Category Archives: Human Rights

Shoveling… it

I had an ironically beautiful day on Saturday with a bunch of my more religious friends. A friend from church has a hobby farm of sorts, leaning towards the basic ideals of more “sustainable living” and all, but him being about my age, in part due to the aches and pains that come with the aging process, he has been unable to keep up with all of the different spring cleaning issues that have to be dealt with there. As he has done a number of random favors for many of us, and as he has the sort of warm smile that everyone likes to help bring out, the church arranged for about 20 of us to spend the day at his place helping out with some basic chores.

evans farm view

Much of the work I did was, together with others, (carefully) moving old logs and scrap wood around into new piles, burning off some of it, and scything down the weeds that had been growing around where the old wood piles were. Eventually though it came time for me to join the proud teams doing the “real work”: cleaning out the mostly composted sheep manure, thoroughly intermingled with the sheep’s straw bedding, which in a few different sections of the barns and sheds had built up over the course of a couple of years to about waist-high. It had got to the point where that job couldn’t be procrastinated any further because the animals were starting to bang their heads on the ceiling rafters!

By the time I picked up the pitchfork and started to help break up and remove this mass of …it, there was already a strong sense of gung-ho teamwork going among the guys who had spent the whole morning on that task. In fact there were two teams not so subtly trying to out-do each other in the poop scooping process. One team was using a fleet of wheelbarrows; the other, an old trailer of the sort my car can pull. Each team had a de facto self-appointed leader who was barking out instructions. (I was thankful to join into this particular task late especially so as not to slip into that sort of role!) And the leaders were each trying to psych up their teams over how they were doing better than those on the other side.

evans manure dump

Without going into any more personal detail regarding the social dynamics of the day than that, it was just fascinating to watch as religious people got more and more excited and competitive about their capacities to shovel… it.

As this was just a one day gig, with no particular pay or bonuses or long-term status factors riding on it, and as it therefore required a certain sort of odd sense of humor and non-standard set of motivational strategies to get the job done, it seemed that these guys were letting their most primitive competitive instincts, and at the same time their most basic male bonding instincts, run rather wild. I admit, this invites all sorts of comparison with what we religious people tend to do together and why under more “normal” circumstances as well, but I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate.

In any case, this experience also brought to mind my discussions last week with my cousin in the agriculture industry, who in spite of being an otherwise very decent and respectable sort of guy, has happened to drift into the circles of rural white working class Trump supporters. Suffice to say, he’s spent his life surrounded by more manure than most people can imagine, both literally and figuratively, to the point where he seems to have lost his sensitivity to both. In some ways I can deeply respect him for that very reason, and I feel it would be rather crude and insensitive for me to even try to get him out of all that …it, but on the other hand I hope I can enable him to see the difference between it and non-it again, especially when it comes to the way …it piles up in politics.

Anyway, one huge part of the political mentality my dear cousin is part of is to say that socialism is wrong because it takes away the sense of satisfaction that people get by accomplishing things and thus earning things for themselves.  Or in my cousin’s own words, “Do you not feel better about achieving your own success on your own watch, rather than getting something just because you have a hot breath? I am free to fail and free to succeed every day. That is the beauty of this country.”

When I replied to that by saying that I don’t feel better about achieving things on “my own watch” rather than getting things as a matter of right because I happen to be a living, breathing human being, it seems that my cousin and I hit something of a cultural disconnect. I don’t think he was able to relate to what I was saying. But then watching, and taking part in, all of the …it shoveling on Saturday brought his perspectives to mind again, both in terms of the motivation/reward structure for work and in terms of the pride of accomplishment side of things. So I thought it might be worth writing something here to see if I can bring in some sense of mutual understanding on these issues.

Evans workers

One of the biggest questions in politics and economics is, how can you convince people to work together with each other for the common good – so that everyone comes out better through their cooperation with each other? There are two extremes which we can say really don’t work. One extreme is to split up all proceeds of every joint effort even-Steven, which then, in order to motivate people to do their fair share, requires finding ways to seriously threaten and punish those who don’t do what they’re told. At the other extreme we have radical competition where those who compete most ruthlessly and aggressively can hoard as much of the benefits of the system as they can grab for themselves, leaving both the lazy and those who are simply playing along and taking part on a basic level hurting, with little or nothing to show for it. The former is the risk involved in politics going too far to the left; the latter, when politics drift too far to the right.

Right-wing politicians tend to try to threaten people, like my cousin, with the idea that if those damned “leftists” take charge it will lead to a loss of choice in how much of what sort of work each person has to do. The argument goes that if people are otherwise guaranteed enough to get by on safely, the only way to get them to work harder and cooperate with others in general will be to beat them over the head with various things or throw them in jail if they don’t follow the rules set by some abstract, far away authority figures who are not to be trusted. Beyond that there are those lower class individuals who are not to be trusted because rather than working together with everyone else they’d probably just like to glean the benefits of the system without contributing anything. So we need to find ways of keeping them on a particularly short leash. Let’s just say that in terms of constructing pictures of Marxist monsters and lazy sleaze balls to scare people into voting for them, right-wing populists have proven themselves capable of shoveling an impressive amount of …it.

Left-wing politicians have been far less effective, particularly in the United States, at constructing a fear of imaginary “bad hombres” on the other side. The basic narrative is that those who get to a certain point of privilege — whether or not they got there by playing fair (and usually they haven’t got there by playing fair) — tend to lose track of how the cooperation has to work in practice among those down there picking up the poop with the pitchforks. In order to keep these characters at the top economically from becoming fat, lazy, disconnected and abusive, they need to be required to stay in contact with those on the lower end of society, and to give something back to the others, whose own hard work made their success possible, as well as to those who haven’t been able to properly participate in societal production systems (yet). Part of the government’s basic job is to keep people working together, and that requires keeping those bastards at the top from isolating themselves too far from the rest of society. The true bad guys, according to this narrative, are those who, once they are at the top, refuse to care about or have anything to do with those they “defeated” in the process of getting there. This type of …it can be piled just as high as the right-wing sort, but we haven’t seen that done in quite a while; in US politics probably not since the time of George McGovern.

Between these extremes though there is a broad range of ideological and practical alternatives to consider in terms of how to get the necessary piles of …it properly moved about: how can we positively motivate people to pick up the pitchforks, and how to negatively motivate them in terms of how much of their basic safety and well-being can/should be made contingent on the amount of …it they get shoveled? My cousin’s mileage may differ on these matters, but I strongly believe that in keeping with basic human dignity people should not threatened into shoveling …it, either as the consequence of extreme left or extreme right wing political structures. Human innovation and cooperation have progressed to the point where we can make enough for everyone to live relatively safely and securely, so there isn’t any valid reason to let people and/or their children suffer and die if they can’t prove that they’ve shoveled their fair share of …it.

How do we pay to keep people taken care of? That part can be negotiated, but the important thing is to remember that money is nothing but a complicated set of human agreements by which we find ways of continuing to work together. If monetary systems cease to serve that purpose, they inevitably collapse. So if we want to keep any particular kind of money worth anything, we have to make sure that it serves as a functional, responsible means of distributing the fruits of our collective labors, and that would include demonstrating a collective respect for the human dignity of other people in general. The rest is details.

evans grill

In terms of positive motivations, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to compete with each other if that’s what they’re into. There’s also a lot to be said for giving people who accomplish more than others extra rewards in terms of finer food or nicer stuff to show off to their friends if they’re so inclined. That being said, going back to the example of our little pitchfork party on Saturday, the lunch, dinner and sauna time afterwards were available to everyone, regardless of how much of …it they forked out of the sheds as we went. Things could have been arranged in such a way that only those who had moved more than X number of barrow loads of …it would be entitled to the finer pieces of meat on the grill, or the nicer cakes for desert, or whatever. It could be argued that such a distribution system would have felt better and would have been more encouraging for those who got the most work done, and would have ensured that they would do an even better job next time. I would disagree. I think it just would have reduced the satisfaction we all experienced in working together and knowing we were doing something good for a dear friend. I don’t think the bratwurst and fruit salad would have tasted any better to me if they would have been a special prize for the amount of …it I shoveled, and frankly I think that those who would have wanted that sort of prize system are probably just a bit childish in that respect.

Evans house

I realize that there’s a difference between professional efforts and weekend volunteer work, but in terms of how we are motivated overall — and in terms of where, if anywhere, threats should figure into the process – I think this is more of a difference in degree rather than a difference in type. The political and economic structure which best enables freedom, which brings out the best in workers, and which most enables people to trust each other in working together is not likely to be the one which has the biggest stick to beat people with if they don’t do as they are told. How masters can get the most mechanical labor out of their slaves for the least investment is a different question, but shifting the form of the question in that direction should in itself show that there is something wrong with that form of thinking. Would you agree, Cuz?

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Anyway, this also sort of brings me to the matter that, when it comes to this blog, I haven’t really bothered to shovel much …it here in the past couple years – maybe in part because no one pays me for it, maybe because I’m not so sure how much good my shoveling efforts here do for anyone, maybe because of the limits of my own capacities for shoveling such these days. Whatever the case, once in a while it feels good to get a barrow load or two of …it out into the blogosphere for everyone else to be able to enjoy the smell together with me. If anyone has anything to say about how it might be more effectively shifted or spread around, I’d be happy to hear from you.

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Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics

Another Shooting Tragedy

I’ve got a number of half-finished essays that I’ve been writing since my little brush with death, but today I think it’s worth writing something fresh regarding the ten people who died in the senseless shooting incident in Oregon this week.

What deserves to be said here? I have to admit, in some way I sort of don’t want to know the details. Some crazy guy (it always has to be a guy, and to kill a bunch of strangers on purpose, without a commanding officer telling him to do so, we’d pretty much automatically label him as crazy) goes on a spree at a college of some sort. Of all those he gets bullets into he only manages to kill about half of them; maybe intentionally only killing those who identified themselves as Christians. One army veteran with a gun happened to be around, but his self-preservation instincts were strong enough to keep him from doing any stupid vigilante stuff with it. That thus screws up all the Second Amendment fundamentalists’ talking points, so “conservatives” need to find other fodder here. They turn to the fact that this particular crazy had a bug up his but about Christians, so they are thus able to make martyrs out of those who were senselessly gunned down. Meanwhile another former soldier, this one unarmed, but motivated with the intent of honoring his six-year-old son, rushes the crazy gunman, takes a few bullets himself, and somehow lives to tell about it.

So what are we supposed to think about all of this? Let me try to be brief for a change.

  1. Christians, especially West Coast style evangelicals, should not be proud of their ability to get people pissed off. Of course there is no justification for this shooting on religious grounds, but there is also no justification in taking pride in identification with the type of religious practice that prioritizes self-righteousness over social justice and sustainability, and which thereby has a tendency to drive those with weaker mental stability to start with over the edge. There isn’t really any justification for a martyr cult being built around this incident, and I would appreciate it if people I know would resist the temptation to participate in such.
  2. The most tragic element of a cliché shooting spree at an American educational institution is that it is such a cliché. We’ve seen this movie before, too many times. Talking points on both sides are strongly at risk of becoming self-parodies. From my perspective the worst of it is the Republican presidential candidates being in a race to trip over themselves in stressing how firmly opposed they are to common sense in limiting the civilian use of firearms in light of cases like this. But regardless, the victims here have become less important as people – victims of human tragedy – than as props within a repetitious argument over one of the more absurd aspects of the American political process. There is something about that that we need to be fundamentally disturbed by.
  3. On the other end of the issue, there is something disturbing about these particular 10 individuals who ended up dying last week getting more ink spilled in the international press than the thousands who have died from other preventable causes due to our collective political negligence. While the deaths of would-be martyrs are treated as abstractions rather than as tragic personal losses to the human family, at least they are somehow recognized. The hundreds who die in traffic accidents, for lack of proper health care, in drug-related street violence and through the business of routine remote warfare in the Middle East keep just getting swept under the rug. It’s hard to even suggest how we could keep these things in better perspective so that we don’t let these more “media-sexy” deaths distract us from other routine tragedies with far greater numbers of casualties involved. Maybe it’s good that cases like this no longer hold our attention.
  4. Once again the painfully ironic issue with a shooting at an educational institution in the United States is that it is the result of how utterly incompetent educational institutions in the United States have been in terms of teaching the basics of human rights theory. Only in the United States are people prone to think of the right to equip oneself to kill other people as a greater basic human right than education and/or health care for the general public. This gross blind spot is due to an essential failure in both curriculum planning and teaching practice in public education. This in turn is largely due to an obscene prioritization of military spending over education and social service spending as a matter of government policy since World War 2, and especially since the Reagan administration. It further adds to the irony of this tragedy that very few Americans understand the absurdity of this situation enough to be embarrassed about it.
  5. If there is something about this situation worth celebrating or commemorating, it is indeed the heroism of the single father, Chris Mintz, who took a number of bullets in an effort to make his world a safer place on his son’s sixth birthday. His son wasn’t in the room, but North Carolina native Mintz was in Oregon to begin with his on account of his son. He had begun the day by wishing his son a happy birthday, and after trying to block the shooters attacks on his college English class, his final words to the shooter before passing out were, “Today is my son’s birthday.” People really need to remember not just how brave this man was to risk his life for others, but how the thing he was willing to sacrifice his life for if necessary was the importance of fatherhood. Other fathers need to see how their children can and should be the most important thing in their lives. Other people should be more ready to respect the importance of this relationship to the men in question, even when the romance with the child’s mother doesn’t work. Fatherhood is different from motherhood, but just as important. This week’s tragic event should be taken as a reminder of that.

The rest I’ll leave up to each of you to ponder for yourselves. I just recommend that you do so in a spirit of thankfulness that for most of us life goes on this month.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights

Charlie and the Martyr Factory

Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.

The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.

In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.

Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.

Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.

But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.

The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.

political influence levelsIf you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.

Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.

That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy.  Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.

From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.

Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.

The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.

Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.

Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!

20150111_213743All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.

Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, News, Politics, Pop culture

The Evolution of Public Understanding of Human Rights

I accidentally got preaching to my friends on Facebook this evening, and after the fact I realized that I had written a blog’s worth of material without sitting down and intending to do so. So since I’ve been posting so sparsely here otherwise I thought it would be worth taking a few more minutes while I’m at it to copy-paste together those diatribes and put it up here for all of your reviews and comments.

The basic issue being discussed was prejudice, racism and what we should be doing to stop them. (The stimulus for discussion was this video.) Part of the discussion from there had to do with problems associated with race, and whether black civil rights activists of the current generation are to blame form flaming racial tensions. I find that to be a rather absurd charge, and one that is constructed for ignorant use as an excuse for all sorts of abuse against darker-skinned people: “But they’re being even more racist!”

I jumped in on a rather heated discussion that arose over this matter by commenting: “As long as conservatives talk about the problem of ‘black-on-black crime’ race remains an important construct in their minds by which they differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It isn’t any Sharpton or Jackson forcing them to see the world that way.” I hold to that: race is not something that black people have constructed and reinforced in the public imagination. It’s not something that lighter skinned folk can just randomly pretend doesn’t exist when it comes to protecting basic rights (“There’s only one race: the human race; it’s just these activists like Jackson and Sharpton who are keeping people from seeing things that way”) and then invoke when it comes to explaining away problems in the structure of society (“All of these problems black people are having are not caused by white oppression so much as other black people”). I find this sort of inconsistency in rhetoric morally disgusting, and I hope to discourage ignorant people of good will from falling into such hate-mongering narratives.

From there, in the flow of heated rhetoric that I wasn’t actively participating in, the issue was raised –– somewhat as a red herring and somewhat as a clarification of a previous side issue –– of the United States historic role in promoting civil rights and human rights. This rhetorical tack is generally used to claim that since the American tradition has been the source of so much good we shouldn’t critique it too harshly, even when it leads to things like obscene levels of economic polarization, imprisonment of large percentages of the population, lack of legitimate opportunity structures for people born into the wrong sort of families, and excusing of blatantly hateful attitudes projected against darker skinned people merely because they have darker skin (regardless of the barrage of excuses routinely employed for such).

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this "American heritage" deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture.

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this “American heritage” deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture?

OK, what is uniquely valuable about American cultural heritage as such? What sort of new developments did the United States introduce into world culture? How are the other 6.7 billion people of the world better (or worse) off because of the existence of American political culture? It’s a question worth considering more carefully than it usually gets considered.

My very separate friends Aaron and Vinnie (who have never met each other and who have nothing more in common with each other than both being from the eastern United States and both being acquainted with me in some distant way) were going after each other on this point: Vinnie taking the position of defending “American Exceptionalism,” and Aaron downplaying this claim by way of introducing historical precedents and context. To this, in the midst of a bit of back-pedalling, Vinnie replied, “The American constitution was a large improvement on those documents. […] I am under the impression that the US constitution was a major evolution in the rights of human beings. […] I still stand by the US bill of rights being a major evolution in human rights built upon the magna carta, [sic] English documents, and French republican ideals.”

This was my cue. My reason for posting the video that started this whole discussion was that it included a tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as standard for making blatant expressions of racism unacceptable. If the US documents in question were “a major evolution in the rights of human beings” over their predecessors, the UDHR in turn represents at least as large a leap forward in terms of human rights compared to American writings of the 18th century.

So on this basis I wrote:

“[My point] in starting this thread was to point out to many, conservative Americans in particular, that there have been a vast number of improvements in human rights legislation since the slaveholders wrote the US Constitution, that people in the US simply haven’t been tracking on — larger improvements than the US Constitution represented over its French and British predecessors. Under these circumstances it’s even a bit absurd for the US to position itself as the global human rights police, when so many Americans are so utterly clueless about the subject. Reading the UDHR and getting its principles operational within the US should be a moral prerequisite for preaching to other nations about human rights and trying to enforce them as an excuse for invading lands whose natural resources we covet. End of this evening’s sermon.”

But for better or for worse, mea culpa, I found myself unable to stop there. I had to give my personal perspective on what was in fact unique and revolutionary about the writings of the American “founding fathers” in these regards:

“BTW, the major revolutionary aspect of the US Constitution was not its emphasis on rights in general, but its break with what scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the tradition of ‘little christendoms’: This new little nation was not officially seeking religious justifications for its power structure, as had been the European tradition, nor was it allowing religious authorities to reinforce themselves as providers of the basis for civil authority. IOW the truly revolutionary thing was the degree to which the US was not founded as a Christian nation! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tea Party sympathizers.”

Vinnie, sincere open-minded thinker that he is (and I say that completely sincerely) then put forward the next important question: “I believe that we want to ask, how is the UDHR superior to the US const and is there any deficiency?”

This I answered at length:

“The UDHR was built on the premise that the multiple tragedies of WW2 in particular were based on the problem of people not being treated with the sort of dignity that all people deserve to be treated with, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE PEOPLE. It was also built on the premise that, when it came right down to it, NONE of the nations involved could claim that they were treating all of their people with the full dignity to which they should be entitled. (The US was, by our current understanding, shamefully segregated still at that time, and couldn’t claim any high moral ground, in spite of FDR’s idealistic inspiration for the project.) Thus all the nations involved officially pledged to take their agreements on the matter forward by learning from and teaching the content of this document. The US in particular has failed to live up to that commitment. (The Soviet Union did too, which largely led to its demise.)

FDR's four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

FDR’s four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

“Substantive issues that the UDHR raises in comparison with the US Constitution is that it codifies positive rights for individuals. FDR famously spoke of basic rights to freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The first two of those were spelled out in the US Constitution. The latter two had yet to be properly codified. How should people, by virtue of being people, be protected from fear and want? What sorts of fears and wants do people deserve to be protected from, and by whom? (Fear of getting old or gaining weight is not something that people are entitled to protection from. Want is something that comparison-based cultures will never know the end of.) The UDHR explores these issues from a broadly multi-cultural perspective, trying to, for the first time, establish a set of standards for what people are entitled to as people that could be equally applicable in Russia, China, Japan, African nations, Arab nations, European nations, and yes, in American nations; acknowledging that all of these cultures had serious improvements to be made, and that none of them could claim the moral high ground in showing the others how they should learn to treat people.

“The primary problem with the US currently is an unjustified triumphalist mentality that the current (and transitory) period of global economic domination that American businesses have enjoyed for the past couple of generations is somehow a divine reward for a job well done. That attitude needs to be unlearned, and Americans need to get on board with the understanding that the point of governments isn’t to enable businesses to steal, kill, rape and plunder at will, but to insure that their people are respected as people. People need to seriously stop and think about what that responsibility for governments entails. They need to read through the UDHR and think critically about the issues it raises. They need to learn to hold their political leaders responsible to such standards, and in order to do that they need to learn what those standards are.

“A few hints in relation to the UDHR –– things that are self-evident to people in most other parts of the world, which the US hasn’t really caught on with yet:

– Corporations are abstract forms of human cooperation, not people which are entitled to rights as people.

– Being equipped to kill other people at will is not an essential right for all people as people.

– An education which enables the person to make informed decisions in the democratic process is something that every government must insure that all of its citizens have free access to, and which they are somewhat required to participate in.

– Insuring that workers are (primarily through their work) able to achieve a standard of living sufficient for housing, nutrition and health care for themselves and their children, is part of the governments moral responsibility as a government. These are not matters that the economically powerful should be allowed to grant or not grant to those they employ/enslave as they see fit.

“For further information on such matters start by actually reading the UDHR for yourself!”

Now in all fairness, Vinnie and Aaron are both among the minority of Americans who actually have read the UDHR for themselves, and who have started actively discussing the issues it raises. I hope the virus spreads from them to many others. I hope they respectfully learn from each other as they keep discussing such matters. I may even have reasonable grounds for such hope.

So what does everyone else here think?

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Boycott Hate-mongers

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a new blog here. You could say I’ve been on strike, but not really: I’m not holding out for better pay of benefits. It’s more a matter of running out of energy to do all the things I want to do for my own amusement and thus leaving this one aside for a while. In any case though, there’s now an issue that I want to both think through rant to the rest of the world about so its time to open this back up and dump some fresh verbiage on any of you who happen to be interested.

The issue which comes to mind of course has to do with next month’s mid-term elections in the United States. I try to be active in my US citizenship, but not being registered as an absentee citizen of any particular county in the US the way the law works is that I can’t really make my vote count no matter how I want to influence things. I also, as a matter of principle, don’t believe in dumping money into major party campaigns, with the idea that money should be the accepted means of determining election results. I know that in practice it often works that way, but that is only because too many Americans are too poorly educated to think critically about the crap that those control the airwaves dump on them. I don’t believe the political system can be improved until the educational system improves. Unfortunately the conspicuous decline in the integrity of the political system is leading to continuous decline in the education system, so the vicious circle is spiraling downwards rather than progress enabling the nation to climb upwards. Thus the decline of America as a superpower is inevitable and accelerating.

But rather than been all doom and gloom about it I really want to spread some sort of message of hope for my native land. For them to have hope, however, they will have to start working together as a people. That can only work if they find some greater unifying factor than who they hate. For the nation to thrive as a nation it needs some idea, not of who they want to fight against, but what they want to fight for.

If that has ever happened before in US history, though, it hasn’t been within my lifetime. Thus I’m not terribly optimistic about the prospect for American decline being reversed any time soon, but for all my friends there who are able to vote and who want to use your vote to try to move things in a positive direction here’s what I seriously suggest: Don’t vote for anyone on the basis of who they promise to fight against!

If they’re spending millions on convincing you to join them in hating particular bad guys and this message is coming across louder than any hope for the future they have to offer, you can be quite sure that by voting for them you will only make the problems in Washington worse, regardless of which party they represent.

Even when the forces of peace seem to be grossly overpowered by the forces of hate...

Even when the forces of peace seem to be grossly overpowered by the forces of hate…

It comes back to the principle of the classic thought experiment of the “Prisoners’ Dilemma.” In its basic form this comes down to an interrogator trying to extract confessions from two partners in crime, when in fact he has little other evidence to establish their guilt. So effectively he promises each that if either one confesses to the crime he will be immediately pardoned and the other will serve a heavy sentence. If both confess, a sentence will be served by both, but it will be lighter than what which would be served by just one who would not confess. Thus one viable version would be for two suspects of computer fraud to each be told, “If you confess to your crime and your partner doesn’t, you’ll be out of jail by the end of the week, whereas he’ll serve 5 years for the crime. If he confesses and you don’t, you’ll serve the 5 years and he walks. If you both confess, you’ll each end up serving 3 years.” What goes unstated is that if neither confesses they’ll both be released after a maximum holding time for the trial process of 2 months.  So for each individual, provided they care nothing about the other, it makes the most sense to confess: His time in jail will be 2 months less if the other doesn’t confess, and 2 years less if he does. But if he is thinking of their collective good he will not confess: By not confessing, even if the other fellow does confess, he can reduce their combined jail time by a year. If the other fellow doesn’t confess, by also not confessing he can reduce their combined jail time by 4 years and 8 months.

The lesson is that individuals who are most successful in their competition with others, if they care nothing about those they are competing with, in the long run they do collective harm for everyone. The only way for the pair, or team, or society, to succeed together is to start thinking of the collective harm or benefit that comes from a particular action rather than just “what’s in it for me”. Americans’ current lack of capacity to think collectively in this regard is what is driving the country towards decline. Nowhere is that more obvious than between the major political parties.

Beyond that there is what might be considered the Fascist mentality: hatred towards a mutual enemy really does draw people together, and if you want other people to work together with you towards the realization of your personal goals the best way to get them to do that is often to convince them to hate something you can be their hero in fighting against. If there isn’t some evil entity for them to hate you can always create one for them. Hitler obviously drew on a tradition of using the Jews for such a purpose. For Americans the bad guy has been variable, but always there: the dark skinned “savages” whose lands they were taking, or the British imperialists, or the rebellious and resentful former slaves, or the non-integrated newcomer immigrants, or the threat of Communism, or now primarily the threat of expansive Islam. Any (combination) of these threats could be used at different points in American history to rally people together to fight as a team.

If the common enemy wasn’t enough the other motivational tool in the fascist box would be fear of punishment by the powerful and fully legitimized authority structure. The secret police, the inquisition, the ministry of justice or “Big Brother” by any other name is always watching and always ready to pounce on those who don’t do its bidding.

Of course I don’t want people supporting Fascists, but to base campaigns on hatred towards any other group by labeling them as Fascists ultimately only reinforces a Fascist mentality in the society. The only way to escape this is to rather work towards a model of solidarity between citizens: working together towards the ideal printed on the dollar bill: “e pluribus unum” –– out of many, one. Unless we can clearly envision what we should be working together as one to achieve, common enemies can provide us with no lasting stable government structure, to say nothing of peace, happiness or security.

The ideals I suggest to build solidarity around would be basic human rights: setting certain goals for how all people should be treated just because they are people, and accepting no excuses for treating any human being with less dignity than what befits a human being. This was essentially the message of the “Four Freedoms” laid out by FDR and painted by Norman Rockwell to motivate Americans to fight in World War II. This was the essential message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted shortly after the last World War with hopes of avoiding another one.

Sadly most Americans seldom stop to think about the matter of what even their enemies are basically entitled to as human beings, and when it comes to “rights” they have the naïve tendency to consider “the right to bear arms” as more fundamental than the rights to “freedom of movement” or “asylum from persecution” (UDHR articles 13 and 14); to say nothing of rights to “social security” (art. 22), “equal pay for equal work” (art. 23, §2), “to form and join trade unions” (art. 23, §4), “an adequate standard of living… including… health care” (art. 25, §1) or an extensive “right to education” (art. 26). With that sort of mentality the basic threshold to building a sense of national solidarity based on a respect for human rights tends to be too high for most politicians to pass over these days. Consequently rather than building the world’s most technically or ideologically advanced society, the United States is currently building the world’s most extensive (and profitable) prison system. That trend is worth reversing. In fact in my humble opinion reversing that trend is actually infinitely more important than maintaining US military hegemony in the world.

I haven’t heard of any campaigns in the current election cycle which provide me with a great deal of hope in this regard, so I won’t endorse any particular parties or candidates. What I will suggest is for all voters to take a step away from the status quo in the system, taking a baby step towards a dynamic of solidarity: Don’t vote for anyone on the basis of who they promise to fight against! If both parties are campaigning on no other basis than that you really may not be able to do any good with your ballot. If, however, in any given race, one candidate is just a little less aggressively hateful than the other, and just a little less obviously clueless about the meaning of human rights, vote for that candidate.

Meanwhile take the trouble to read through international agreements and declarations regarding human rights in general. You don’t have to agree with all of them, but you owe it to yourself to stop and think about them in light of the question of what all human beings should be entitled to as human beings. From there work towards making the society in which you live, and in which you participate in the process of selecting the government, one which respects these sorts of rights, and one in which people work together in a spirit of solidarity to protect each other’s basic rights in these regards. Part of that is to discuss these rights with each other and to encourage your neighbors as well to stop and think about them.

If US citizens en masse were to start thinking in this manner it might not be enough to halt the phenomenon of cultural decline there, but it would certainly slow down the process. It would also make whatever sort of society we are moving towards far more livable and enjoyable for our descendants.

Any other hopes I have for the nation can only be realized from this starting point, so please work on sharing it and spreading it!

Those in other (nominally) democratic nations, please learn from the Americans’ mistakes and strive in your own lands as well to promote solidarity based on respect for each other’s basic human rights. The whole planet really needs this!

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The Children and the Tools

I’m still contemplating what to write here about the philosophical perspectives the conference I attended in Brighton last weekend got me thinking about, but meanwhile I’ve decided to set those matters aside for the moment and consider something else that has been the subject of discussions which have been directed at me elsewhere recently –– which actually might be more relevant to more readers here than my deconstructive take on logocentrism. The issue is the hatemongering which has been going on regarding immigrant children in the United States, and whether or not I see any potential for constructive solutions on the matter.

The problem to a great extent relates to the personal emotional dysfunctions of Texas governor Rick Perry, and the emotional dysfunctions of a disturbingly large number of Americans that his position resonates with. Perry tosses out the statistics that those who have crossed into his state by way of Mexico without official permission to do so since Obama became president account for nearly 1% of the population of his state, and that these “illegals” account for nearly 10% of the violent crime in his state. Then pretending to be some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger (in the role of tough guy actor, not in the role of semi-competent governor) he says that if the federal government isn’t going to deal with the problem then he’s going to have to deal with it himself. If that means that there will be less money for things like education and keeping children from dying of malnutrition or preventable diseases in his state… well… those are the breaks. The first priority is to keep these little kids that keep showing up on the Texas border from being used as tools to help others to get in –– forming “anchor points” which enable their big bad parents to gain access to Texan resources. If a bunch of them end up dying after being sent back by livestock transport… well… that’s just how life goes.

photo-rick-perry-hunting-refugee-children-in-mom-jeansA friend of mine posted the following “Christian” perspective on the situation to me: “Like many Christians, I support their desire for a new life, the dignity of and the ability to eat. Like most Christians I support them just so long as they are not in my neighborhood; could take my job; or release infections into the community or, heaven forbid, affect property prices. Like most Christians I support their rights, but don’t really want to meet one. But I also support our right to live in luxury whilst the rest of the world supports my lifestyle.”

So what would I suggest as a means of fixing this situation? Short answer: Texan culture is too broken to fix properly in the short-term. Rather than creating hell for those who the self-righteous believe deserve hell, I would hope that they would start focusing on learning to think of other people as fellow bearers of the “image of God” and to treat them accordingly. But I don’t see that as happening any time soon.

The problem of immigration is a tough one on many levels. As someone who’s done more than his fair share of attempted immigration and border crossing, and having built a career out of teaching the children of habitual border-crossers, I have a more personal perspectives on the matter than the average American –– or the average Finn for that matter. Ultimately there are three primary issues involved: resources, personal competition and safety concerns. New people coming into an area can be a source of all three and a factor in reducing all three. Newcomers can both use and create resources. Newcomers can stimulate new forms of competition in both positive and negative senses. Newcomers can serve to make life more risky in some areas and less risky in others. Now let me see if I can explain what I mean by that in terms so simple that even a tea partier might understand.

When I first moved to Finland one of the mild surprises I experienced was seeing Mallard Ducks that seemed to be convinced that they were pigeons. Yes, Boston, Massachusetts also has a culture of caring about ducklings and all that, but this was taking the idea a bit further. These were birds which were losing their fear of humans and their migratory instincts entirely. A small population of such birds seemed to have undergone an evolutionary mutation which changed what “came naturally” for them, causing them to hang around begging for food from humans rather than looking for seeds and fish and the like to eat, and keeping them from migrating when the weather changed. This change had taken place over the course of a set of especially mild winters, and some environmental ethicists were trying to convince people to stop feeding them and let them go back to their “normal lifestyle” of flying south when their natural food sources became unavailable. If we were to have a really cold winter these creatures would freeze to death in a particularly cruel manner. This besides the other matters of taste in which certain people dislike city ducks for the same reasons they dislike pigeons, seagulls and/or mice. But then a funny thing happened: there was a record-setting cold snap where for over a month temperatures were below -20 degrees Celsius… and the ducks managed just fine. So those who didn’t want the ducks to be fed because they don’t like duck droppings all over the parks lost one of their best excuses for their position: it could no longer be said to be for the ducks’ own good.

IMG_5118Arguments that certain people don’t belong in certain parts of the world “for their own good” tend to be even more transparently dishonest, but there is a variation on them which gets used fairly commonly regardless: “There isn’t enough ______ here for everyone, and what there is already has been claimed by others. If you let more people come in from outside they’ll end up fighting with us over our already overtaxed resources.” In some cases there can even be a marginal element of truth to such claims: in the Sahara Desert there is a serious lack of drinking water, and any newcomer who plans to just wander out there looking for more space for themselves could either end up fighting to the death for scarce water resources or just simply dying for lack of water. To a slightly lesser extent the same logic applies to the various sorts of beggars from southern climates who attempt to come to northern Europe and go around asking for money on the streets: In the summer they’re just a nuisance, but in the chill of an Arctic winter the lack of readily available heated shelter for such people can put some of them at serious mortal.

But for the most part when we are talking about limited resources in the western world the problem actually comes down to an abstract understanding of financial resources: “We don’t have enough money.” For that there’s a simple answer: make some more money by fiat, just like the rest of the money we have in circulation.

imagesMoney is ultimately nothing more than a government backed scheme for setting value on the services people trade with each other. As long as you have people who are willing to do stuff to get it, money “works”. When you don’t have enough money in free circulation for people to be able to use it as a means of trading what they are willing and able to do for others in order to get what they want and need for themselves, the money has stopped working properly. Likewise when you have too much money floating around, and people cease to be willing to do so much to get it because they aren’t sure that others will be willing to do anything for them in exchange for it, then too the money has stopped working properly. As long as you have people who are willing to work for it then, money maintains its value. The harder people are willing to work to get it, the more practical value money has. So when people come into a country willing to work for whatever sort of money they have there, “lack of money” is not a valid reason for trying to keep them out. The only problem with just “making more money” out of thin air under such circumstances is that it gets people to stop and look at the obscene levels of corruption with which the whole monetary system functions. It when you need to put more money out there so that more people are able to get work done by more other people it gets harder to ignore all of the nasty greedy people pulling the strings at the top, siphoning off well more than their fair share of the money they create.

The amount of actual physical resources available is not a serious limitation on the number of people the richer countries of the world can allow in. The amount of food that gets thrown away, the amount of energy of all sorts that gets wasted and the number of buildings that sit abandoned and derelict give ample testimony to the sufficiency of physical resources, if they could somehow be used just a bit more intelligently. The problem is getting a distribution system to work so that everyone can play a role in contributing to providing what everyone else wants and needs in exchange for what they are hoping to get out of the system for themselves. Part of the problem from there is determining what useful roles we might play in each other’s lives (i.e., what counts as “productive work”), making sure that people can learn how to do the sort of “return favors” we expect of them (i.e., having a functional education system), and making sure that people are rewarded well enough for their efforts to keep doing what we hope they will keep doing for us (i.e., just wage structures).

Some see “maintaining a healthy economy” as a matter of finding ways to push others to work harder for less so that we in turn can have more toys while paying less for them. If potential workers are otherwise unwilling to do what you tell them to, make sure that you seriously threaten their children’s lives to get them properly motivated! To this way of thinking the government’s job to be to keep workers and consumers “in line” for the corporate interests, and if government tries to protect people from de facto slavery to these corporate interests then it has overstepped its proper bounds. This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the abuse of power.

Meanwhile those who are “wage slaves” within this system see it as being in their best interest to prevent those who are willing to work harder for less from having access to their same labor market. Their masters have convinced them that they are nothing more than disposable tools to get a certain job done, and if there is a cheaper tool available to get the same job done for less, they can expect to be thrown away. Thus the only way to prevent themselves from being thrown away is to keep other disposable tools from becoming available to the masters, in part through immigration control.

This defensive position is always rather short-sighted. Beside the fact that industrial production continues to move to whatever country in which wages slaves can be had the cheapest, making protecting jobs by protecting borders a meaningless endeavor, if the only way you can prove that your work is valuable is to prevent others from being able to do it, your respected role in society is doomed to fail relatively soon anyway. If you aren’t replaced by an immigrant right away you can pretty much count on being replaced by some computerized device long before you’re ready to move on from your current task. The alternative is two-fold: Workers need to focus on being genuinely good at what they do in such a way that they are too valuable just to be tossed aside; and people need to be treated with dignity “as ends unto themselves” as Kant would put it, not merely as disposable tools. If you aren’t working under the duress of literally trying to keep those you love from dying, and you are able to have confidence that what you do is genuinely valuable, then having more people out there in the labor market together with you ceases to be a threat. The more other workers you have around you, the greater the number of services you can potentially get in exchange for what you have to offer. From that perspective, as long as they are able to learn skills which are valuable in their new place of residence, immigrants are far more of an opportunity than a threat to life as I know it.

Of course there are many “ifs” or “as long ases” in this perspective. The economic system needs to focus a sufficient amount of energy into basic education, newcomers need to be willing to acquire useful skills, those within the system need to be willing to adapt to change, and there needs to be an overall ethic of solidarity within the society for this sort of openness to function in practice. When any of those factors fail –– especially the last two –– a dynamic of managing the mutual threat that people pose to each other takes over. Life becomes, to varying degrees, an ongoing state of war; in Hobbes words, “nasty, brutish and short”. The “right to bear arms,” i.e. being equipped to kill other people, becomes a more important right than education, food, shelter or any other basic human need. This is where I see much of the US, Texas in particular, as being culturally rather too broken to fix any time soon.

simpkins3When you have that sort of basic level of hatred functioning in a society, of course the problem gets further compounded with every new form of human difference or “outsideness” that you introduce into the war zone. Immigrants, religious minorities, significant ethnic identities, sexual minorities and skin color varieties can all serve as bases for considering some people to be a worse threat than everyone else. Sometimes having someone else to hate can bring together some sort of alliance between “insiders” but in the long run it’s never truly “worth it.” When solidarity is based on shared enemies neo-Nazis and the KKK become far more the cultural norm than the exception. This is a tendency that all civic and religious organizations should be guarding themselves against, but few do.

There is some further excuse for hating outsiders possible in claiming that they pose a serious health risk to the local population. There is some precedent for this, in that Europeans managed to wipe out as many of the populations they set out to colonize with various forms of pox as they did with their firearms. We don’t want any darker skinned people to do to us what centuries ago we did to them! But these days the level of vaccinations available to anyone who is worried about imported diseases really makes the point moot.

The flimsiest argument I have seen in defense of hatred towards immigrants creates a hypothetical situation in which children from the unofficially war-torn northern cities of the US, like Chicago and Detroit, start getting sent north across the border into Canada, where life is safer and where they have the possibility of getting basic education and medical care that wouldn’t be available to them at home. Would US citizens have a right to get angry at Canadians if they were to refuse to allow such children into their country?

To the extent that this is a plausible scenario at all, the thing which makes it such is that Canada has not wasted nearly so great a portion of its economic output on means of killing other people as the United States has. This has left them in a better position to care for the basic health, education and welfare of their citizens, and others who happen to drift into their nation. Canadians are not angels, but they don’t have nearly the ingrained culture of mutual hostility that dominates US politics these days. So if kids from Chicago run away to Canada with their parents’ blessing, Canadians would, I would fully expect, try to re-integrate them with their families, but they would not treat them like wild animals or dangerous criminals the way US border guards are treating children from Latin America. For proof of this one need look no further than at the number of young people from the US who ran away to Canada in order to avoid being sent to fight in Viet Nam fifty years ago, and eventually became productive members of Canadian society. How they were treated? Thus Canada’s lack of militancy in relation to outsiders, and the safer life there that results from this, does not really provide anything like a rational basis for justifying US militancy against foreigners. Efforts to build such an argument really only prove how clueless some in the right wing of US politics really are.

There are certainly no perfect countries in the world when it comes to their approach to immigrants –– both to actual immigrants and to potential ones. There are also many existing cultures based on raiding and stealing from their neighbors, which create a serious challenge for those who would try to welcome those who have been raised in such cultures into their communities. My primary point, however, would be that immigrants in general aren’t a major source of danger to receiving societies which have a healthy culture to start with; immigrants merely play a troublesome role in making societies’ existing dysfunctions all the more obvious.

So what should we do about the immigration crises we see around the world? IMHO we just need to keep moving forward towards building genuinely just and functional multi-cultural societies. Meanwhile, on an individual level, we should get into the habit of seeing people not as abstract threats, but as people.

PerryRioGrandeRiverI admit, it’s hard for me to see people like Governor Perry and his fan club as real people sometimes. That’s probably because they only relate to many people whom I consider to be important by –– literally and figuratively –– looking down their gun barrels at them. This puts the “border defenders” in a sort of hell of their own making. For the moment I don’t see any alternative but to leave them there. Such “tools” can remain as isolated as they feel they need to be in order to maintain their abstract concept of safety. Poor children, however, I have no excuse to think of as anything other than valuable human beings. Your mileage may vary.

BorderKidsCage-e1402750082915

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Love, War, Schizophrenia and Trinity: Toying with the Debate over God’s Nature

As part of my effort to gradually get myself back in an academic frame of mind for the coming autumn, among other reasons, for the past week I’ve been going through a bunch of old debates between Muslims and Christians over doctrines the former find disturbing. I don’t have any magic bullets by which either side can decisively win these debates, but I’ve actually been struck by the extent to which both sides actually miss what I consider to be the main point of the matter. Both sides seem to have been thoroughly preoccupied with justifying their attempts to build military empires loosely based on their concepts of what God is like. Whatever else can be said about the nature of God, one thing I consider to be most certain: the creator of the universe isn’t interested in putting his stamp of approval on any piss-ant human militarily empire.

1185679_10201871936464462_1708824034_nLet me give a partial disclaimer regarding my pacifist sympathies to start with: I have three siblings who have served in the US military, and a vast number of veterans in my extended family as well. I have no problem with that. None of them have been involved in combat so far this century, and if they had I might want to have a longer talk with them about the role they played in killing people they didn’t know for reasons they didn’t really understand, but for me that’s hypothetical. In principle I believe in the idea of each country at least maintaining a military deterrent against foreign invaders, and against domestic radicals who would want to start civil wars as well. I also believe that militarily taking part in the legitimate defense of the human rights of people in other nations, particularly in terms of international cooperative missions, can be quite justifiable under many circumstances. So with all that in mind I have no problem whatsoever with the fact that the older of my two adult sons currently has a career as a drill sergeant in Finland’s military. I’m quite proud of the work he does and its value for this country and the world.

What I can’t get behind is the idea that we can solve the world’s problems by bombing the hell out of people who don’t conform to our dictates of what sort of people should live where, or those who don’t readily enough hand over natural resources to corporations that want them. This implies some critique of the United States, of course, with its unjustifiable mega-spending on military hardware –– with some of the brass somehow having managed to convince their congressmen that American really needs to have more machinery for killing people than all the rest of the nations on earth put together, and that unilaterally taking on the role of policing the rest of the world is somehow the United States’ moral responsibility. But this month it must be said that both Russians and Israelis have been outdoing Americans even in terms of promoting crazy aggressive warmongering…

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

But that’s actually beside the point of what I wanted to talk about here, which is all the debates over the nature of God.

You see, if the point of having a religion for you is to get some sort of magical advantage in the process of “smiting your enemies” it doesn’t really make any difference which type of God you believe in. Whatever theological excuses you make for yourself in that process, what that sort of faith ultimately comes down to is playing some version of “Age of Mythology” inside your head: you try to build enough temples and do enough ritual offerings so that your demiurges fight harder and stronger than the next guy’s demiurges. In practice having that sort of faith can give you a powerful psychological advantage in warfare, or in sports even; but that does not mean that there really is some supernatural power out there, related to the powers that brought the universe into being, which for some reason has now become dedicated to helping your side kick ass.  Deluding yourself into thinking that you do have such a supernatural advantage is key to maintaining the psychological advantage, but that doesn’t mean that there is any transcendent truth to it.

games-like-age-of-empires-1So for those purposes the point is not to discover what is ultimately “out there” but to get your team unified in and excited about the idea that some great big something out there is going to ensure that you guys are going to win. If it helps build that kind of excitement for you to paint pictures of this big “something out there” as having claws or fangs or giant wings, or some exaggerated signs of human masculinity or femininity, or just to tell everyone that your god is too powerful to depicted in such fashions, that all ultimately comes down to psychological tactics, not spiritual sensitivity.

There is, however, a whole different approach to “doing religion”, which I far more strongly recommend: searching for some sort of evidence that we’re not alone in this vast universe, that our lives have some significance, and that we can be part of something bigger than just our isolated selves. The problem is that this ultimately runs into direct conflict with Age of Mythology style religion: Searching for that “something beyond ourselves” which can ultimately give our lives meaning inevitably entails recognizing, at some point, that connecting with the ultimate source of our life inevitably involves connecting with the source of everyone else’s life as well –– including those whose asses we’d so like to kick. And if we’re going to believe that this power is benevolent enough to take an active interest in our little lives, that automatically implies then that he/she/it would have the same benevolent interest in those who aren’t actually part of our tribe. Exploring that series of connections can really screw up the whole Age of Mythology thing, so many of those for whom religion is a means of tribalistic or nationalistic self-promotion would prefer not to take their theology quite that far.

If we’re interested enough in these ultimate cause and connection matters to set aside our tribal power interests though there are all sorts of interesting places that can take us. In some ways it can bring us right to the border of schizophrenia! Schizophrenia is basically the sort of brain malfunction where the sufferer can’t entirely tell what is part of him/her and what isn’t; what experiences are coming from inside the head and what is coming from the outside world; where exactly the border between “me” and “non-me” falls. So if your religion starts to blur the lines between who you are and all the rest of the world’s psychic experiences, that can lead to some serious malfunctions!

But on the other hand if we remain strictly and carefully isolated from any sense of connection with the “non-me” world out there, we live lives of miserable and meaningless isolation. However you set out defining such things, love remains THE key element of the human experience that makes it worthwhile. When you truly and deeply love someone then, you become willing to let down your border defenses; you let that person inside of you a bit. Their joys become your joys. Their pains become your pains.

The problem with love though is that it radically increases the risk of internal conflict within our minds. Many of us are prone to having all sorts of conflicts within ourselves even without getting other people involved. We find all sorts of different perspectives competing for control of our lives –– all of which ultimately come from the same genetic predispositions and collection of human experiences that make each of us who we are. So with that level of conflict already going on inside of our heads, how much worse could it get if we allow others to become part of who we are? Plenty! When, through loving others, we bring their conflicting perspectives into ourselves, coming from entirely different genetic predispositions and collections of life experiences, the conflicts can get A LOT nastier!

And actually that conflict potential is where both love and schizophrenia can become problematic. The trouble isn’t so much the confusion over what is part of you and what isn’t, but the huge powerful struggles waging war within one’s mind or soul. If we could have the interconnection of love without all the conflict potential that goes with it, that would really be perfect. So that really should be the ultimate goal of any and every religion which manages to transcend tribal contests as its reason for being. God, from this perspective, is the force that we can connect with which in turn enables us to connect with each other on a deeper sort of level without literally driving each other crazy. Or as the Apostle John put it, in much simpler terms: “God is love.”

So then we come to the question of what form this all-powerful force of love has to take in order for it to have relevance to life as we humans know it. How can this Ultimate Love from “out there” enable us, with our own human limitations, to connect with itself (or himself) and thereby with each other –– again, without driving each other crazy? This is the fundamental dilemma that every non-tribal-success-oriented religion has to work out.

Christianity’s way of doing that has to do with the cluster of doctrines that we refer to in short-hand as the Trinity; which has a unique ability to drive other monotheists, Muslims and Jews in particular, entirely crazy. “How can God be one and still somehow be three?” But puzzling over this matter, however, we easily get sidetracked from the real primary issue: how can pathetic little creatures like ourselves hope to meaningfully connect with the ultimate source of life, the universe and everything? How can we learn to transcend borders of our own selfhood through love in ways that give us a more satisfying understanding of who we really are and how we can relate to each other? If we’re going to have a faith which values both personal identity and transcendent connection, we have to base that on an understanding of divinity where God also has a clear form of personal identity but where he also transcends the limits of a simple fixed identity in the process of loving.  In short, because love inevitably makes distinctions in identity ambiguous, for God to be love inevitably means that there will necessarily be an element of ambiguity in the process of interconnection within God’s identity.

The relevant question from there is how we can get our heads around the idea of ambiguous personal identity through perfect loving interconnection without that entailing the sort of internalized conflict that always goes with the human experience of love? This relates back to our tendency still to picture gods as military support devices. To that way of thinking, each individual god has its own personal ambitions and tactical objectives. The only way to eliminate conflict between gods from this perspective is to have one god capable of dominating all the other ones entirely. But in slipping back into that warring mindset the purpose of believing in a loving God has already been forgotten.

www-St-Takla-org--the-prophet-jeremiah-when-jerusalem-was-takenThe prophets of ancient Israel and Judah, whose message was foundational to the teachings of Jesus, struggled with this issue on a number of levels. They were very much coming from a place of thinking according to the Age of Mythology paradigm: If you lose the war it’s either because you’ve got a weaker god or you didn’t do enough to keep that god satisfied with you. Leaving the possibility of their god’s strength being limited entirely aside, they set to work explaining what the people must have done wrong for their warrior god to have stopped fighting for them. Much of the time they did this with graphic verbal images of sexual infidelity: JHWH rejecting his chosen people because they spent too much time screwing around with other gods. But once in a while, just once in a while, they seemed to grasp that if they were really dealing with the creator of the universe, not just some little local tribal god, it was rather inappropriate to relate to him on the level of saying that his primary “job” is to help our army dominate the other one in battle. They also started to realize that there were limits with how far they should take that jealous boyfriend motif. They started recognizing that treating people, any people, as disposable commodities was at the root of many of their problems. They started to see that an addiction to violence as a means of dealing with things and cycles of vengeance just weren’t going to work out well for anyone in the long run. They started to preach that the point of religion should be recognizing “God’s heart of compassion”… for all nations. Those are the principles that Jesus in turn really drove home.

I could proof-text this out for you, but hopefully you get the idea without.

So yeah, once we get beyond playing supernatural war games with our faith –– once we learn to focus on compassion and connection that overcomes conflicts being the true core issue of faith –– the intellectual problems inherent in the doctrine of the trinity become far less critical. That doesn’t make it rationally comprehensible, but it can be argued that love never is logically comprehensible, and if love is going to be the point of our lives we’re just going to have to learn to deal with that.

Those are my meandering meditations for this week. I hope they hold deeper meaning for some of you. Cheers.

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Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.

 

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 3)

So now we reach the final entry in Aristotle’s deliberations on the soul –– on what makes living things live, and what makes us human. In book three he continues on with all of the lines of thought begun in the previous two books, exploring areas that we would call neurology, psychology, epistemology and metaphysics –– in such a way, actually, where it is unlikely that he would have any defenders these days who would stand by all of his final conclusions in any of these four fields. Even so, he makes his mistakes in such a way as to open up all four subject areas in interesting ways for further speculation and development.

Regarding what we would call neurological phenomena, his basic conclusions are that there logically cannot be any more than five senses, and that the purpose of each of these senses is to help us identify “the good”, which, in each case, is in fact good by virtue of its concord, pleasing ratio, or overall balance. “That is also why the objects of sense are pleasant when the sensible extremes such as acid or sweet or salt being pure and unmixed are brought into proper ratio; then they are pleasant” (part 2, 6th paragraph).

He rather leaves open the question of whether this balanced goodness is something inherently good of itself, of if it is good as a means of preserving human life as such. It is possible that he sees the value in human life in its connection with some greater good beyond itself, revealed in such inherently virtuous things as harmony and balance; it is possible that he would see harmony and balance as instrumental goods which we take to be good because they preserve human life. These days we’re more prone to accept the latter way of looking at things: we have developed preferences as a species which are conducive to our continuation as a species, including the Goldilocks factors of not too hot, not too cold / not too hard, not too soft; and on that basis we are prone to see such things as good. It might be overly charitable though to assume that is what Aristotle had in mind. His medieval interpreters at least were more likely to read into his work an understanding that getting close to Godliness, in the form of the ultimate form of forms, is what makes human life valuable, and that a natural attraction to harmony and balance is part of God’s way of drawing us unto himself through the senses he has given us. It would seem then that Aristotle’s own perspective would be closer to that of the Thomists that of the Darwinians.

Was Baby Bear's bed the best  for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear's bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the Platonic ideal for such things?

Was Baby Bear’s bed the best for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear’s bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the divine “Platonic ideal” for such things?

Beyond that, when it comes to the function of the empirical senses, Aristotle sticks to the old “it takes one to know one” concept –– only like can know like. In other words just as only women can really understand women (and to the extent that men can understand women it is by way of getting in touch with their own “feminine side”) and only Greeks can really understand Greeks, so only that which has sound within it can perceive sound, only that which has color within it can perceived color, only that which has sweetness within it can perceive sweetness, and so on. Thus, “error is contact with the unlike; for that is the opposite of the knowing of like by like.” This presupposition that there must be some common element between the perceived and the perceiver, which functions as the basic means of perception, leads to some other interesting conclusions later on. Suffice to say, on a neurological level there is no particularly good reason to continue to hold to such a belief with reference to our senses. Appreciating the smell of roses does not imply that one is a partial rose, or that one’s nose bears particular similarity to a rose, anecdotal evidence not withstanding.

From a psychological perspective Aristotle comes to some interesting if mistaken conclusions regarding the interrelation of different cognitive functions in both humans and simpler-brained creatures. How do sense perception, imagination, desire, opinion, speculation, strategizing, practical judgment, moral conviction, argumentation and strength of will all relate to each other? Which of these can we identify in the behavior and interaction of other animals, and which are uniquely human capacities (perhaps also exercised by the gods we bear resemblance to)? Suffice to say, Aristotle’s speculations about where the border lies between human cognitive function and cognitive functions common to other animals –– like his speculations on many topics related to the natural sciences –– demonstrate a lack of experimental data on the matter. In particular on this question it seems clear that if he ever had a dog he would have seen many of his mistakes readily through the human/canine interaction. Me being very much a dog person, I find it hard to trust the psychological perspectives of those who aren’t, but I’ll set aside my biases on that one for the time being.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this speculation on animal versus human psychological function though is his assertion that animals cannot have opinions, because opinions inherently involve beliefs, beliefs inherently involve convictions and convictions inherently involve reasoned arguments (part 3, 7th paragraph). Besides a lack of familiarity with animals, this also clearly shows the early stage in the evolution of democratic government that Aristotle was exposed to in his day as well. In modern party politics throughout the western world we regularly find that opinion formation as a cognitive function, far from depending on rational argument, tends to be the polar opposite to rational argument! The two phenomena come very close to being mutually exclusive in many cases. If you don’t believe it, attend any rally of “social conservatives” anywhere in the world and try to identify any factors which are both rationally argued and strongly held matters of opinion within their rhetoric…

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense rational...

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense based on rational argument…

But let’s set that aside and move on to the question of epistemology as such –– Aristotle’s perspective on the soul’s capacity for knowledge and what in general counts as knowledge. Here things start to get chewy. Besides the “like knowing like” premise mentioned above, another basic factor in Aristotle’s theory of knowledge is that the empirical perception “is never in error, or admits the least possible amount of falsehood” (part 3, 10th paragraph). In other words you should always trust your eyes more than your imagination. That is not to say that we always correctly process the data that our senses give us, but we should trust that sense data as a reliable starting point for access to a world beyond ourselves. Yet this leaves an important issue hanging: where does sensing end and interpretation begin? Clearly Aristotle was unaware of blind spot phenomenon and so many other forms of scientific evidence which now tell us that our sense experience is far more actively constructed within our brains than what we realize as we go about our day-to-day routines. Would he have remained as firmly epistemologically committed to empiricism had he known? Perhaps not. It’s hard to say.

In fact for all his naïve trust in his eyes and ears and mouth and nose, and especially in his sense of touch, Aristotle considered there to be more to life, the universe and everything than just the physical. One of the areas in which he remained a committed disciple of Plato was in terms of the doctrine of forms. And here his teaching on one aspect of the human soul –– the nous or mind –– becomes rather intensively metaphysical and mystical.

The mind, as Aristotle sees it, has an analogous function to the physical senses. Whereas the sense of vision provides a sense of connection in the soul’s experience between the light that is “out there” and the light that is within the eye, and the sense of touch provides a sense of connection between the textures and temperatures of the external world and those within the body in the soul’s experience; so the mind provides the soul with a sense of connection with the world of ideas, or Platonic forms. “As the hand is the tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms” (part 8, 3rd paragraph).

The difference between the mind and the senses, however, is that the senses, in order to function, are dependent on the physical presence of the stimuli they are designed to detect; the mind can connect with things that are not at all physically present. And since it can have a sense of things that are not physically present, it follows for Aristotle that the mind would itself be inherently non-physical. In order to function as a bridge between like and like in the experience of the soul, mind needs to have the same non-material, spiritual, perhaps even eternal essence as the forms themselves. This “spiritual sense,” if we can call it that (not Aristotle’s or his translators’ term, but my synopsis of his treatment of the nous), is then intermixed with the living physical aspects of the soul, but it is ultimately something greater than the physical.

Part 5 of book 3 is one of the shortest and most central to the argument on this point. It comes back to the hylomorphism idea of “matter” and “cause”, or what we today would tend to think of as “hardware” and “software” as necessary elements within the soul, but it gets a bit deeper and more mysterious than that: “[M]ind as we have described it is what it is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things. This is a sort of positive state like light… Mind in this sense of it is separable, impassible, unmixed, since it is in its essential nature activity… When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal.”

Mind as such is only regarded to be a part or a function of the human soul. Humans, like lower animals, also have appetites. When we suffer from “weakness of will” those appetites overpower our “form of forms” minds, but when we overcome our moral weaknesses and live according to the ideal form for human dignity we become more than mere animals. We hook into something unmovable and everlasting. While imagination and appetites may be misguided, “mind is always right” (part 10, 3rd paragraph). While physical needs and empirical senses involve constant motion, “the faculty of knowing is never moved but remains at rest” (part 11, 4th paragraph). This makes the moral law within a matter of still greater magnificence than the starry heavens above: Whereas the heavenly bodies (from the standard ancient perspective) are in constant aesthetically pleasing circular motion, mind as such is inherently and essentially at rest within us. It is an element of “unmoved mover” within each of us that makes us at one with the deepest principles of the universe. Such a bold metaphysical claim about the most rational part of the human soul is fascinating, to say at the least.

From Aristotle's perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

From Aristotle’s perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

Aristotle concludes his discourse on souls as such with a discussion of the ways in which empirical senses improve the quality of life for all animals. This again provides an interesting mix biological folk wisdom and non-systematic zoological analysis. It concludes by saying that for animals touch is the minimum sense which makes life possible, whereas the other senses are necessary “not for their being, but for their well-being.”

For further investigation as to what makes humans human from Aristotle’s perspective, there is also book 7 of his “History of Animals” to be considered, with its extensive misinformation regarding human sexuality and reproduction –– and I mean serious misinformation, like saying that for a woman’s labia to be moist and swollen reduces the possibility of conception, so to increase the chance of making babies the man should avoid letting the woman get too wet! He furthermore suggests that for recreational sex where conception is not desired rubbing in some extra lubricant like cedar or olive oil should do the trick!

It is from within this same highly scientific chapter (3) of this work that medieval thinkers arrived at their formula of male embryos developing into human beings capable of thought and action faster than female embryos –– “ensoulment” happening at roughly 40 and 90 days into pregnancy for male and female fetuses respectively. A careful reading, however shows Aristotle actually presents this as a rule of thumb at best, with many exceptions and variations admitted.

With all this funky speculation and blatant misinformation regarding what souls are, where they come from, how they interact with the human body and so on, it becomes a little embarrassing to have so much of Christian doctrine and Western tradition based on such teachings, but there we have it. So what should we do with this pile of speculations now that we see them for what they are?

In closing here it’s worth going back to the beginning of the books on the soul to remind ourselves what the main point of the exercise was to begin with –– the thing that Aristotle set out to promote as inherently valuable in writing about the soul.  We find that from the very first pages of book 1 through with his mystical discussion of the mind in book 3, Aristotle promotes rational thought as the greatest source of human value: Genius must be promoted and preserved; people who are somewhat lacking in rational skills aren’t all that significant unless they play a significant role in enabling genius to flourish. Other forms of soul clearly exist, but the important part of one’s soul is that which facilitates the greatest experiences of the mind. That part he sees as important and eternal; the rest, fleeting and disposable.

It’s worth further backing up to consider the pre-Aristotelian ancient Jewish understanding of the basis of life and life after death, which forms the other particularly deep root for our western concept of the soul. This was less based on the concept of a disembodied soul having fellowship with God than on a glorious final day when the bodies of the faithful will be reassembled according to the requirements of their souls so that there can be a wonderful extended life on that basis. The “resurrection of the body” was thus a very key part of the earliest church teaching about the afterlife, because the idea of any other type of afterlife didn’t really make sense from their cultural perspective. The idea of being “present with the Lord” without any body to be present in was a rather later development in St. Paul’s teaching, reflecting his progressive interaction more with Greek ideas and less and less with Rabbinical Jewish ideas.

Even so, Aristotle’s world view seems to have been closer to the ancient Jewish perspective than to the modern western concept of individual immaterial souls going on to face reward or punishment after death in some disembodied state. For him the substance of the individual soul is the body that houses it, without which it is essentially meaningless in most senses. The part of the soul that he sees as not dying with the body is the “mind,” which as such is not tied to the ego of the person in whom it functioned. This “mind” is the unmoved, unmovable, non-material spirit substance which is uncomfortably attached to one’s restless, hungering, lusting and aching human soul and body. It might be compared to a quantity of precious metal suspended within a lump of ore. Once the lump of ore has been broken down and that precious metal has been liberated, the continued existence of that metal, mixed together with the metal from other lumps of ore, would not necessarily imply the continued existence of the pattern for the lump of ore it came from. So it would seem to be with Aristotle’s teaching on mind and soul: The everlasting, ethereal mind we each have within us will continue on after the body which houses it and the dimensions of soul it is mixed with have broken down, but there is no reason to believe that this mind will continue to be identifiable as “my mind” in its “liberated” state. Adjusting Aristotle’s teaching on the soul so as to reinforce the church’s teaching on the soul which evolved thereafter thus seems to have required a fair amount of Thomist creativity.

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

It could be argued that the last philosopher to unsentimentally follow something resembling an originally Aristotelian perspective on the soul –– considering all other parts of it than the capacity for intellectual greatness to be relatively disposable –– would have been Nietzsche. From a bastardization of his teachings then came the somewhat ignorant and arrogant spectacle of Fascism, treating particular people as outright disposable because they lacked the sort of soul elements that those in power considered to be worth advancing. This shocked the world enough so that for the last few generations at least we’ve been looking for a broader basis for human value than just gratification of the egos of some self-appointed master race.

But if we set aside Aristotle’s concept of the nous/mind –– a rational capacity to connect with all of the transcendent truths of the universe –– as the one eternal and valuable thing about the human soul, his style of reasoning gives us little reason to believe in an eternal soul in any other sense either.

So this leaves us with three rather complex unsolved puzzles:
– What should we make of the “eternal soul” concept once we stop basing it on a misunderstanding of Aristotle?
– What non-Greek basis might there be for considering human life to have some universal value to begin with?
– And in this state of uncertainty, how to we go about setting ethical standards concerning practical issues related to the beginning and ending of human lives?

It has also been said that the essential difference between philosophers and scholars of other fields is that, whereas at the end of the day scientists, theologians, historians and the like are uncomfortable to leave a question unanswered, philosophers are more uncomfortable if at the end of the day they leave an answer unquestioned. With that in mind perhaps I should just be philosophical about this matter and leave those three questions standing for now. I leave it to you, dear reader, to suggest the next answers to be questioned in this journey of soul discovery. Meanwhile, if you can help it, try not to lose too much sleep worrying about what sort of soul you may or may not have.

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 1)

This time I’m going to use this space for thinking allowed about some ideas I need to unpack for my doctoral studies. Please excuse my calloused selfishness in dumping such abstraction on you here, and feel free to skip over this one if you’re bored by theoretical matters of religious philosophy. But before you go, stop for a minute to think about one basic question: When we refer to a soul, what the hell are we actually talking about?

I’m not going to provide any complete survey of the religious or philosophical consideration of that question here, obviously, but in the process of opening up my thinking on this question I believe it is important to go back to one of the earliest extant consideration of the subject: Aristotle’s On the Soul (Greek: Psyche / Latin: De Anima). I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar of the ancient text in terms of deep nuance of the original language and all that, but I feel as though a careful consideration of its translation is a necessary task for me to take on this spring. I don’t think we can really intelligently discuss the basic concepts of human rights and social ethics without considering the basis of the value of human life; I don’t believe the basis of the value of human life can be discussed without at least some reference to the concept of the soul as it is used in western philosophy; and I don’t believe the concept of the soul can be intelligently discussed in much detail without an awareness of the ancient understandings and presuppositions related to the term that trace back to the writings of Aristotle. So with the goal of building a workable foundation for discussions of human rights and human value in this regard, I’ve set myself the task for this week of reading through and intellectually digesting the text in question.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Interested? Keep reading. (And if philosophy students start finding this to be a valuable cheater’s resource, I’ll be flattered.) Bored? Bye for now.

The soul, in all of the various senses in which Aristotle uses the term (psyche) in his study of the subject, is what makes living things fundamentally different from non-living things: it is the basic life principle in the broadest sense of the word. In a basic Greek way of thinking, if it is alive, it has soul. Aristotle’s starting point in investigating this phenomenon is the premise that knowledge itself is a wonderful thing, and knowing is something that, near as we can tell, only living things can do. In fact it seems that it is a tiny minority of living things that are capable of knowing anything, at least in the sense we like to think of knowledge. So how does the capacity for knowing relate to what makes living things… live? That is the essential matter that Aristotle sets out to explore here.

It should go without saying, but it needs to be said right from the start anyway: this text was written at a time when the Ptolomean view of the universe –– everything “out there” just spinning around a completely unmoving earth –– was accepted as self-evident truth; long before neurology, genetics, cosmology, nuclear physics, behavioral psychology or medicine developed into sciences as we know them today. But even without what we would now consider to be a proper scientific understanding about these matters, in the process of trying to work out the essence of what makes living things live Aristotle speculates a bit about all of these fields, basing his conclusions about the human soul on what we must now consider largely mistaken observations and conclusions. One particularly interesting example of this is the following:

“Empedocles… was wrong in speaking of light as ‘travelling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; …where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.” (book II, 7)

Thus the task of sorting through all of the mistaken observations and erroneous speculations here to find concepts that have had strong seminal influence on Western thought, and especially those which remain potentially viable, is actually a rather daunting one.  Still, for reasons already stated, I believe this is a project worth tackling.

Among the starting questions Aristotle tosses out are whether soul, in the broader life-principle sense, is a homogeneous general category or not. Is livingness somehow the same in all living things? For that matter how reliably can we divide such livingness into useful sub-categories? And can such “livingness” properly exist outside of a particular sort of living body?

Aristotle’s starting point in all of this is surprisingly conservative in a materialistic sense: “Soul,” in the sense in which it is definitive of all living things, is analogous with “straightness” –– it means nothing unless there is some material embodiment of the principle. You can’t find “straightness” floating around in some mystical unembodied form; only in rulers and plumb lines and arrows and the like. For the same reason it is rather problematic to talk about souls outside of bodies. Beyond that, every manifestation of the soul in the sense of human personality –– anger, courage, desire, love, fear, pity, etc. –– has a certain biological component to it, which is, as the man says, “precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature.” The one possible exception to this principle, he notes from the start, is thinking, but if thinking inevitably involves the processing of input received through our five senses, it’s sort of hard to imagine it not being body-based at least in some senses.

Not that this speculative materialist perspective was particularly more reliable than a more “spiritual” speculations of the time. The physical explanation given for anger for instance, would be a build-up of particularly hot liquid around the heart (book I, 1).

So how do we go about distinguishing between living and non-living things –– between things with soul and things without? The established state of the art in addressing this question in ancient Greece came back to two primary characteristics: independent movement and sensation. By these standards a vast variety of man-made devices these days could be said to have “soul”: production robots, security cameras, vending machines, etc. Whether Aristotle would be naïve enough to consider such things to be truly “alive” is another question. Actually he probably wouldn’t. Aristotle dismisses Thales’ speculation that magnets are alive, or have souls, because of their capability to sense and move iron, so intuitively he knows that there has to be a more precise definition for soul in terms of livingness. But as he pursues these arguments they become thoroughly entangled with speculation about which of the four primordial elements –– earth, air, fire or water –– the soul’s function should be associated with. Suffice to say in this regard that the ancient Hebrew theories of breath (Genesis 2:7) and blood (Leviticus 17:11) alternatively being seen as the primary physical manifestations of soul were well represented within the Greek world as well.

Another interesting aspect of these speculations is the idea that the motion of living beings would somehow reflect something divine, seen especially in the motion of the sun, moon and planets above. Aristotle cites Plato’s Timaeus dialog as an example of belief in the soul reflecting the pattern of the movements of these heavenly bodies –– these tracing back to the Demiurge bending the primordial straight line into a circle, bringing about various sub-divisions of that circle from there, and on that basis setting important spiritual forces in pleasing circular motions. Thus the motions of the planets would be inherently related to the actions of our souls, providing what passed for a rational justification for astrology for the next couple thousand years, even among Christian theologians as it turns out.

There are many things about this understanding of soul that Aristotle finds dissatisfying however. To start with, the motions of plant and simple animal souls are not really circular in any meaningful sense. The only justification he finds for speculating that the highest part of the soul of man is in circular motion is that it obviously is not entirely at rest, and if complete rest is not possible then circular motion is the next best thing. It is in this context that Aristotle begins to speculate about the possibility that the mind –– the highest functioning part of the soul –– might be happier if it could escape from the continuous restless motions of the body. He goes on from there to reject the premise the soul having a circular motion and to theorize about thought, motivation, anger, fear, pleasure and pain as the proper movements of the soul –– or at least movements originating in the soul.

Mind (nous) is a separate matter for Aristotle: “It seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. […] Thinking, loving and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has. That is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they were activities not of mind, but of the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassible.” Thus in many respects it would be this “mind” aspect of the soul which is uniquely valuable in human beings, and which from a traditional Christian dogmatic perspective would be “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) at the moment of death.

Going back to Aristotle’s speculation on the essence of soul though, at the end of the first of the three books within this work he lays out four essential functions of the soul:

–          Cognitive functions: knowing, perceiving, opining

–          Emotional functions: desiring, wishing, appreciating, longing

–          Movement functions: animal body motions

–          Lifespan functions: growing, maturing, reproducing, decaying

From there he leaves two relevant questions about the soul somewhat hanging: Can the soul –– the life principle in plants, animals and humans alike –– be meaningfully and usefully divided into sub-sections? Then secondly, does the function of knowing require a sort of affinity between the knower and the known which would in turn imply that there must be some sort of soul imbedded in everything in the universe that we are capable of knowing?

Book 1 is the part of this investigation where Aristotle allows himself to get bogged down with the critical consideration of all earlier Greek studies and speculations about his topic. He attempts to critique them in ways that his students can learn something from these old masters in spite of their mistakes. He clearly would not like it to discover that his own ideas would someday be considered among learned men and women with the same assumption of pervasive error throughout, and effort to locate useable lessons regardless, with which he considers the works of Thales and Empedocles, but such is life. (I, on the other hand, hardly expect to be read in any other way than with a presumption that I am by and large wrong about things, but that there might be something useful within my perspectives regardless, so…) In books 2 and 3 he proceeds to lay out his own scholarly perspective on the matter from scratch, so to speak.

The analysis above is based just on book 1, and that’s probably quite enough text for any blog reader to deal with in one go of it. It would be most fair then for me to give my analyses of books 2 and 3 as separate posts then. Meanwhile corrections and feedback here are more than welcome.

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Hagiographies

Two dead men have been in the news this week, though neither on the front pages. Both have been portrayed rather broadly as heroes, though for very separate causes. Both have been the subject of Hollywood films of limited historical accuracy, made mostly to energize the believers in their causes. Both have been subject to critique from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Both deserve the deepest of respect for confronting injustices in the sixties, achieving unexpected global celebrity for their causes in the seventies and winning decisive victories in their fields in the eighties. Both also deserve to be critiqued for their human failures, however, in ways that may make them less useful as icons for their causes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to Karol Wojtyla and Rubin Carter, better known respectively as Pope John Paul II and The Hurricane. The Hurricane died this last Sunday, just shy of 77 years old –– a respectable level of seniority for a man whose fame was based on his reputation for violence of all sorts. Pope John Paul II died 9 years ago, just shy of 85 –– also a respectable level of seniority for a man who had stood up in opposition to both Nazis and Communist totalitarians, and then took an assassin’s bullet to the chest in later life and lived to tell about it. The final official touches on his sainthood are taking place on Sunday, April 27.

Back in the 1960s Wojtyla was one of the radical young intellectual archbishops sent to Rome to stir things up at the Vatican 2 conference (in part just as an excuse to get the trouble maker out of Poland for a few years), which permanently changed the public face of Catholicism: eliminating claims of an exclusive institutional right to declare who could have God’s grace and who couldn’t, with all those not explicitly submitted to papal authority being damned to hell; embracing freedom of religion and rejecting the doctrine that all good Catholic rulers and political leaders should work to eliminate people’s freedom to worship in non-Catholic ways; expanding the role given to active participation by the laity in Catholic rituals in general; and somewhat in counter-balance to all of these liberalizing tendencies, explicitly emphasizing the church’s right to regulate people’s sex lives.

hurricane_carter_wall_01bBack in the 1960s Rubin Carter was building a reputation for being everything that middle class white Americans feared about young urban blacks: a gun-toting, hard partying fighter who had been dishonorably discharged from the Army prior to the Viet Nam crisis. Carter was pulled over one hot June night in 1966 for “driving while black”. Circumstantial evidence from that contact with the police was used months later to convict him and the friend he was riding with that night of shooting up a Patterson, New Jersey bar, resulting in 3 deaths.

In the 1970s Bob Dylan wrote an extended ballad about Carter’s case that drew international attention to the matter. In 1976 Carter was given a retrial, which he also lost, but not without a lot of international attention being drawn to the problematic issues involved in the case. In 1978 Wojtyla became Pope –– the first non-Italian to get the job in over 400 years. In the process he managed to draw a great deal of international attention to the problems of official anti-religious actions being taken by governments under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Pope John Paul II - Voight
In the 1980s both men “won” their battles, sort of. Carter’s convictions were overturned on procedural grounds and the Soviet bloc discovered that “Glasnost” – openness – was more than their oppressive systems could handle, leading to its systemic implosion. Carter, living out his remaining years in Canada, and John Paul, living out his remaining years in the Vatican, had gained the status of moral heroes of the oppressed in the countries they had left behind. Both continued, in their own humanly flawed ways, to fight for the rights of those they saw as oppressed for the rest of their lives.

Their epic struggles not withstanding though, both men suffered from a certain credibility deficit with regard to key aspects of the causes they came to represent: Carter in terms of being violence-prone; Wojtyla in terms of personifying the Catholic Church’s head-in-sand approach to sex problems. No one can credibly accuse Carter of being any sort of urban warlord, and no one can credibly accuse Wojtyla of not having kept his pants zipped, but in their respective zeals for their causes both can be said to have overlooked major issues that some “normal people” have a certain justification in feeling angry about or threatened by.

It is true that many young black men who have been raised under circumstances of systematic injustice and oppression become dangerously violent and disrespectful of any abstract concept of the rights of others. Just because they are victims themselves does not mean that they are not dangerous. Carter’s case and his work over the course of the last third of his life, after his convictions were overturned, seem to belittle these risk factors.

It is true that emotionally meaningless recreational sexuality has got grossly out of control in the past couple of generations, and that some form of deeper motivational force for personal restraint in that regard may be in order, but that does not make it safe for any authoritarian religious organization to claim the right to control people’s sex lives. This is especially the case when isolated individuals within such organizations’ ranks are prone to use their position of power to sexually dominate vulnerable individuals under their charge, and this is especially objectionable when the vulnerable individuals in question are (pre-)pubescent children. John Paul’s obsession with maintaining a hard line on issues related to sexual control, together with his inability to deal effectively with matters of priestly abuse of power and especially pedophilia within his organization, have seriously sullied his saintly reputation in ways that his conservative fans largely fail to grasp.

Those who would wish to use these men as saints of their respective causes –– fighting against racial prejudice and abuse within the criminal justice system of the United States in particular, and maintaining an emphasis on sexual moralizing over social justice issues within the Vatican hierarchy and the American Religious Right respectively –– would prefer that their heroes continue to be presented in as sympathetic and unsullied a light as possible. It is far easier to promote their causes if they don’t have to content with attack sound-bites and negative talking points from their opponents. Neither group can be accused of being excessively honest and open about their heroes in this regard. Yet meanwhile the general public seems to realize that both heroes had their serious weaknesses; thus the public enthusiasm for both hagiographies is running rather thin this spring, keeping either Carter’s death or Wojtyla’s canonization from being front page news.

I have read far more of John Paul II’s writings than I have the Hurricane’s, so I’m in a better position to deconstruct that hagiography than the other. For the casual reader here though, suffice it to say that by the end of the first Bush presidency the Pope’s political sympathies had been thoroughly co-opted by his Cold War comrades in the United States, with Ronald Reagan as their own patron saint. This can especially be seen in John Paul’s supremely naïve statement in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, where he says (in § 41), “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society.” It can also be seen in the complete absence of concern for the poor in his encyclical writings from that point onward.

It wasn’t that these problems were all magically solved once the Cold War was over; it was merely that the Pope had become convinced that after playing a role in defeating communism he now needed to focus his energies on defeating all forms of promiscuity an unauthorized sex. Abortion was part and parcel of this evil, and a particularly conspicuous issue to be raised politically, especially in the US political market. It might also be said to have served as a convenient form of PR offensive by which the church could attempt to draw attention away from scandals regarding cover-ups of priests’ pedophilic practices, which may have been going on since time immemorial, but which came to light in steadily increasing ways over the entire course of John Paul’s papacy.

The relevance of all this is not in terms of reducing Wojtyla’s personal historical significance, or discrediting him as a virtuous and intelligent human being. The point is more to say that a continued emphasis on his moralistic “pro-life” heritage is problematic at best, and trying to maintain momentum in that movement on the basis of his personal heroic stature is looking like less and less of a winning strategy. His shift of emphasis in his post-Cold War years away from “social issues” and towards “moral issues” –– arguably due to the influence of American political conservatives on his thinking –– has probably done Christendom in general and the Catholic Church in particular far more harm than good. Pope Francis’ primary historical role thus far has been to push the boundaries of how far he can take the matter of shifting the emphasis back in the other direction. This in turn has won Francis blanket condemnation from those within the US Religious Right, and universal praise from pretty much every other possible source. This makes his presiding over John Paul’s canonization this weekend all the more ironic.

As for the Hurricane, it doesn’t take too much research to reach the conclusion that when Denzel Washington claimed that he was “all love”, that was more than a little bit of an exaggeration. Carter certainly had a lot of love of various sorts within him, but there was a lot of ugliness as well. How far that ugliness goes in justifying the actions of the US “prison-industrial complex” that he spent the last half of his life fighting against is another question. Unlike John Paul, however, the Hurricane achieved no major shift in the status quo from which the pendulum might now swing back the other direction. There are still many people who resent the extent to which darker skinned people can be treated as their equals, but there is no sense that now we’ve got to the point that we’ve been doing too much for black people and now we have to start working on putting them back in their “natural” inferior position. Thus Carter’s human failures cannot be taken as a valid excuse for re-enslaving black people or otherwise reducing the civil rights they have been fighting to gain recognition for. The problem is just that, given his mixed legacy, Carter’s death will probably have little effect in terms of energizing people to fight for the cause he has represented for the past 40 years.

The lessons in all this? Choose your heroes and icons carefully, and be prepared to be disappointed by them; but regardless of this risk, seek inspiration for the courage to change this world for the better wherever you can find it, and don’t let your heroes’ failures keep you from fighting for worthy causes which they stood for.

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The Best Politicians Money Can Buy

In keeping an eye out for the Hobby Lobby decision coming down, I’ve been watching the news regarding the US Supreme Court  this week, so of course I noticed with great consternation the decision that they handed down on the McCutcheon case: On a strict party line vote (I dare you to claim there was nothing political about that!”) the “conservative” justices have taken yet another step towards undermining the democratic process in the US by removing limits on how much the rich can spend on buying politicians.

surpreme-courtYet even so, the reason this bothers me is not because it represents some radical new problem for American politics, but rather because it further manifests the symptoms of the disease which has affected the US political process for some time, which has expanded exponentially in the time that I’ve been an expat: There is an ever growing perception there that the proper way of deciding political contests is by seeing which side can get donors to chuck the most cash at them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I do get a fair amount of regular information about this matter: By signing various on-line petitions against some of the more gross injustices and political absurdities I’ve seen and heard about over the years, I’ve somehow ended up on a couple of candidates’ fund-raising mailing lists. In some ways I don’t mind; deleting these posts takes relatively little of my time, and meanwhile the titles on these mailings make for an interesting barometer of the political climate in the States. But as a matter of principle, even if I had the money I would not donate to them. I believe that if Americans are too stupid to see through the “bath salt” (regular readers know what I mean by this expression) of political advertising –– if they are not capable of making informed decisions in their own best interest without letting political image consultants, professional spin doctors and media barrages make up their minds for them –– it won’t help for me to toss money at the problem to try to counter-balance what the oil companies and arms merchants are contributing to the other side.

This goes with something I try to remember to practice as a teacher: Even though I’m quite physically capable of screaming to make my voice heard over those of literally hundreds of rambunctious teenagers when necessary, tempting as it is to use that ability to quiet down the classroom at times, I know that in the long run it is counter-productive. There is really nothing to be gained by having a continuous acoustic arms race with my students. The best hope for maintaining a productive learning atmosphere is for me –– through some combination of humor, human interest and rational argument –– to convince them that what I have to say worth listening to, and that there is a certain value in ordered discussions in which we show respect to each other by taking turns talking. If they can’t get those ideas into their heads then shouting them down doesn’t really do much good.

unruly_classroomThe analogous political situation in the US has long since become a hopeless screaming contest in this regard. This week the Supreme Court further ratcheted up the volume with all of the justices there who were appointed by Republican presidents voting to remove limits on how much advertising billionaires can buy unlimited for their candidates of their choice. This is quite directly intended to increase the political power of interests which are working to make more and more of America’s public water supplies undrinkable, destroy forests, increase cancer risks, equip more people with hardware enabling them to kill each other, prevent corporations from being held responsible for injuries and deaths caused by the defective products they’ve been producing, prevent consumers from finding out about the “efficiency boosting means” which have been utilized in producing the food that they eat  , and to prevent basic nutrition, health care and education from being recognized as human rights. But that can only work if Americans continue to let political advertising make up their minds for them and cause them to vote against these most basic interests of their society. As long as political advertisers are capable of “convincing turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving”, and American voters show less enlightened self-interest than the poultry species in question, I seriously doubt that the situation can be improved by lower income people like myself contributing to further increases in political advertising!

Turkey_3Yes, I realize that “if everyone were to think like me” on this one it would lead to a situation where the only message that the “turkeys” will hear is that of what a privilege it is for them to be part of the Thanksgiving celebrations. The psychopath billionaires could declare automatic victory within the status quo political system, blackmail candidates to support the agendas they dictate or be locked out of the corridors of power, and in the process increase their power do whatever they want with their workers, and with the lands and seas from which they extract their raw materials and into which they dump their refuse. My point here, however, is that unless people develop a basic understanding of who is pulling their elected leaders’ strings, and until they cease to let paid-for media propaganda make up their minds for them against their own basic interests, limiting the amount of political propaganda they are exposed to from one side or the other –– or trying to “balance this out” by further increasing the propaganda volume “the good side” –– will remain either useless or counter-productive.

Sadly it comes down to this: if the American people really don’t want to come together as a society and work together to make things better for everyone –– if a sense of solidarity and a neighborly ethic of “having each other’s backs,” regardless of differences in race, religion, ancestral origin and social class really don’t have any place in their thinking –– then there’s no point in trying to convince them to vote for officials who would insist on sensible government programs for things like protecting their basic drinking water and making sure children don’t suffer from malnutrition. Recent history has taught me never to underestimate the sheer stupidity of large sectors of the American electorate in such regards, but that’s not a problem that can be solved through campaign finance reform or increased political spending in favor of “sensible” candidates.

1999_Mijail-Gorbachov-There is relatively faint hope of halting the process of cultural decline that this is causing in the United States. Sooner or later, unless the “Muricans” suddenly become far more capable of thinking for themselves in defiance of what the best financed PACs tell them to vote for, the US will inevitably go the way of their Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union: the level of environmentally careless industrialization and military spending being carried out at the expense of the basic well-being of the population will become intolerable, leading to calls for “Glasnost” (greater political transparency), inevitably followed by “Perestroika” (the re-structuring of key bureaucracies), after which they whole oppressive house of cards comes tumbling down. So what remains to be seen really is how much worse things have to get before a critical mass of American people start to stand up for the principle of Glasnost against super-PAC action.

Thus rather than pinning my political hopes for my homeland to a process of economic competition for propaganda dominance, I will continue here in my own Quixotic ways using whatever networking tools are freely at my disposal to try and convince people around the world, and citizens of the US in particular, of some very basic political principles:

1)      Democracy cannot work without a strong public education system, particularly in social sciences and humanities subjects. If the people who choose their nation’s leaders are not aware of the issues at stake when they make such decisions, or if they leave these decisions to be made by those who have even less understanding and/or moral conscience than they do, societal decay is more or less inevitable. The best hope of preventing this is for society to make a significant investment in training all members of future generations to play an active role in the political process.

2)      The extent to which people are working together to build a better future for all concerned is not reliably measurable by GDP statistics. Economic growth for its own sake is an unsustainable policy direction and a futile rallying cry. Far more relevant statistics for measuring the health of a society are those regarding infant mortality, violent crime, school drop-out rates, imprisonment, chronic illnesses and other factors reducing people’s active life expectancies. If you want to look at the positive side of what we need to do the indicators actually become more difficult to statistically measure: mutual respect between neighbors, quality of life for young people, available means of contributing to each other’s well-being (with employment being the most tradition and problematic measure of this), and freedom to pursue constructive personal goals. “Productivity” is at best an imperfect means of achieving these more important human goals, not an end unto itself. This is too often forgotten by competitors on both sides.

3)      The greatest risks for humanity as a whole involve competitive polarization in society choking out cooperation and compassion. When we stop thinking of others as fellow human beings worthy of our care and respect as such, and when we start accepting excuses for allowing other people to be treated as disposable commodities or morally inferior opponents in the struggle to survive, it’s not only these others that we put at risk. The alienation of the super-rich from those whose work makes their fortunes possible, and the self-alienation of religious and ideological extremists from anyone who doesn’t accept their dogmas or live up to their moral requirements constitute the greatest threats to humanity in this regard.

4)      The fact that the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle are “dirty” does not excuse total passivity in the political process, or voting for those who advance the interests of wealthy sociopaths and others seeking to further polarize society. One essential moral responsibility that all citizens of (even theoretically) democratic nations have is to use their voting rights responsibly. If you haven’t figured out how to do that in a way that expresses implied respect for the rights and needs of all members of society, you are part of the essential problem in your nation’s system of government. Fix that about yourself!

It’s probably best to leave this week’s rant at that. Of course I’ll be accused of America bashing again here by some, but I can live with that. Let me just say that the more evidence I see of people in the US respecting themselves and each other in the political process, the greater my respect will be for the national culture there as a whole. As long as the ignorance and gullibility of the population there at large facilitates a court-approved, multi-billion dollar industry in the buying and selling of politicians however, my respect for the intelligence and integrity of my countrymen as a whole will remain rather limited.

You don’t like it? Take an active role in fixing it!

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Social identity

Rich Men’s Problems with the Kingdom of Heaven

On a subject sort of relevant to my last post of 2013 here, last week the Pew Research people released the results of an international survey that they’ve been conducting for the past few years. Their basic findings, in very simple terms: The more money people have in their pockets, the less they see religious belief to be a precondition for moral goodness. The United States would seem to be an exceptional case in this study, but on closer examination it’s really not.

So who should be excited, threatened or disturbed by these findings?

Go_to_church...These results actually shouldn’t come as a surprise in any particular sense, nor should the fact that the United States once again appears to be an exception to the rules of secularism laid out in some of the more problematic reporting on this matter, nor should the fact that the polemics tend to snowball the further from the facts you get on this issue.

First of all let me clarify what I see as the primary non sequitur related to this question: It is not asking how many people believe in God (large or small g), or how such beliefs affect their own lives. What it is effectively asking is, can you actually trust someone who doesn’t believe in any god to still be a good person? In that regard it actually has very little to do with personal faith as such. Pope Francis and I are both strong believers in God, but we are both entirely convinced that the factually correct answer to the survey question is no, you don’t have to believe in God to be a “person of good will” and to treat others with decency. On the other hand, Machiavelli and his followers –– and among the living, Jürgen Habermas –– while having no particular belief in God themselves, have stated that religious belief plays an essential role in keeping “the masses” in line and enabling productive levels of social cooperation, implying that one should have certain suspicions about those who lack the moral restraint which personal faith tends to instill. So while this is an interesting question on a number of different levels, it really doesn’t measure levels of personal faith in any direct way.

What it does measure, however, is probably more relevant to the issue of “secularization” as it is defined by sociologists than personal faith is: It measures the extent to which religious mutual understanding is socially expected of people as a foundation for mutual trust. The current Wikipedia article on secularization begins by defining the concept as “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions.” The sociology section of about.com defines secularization as “a process of social change through which the public influence of religion and religious thinking declines as it is replaced by other ways of explaining reality and regulating social life”. Agreed. In other words what we’re talking about is how much control religion has over society, which is a somewhat different question than the extent to which people personally believe in God.

Peter Berger tells the story of a recently arrived immigrant dentist in the United States starting to work on a new patient’s teeth when the man stopped him briefly to say, “By the way, I’m a Baptist.” The dentist had no idea what relevance this had to the condition of the man’s teeth, or anything else, but for a sociological researcher the message was clear: The patient was saying that he could be trusted to pay his bill afterwards so there should be nothing for the dentist to worry about in that regard; he didn’t want the dentist to be distracted by such concerns while he was working on his teeth. What the new survey results show is that this sort of anecdote could also easily take place in many African or South American countries (perhaps with a different church being named) but among more prosperous “Western” countries it would be unique to the United States.  It says nothing about how well Baptists or other believers actually pay their bills, nor about how non-believers in turn attend to their own financial obligations. Nor does it tell us how fervently people believe that some supernatural power holds them responsible for their actions. It only tells us about how people within the society in question use religion as a basis for their social credit rating schemes.

DixBankNoteOn one level there would be an obvious correlation between how widespread personal faith is and how much people use that as a standard for determining whether or not they can trust each other: Such faith has to be in relatively widespread circulation to be accepted as a form of social capital. By analogy, legend has it that the southern states of the US originally became known as “the land of Dixie” due to the use of a French (or French language) currency in which the ten (dix) was particularly well known. That would not imply any particularly strong allegiance to France or the French economic system, but it would imply at least some sort of cultural connection in France’s direction which related to the means by which Southerners exchanged goods and services. The personal religiosity of people who trust each other on the basis of belief in God need go no deeper than that.

The social mechanism involved comes back to Machiavelli’s strong belief that religion is an essential means which any ruler should take advantage of in order to do his job effectively. While it may not hold true as a general definition for religion, in the vast majority of cases religion comes down to a social expression of belief in God or gods. Taking advantage of this belief as a means of manipulating those under their power can be a very potent tool in the hands of rulers, whether the rulers in question happen to share this belief or not. Thus it remains strongly in the self-interest of the ruling elites to encourage people to believe that there is some divine power out there which is on the rulers’ side on things, and to sow distrust in those who would question the divine basis for the rulers’ authority. From there it would stand to reason that the greater the polarization is between a nation’s lower classes and its rulers, the more critically important it becomes for rulers to have this tool at their disposal so as to reduce the chance of insurrection. It would also stand to reason that the more economically helpless the people feel, the more likely they would be to base their sense of solidarity on transcendent factors like a shared belief in God. In these regards the recent Pew data merely provides empirical evidence in support of what sociologists of religion should have pretty well surmised already.

What this doesn’t tell us is what sort of a role personal faith plays in people’s lives, and whether or not that faith is an overall good thing in terms of social dynamics. It is a major leap of faith to move from the Machiavellian theory that the religious faith of the people provides an important means of manipulating them to the Leninist theory that religious faith can be reduced to nothing more than a means of bourgeois manipulation. That is sort of like saying that because antibiotics are being fed to beef cattle to cause them to put on weight faster (in turn leading to humans consuming their meet also to put on weight faster, which is a very real problem these days, by the way), we can conclude that the only function and purpose of antibiotics is to cause weight gain.

So what is the purpose of Christianity, and perhaps other comparable religions, if not to enable social control of the masses? Quite simply, to teach us to respect each other as fellow beings “made in the image of God,” and to look beyond ourselves for the capacity to live up to ideals we feel that we’re not capable of living up to on our own. I won’t bother to proof-text that out here, but if there are any fundamentalists out there who wish to challenge this summary of the Gospel message as inaccurate I’m up for the debate.

For any atheists and other skeptics who consider this to be too optimistic a summary of the faith meanwhile, I freely acknowledge that many of my co-religionists have rather missed (or misplaced) the point on this one, but that doesn’t make it essentially wrong. The fact that the Bible itself is full of bitter power struggles (especially in the Old Testament, but really in both testaments) doesn’t take away the essential focus of the teaching of Jesus on the points given here –– commonly known as “the twin commandment of love”. The rest of the essential message of Christianity can be mind-mapped back to these two points, not with absolute agreement on all of the details involved, but with essential shared purpose among “people of good will” within the faith and beyond it. Here too I’m quite open to further debate with anyone who cares to question this interpretation.

In any case, once you accept that there is more to religion than what Lenin was prone to acknowledge, much of the polemic against theism in general that we find in CJ Werleman’s summary of the Pew report on AlterNet essentially falls apart. The reasoning he gives for seeing atheists as in fact morally superior to theists –– based on the isolated statistic of atheists making up a disproportionately small segment of the US prison population –– really proves none of the points he is trying to make. What this factoid rather tells us is that self-identifying as an atheist is far more risky and thus much rarer among those in lower economic classes and minority communities in American society who end up as the basic fodder of the prison-industrial complex; whereas among the upper classes, who have all sorts of means of avoiding imprisonment when they commit evil deeds, publicly acknowledged atheism is a far safer posture to hold.

Salon’s republication of Werleman’s article then added sloppiness to the intellectual carelessness of the original by captioning their Facebook link with the quote, “Without the South’s religiosity, ‘America’ would look like a developed, secular country…” and then leaving out the poorly reasoned section of the article containing that quote from the version they posted.

For a more rational heuristic as to what sort of people should be more readily trusted and what sort of people should be kept more at arm’s length, rather than looking at how strongly different groups are represented within prison populations we should be considering the frequency of psychopaths occurring among them. In those regards theists have a far from spotless record, especially given the ways in which theism is susceptible to power abuse, but power-hungry atheists generate at least their fair share of social tensions and monsters to be afraid of.

But the primary lessons to be drawn from the Pew survey aren’t essentially about whether either theists or atheists are inherently better people. It rather shows us something about people’s reluctance to trust those whose foundational ethical assumptions are different from theirs. Most specifically, it invites us to consider why it would be that poorer people around the world are more likely to consider their religion as an important basis for personal trust, and why this tendency would be particularly pronounced in the United States in general and in the former Confederate states in particular.

On significant factor here is the dynamic confirmed by recent studies that the wealthier a person becomes, the greater the risk is of that person losing a capacity for empathy.  Thus if religious participation is in many respects an exercise in empathizing with others, it stands to reason that the wealthy will place less importance upon it than those whose empathetic reflexes have not been damaged in this way. This in turn would lead to poorer people having a greater tendency to build contacts with like-minded people through religious activities than rich folks do. Probably a minor factor, but still worth noting.

A far more significant causal factor, I believe, would be a lack of basic education among the poor (not only in the South, but across the US), in civics in particular. This aspect of education involves making learners more aware of those outside of their own closed communities; ideally involving actual mutually respectful contact with people who are part of “other” groups –– those of other skin colors, other language groups, other religious backgrounds, other sexual attractions, other cultural norms, etc. If these “other” people can be kept as a distant abstraction and if authority figures are able to maintain ignorance about such “others” within their isolated communities, that makes hatemongering a far easier process for them. From there they can use that hatred as a means of motivating people to do all sorts of things they may have in mind, or to “take their eye off the ball” as they go about fleecing the suckers. Nor does hatred of the other have to be the result an intentional plot to manipulate the haters; it can be an entirely organic and self-sustaining reaction within ignorant and isolated communities. A brilliant example of this is the ways in which the fictitious Eastern European society in the film Borat looks at Jews.

In this regard the social dynamic we see demonstrated in the recent Pew data is as follows: The better off people are economically, the better educated their children become; the better educated each successive generation is, the less ignorant of and segregated from others they are inclined to be; and the more aware of others they are in practice, the more likely they are to respect those others as individuals regardless of differences in race, religion, language, sexuality, etc. The southern states of the US have their own historical reasons for being somewhat backwards in these regards, but there is no credible sociological argument for reducing religion as a means of improving the situation. Color me optimistic, but I believe that improved civics education, including elements of concrete cross-cultural interaction, can go a long ways in eliminating the toxic prejudicial elements of traditional religious cultures, leaving in place a valuable set of societal resources to be exercised in communities of faith.

map of israelSouthern “Bible Belt” culture and its various spin-offs are a complex problem unto themselves. Besides Machiavellian strategies historically being used by the white aristocracy of the South to control the poor black folk of the region by way of religion (which majorly backfired on them with the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Era), there is a widespread ignorant assumption that white American Protestants have somehow inherited the role of “God’s chosen people” from the ancient Israelites. It is fair to say that Bible Belters are not alone in this regard: many forms of religion irrationally declare divine favor on some in-group at the expense of the human dignity of various out-groups, and that they give religion a bad name in the process. It is also fair to say that this aspect of “Christian culture” runs directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the core message of Christianity. This problem needs to be dealt with, but not through the elimination of all religious influences in American culture.

Besides the photo ops and private conversations with President Obama last week, the most recent headlines regarding Pope Francis have had to do with his recent theological statements confirming a personal belief in hell as a real place where wicked people’s souls go when they die –– Mafiosos in particular.  The thing which puts one in the position of deserving eternal torment is not defying the church’s authority as such, but disregarding the rights and dignity of other people –– failing to love in the what Jesus commanded us to. I believe that this sort of “hellfire and brimstone” message, not the moralism and cultural control preached by the “religious right” nor the strict secularism preached by the missionaries of “new atheism”, offers the best hope for curing what ails our failing communities. I challenge any of my readers to try and change my mind on this one.

 

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On Hobbies, Lobbying and Religious Freedoms

Those of you who are following the major American ideological debates have probably heard of the “Hobby Lobby” case coming up this month before the US Supreme Court. For those that haven’t, it basically comes down to this: The new Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” by any other name) basically gives bureaucrats the right to decide what form of “preventative health care” insurance companies should be required to provide for all patients. The current bureaucrats in charge of these things have decided to make pretty much all birth control measures short of surgical abortion part of that category. This first and foremost has got various Catholic employers of all sorts upset because, they claim, that this is requiring them to participate in “anti-life” activities which go against their religious convictions. But in addition to that, other anti-promiscuity-enablement oriented Protestant owned businesses as well are saying that they don’t want to be forced to have a hand in paying for the prevention of pregnancies for their employees. One such business is a chain of “artsy-fartsy” hobby supply shops called Hobby Lobby. They are now suing the government for making them pay for health insurance coverage for their employees when enables those employees to get free birth control pills and which covers “getting their tubes tied” if they so choose. This is what the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about this month.

hobbylobby003This, dear friends, is the sort of controversy that can only happen in America, for two reasons: 1) Though the United States has been making steady progress of late towards joining the civilized world in terms of recognizing health care as a basic human right, it still remains culturally addicted to allowing corporations’ obscene profit-taking off of health care provision as a higher political priority than patients’ rights to receive basic care regardless of their capacity to pay. This is the factor that prevented “single payer” or even “government sponsored alternatives” to the highly profitable health insurance industry from being enacted in the recent rounds of reform. This means that what would in any other country be paid for by the government –– covered by taxation or a publicly managed insurance scheme –– in the US is still being paid for by employers and private citizens (with a little bit of government backing where private citizens can’t afford the payments that insurance companies demand). And 2) religious organizations in the US are closer to being able to control the political process in the US than in any other traditionally Christian majority democratic country in the world, and in the interest of proving their continued relevance in the process these religious organizations have a certain need to take opportunities like this to try to prove to the world how bad ass they are. Go figure.

It is in cases like this where I am prone to agree with Pope Francis’ famous October homily where he referred to those whose Christianity has become a political ideology as “a serious illness” within the Church.

The argument being put forward by Catholic intellectuals on the matter is that they’re really not out to make sure that other people conform to their church’s religious teachings prohibiting all “artificial” forms of birth control (saying that any form of birth control, other than women crossing their legs to keep men from getting in to impregnate them, is immoral); they’re really just trying to prevent good Catholics from having even a semi-active role in the process. But if that’s true –– if all that Catholics and their fellow anti-recreational sex Christians really want is plausible deniability in the process of actively participating in a culture that approves of such practices, that’s really not all that hard to arrange. There are plenty of ways for them to (figuratively) close their eyes, or to make blindfolds available for them. But effectively, when they’ve been offered such blindfolds to enable deniability, their objection has been, “No, we’ll still know what’s going on, and we just can’t have that.” From there the question becomes, are they really sincere about allowing others not to share their religious convictions and prohibitions or not? Is the point really to maintain deniability, or is it more to make this “sin” that much more inconvenient and thus less frequently practiced among others who don’t happen to share their beliefs? If the deniability argument is really just an excuse for a strategy aiming to reduce the sexual sins of others, freedom of religion should not provide them with an excuse for pursuing such a strategy, even in America.

RS824_MartinEdstrom-SE-130521-5619-960x640I am reminded of the story I heard, about 20 years ago, regarding Muslims in the Swedish higher education system. One provision of the Swedish system for enabling young people to complete university studies in state universities was to provide government guarantees for student loans from commercial banks. This was a problem for Muslim students because their religion strictly forbids them from taking out loans on which they would pay interest. Attempts to set up a properly Islamic shadow student loan organization fell apart, for all sorts of logistical reasons. It was starting to look like self-segregation into a more permanent lower class for lack of higher educational opportunities would be the fate of Sweden’s devout Muslims, but then one imam came up with a solution: He issued a fatwa declaring that, because a non-Islamic government had made the loan system the only available means of attending state universities, as a minority group living within that country without means of decisively changing the situation, young Muslims could take such loans anyway by not thinking of the interest as interest. Because it was money that the government told them they had to pay, after the fact, in order to get an education, it could either be conceptualized as a form of taxation, which sharia law has no problem with. Thought of in this way, a good Muslim could participate in the student loan system and make these interest payments to “corrupt institutions” without being guilty of contributing to an unholy private financial system in their host country, even while nominally participating in such, because in doing so they were really just “paying their taxes”.

Again, assuming that their motivations are purely a matter of seeking deniability in terms of supporting the sins of others, the worst hardship that the Hobby Lobby people and their co-plaintiffs could be forced to endure in terms of a loss of religious liberty is actually a milder version of the crisis of conscience that the Swedish Muslim students went through in the late 20th century. In fact the moral provision is already in place in this regard: in upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in the first legal challenges against it, the Supreme Court already ruled that, while the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to tell insurance companies how to run their business, it does have the authority to decree forms of taxation which it deems necessary for promoting public health, and in that regard what the whole “Obamacare” system comes down to at the end of the day is an elaborate form of taxation to promote public health. The question from there is whether or not religiously oriented businesses can be required to pay this sort of tax. After that the primary question becomes whether or not the US court system feels justified in telling religiously oriented businesses to “suck it up”.

surpreme-courtRefusing to pay such a tax –– or such a set of insurance premiums –– from there becomes the same sort of civil disobedience as a pacifist refusing to pay federal income tax because she does not want to financially support the United States’ drone bomber program in Pakistan. It is true that tax money from every tax-paying citizen and business in the United States is being used for very immoral purposes according to a pacifist perspective. It is true that pacifists have the moral right to protest against this practice by any means at their disposal, and that no one has a right to attempt to silence them politically. It is true that in choosing the path of civil disobedience –– not paying what the government tells them they have to pay as a matter of placing their moral conscience ahead of government decrees –– they may end up legally suffering in support of a higher moral and political purpose. It is somewhat unimaginable, however, that any US court would make them exempt from paying income taxes on such a basis. Yet this is effectively what Hobby Lobby and company are asking the court to do for them.

It should be obvious that the evangelical fundamentalists at Hobby Lobby are at least as free to practice their faith, in every possible sense, as Swedish Muslim students are to practice theirs. The government is not stopping them from displaying anti-sexual materials in their shops, requiring them in any way to promote sex within their shops, requiring them to remain open on Sundays rather than going to listen to anti-sexual sermons on that day, or in any other way forcing them to accept America’s sexually promiscuous culture. What the government is effectively saying to them is that we need to recognize that sex, for purposes other than making babies, is something that the vast majority of Americans wish to practice, potentially including many of their employees. As part of taking care of the health of such people then, the government of the United States has chosen to join every other democratic government in the Western world other than Ireland in declaring that preventing people from experiencing unwanted consequences of recreational (i.e., non-procreative) sex whenever we are safely and reliably able to do so needs to be part of “health care”. And just as all tax payers are required to contribute to the drone bomber program, all employers are required to cover health care costs for their employees, including forms of health care which enable these employees to have sex without making babies if they so choose. Just as pacifists do not have the right not to pay taxes just because they don’t believe in supporting war, employers do not have the right not to pay for broad health insurance coverage for their employees just because they don’t believe in enabling recreational sex.

ReligiousFreedomRally1_wide-5ef89e31d8b4bb636bcf5f59083eb7f0873704a1-s6-c30From there this is no longer a question of freedom of religion; it becomes a question of the perpetual hobby of the religious right to flex their lobbying muscles. Unlike Sweden’s Muslim students, joint Catholic-Evangelical right wing political pressure groups in the US don’t feel like they are in a position where they must helplessly accept the government’s decrees on such matters. They have been fighting tooth and nail against everything they believe President Obama stands for for more than 6 years already (ever since he began actively campaigning for the office), and the goal of finding excuses to tear holes in his health care legacy appears to be much more important to them than working to strategically reduce the sinfulness of their fellow citizens even. This makes their illness, as Pope Francis defines it, all the more acute. We’re not talking about any manifestation of Christ’s compassion here, but its polar opposite: a power struggle based on purely on hate of the “other”.

obamacare_1_590_396Being as I see the Pope as being on the same side of this issue as I am, I hope it is clear that I’m not in some paranoid way anti-Catholic, but there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in claiming “freedom of religion” as a defense for traditional Catholic beliefs in this matter. It is easily forgotten by those who insist on this ancient tradition’s right to respect that it was not until two years after the Catholic president John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the Catholic Church issued its first statement nominally accepting the whole idea of freedom of religion as part of its official teaching. This went directly against centuries of Catholic teaching explicitly rejecting such a principle, and there are still Catholics today who consider the Second Vatican Council to have committed heresy in making such a statement. This group is a rather small minority within the Catholic Church, but then again so are those who strictly adhere to the church’s official teachings on sex and birth control. The difference is that the anti-religious liberty faction no longer has official status within the Catholic Church; the anti-birth control faction does have such status.

But from an American constitutional perspective all that is beside the point. The point is that, in principle, no one should be telling these most ideologically conservative Catholics what they are and are not allowed to believe, even if they have been historically prone to try to tell others what they are and are not allowed to believe. We cannot tell them what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith, even if their goal is still to tell others what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith.

From here it must be acknowledged that the specific combined case coming before the Supreme Court this month involves strictly Protestant plaintiffs. Does that make it unfair to specifically critique the Catholic position on this one? I don’t think so. As any of the evangelical Protestant opinion leaders on this issue will tell you, when it comes to “pro-life” political activism such as this, thanks largely to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop in the late 70s and early 80s, Protestants have been progressively “catching up” with Catholic positions on these matters over the course of the past generation. They share a political goal of restoring Christian ideologies to a position of dominance within the political process and in other cultural arenas. In efforts such as the Manhattan Declaration they have set aside their doctrinal differences for the time being, until the cultural dominance “Judeo-Christian values,” as they loosely define them, is restored.

IX-PiusIt would be fair to say that the Protestant partners in this effort haven’t really thought this matter through yet in philosophical terms. The Catholic position on the question is based on cultural norms predating the American Civil War and other scientific discoveries and cultural crises of the period of the industrial revolution. Catholic teaching against birth control goes back in practice to the teachings of Pope Pius IX, whose long and dysfunctional reign left many cultural scars on Western society in general. Pius’ understanding of sexual reproduction was still based on the Aristotelian understanding of the subject adopted by Thomas Aquinas: the basic soul of the baby was contained in the father’s sperm, and the material for building a body to house that soul was to be found in the mother. It was thus a wife’s job to provide as many bodies as possible for millions of little souls contained in her husband’s sperm, and for a man to never intentionally ejaculate in any that did not give these little souls the possibility of finding bodies for themselves within a woman’s uterus. Obviously most of these souls would never find bodies, but that was beside the point; masturbation was still tantamount to murder.

Later scientific discoveries of 23 chromosomes coming from each parent and all that made little difference in the matter doctrinally: the main issue remained enabling the Church to exercise as much control as possible over people’s sex lives and encouraging Catholic families to procreate as much as possible.

The mandate to maximize procreation made a lot of strategic sense in an era when most poor families would lose as many children to childhood diseases as they would see through to adulthood, and when many young men would die in battle, fighting “for God and country” and many young women would die giving birth to their first or second child. So of course it was only natural that you wouldn’t want to reduce your odds of your bloodline’s survival by limiting the number of children you had. These days, however, the effort to make strategic sense of a mandate to raise large families is a much more abstract process. Our instinctive desires have evolved more in the direction of taking better care of every individual child we chose to have, and not accepting the routine loss of two or three of them in each family as “the will of God” and part of the proper order of things. This largely eliminates the need to have as many children as possible to increase one’s odds of evolutionary survival, with women regularly dying in childbirth being seen as “acceptable collateral damage” and also part of “God’s will” for them.  We have become completely comfortable with “playing God” in matters of limiting childhood and maternal deaths, so it should follow from there that we are also ready to “play God” more in terms of how many babies we keep making.

benedict-2010Now in his last encyclical letter Pope Benedict XVI did have an argument to offer in favor of the socio-economic benefits of continuing to make as many babies as possible: Basically, the more kids you have, the more human resources we will have in the global society as a whole. And as long as we don’t waste any of these human resources, their efforts and ingenuity will translate into greater technical innovations and greater expanded wealth for everyone in the future. To make that work all we have to do is to insure that every kid has enough to eat, adequate medical care and optimal educational opportunities to realize his/her potential. Towards that end we just need to establish a major international organization –– sort of like the United Nations, only “with teeth,” as Benedict says (§ 67) –– for the massive global redistribution of wealth to make sure these kids are provided for. As long as we can establish the sort of global socialist mega-bureaucracy necessary, there’s really no reason to have any form of “artificial birth control” in the world… or so Benedict believes… or at least so he claims… but somehow I don’t see that happening.

So until the social structures Benedict envisions globally are in place, enabling couples to freely decide how often they want to make babies in the process of sexually satisfying each other seems to make an abundance of sense –– for reasons of defending social stability, domestic economics, and yes, for women’s health even. If that involves allowing and even enabling people to have sex without making babies –– thus taking a bit more control over how many babies are born and over how many woman die making them –– more than some religious folk are comfortable with, I think we can live with the idea of limiting the realization of their religious ideals in that regard. Not that this will do much to limit their lobbying hobby, but hopefully it won’t affect the court decision this time around.

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And Still We Keep Trying

I started trying to write this last weekend as a stream of consciousness piece, attempting to overcome a bit of writer’s block. Then I got distracted and blocked again before finishing it. Let’s see if I can finish it now and purge some of the overall despair from my system in doing so.

The past couple of weeks have been a more or less continuous exercise in overcoming despair worldwide. It’s not that things are particularly bad right now where I happen to be, and I’m not feeling especially sad or depressed at the moment, but there’s a sense with virtually every area of life that my/our chances of influencing things in a positive/safe/dignified/sustainable direction are especially limited.

Vladimir PutinI’ll start with the most globally obvious source of stress: Putin. It’s more than a little scary to see that the world’s most evil dictator is less than ten years older than me, and that he has been a de facto dictator for 15 years already. And for anyone to claim that Vlad is a popularly elected head of state that the people are free to vote out of power… I hope that the turf battles between the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t get too violent in that world you live in.

To make matters worse, his closest competitor is this little psychopath in Korea, who happens to be younger than my sons! So besides the fact that our world has some fundamentally messed up structures to it, I’m continuously reminded that my limited time for playing an active role in influencing matters here is speeding by, with little sign of progress!

1936 scupturesPutting aside my aging angst and going back to the Putin problem though, the Sochi Olympics last month were the closest thing in my lifetime to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in terms of their efforts to glorify the accomplishments of a dictator. The main things that were missing from that picture were German technical competence and a heroic Jesse Owens figure to steal the limelight from the dictator for part of the spectacle. The most enjoyable moments for me were watching the Finnish ice hockey team beat Russia and then the United States. (Sorry hockey friends there. It’s just more culturally important here, and you have to admit, Selanne did deserve to go out on a high note like that.)  My mother enjoyed watching the ice dance and figure skating events when we happened to have the television open while she was visiting. My nephew developed a certain technical fascination with curling it seems. I couldn’t go much further than politely respecting their tastes on either. It hardly made for inspiring viewing for me overall.

bear tearIt’s hard to say which was more fake in the closing ceremony:  the IOC chairman’s praise what a wonderful job Russia had done or the synthetic tear of the ananmatronic bear on skates. While I strongly support the whole concept of the Olympic spirit and all that, I cringe to see it used with such transparent corruption, and I really don’t know what can be done to fix that problem, or keep it from further snowballing in years to come.

Syria-uprising-At-least-88-protesters-were-killed-This problem has tragically dovetailed into the events featured in other sections of our daily newspapers over the past month: the popular uprisings in Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine and other countries attempting to overthrow lesser dictators than Putin. Many of these public square demonstrations and coup attempts have been getting very messy, and journalists don’t really seem to know what to say about any of them. It’s hard to sympathize with the struggling strongmen in any of these countries, but regardless of the on-going messy legacy of Bush’s Iraq fiasco there is still something to be said for a residual respect for Westphalian principle of nominally acknowledging national sovereignty in such matters. Not to mention how various rebel groups tend to have their own unsavory supporters and bedfellows for us to worry about, especially in this generation when the CIA’s accidental creation of the Taliban is still fresh on everyone’s mind.

So with all of this confusion up in the air Putin somehow decided that this would be a real good moment to cash in on his political capital from the Olympics and invade Ukraine.

TOPSHOTS-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-UNREST-POLITICS-CRIMEANot that anyone was under the illusion that Ukraine had ever really achieved complete national sovereignty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have made some significant strides towards join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in sliding over into European culture and NATO’s sphere of influence, but the orangeness of their revolution wasn’t nearly enough to break free of the bear hug they’re still in. And besides a Black Sea coast that for some obscure reason Putin considers to be strategically important, the outside world has a hard time seeing much in Ukraine really worth fighting over. So what’s to stop us from just letting this expansive dictator have his way with little pieces of this lesser neighboring country?

Just one thing actually: The only thing worse than Putin making delusional efforts to restore the glories of the Soviet empire is for the last remaining military superpower from the Cold War era to find new excuses for expanding its “military-industrial complex” at its own people’s and the rest of the world’s expense.

iraq war troopsThat reminds me of a whole other can of political worms that seems rather hopeless to untangle. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since 2002, the United States has been more or less continuously involved in a series of military police actions around the world involving American soldiers killing and being killed for causes that overall have less to do with American national security than Viet Nam did. Yes, there was some justification in attacking a country which was providing refuge to a terrorist leader who had engineered a series of attacks that succeeded in killing thousands of Americans within their own country. No, that did not provide moral justification for the use of that conflict as a political smoke screen under which to attack other dictators in the region; even if they did control significant oil reserves and even if they had succeeded in making a fool out of the president’s daddy internationally.

The only “logic” to justify the state of perpetual war that the US has found itself in for my school-aged nephews’ entire lives thus far is that it appears to be good for business. Companies which make bombs, guns, airplanes, troop transport vehicles, armor and fuel for all of these are making trillions (literally) off of these adventures, and some small portion of the income from these government contracts is actually filtering down to American workers and voters. In this way the military-industrial interests, and those who depend on them, have more at stake, and more invested in maintaining political influence, than any abusive sector of the economy since the black slave trade of the 1850s. The military industrialists have thus eclipsed the tobacco industry of the Carolinas, the steel and railroad industries of the reconstruction era, the automotive industry with their lobbies in favor of highway infrastructure development, and even the modern pharmaceutical industry. When you consider the mammoth amounts of political corruption that went into those other lesser endeavors already, and the immense dishonest fortunes built off of them at the public’s expense, you can’t help but experience a sense of awe at the sheer immensity of the evil involved!

The number of human beings who have been treated as disposable in the process of building these fortunes –– as sub-subsistence laborers, soldiers, other casualties of war, ignorant and addicted consumers, involuntary supporters of corporate welfare programs via taxation, and tragic human failures among the homeless or imprisoned whose fate serves as a negative example to keep others in line –– cannot be rationalized away as an acceptable trade-off, an inadvertent misfortune or a hiccup in the process of human advancement. We are clearly talking about one little group of people having explicitly chosen to treat other massive group of people as un-deserving of human dignity, just because they can. This tiny privileged group has clearly made it their goal in life to prove to themselves that their excessive privileges at the expense of others are part of the way things are supposed to be. If a few million need to die earlier from causes like war, hunger and preventable disease in order to bring this about, so be it. The fact that they have succeeded in using association with certain factions of Christianity as means of constructing their self-justifications makes the situation all the more obscene.

Behind_Barbed_WireThis state of affairs is made all the more absurd by political initiatives intended to limit the extent to which public resources can be spent to reinforce the dignity and opportunities of those in the least advantaged positions in society. The idea that a society can somehow afford to police the rest of the world and force its business practices onto the rest of the world, but it can’t afford to provide food for its own hungry children and basic health care for its own ill, is quite conspicuously the most absurd political argument of the 21st century. The only argument that even comes close on the absurdity scale is that a proliferation of privately held handguns serves to make people safer. Having accepted those arguments, when the right wing faithful hear from their trusted sources sound-bite sources that they should never trust scientific claims that continuous burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels is doing irreparable damage to our eco-system, it comes across sounding to them like the most basic common sense!

The thing that makes me/us feel helpless and despairing about all this then is that there are so many people who I know out there, who are not only falling for these absurd arguments, but who’ve been falling for them for so long that they have become emotionally committed to defending them at all costs! As long as that remains the basic state of affairs even for a significant minority in the United States, and as long as momentum from the last century keeps the United States in the position of being the most powerful nation in the world, human rights will continue to be downplayed in the rest of the world as well, the global environment will continue to be ignored whenever protecting it is inconvenient to business interests; and the risk of there being no future whatsoever left for grandchildren I may happen to have some day, regardless of where in the world I might try to hide them from such problems, continues to expand unchecked.

IRAQ-WAR-GAMESThe number of ways in which humanity could drive itself to a state of mass extermination if not borderline extinction within the next generation or two is deeply intimidating to say at the least. The limited number of means at our disposal for limiting these risks and promoting more positive life directions for those we care about are even more disturbing. There’s only one thing that can be said in terms of resisting the temptation of total resignation: The worst thing we can do is to give up entirely.

david-simonDavid Simon made this point particularly strongly in his last interview with Bill Moyer (here starting approximately 7:00 in). Where I would disagree with his statements in that interview is in terms of the best hope being in campaign finance reform. While that certainly can’t hurt, I believe the best hope is in improved public education, so that those who are involved in the democratic process as voters and campaigners actually understand the issues they are struggling over, and the cause and effect factors involved. Until the education system is fixed, people will continue not to know any better than voting either for whoever they find the most entertaining, or whoever appeals most powerfully to the darker sides of their natures. But in the meantime, as Simon points out so eloquently, we indeed don’t have the luxury of opting out of the electoral process and leaving voting up to psychopaths and those weaker thinkers whom they can most easily manipulate.

The same applies to all other areas of life: We can’t just give up and passively let whatever’s going to happen happen with regard to our families’ health, our children’s education, our consumer alternatives, our communal solidarity or any other aspect of life where our active participation can conceivably make a difference. We never can tell which of our actions will make a difference in the world as we know it, but we can be pretty sure that if we do absolutely nothing we will have no effect on the world whatsoever. Thus making an effort is always worth attempting no matter how bad things look.

Titanic_sinkingNow of course there are some exceptions here: The most effective tear-jerking scene in the film Titanic was the simple shot of the mother in the discount cabins, knowing they had been locked into their compartment and that she and her children were soon to die, bravely singing them to sleep as the water rose. But with all due respect for all in that sort of situation, it should be obvious why I don’t want to see people I care about adopting that sort of strategy on a broader basis.

In short the maxim I’m recommending is: Act as though your actions might make a positive difference in the world, even if that difference is unlikely to be realized through any given action you might take, because some of your actions might in fact make a difference in the world.

Thus, regardless of their overall limited impact, I keep writing and posting these things…

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That Old Time Religion

In looking into philosophical perspectives on the “proper” role of religion in politics, a few weeks ago I stumbled over the work of Brian Leiter on the subject. This was a fortuitous discovery in terms of providing me with a quality example of the sort of discourse which is respected in the field in which I am doing my dissertation. For other purposes it seems to be an example of how painfully wrong-headed thinking can be presented in excellent style.

leiter coverThe book of Leiter’s that I have out of the library at present is entitled Why Tolerate Religion?, published last year by Princeton University Press. Its approach is primarily that of judicial philosophy: considering the subject of what sort of approach to the subject would be most just from an international law perspective. The practical case that he focuses on is one of a Sikh boy in Canada who considers it to be his religious duty to carry a small but deadly bladed weapon –– his ceremonial kirpan –– to school with him each day, in spite of the school’s blanket prohibition on students carrying weapons to school with them. For the Canadian court this was actually a bit of a no-brainer: the rule was established to insure student safety, and never in the history of Canada has a Sikh used his kirpan offensively against any fellow student or citizen, thus allowing a devout Sikh student to carry one poses no significant threat to the safety the rule was established to protect. Beyond that it was unanimously recognized by the high court judges as a healthy part of the young man’s social, moral and religious identity, which Canadian and international law goes to great length to protect.

kirpan permission

Leiter, however, has a bit of a problem with the principle of the matter. Why is it that such provisions are made just for religious folk? What makes religion so special as a legal and political factor? Why can’t any kid who has a major existential and traditional commitment to his blade carry one to school?

His way of further exploring the issue gets more and more problematic as he goes along. The decisive wrong turn he takes in chapter 2 is, setting aside Durkheim and the rest of the sociological tradition which follows, to define religion in general in a particularly hostile manner: Religion is the field where things are taken as “matters of faith”, which, siting legal philosopher Timothy Macklem, Leiter takes to be things, “where the quest for reasons is impossible but commitment [even without reasons] is potentially valuable” (pp. 31-2, bracketed phrase Leiter’s). On this basis Leiter’s essential definition for religion (p. 34) is essentially anything which 1) issues categorical demands for action, and 2) does not answer to evidence or reason. Given that essential definition for the entity he stands in opposition to, it is hardly surprising that he comes to the conclusion that legal provisions for the toleration of such are philosophically not justified.

Leiter’s negative perspective becomes somewhat more understandable when it is placed in the context of his personal negative experiences in Texas, which he states outright in the preface: “My interest in the topic of religious toleration arose when teaching at the University of Texas–Austin and witnessing in the years 2001 to 2008 the pernicious influence of reactionary Christians on both politics and public education in the state.” (p. ix) In exploring the realm of religious culpability in political matters he goes as far as saying, “religious believers overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush, widely considered one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States, whom many think ought to be held morally culpable for the illegal war of aggression against Iraq as well as the casualties resulting from domestic mismanagement.”

It is not hard to see where his negative perspective on the matter comes from then. Jeffrey Stout comments that his difference of perspective on religion in politics with his fellow Princetonian philosopher of the subject, Richard Rorty, primarily stemmed from the fact that Stout viewed religious influences in politics through the lens of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu, while Rorty viewed them through the lens of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I would thus agree with Leiter in one particular unstated premise of his work: many politicians who have used Christianity as a demagogic tool in the political process, and many of the rank and file of the “religious right” who follow them, have a distinct tendency to make asses out of themselves.

Setting aside this particular cultural problem for the time being, however, let’s go back to the basic matter of what makes religion religion, particularly in legal terms. The obvious, and obviously outdated, definitions on the subject have to do with belief in God or gods. In de facto legal matters questions of religious rights and requirements for religious tolerance always essentially come back to what people understand as, in James Madison’s words, “duties that we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging them.” We all know that Buddhism officially counts as a religion without believing in the relevance of a creator to our day-to-day moral lives, but that doesn’t really change the essence of the issue in legal or philosophical terms: karma provides an essential philosophical place-holder for God in this given system, thus implying a certain requirement of respect for that traditional understanding of the universe on much the same grounds as for those who believe in more active divinities. The primary point is that there are transcendent bases for our particular moral actions, based on factors that really can’t be reduced down to a strictly materialist perspective.

Another aspect of religion as religion that is particularly relevant here is that it is a communal phenomenon, never merely a manner of personal spiritual experiences. St. Paul speaks of the community of Christian believers as analogously forming a “body” which takes on the role of being “the bride of Christ”. Refusal to associate with others in that same “body” makes one’s Christian identity as such somewhat subject to question. And in this respect it should be pointed out that Christianity is quite certainly the most individualistic of all significant world religions; if Christianity has this communal aspect built into its very fiber, a fortiori other religions certainly do as well. No system which does not equip people to relate constructively not only to their understanding of God, or whatever else is “out there”, but also to their fellow man –– “brothers and sisters in faith” or otherwise –– deserves the title of “religion”.

A third factor which, especially in sociological terms, is essential to the definition of religion, is a multi-generational tradition. Some group which is just starting out, worshipping someone, or worshipping according to the principles laid out by someone who is still alive or who has died less than a generation or two ago, doesn’t technically get to call itself a religion; they are still just a “cult”. That doesn’t have to be a pejorative term, other than in indicating the fact that the belief in question has yet to stand the test of time and enable its community of believers to thrive within their given social environments. Questions of what legal rights cults should be entitled to as such are, strictly speaking, matters of freedom of conscience more than freedom of religion. That may not make a great difference in terms of moral philosophy, but in terms of judicial decision making it can have some rather important implications.

If we change around this fundamental definition of what counts as religion in this way it essentially screws up Leiter’s whole argument against taking religious toleration as a foundational principle in moral and legal philosophy, but it combines with some of his other arguments in ways that lead to interesting conclusions that Leiter hasn’t really taken into account. Primary among these is the virtue of tolerance as tolerance. Tolerance as a virtue is, by definition, a matter of respecting compromise for its own sake. If I am entirely indifferent towards some particular practice, such as my Muslim friends’ religious practice of always putting on their right shoe first in the morning, then there is no justification for speaking of “toleration” in that context. Likewise if I compromise with someone merely because I am not in a secure position from which to overpower and completely subdue them, then that is not exercising any essential social virtue; it is merely a matter of calculating the maximum realization of my selfish personal interest in what I see as non-ideal situations.

Leiter effectively lays out three essential arguments for what he calls “principled toleration” in this sense: toleration as an ideal state of affairs rather than as a matter of indifference or as a strategic position taken for lack of capacity to completely dominate the other. The first is taken from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, essentially assuming that religious and moral values are things we are socialized into, with little choice in the matter, thus becoming an involuntary aspect of who each of us is as a person to the same extent as skin color, handedness and raw athletic capacities. On this basis it would make sense for someone entering into the “game” of human life without knowing what “cards they will be dealt” in this regard, to agree ahead of time to a rule according to which rejection of the other person based on religious identity would not be allowed. This would also include a provision that religious majorities should grant certain basic rights to religious minorities. To do otherwise would be just as unjust as penalizing “lefties” or red-heads or tall people for having those characteristics.

Rawls’ argument is a deontological one –– based on understandings of moral principle for its own sake. The other arguments (or broad categories of argument) that Leiter lays out are more utilitarian: based on providing the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people in practice. First among these is the assertion that freedom is an important aspect of satisfaction in human life unto itself. In some ways, as applied to religious or other moral convictions, this runs contrary to the essential deontological argument given above: if people really are able to choose what they believe to be right or wrong on transcendent bases, then there is no point in making provisions for acceptance of what were assumed to be involuntary matters of personal and social identity. But given the uncertainty we are left with in regard to the extent to which we are able to choose anything in practice, and given the extent to which at least an illusion of being able to determine our own destinies remains an important motivational factor in human psychology, it is not unreasonable to leave both justifications in play without them cancelling each other out.

Leiter’s third potential argument for principled toleration of religious difference is based on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which he labels as the epistemic argument for toleration. It basically says that 1) processes of moral learning serve to increase overall human happiness, and 2) proper moral learning can only take place in an atmosphere of some accepted diversity –– where there are possibilities of choosing between what we come to see as better and worse options, none of which are strictly excluded. Thus leaving the door open to various “experiments in living” is an essential aspect of increasing human happiness by way of enabling people to discover the sorts of “moral truth” that cannot be arrived at merely by means of authoritative instruction.

Leiter’s negative attitude towards the value of religion as such keeps him from accepting the idea that religious beliefs are worthy of special toleration on the above grounds, but again, that comes as no serious surprise. The practical issues in question essentially fall into two categories: 1) Under what circumstances should people be granted exceptions from otherwise universally applicable rules based on their religious beliefs? And 2) Under what circumstances can we consider particular laws to be unjustifiable based on their intent to violate the religious convictions of particular groups? Setting aside the sensitive issues of Leiter’s resentments towards Bush fans, the go-to practical examples here are, respectively, Canada’s acceptance of Sikh kirpans in schools and France’s ban of Islamic headscarves in schools. Without going through the details of his arguments against religion as a basis for judicial decision-making on these matters, let me close here by giving my own semi-religious perspective on such matters.

gurbaj-singh-mutali-kirpanExceptions to rules need to be granted all the time, and not merely on religious grounds, but religious grounds provide some of the strongest grounds for making such exceptions. I teach teenagers in a public school, so I here imaginative pleas for exceptions to established rules based on all sorts of premises pretty much daily. There are rules requiring students to be present (and on time) for all basic lesson periods. There are rules regarding the level of work students should be expected to do at home between lessons. There are rules regarding when students are allowed off of school premises during the school day. There are rules regarding when students are allowed within school buildings for purposes other than attending classes (mandatory outside recess periods). Rarely does a working day go by for me without some student appealing to me to allow an exception to one or another of these rules. All of these pleas, when they go beyond the level of “Pleeeaase Mr. Huisjen!” have a certain common structure of 1) acknowledging the essential purpose of the rule, 2) presenting some factor of greater personal or moral importance than the factor which the rule is intended to safeguard, and 3) making a case for the exception being small enough so as not to endanger the principle which the rule has been instituted to protect. In these regards the level of discretion that I must exercise as part of my work is not essentially any different from that which any policeman or judge must exercise. Our own human psychological limitations will always come into play, but as matters of principle we can generally tell when those three bases for a valid excuse are being met and when they are not. Given the nature of religion as I see it, I have no problem with students having time off to observe religious festivals that are not built into our school calendar because they concern small minorities within the school community, or with Muslim kids staying inside to do their salat together on part of their outside recess break, or any other minor infringement of school rules based on their families’ religious practices. In terms of their role in enforcing respect for tradition transcendent standards for morality and social participation, I see religious observations as doing far more good than harm. If, like Leiter, I saw them merely as irrational cultural practices childishly demanding to have their own way, I might be less charitable, but in this matter I believe he is just categorically wrong.

When it comes to rules being instituted with specific prejudice against given religious groups, I believe the case is more complex, involving the balance between religious identity and broader social solidarity on the one hand, and between the utility associated with given religious practices according to religious teachings themselves and the harm that comes about through their practice on the other. Thus I strongly support laws against female genital cutting of any sort, regardless of religious justifications for such; in part because it is a matter of physically altering the girl for purpose of keeping her within the religious/tribal community, in part because the physical harm caused far outweighs any purported benefits brought about by such an operation. Just because some claim that it is a religious procedure does not, in my considered opinion, justify its tolerance or continuation. If laws against it seem to target some particular religious group, so be it.

4headscarves_Said_TzarnaevYet when it comes to the famous headscarf ban, I find this rule clearly unjustified. The religious motivation at issue is admittedly somewhat questionable: an assumption that for a woman to reveal her hair in public is a means of drawing masculine attention, in ways that may cause problematic responses from the men in question. I don’t believe there is any justification for men making unwanted sexual advances towards women based on their hair being exposed. The very thought strikes me as absurd, regardless of its having been dignified by various Islamic mullahs over the centuries. But that does not mean that I accept a prohibition on women modestly covering their hair, based in part on their sense of religious identity, to be justifiable either.

Along the same lines, I believe that if women wish to dress in such a way that the outlines of their nipples are visible through their clothing, that may reflect a particularly edgy intent on their part, and there may be good reasons to institute dress codes against that level of exposure in some cases, but their choice to dress that way is not a justification for any masculine lack of restraint in approaching them. I fully support the ethic behind “slut walks” to shame those who would blame women for violence against them based on how they choose to dress. But that being said, even though I do not see many of the religious arguments mandating the wearing of padded bras and/or thicker sweaters to be rationally justifiable, I would certainly not support a dress code which forces girls to make keep their nipples visible regardless of any religiously instituted cultural modesty requirements they might wish to observe to the contrary! To me the headscarf ban really makes no more sense than that.

Questions of what is essential and what is incidental to any given religion will always be subject to debate, both within the religion in question and among its outsiders. A fortiori, what is essential and what is incidental to religion in general is also going to be somewhat contentious in many contexts. This does not justify making straw men out of religious values for attack as Leiter has done. I would agree that there are many times when tolerance should not be limited to religious matters, but it that does not follow from there that religion should not be a very specific basis for toleration.

For the rest, I’ll leave it between those who believe differently than I do and their God (or whatever else they believe in).

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Filed under Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

Open Letter to Daisy, Addendum

Dear Daisy,

I wrote to you here a few months ago to encourage you to reconsider the ways in which your crisis had rocked your faith in God and in society. I don’t know if you ever had a chance to read it through. It was sort of a long and dense text. Apparently a lot of people who care about you did read it anyway (some who strongly agreed, some who strongly disagreed), but that’s not the important thing right now. The important thing is that you find the sort of hope and faith that enables you to move forward.

Hearing about your recent setbacks and hospitalization really breaks my heart. I really wish I could find a way of comforting you and convincing you not to further increase the damage that’s been done to you. Setting all other issues of belief aside for the time being, I really hope that you, Daisy, start believing in Daisy again. I hope you stop in practice agreeing with all of the Maryville idiots who would like you to believe that your life is worthless. Thus I’m writing to you again. Humor me here as I take a shot at trying to convince you, without, I must confess, even really knowing you that well, that your life is important and worth somethingI would prefer to present my case in more personal and individually caring terms, but given how far I am from your situation I have to make my case rather philosophically instead. Forgive me for not having better to offer. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got.

Daisy hospitalizedAnyway, in philosophical terms we have to start out with the whole question of what makes anything or anyone valuable to begin with. The obvious answer that springs to mind for such things is how much someone is willing to pay, and how much competition there is to “get” that person or thing. That’s what we call “market value” and some would tell you that all other forms of value are just variations or sub-categories of that. Bovine excrement!

I’m not denying that market value is one very real form of value, but I’m very firmly convinced that it is not the only form of value, or even the most important kind. In fact I am firmly convinced that placing too much emphasis on market value, at the expense of all other sorts of values, is the fundamental reason why so many things are screwed up in our world today. I want to help you step back and look at the question of values from a somewhat broader perspective.

I propose that, to get an overview of all the different sorts of value in the world, we start with four general categories: material/instrumental value, personal/existential value, social/cultural value and spiritual/transcendent value. While I want to try to make this a bit less wordy and dense than my last letter to you, I still want to try to show you what I mean by each of those categories, and then show you how your crisis has probably rocked your believe in your own value in each of those four categories but how you –– as a human being, a young person, a lady and for many a symbol of courage –– continue to have value in each of those sorts of ways. Let’s see how I do.

Material/instrumental: Whatever else can be said about you, you are certainly a material, physical being. You may be more than that, but at the very minimum we can be pretty sure that you are a biological organism: You have a body, which happens to have been badly abused in the past few years. The important thing here is that, while I would encourage you to think of yourself as more than just a body, I want to remind you that your body is still a beautiful thing. Just because there’s an idiot who treated your body as a disposable form of amusement and pretty much got away with it does not mean that your body is without value. Nor is your body’s value based on its ability to stimulate male hormones. Every human body, like every snowflake, but infinitely more so, is an intricate marvel of design, deserving of respect and admiration for its own awesomeness. Not to “shove the Bible down your throat,” but this point is made as well in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament as anywhere: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

I don’t want to minimize the pain and complication of this matter, but I strongly encourage you: please respect your body again; it really is a wonderful thing. Get comfortable in your own skin. There’s nothing wrong with who you are physically. You remain beautiful. Your body remains suitable and capable of performing all sorts of amazing tasks and experiencing all sorts of positive sensations, besides being a work of art unto itself. And again let me stress, your body’s capacity to get boys or men excited is not what makes it valuable. Probably best if I leave off on this one here, but I hope you get the point.

Personal/existential: In addition to your basic physical form, one of the beauties of who you are is your mind or soul: the part of you which is capable of experiencing sensations of meaning and purpose in life. This part of you too has been brutally belittled in Maryville, but don’t let the bastards there have the final word on the subject. I know it’s rather cheap and superficial, and perhaps even factually wrong at this point, to say that you can decide for yourself what your life is worth. At this point I recognize that in your young mind things might feel pretty hopeless and out of control. But they will and do get better. The mind is an amazing thing in terms of its resilience. You will find yourself capable of making good on your promise not to let the events of the past couple years define who you are. As long as you don’t give up at this difficult point you will be able to decide what it is that makes you important, and you will be able to build a sense of purpose from there.

If there is any aspect of your life that your trauma will have a lasting effect on in fact, I’d predict that it will be the extent to which it has forced you to look deeper into yourself. You might not like all of what you see there –– there’s a lot of broken and ugly bits inside of all of us, even the best of us –– but I hope and expect that you can also see the brave, poetic, tender parts of yourself that are worth developing. These are things that others can encourage you to love about yourself, but ultimately it’s up to you to recognize this beauty within. It’s up to you to, without shame, accept and celebrate who you are as a person, and to love yourself as such. Please, please, please… do not let anyone take that away from you.

Social/cultural: Perhaps the worst part of your experience has been discovering that the kids at school sided with your abusers rather than sympathizing with you as the victim. Teenagers can be vicious creatures at times. I know something about this from working with school anti-bullying campaigns.  So this makes it more difficult to recognize another key factor in what makes you valuable: Besides being comfortable within your skin, you can be confident in having importance beyond the limits of your skin. There really are people around you that love you and care about you as a person –– thousands of us actually.  No one can belittle your personal value without directly insulting all of us who care about you at the same time. Don’t ever forget that.

There’s an important word in African philosophy that perhaps you heard regarding the funeral celebrations for Nelson Mandela this winter: “Ubuntu”. Roughly translated, this is the principle that “I am what I am because we are what we are” –– that identity is never a completely individual matter. Or to quote the classic line from the English poet/theologian John Donne, “No man is an island.” This does not mean that you have to let the social environment of Maryville determine who you are, but it does mean that you cannot forget about the impact your life has on others. If you let the idiots belittle you, you let them belittle all of us.  If you let them insult you, you let them insult all of us.  I hope this gives you courage to stand up to your detractors, with and for all of us.

Spiritual/transcendent: There is always the question of what makes those who are on your side in this matter “better people” than the vicious little bastards that have used the “s-word” and the “w-word” at you at school. This is no easy matter to sort out philosophically. Suffice to say, most of us tend to believe that, to quote the opening sequence of the X-Files, “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” when it comes to these things. There is something that goes beyond social and cultural norms that makes sexual abuse bad and compassion good. There are values that we should subscribe to that are more than just material expedients or means of personal meaning making, or cultural conventions. Again, without trying to “cram any religion down your throat,” believing that there are moral principles like this “out there” is, for me, part and parcel of believing in God. That is not to say that I believe that any particular religion has God’s message entirely right, but that is to say that I believe that the “something” out there which makes rape inherently wrong and compassion inherently good is best understood as a “someone”, and that that someone is on the side of those who suffer injustices, who want peace and who care about others. So from this perspective, Daisy, I am confident in saying that another reason for you to keep going is because God is on your side.

There’s a famous anecdote that might be applicable here, telling of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was said to keep a good luck horseshoe hung over the door of his home in the countryside. Someone asked him about this: How could such an intelligent man with such a scientific world view believe in a horseshoe over the door bringing better luck? His response was to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but they say it works even if you don’t believe.”

Even if you don’t share my belief in God at this point, I hope you can still find means of accepting the basic principle that those who are on your side are part of something “better” and “more important” than those who would belittle your value. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

All of this is strictly a matter of “for what it’s worth” but I sincerely hope that this provides some sort of additional motivation for believing in yourself and moving forward in confronting the challenges you still face. We’re here hoping for you and praying for you, and we’re doing what we can to encourage you never to give up. Hang in there for us, but more importantly, hang in there for yourself!

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Filed under Control, Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Philosophy, Social identity, Spirituality

Mandela and Other Heroes

mandela

One of the issues I promised to discuss here, while I was still in the middle of my recent papal series, was the death of Nelson Mandela. I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to write an insightful essay about the meaning of his life after his passing, but while the issue is still relatively fresh and while some of the debates about his legacy are still swirling, I believe it is appropriate for me to toss in my two cents worth. Not that mine is a particularly important voice in such matters, but having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa during the past few years, and having set the task for myself here of discussing major topics related to the meaning of life in general, Mandela’s life is one I definitely should say something about.

“Madiba,” as his admirers call him, had the sort of death that all people, men in particular, hope for: “full of years,” in bed, surrounded by those who loved him, internationally admired and deeply mourned by those who wish to carry his legacy forward. Those factors to a great extent compensate for his having lost the prime of his life to forced labor mining limestone on an island in South Atlantic, for having lost many friends to a violent conflict with an evil regime, and for having lost a son to a terrible disease which has come almost to typify the country which counts him as its father. All in all then I both would and at the same would not want to have a life like his.

It has been almost inevitable to draw comparisons between Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. At the very least they were both black men of deep principle who came to symbolically represent the struggle in the 1950s and 60s in particular to prevent people from being unjustly essentialized based primarily on their skin color and/or the continent of their ancestry (as of, say, 500 years earlier). Both paid a heavy price for taking on the role of symbolic leader for their people against the injustices they were experiencing: Mandela with his freedom, King with his life. Both knew the risks in advance and were quite ready to pay this price if necessary. Both, very centrally, preached a message not of revenge but of overcoming historic hatreds and divisions between peoples. Both were men of moral failings, particularly as husbands, but that is ultimately irrelevant to their heroic life’s work. (Had it been traditional sexual morality and “family values” that they were fighting for, their failures in those areas would be more directly relevant.) Both of them recognized that the question of racism could not be entirely separated from the problem of “classism”: denying the importance of manual laborers within economic and social processes, and treating such workers as expendable commodities. Both, it could be argued, succeeded in breaking down many of the borders of race at the expense of reinforcing many of the borders of class. Both were deeply hated and demonized by the forces of “conservatism” in particular, yet both have had conservatives attempting to casually symbolically exploit their heroic status since their deaths in ways that should be revolting to anyone for whom integrity in historical interpretation has any significance.

Then just as Martin Luther King was subject to verbal abuse from both Malcom X on the left and Jerry Falwell on the right, Madiba too had been critiqued both by those on the left and on the right. Those on the left cite his failure to live up to the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” in terms of their government acquiring a significant portion of the massive wealth being generated by gold and diamond mining in particular, held quite exclusively by the white population, and to use that wealth to provide safety and basic services for the country’s poor blacks. Those on the right critique him for having attacked the country’s “job creators” both ideologically and militarily in the process of revolutionary struggle, and for not giving them all they were hoping for in the aftermath of the revolution. And for many people’s taste Mandela remained far too friendly with all sorts of abusers of power in the world –– ranging from the Anglo-American mining group and the Oppenheimer banks managing their ill-gotten gains, to homicidal maniac African dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe. For old school American Republicans, meanwhile, it is enough to know that Fidel Castro was able to number Mandela among his personal friends, and Ronald Reagan counted Mandela among his personal enemies.

But rather than morally discrediting Madiba, this flack from both sides may be an indication of his greatest merit: Any true peacemaker (other than those manufactured by the Colt Corporation) will be hated by those on both sides of the conflict he is mediating who are addicted to their own violent mentalities; and those who are not able to listen to and deal civilly with those who wield power badly are essentially doomed to perpetual ineffectiveness. Making peace between those existentially committed to hating each other will involve this sort of attack from both sides, inevitably –– open question of whether the fruits of peace will be enough to encourage people to allow the peace to last and to overcome the hatreds in question.

The real questions concerning Madiba’s legacy for coming generations is really not whether there was merit in his words and actions, but rather whether those words and actions will be followed by up-and-coming leaders, or whether calloused greed and corruption will doom the country and the continent to a perpetual state of widespread human suffering and on-going low to medium-grade civil wars.

The problem of cleaning up the mess created when a portion of society is treated as a disposable resource is an ancient one, which no portion of the globe has been immune to. When massive changes in the base economy –– in the basic systems by means of which one is able to keep one’s family healthy and fed –– leave some people tossed aside as no longer needed by “respectable folk,” there are strong reasons, both moral and practical, for doing something to help them. Yet the “industry” of providing aid to those in such tragic circumstances has always been rife with corruption and abuse. The poor are not in any solid position to critique the quality of work being done among those who have been sent to help them, and rarely can donors justifiably blame the continued existence of widespread problems on the incompetence of those they are paying to help deal with such problems. Thus, with no reliable means of holding the aid workers responsible for achieving results, and with a seemingly endless supply of problems for them to deal with, there is little to stop those who are so inclined from keeping a significant amount of the resources they are supposed to be using to help the poor for their own private use. This problem remains the same whether we are talking about government organizations, religious institutions, privately run NGOs and “development funds” or UN-based charities: there will always be a “cookie jar” for some to get their hand stuck in. Still in each case the question remains, will those who prioritize compassion and solidarity over greed outnumber the greedy by a large enough margin to make the process of caring for those in need effective regardless of the corruption that inevitably keeps creeping in?

Citing the ways in which such welfare programs get abused at times, both by those within the aid delivery mechanisms and by aid recipients themselves who know how to “play the system” properly, there are many calloused individuals who believe this work should be set aside, and we should focus our efforts on more “productive matters” in the economy. At the very least they would like to see government step entirely out of the role of caring for the poor, leaving such a task to the good will of private sector individuals with their own random religious and/or humanistic motivations for occasional generosity. Preventing South Africa from becoming prey to such a mentality needs to be the top priority in maintaining something of Madiba’s legacy there. Jacob Zuma’s general incompetence at meeting the needs of his country’s poor and at regulating industry for the good of the workers and the environment must not be taken as evidence that government should just give up on such matters. Here Mandela would want his legacy to reflect the principle stated by Pope Francis just before his (Mandela’s) death: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There are two essential means of dealing with such a deadly economy of inequality and exclusion (which sadly we find in some of its most abusive forms these days in South Africa and the United States): government redistribution of resources and disparity limitation laws. The former involves taxing those who have become rich –– not stopping to judge what combination of good fortune, personal hard work and taking advantage of the hard work of others enabled them to get that way –– and using those funds to provide services that allow even the poorest to have basic human dignity in their lives. The latter has historically taken the form of minimum wage laws, but it would be far more effective if it were rather set in terms of maximum wage laws. The question can essentially be posed, within any given economic system, how many times more should the maximum contributor be given relative to what the minimum contributor gets? Ten times more? A hundred times more? A thousand times more? Ten thousand times more? If we can reach a basic understanding within our societies on that matter, then from there it can be made a matter of law that those who are at the highest level in a mining corporation cannot give themselves salaries over that multiple of what they are paying their basic workers –– their miners, cooks, cashiers and cleaners.

walmart protest messageTo avoid stock option loopholes on this making such a law meaningless, there would also need to be certain limits set on how much of the profit a company makes each year be distributed to shareholders as dividends, as opposed to being paid in salaries and bonuses to all those working in the company –– right down to the men and women with shovels and mops in their hands. Nor does the effect of such laws need to be limited to corporations: laws functioning on the same principle can be implemented for entire states, or nations, charging substantial tariffs on goods being brought into their territory which are not produced according to these basic principles.

These systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. We can have both systems of redistribution and disparity limitation working side by side with each other. The point is that leaving income disparity, social exclusion, extreme poverty and injustice (in terms of a lack of protection for basic rights) untreated to the extent that they are now still is not a morally acceptable option, nor an economically viable one in the long term. Madiba’s legacy should give South Africans –– and other global citizens inspired by this legacy –– the courage to face such problems and not allow them to be swept under the rug.

One tactic I have seen used in attempting to neutralize this message though is to accuse those who wish to carry Madiba’s legacy forward of tasteless hero worship. An old distant acquaintance of mine, somewhat typically for those of this mindset, said last week, “People seek a savior, like Gandhi or Mandela to have hope. A hope orchestrated by those in power to pacify the masses. Mandela was on the terrorist list until 2008 and now those who imprisoned him or supported it give speeches of his sainthood. A bone they throw to the masses like a lottery ticket. (…) Do not trust those who make saints which where their enemy.” So in other words, don’t get sucked into this whole admiration of Mandela thing. It’s really nothing but hype designed to manipulate you.

In one sense I agree with him: As stated above in my brief survey of the comparisons between Mandela and Dr. King, both of these great men have had those who had no stomach for their message still attempting to associate themselves with these leaders’ moral status. It stands to reason that not all who claim to respect Madiba’s heroism and to be following his moral example deserve to have their claims taken seriously. (Rick Santorum’s effort to compare his political agenda with Mandela’s has to be the most absurd thus far, but I’m sure it will get worse.)

Even so, I’m not sure if the fellow I’ve just quoted honestly believes that moral leaders like Mandela and Gandhi are nothing but some sort of insignificant manikins which conspiratorial forces on the left have propped up purely for show. If so, he’s been listening to way too much right wing propaganda pretending to be “news”. Nor is it clear to me exactly which conspiratorial forces he believes might be trying to “pacify” the masses by means of such figures of hope, or for that matter what dangerous forms of “pacification” he is afraid this might lead to. The implication seems to be merely that for those in the political center or on the political left to have heroes that symbolize hope for change should not be considered a good thing. In terms of that principle I fundamentally disagree with him. Yet the question of how seriously we take our heroes does deserve some consideration here regardless.

Within hours of Mandela’s death being publicly declared I posted the brief comment, “Humanism can now get to work on the last remaining rituals for the equivalent of canonization.” I wasn’t being cynical about it; I merely saw it as inevitable that immediately after his passing there would be people lining up to declare his greatness to the world, holding him up as an example for all mankind without even getting religious about it. They always do that when someone of great moral status dies. (The political right tried to generate the same sort of heroic remembrance for Margaret Thatcher when she died this year but they failed miserably.) With Madiba, deep reverence for his memory was a fait accompli. Equally inevitable though were the resulting misgivings in some circles over this “equivalent of canonization” being enacted.

Sympathetic heroes leaving this life can have profound motivational effects on their admirers, and whether you consider that to be a good thing or not depends on what you think of the agenda of the hero in question. Religious Right leader Ralph Reed famously criticized the Democratic National Convention by saying, “And unlike the other side, we haven’t gathered in this city this week to anoint a messiah, because you see we already have a messiah.”  What Reed failed to mention in that particular speech is that the messiah that the Religious Right has already found was in fact Mandela’s personal enemy, Ronald Reagan.ronnie

I personally object to Reagan being chosen as a hero for a generation because his primary role in history was to eliminate as many protections for the world’s poor as possible and to expand income gaps in the United States and the rest of the world as far as possible. But I don’t object in principle to those who fundamentally disagree with me on political matters having their own heroes who help them find the motivation to “get up and do what needs to be done.” If there was one thing that Reagan did almost right it was to motivate Americans to work hard through a naïve belief in their own national greatness. He was painfully mistaken about that sort of pride being the theme of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but he was correct in asserting that he had succeeded in raising such pride.

When people have the hope necessary to work hard in order to build a brighter future, that generally has positive effects on the society in question. It might have had that effect on the United States following the Reagan years as well, were it not for the effective dynamic that Pope Francis has astutely pointed out this month: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”  The rich benefited from the harder work that Reagan motivated people to do, and consequently the rich found new ways of getting more productivity out of their workers for less pay in the process. Things have been getting progressively worse and less secure for basic laborers in the US economy ever since.

Mandela is also the sort of hero which was capable of giving people hope, motivating them to work harder and believe more in the future. Whether or not this additional motivation will provide a better long-term pay-off for South Africa’s poor and middle class than what America’s equivalent demographic got out of the Reagan revolution remains to be seen. Some believe Zuma has already screwed things up too far for much good immediate good to come of Madiba’s legacy, but hope for growth and restoration still remains. Whatever the case, Mandela succeeded in convincing people that they can work together for the common good, regardless of differences in class, religion and skin color. He succeeded in convincing most people to put their bitterness behind them and to use the newly available democratic means of influencing the society they live in rather than the violence they had to use when that was the only tool at their disposal. He also made significant progress in convincing some of the wealthy whites there of the truth of another point restated quite forcefully by the pope last month: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. …When a society… is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Peace with justice might be a rather naïve hope in many respects, but it is still the greatest hope we have for the realization of spiritual virtues and for the preservation of human societies on this planet. If “canonizing” Mandela helps increase hope for that sort of future I say canonize away!

Concerning the risks involved in hero worship in cases like this, one friend of mine recently posted the quote from the Tao Te Ching: “If you over-esteem great men people become powerless.” And yes, many times in following a profoundly charismatic leader people cease to think for themselves and act on their own initiative. But I qualify this with the tongue-in-cheek observation that if we are to apply Lao Tzu’s ancient words of wisdom to our current political situation it is clear that it is the US Republican party he is specifically warning us about. The proof is found in the stanzas directly below the warning against over-esteem: “If you overvalue possessions people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds… and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion…” Sort of obvious who what party he’s talking about, isn’t it?

But seriously, the risk of making Mandela into a saint should be really be looked at in the context of what Mandela himself had to say about the matter: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Let’s all keep pushing ourselves to keep following his “holy example” on that one.

 

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Open letter to Daisy

For those of you not familiar with the case, going on two years ago now, one cold winter night two young teenage girls snuck out of the house to go to a party with some older boys from school, and ended up getting raped. One was dumped, undressed and obliviously drunk, in the snow outside her house. She lived to tell of it and to seek justice, but so far the only result of this quest has been that her (widowed) mother was fired from her job, her siblings have been threatened with violence, her family was driven out of town and local terrorists on the side of her rapist(s) burned her family’s house down. Last week she took the trouble to tell her story on line, mentioning how it has, among other things, made her stop believing in God . This is my response back to this deeply wounded girl.  

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Dear Daisy,

First let me say that I’m sincerely sorry for your pain and all of the suffering you and your family have been through. I don’t pretend to know how it feels not only to be raped and treated as disposable, but then to have those who care about you terrorized for caring about you. I have my own problems in life, but I’m not going to pretend that they match up with yours.

By way of introduction all you really need to know about me is that I’m a man roughly three times your age, a school teacher to kids your age in Europe, and I’m currently working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. What that basically means is that I’m supposed to be some sort of an expert in helping kids work through the question you asked (yourself) repeatedly in your blog about your recent trauma: “Why would a God even allow this to happen?”

Don’t take this as someone trying to defend the idea of God to you. You certainly don’t need that, and if there really is a God (probably best if we leave that question open for the time being) he wouldn’t need someone like me to organize his defense team for him. Think of me rather as one more well-meaning expert of sorts, who in the abstract knows something about what you’ve been through, and in his own particular area of specialization really wants to help if he can. The doctor who treated your vaginal injuries probably didn’t know what it felt like for you, but she/he knew something about how to prevent infection and help your organs to heal. Likewise (I would hope) you’ve had a social worker who probably doesn’t know how it feels to be you still trying to help you to return to something like a normal social life. The same would go the lawyers you’ve talked to, counselors you’ve been sent to and many others. Think of what I have to say as analogous to what they might try to say to help. I know you have been “spiritually wounded” in this series of events and that has left you with some deep and troubling questions. As that’s supposed to be my area of specialty, and as your blog caught my attention, please humor me as I try to offer what little help I can.

First let me say, as you probably know quite well already, your questions are nothing new. In fact they reflect what is probably the oldest and most important questions in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an old running joke, with hundreds of variations on line, which sets out to explain world religions in terms of the old adage, “Shit happens.” They always start out by saying that the basic message of Taoism is simply that shit happens, and always end with the basic message of Rastafarianism being “Let’s smoke this shit!” In between, among others, the basic teaching of Judaism is always summarized as, “Why does this shit always happen to US?” There’s quite a bit of truth to that summary. Rather than the existence of unjust suffering being the death of their religion –– and consequently all of the other monotheistic religions in the world –– this question has become the most basic starting point and foundational consideration for their religion, and mine/ours. (I self-identify as a Christian. I know you don’t believe in any God at the moment, but I would assume it is some variation of the Christian God that you have recently decided not to believe in. Am I off by much?)

As you may know, the books of the Bible as we now have them are not arranged between the leather covers in the chronological order in which they were written. It’s a long story that I won’t bother to go into right now, but it is commonly believed among those who make a living investigating such matters that the oldest book in the Bible is the one we call Job, about why this guy who hasn’t done anything wrong goes through all sorts of hell anyway. I’ll come back to that later, but for now suffice to say, historically speaking at least, the problem of unjust suffering is just the starting point for belief in God, not the inevitable ending point for such belief.

But before getting into that, let me say that there are definitely a couple sorts of God beliefs that, based on your experience, you certainly should trash –– two common sorts of ideas about what God is that you should no longer give any credibility to.

First there is the idea of the tribal God: the sort of god who “is on our side” and helps us to “smite our enemies.” As a matter of building social solidarity and getting large groups of people to work together on major projects, almost all major human societies throughout history have had one sort of god or another, or some collection of local gods that they could call on, for this basic purpose. But in spite of how useful such beliefs can be as a team building shtick, and in spite of how much of this sort of belief has worked its way into various forms of American Christendom in particular, the sort of god that people make up to help them distinguish between their own tribe –– “the righteous” –– and everyone else –– “the heathens” –– is more useful to socially powerful jerks like Matt than to those like you who need protection and justice. Don’t be surprised if the sort of God that people make up to reinforce their tribal identities is of no use to you then, and don’t be surprised when some people claim that the Christian God is like that.  I could try to prove that such people are idiots, but rather than bothering with that let me just say that, as a Christian, that’s not the sort of God that I worship.

The other sort of God that you should not bother believing in any more is the sort of magical helper “upstairs” who takes all of the risks, uncertainties and unpredictability out of life. There are a lot of people who become religious because they have a hard time dealing with things being unpredictable and out of their control. For them religion doesn’t really work any differently than superstitious practices like rubbing lucky rabbits’ feet or nailing up horseshoes over doorways and the like. (Two sorts of people who are said to particularly depend on religion for superstitious luck improvement in this sort of way are competitive athletes and sailors.) But it doesn’t really work like that. As the Bible says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good people too can have random bad things happen to them. For instance a preacher friend of mine has a grandson who has been battling with cancer for most of his preschool-aged life. If God were in the business of showing favor to his favorite people and keeping them from experiencing random suffering, why doesn’t he start there? No, life will always involve risky situations. You can limit those risks somewhat by following certain sorts of safety rules and by taking advantage of different forms of technology we have these days, but those things too can only go so far in stopping bad things from happening to good people.

So tossing those sorts of religious habits aside, what is left for you to believe in? Plenty actually.

You used an interesting turn of the phrase: “I lost all faith in religion and humanity.” I think I know what you mean there, but if we were talking face-to-face I’d still ask. I mean, if you were to say that you lost faith in God that might mean that you know longer believe that God exists, but when you say that you’ve lost faith in humanity you obviously know that humanity still exists. Likewise for religion. So maybe you’re saying that you just believe that, even if those things exist, you can’t trust them to “be on your side” any more. Part of that could be that you had rather unrealistic expectations about what humans in general are like. Might the same be said of your expectations regarding religion and God?

If this were a proper dialog I’d wait for your response on that and frame my comments based on how you actually feel about such things. Since we’re not in direct contact I have to sort of make up the next part not knowing if you can relate to what I’m saying or not.

Anyway, your blog has this (old?) picture of you holding a puppy. I’m glad to see you have such a friend. I hope you still have her/him. (A boxer?) My own dog is a Springer Spaniel, and without him I swear I’d be in a mental hospital today! Dogs are far more dependable as friends than people, beyond doubt. But dogs too have ways in which they can’t be entirely trusted. My dog, for instance, knows that he’s not allowed to have pizza, among other things, but if I were to leave him alone in the house with a pizza in a box on the kitchen table, even long enough to go take the laundry out of the washing machine, I could not be sure that he would behave himself and leave my pizza alone. That doesn’t make me love him any less; it just makes me more careful about was sort of chances I give him to do things we’ve agreed that he shouldn’t do.

Perhaps your experiences have, in some analogous way, taught you to be more careful in how you relate to people in general, and in what ways you need to avoid risks with them. Hopefully, as with our dogs, seeing the limits in how much people can be trusted doesn’t stop you from appreciating their value in other ways. The same might even be said of religion for you, but from here I can’t say; that may be pushing it a bit.

But whether through religion or through purely secular therapeutic perspectives on things, in terms of wishing the best for you I hope that you come to believe in two basic principles that are in some ways very, but not exclusively, religious: love and justice. Finding ways of learning to believe in both of these again is key to regaining a sense of your own beauty and of joy in life for the long term. These may sound impossible to believe in at this point, but please hear me out on this.

Justice would be the tougher one for you to believe in just now I’d imagine, so let me just say I believe in justice to the same extent that I believe in biology, and maybe you can too. In my first couple years in high school I had a syrupy sweet lady as a biology teacher; not the kind that any boys had crushes on, but the sort of kindly middle-aged woman that many kids wished could be their mother. As part of her personality she taught the subject in a rather fuzzy sort of way that sort of bothered my rational mind. We’d do an experiment with the different variables in growing pea plants for instance. We saw the difference that varying amounts of sun light, water, soil types, etc. made, but in any given sample group of plants you could never tell which ones would turn out tallest or have the most flowers, and she never tried to explain that to us beyond a sort of naïve assumption that “some things are up to God.”

Physics and chemistry didn’t have that sort of unaccounted variability to them it seemed. Once you knew what the input parameters were and how the system worked, you could predict pretty exactly how each experiment was going to turn out. Those sciences didn’t seem to have the same “slop” to them that biology did. Later I learned that it’s not that simple. If you get down to the microscopic and atomic level –– if you see the exact composition of every molecule within the seed or cell –– you can tell very exactly how it will behave or how big it will grow under given conditions. Biology isn’t actually as “sloppy” a science as it looks from a simple high school level. Likewise physics, when you get down to the sub-atomic level, gets a lot more random, requiring things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and “Schrödinger’s cat” to make sense of it all. But that’s not important right now.

The point is that when it comes to justice, seeing that in individual cases it doesn’t seem to work the way it should on the surface of things doesn’t prove that there’s nothing to it. Problems of accounting for the slop in the system not withstanding, there really is something to the principles of justice, ethics and morality.

Of course this is not to say that you deserved to be raped or that your family deserved to have their house burned down! Anyone who tries to write off those tragedies as something you “had coming to you” cannot be properly described in vocabulary that teachers are allowed to use. The point is that there is a complex set of dynamics behind such events and a complex set of results that progress from such events, but dismissing it all as totally random doesn’t really help anyone.

Obviously you know in hindsight that you could have reduced your risks by not secretly experimenting with alcohol and not bypassing your older brother’s judgment in this case. No need to beat yourself up any further emotionally over those matters. The more constructive perspective on the justice of the matter at this point is in looking forward. The point now is that Matt in particular, and Maryville and Missouri collectively, cannot escape from “paying for this” on some level. Besides the different variations on the mystical idea that “karma is a bitch” and it’s bound to get them, if not within this life then thereafter (and those shouldn’t be entirely written off), there is the factor that by in practice denying your value as a human being and treating you as disposable, they have seriously discounted their own value as human beings as well, and effectively categorized themselves as disposable. That inevitably will have effects that cannot be ignored. Just as slavery and racist abuse throughout American history have seriously messed up not only the abused peoples but the abusers themselves, for Maryville to accept the treatment of teenage girls as disposable sexual objects cannot help but seriously mess up the individuals involved and the society there as a whole. Ultimately it has the effect of seriously reducing, if not eliminating, their capacity to love and to be loved, which leads to the other point I wanted to make.

At the risk of getting all fuzzy-wuzzy in ways you totally cannot relate to at this point (and sappier than my high school biology teacher to boot), love is something vitally important for all of us. Love is about more than sex and genetic survival and all that; it is about recognizing that my importance is not limited to what’s happening within my skin. I am, as a person, important to others, and they are important to me. I matter to people (and to my dog) and they matter to me. Love is about seeing others as more than tools for your physical enjoyment and competitive self-promotion. Sex, at its best, can be one of the ultimate expressions of love; though sex as you’ve experienced it is pretty much the polar opposite of love. But in spite of that, love is particularly worth believing in for you.

Believing that we can find these sorts of connections with others is a huge part of what makes life worth living. Lacking a capacity to connect with others in these sorts of ways is actually the basic essence of what hell is all about. In that regard your rapist certainly deserves to be in his own form of hell, and there is every reason to believe he is. No one can do what was done to you and still have a capacity to connect with other people as people. He may be admired for his athletic skill or for his family’s social position, but he can never know what it is like to matter to others as a person if in practice he treats other people as disposable. Through his actions then his life has come to mean nothing. Likewise a community or society which thinks it is OK to treat certain people as disposable is more than likely to become hell for most of its members. This is what turns countries into what are known these days as “failed states.” In the same sense Maryville may well be a “failed community” already. Those are more common than you realize.

In fact as the emotional wounds from your trauma heal, in your case it should be relatively easy to believe in love again: After the whole #justice4daisy campaign there are thousands if not millions of people around the world who feel your pain and see your value as a person as important. As you have inadvertently come to stand for thousands of other young women who are to one extent or another treated as disposable sexual objects, you must be acutely aware of the fact that you matter. Let the sheer volume of that love you are receiving soak in for a minute or two. Through your pain you have become important to many of us who will probably never have a chance to meet you even, not just as a symbol, but as a person. That has to be a good thing for you.

The whole question of love and importance becomes far more difficult for girls who go through variations of your same trauma every day in many countries around the world –– from victims of sex tourism in Thailand, to child brides in Arabic countries still, to those raped as an act of war in the continuous conflicts happening in much of Africa today. It is much harder for me to imagine how love and justice can come into their lives than to see how it could come into yours.

I don’t want to trivialize any young rape victim’s suffering by saying, “Don’t worry. It will all work out.” For many I know it won’t. That’s where I comfort myself by believing in a form cosmic justice that lies beyond the limits of this life, and where I keep working on doing what I can to promote justice and caring for others within this life as well. I haven’t definitively solved the problem of unjust suffering. I’m quite sure no one has. I can only keep working on doing my best to reduce it in ways that still enable life to go on for all of us.

Let me close by coming back around to that oldest book in the Bible I was talking about. The introduction chapter in the book of Job is actually the silliest part of the story: How could we imagine God still being God if he would intentionally choose to let a good man suffer excruciating agony of all sorts just to settle a silly random bet with the devil? Forget about that part for the time being. The important part is to acknowledge that Job really didn’t do anything to deserve to suffer. From there the thing is to look at the series of debates which make up the core of the book.

Job has three peers who come to see his situation and try to help him figure it out, all assuming that somehow he must have done something to deserve it. First we have this guy named Eliphaz, who responds to Job’s statement of depression by telling him that God is just and justice always works, so he should just pray about it and comfort himself in trusting God. Job basically responds to him by saying, “No offence, but it really doesn’t work that way. If you think there’s some justice in this then show me how it works.” Then comes a this guy named Bildad, whose basic message is that you shouldn’t pretend that you’re in a better position to say how things work than God is, and if you’re a good guy God will always put things right in the end. To him Job goes on a rant and says that he fully understands how much wiser and more powerful God is than him, but that doesn’t really solve the question of why this shit keeps happening to him. Then comes the third one, Zophar, saying, “How dare you mock God and claim that you’re right and he’s wrong on this one?!” To this Job basically says, “You’re not the only one to give me that sort of crap. People who have it easy always treat those going through rough times with contempt. But besides joining in to what the crowds have to say, what do you really know about it?”

From there they each take a couple more rounds going after Job, with increasing antagonism as things progress. Eliphaz says that Job’s mouth is getting to be the cause of his problems. Bildad says that Job in turn is not being respectful enough towards their perspectives. Zophar finds a particularly long-winded way of saying, “I feel rather insulted here, so to hell with you!” Job gives abuse back to each of them as good as he gets. Finally they all give up on trying to change each other’s minds about things.

That’s when a kid about your age, named Elihu, gets involved in the discussion. Elihu had waited to talk because young guys weren’t supposed to interrupt older men in their debates in those days, but he found it particularly frustrating that Job was trashing the whole idea of justice and that his three “friends” were ready to attack him without really having any grounds for their accusations. So when all of the others are done talking he lets them have it. After deconstructing their arguments (for 5 chapters) he basically points out that nothing we can do as people would really have that big an effect on God one way or the other. Rather than worrying about what we can do for God, and what God is ready to do for us in return, the point of religion should be to look at the incredibly majesty and mystery we see in the world around us and to ponder the wonder of being able to connect with something that incredible.

After Elihu’s speech then a huge tornado comes up and God starts speaking to these guys from the tornado, saying basically, “You know, the kid’s right.” It then goes on with 4 chapters’ worth of itemizing the marvels of the universe that make people and our problems seem pretty tiny by comparison.

The ending of the story is almost as problematic as the beginning: God tells the three friends that they owe Job a pretty massive apology, so they follow through with that, killing a truckload of livestock before God and Job to say how sorry they are. Job then forgives them and asks God to forgive them, and after that God makes Job all rich and successful again… as though, in spite of everything that was said in the debate, that would be what really matters. But some people need to see that sort of thing in order to find what God has to say before that as important. Such is life.

So what can you take from this long speech? (Sorry. Sometimes I talk too much: teacher’s occupational hazard.) Hopefully that you have a value that doesn’t depend on you being a “winner” in any sense. Your importance doesn’t depend on being the prettiest or the sexiest or the most athletic or the smartest even. Your value is based on your being able to connect with something greater than yourself –– being loved and being able to love in return. For all your sufferings, that principle is still worth believing in. Many religious people fundamentally miss the point on that one, so they might try to give you the same sorts of messages that Job got from his “three friends.” You may want to avoid such people if you can. But if you can find people who really “get” the message of Jesus –– about being able to love God and each other in spite of all our problems –– you might find their company and support quite helpful.

Whatever else happens, I hope you do come to believe in love and justice again in the aftermath of your tragedy, Daisy. I hope the same goes for Paige and for all others who suffer great travesties of justice in our world. Speaking not only for myself, but for the thousands who still believe in God and who have been touched by your story, our prayers are with you.

David Huisjen

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Filed under Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

Debt and Making Money

There’s a pretty serious crisis in government going in the United States so far this month, which relates to a slightly lesser crisis in government throughout Europe and many other parts of the world which are making a believable pretense at democracy. The crisis is basically this: the burden of pretending to be democratic is getting in the way of those who would wish to run things in a more autocratic fashion, and therefor there are major efforts underway to undermine people’s faith in the institutions of democracy, potentially clearing the way for a group of self-appointed moral guardians of the people to take charge of the running of things without the messiness of the “less moral” populace getting involved in the process. This is the definitive essence of fascism. This is effectively the partially considered strategy of the “Tea Party” faction within the US Republican Party.

Tea party vs democracyThe scary part about this is not that, as in the time of St. Augustine, we are witnessing the inevitable collapse of a dominant empire in the world; but rather that in previous historical eras when an empire controlling more than half of the world’s economic systems and armed forces was collapsing the dangers of their technologies falling into the hands of unscrupulous warlords were not nearly as great. Thus I write this hoping that I can play some small role in convincing some would-be moral(istic) Americans not to go along with the ideological destruction of systems of democratic government in the United States, for the safety of all of us –– American and non-American alike –– who still have to share this planet for most of the foreseeable future.

Besides childish objections to the idea of health and education being seen as basic human rights, the basic excuse that the Tea Partiers are offering for discrediting democratic institutions and trying to shut down the US government on a longer-term basis has to do with deficit spending. In the words of my friend Joel, who seems to have marginal sympathies in that direction: “Every single hour, of every single day, the U.S. government spends about $200 million that it doesn’t have… For a point of reference, consider that in just two months, the government borrows more money than the combined annual profits of the 100 biggest publicly traded companies in America.

“That’s absolutely incredible, isn’t it? Keep this up and we won’t have a country that allows us to debate and work through issues surrounding voting, immigration, privacy matters, military intervention, terrorism, social justice, abortion, guns, drugs, race relations, gay marriage, religious rights, taxes, health care, national security, national parks, et al.

“Most every citizen feels absolutely impotent as to what to do about this mess, while watching the ‘clowns’ (no disrespect to actual circus clowns) in Washington — run by TWO party machines (and lobbyists) that do not truly care about the tax-paying citizens. All these politicians (not statesmen) care about is acquiring or staying in power. And they seem to use ANY means to do so…until they run out of tax-payer’s money.”

dollars460

With all due respect to Joel and other Tea Party sympathizing PhDs, the basic problem is that he seems to have forgotten what money actually is and where it comes from. Or I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t know. In real terms the system is designed so that no one can really understand the system of money creation entirely –– sort of like the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in that regard.

It actually reminds me of the time I spent as part of the board of directors for the oldest continuously operating student organization in Finland: the University of Helsinki’s theology student organization, currently going by the initials TYT. TYT got to be the oldest in this sense by surviving the Tsars’ purges of “potentially subversive” student organizations back in the 19th century by taking advantage of the complexity of the Finnish language and its absurd potential as a tool of bureaucracy. The founding theology students, with a little secret help from their friends in the faculty of law, put together a constitution for this organization in the most obtuse Finnish Bureacratese ever written, so that when the Russian governors of the time came to inspect to make sure things were operating in a proper and respectable manner they were able to make neither heads nor tails of the proceedings. Consequently no official protest against their operations were ever filed and useful forum was preserved for gathering bright young minds who worked on building a respectable Finnish culture as such –– and eventually a state to go together with it –– through Finland’s final years as a grand duchy of the Russian Empire.

The international banking system in use in the world today uses much the same tactics, only rather than using it to keep imperial inspectors at a distance, they use it to keep common citizens at a distance. Bankers go to great lengths to play their own games at the expense of everyone else in the system, keeping things just complicated enough so that when they are caught breaking the rules everyone else remains too confused to get upset about it.

But let’s break it down into simple terms that pretty much everyone can understand. The most important thing to wrap your head around is this: There is no form of money which is intrinsically valuable. As Eric Garland wrote in The Atlantic  last year regarding the gold standard, “Unless you decorate state capitol domes for a living, nobody really needs gold — but it is tangible and limited, though you can mine more if you happen to be really motivated.” But the main point is that it “can be exchanged directly for goods and services, if you find someone who will take the trade.” The value of any currency then is not God-given, but based on who is willing to give you what in exchange for it.

These days there are a number of local exchange programs based on the concept of certificates worth a given number of hours. I spend a certain number of hours mowing your yard or splitting your fire wood or tutoring your children, and in exchange for that you give me the appropriate number of hours’ certificates so that I can use those to get someone else to fix my teeth or pick berries for me or wash my laundry. For some types of work fewer than 60 minutes’ effort is considered to be worth an hour’s worth of “normal labor” but that can be negotiated between those who are willing to trade on such a basis. The point of these systems is to get local people to work together and provide each other with the things they need to maintain their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness. National and international currencies are effectively based on the same principle, but the question is, who gets to write out the certificates to start with, and what is to stop them from writing out more of them whenever they feel like it just to get people to do what they want them to do while offering no other service in return?

Imagine that there are a few hundred of us stranded on a deserted island, as in Lost on a bigger scale, before it starts getting seriously mystical. If we accept that rescue is not immediately forthcoming, money, jewelry, etc. from the outside world will come to be of little value between us. Power and cooperation is not going to be based on who has such symbolic items. Rather, in the short-term, it will be based on who is able to seize control of resources others actually need for survival; and in the longer-term on what people are able to do to help each other out.

lost-1If the society is small enough where literally everyone knows everyone, your word and honor is your currency: Someone helps you out on the expectation that they can trust you to help them out in the future. People contribute to the “general good” so that they will have access to others’ contributions to the “general good” later on. But if things get too big for us to know and keep track of everyone then we need some form of written records or symbolic items to help keep track of who has contributed what to the well-being of which others. So let’s imagine that within our little society we appoint some authority to produce a set of certificates that help us keep track of such things. These certificates will have a number of different denominations, but we might say that the basic unit will be worth an hour’s labor. So what makes these certificate valuable is a general public agreement of what people are willing to do to get them. They have no value in themselves, their value will be in what people are willing to do for them.

That’s actually the same with any sort of money we have in the world today.

Now imagine that the fellow who is physically producing these certificates starts treating himself to all sorts of extra favors with the power that this gives him. He want’s someone to build him a bigger house than anyone else’s, so he writes out all sorts of hour’s work certificates to those who agree to build this fancy house for him. It doesn’t cost him anything to do so, and the certificates go into circulation in our little society from there pretty freely and productively. Is there any harm done in the certificate writer using his power to his advantage in this way?

One risk is that he writes out so many of these certificates that everyone ends up with piles of the things and no one really cares to bother to do anything anymore to get them –– they cease to serve as a measure of exchange value because they are in unlimited supply. But what if the fellow who is writing out these certificates is being subtle enough about it so that there aren’t too many of the things around, but still the only way anyone gets any new ones is by doing what he selfishly wants them to do? How far can this go before it leads to some sort of revolution?

Perhaps to keep one guy from abusing the system in this way we should appoint a group of guys to do this together and keep tabs on each other in the process. But what’s to stop them from forming a sort of cartel which enables them to work together in effectively cheating everyone else? The fundamental question remains the same: How far can their corruption go before it brings the whole system crashing down?

This is the basic situation in the world of banking today. Central banks are organizations somewhat separate from governments which have been given the right to literally make money that people within the societies in question can use as a basis for working together and exchanging services. They give the money they make out of thin air to governments and others who wish to borrow it from them in exchange for promises of getting whatever they want in return. Bankers are thus able to write obscene salaries for themselves in exchange for doing nothing more than roughly keeping track of how much money they print and pass around. They’re not doing anything to make this money valuable; the people who are willing to work for that money are the ones who give it value.

so-true-34-pics_3Meanwhile (most) governments have sort of removed themselves from the process of making their own money, mostly to keep people from getting too spooked by the idea that money is being made out of thin air to start with. Governments “borrow” this money from the banking organizations who make it out of nothing, on licenses granted by the governments themselves. To keep this process believable, governments have to be able to pretend to pay this money back to the banks, and to private parties who have made deposits in these banks, not so much from new money being produced, but from the value of the work done for that money coming back around to the government in the form of taxes.

In the little island society example and in the global financial system in practice today, the most important issue is not how much debt there is –– how much service has been promised but has yet to be delivered –– but rather what and how much are people capable of and willing to do for each other, and on what basis can they believe that they will be fairly compensated for their efforts. This is imperfectly measured by the ratio of new money creation to the GNP, and the national debt is relevant to this primarily as one of the factors driving the former variable.

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but...

This wiki image is slightly out of date, but…

People are generally willing to allow a certain number of individuals to be exempt from actual productive labor so that they can keep things organized for the good of all involved in the system, but when those doing the organizing start to get too distant from those whose labors they are trading in to care about their well-being any more, and when the people who are doing the actual production lose trust in those who are organizing the interaction between them because of the obvious corruption they see at the upper levels, that’s when the entire system is in the greatest danger of collapse.

Democratic institutions, or some believable pretense at such, seem to be the best means humans have yet discovered for maintaining some stable sense of trust between those doing the organizing and those providing more concrete services to each other. Keeping banks sort of at arm’s length from the legislative process also seems to be a useful strategy for keep people trusting in the value of the money that the banks make. This trust would be significantly improved if more governments were able to do like Iceland did recently and seriously punish the most corrupt and incompetent members of their banking communities. But the last thing we should be worried about these days is debt: making sure the bankers keep getting back their fair share of the fruits of everyone else’s labors. Our primary concerns need to be arranging things so that people continue to feel as though they have something of value to offer each other, and so that helping each other out –– by way of both market activity and non-market activity –– is something people remain motivated to do.

A significant part of this in moral terms is to base as little of that motivation as possible on threat and blackmail. We don’t want societies operating on the premise of, “You do what I tell you to or your child dies!” It’s easy to forget sometimes just how close we are to such a dynamic.

There was a time, just a few generations ago actually, when it was more the rule than the exception that most families would lose a child or two before they reached adulthood to malnutrition, disease or accidents caused by lack of safety precautions (which would have been too expensive). Poor people worked hard to reduce the odds of that happening to their children, as long as they believed that their work could make a difference in the matter. For some of the psychopaths in charge of large businesses having a few poor children die every now and again was a necessary part of keeping the system going.

These days we are more inclined to take it for granted that all children, even poor ones, have a right to live into adulthood, but there are some corporations which are doing everything in their power to return us to the “good old days” in those respects. In parts of the United States they have been quite successful in this regard. The thing that is slowing them down in this process though is a (pretense at a) system of (small d) democratic government which is based on a premise of “the little people” being able to come together to stand up for their rights, including children’s rights to education and health care that keeps them from dying of preventable causes, regardless of how much their parents do or don’t get paid for what they do for work. So it would be far better for business if they could shut down as much of the system of democratic government as possible.

As I said at the start here, my fear is that if the psychopaths behind the Tea Party movement fully succeed in this process not only will thousands more poor American children lead sad lives and die young (and I’m not being melodramatic here), but the tools of economic and military dominance which have been developed over the past century or so will come to be used with even less pretense of restraint. This could lead to the de facto enslavement of billions more people and further reckless exploitation of limited natural resources, leading to billions more unnecessarily early deaths. Some in the American Religious Right would disagree with me on such matters, but I still hold to an ethical position that contributing to such processes is a morally wrong thing to do.

My strongest hope is that enough Americans will start believing enough in the idea of democracy as such to make it true again –– in some ways for the first time –– within the United States; that people they will stop letting those who are milking the system by doing nothing more than finding creative ways of telling others what to do for them run things without even a pretense of interest in the well-being of those they are abusing in the process. I realize that a lack of philosophical content within the education system has seriously reduced the likelihood of many there figuring this problem out, but there are some smart people there who might get it anyway, and it remains remotely possible that they might be able to wake up just enough of their (our) countrymen to stop the complete collapse that things now seem to be headed towards.

Joel, others… care to help?

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