Brooksley Born for wanted to regulate the irresponsible trading of very risky financial instruments. 

Born's concept paper stated plainly that there would be no changes to existing regulatory guidelines or changes to existing exemptions from those guidelines. The fact that this relatively mild paper created so much concern in the industry is an indication that something was terribly wrong with these new markets for "exotic" securities, and they all knew it. 

On July 30, 1998, Larry Summers (as Assistant Treasury Secretary) testified before congress that "the parties to these kinds of contract are largely sophisticated financial institutions that would appear to be eminently capable of protecting themselves from fraud." In other words, he echoed Alan Greenspan's claims that these markets were too sophisticated to be properly regulated and, besides, they were "self-regulating." That was a totally bullshit claim. 

They tried to challenge the CFTC on legal grounds (though they had none). Eventually, they used their influence with the Congress of the United States to enact legislation to neuter the CFTC, first adding language to an agricultural appropriations bill to restrict the CFTC from regulating these markets; later they convinced a compliant Congress to pass the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (oh, definitely review this page if you have time, all the players are there) which basically eliminated all federal government oversight of derivatives trading. That Act of Congress (which was passed a year after Brooksley Born left the CFTC) basically paved the way for the ramp up in mortgage-backed securities trading that led to the financial collapse of 2008. It set the stage for the general financial crisis that followed later that same year. 

With the benefit of hindsight, and knowledge of the events that followed, we now know that Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Arthur Leavitt misjudged the dangers posed by derivatives contracts or misrepresented those risks to Congress. We know, beyond any doubt, that these men were wrong. And Brooksley Born was 100% right. 

The Obama Administration pledged an overhaul of the financial system, particularly in regulating the way derivatives are traded. Why has that not happened? Larry Summers, who played a key role in the financial disaster of 2008, became a key economic adviser to President Obama. Wonder what's up with that? What has changed since the derivatives market collapsed? Very little. Why, then, are so many people willing to believe, once again, that financial markets are "self-regulating?" 

Brooksley Born exemplifies a type of courage we can all possess. It's the courage to stand firm on principle when all those around us are abandoning their own. All they wanted her to do "go along" like everyone else. Pretend there was no elephant in the room. Accept the lie and look out for number one. Play the game.  She could've made a lot of money by not speaking the truth. Instead, Brooksley Born chose the difficult path, the dangerous path, the lonely path. That's the very rarest form of courage – a courage that leaves a person standing alone. I know. 

In May 2009, Brooksley Born was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in recognition of the "political courage she demonstrated in sounding early warnings about conditions that contributed to the current global financial crisis". At the award ceremony, Brooksley Born took the opportunity to reiterate her warning that these un-regulated markets in derivative securities will ultimately lead to many more years of economic failure. JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy, in presenting the award, said, "Brooksley Born recognized that the financial security of all Americans was being put at risk by the greed, negligence and opposition of powerful and well connected interests. The catastrophic financial events of recent months have proved them [Brooksley Born and the FDIC's Sheila Bair, with whom she shared the award] right."