31 March 2015

No time for 'politeness of the soul'

Tolerance is a liberal virtue, if not the supreme liberal virtue. Liberal societies pride themselves -- or at least our society does -- for their tolerance of intolerance. Liberals like to say their tolerance proves that they fear nothing, that it shows their own strength and confidence when they let Nazis and Klansmen march in public. But their tolerance may also reflect a certain moral fear of coercion as the ultimate betrayal of their principles and their self-regard. Yet much of what liberals see as the progress of civilization has been achieved through forms of coercion, or else has provoked protests against coercion from the vested interests who have resisted change. The labor movement rose to its height of power through the coercive power of strikes and later with the coercive support of governments, and an abhorrence of coercion today may inhibit workers from reclaiming that power. Southerners and people elsewhere in the U.S. were coerced into desegregation, if not literally at gunpoint then simply because laws now required them to do what they preferred not to. Democracy itself is implicitly coercive to the extent that the will of the many binds the few. Now, amid the backlash against Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its perceived empowerment of homophobic discrimination, a counter-backlash warns against coercion by the gay-rights movement. Many observers have lamented how the once-uncontroversial original federal RFRA, which in many cases has protected actually disadvantaged religious minorities, has become a lightning rod little more than twenty years after its passage. Labels guide discussion; if the gay-rights movement opposes RFRA laws in the states, doesn't it oppose religious freedom itself? In the New York Times, David Brooks, a conservative who writes for a liberal audience, urges the course of true liberalism: tolerance of intolerance. For Brooks this is the moral option, according to this week's definition of morality as "a politeness of the soul" that in pluralistic societies aims to "turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems" and seeks "creative accommodation" of "different values [that] disagree." He offers analogies from Jewish experience: Conservative Jews learn to tolerate Orthodox practices that may seem offensive. On the issue of gay rights and religious freedom, Brooks warns that "a movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side" of coercion, especially when it takes a disproportionately punitive form like the six-figure fine a bakery may pay for refusing to bake a same-sex wedding cake. What Brooks seems to be asking is that the gay-rights movement recognize homophobia (though he probably wouldn't call it that) as a "philosophical difference" that should be respected both on an intellectual level and as a liberal imperative.

Like many commentators, Brooks has succumbed to the religious right's hyperbole and seems to accept the premise that resistance to gay equality is a religious obligation. This is the very point I've been questioning for some time. Did the dissident bakers believe they would go to hell if they baked that cake? I doubt it.  Is making the cake morally equivalent to worshiping the emperor in Rome? I doubt that. Unless they can convince me that they did feel this way and had scriptural reason to do so, their refusal of service was a political act rather than an exercise of religion. While common sense always asks whether the wedding planners couldn't find another baker, or whether the bakery's offense deserves such a pricey penalty, it should also ask whether freedom of religion was really at stake in the dispute. If the religious right or the Republican party wants to insist that it was, and is, then they're on the slippery slope to Christianism and moral equivalence with those Muslims who declare jihad a religious obligation of each individual Muslim. The easy way out for everyone, with the least cost to freedom of religion, would be to deny homophobia the dignity of a religious obligation. But since the religious right apparently sees this issue as a Here I Stand moment, they'll have to deal with the opposition's refusal to elevate homophobia to the dignity of a "philosophical difference." However troubling the truth may be for liberals, there's no escaping the revolutionary character of the moment. The gay-rights movement is intolerant in the same way any revolution is intolerant, for good or ill, in its refusal to concede any good reason, even in theory, to dispute gay equality. The RFRA movement forces the issue by appealing inappropriately to religious freedom at a moment when the gay-rights movement sees religion as no good reason to relegate homosexuals to second-class citizenship. The gay-rights movement dares tell the world that no one has a right to question the equal humanity or equal citizenship of homosexuals. Yet this need not be a threat to religious freedom unless people choose to define their religions as essentially and imperatively homophobic. Only if discrimination against homosexuals is treated as an act of worship is the freedom of worship threatened by the gay-rights movement. That's as polite as the movement can be at this point.

Every liberal, I suppose, hears a small voice in his or her head that whispers, "What if you're wrong?" Some liberals may worry about a lack of self-questioning (if not self-doubt) in the gay-rights movement. Can homosexuals really not tolerate the possibility that they or their movement are wrong in any way? This question can be answered with a question: in what way can homosexuality be wrong? Once we've gone beyond a primitive biological determinism that assumes an individual obligation to reproduce, why should we consider sexual preference "wrong," whether it's innate or chosen? We have no reason to treat "God" as a good reason to treat the homosexual differently from the heterosexual. The Constitution or the principle of pluralism may require us to respect religion as an individual choice, but that respect doesn't oblige us to respect religious opinions on political questions. Isn't that what we want Muslims to understand? If we resist their attempts to codify their religious preferences into law, mustn't we resist attempts from any quarter, and from the majority faith especially? There is, to borrow a phrase, an implicit wall separating religious freedom from theocracy. Religious freedom today is more endangered by religions' attempts to breach this wall, which can only fall on their heads, than by any militant movement against religion. If there is a moral burden of "politeness" at this point in history, it rests on the shoulders of faith, not with those the faithful would oppress. If this be coercion, make the most of it.

30 March 2015

Indiana: after legislation comes clarification

Gay rights activists didn't take Gov. Pence of Indiana at his word when he signed his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law last week. The governor said then that he would not have signed the bill if he thought it would enable discrimination against anyone, but activists and secularists worried that the law's empowering of religious scruples as a defense against litigation would have shielded homophobes who tried to deny gays equal rights or benefits. A threat of boycotts loomed over the state, and in response the Republican majority in the legislature intends to enact a "clarification" that would amend the law to disqualify denials of service to gays (and presumably any group) from the religious-freedom defense. The governor says he will sign such a measure. The law will remain intact for what its supporters all along have considered its primary purpose: to shield businesses from litigation in state courts for refusing to subsidize abortion or birth control in their insurance packages. Following the Hobby Lobby precedent, Indiana says that women may have a right to abortion (for now) but they don't have a right to have abortions covered by their workplace insurance plans when their rights conflict with their employers' freedom of religion. It'll be interesting now to see whether the gay-rights community will declare victory and go home or whether they'll extend some empathy to others whose personal freedom is trumped unreasonably by "religious" scruples .  Whatever happens, this episode exposes the absence of a women's movement for reproductive freedom with influence and power comparable to the gay-rights community. Maybe that's to be expected, since people are probably more comfortable supporting the right of two women to marry and raise children, for instance, than the right of any woman to abort a fetus, even if the latter right is more secure (at least for now) under the Constitution.  Things look different from a more insistently secular perspective, or from any ground where the portrayal of moral scruples as "free exercise of religion" looks questionable. But I suppose that cat's been out of the bag ever since we let conscientious objectors sit out wars on religious grounds. The question for the 21st century is whether Hobby Lobby has put the principle of conscientious objection on a slippery slope and further hastened the decline of democracy in America. The grant of freedom to worship should not enable worshipers to say no to the state whenever they please. They can protest laws as they please when laws appear to contradict their values, but they should not be able to veto them, and denying them that prerogative should not be seen as compromising their freedom of worship. Given the way some people fret over a "militant" and presumably widespread atheist movement, you'd think someone could get some critical mass behind a movement for what might be called First Amendment minimalism regarding the free exercise of religion, or for the principle that religious freedom doesn't trump personal freedom. But if Indiana's impending clarification ends the controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, then don't hold your breath for anything more from the secular side.

29 March 2015

Back from Timbuktu: what more can Muslims say?

This weekend I went to see the Oscar-nominated Mauritanian movie Timbuktu, a scathing portrait of Islamist tyranny from Muslim director Abderrahman Sissako. In my review at Mondo 70 I wrote that Timbuktu is the movie American opinionators supposedly have wanted to see for a longtime: an eloquent denunciation of Islamism from a Muslim. Even taking an inevitable language barrier into consideration -- Timbuktu is one of the most polyglot movies I've ever seen -- you'd think the American media would publicize this picture more for its "this is the enemy" quality. But the movie probably lost what chance it had at that kind of push when it lost the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to Poland's Ida. Yet the more I think of it, the more I figure Americans wouldn't be satisfied with Timbuktu anyway. They might appreciate its portrayal of the many petty ways Islamists can plague a community, and the film is compelling enough on a personal level to persuade viewers that most Muslims are as bothered by busybody jihadi types as we would be. That's what we want Muslims to say, right? Right -- but it's really only part of what we want they to say. Leaving aside the Christianists here who'd really want Muslims to renounce their religion, I suspect most Americans are less interested in whether the average Muslim likes Islamists than in whether he likes us. For such people it won't be enough for Muslims to denounce Islamism in all its forms, even on a daily basis. We say we want them to denounce extremism, but what we really want, in many cases, is for them to endorse the U.S., while some would go even further and demand that they endorse Israel. Sure, these poor slobs in Mali (the location of the picture) may be sick and tired of Islamists and their bullying regulations, but for all we know they may still hate the U.S., the Jews, etc. Remember how surprised Senator Cruz was last year to learn that Syrian or Iraqi Christians, regardless of their persecution by the self-styled Islamic State, somehow did not love Israel. Recall how his empathy for them dried up instantly. That's how it'll probably be for Muslims who profess to be enemies of our enemies without being friends of our friends. George W. Bush's rule still applies, I fear: you may be against the Islamists, but if you're not with us, you're against us just the same, and if you suffer at Islamist hands as the people in Timbuktu do, maybe that's God's will, or it's just what you deserve.

27 March 2015

A Thirty Years' War in the Muslim World?

It's often said, in an attempt to explain if not excuse Muslim violence in the 20th and 21st centuries, that Islam is a younger religion than Christianity and Judaism and thus in an earlier stage of development. We're only in the 15th century of Muslim century, which dates from the hijra of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. Using the history of Christianity in Europe as a model, Islam should be on the brink of a "Reformation" period of change, turmoil and war, from which the religion as a whole should emerge less warlike and more tolerant of individual and regional differences. It's sometimes said that nothing short of an equivalent to the Thirty Years' War of Christianity's 17th century, an ultimate showdown between Catholics and Protestants, will drive home to Muslims the folly of imposing religion or denominational dominance by force. Seen in this light, it looks like that war is coming ahead of schedule. Geopolitically speaking there's been a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for some time now. The Syrian civil war has been a proxy battlefield for these two powers, with Iran, a Shiite state, supporting Syria's Alawite ruler and the Saudis supporting a largely Sunni insurgency, with the self-styled Islamic State (aka the Daesh) as the joker in the deck. Now the Saudis have intervened with air power in Yemen, where a Shiite insurgency has forced the Sunni President out of the capital, with "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" as the wild card. The Shiite Houthis have at least the moral support of Iran, where the government should be credited with some broadmindedness by regional standards. Neither the Alawites of Syria nor the Zaydi Houthis of Yemen are of the same Shiite denomination, roughly speaking, of the Iranian majority, yet Iran, seeing itself as the champion of Shiites in general, doesn't hold that against them, while Saudi Arabia has been the wellspring of increased intolerance among Sunnis. However, Iraq complicates any scenario portraying the Shiites as the good guys, since their overcompensation at Sunni expense for oppression by the Sunni/secular Baath regime created more support for the Daesh than it deserves. Also, Iran's Islamic republicanism, with its theocratic veto over elected leaders, is no model for other Shiite countries, although as far as I know the Iranians aren't pushing it as a model for Yemen or other places. The overall problem in the regime seems to be a rule-or-ruin mentality that distrusts power sharing because each tribe or sect distrusts the others. The question for the future is whether the region can learn from other regions' histories of misfortune and avoid repeating them, or whether they can only learn that whatever they're fighting over isn't worth fighting over the hard way. The question for the U.S. and Russia is whether either country can resist a temptation to help "their" sides in the larger conflict. Russia has made common cause with Iran in Syria, but it's unclear whether Putin favors Shiism in general or has a particular stake in Yemen. Americans remain convinced that Iran is evil and its influence must be limited or eliminated, so the challenge for us is see things clearly in Yemen without the screen and buzz of Iranophobia. It really should be no other country's business -- not ours or Russia's, not Iran's or the Saudis' -- how Yemen settles its internal conflicts. But the djinni is already out of the bottle there, and all we can do is hope the stain doesn't spread too far.

26 March 2015

Religious Freedom vs. Personal Freedom

Indiana has become the latest state to enact a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration law. Religious freedom is restored in these states, it seems, by requiring the courts to accept "freedom of religion" as a defense when someone gets sued for alleged faith-based violations of a plaintiff's presumed rights. The discussion of today's signing of the law by Gov. Mike Pence has been strangely disjointed. For critics, the real issue is gay rights. They fear that the new law will shield homophobes from accountability for discrimination against gay people or (and perhaps especially) gay couples. For supporters, the real issue is abortion. Pence justified his action by citing the Hobby Lobby case and other instances in which businesses or institutions faced legal action for refusing, on religious grounds, to subsidize abortion through their insurance plans. He noticed objections from homosexuals and their friends only to assert that "if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it." Nevertheless, the assumption that a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" will empower homophobia has already provoked threats of boycotts against the state. I can't feel too bad about that because I feel bad enough about the way "freedom of religion" trumps the rights of individuals in our Land of the Free.

These "restoration" acts take freedom of religion beyond the scope the Framers meant to protect. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship and protects different denominations from having to support one "established" denomination with taxes. I don't think the free exercise of religion protected by the Constitution was understood to extend to acts of "conscience" in the public sphere, though many such acts would be covered under freedom of speech or assembly. As I've written before, I don't believe that moral objections to abortion or homosexuality are so essential to religious identity that submission to state endorsement of either would count as a violation of religious freedom. I doubt Christians would get very far even with their own kind if argued that you're not in good standing with Jesus if you don't oppose abortion and/or the gay agenda. Meanwhile, the whole "anti-Shari'a" movement, silly as it appears in its paranoia about Islam, accepts the premise that simple freedom of worship isn't violated if Muslims can't impose their morals on the larger society. While some secularists may object to state action favoring religion against individual liberty because they see such action as theocratic, my view is that people aren't entitled to the sort of legal shield the restoration acts provide because their homophobia or opposition to abortion -- add your controversy if you like -- should not be recognized as religious. The Constitution ought to be clear that religion is how you worship the divine, not how you judge your fellow citizens. If you challenge the rights conferred on individuals by government and you get sued for your trouble by individuals or the government, religion should be no excuse.

25 March 2015

Is Anti-Semitism the worst form of bigotry?

David Brooks isn't the first writer to note an increase in anti-semitism around the world. Another writer got some attention recently by asking rhetorically whether Jewish people should leave Europe in the face of rising anti-semitism there. Muslims are to blame for much of this, predictably enough, but for Brooks the Jews are playing their usual scapegoat role and have given Muslims no special reason to hate them or, worse, want them dead. Brooks sees anti-semitism as almost entirely a matter of projection, the result of a widespread human need to blame an other for their troubles, be those personal or global. For anti-semites, he writes, "The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining."

The only real problem I have with this formulation is Brooks's belief that it applies only to Jews. He contends that anti-semitism isn't merely the most virulent or vicious form of bigotry, but is on an entirely other level from other forms of ethnic or religious hatred. "Most bigotry is an assertion of inferiority and speaks the language of oppression," he explains, "Anti-Semitism is an assertion of impurity and speaks the language of extermination." This is both ahistorical and inaccurate at the present time. Can't we presume that any people targeted for genocide has been subject to "the language of extermination?" The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, perhaps? The Tutsis in Rwanda more recently -- a people equated with cockroaches by their Hutu persecutors? What they suffered could not be mere bigotry by Brooks's standard. Why, then, does Brooks seem to imply that only Jews have been subject to another level of super-bigotry? Probably because he still sees the Shoah of World War II as a unique event, even though it is more quantitatively than qualitatively distinct from other sustained mass atrocities. It's more likely, I suspect, that Brooks wants to draw as stark a distinction as possible between the indisputably bloody record of anti-semitism and the alarms raised over Islamophobia around the world. He finds it necessary to argue that the Jews are still the most hated and most endangered people on earth, if not necessarily the most oppressed. On some level I think this is an answer to an inferred Muslim argument that the umma is the most oppressed people -- an argument Brooks would probably ascribe to self-pity or explain by noting Muslims' self-oppression. But let's try to keep a more careful score. Isn't it possible that despite all the attention Jew-hatred gets, more people around the world hate Muslims than hate Jews? After all, nearly every other major religion has a concentration of Islamophobes somewhere: the Jews in Israel; Christians in the U.S. and Europe; Hindus in India; Buddhists (!) in Myanmar. And given an undisputed history of Muslim violence whose relevance to the present seems more obvious to most observers than the more ancient (and more disputed) history of Hebrew violence, isn't it more likely that people around the world will see Muslims as the unique carriers of transcendent evil, moral pollution, etc? Brooks makes a big deal out of admittedly abhorrent expressions of Jew hatred by Muslim leaders, but you could probably top them by scrolling down any comment thread on any popular American news site for a story about Islam. Even on sites where comments are moderated and censored, pretty virulent opinions make it through, and it's hard to tell the difference between assertions of inferiority and assertions of impurity after a while. It may still be objectively true that anti-semitism is growing in volume and virulence, but to observe this with outrage while Islamophobia is arguably growing faster in both categories, without the same outrage from David Brooks, is suspiciously selective. It really seems like just another way to tell Muslims to shut up -- among so many these days. I'm sure Brooks himself never dreams of exterminating Muslims, but if he goes on to assume that no one has such dreams, while Jews somehow are the only people anyone dreams of exterminating, then he's kidding himself, or else he's lying to us.

24 March 2015

Cruz: Rock music responded wrong to 9/11

Senator Cruz is a gift that keeps on giving. This was apparent well before he declared for the presidency, but in the past two days he's become a cornucopia for critics. This morning he expounded on a musical conversion experience he had after the September 2011 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Perhaps strangely for a born-again, the Texan had been a rock fan until that point. But he "didn't like how rock music responded" to the terror attacks, while he discovered an affinity for country music. Hearing country music, he says now, he "had an emotional reaction that said, 'these are my people.'" Since then, it seems, he has listened to country exclusively.

Even before I could search my own memory, critics of Cruz reminded us that rock musicians were at the forefront of the big memorial fundraising show that aired on all TV major networks within days of the attacks. But to be fair to Cruz, he did not say he objected to how musicians responded. His problem was, and presumably still is, with the music, and one can infer that rock (not to mention hip-hop!) is guilty of a sin of omission. Rock, at least on the mainstream level, did not produce war songs. To be more precise, rock acts did not produce exhortations or incitements to fight a war against "the terrorists." There's no rock equivalent I know of to "Have You Forgotten?" or "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." To be fair also to country music, these songs don't represent the whole genre. I doubt whether Cruz is a big Steve Earle fan, for instance, and he most likely didn't like how the Dixie Chicks responded to the invasion of Iraq. But I suppose he gives the benefit of the doubt when he hears that twang until evidence throws an act's patriotism and authenticity into question. Of course, Cruz could simply be pandering to the same rural demographic he was implicitly courting yesterday at Liberty University. Regardless, your takeaway from this is that Cruz carries grudges against entire genres of music if they don't "respond" to important events the way he thinks they should. For someone touting his conservative Americanism and his love for liberty, that sounds downright Stalinist.

Is Liberty University a misnomer?

The libertarian Reason magazine website notes an irony to Senator Cruz's announcement of his candidacy at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. While some observers might find any equation of Falwell and liberty ironic at best, Reason's Robby Soave notes that Cruz spoke before a captive audience yesterday. He appeared during a convocation for which attendance is mandatory on pain of a fine and reprimand. This irked students who support other candidates, some of whom showed up wearing Rand Paul t-shirts. Meanwhile, in a further irony, Liberty University defends the scheduling on rather liberal grounds, arguing that convocations often are used to expose students to diverse points of view they might otherwise avoid, including heterodox religious views by Liberty's usual standard. This misses the point of the protests made by Liberty students and picked up by Reason. Cruz's announcement was a photo op above all. Appearing during a convocation with mandatory attendance created the appearance of mass spontaneous support for his presidential campaign, but required attendance renders that appearance false. I dare say that someone like Cruz probably would draw a big crowd at someplace like Liberty anyway, given his Christianist appeal and the potential historic significance of the occasion. But it seems clear that some who would have stayed away had to show up to form a more impressive backdrop for an event that was less an airing of unorthodox opinions than it was a political advertisement. This is all grimly impressive. Leave aside your judgment of anything Cruz actually said yesterday; the event was dishonest before he even opened his mouth.

23 March 2015

Cruz: 'God isn't done with America yet.'

They say location means something when you start a campaign. To this day, Democrats make a lot out of Ronald Reagan holding his first campaign rally after winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 in a town known as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. For Reagan's enemies, this could only mean that the candidate was appealing to white racists. His defenders argue that there was little in Reagan's actual speech that could be interpreted that way. The message sent by Senator Cruz of Texas in his choice of venue to launch his presidential campaign is less ambiguous. He spoke this morning at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, and his appeal was unabashedly "Christianist" if not "Protestantist."

Cruz sees born-agains as an untapped demographic if not the core of the hidden majority Republicans believe in. He noted this morning that "roughly half of born again Christians aren't voting," and while he didn't claim that they alone could tip the balance in a national election, he clearly thinks they can only make a difference for the better. He credits the survival of his parents' marriage to both of them getting born again. He implicitly credits his own faith with getting him through a tough economic time. Cruz is smart to offer his own story to young voters of any denomination. The story is that his parents went bankrupt before he went to college. He had to take out more than $100,000 in student loans and still had to work two jobs to make it through. Young people can empathize with that, but I wonder whether the empathy really goes both ways. Students should ask themselves, or ask Cruz if they get a chance, whether he feels that young people today shouldn't have to go through all that to get an education. His answer would tell a lot about him. I suspect he would say that his ordeal enhanced his character, while his faith sustained him. What follows from that is uncertain. There's something to be said for cultivating talents and traits to help you adapt to and overcome adversity. But I suspect that many Republicans feel that if they had to go through shit to get an education, so should every future generation, the alternative being some kind of decadence and a stunting of character. Cruz said nothing more about education beyond the elementary level, and on that subject he made predictable noises about school choice with an extra nod to home schooling thrown in. If he believes that an educated, truly competitive workforce for the future is a national imperative that can't be left to personal responsibility, he didn't let on at Liberty University.

What does it mean to be a Christianist politician today? It certainly doesn't make you an anti-semite, since Cruz basically promised unconditional support for Israel, or at least for the Netanyahu government. It may make you an Islamophobe, on the evidence of Cruz's promise not only to fight Islamic terrorism but to "call it by name." It definitely conditions your understanding of liberty, at least if you believe, as Cruz does, that human rights come not from man but from God, and do not extend to full equality for homosexuals. God raised two great pillars of liberty as far as Cruz is concerned: the right to live according to the New Testament and the right to make money. The only things keeping Americans out of work or holding back American entrepreneurship, he claims implicitly, are taxes and regulations. Greed, one could infer, never put anyone out of work. Let President Cruz do his thing and we'll be back to full employment promptly ... or as close to it, more likely, as the Market and/or God will allow. Let Cruz do his thing and let Jesus into your life, he argues, and you'll have no worries.

As a Christianist, Cruz believes that "God's blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation." Striking an optimistic note while working the born-again crowd, he added, "I believe God isn't done with America yet." Like many a limited-government type, Cruz invokes Thomas Jefferson, who otherwise isn't a great fit with a Christianist agenda. He had a lot to say about God, though his God might not exactly be the personal buddy Cruz claims to know. When Cruz talks about God not being finished with the U.S., I can't help thinking of something slightly similar that Jefferson wrote. The specific context is obsolete -- Jefferson was writing in his hypocritically critical way about slavery -- but a certain generality and a self-awareness of hypocrisy that seems absent in Cruz's chest beating about American supremacy haunts the old man's famous observation: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

19 March 2015

Respect me (or else) respect my religion

If John Gray wonders why atheists get so angry, stories like this one ought to remind him. In Myanmar this week -- the nation also known as Burma -- three guys who run a bar were sentenced to 30 months in jail for insulting religion. The insult took the form of a poster showing Buddha listening to headphones against a psychedelic background. News reports link the prosecution and conviction of these infidels to a surge of "Buddhist nationalism" in Myanmar, which has taken its most notorious form in the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority culture. On one hand, "Buddhist nationalism" invites a clarifying comparison with "Islamic radicalism." Does anyone think there's anything intrinsically Buddhist about this Buddhist nationalism? Do the Buddha's teachings really compel these clowns in Myanmar to demand reticence if not reverence from nonbelievers? I suspect not, strongly. To anyone with the slightest grasp of Buddhism, the idea is absurd. Yet how different is this from Islamic radicalism? I suppose we must concede that Islamic radicalism has been more violent over time (even when we add Sri Lanka to the Buddhist ledger), but to the extent that Buddhist nationalists are persecuting people in Myanmar the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative. In both cases, idiots make religion a pretext for bullying people. Maybe what's going on here can be expected where cultures don't have the sort of egotistical individualism we see in most parts of the relatively secularized Christian world. Individuals everywhere crave respect about equally, I suspect, but in some cultures people may be more inhibited about demanding that you "respect ME!" than people elsewhere. If so, maybe what you get instead are extreme demands for respect toward religion and other signifiers of identity. I've long suspected that something similar goes on wherever dictators are objectively oppressive but also authentically popular. When people demand respect for their Great Leader, they vicariously demand respect for themselves; they deserve respect because their country and their leader are strong. Obviously the more individualistic nations and cultures aren't immune from this tendency, since you can attribute the same vicarious motives to superpatriots everywhere, and you can blame it, if you wish, on the absence of a more fully developed individual personality even in places where individualism is practically the reigning ideology. A philosophical pessimist like John Gray might note that wherever individualism is less fully developed -- though Gray himself might condemn individualism as mere egotism for all I know -- religion itself isn't necessarily the reason. There needn't be an inversely proportional relationship between piety and individualism, and 20th century critics may well have been right to note that revolutions uprooted traditional religion only to replace it with cults of personality. But if you treat the worship of Great Leaders as a religious impulse we can still find fault with that impulse. It would be something less benign than the comforting illusion Gray assumes to be necessary to struggling people in a soulless world. It could even be something that mankind could aspire to suppress, if you agree that this sort of bullying piety is less likely where people have more reasonable and conscientious self-esteem. Maybe a world without religion isn't possible, but a world without "sacrilege" or "blasphemy" as excuses to oppress people should be very possible.

18 March 2015

Blockupy in Frankfurt: cowards, no; nihilists, maybe

Here's an antidote to "liberal nihilism:" thousands of people demonstrated against the opening of the new European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, and hundreds were arrested after clashing with police. They call themselves "Blockupy" in rhyming homage to the Occupy movement of a few years ago in the U.S. -- one of the few exceptions Steve Fraser cites to the Age of Acquiescence he describes in the book of that name. The doings in Frankfurt at first glance look a bit more like the Battle of Seattle than anything Occupy did. Blockupy is described as "far left" by this English-language newsite from Germany, while Reuters describes today's protest as "anti-capitalist." Blockupy objects specifically to the alleged trumping of national/popular sovereignty by a "Troika" of entities, including the central bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, that subjects countries like Greece to austerity on the pretext of "debt that can never be repaid." Organizers of today's demonstration regret violence by protesters but blame the Troika's policies for enraging people. Since Blockupy is a coalition of groups, it's easy for leaders or individual factions to blame a "violent minority" for excesses, though I don't know if the usual "black bloc" suspects have been blamed yet. In any event, the demonstration is significant in its own right as a model for Americans who are neither acquiescent or nihilist toward the prevailing economic order. If the ECB president is representative, the austerity movement in Europe is as unsympathetic and unforgiven as its American counterpart. Countries like Greece have only themselves to blame for the "difficult period of adjustment" they must go through now, the official said in response to the protests, while protesters who think Europe is doing too little for Greece are wrong. You'd think the Greeks, however corrupt or incompetent their leaders actually were, had broken some immutable natural law. To deny that premise might make one a nihilist in certain eyes, but we're really seeing the struggle of one set of values against another, not the sort of negation of all values that some dread. Still, I'm sure many American observers would dismiss these Blockupy demonstrators as lazy losers, but I wonder how many would dare say it to their faces after today.

17 March 2015

Liberal Nihilism or Liberal Cowardice?

"Liberal nihilism" is a term you'd expect to hear from a conservative talker or read in a Republican column. You know what I mean: "Those liberals' moral relativism is nothing but nihilism! They don't believe in any eternal truths! etc!" Probably the term has been used that way, but I saw it most recently in the pages of the indisputably liberal Nation magazine. In a sense, however, Mike Konczal uses "liberal nihilism" the same way conservatives might. Konczal accuses liberals of failing (if not refusing) to make moral judgments. He blames them specifically for failing to make a moral critique of the stagnation of wages for the working poor. Instead, he claims, too many liberals blame the problem on impersonal market forces. This stance is nihilistic to Konczal because it denies any role to political or moral agency. It holds no one responsible. Reading this reminded me of Jill Lepore's piece in last week's New Yorker. She was criticizing Our Kids, the same new book by sociologist Robert Putnam that inspired David Brooks to call for a moral revival in America. The book she describes sounds more liberal than the one Brooks read. Lepore notes that Putnam laments the loss of a "sense of civic obligation and commonweal -- everyone caring about everyone's kids" that won't necessarily be compensated for by Brooks's moralism. But as Lepore describes it Our Kids might also be seen by the likes of Konczal as a work of liberal nihilism. Putnam himself writes that his "is a book without upper-class villains," though he adds later that "the absence of personal villains ... does not mean that no one is at fault."

Lepore contrasts Putnam's reluctance to alienate any potential reader with the attitude of Steve Fraser, whose The Age of Acquiescence I've just read. Fraser contrasts the massive resistance to industrial exploitation in the 19th century with the apparent acquiescence that characterizes our age. In Lepore's summary, Fraser complains that "the left isn't willing to blame anyone for anything anymore." In his book, he condemns the same sort of complacency in the face of "the market" that Konczal deplores. Konczal quotes another critic to make his point more starkly: "Whenever someone starts talking about the free market," David Graeber wrote, "it's a good idea to look around for the man with the gun." The point of all criticism of acquiescence to the market is that the market is not a force of nature but a creation of political will. That doesn't mean that economics is bunk, but it does mean that economics alone can't explain why the country seems worse off economically than it was fifty or sixty years ago. Nor can any conspiracy theory involving Republicans and their ideological and corporate comrades, since they had no control over the postwar recovery of Europe and Japan and the competitive pressures on the American economy that resulted. But the critics of "liberal nihilism," or whatever you want to call it, are correct to note that economics can't justify all the decisions in the public and private sectors that have left the working class with a dwindling share of national wealth.

All the critics seem to agree that liberal nihilism is grounded in some sort of fear. To Konczal "nihilist" narratives of impersonal market forces "are palliatives meant to relieve the anxiety of facing a massive political problem. Lepore attributes Putnam's refusal to name villains to an excess of nonpartisanship: "It's easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame." Fraser casts his net wider. American acquiescence, he argues, is a product of a consumer culture that encourages individualist thinking and discourages both traditional frugality and the spirit of self-sacrifice for larger causes that, in his account, sustained the labor movements of the past. The Age of Acquiescence might be dated back to the "Treaty of Detroit" period after World War II when businesses offered unions many material concessions and unions mostly renounced any intention to truly democratize the workplace. Workers' resistance in the 19th century, by comparison, was driven by a nostalgia for autonomy lost to factory discipline and industrial economics, and inspired by visions of an alternative social order that are largely absent among today's workers. Fraser describes not so much liberal nihilism as working-class nihilism: the absence of any vision of real working-class democracy. Market fetishism works on all levels to scare people off from tampering with the system, but critics like Konczal and Fraser want to tear down the curtain concealing the men behind the market curtain. They can't decide what people will do about the revelation. But it can't hurt to remind then that they can do something.

16 March 2015

John Gray: a self-hating atheist?

Every few weeks, it seems, the English philosopher John Gray publishes more or less the same article in a new venue. Publishers and editors still see novelty in his act. Gray is a professed atheist who now spends most of his time attacking other atheists. As reported here before, he is a harsh critic of what he now calls "evangelical atheists," i.e. the "new" or "militant" atheists who show up on best-seller lists. Jealousy? I doubt it. Gray's books don't top the charts but he's a well-known name in intellectual circles and apparently can be published anywhere he wants. In any event, he has a real issue with the "evangelicals" (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris etc.).  His fear seems to be that the "evangelicals" will define what atheists are or ought to be. Gray objects to the "evangelicals" setting the standard because he feels that you don't have to be hostile to religion just because you don't believe in God. In a piece for The Guardian this month he implies that he speaks for a silent majority of atheists.

Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.

Atheism goes bad, Gray argues, when it becomes a movement with idealist goals. When that happens, he claims, atheists become millennial and intolerant in the exact image of the religions they denounce. He believes that today's bestselling "evangelical" atheists are more vocally intolerant because they're afraid that history is proving them wrong. They inherit from the Abrahamic eschatological tradition a belief (if not a faith) in an ultimate triumph of reason, a time when people will do without superstition once and for all. They also assume (so Gray assumes) that a world without religion will be more tolerant, while he accepts the historical argument that the "liberal morality" to which these atheists appeal is more dependent on faith in a universal lawgiver than they care to admit. He claims Nietzsche as his authority for the argument that the "death of God" leaves no firm basis for the sort of morality atheists today take for granted. Gray himself seems to assume that in a world "beyond good and evil" human rights as understood by liberals (including even the intolerant "evangelical" atheists) will be less certain, if not less secure, than atheists assume. He doesn't need God to actually exist to preserve liberal civilization, however. For him, it seems, it will suffice if people act on the assumption of a benevolent lawgiving God. If the results are good (e.g. liberal civilization) why question the premise? A more militant atheist might answer that people should be held to a single standard. If John Gray doesn't have to believe in the literal truth of scripture, or even the likelihood of intelligent design, in order to be a moral or liberal person, why should such beliefs be necessary for anyone? Gray's complacency smacks of Platonic classism. Plato imagined "noble lies" necessary to keep the majority in order; the Founding Fathers espoused deism amongst themselves while affirming the necessity of religious instruction for the masses. When Gray challenges atheists to consider whether "the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind," does he acknowledge his own dependence? Whether he does or not, does he really believe that the benefits of atheist acquiescence outweigh the costs of the many forms of religiously-based resistance to progress that the more militant atheists perceive?

Gray would most likely answer the last question with a hearty affirmative. The main difference between him and the "evangelical" atheists may be that, however idealistic different atheists may be, Gray is a philosophical pessimist. He scoffs nearly as often at the idea of "progress" as he does at atheists. If "evangelical" atheists share with Christians (and Muslims) a millennial optimism, Gray shares with many Christians a premillennial belief in ultimate human imperfectability. Man can never perfect society in this world, the premillennials say, because of sin. Gray, of course, doesn't have to believe in Adam and Eve to believe in what he calls human intractability.

If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up? The answer that will be given is that religion is implicated in many human evils. Of course this is true. Among other things, Christianity brought with it a type of sexual repression unknown in pagan times. Other religions have their own distinctive flaws. But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.

Why does Gray believe this? He can appeal to history all he wants, but his pessimism is really a kind of negative faith -- not the absence of faith, but a certitude, as much in his heart as in his mind, that some things just can't happen. If Gray is still a kind of liberal, his is a liberalism rooted in some sort of compassionate despair. If there is no God and no ultimate justice, and if mankind can't ever make this world that much better a place, then "why make a fuss?" may well be your natural response to anything. Others apparently need to believe in the illusion of progress -- to believe that the world can always be made better, or that people can become better. Gray apparently believes that this illusion is worse than the illusion of God. That leaves whatever his ultimate illusion is, however comforting it may be to him. It doesn't do the rest of us much good.

12 March 2015

Terror in Ferguson

Perhaps you've seen the video showing the moment someone shot two cops in Ferguson MO early this morning. If not, you can see it at the Guardian newspaper's website. It's blurry footage filmed from the protesters' side of the street during a demonstration following the resignation of the town's police chief. You hear the shots and one of the cops moaning in pain. While bystanders are mostly shocked in "Holy Shit!" fashion, one unsympathetic observer is heard saying: "Acknowledgment nine months ago would have kept that from happening!" Whether he intended a causal statement of a moral judgment is unclear. There's still a difference between, say, "You could have prevented this by..." and "You deserve this because..." In any event, though, this unseen man -- not the shooter, who is believed to have fired from higher ground -- states what everyone assumes: two police officers who themselves may have been inoffensive were shot, though both will survive, as a consequence of the killing of Michael Brown last year. Some would rather say they were shot as a consequence of the controversy over the killing of Michael Brown. The difference shifts responsibility for this morning's violence from a police department (if not a wider police culture) that brought this first reckoning on themselves (not counting last December's assassinations in Brooklyn) with their racist practices and attitudes to the activists and politicians (who were always going to be blamed once something like this happened) who allegedly inflamed passions beyond justification or without any justification depending on your opinion of Brown's culpability for his own death. Before we go off to the races, however, let's treat this as a personal responsibility moment. If those two cops, who weren't part of the Ferguson force, didn't deserve to be shot merely because they're police, then none of the activists and politicians ought to be blamed for the act of a probable lone wolf shooter. I expect Republicans and plain racists to assert collective responsibility for the shooting, with their eyes on President Obama and Attorney General Holder or else Al Sharpton first and foremost, but by collective-responsibility rules any cop might be a legitimate target if police are perceived to perpetuate intolerable racist oppression nationwide. Judge not lest ye be judged. Blaming activists changes the subject, while the real question remains how much black people and poor people in general are expected to endure from an arrogant police culture. My headline for this post is a little test of your perceptions. You may see it as an appropriate headline for today. Others might say it's old news to them. Which sounds right to you?

11 March 2015

David Brooks calls for a moral revival

Fifty years after the Moynihan Report, Americans continue to debate family structure as a factor in poverty. David Brooks doesn't mention the Moynihan Report in his latest New York Times column, but Moynihan is present in spirit in the columnist's despair over "multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life." Brooks's immediate point of reference is a new book by the sociologist Robert Putnam that shows how parents with no more than a high-school education are failing as parents by failing to spend as much time with their kids as college-educated parents do. While there may be simple economic explanations -- multiple jobs, long commutes, etc., Brooks sees a moral failure here as well. "In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father," he laments, "There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically." A system of codes and rules is needed as urgently as money and jobs are, he argues. Some hostile readers have jumped to the conclusion that Brooks is blaming poverty itself on this lack of codes, but he's really saying that poor people make things worse for themselves and hinder their chances (and their children's chances) for advancement by failing to live according to a proper code of rules. Since the 1970s, he believes, moral relativism has discouraged people from stepping up to tell the poor how their personal decisions are hurting their chances and their family's chances. For what it's worth, he adds that a like failure to hold the wealthy accountable for their moral failings has also contributed to this demoralization. They, too, could stand a moral revival.

No doubt sensitive to his audience of Times readers, Brooks is careful to put his case for moral revival in entirely secular terms. At no point does he say that people need to believe in God or anything transcendent. Instead, he calls for the construction (or reconstruction) of a "moral vocabulary" of judgment and responsibility. With such a vocabulary we can hold each other responsible according to standards hinted at in a handful of sample questions: "Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?" These are Brooks's samples of "voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t." Gently is an important adverb here; with it Brooks signals that he isn't looking for hellfire-and-brimstone preaching or the shaming of people that others have advocated. Even so, it still looks like a tall order when many of us still suffer, in Brooks's diagnosis, from "a plague of nonjudgmentalism."  When that plague spread, he writes, "People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set." There's another important secular concession here: standards can be set by people, Brooks says, and aren't necessarily handed down to us by some transcendent and unchanging authority. This is an important point to remember before dismissing Brooks's ideas entirely.

"The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens," Brooks argues. This is a curiously non-materialistic definition, but if we define society as interactions rather than institutions then Brooks may have a point. He concedes that we the people can set the standards that define these virtues and habits. Would he also concede that we need not look exclusively backward while setting standards for the future? He talks about "restoring norms" as if society had gotten that part right in the past, but we can recognize the utility of certain norms without necessarily recreating a past normative order in its entirety. Consider his sample moral questions quoted in the previous paragraph. Brooks's own worldview may be constrained by the ideology of personal responsibility or a belief in the family as the basic social unit, but a moral revival, not to mention a moral revolution, need not and probably ought not be so constrained. Why not ask, "Are you living for short-term pleasure or the common good?" or "Are you living for yourself or for humanity?" Why not ask that question about "the freedom of self-control" vs. "bondage to your desires" of the acquisitive rich first and foremost? Brooks himself may not be averse to any of these suggestions, though they may smack of "collectivism" to some of his fans. But no matter what he or they may think, my point is that moral revivalism is a game the left as well as the right can play. Brooks himself seems convinced that the left's only idea is to throw more money at apparently intractable social problems. That may well be the approach of welfare-state bureaucrats within the Democratic party, but the rest of the left ought to be more ambitious. Leftists should agree on the need for a moral revival, because they should be able to show that they're the real moral leaders of the nation.

10 March 2015

An endless coup against Netanyahu?

With his party trailing in some polls are Israel's parliamentary election draws near, Prime Minister Netanyahu rails this week against a "worldwide effort" to ensure his defeat at the polls. Outsiders, he believes, are trying to influence the vote, whether through money or pure propaganda, presumably to put leaders in power more willing to compromise with the Palestinians, the Iranians, etc., in a way Netanyahu himself worries would compromise Israeli security. He has a problem that looks familiar to American election watchers. While foreigners are forbidden from donating to Israeli politicians and parties, they can support nebulous non-profit organizations that take political stands. How much this is happening in Israel I can't say. Netanyahu's party, or at least his defense minister, is also playing a sort of ethnic card, blaming English-speaking Israelis for inflaming leftists and Palestinians against the Likud government. Perhaps some of Netanyahu's many friends in the Republican party can help him out of this jam; they're likely to have more influence in Israel than they ever will in Iran, where the GOP's open letter to the leadership warning against any deal with President Obama has only riled things up further. In any event, how different is Netanyahu's denunciation of a worldwide conspiracy from Nicolas Maduro's charge of an endless coup against his Venezuelan government? Both men have Obama as an enemy, at least in their own minds, despite Netanyahu's diplomatic words of praise before Congress last week. The main difference, presumably, is that Netanyahu isn't going to start rounding up leaders of the opposition parties, or at least the leaders of the Zionist Union that may defeat him. Still, both leaders have an unhealthy tendency to identify domestic opponents with foreign interests, and Netanyahu's outburst proves, at least to the domestic opposition, that he's become nearly as delusional, or at least dishonest, as Americans perceive Maduro to be. While Netanyahu is a man of the global Right and Maduro of the global Left, we may perceive here a common quality of revolutionary regimes like Venezuela's and settler nations like Israel. Leaders in both cases perceive their nation or movement's position as precarious and persistently besieged. They face an authoritarian temptation to see themselves as uniquely qualified national saviors; Republican praise in the U.S. for Netanyahu as a Churchillian figure may have freshly fueled such self-regard in him. Netanyahu is clearly more of a classical liberal than Maduro may ever be, but he also represents the curdled form of liberalism that calls itself conservatism and has defined itself for nearly a century in opposition to a global conspiracy against liberty. As a conservative, he sees his country's legitimacy and its victories in war as settled facts and thus can portray his Muslim antagonists as the aggressors in the Middle East. But the insecurity implicit in his paranoid rhetoric -- one campaign commercial suggests that victory for the Israeli left will open the door to ISIS -- tells a different story. Israel may not be as socialist now as it was at its birth, but it remains, for good or ill, a revolutionary state in its region, and like the alleged paranoids in Venezuela it does have enemies and advocates of counterrevolution. This alone doesn't mean that Netanyahu will become a dictator some day, or Israel a dictatorship under someone else, but despite a relatively respectable commitment to liberal values, the country's situation means that the potential is always there.

09 March 2015

Does Venezuela threaten you?

You may not have realized it, but the Bolivarian government of Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro is a National Security Threat according to the U.S. government. That's the opinion of President Obama's State Department, as expressed in an executive order from the President himself. Declaring the country a Threat means the U.S. can apply sanctions against the government or specific officials, denying them entry into our country and the use of American financial services. So how is Venezuela, or Maduro specifically, threatening the colossus of the north? By undermining democracy in their own country, the administration alleges. By violating what Americans understand to be the human rights of the Venezuelan people, Venezuela threatens human rights everywhere, it seems. By "criminalizing dissent" and through "intimidation of its political opponents," they presumably seek to intimidate if not criminalize one of the Bolivarian regime's primary political opponents, the United States. In reality, the Maduro government has at worst threatened the jobs of dozens of U.S. embassy workers in Caracas by demanding a staff reduction. This bit of spite is part of what the Obama administration describes as a pattern of Bolivarism "distract[ing] from its own actions by blaming the United States ... for events inside Venezuela." In this case, as before, the Maduro administration sees the Yankee imperialists behind the "endless coup" in which the recently arrested mayor of Caracas was allegedly involved. But if Maduro's actions have been at least partly spiteful, Obama's seem more so. Worse, the President is more or less playing into Maduro's hands, for what better evidence can Maduro cite to show that the Yankees want to overthrow his government than our designation of his government as a National Security Threat? Of course I get the American argument that leaders like Maduro consciously and cynically lie about such things, and I also recognize the tendency as a regrettable if partially understandable pathology of revolutionary regimes. But my main point still stands: if you want to convince Venezuela, not to mention the rest of the world, that you're not seeking regime change, then why on earth would you declare the country an enemy? And if calling Venezuela a National Security Threat doesn't mean they're an enemy, then what's the point of the exercise? The point for us, regardless of whatever point Obama intended to make, is that for all the Republican caterwauling about the President's alleged softness on this or that threat to our nation, our interests, or our way of life, he only appears soft relative to the more rabidly ideological fanaticism of Republicans or the neocons within his own party. Authoritarian regimes, understood as those governments whose alleged bullying tendencies extend into the global economy, are threatening to almost all American politicians, excepting some leftists and libertarians. But if you still feel that they aren't threatening you, maybe you should ask why your representatives in the Executive and Legislative branches feel differently.

An Oklahoma frat is racist; is that news?

Google News thinks so. As I write, the top news story on that page is the disbanding of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after a video made the rounds showing the frat boys riding a bus and singing of how they'll never let a black man -- they use a coarser word, of course -- into the frat. I don't know exactly how Google identifies a top story, but I'm sure that presumed reader interest matters as much as any editorial decision. So why has this become such a big story? Timing explains it a bit. This story broke while the nation was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" bridge crossing in Selma, and at a point in our history when just about everyone concedes that race relations in the U.S. are worse under the first black President than before he took office. At the same time, however, many Americans on the right insist that racism is a thing of the past. What they mean to say, since none would dare deny the existence of negrophobic bigots, is that the U.S. is no longer a racist society -- that blacks are no longer systematically oppressed on the national or local level. This is the argument for doing away with certain safeguards of the Voting Rights Act: America isn't like that anymore and never will be again. Blacks and many liberals of all races see evidence to the contrary in the recent cases of white cops killing unarmed black men -- most recently in Wisconsin last weekend -- and tend to see Republican-inspired measures to suppress alleged voter fraud as attempts to disenfranchise blacks. For one side, the presidency of Barack Obama, however unfortunate for the nation, is sufficient and irrefutable proof that no real obstacles prevent any black person from rising to the heights of public life. The other side sees Obama being relentlessly sabotaged for reasons they suspect to be fundamentally bigoted. So what does this fratboy scandal prove to either side? For right-wingers, every such incident is an individual, isolated incident. Again, they'll grant that any number of individuals are bigots while insisting that the society isn't. Libertarians of the Rand Paul sort might go so far as to defend the frat boys' right not to associate with blacks -- while making sure to deplore their refusal. Liberals, progressives, multiculturalists, etc. obviously deplore the situation as well, but refuse to leave it at that. Libertarians (if not the right wing as a whole) presume that bigots will suffer consequences in the marketplace, while the left is understandably more concerned with the immediate consequences for the people who are denied inclusion. Libertarians are satisfied to conclude that bigots are stupid, while the left remains determined to correct bigots' errors. The why of bigotry matters to them in a way it doesn't to libertarians, while others further to the right seem increasingly tempted to blame white bigotry on other races' attitude problems. To sum up, the SAE scandal indicates either that there's only something wrong with those college kids -- that they're personally responsible for their bigotry -- or that there's something wrong with our society or culture that has to be fixed through a collective effort. In the end, some may say that as long as an Obama can become President, or an Oprah a billionaire, then the casual bigotry of frat boys doesn't matter and isn't news. Should it matter, however, that a black student can't join a particular fraternity? I think it should, even if I wouldn't place it at the top of the headlines. If some would oblige us to address the religious chauvinism of Muslims, then the enduring cultural chauvinism of white Americans deserves some attention as well.

08 March 2015

Fundamentalism and Radicalism

When people argue that there's something essentially or intrinsically Islamic about the Islamic radicalism practised by the self-styled Islamic State, critics can counter that at the most there may be something essentially Sunni about it. This should be more clear after the last week's reports of IS vandalism and plunder of archaeological sites in Iraq. It's reminiscent of the Taliban's bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, and of course the Taliban were Sunnis also. Of course, not all Sunnis are as violently iconoclastic as the Taliban or Daesh, but we can say with even more confidence that few if any Shiites are as violently iconoclastic. Part of the Sunni "takfiri" beef with Shiism is that Shiites are idolators for having holy sites other than the one in Mecca and for revering imams whom Sunnis presumably presume to be heretics. Sunni extremists define idolatry all too broadly, as if convinced that memorializing anything goes against the singleminded and exclusive worship of Allah. It didn't matter than no one actually worshipped the gods of Babylon anymore; the relics at the archaeological sites were idols and Muslims, according to the IS, had a duty to smash them. Historical value means nothing to them, though they allegedly did carry off whatever they thought they could sell to raise money for the caliphate. It may be that history itself means nothing compared to the Qur'an's construction of time and space. But if Islamophobes want to take this vandalism as further proof of Islam's unique barbarity, history can remind them that we've seen this sort of destruction before, and not so long ago, and there was nothing Islamic or even religious about it. We saw it in China during the Cultural Revolution at the end of Mao's rule, and in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. These radical communists in Asia might look like the diametric opposites of Islamic fundamentalists, but just as radicalism and fundamentalism are sort of synonymous, signifying a return to roots, so vandalism in the name of communism and vandalism in the name of Islam may express a more common impulse that transcends culture or ideology. A desire to see everything old, everything established, everything traditional destroyed is most likely not limited to Sunnis or Maoists. It can express an otherwise inconsolable frustration with a world that doesn't seem to give people a chance, yet should and would if not for however many accretions of injustice. In simplest terms, it's a feeling that the world needs to start over if all of us are to get our due. In China, that impulse was manipulated and exploited, if not created outright, by a leader who dreamed of remaking the world according to his commands. In Iraq, Syria and elsewhere today it is probably a more spontaneous, grass-roots impulse. But it isn't an exclusively Islamic or even exclusively Sunni impulse. Isn't there at least a faint echo of it in the transparent longing for civilizational collapse we see among survivalists in the developed world? None of them may actively smash the treasures or mere markers of the past, but few seem likely to miss much of that, and more may believe that they'll only come into their own, or simply find themselves, when the complications and inhibitions of contemporary civilization are out of the way and a more just order evolves spontaneously and presumably in their favor. Survivalists, however, have some things they still plan to protect, but what of the likely larger numbers who grow more convinced that they have no stake in society today and nothing to lose in tearing it down? Between these impulses little could be left standing in the future. Religion may have little to do with it, and ideology less, and even where religion and ideology have more obvious influences, the real human factor behind all such vandalism may be nothing more sophisticated than just plain spite.

04 March 2015

Choices and judgments

Everyone loves it when a Republican says something outrageous, it seems. There was a furor on the internet today, or an attempt to create one, over the remarks on homosexuality of Dr. Ben Carson, this cycle's token black candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. On the genuine political subject of gay marriage, he thought there ought to be arrangements short of "marriage" that gave gay couples the sort of shared rights over property, insurance, etc. that he presumes them to want when they demand a right to be married. He may be missing a point here but I leave it to homosexuals themselves to clarify the matter. Everyone can be outraged, however, over Carson's argument that prison conversions to homosexuality prove that sexual orientation is a choice and not some innate individual trait. To be clear, it's the part about prison that's outrageous. But had he left prison out of the conversation, some might still be outraged over his belief that homosexuality is a choice. There's been more at stake in this distinction than there should be. It seems to be important to some that sexual orientation is not a choice. I assume this is because once you concede that someone can choose to be gay, you also concede that they can choose not to be, while others will assume they should choose not to be. I don't see how the last point follows. The fear on the gay-rights side seems really to be that if homosexuality is chosen, it thus somehow becomes subject to judgment in a way it could not be if homosexuality were recognized as an innate trait. You can be judged for what you do, that is, but you should not be judged for what you are. To deny the role of choice is to preempt judgment. This ought to be an unnecessary argument. I'm inclined to believe that there's an element of choice in sexual orientation because my suspicion is that every human being is potentially bisexual. That element of choice may not be conscious or intellectual, since we're talking about sex and emotion, but there's certainly an element of will to it, especially if attraction runs up against any existing taboo. I doubt whether anyone is any more immune to same-sex attraction than anyone is immune to developing sexual fetishes. Many people may never experience an event triggering a fetish or a same-sex attraction, but the potential is probably there just the same. The main point is that the choice, such as it is, and so long as it involves consenting adults, is not liable to moral judgment. The better gay-rights argument isn't that you have no right to judge a person's sexual orientation because it's an innate trait, but that you have no right to judge a person's gender preference in sexual partners, period. On that understanding, so long as Carson didn't mean to say that prisoners who choose to be gay need to be reconverted or deprogrammed, he really said nothing wrong -- just something somewhat stupid.

03 March 2015

The Netanyahu speech and Islamic 'aggression'

Prime Minister Netanyahu was more diplomatic toward President Obama in his much-vaunted, much-dreaded speech before Congress than his Republican fanboys usually are. The Israeli leader made a point of mentioning several "not widely known" cases of Obama's assistance to his country while hinting at further services that "might never be known" for security reasons. Understandably enough, Netanyahu saved his rhetorical venom for Iran. He spun a word portrait of Persian enmity toward the Jews dating back to the time of the Book of Esther, with the mullahs of the Islamic Republic as the heirs of the hated Haman He did not mention that the Persians ruled the Jews at the time and were in fact hailed by them as liberators from the hated Babylonians; that Esther was a queen of Persia in the story; and that Haman was destroyed by his own master, the Persian emperor. Instead, Netanyahu hailed Esther for winning "for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves," though he looked to the U.S., or more specifically today to Congress, to defend them from Iran. And for what it's worth, it's unclear whether Haman was ethnically Persian at all, in scripture or in reality.

Netanyahu portrayed the Iranians as the aggressors in the entire Middle East since the Islamic Republic came into existence in 1979. According to his reading of the Iranian constitution, the Revolutionary Guards are mandated to "fulfill the ideological mission of jihad." To clarify his meaning, he quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini's exhortation to "export the revolution throughout the world." The Islamic Republic, in stark contrast to the American Republic, is dedicated to "death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad," Netanyahu said. They are the aggressors in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Yemen. By supporting the Assad government in Syria they promote slaughter and tyranny, and through their sponsorship of Hezbollah they are aggressors against Israel itself. Their current head of state pines for the annihilation of Israel and his Hezbollah puppet itches to massacre Jews.

It's easy to argue that Iran is a tyranny to the extent that the Supreme Guide and principal ayatollah is accountable to no one, and to the extent that many citizens find many of the Republic's religiously-based restrictions oppressive. But even if we concede that the Islamic Republic is a tyranny by any standard other than its own, does that make it inherently an aggressor? The Iranians themselves, naturally, don't see things that way. Like Islamist movements everywhere, the partisans of the Islamic Republic see theirs as a defensive struggle against Imperialism, Zionism, and an international Sunni (or "takfiri") conspiracy. From their perspective, the 1979 revolution liberated Iran from the secular tyranny of the Shah and his American backers, the 1980s war with Iraq was motivated at least partly to liberate that country's Shiite majority from Sunni domination, and the liberation of Palestine from Zionism is an enduring obligation.  All of this can be dismissed as rhetoric, of course, and it can still be argued that the Islamic Republic is inherently aggressive because it expresses an illegitimate will to power on the part of the mullahs. But that isn't the Israeli argument. Netanyahu's position is that Iran's pretense of a liberating mission is spurious because the settled order of the Middle East, such as it is but above all inclusive of the existence of a Jewish State, is indisputably legitimate. Neither Persians nor Arabs nor Muslims as a whole have a veto on Jewish nationhood and the nation's entitlement to a geographic state. To deny the legitimacy of Israel (or its "right to exist") is aggression from this perspective.

Who ever actually boasted of being the aggressor in a war? Even Hitler had to claim that the Poles fired on Germany first, and so Israel sees Iran as the aggressor and Iran sees Israel and the U.S. as aggressors. Islam sees Christianity (and its Jewish client) as the aggressor ever since Islam itself went off the offensive after 1683, if not ever since the Crusades, while Christianity sees Islam as the aggressor ever since the successors of Muhammad began building an empire in the 7th century A.D. No matter who the objective aggressor is, each side accuses the other of aggression in order to claim moral superiority or deny the other some right it claims -- in this case, Iran's asserted right to develop nuclear power and its inferred desire to build nuclear weapons. Iran must not have nuclear power of any weaponizable potential, Netanyahu insists, because the Iranians are proven aggressors and explicitly desire the destruction of Israel. The U.S. must pressure Iran into surrendering its ambitions, and Congress if necessary must pressure an otherwise helpful President into firmness against the aggression of the Iranian nuclear program should Obama waver out of weakness or some obscure sense of evenhandedness. The American public most likely agrees with Netanyahu about the menace of Iran, even if many don't see it as our special job to protect Israel in particular from such a menace. Few if any of us would argue for favoring Iran over Israel, but fewer want more war in the Middle East. The only reason to deny nuclear power to Iran is a conviction that fanaticism would motivate the mullahs to launch a first strike against Israel, being indifferent to reprisal since it would only mean martyrdom. But if we assume that the mullahs and their more secular collaborators in Iran are aggressors out of a desire for power, aren't their motives ultimately selfish and therefore subject to deterrence, just as those of the Soviet Union's leaders were? Netanyahu's reasoning may not stand scrutiny, but he's probably stuck with it. He must call the Iranians aggressors, even in preference to "fanatics," because it's always possible that a fanatic, unlike a pure aggressor, has a grievance that might be entitled to consideration. Whether Iran, a nation somewhat far from Israel, has any real grievance with the Jewish State -- whether Palestine is any of its business -- is a fair question, but in that case distance should diminish American interest in the entire region. Ours is a free country, however, and our people can take interest in any nation they wish and try to make their government take interest as well. That might be as good a definition of aggression as any we've heard lately.