Monday, August 24, 2015

              Are we losing our soul?

I recently read an article about the current leadership in China. In passing the author mentioned that during the era of Mao, the Chinese people shared a socialist ideology. They were united, more or less, by common values and the commitment to see those values put in practice. Today, by contrast, the article continued, there are few shared values and projects among the Chinese people. In good capitalist fashion people want to get rich, they want to have a good place to live, and be able to procure a good education and good job for their child.

One cannot read that without asking oneself whether capitalism in our country, so far so much more successful than capitalism in China, has deprived us too of shared values and left each of us concerned only about family and children and getting rich. People may very well give different answers to that question. But asking it is really important. Are there common values that unite us, that many of us are committed to sufficiently to work to realize them or have we really, as so many people say, become mainly consumers, private individuals who care for family and children and not much else? Are we losing our soul?


Here are some thoughts about this. When the French aristocrat deTocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the lively participation of ordinary people in local affairs and projects and in politics, in general. Wherever he went there were meetings, people were arguing with each other. Everyone seemed to be participating. Today half of citizens do not vote in presidential elections. 80% stay home when only local candidates are to be chosen. 32% of Americans sign a petition or send a letter to a representative – activities that require three mouse clicks and about 20 seconds of your time. An additional 16% engage in four political actions. Only 13% are as active as our ancestors almost 200 years ago. A quarter of all citizens volunteer for some activity whether that be in soup kitchens, to help out in the public library, to tutor schoolchildren or immigrants who need to learn English, or to clean up trash on Earth Day once a year.

It certainly looks as if large numbers of Americans are quite passive with respect to politics, specifically, as well as with respect to community affairs. Their interests are turned inward on themselves and the family.

A few years ago I asked a class in an introductory philosophy course to write a page about what they thought the good life would be for them. I was struck by the fact that everyone gave pretty much the same answer: Everyone wanted a family, a house, two children – a boy and a girl – a job they enjoyed and a dog. ( No cat lovers in that class.) In the present context it is striking that no one was thinking about conditions outside the house and the family. There was no worry about schools, about safety. There was no thought about justice and fairness, about opportunities for the children. There was certainly no thought about the coming ecological crisis.

We live in a liberal democracy and that means that different sets of values are acceptable – obviously within limits. We are allowed to choose our religious affiliations and may reject all religion if that's what we want to do. Our society makes room for people who choose rather different lives – some are scholars, some ardent sports fans, some spend all their time enriching themselves. If they choose to be couch potatoes that is alright also.

We pride ourselves in being tolerant of fundamental differences. But often this tolerance takes the form of refusing to think about the important questions. As soon as, say, moral issues come up in conversation someone is sure to say "everyone has their own opinion."  Most often that means: Lets not talk about that. Values are not worth thinking or talking about.

From being private matters, values have been turned into a subject we will not think about. Instead we allow advertisers to tell us what we should want.
Most Americans are not interested in participating in their community, locally or nationally. If they think about their life at all, it is centered on individual and family. Neighborhood, community, collective are nonexistent or not valued. We allow everyone to have  his or her own set of values and, on the whole, we refuse to think about them. Our values are made for us by advertisers or perhaps by some minister or another.

Given these observations it is not unreasonable to fear that America too is losing its soul. We are no longer a nation but a large collection of individuals and families. There is not much we stand for, except a national chauvinist desire to remain the most powerful nation militarily speaking.

Could this be connected to the epidemic of drug addiction and of drug overdoses? According to government figures an average of 120 persons die of drug overdoses every day.  For them and for the many addicts still alive, life seems pretty pointless and really quite unbearable without constant drug use. According to the National Institute of Drug abuse an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6 percent) are in need of drug treatment. Young people are disproportionately represented in that group.

A significant number of Americans, especially young citizens, cannot stand the life that the country has to offer them. That is a frightening fact.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to change the world?



Change is, in part, what got Obama elected. Everyone talks about making the world a better place. People want "to give back," they want to foster kindness, they want to end bullying among children and war among adults.

The dream is an old one. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament looks forward to a time when "the lion will lie down with the lamb." The dream is still very much alive. In our Christmas cards we wish each other peace.

But world peace seems to be just pie in the sky. Very many people despair of making significant change in our world. Our political system is coercive through and through. It takes the form of constant coercion of the weaker by the strong, the poor by the rich, of black by white, women by men, children by adults. This pervasive violence is often thought to be the effect of “human nature.” We cannot help ourselves. So you hear, only too often, that “you cannot change anything.”

Change is imposed by force on the unwilling. If advocates of gay  marriage win victories in the courts, the court order is enforced by police. The opponents are coerced into acquiescence. If legislators vote for a law limiting union activities, the laws will be enforced by courts and police. Legislative decisions, decisions reached through voting always leave a minority of dissenters in a position of being forced to accept what they despise. When there are more than two parties in a debate, the winners may well be less than half of the participants. More than half of the voters are then forced to accept a distasteful decision.

What we call democracy is a competition between groups each of which is trying to impose its own interests and beliefs coercively. The victims of today’s coercion will seek to turn the tables and coerce todays dominant group tomorrow. As long as everyone is open to coercion, the peaceful society remains elusive.
But there exist peaceful ways for groups to make decisions and to better their conditions. By supporting those who practice these peaceful and non-coercive methods, you too can work for peace.

More than three hundred years ago, long before the development of our current electoral system, Quakers and other religious groups in England understood that very different ways for communities to make decisions would be needed in a truly peaceful society. They developed techniques of decision making known today as “consensus  decision making.” Groups come together to discuss issues facing them. The goal is not primarily to make decisions but to re-enforce the unity of the group. That unity does not so much consist in agreement among members but in strengthening their ability to reach decisions after careful, cooperative  reflection about  difficult problems facing the group.

In these proceedings, the first step is for everyone to understand precisely what is under consideration. A facilitator chosen by the group will provide all the necessary information or ask others, better qualified, to do that. The entire assembly ask questions and works towards perfect clarity of what is being discussed, what are possible alternatives, what information exists about possible pitfalls and disadvantages of different possible proposals. Only when the group feels well-informed can the facilitator raise the question about proposals for action. Different members of the group may make proposals, they will explain them as fully and lucidly as possible. They will provide supporting evidence. Compare this to existing democratic practice where deception is the rule when politicians present their proposals.

It is important to notice however that the proponents of a particular proposal are not there to convince anybody. There is no room for competition for having the most glossy, attractive, emotionally seductive proposal. The goal of the discussion is not to win. The goal is for the group to make the best choices that are in everyone's interest.

Different proposals will be discussed. If everyone agrees there is no problem. Some people may not be completely convinced but are willing to allow the group to follow what many desire with the understanding that everyone will carefully monitor future outcomes. At times some people may feel unable to join the majority because the proposal, they think, will do serious damage to the group. In that situation different groups have developed different techniques for dealing with fundamental disagreements. In some cases the whole project is shelved. In others the dissident minority is ignored. In other cases committees convene to work further on the serious disagreements and bring the proposal up at a future meeting.

The goal is never for one party to win. The goal is for the entire group to fortify its ability to make decisions particularly in very controversial and difficult situations.

During the upheavals of the 1960s secular groups discovered this alternative technique of decision making. The Occupy movement invented many interesting methods for peaceful, non-coercive group deliberation. It has been adopted by a wide range of groups such as cooperatives, enterprises owned and run by its workers. It is in widespread use in Japanese businesses; The Federal Bureau of Land Management encourages consensus decision making in negotiations among stakeholders. Many Courts in the US encourage parties to a civil lawsuit to try to resolve their conflict in a way acceptable to all the parties rather than having a judge imposing a solution coercively.

You can contribute to a peaceful society by supporting these efforts. If you need repairs made to your house, find out whether there are any local cooperatives or worker owned businesses that offer services you need. Buy your vegetables from a cooperative grower, if you can. If you have conflicts with your neighbors seek out mediation before you go before the judge.

Everyone can participate in making the world more peaceful. Don’t wait. Start today.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bernie Sanders


 Almost 6 times as many people voted in the election of the All-Star baseball team as took the trouble to vote in the last presidential election. Only half of all persons eligible took the trouble to vote for president in 2012. Among young voters the numbers are even worse. In 2012 only 45% of eligible young voters went to the polls.

These same young people flock to the events where Bernie Sanders speaks. His attendance is impressive and the majority are young people.

Young voters are not apathetic but there is something about regular politicians that leaves them completely cold. There is something about Bernie Sanders that interests and attracts them.

It is not difficult to see what that something is.

The news reports about Hillary Clinton record almost daily the kinds of compromises she makes in order to attract very rich donors. Her program is so far fairly vague. In the initial stages of her campaign she is catering to the very rich, she is building an enormous campaign fund to match those being constructed by Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and other Republican candidates. She is being cagey in her answers to the press; her policy statements are very general. Not offending anyone sitting on bags of money is the dominant strategy at the moment.

Given our current state of democracy that is clearly the right thing to be doing. We are so used to it, we no longer notice the stench of corruption.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is talking policy. He is talking about justice, about inequality. He is talking about what he sees as our major problems and what he would do about them, were he elected president.

He is talking about change and what changes need to be made. He is talking about making America better.

Bernie Sanders is talking about running the country. According to press reports, Hillary Clinton is running an electoral campaign. He wants to make the country better. She wants to better her position by becoming president.

Sanders' democracy has to do with all of us running our country together. Her democracy has to do with getting the rich to support her.

Among the young, Sanders' democracy is more appealing. Democracy as usual, they think, is not worth wasting your time on unless you too are sitting on bags of money.

This is the lesson of the Sanders campaign so far: ordinary people are not going to pay attention or vote in a democracy that excludes them because it listens only to the rich. An oligarchy of the rich is just around the corner, if it is not already here, unless we manage to make room for everyone once again to participate.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What is education for?


 The bankruptcy of American culture is vividly illustrated by our debate about education. Everyone is moaning about the shortcomings of the American educational system. Students do not learn enough. They are not prepared for the demands of the workplace. Education is too expensive. Educational results are very unequal. Here too the obstacles confronting the children of the poor are much greater than the difficulties encountered by the children of the middle class.

All of these complaints are justified. Our educational system does not teach students what they need to know. It charges too much for what it provides. The prevailing inequalities are only intensified by the schools and colleges our children attend.

In the midst of all this fretting, no one asks the question that should surely be first, namely what should be the goals of our education? You cannot criticize a set of institutions plausibly unless you begin with a clear idea of what you expect those institutions to accomplish.

The  bulk of the complaints we hear, however, have an implicit answer to the question about the goals of education. Everyone assumes that the function of education is to train people to take jobs in American business.

That seems all right, but we do need to ask whether preparing young people to take jobs is the only or even the main function of education. When we think of our college generation, young men and women just setting out on their lives, what matters most for them? What do we hope for them as their parents, as their uncles and aunts, as their friends? Are we prepared to tell our children that what is most important in their lives is that they do a good job and earn a good living? Why did we expend a great deal of effort to teach them to be honest, to be respectful of themselves and others, to live their life thoughtfully? Why did many of us want out children to grow up into good citzens?

When our children are as old as we are now, how do we hope they will summarize their lives? Is it enough for them to say 'I was good at my job and made a good living'?

Here is what I would hope my children will say when they are old – not necessarily in this order: I want them to believe that their life was interesting, and that one of the sources of interest were there many connections with other people's lives, with other families and the children raised in them. I am want them to be proud of what they learned over the years about many different things. I want them to look back with satisfaction on what they accomplished together with their neighbors to improve the place where they lived. I want them to bask in the respect of their neighbors for their contribution to the common life. I want them to be proud of having been good citizens.
I want them to remember fondly the many people they loved well and the love they received from their family and friends.

I want them to acknowledge frankly their failures, their acts of cowardice, their avoidance of opportunities to be decent persons.

This is only a partial list and different people might draw up very different lists on what makes a life a good life, a life well lived. But what is amply clear is that doing a good job at work and making a decent living considers other people merely as employees, as people one might hire for one's business. It is not considering young people as human beings preparing to live human lives.
Someone might agree that there is a lot more to life than earning a living, but also assert that none of those other accomplishments can be promoted by formal education.

But that is obviously false. A good education takes a person in their late teens who knows the world in which they grew up and introduces them to a much larger world by teaching them history and introducing them to matters political, by transmitting to them the pleasure of reading, or of the arts. Our young people, many of them prospective parents, can acquire a much more sophisticated sense of the process of growing up which they will be directing when they have children. We would want them to learn that adult life is also a continuing process of change, of learning, of adjusting to the demands of different ages.

When we think about education, just as when we think about many other things, we have been conditioned to think of ourselves only as cogs in the great capitalist machine. We have lost sight of the many wonderful possibilities that human lives present. We have allowed ourselves to be terribly impoverished.

Monday, July 13, 2015


The "Free Market" – once again.


Congress seems poised to turn its back on the "No Child Left Behind" educational nightmare. But many of the supporters of this shift of direction in educational policy are not particularly interested in providing a good education for our children. They are interested in states rights. They distrust the federal government. They are worshipers in the church of the Free Market.
The belief in the blessings of the free market are indeed a religion-- facts have nothing to do with it. It is all a matter of faith.
But we live in the real world where facts are available; we should certainly not ignore them. Indifference to actual events regularly leads to disaster. If a truck is bearing down on you, you'd better run. If your house is on fire, you'd better leave. If your bank account is empty, you'd better not write checks.
Hence it is important, from time to time, to look at the reality of the free market. A couple of examples of the gross malfunction of the free market have come to my attention and I want to share them.
Both of them have to do with the privatization of law enforcement. It is a well-known fact that many prisons in the United States are run by private companies. The two largest ones are Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO. It is also well-known that "private prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars – such as California's three strikes rule and Arizona has highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law." (Washington Post April 28, 2015)
It is less well known that private prison corporations house almost half of the immigrants arrested as undocumented. Some immigrants who have been held in these private detention facilities have recently sued GEO, the company that owned a facility outside Denver, for being made to do janitorial work in the facility for one dollar a day. The company makes a huge profit by forcing inmates to do their own maintenance and paying them a pittance.
People in detention have not had a trial. Some of them are being detained without justification. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit agaainst GEO was, in fact, a legal resident of the United States. He suddenly found himself being practically enslaved, having to work for next to no pay cleaning toilets and washing floors. That clearly violates the most basic standards of how residents of the United States should be treated. Even if it turns out that the persons detained do not have the requisite documents, they still should not be subject to forced unpaid labor before they have had a trial and have been sentenced.
Our cash strapped cities could significantly improve their bottom line, if police would go around arresting citizens who, while detained, were forced to work for nothing, for instance cleaning streets, hauling garbage, and doing other undesirable work for practically no pay. There would be a major uproar if we did this to citizens. The fact that this is being done to people, accused of being illegal immigrants, does not make it any less outrageous.
The private companies, the "free market", in this case clearly violate basic human rights. That's hardly a blessing.
Another example of the failure of privatization: some municipalities in Alabama and elsewhere have farmed out their collection of traffic fines to a private collection company, Judicial Corrections Services. This company collects payments on traffic fines and every time they get a payment they collect an additional $40 fee from the person paying.
The victims of this scam had been in court and the judge imposed a fine on them. But the $40 fee is charged on top of the fine imposed by the court. It has no legal justiification.
This particular arrangement disproportionately burdens poor people who are unable to pay large fines at one time and therefore have to pay their fines in installments. JCS adds their $40 fee to every installment paid.
The government establishes certain rules, such as traffic and parking rules, and attaches a schedule of punishments for violators. It is essential that government be impartial, that no private party profit from government actions. Where that impartiality is violated and government action brings profit to private individuals, we speak of corruption. Where ever private parties enrich themselves by using the power of government they are corrupting those powers.
For-profit companies collecting fees for fulfilling government functions are one more example of clear corruption. It is no different from the policeman who accepts a bribe for not writing a ticket, or the government bureaucrat who needs to get paid under the table in order to process a form.
The blessing of the free market, in this instance, is in fact the corruption of our government. Justice falls victim to private enrichment.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


After the Charleston Murders


After the murders the only thing most people want to talk about is flying the Confederate flag. We have heard of the decisions of eBay and other large Internet merchandisers to take Confederate flags off their list of articles for sale.
After nine highly respected African-American Christians are murdered in their church, talk is focusing on the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism. Surely our question should be: will removing the symbol, reduce the intensity of racism?
Even more important is this question: what can be done to put an end to these, by now quite common, murder sprees that kill innocent citizens? One time the victims are moviegoers, then they are schoolchildren and their teachers. Now the victims are black worshipers at a prayer meeting.
Taking down the Confederate flag does not address the question of how to reduce the incidence of these mass murders.
A frequent prescription is additional legislation regulating the sale and ownership of handguns. But that seems unlikely to have any effect in the next 50 or 100 years. Our country is awash in guns. The numbers themselves are controversial but even the people who claim that gun ownership is receding believe that one in four households of Democrats or Independents owns one or more guns, while among Republicans the number is one in two households owning lethal weapons. Other surveys claim that for every hundred residents in the US there are 88 guns—that's more than one gun for every adult.
Both high and low numbers make it very clear that there are so many guns in circulation that anyone planning mass murder will have no difficulty procuring the weapons needed. Gun control will not make ordinary citizens safer.
A number of commentators, including a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, have pointed out that our government is narrowly focused on terrorists connected to the parties fighting in the Mideast and seems completely unconcerned about addressing the problem of domestic terrorism. The killer in Charleston claimed to have wanted to touch off a "race war." He surely is a textbook example of a terrorist.
In the 14 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks, nearly twice as many Americans have been killed by white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and other non-Muslim domestic terrorists than by people motivated by "jihadist ideology," a report by the New America research group published Wednesday has found.
Using a database that catalogs information on U.S. citizens and permanent residents engaged in "violent extremist activity," the report, Homegrown Extremism 2001-2015, found that 48 people were killed by non-Muslim terrorists during that time frame, as opposed to 26 who were killed by self-described jihadis.” (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/ 06/24/domestic-terrorists-more-deadly-jihadis-report)
The FBI and other government agencies are constantly arresting young men who are planning to fight with ISIL in Syria, or who are accused of planning terrorist attacks in the United States. Sometimes these plans are discovered because one of the participants decides to betray the plot to the government. Sometimes potential pro-Muslim terrorists are discovered by following peoples' wandering through the Internet and social media.
It seems quite clear that similar efforts should be made to discover potential mass murderers before they execute their plans.
But that is not a comfortable conclusion. The discovery of potential jihadists terrorists requires many people following the Internet and email activities of a significant number of American citizens. Potential terrorists are found only because all of us are not only potential but actual subjects of government surveillance.
Government surveillance of citizens is not new. Think of the decades of anti-Communist persecutions. The techniques of surveillance are different in the current technological climate. But the long history of government spying on ordinary citizens should make us very reluctant to recommend an extension of government surveillance.
Now we face just that suggestion of seriously extending surveillance in order to discover not only potential terrorists connected to the Mideast and religious conflicts but the much larger number of actual and potential terrorists plotting mass killings and, specifically, plotting attacks on citizens of color. This is clearly a difficult choice.
But as the victims of the Charleston church massacre are being laid to rest, and we mourn the death of a group of outstanding American citizens, it is very difficult not to support a significant extension of government surveillance in the hope of preventing future mass shootings.

Monday, June 29, 2015


What's Your Identity?


People talk a lot about their identity and the identities of other people. The huge controversy about Rachel Dolezal shows how confusing identities are.
Begin with what everybody says these days that "identities are socially constructed." Here is an example: if in the late 1700s the leaders of different American states had decided against uniting into one nation, the identity of being a citizen of the USA would not exist today. All of us would be citizens of whatever state we belonged to. But notice that this social origin of the identity of being a US citizen does not mean that individuals can simply choose to call themselves citizens of the USA. In order to be a citizen you need to follow complex rules and procedures. What you want to be or identify yourself as is of relatively little importance.
A second lesson from this public debate is that there are different kinds of identities. Some rest on facts. You can only claim the identity of being a centenarian if you have actually lived 100 or more years. Some mornings I get up with serious aches and pains and I feel as if I were 100 years old. But that does not make me a centenarian. That identity rests in facts.
Being male or female used to be one of those identities depending on certain facts. The interesting thing about Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender persons is that we have decided that how one feels on the inside is a more significant criterion for gender identity than one's external genitals.
Gender has now become an identity that we can choose and it is a different kind of identity from one's national identity which one's choices alone cannot determine.
But the case of Rachel Dolezal shows that there is a third kind of identity which the bearer of that identity has no part in determining. These are identities imposed on us from the outside, by other persons. The court system, for instance, identifies certain persons as felons. In a number of cases, the court is mistaken. A prisoner is called a felon even though justice miscarried in his case and he is innocent. But he may spend the rest of his life incarcerated, or unable to vote, or, if he is able to leave prison, unable to find work.
Being black is sometimes a matter of personal choice. Some descendants of African slaves had so many white ancestors that they can "pass" and enter the population as a white person. They choose to be whites in spite of the facts about their ancestry. Other descendants of African slaves have dark skin. Their hair is not straight by nature. Given those external marks, white society imposes on them the identity of a "Black." The litany of all the faults that Blacks may be suspected of is too familiar to rehearse once more. This identity is not supported by facts. It is certainly not chosen by the people who get stereotyped with this identity by Whites. It is imposed by white society.
If descendants of African slaves can identify as whites, why cannot a white person identify as black? In so far as color identities are subject to choice, no one can fault Rachel Dolezal. But she cannot claim that she has been stereotyped in the terribly negative and undeserved way that most African – Americans still find themselves stereotyped in North America and elsewhere.
It is not clear to me that she is claiming that. If she is, is she lying? Well she might just be misinformed or confused. To accuse her of lying, one must be able to show that she is deliberately misrepresenting her experience. Outside of her family not many people are in a position to accuse her of that.
Some observers have drawn the lesson from this public debate that we should stop talking so much about identities. The lesson I draw from it is that the concept of personal identity is complex and subject to many confusions. One should step very cautiously when one enters the terrain of personal identity.