Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

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Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review; pt. 2)

August 30, 2017

The fundamental difference between the two, as Comey presents it, is the different ways each uses Christian scriptures to support his views. Following David H. Kelsey, Comey distinguishes between “direct” versus “indirect” authority.[1] Direct authorization is when a claim is based on a direct quote from Scripture, or is analytically true based on a direct quote from Scripture. While Comey does not give an example, I would presume that refusing to eat pork because Scripture says that you shall not eat any animal with cloven hoofs that does not chew its cud would fit. What Kelsey does say is that it is hard to find examples of direct authorization, because usually the scripture is more the basis of the theological command and not its content. Again using my example, the Torah commands the Israelites to “bind these words (the Shema) as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” but it does not say how to do this; Orthodox Judaism has interpreted this mitzvoth to come up with the form of the tefillin. It’s not much of a leap, but it is an interpretation; that makes this an indirect rather than a direct authorization. Why write the scriptures on a paper and put them in a box, rather than write them on a ribbon and tie them on?

Further complicating the question of scriptural authorization for a theological proposition is that the Scripture may serve any of several functions. It may be a direct warrant for the theological conclusion, or it may be backing for a warrant, or data in the argument, or even a rebuttal. In each case the use of the Scripture will be different. For example, in the abortion debate, there simply is no direct warrant saying “thou shalt not commit abortion.” It simply wasn’t an issue that they debated or felt needed much explanation.[2] Instead, attempts to produce a biblical pro-life argument will use some scriptures to attempt to show that the unborn is in fact a person (data) and others to show that killing a person who has committed no crime is wrong (backing) and that since abortion is thus the killing of an unborn person, abortion itself is wrong (an indirect warrant).

Falwell, as you probably suspect, generally claims that his interpretations of Christian ethics and political goals are directly warranted by Scripture. He is a fundamentalist and hence an inerrantist. Comey points out that this does not mean that he is always a literalist. Falwell is claiming that all Scripture is inerrant, without error or contradiction; in cases of apparent contradiction, he is quite willing to claim that a particular passage is not literally true. For example, when Jesus says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” that is not a literal command to self-mutilation but rather a hyperbolic expression to teach the importance of avoiding sources of temptation.[3]  Furthermore, because the Bible must be without mistake or contradiction, seemingly contradictory passages must be harmonized, rather than allowed to stand in isolation or to remain distinct in tension with each other. For example, Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus did not find him but were met by an angel who said he was alive, and that they were so terrified that they ran away and told no one. Matthew says they did tell the apostles. Luke says Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. John says that Jesus appeared in person to Mary Magdalene, and that she told the apostles. Rather than accept that there are four distinct witnesses to the same event that report it differently, the fundamentalist must attempt to harmonize all the accounts into one story incorporating all (or at least most) of the elements of each. Furthermore, it cannot be left to the individual to decide what “really happened,” what one actuality lies at the basis of all four reports; the fundamentalist commentator must produce the harmonious interpretation and present it to the layperson as the authoritative understanding.[4]

Reinhold Niebuhr, by contrast, relies on indirect warrant from Scripture for his theological thinking.[5] While fundamentalists like Falwell treat the Bible as factually true, even describing it as “superscience” and insisting that the philosophy, history, science and even basic cause-and-effect reasoning have no place in Christian faith, Niebuhr argues that the Bible is in fact often factually wrong and even calls it “myth.” He argues that the Bible tells great truths, revealing the true nature of God and of ourselves, but that it “falsifies some of the details” in order to express a deeper reality. As Comey puts it, “Science and history give the facts while religion and myth tell the truth.”[6] The purpose of the myth is not to report facts, but it is not mere fiction either; it is a symbolic expression of realities that exceed the ability of the human speaker or writer to express directly, and likely exceed all human ability to verbalize.

From the Fundamentalist perspective, this sort of reasoning is hopelessly vague at best, and blasphemy at worst. If you can’t trust God’s truthfulness on things like the origin of the world, then you won’t be able to trust Him about heavenly things like salvation; therefore, you must hold onto the belief that everything in the Bible is not only “true” but also “factual.” Niebuhr argues that not only is this sort of factuality demonstrably false, it also falsifies. It risks making our historically conditioned, finite judgments about God into absolute eternal truths, rather than recognize that they are true expressions of God but only partial.

Both Falwell and Niebuhr would say that the Bible is central to all human thought about God and about our place in God’s creation. For Falwell, it is the accurate, direct statement of what God has done in history and what God has commanded humans to do. Scientific, historical and ethical thinking must first accept the inerrant revelation of truth through the Bible; any human thought is only appropriate as it is necessary for explaining and applying that core biblical data. For Niebuhr, the Bible expresses God’s nature and our own, not by revealing literal events and literal words but by expressing fundamental truths. For example, to Falwell it is essential that the Christian affirm the creation of the world in six days. For Niebuhr, the truth of the Creation story is that God is in command, God is other and beyond the world as well as involved with it, that God loves the world and us and that the world is good; and we too are originally and essentially good, although we also fall into sin and separate ourselves from God and our essential nature.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review)

August 28, 2017

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.”  Honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982.

 

After President* Donald Trump fired James Comey, several news stories appeared discussing his undergraduate senior thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and how his theological convictions might have affected his performance of his duties as Director of the FBI. My first thought, naturally, was, “Wow! A religion major found a job!” My second though was, “ I have got to read that thesis!” So much is on-line these days that my first thought was to Google it. No luck there. So I went to the public library, found the thesis title listed in a database of college theses, and requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Unless I get permission from the College of William and Mary to post it, I suggest you go to your library and request it yourself; it is a fascinating read, well-written and informative, reflecting some deep thinking from its young author.

Comey’s thesis compares two theologians who each had a powerful effect on Twentieth-Century American politics. The first, Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of America’s most influential religious thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s, still widely read after his death in 1971. The second, Jerry Falwell, was at that time something of the new kid on the block, described by Comey as “a well-known fundamentalist television preacher” and an example of the Religious Right, which had been very influential in the 1980 presidential election. [1] Both were Protestant Christian theologians who urged Christians to become involved in politics as part of living out their faith. However, while both rejected Communism and urged the United States to oppose its spread, they had very different political agendas and very different strategies for linking their political teachings to their biblical studies. Comey’s project was to compare the two theologians, to examine each one’s approach to the Bible, politics and the task of connecting them, and to critique the strengths and weaknesses he found in each writer’s position.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

August 10, 2017

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

 

 

The definition of “reality” should be “true whether you like it or not.” Yet somehow, today even reality is a partisan issue. According to polls, only 24% of Americans believe what the White House says.[1] President Trump’s approval ratings are higher, currently about 34-38%. That means that around 10-14% of Americans think their President is a liar, and still trust him to run the country and trust him to keep his promises to them. If one of us were trying to give advice to a friend who was in love with a partner who lied and cheated, and the friend admitted this, we’d tell that friend, “Are you nuts? Get out of this relationship! You are saying you know this person is no good, so how can this be good for you?” But in today’s politics, many of us choose the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet with less care than we would put into deciding whether to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

This is largely the result of the fact that this White House does, in fact, say things that are demonstrably false, that the person saying must know are false, so casually and easily that it stuns those of us accustomed to honest communication. From the very first presidential press briefing, where the White House lied about whether Obama or Trump had bigger crowds at his inauguration, to lying about meeting Russian lobbyists and intelligence officers (and then admitting, and then admitting more, and more) to lying about whether the President is golfing when people post pictures of him golfing on Instagram and Twitter, and on and on, people have become so accustomed to White House lies that they hardly notice them. They expect lies. Even many in the President’s own political party openly question his honesty, even as they support him. Many working in the White House leak information about the lies, even while continuing to work for and support the administration. Collectively, they are saying that some things matter more than honesty. Some things matter more than having a government and having policies that are rooted in reality. Party loyalty and partisan agendas and culture wars are more important than whether what anyone says is true, or whether the government is going to do what it says it is going to do, or cares about what it says it cares about, or even whether what it proposes could possibly work even if it were implemented. So people give up on trusting their government; those who were opposed become more so, the neutral become more opposed, and even supporters lose trust but continue to support a government that they acknowledge does not deserve their trust, but which the are emotionally devoted to anyway.

This is no way to run a democracy. That is not a partisan statement. We have a real-life experiment that supports this claim.   Liberia is an African nation that was founded by freed American slaves. It uses U.S. dollars as its currency, and in other ways has long-standing cultural ties and debts to the U.S. It has come through a very nasty civil war, and is working to reestablish democracy. People can vote for their leaders, and the leaders for their part are constrained by rule of law, at least somewhat. They can’t simply demand obedience and shoot any dissenters, as North Korea does; the Liberian government, like ours, depends on most of the people doing as they are told voluntarily. The Ebola crisis was, arguably, even more dangerous than the civil war; the war killed far more people, but Ebola had the potential to spread over the whole world. The government tried to get people to cooperate in containing and fighting the plague. Many of their orders restricted individual freedoms, such as requiring infected people not to travel. Other orders contradicted long-standing social traditions; in Liberia, it is common to kiss the dead good-bye, regardless of how they died. The government told people that traveling could spread disease, that touching the dead could spread disease, that they needed to stay home, report any illness to the government, get medical care, and stay away from sick or dead victims of Ebola. The people did not trust their government. They had been lied to many times, by warlords and dictators and even, they felt, by the democratic government. When they were told something that they didn’t like, they simply refused to believe it. They wanted to believe that they could leave their home when a family member got sick, or even travel to see family at the first sign of fever to get care; they wanted to believe that they could kiss their dead relatives goodbye; and in short, they wanted to believe that their government was lying to them and that things were not so bad and that it wasn’t really a crisis. So they believed what they wanted to believe, did not trust their government, did not cooperate, and thousands of people died before the rest decided that maybe, this time, the government was telling the truth.

For the Trump supporters, the problem would seem to be different. They trust their government and apparently will trust it no matter what happens. In an emergency, presumably they would obey unquestioningly. For a democracy, that is not necessarily good, if it is not actually an “emergency.” One of those helpful patriots went to Comet Pizza in D.C. with a rifle and fired a few shots because InfoWars, one of Donald Trump’s favorite news sources, told him that the Democratic Party was running a child sex ring in the basement. This is not only a sick slander, it is laughably false; the pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement. But people could have been killed, and an apparently decent (but gullible and obedient) man is destined for time in prison or perhaps a mental hospital, all for believing a news source endorsed by his President. This is just a small foretaste of what awaits if a future election does not go the way the Trumpists want it to go, and they have to choose between accepting a democratic result or believing that millions of invisible illegal aliens voted for the other side.

Right now, the entire world is suffering the results of the White House and GOP sacrificing its credibility over a series of silly and easily-proven lies. The United States and North Korea are engaged in an increasingly violent war of words, with both threatening the other with nuclear destruction. We are used to this sort of bombast from North Korea, and   the world has seen that they don’t carry through on their threats. But when the President of the United States uses the same language and bombastic threats as the tin-pot dictator of North Korea, no one knows how to take it. Are we headed towards a full-scale nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, and possibly beyond? When the Secretary of State says we should not take the President’s speech literally, should we believe him, when we’ve seen other White House officials say one thing only to be overruled by the President hours or days later? If there is a war, and the President assures the world that it was necessary and unavoidable, or that the U.S. does not intend any harm to any nation other than North Korea, will anyone take him at his word? For that matter, if there is not a war, will we believe it is because diplomacy has won out, and not because of all those millions of dollars invested by Trump Inc. in Macau and elsewhere in China, that might be threatened in a war between the U.S. and a Chinese ally?

The fact is that today’s society is enormously complex. It cannot function without trust. We each have to assume that the others will do what they are supposed to do, whether it is buying food and expecting it not to be poisoned, or electing politicians and expecting them not to start wars either in a fit of temper or based on their personal business portfolio. Civilization is one enormous trust fall. Without trust, we pull our money out of banks and stop using credit cards (or accepting them), we can’t buy cars we can’t personally repair (so goodbye to modern computerized cars), and we open the door with a gun in our hands whenever anyone knocks: in short, anarchy, the opposite of civilization. And right now, we have a President of the United States who is not trusted by most people in his own country or around the world, who is not trusted even by some of his own supporters, and who for his part actively works to undermine trust in everyone and everything else—-attacking the press, Congress, judges, even his own political party and his own Cabinet and other officials. We stand on the brink of nuclear war, maybe; we can’t even know. And if this erosion of trust continues, it will be impossible for civilization to survive.

 

P.S. If you’ve read The Management of Savagery, the al Qaeda strategic manual, you know that this is precisely what the jihadists have been aiming for all along. The jihadists believe that their terrorism will cause trust to break down, civilization to collapse, and society to disintegrate into warring factions and tribes, allowing them to take over in the resulting chaos. Donald Trump is just the latest in GOP efforts to help the jihadists achieve their otherwise impossible goals. Jihadist terrorism is not nearly enough to either bankrupt the U.S. or to cause regions and ethnic groups to turn on each other; but GOP economic mismanagement has done a pretty good job of destroying the economy of Kansas and weakening other states, and some of the people who helped drive Kansas to the brink of bankruptcy are now helping devise federal policies. And with the rise of the alt-right and the state-sponsored xenophobia we see around us, and the conservative threats to use violence against anyone who opposes them, al Qaeda must be feeling very encouraged about its chances to break up the United States. Without the GOP cooperating with their agenda at every opportunity to serve its own desire for power, the jihadists would not have a chance.

 

[1] Brian Stelter, “Fact-Checking of Trump Falling on Deaf Ears? Far From It.” CNN August 8, 2017 (http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/08/media/media-white-house-credibility-cnn-poll/index.html)

An Open Letter to Mitch McConnell

July 12, 2017

Dear Senator McConnell:

Republicans have been saying for many years that a nation that cannot guard its borders is no nation at all.  As a point of geography, this is not really true; there are many national borders today that are not patrolled or even fenced, where a person may wander from one country to another without realizing it, and still those nations thrive.  Why?  Because physical boundaries do not matter nearly as much as the ability to govern and control.  If a nation is able to make and enforce laws within an area, it exists.  I could live in Canada for twenty years, in a shack, thinking I was in the U.S. because the border was unguarded and I can’t read a map, and it would not threaten Canada in the slightest, so long as when I finally broke the law in some way Canadian police were able to arrest me, and Canadian courts were able to judge me according to laws made by and for the people of Canada.

Currently, in the United States, we cannot say with confidence that we are a nation.  Our ability to choose our own leaders is under attack.  Without the ability to choose our own leaders, we cannot make our own laws.  Without our own laws, our courts are reduced to enforcing the laws made by others.  When our own courts cannot enforce our own laws, our police and military are merely security guards protecting someone else’s property, following the directions of the boss who actually makes the rules.  And right now, Russia is striving to be that boss.

We know that the Russian government hacked at least 21 state election boards.  We are told that they didn’t change any votes, but we do not know that since no one has actually investigated this.  To say “we have seen no evidence that any votes were changed” when there has been no serious (or even cursory) investigation by DHS is like the “three wise monkeys” with their eyes and ears and mouths covered, so that they cannot see, here or say anything bad. (Source:  http://www.thedailybeast.com/dhs-never-ran-audit-to-see-if-votes-were-hacked).  It is a farce.  But instead of investigating this very real, proven threat to our national sovereignty, you, the Republican Party, are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars investigating voter fraud, which even you, Sen. McConnell, admit never happened (sources:  http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/03/politics/kris-kobach-letter-voter-fraud-commission-information/index.html and http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/17/opinions/mcconnell-call-out-trumps-rigged-election-comments-douglas/index.html).  You yourself said in February of this year that no tax money should be spent on this snipe hunt; but still, a Federal government commission is demanding that state governments aid in its “investigation,” tying up millions of dollars to pay for an investigation using up the time of public servants who could be better employed preventing Russian hacking of the 2018 and 2020 elections.  The executive branch of this government has repeatedly called the entire Russian hacking investigation a “hoax” and “fake news,” with our President even repeating in Poland that “we don’t know” who was involved in hacking our election.

A nation that cannot guard its own methods of choosing its leaders is no nation at all.  The Russian hacking of our nation’s elections systems is a direct attack on our national sovereignty.  By comparison, everything else—-health care, tax reform, even military spending—is irrelevant.  What difference does it make whether we have the best military in the world, if the leaders who command that military are chosen by a foreign power?  We will simply be mercenaries for the Russians.

The Founding Fathers of this great nation, the authors of our Revolution and of our Constitution, were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of John Locke.  His was one of the first and most effective pens to be raised in defense of government of the people and by the people, at a time when England and most other nations still proclaimed the divine right of kings to absolute power.  When the leaders of the Thirteen Colonies sought to articulate the weight of their oppression and the justice of their cause, they turned to John Locke for guidance.  Here is what John Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Civil Government:

 

The delivery also of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another. (Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter XIX, sect. 217; http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr19.htm)

 

Since the 300 year old English can be a little clumsy to the modern ear, please allow me to rephrase:  When the leader of a nation, whether it be the Executive or the Legislative branch of the government, turns power over to a foreign government, that nation has dissolved, and the citizens are on their own to live as individuals, or to join together, take up arms to defend themselves, and to form a new government more responsive to their will.  That is the threat under which we now live:  the end of the United States of America.  And just as John Locke’s words justified a revolution on the far shores of the Atlantic eighty-six years later, there will be people who will say that they justify another one, should you, Senator McConnell, and your fellow leaders, allow this nation to hand its elections over to a foreign power.

I do not exaggerate when I say the United States faces an existential threat.  Here we are, threatened with the loss of our nation’s ability to control its own affairs in its own borders, while the Executive branch is focused instead on justifying the President’s fantasies of popularity and the Legislative branch is focused on passing legislation which the voters do not want and which don’t matter two whits if we cannot say with confidence that our nation is really ours.  Your behavior is as if the nation’s capital were again being burned to the ground by an invading army, and Congress were busy planning for the coming Cherry Blossom Festival.  What will future generations say, when our children or grandchildren ask how it came about that a mighty nation, at the height of its power, suddenly fell into subjugation and humiliation?  How will you be remembered, who allowed this to happen?

Put aside all this nonsense and distraction.  Health care will wait another year.  Tax reform will wait.  These things may flatter the Republican ego, allowing you to feel like you won over the Democrats; but only a fool fights in a burning house.  Focus your attention on something that will actually get bipartisan support, something that might actually unite our troubled nation, and something that actually matters.  Form a bipartisan, independent commission to discover what the Department of Homeland Security seems so uninterested in:  what the Russians are doing to influence state and national elections, and how to stop them.

Thank you for your time.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

May 9, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

 

Platonic politics seems very distant from “the American way,” so distant that we may wonder if it has anything at all to teach us. But as one of the earliest attempts at rational political theory, it is also the source of some of our deepest principles. Most fundamentally, Republic’s politics are rooted in the notion of the leaders as public servants. Plato’s rulers were to live entirely on the public dime, and that dime was supplying their daily bread—not caviar. They were to have simple food, simple clothes, no private property of any kind. Even family was denied them; children were to be raised by the community. This may seem insane today, but in Plato’s day it wasn’t so far from the actual society of Sparta. The main difference between Sparta and Plato’s ideal society, as he himself says, is that the Spartans were no philosophers. Plato believed that philosophy was essential to full human achievement and to the sound running of a society. A society led without a moral sense would inevitably collapse into corruption and tyranny, so the leaders had to be as philosophically devout as they were socially dedicated. Furthermore, in Plato’s day “philosophy” included areas of thought that we would today consider very separate subjects: engineering, mathematics, and natural science were all areas investigated first by “philosophers.” Music is math in action, turning physical ratios such as length of string on a lyre into audible harmonies; so his philosophers had to study and practice music as well. History and drama help us understand the human condition and explore moral truths, so philosophy would include knowledge of what we broadly call “arts and humanities.” All of these would be strictly disciplined, turned to the service of promoting social order; but while actual Sparta had little use for all this art and thinking, Plato’s republic would put them at the center of education for future leaders. They would not be warrior-ascetics like the Spartans, but philosopher-warriors. But like the Spartans, Plato’s rulers would not only sacrifice their comforts, but if necessary even their lives for the good of the State, serving as guardians and auxiliaries, a lean, mean professional army to be used not for conquest, but ruthlessly in self-defense.

The second lesson Plato teaches is the importance of expertise. No one can be good at everything; different people have different abilities and different motivations. Some will be delighted by a life of public service; others will see no point in a life lived for anything except their own pleasure. In Plato’s world, those who want to make money and build businesses would do so, and their acquisitive instincts would be turned to the good of society as a whole; someone has to make the weapons the soldiers use to guard the nation, or raise the food that feeds the philosopher rulers. Those who want to serve and who crave excitement and prestige will become lifelong auxiliaries, professional soldiers and police defending and enforcing the laws created by the philosophers. And those with the philosophical temperament and mental ability to wisely lead would be given the job of thinking and making laws for the society.   One of the things that separates human society from the much less successful social structures of other primates is the notion of a division of labor. Chimpanzees work entirely on a dominance model of leadership; the bigger and stronger become alphas until deposed. Among humans, leadership often rests more on expertise and the prestige it affords; people listen to someone who knows what he or she is talking about. They also listen to the one who can bully or punish, or more broadly can impose an agenda rather than solicit one from the group; so among humans the “dominance” and the “expertise” models of leadership often compete. No alpha male chimp takes advice from a weaker subject, nor does he fear being undermined by someone who can make better tools. Human leaders may organize and rely on those with expertise in different areas, or they may see the “eggheads” as threats to be slapped down or kicked out of the group. In Plato’s world, expertise rules; the “alpha male” personality would, in his view, be too passionate and irrational to be allowed power. Better to let him be a warrior if he can obey orders, or let him build a business, so long as he doesn’t actually undermine the State.

But “the American way” is only distantly descended from Plato’s republic, as this passed through Augustine’s civitas Dei to Aquinas and Luther and other Christian political thinkers, thence to the Enlightenment and John Locke. In Locke, both dominance and expertise are modified, and in fact he is not creating an “ideal society” at all; he is proposing principles for real people living in real civil society. And in this, the government’s job is to discern and fulfill the collective will of the community. The would-be alpha must persuade others to follow; the expert must teach and sell his or her thoughts in the marketplace of ideas; both models of leadership ultimately rest on getting people to agree to be led, which means a combination of persuading them where to go and agreeing to lead them where they ultimately say they want to go. The ultimate leader is not the king, or the Prime Minister; it is the voter. As with Plato, in Locke’s view the political leader is a public servant. Despite their differences, as we saw before, they have very similar views of what the bad government, tyranny, looks like: the true leader is a public servant working for the good of society, while the tyrant expects the society to work to his (or her) own profit.

Thus, in a civil society all citizens are both subject and ruler, making and obeying the laws. No one is above the law and no one is too lowly to help write the laws all will obey. One of the inalienable rights of all human beings is liberty; we may agree to obey the will of the majority, but only because we also had a part in making the decision. Even when the citizen is outvoted, the government is still an expression of his or her will, created by the process of voting and debating in which all have their part.

Furthermore, anyone who chooses not to vote is eo ipso choosing the part of a slave, letting others make the essential decisions. If voting is the way individual liberty is expressed in a civil society, to not vote is to not be free. This idea, however, raises other questions. Logically, does freedom have to be exercised to be real, or can it be merely potential? What if one likes none of the options one is asked to choose between? Or, what if (as often happens) there is only one candidate for a position? And what if the voting rules are written or the voting maps are drawn in such a way that one’s vote is rendered powerless?

There needs to be a way to vote “none of the above” in an election. The wise parent asks the child, “Do you want your red shoes or your blue shoes?” The important point, wearing shoes, is not left to a vote. For adults, this is not acceptable, for it is no choice at all. It is “managed democracy,” not real democracy.[1] It is intended, as is the choice offered the child, to give the appearance of freedom while denying the substance. The difference is that the child is not a fully rational being, and the parent is guiding the child towards becoming a fully free and rational adult in the future by giving “practice” choices. The autocrat is trying to create the illusion of freedom while denying true choice to the citizen. Allowing voters to say “none of the above” allows them to express their displeasure. Even if this no-confidence vote has no formal sanction attached, at least it informs the leaders that the people are not in fact endorsing through silence. This is, however, only a first step. The fact is that, politically speaking, freedom is only real when there is a viable way it can be expressed. Politicians, like anyone, want job security, and generally will try to find ways to win reelection beyond simply asking what the voters want and then delivering it. Democracy is, after all, “rule by the people;” thus it is not always in the interests of the current leadership, regardless of party or factional allegiance. Democracy is, essentially, the periodic opportunity for peaceful revolution, to eliminate the need for violent transfers of power. Those who currently hold power may not want to transfer it. But democracy is always in the interests of the society itself, simply because it is a way to resolve conflicts without chaos and bloodshed. Thus, politicians will always be tempted to gerrymander, to mislead, and to obstruct the right to vote. They may not even consciously recognize that this is self-serving; instead, sometimes they say that voting is a privilege, or that some people vote “wrong” and thus should be discouraged from voting until they “grow up” and “understand better what it means to be an American.”[2] Even today, some argue that voting age should be raised back to 21 or even 25.[3] And others have argued that women should not have the right to vote.[4] The arguments in these and similar instances are that voting is a privilege which must be earned, and that people who are likely to make the wrong choices shouldn’t be granted that privilege. This is the very opposite of the idea advocated by Locke and repeated by the leaders of the American Revolution, that the right to vote is an expression of freedom and freedom is a natural right.[5]

I believe it should be clear now that these efforts at voter suppression are the very opposite of what “The United States of America” is supposedly about, and in fact could have tragic, violent consequences. The U.S. political conversation has always been controlled by the debate between paternalism, represented by Plato, versus participation as advocated by Locke. In practice, paternalistic language has often been a cover for tyrannical agendas. I would say that the paternalism/participation debate is more fundamental than the so-called “conservative” versus “liberal” polarization that gets so much press. The question of whether the people should have a voice in running things, or should be controlled by leaders who claim moral or intellectual superiority, is the first question that must be settled; after deciding how to decide, a society can then address the conservative/liberal debate. That is what the Founding Fathers believed, and that commitment to participation is an essential part of American politics. It is the air we have breathed since the Revolution itself. It is as much a part of our political DNA as the oxygen we breath is part of our blood. And the logic of participation, as bequeathed to us by John Locke, is perfectly clear: a government that does not allow you to vote is not your government. Any person or institution that seeks to deny you the right to vote, or to render that right impotent —because you are likely to vote for the “wrong” party, because you are black or poor or female or non-Christian or your parents immigrated here more recently than theirs, or for any other reason not obviously related to your incapacity as an individual person—- is your enemy, is at war against you, and you have a natural right to resist such an attack with violence if necessary. Democracy is the alternative to civil war; to try to thwart, suppress, or subvert it is to attack the peacekeeping and problem-solving ability of the society, and to leave civil war the only choice for those shut out of full participation. Currently in the U.S. the largest, best-organized, best-funded and most dedicated group working to suppress democracy is the Republican Party. Repeated investigations have found that so-called “voter I.D.” laws are aimed solely at denying legal American citizens the right to vote.[6] Repeated legal rulings and investigations have shown that these laws are not addressing any real problem but are solely intended to stop the “wrong” people from voting. Even Republicans, when faced with their President’s claim of widespread voter fraud, publicly admitted that there is no evidence that widespread fraud exists.[7] Attacks on the very concept of factual reality, reliance on “alternative truths” and other such gaslighting of the public are another way to undermine functioning democracy. And while the language of paternalism is used, the actual practice has been what both paternalists and participationists would define as tyranny: authoritarianism, cliquishness, government by power and intimidation rather than by expertise and wisdom, dishonesty, and profit-making by the ruling family and its hangers-on.

There are some who would ask, “Who cares about what some musty old philosophy book says?” Philosophy matters, especially to non-philosophers. There is a dialogue between philosophy and the wider culture. Thinkers look at the world, distil the essence of trends and notions around them, make unconscious assumptions visible and conscious, and occasionally invent novel solutions to problems and conflicts. The ideas they present are in turn taken up by law schools and courts, by seminaries and divinity schools, and by writers and other artists, and become part of the legislative processes and the popular culture. So it matters, deeply, what John Locke has to say about government by the people. These ideas are the original programming of our nation, and they will continue to run when activated, as long as America is America.

There is government that encourages the people to speak and works to give them voice, or there is tyranny, war of the government against the people. The people may tolerate a state of cold war or siege war for a long time, as long as things run smoothly; but when things turn sour, as they inevitably will, the final resolution is revolution. The only escape from future political violence is present action to strengthen democracy, even (especially!) at the risk of political and social change brought on by empowering everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “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.” The government that seeks to deny millions of its citizens these rights that Americans have been taught to regard as “inalienable” will itself alienate those citizens, and risks the same response King George received.

[1] Nicholay Petrov and Micahel McFaul, “The Essence of Putin’s Managed Democracy;” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 18, 2005 (http://carnegieendowment.org/2005/10/18/essence-of-putin-s-managed-democracy-event-819)

[2] For examples, see Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/) So-called liberal politicians are also inclined to such sentiments as well.

[3] Austin Frank, “We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age—We Should Raise It: People Under 25 Shouldn’t Vote;” Today in Politics February 9, 2017 (https://tipolitics.com/we-shouldnt-lower-the-voting-age-we-should-raise-it-579a07c3152b)

[4] Mikayla Bean, “Ann Coulter says ‘Women Should Not Have the Right to Vote,’ but ‘They Can Still Write Books.’ Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, June 11, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/ann-coulter-women-should-not-have-the-right-to-vote-but-they-can-still-write-books/)

[5] Granted, this was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, and not universally held even by all the Founding Fathers. Like the right of non-whites and women to vote, the right of the poor to vote was certainly implied by that “all “men” are created equal” idea, but only made explicit later in amendments. Today, however, it is explicit: all American citizens have the right to vote, and that is what it means to be a citizen. For more discussion, see Garrett Epps, “Voting: Right or Privilege?” The Atlantic September 18, 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/09/voting-right-or-privilege/262511/)

[6] Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, “Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina’s Voter I.D. Law;” Washington Post June 29, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/appeals-court-strikes-down-north-carolinas-voter-id-law/2016/07/29/810b5844-4f72-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html?utm_term=.a7c4d7d5bca2)

[7] Reuters, “Republicans Unenthused Over Trump’s Voter Fraud Claims;” Newsweek January 25, 2017 (http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-voter-fraud-republicans-congress-election-fraud-548277)

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

March 19, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

 

Common sense is not so common.

—-Voltaire

 

 

The Founding Fathers of this nation were, by and large, well-read men. They knew their philosophical heritage. Interest in Aristotle declined in the 1600s and 1700s, the period known at The Enlightenment, because Aristotle was associated with medieval, Church-controlled teaching. Plato was seen as free from the ecclesiastical baggage and restrictions, and even those who did not agree with his rationalist idealism were familiar with his works. In Britain, a new school of philosophy, Empiricism, arose, devoted to a strict attention to the information given by the senses (which Plato would have despised) and to the ideal of inquiry into truth through careful conceptual analysis (which he would have approved). Plato was, in many ways, the father of Western philosophy; John Locke was the father of modern Anglo-American philosophy. It is thus fitting to consider how the political philosophies of these two very different thinkers can shed light on the nation begun by their intellectual descendents.

Democracy, or “rule by the people,” is dedicated to the ideal that all citizens should have part in running the government. That is the ideal, or the horizon; in practice, often democracies have fallen short, and limited the status of “citizen” to a smaller group. The first democracy, Athens, excluded most of its population: women, slaves, even long-time foreigners could not vote, address the assembly, or exercise even basic rights. But still, Athens extended political power from a small aristocracy to a much larger group, and later intellectuals would seek to extend the ideal of equality still further. For his part, Plato thought all this “equality” was a terrible idea. Democracy, after all, killed Socrates; Anaxagoras and other philosophers were also persecuted by “the many.” If you want something done well, you get someone who knows how to do it; a ship’s captain doesn’t take a vote from the sailors, and the captain of the ship of state shouldn’t either. Most people are simply too irrational and too uninformed to govern responsibly or effectively. Instead, government should be run by a well-educated elite, who sacrificed their own material prosperity for the duty of governing a country that would take care of its citizens, as the philosopher-king determined was best. Stupid people simply should not have a right to vote; to allow the corruptible majority that sort of power is to open the door to tyranny.

Two thousand years later, John Locke came to the opposite conclusion. In his view, all people are basically rational, and thus all should have some voice in the government; and all are also corruptible, and thus none can really be trusted with unchecked power. Therefore, he argued that the state should be run by a government with separate institutions for executive, legislative and judicial functions, independent but interacting to create and enforce laws written according to the collective will of the people. A true government is one that governs for the good of the people and protects their interests as they have expressed them through a process of voting and choosing representatives; when government starts to ignore their will, it collapses into tyranny. Therefore, it is important that as many people as possible be able to make their voices heard through some sort of democratically-elected body of representatives.

Yet, despite their differences, there are some points on which Plato and Locke can agree. In different ways, both have checks and balances on the political power of the governing powers. For Plato, political power is separated from economic power. The leaders are “public servants” in the very real sense that they are on the public payroll. They are not allowed to extort luxuries for themselves; in fact, they are to live lives of great material simplicity. For Locke, the balancing of power comes from each individual being essentially a free person, who is understood as yielding only some rights for the sake of communal life. Each has a right to the products of his or her own labor, and furthermore each has a right to vote for representatives who will speak for them all in the legislative assembly. There is an economic check on the power of the government, as well as the political one provided by the vote. Both Plato and Locke understand the danger of tyranny, and have similar descriptions of the tyrant: a person or possibly a clique, governing not for the sake of the people but primarily for the sake and benefit of the tyrant only. For the tyrant, running the government is a means of personal profit; even when the tyrant makes laws that benefit others, it is always as an expression solely of the tyrant’s own will and for the tyrant’s benefit.

A tyranny might benefit others to gain their support, as when an apartheid government caters not just to the political leaders but also to the powerful minority that supports them. It is also possible that the Leader might have whims that benefit the people. The tyrant might like growing things and establish parks where the people also can relax, or value learning and therefore establish universities. Still, the fact that Hitler gave us the autobahn does not do much to improve our view of his tyranny. The definitive element of tyranny is that the private will and interests of the Leader become the governing force of the society. Tyrants do not distinguish between personal affairs and affairs of State; the government exists to fulfill the wishes of the Leader, and the Leader and cronies feel entitled to profit from it. Personal slights or political rivalries are treated as betrayals of the State itself, prompting threats of legal and extralegal retaliation. Plato and Locke had their experiences with tyrants, and despite their very different philosophies and very different historical circumstances they agree fairly well on the nature of a tyrant.

They disagree, radically, on how to prevent tyranny, and that suggests ways in which they view tyranny differently. For Plato, the problem is money; good governments are those that strictly limit how much property the leaders can own, requiring them to live and eat together, at government expense but also control. His real-world analog was Sparta, where the political leadership lived like soldiers on campaign, wearing simple clothes and eating plain, sustaining food. When political leaders can earn profits, Plato says, they will inevitably begin to mix their personal business with the nation’s business. A democracy that allows everyone to own property and to exercise political power will have as many tyrants as it has citizens, all competing to pervert the common good for their own benefit, until finally one tyrant wins out. Instead, the political/military aspects of the society must be firmly in control, but also separated from personal profits that motivate most people.

Locke does say that the leaders of a civil society must act according to the needs of the nation, not the profits of the leadership. However, he sees the threat as coming more from the tyrant’s overreach of power. After all, everyone has a God-given right to private property. To limit the ability of any one person or group to become tyrannical, Locke seeks to divide the power of government between different institutions; and the legislative branch in particular is to be controlled by elected representatives of the people, to make laws that reflect the will of the majority. It is when this separation of powers breaks down, and one person emerges who is able to usurp and combine the legislative, judicial and executive functions, that individual (or perhaps small group) is able to bend the government to the personal profit of the tyrant. So for Plato, money corrupts, and it is the power of money that threatens to undermine government; for Locke, power corrupts, and it is that political corruption that allows profiteering and graft.

Has one or the other proved more convincing over the course of history? Plato’s ideal society, with an elite ruling over the many, has been seen as giving comfort to tyrants, who are apt to imagine themselves as the philosopher-king he describes even when their own personal lives stray far from that ideal. And in fact, tyrants and would-be tyrants did come from among the disciples of Plato, notably including the Greek tyrant in Syracuse, Dionysius II. It is easy, it seems, to find followers who will adopt Plato’s recommendations against democracy, free speech and the rest, but harder to find those who will go all the way and renounce personal comfort and wealth in return for being granted leadership.

Locke’s heritage has been more concretely successful. The United States was founded largely by students of Locke, who implemented many of his recommendations. In turn, later British and European governments began to move more towards Locke’s vision of a limited monarchy, an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, until that has become the dominant form of government in Europe and in many other industrialized countries. While Lockean democracy has often fallen short, and occasionally staggered, rarely has it utterly fallen into tyranny. And at least rhetorically, popular sovereignty is the standard which our politicians profess to follow.

In practice, though, the actual commitment of politicians to Locke’s ideals seems less at times than their professed devotion. This is not merely to say that many would-be tyrants are less than honest about their ambitions; it is to say that while many U.S. politicians may claim to adhere to Jeffersonian ideas of democracy derived largely from John Locke, in practice they seem to think they are Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Plato favored censorship of the arts to avoid arousing the passions; conservatives in the U.S. seek to classify pornography as a public health threat (more so even than childhood obesity or chronic homelessness) so it can be restricted. Plato sought to limit participation in government to an elite that would preserve the social order; conservatives in the U.S. have argued for at least thirty years that “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” and thus sought to disenfranchise millions of Americans.[1] This temptation towards elitism (whether the “elite” is defined educationally, racially or whatever) is certainly not limited to conservatives; when I was in college, the most cliquish and self-serving of the student politicians were avowed liberals. They were all political science majors, looking forward to careers in politics or political law. Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, was a particular favorite of theirs, based on their writing in the student newspaper. Their argument was that everyone else was such a narcissist that it was up to them, the self-sacrificing student government, to run things for our good, and the rest of the citizens should just sit back and be grateful—and quiet. I guess the difference is that conservatives in the U.S. seem to have read 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale and thought they sounded pretty good, while liberals are more likely trying to recreate Brave New World. None, alas, are really trying to establish Plato’s ideal society, for they all lack the one essential requirement: complete denial of private property to leaders. In that regard, they all claim to be guardians but are in fact more like tyrants.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about Plato’s advice. Shouldn’t social decisions be made by the best educated, most clever and imaginative persons possible? And shouldn’t people who agree to serve do so out of love for the country, rather than hopes of personal gain? And isn’t it a fact that “common sense is not so common,” and that in fact the majority are not either capable or inclined to be effective leaders of society?

This, in fact, is the real difference between Plato and Locke. Plato thought that rationality is pretty rare; most people are ruled by their appetites, and therefore a society that is ruled by the many will be ruled by appetite rather than reason. Locke thought that reason was, if not universal, at least common to most people. He said that reason is the law even in the state of Nature where there is no formal law; even without police and prisons, we more or less know right and wrong and are inclined to do what is right and reasonable. We may disagree, particularly in our own interests, and that is a second element in Locke’s philosophical anthropology: human nature is always mixed. Plato famously argued that the soul has three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Reason strives for truth; appetite strives for self-gratification; and between them, spirit strives for personal honor and acclaim. Some people, he said, are motivated by their reason, a greater number by their appetite; but some are willing to forgo pleasure for the badges and parades and admiring looks that a brave, self-sacrificing life earns. Locke on the other hand assumes that people are rational and irrational at the same time, liable to self-indulgence and partisanship but also capable of social and practical reasoning. For this reason they can live in a free society where everyone has a voice, since all have something to contribute, but at the same time they need a society because in a state of complete anarchy they would find it too difficult to judge impartially between themselves and their neighbors. The civil society that Locke imagines gives a framework for the exercise of liberty, protecting it against both tyranny and selfish excess.

Since both the Platonic and the Lockean philosophies agree on the danger of tyranny, and both agree that a form of separation of powers is the best way to guard against it, we can accept this as our starting point. Plato’s model, separation of leadership from property, simply has not worked; even he admits as much when he discusses how even Sparta struggles to curb the acquisitiveness of its leaders. Locke’s plan to have separate branches of government, each checking the other so no one person can easily seize total power and become a tyrant, has had more success. Furthermore, as our history has shown by the ever-expanding right to vote, Locke’s philosophy is capable of self-correction and growth. And it is, simply, “the American way.” Our nation was founded, and our Constitution written by people who believed in Locke’s basic insights and who sought to create laws that would bring them to fruition.

Should stupid people be allowed to vote? I follow Locke here: yes! We are all stupid, at least at times, and are almost all capable of reason, at least at times. But more to the point, to deny anyone the right to vote is to put the state at war with that person. Anyone who cannot vote is little more than a conquered subject, not a citizen. A stable society is one where as many people as possible participate and have a stake in the decision, and in the success of the society as an ongoing project. And conversely, a society that denies a sizeable segment of its population the rights of citizenship, and most importantly the right to have a part in writing the laws, creates an enemy in its midst, an enemy that contributes to the economic health of the society and thus cannot simply be ignored or ejected, but who has no good reason to support that society. To be denied the vote is to be a slave, with all the injustice, and all the instability, and all the perverse dependence of the “master” on the “slave” that this entails.

[1] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People To Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

When the Chef Thinks Like a Customer

March 4, 2017

Just when people are saying that Trump is being “presidential” at last (about the fifth time they’ve said that[1]), he unleashes another seemingly unhinged tweetstorm. Less than 48 hours since his most recent “pivot,” Trump has begun accusing former President Obama of wiretapping him.[2] Most news sources politely note that he makes this accusation “without evidence,” since “pulls another insane rant out of his ass” sounds a little too blunt. As one spokesperson was quoted saying, “This is Trump being Trump.” Jesus of Nazareth said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”[3] Some say he is a bully; others say he is mentally unhinged, paranoid and a malignant narcissist. What is clear is that there was not, nor will there be, a “pivot.” As Obama said before leaving office, being President doesn’t change who you are; if anything, it makes you more of what you are. Or, as CNN reports:

 

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is also probing the scope of Russia’s influence on the US election, said in a statement Saturday afternoon in reference to one of Trump’s tweets: “If there is something bad or sick going on, it is the willingness of the nation’s chief executive to make the most outlandish and destructive claims without providing a scintilla of evidence to support them.

“No matter how much we hope and pray that this President will grow into one who respects and understands the Constitution, separation of powers, role of a free press, responsibilities as the leader of the free world, or demonstrates even the most basic regard for the truth, we must now accept that President Trump will never become that man,” Schiff said.[4]

 

 

Sen. Lindsey Graham has largely echoed this same notion, saying that if the wiretaps did happen it is one of the greatest political crimes in our history, and if it didn’t and the charges are baseless, then this itself would be the greatest crime in political history; so either way, it demands a full and complete investigation. This certainly seems to be still another random, emotion-driven and logic-deprived outburst from a man who has made a career on baseless charges against others, false claims about himself and the products he’s peddling, and so many frivolous lawsuits that he’s been termed a “libel bully.”

But perhaps there’s another explanation, besides either insanity or criminality.[5] Perhaps Trump simply reacts to whatever he hears on the news; and more specifically, the far-right blogs and talk radio that endlessly praise him, since anything less than uninterrupted groveling strikes him as “fake news.” When Trump heard a biased and misleading report on FOX News about a supposed link between immigration and crime in Sweden, Trump famously tweeted out about “what happened in Sweden last night” and asked why no one was reporting about that. The problem was, no one was reporting because there was nothing to report. Again, today, Trump heard an unsubstantiated rant from a talk-radio host hypothesizing that Obama “must” have wiretapped Trump, and Trump took this claim (which had no evidence) as itself “proof” that Obama was “sick.”

As Trevor Noah pointed out, Trump avidly consumes cable news, particularly FOX News, which gives the most favorable reports about him.[6] This is crazy, as Noah says, because the only reason we watch TV news is because we DON’T have access to all the information the President has: daily intelligence briefings, classified reports and so on. He is supposed to be making the news; instead, he is merely another consumer, no better than the rest of us and, in many cases, far worse, because he lacks the context, the background knowledge, the humility, or the impulse control to avoid publicly overreacting to reports that are obviously unsubstantiated at best, and Sasquatch-level fakes at worst.

Donald Trump is like a chef at a five-star restaurant, who got hired despite a lack of cooking experience or training because he had family connections and friends who vouched for him. Now he is supposed to be producing the best food anyone has ever tasted, to maintain the restaurant’s hard-earned reputation as a prime provider of quality taste and nutrition. Sadly, he has no idea how to do that. He could ask someone to bring him up to speed, so that he can produce at least passable dishes on his own; but instead, he orders out, gets other people’s food which someone else has prepared, and presents it as his own. And unfortunately, his head is stuffed up and thus he can’t smell or taste anything, so he really doesn’t know good food from bad; he only knows that McDonald’s is quick and easy, and he likes things that are quick, easy and predictable. So he goes to whatever information fast-food franchise he finds, including sources that claim fictitious terrorist attacks or that the Sandy Hoot massacre was a hoax, and retweets and blows up as if these things were the voice of God Himself, like a bad chef who buys day-old fishwiches from McD’s and serves them as trout almandine at his five-star restaurant.

Now, if you prefer McD’s to the Four Seasons, that’s fine. And if you prefer talk radio to news that has been vetted and fact-checked and will actually retract a mistake, it’s a free country. But when you’re President of the United States, you don’t consume the news: you make it. You make it from the raw materials of real-life events, presented for your eyes only by some of the best intelligence agencies, scientists, doctors and other experts on the planet. You have a responsibility not to blindly believe or impulsively react to what you read in the press, because you make the news and you know more than whatever the guy on the TV or radio is saying.

This is a pattern, and it reveals something important about Donald Trump’s character. Repeatedly, he has said or tweeted something that was unfounded, obviously false or at least ill-advised, in a knee-jerk reaction to something he heard. And when he is called on it, one of his more usual responses is “Someone gave me that information,” or “Many people are saying it.” In other words, he naively trusts anyone who flatters him, and then dodges responsibility because someone else said it to him, and how could he possibly be expected to know better?

It wouldn’t be hard, for an adult, a mature and intelligent person, to simply stay off Twitter, not give public speeches that haven’t been fact-checked, and in general to stop acting like a buffoon. But that would require being a chef at the information restaurant, and not a customer. And in this case, the new chef was hired because the restaurant apparently wanted to go in a “new direction;” consistently high-quality food was boring, so they brought in the winner of the Great American Bake-Off to take over rather than hire someone who trained at an actual culinary school or had worked in a kitchen before. This was supposed to “shake things up,” to “disrupt the usual model,” or to “change things.” The new head chef needs to rely on the sous chefs about what generally works, and on the wait-staff to tell him how the new dishes are being received, and so on. Eventually, he would learn both what the “usual rules” are and when to break them productively and strategically. However, that would require humility, a willingness to ask questions and take advice even from people whom he beat for the job of chef. So, instead, he orders out, buying what he is supposed to make himself: policies, and the original information on which policies are based.

And to finish this metaphor: No doubt, there will be many new customers who think that it is just great that the once-fancy five-star restaurant now serves well-done steaks with catsup, rather than the flavorful chateaubriand that make it famous. Some will be glad to eat at a restaurant that doesn’t make them feel like bad cooks because they could never do what the restaurant does; now, the food is no different than what they cook themselves, maybe even a little worse. Perhaps only the real foodies will realize immediately that the once-great restaurant is dying under its new chef, and that the only reason it has lasted this long is because of its reputation and the money it has in the bank. But sooner or later, something will happen that requires a confident, competent chef in the kitchen, and then everyone will know.

[1]   Domenico Montanaro, “Stop Using the Word ‘Pivot:’ Trump is Trump and Always Will Be Trump;”NPR March 4, 2017 (http://www.npr.org/2017/03/04/518326280/stop-using-the-word-pivot-trump-is-trump-and-will-always-be-trump)

[2] Colin Dwyer, “President Trump Accuses Obama of ‘Wire Tapping, Provides No Evidence.” NPR March 4, 2017 (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/03/04/518478158/president-trump-accuses-obama-of-wire-tapping-provides-no-evidence)

[3] Luke 6:45

[4] Jeremy DiamondJeff Zeleny and Shimon Prokupecz, “Trump’s Baseless Wiretap Claim,” CNN March 4, 2017 (http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/04/politics/trump-obama-wiretap-tweet/index.html)

 

[5] Brian Stetler, “Stelter: Far-right Media May Fuel Trump Claims;” ;” CNN March 4, 2017 (http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/03/04/stelter-trump-wiretapping-right-wing-media-sot-nr.cnn)

[6] “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central, January 26, 2017 (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/ujnxnv/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-welcome-to-president-trump-s-reality)

An Open Letter to Senator Rand Paul, Republican/KY

February 18, 2017

Hello Everyone:

I wrote Sen. Paul an e-mail, because his office has stopped picking up their phone for calls from voters and his voicemail box is full, asking him to support the movement within the Senate to investigate Donald Trump’s collusion with Russian spy services to subvert the American election the way Russia has corrupted or sought to corrupt elections throughout the free world.  In exchange, I got a newsletter ignoring my original concerns, and instead praising Sen. Paul’s efforts to weaken environmental protections (enjoy your leaded water!), to “broaden the tax base” by shifting taxes away from the rich and onto the middle class and the poor, and to ram through even the least competent of #Dolt45’s Cabinet appointees without even a tenth of the “extreme vetting” that seems appropriate for a Syrian infant escaping bombing by Russian jets.

I attempted to respond to Sen Paul’s newsletter, but, big surprise, the reply bounced.  It seems he doesn’t want to hear from his constituents in that manner either; he only wants us to shut up and listen.  Rather than let my efforts go totally to waste, I’m posting my reply to him here.

Dear Sen. Rand Paul, and whatever staffer might happen to get this message: