Tag Archives: Hate-mongering

My Post-Lenten Fast

This year I’ve let tradition slip a bit. In most recent years I have given some nominal observance to the season of Lent, but this year, with its various distractions, I didn’t really manage to give it much thought.

It’s never been a particularly critical matter for me; my Lenten fasts have always been something relatively trivial. I have lots of little guilty indulgences that I know that I would be healthier to give up every now and again. Nothing particularly big, but little things that I know I really don’t –– or really shouldn’t –– need. In recent years these have included coffee, red meat, computer games and television.

This Lent on Ash Wednesday I was off teaching a seminar in Kenya. I was fighting with a cough that was trying to eliminate my voice. I was dealing with little running expenses that were sending my credit card more and more into the red. I was trying to evaluate the extent to which the language barrier was limiting my audience’s perception of what we were talking about, and I was contemplating the potential lasting value of that program. With all that in mind, somehow I didn’t stop to think of guilty little habits I could be giving up.

Lent is now winding down for the year already, and I almost feel like I’ve missed something by not missing anything. But I’ve made a decision that, starting next week, after Lent, there is something in particular that I will live without for 40 days: all resemblances of hate-mongering.

As a researcher into politics, as an active participant in social media and as a school teacher there are many aspects of my everyday life where I am tempted, if not required, to think less of other people, and to make my negative opinions about them known to the general public. From there it is a very short slide into the phenomenon of considering such people worthy of hatred, and trying to convince others to hate these people with me. In some ways, I have to admit, I get a certain amount of pleasure out of being rather good at this.

I do try to temper my attacks on others. I try to make a point of not labelling large groups of people as inherently hate-worthy because of the various circumstances they were born into, and most of what I attack is people’s tendencies to attack others. I justify most of the bile I allow myself to spill as moves to defend the innocent who are being attacked, or as moves to limit the abuse of demagogic power by others. Consequently one reoccurring theme in my attack writings is political conservatism, especially hitting on the sort of conservatives which work overtime to justify their prejudices against people of particular ethnic backgrounds, professional positions (against school teachers in particular), and sexual orientations; which holds a tacit belief that freedom of religion and conscience should in practice only apply to those who are “close enough” to their own (“Judeo-Christian”) beliefs; which operate on the assumption that if someone is poor it is because they must be lazy, and it would be harmful to their motivation to assume that they have any natural right to the basics of life. I admit, I have little patience for such a political orientation, and I tend to do what is in my power to discourage those who are capable of self-critical thinking from holding such positions. Frequently, however, those who are most dogmatic in their conservatism lack any capacity for self-critical thinking, and thus I frequently feel compelled to point out that they are simply stupid.

But this, I must admit, is something of a guilty pleasure. I know that taking part in battles of wit with those who are unarmed for such combat is a cruel and disrespectful thing for me to do, even when I tell myself that I am doing it for the sake of others. In many ways such polemic exercises run the same risks as American foreign policy in the Middle East over the past few decades: pouring resources into attacking “bad guys” leads to an ever increasing level of hostility, and frequently to the very resources which aggressors have dumped in being re-directed to attack those who supplied them. It also relates to my everyday experience as a teacher: just because I am capable of shouting down a seriously distracted and disruptive group of students doesn’t mean that I should do so. Rarely is matching volume with volume a wise thing to do. Likewise, rarely is matching hatred with hatred a wise thing to do.

I’m not swearing off all political polemics for life, but as with coffee and television in my previous Lenten fasts, as useful as they can be at times, there’s a lot to be said for showing myself that I can go without; and in choosing to do so for a designated period of time as a gesture of worship.

For this exercise I’m designating for myself the period from Easter to Ascension Day: another 40 day stretch after Lent, and for this purpose a particularly appropriate one. This is the time of year when Christians are supposed to remember the contact Jesus had with his followers after he defeated the power of death. The Gospels tell of how he ate food, displayed his wounds and in other ways showed himself to be a physical being, but how he didn’t seem to be subject to basic laws of physics any more, mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, going through walls and all that. Finally, after keeping them guessing with a month and a half of such stunts, Jesus gathered a bunch of his followers together and let them watch as he levitated off of this planet, promising to come back later. So using this as a time to step outside of my natural reactionary and hate-prone tendencies towards those I disagree with, with hopes of a better world to come, seems more than appropriate.

So let me publicly pledge here that from Easter Sunday until Ascension Day I will not be publishing anything to tell people how ignorant, stupid, immoral, dangerous or otherwise hate-worthy any particular individuals or groups of people are. If I can find ways to talk about positive goals for politics, NGO work and faith-based initiatives I will freely do so, but for this time I set the limit on myself that these statements must be absent of any critique of competitors or of those who presumably have had a role in causing the problems being addressed. I’m asking all of my readers to pay careful attention to what I write about over this period, and keep me honest on this. I don’t deny that this will be difficult, but with God’s help I believe it is possible.

I would like to challenge as many of my friends and acquaintances here as possible to try to keep the same type of fast for yourselves this spring. I believe it could have a very beneficial cleansing effect on many of us. This is in part a selfish request from me: I know that I will be seeing plenty of hateful messages going around during this time, mostly ignorant people attacking others they know little about. As anyone who knows me can testify, not being able to say anything back to refute those sorts of ignorant allegations against anonymous others is something which goes against my basic nature! But I pledge to keep my fast regardless; so I kindly ask of those of you who are prone to post such attack posts –– for your own sake as well as mine –– could you please see if you can try to refrain from doing so until after Ascension Day (May 14, 2015). I would deeply appreciate it. But as with the other types of Lenten fasts that I have kept in years past, this is not something that I can pressure anyone else into.

The most common groups for “liberals” to attack would be Bible-belt evangelical Christians, fossil fuel companies, “too big to fail” banks and all sorts of traditional “whites only” groups. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, seem to find it hard not to attack Muslims, non-theists, sexual minorities, inner city dwellers, people who are sexually active outside of marriage, those associate with abortion services, and those who prioritize environmental over economic concerns. For both I’m asking, regardless of how stupid, morally deprived, greedy, lazy, careless, psychopathic or otherwise bad you happen to consider any such people to be, would you please join me, just for 40 days, in not talking at all about why you believe they deserve to be hated.

Just see if you can do it!

You can go back to preying as usual afterwards.

Meanwhile, peace be with you.

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Politics, Religion

Responsible Politicians and Other Oxymorons

The world is full of political controversy this month. In the US we’ve got politicians getting themselves in trouble for sexual indiscretion again; not quite overshadowed by the French fellow who might have been their next president if he hadn’t mistakenly assumed that the use of chamber maids for purposes other than cleaning was included as part of the service in New York’s luxury hotels. These mistakes are in some ways more honest and understandable than the South African president’s adventures not so long ago –– having a semi-consensual adulterous relationship with the HIV positive wife of a friend, and then “protecting himself” against the disease by taking a shower afterwards –– but they have been far more politically costly.

If we’re honest about it though, sex addicted politicians are certainly nothing new, nor are they nearly as big a problem as those addicted to violence, as we’ve witnessed among nearly all of the presidents of the Middle East this spring. This can be only partially blamed on their former colonial overlords (and quasi-colonial overlords) who may or may not have got them hooked on such violence to begin with: warlords have been ruling that region by killing off those who question their authority for millennia already, it’s just that now they have tanks and rocket launchers bought with oil money from NATO countries to do it with.

If we move beyond “moral issues” though, another increasing global trend in politics seems to be polarized deadlock. The American GOP, attempting to bounce back from the years they spent lost in the Bush, have played the political constipation strategy with remarkable effectiveness. Opposition parties from around the world now have started to follow suit: If the constitutional balance of power allows for the smaller party or parties to prevent stuff from happening, then the idea is to use that power to block things big time. That way you make the people in the controlling party/parties look stupid and inefficient, because they can never get anything done. Of course it’s bad for the country, but it’s good for the party, so who cares?

Another very basic tactic from the extreme right wing in the US in particular, but in more civilized countries as well, is to play the old outside-group-hatred card. Basically you find some sets of people who get limited public sympathy anyway, and you build an argument that these folks are the cause of all of the nation’s problems. You then claim that your political opponents are giving these despicable, villainous problem causers whatever they want, and the only way to solve the problem and get the nation back on track is to give you complete control, because your party is the only one that can defend the nation against these horrible “others”.

The “others” being targeted in particular by the radical American right are families on welfare, homosexuals, immigrants and Muslims. In their attacks on government spending, if they were to be honest about things, they should also include farmers, the elderly, the disabled and recipients of public education as evil “others”, but that might not play out so well in the heartland.

This strategy of finding an out-group to hate was used particularly effectively in various parts of Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, but for those who lack historical awareness in this area Godwin’s Law keeps me from spelling it out more precisely for you.

What other ways are there for politicians to remain in power? One other tactic is to somehow become a hero of the people, and to get a loyal following of believers who will do anything to please you. First you have to get a base of fans. You can get these by being a musician, an athlete, an actor, a religious leader, a military hero, whatever. What you were originally good at doesn’t matter as long as there is a solid group of people who believe you can walk on water. Then after that you have to have an organization that pulls these fans together and positions each of them to spread the message of how wonderful you are. This can take many forms, few of them particularly respect-worthy. Youth organizations based on personality cults or organizational loyalty are probably the worst. But if you’re not hypocritical about who you are and what you stand for, and if you have a goal beyond the power itself, a personality cult as a means of getting there might be morally acceptable.

There seems to be a common if not universal trend among politicians these days to consider the point of their job to be screwing whoever or whatever is screwable and to exercise power to build and/or maintain power in whatever way happens to work. Well, besides such basic Machiavellian principles in politics what else is there really?

 

Actually there could be many things. The mark of a great leader and a statesman is to stand tall (figuratively speaking at least) and rally people together by enabling them to build a new sense of respect for each other, without necessarily agreeing about particular issues or changing each others’ minds. If people decide to work hard together to realize a common vision, seeing each other as imperfect allies rather than natural enemies, good results are almost inevitable. That’s far easier said than done however. To make that work more often than not you need to have an enemy that you can put forward to all parties that is bigger than the political opposition. If you make that enemy something abstract and yet readily understandable –– something like disease, starvation, illiteracy… even lust, greed or sloth –– it doesn’t have to lead to labeling particular individuals as the horrid bad guys, but that requires an electorate which is well enough educated and integrated with each other to share and appreciate what they are fighting against. Overall hatemongering against particular out-groups is far easier.

But then we come back to that troublesome question of what, besides power and privilege for themselves, politicians are supposed to be working for. Frankly it seems that most of them don’t have a clue. That in turn can to a great extent be blamed on the education systems that they’ve come up through, because there is in fact a simple answer: human rights.

Ultimately the job of every government and every government employee is to insure that every person within their jurisdiction is treated with a level of respect that every person deserves as a person. That’s really all it boils down to. Everything else is just means of getting there and then extras to make life more fun and interesting once the basics are taken care of. But the fundamental job of every government is really nothing more nor less than protecting the human rights of those within its territory.

The idea of human rights has had many stages of evolution, but I would like to point out three in particular: the US Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the US Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All of these are imperfect documents of their own times, but they are all based on a premise that has been officially accepted by every respectable nation on earth: that the job of a government is to make sure that people are respected as people.

The Declaration of Independence, like Luther’s 95 Theses, is a vague laundry list of complaints about the way things were being run, with the underlying premise that God doesn’t expect people to submit to those who don’t give them the respect they deserve. Its most famous lines are these:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

That’s worth stopping to ponder. First of all, the core of the moral argument justifying the US decision not to be a British colony any more –– which has since served as a rule of thumb for what (theoretically) makes states legitimate in general –– is that people (men in particular) automatically are naturally entitled to certain rights just because they are people. Being a person means that in some fundamental ways you are just as valuable as any other person. Beyond that, the whole point in having governments to begin with is to make sure that these rights are fundamentally respected and protected. Furthermore, when it comes to who is there to protect and defend these rights for them, people deserve to have a say in the matter, just as part of what they are entitled to because they happen to be people.

This wasn’t a particularly comprehensive listing of what all counts as human rights, just a statement that being allowed to live, being in some sense or another at liberty and being in some respects allowed to attempt to make yourself happy are somehow part of the package.

Once these former colonists got the British out of their hair they actually found that putting together a system for protecting these rights was easier said than done. They discovered that it required a lot more basic organization and strength of government than they had first assumed. Thus the Articles of Confederation effectively failed as an original attempt at US national government. In particular it became apparent that they needed to have a system that charged a fair amount of taxes, and that divvied that money up in ways that protected a more specific set of rights. The core formulation of those rights was laid out in the Preamble to the new constitution, written 11 years after the Declaration of Independence:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

So besides defending people’s lives, liberty and hedonistic pursuits, this government now took as its task to make sure that all of its equal citizens received basic justice in the court system, that everyone should be allowed to live in basic peace and security, that everyone should have some level of general welfare provided for them and that everyone’s descendents (family) would be taken into consideration. That was a good basic start. That is why, over 200 years later, the US Constitution still works.

Other rights issues were tacked on ad hoc over the next century after that, making up what is known as the Bill of Rights. Two major improvements in particular, which the US founding fathers never could have agreed to, came along in the late nineteenth century: the abolition of slavery and a required public education system. But from there United States’ moral leadership in the world of politics floundered a bit. It wasn’t until the Nazis’ Japanese allies attacked the US and propelled America into World War 2 that the question of what people were entitled to as people really started getting attention there again.

In spite of the friendships the Nazis built with leading American industrialists, when American soldiers saw the horror of what they did to other human beings, Jews in particular, up close and personal, there was really no question left about the matter: this government was evil. Something had to be done to try to stop those sorts of evil from happening again. There needed to be some sort of international agreement about what people are entitled to as people, that governments could band together to get respect for. This is the unstated purpose behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: preventing new Nazi-like atrocities from happening.

Now of course the different governments involved in the formulation of this document each had their own input as to what counts as a violation of what people are naturally entitled to, but if you take the idea of equality from the US founding documents seriously, and you factor in all of the cultural and technological innovations that have happened since –– in education, health care, religious tolerance and the moral imperative to abolish slavery in particular –– all 30 articles in the UDHR do rather consistently follow from its Preamble:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that […] every organ of society […] shall strive […] by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

In other words as of 1948 none of the member states could claim that they were doing their job right. All of them realized that they had a ways to go in terms of treating their people how they deserved to be treated as people. All of them could also accuse each other of being somehow Nazi-like in some areas. Racial segregation of public facilities in the US deep south and prohibitions on international travel for those behind the Iron Curtain were but two obvious examples of this. But they essentially agreed that respecting people as people was their core task as governments, and to do that properly these 30 articles needed to be followed.

These articles include basic rights which even American politicians are aware of: equal justice in the legal system, freedom from slavery, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to travel, the right to property ownership and the right to democratic participation in the government one is subject to. But they also include rights things that many right wing politicians are trying to prevent their governments from recognizing people’s rights to: equally accessible public services (art. 21.2), welfare services sufficient for protecting the dignity of families (art. 23.3), freedom to form trade unions (art.23.4), medical care and social security (art. 25.1), special assistance for mothers and children (art.25.2), higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of merit (art. 26.1) and freedom to enjoy the arts (art. 27.1).

Thus I would contend that the measure of a “good politician” anywhere in the world is the extent to which she or he is able to fully understand the responsibilities which governments bear according to the UDHR, and is then able to bring the government in which she/he serves closer to this ideal. As when the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the US Constitution, this will require some taxation, but according to article 30 this is a matter of balance: the right to private property for some needs to be balanced with the right to education and health care for others.

For any politician to claim that there are some people whose rights are not worth defending, or to claim that since the government has screwed up in attempting to defend the human rights of particular groups it shouldn’t even try, is the height of political irresponsibility –– far worse than an addiction to sex, on par with an addiction to violence. So I will close by saying it directly: the very existence of the “Tea Party” movement in the United States, and the fact that someone like Michele Bachmann can be taken seriously as a candidate for any national office, says that the American education system has failed at its most basic task: making people aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. In other countries as well, the less people recognize the basic human rights of those around them, and the less they expect of their governments in terms of protecting those rights, the less respect I have for their level of education and intelligence.

It has been said that democratic nations get the leaders they deserve. Clearly in this regard the US does not deserve leaders with a strong sense of responsibility and integrity, though by the grace of God they might get one every now and again anyway. I would still like to believe, however, that the country has not sunk so low as to deserve the sort of leadership that the current batch of Republicans are trying to offer. We’ll see.

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Filed under Education, Human Rights, Politics, Purpose, Respectability