Tuesday, February 28, 2012

                         Religion in Politics

The First Amendment to our Constitution bids the government to “make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is pretty clear what that means. For many years British civil servants and politicians as well as professors at Oxford and Cambridge universities needed to be Anglicans. Those jobs were not open to members of other religious persuasions. In Germany until World War I, only Christians could be civil servants, including university professors. Jews could not have those jobs unless they converted to Christianity.
No one in the United States today, even folks who keep saying that ours is “a Christian nation,” proposes that we should demand of all government officials that they be Christians.
But surely the question of religion and politics goes beyond that. The Catholic Church is refusing to allow its members to have their birth control paid for by insurance companies. Members of various Christian denominations refuse to support equal marriage rights for gay people on the grounds that the Bible describes homosexuality as an abomination. Many people oppose abortion on similar religious grounds. Teachings of specific religions, they think, may be used as the justification of legislation. All of us, even those who do not share the religious belief in question, may be forbidden to practice what one or another religion condemns.
Underlying these controversies is a serious disagreement about religion. Implicit in the First Amendment is the belief that religion is a private matter. A Christian may believe very firmly that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah and died for our sins. A Jew may praise Jesus as a notable prophet but insist that the Messiah's return is still in the future. But, because religion is a private matter, neither of them can impose their belief on the other.
When you enter grade school you learn to add and subtract. Your teacher teaches you that 2+2 = 4. If you don't want to accept that, you get punished with a bad grade. The belief that 2+2 = 4 is not a private matter. You have no choice in it; you must accept it because it is true.
Not so, for instance, your preferences in ice cream flavors. I like chocolate, you like vanilla. It would be totally bizarre if I forced you to eat chocolate because chocolate is, I think, “objectively” the best ice cream flavor. If I tried, you would point out to me that one's taste in ice cream is private, is subjective. Different people are entitled to their own tastes in food.
But most followers of one religion or another, whatever they may say, do not accept that religion is a private matter in precisely that sense that you may not impose your religious beliefs and the conduct these beliefs demand or forbid on anyone else who has different beliefs. The Pope does not believe that Catholic theology is something that you may accept or reject. For Jews the Law is a divine gift that we must follow. The beliefs of different religions are not merely subjective. They are not private.
When Mormons baptize people posthumously, they are telling us that Mormonism is the only true form of Christianity. Catholicism, different varieties of Protestantism are all idolatry. What is more they don't regard this as just some personal belief which others may share or not. They know that that is absolute truth. The Catholic Churchnot necessarily its membersknow for a fact that birth control is sinful. Evangelical churches know the same about gay sex. And all of them know for fact that Jews and Muslims are going to burn in hell.
The First Amendment demands that we treat all religious beliefs as purely personal and subjective. It makes no more sense, the First Amendment tells us, to force our religious beliefs on others than it would be to force on them our tastes in ice cream. But most religious people – except perhaps some Unitarians or Quakers – do not believe that about their religious beliefs. For many religious persons their religion is the bedrock on which their life rests. Make those beliefs subjective and, in some sense, arbitrary like tastes ice cream, and their lives would have no foundation. For that reason, religious persons hold on for dear life to the belief that their religion is the true and only one.
So when in the course of the current electoral campaigns, Catholic bishops fuss endlessly about birth control, and other candidates fulminate against abortion or gay marriage on religious grounds, they seriously challenge the First Amendment with its non-establishment clause. It makes us realize that our dedication to the First Amendment has always been conflicted. Some people are serious about regarding religious beliefs as private. Most religious people regard religious beliefs other than their own as private, subjective, and arbitraryif not completely mistaken. But the First Amendment does not apply to their religion. It is literally God's truth. Their dedication to civil rights is clearly qualified.
This is not intended to be a condemnation of religion. But it is important to understand the Rick Santorum phenomenon: their religious faith--not that of others--is as true and as important as anything in the lives of seriously religious persons. The First Amendment holds for all religions--except their own.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ashamed of being working class?

The other day I was driving behind a truck with a bumper sticker that readCarpenters: Rebuilding the Middle Class.
'Since when are carpenters middle class?' I asked myself.
The bumper sticker exemplifies a weird change in our language that reflects a deeper change in how we work and how we think about work.
When you listen to Pres. Obama and other politicians, there are four classes in the US: the super rich, such as Mitt Romney, the rich exemplified perhaps by Newt Gingrich or Obama himself, the vastmiddle classandthe poor. There is no more working class; it has completely disappeared. It seems as if it has become a bit of an insult to call someoneworking class.Politicians avoid that language because they do not want to hurt anyone's feelings.
How could that be? Working people used to be manual workers, many of them very skilled, who built skyscrapers and houses, ran railroads and built our cars, who baked our bread and cut up carcasses for meat. They worked hard and steadily; if lucky they belonged to a union. They might own a small house and a yard that they maintained meticulously with their own labor. They had children to whom they tried to transmit some of their skills as well as an ethic of respecting the work done by themselves and others, of valuing their moral integrity, and their membership in a democratic society. They knew they were the salt of the earth and they were proud of it.
The old way of thinking about our society was by reference to what sort of work you did: the working class did manual work, much of it skilled. Small business owners, teachers, lawyers and doctors were in the middle class. Big bankers and big business owners, investors, were in the upper class. But today when we talk about the super rich, the rich, the middle class, the poor we are talking about income. Since many working class jobs paid enough, but barely, many working class jobs have lost their luster in a world that cares not about your skills or the good work you do year in, year out, but cares only about how much money you make. Now, when we think only in money terms, it seems embarrassing to be working class.
What has happened to make us ashamed of doing manual labor? The answer is simple: we have outsourced the working class. As of January of this year 9 out of 10 employed in he US worked in services. Production workers are 10% of the US workforce. What used to be the US working class has been turned into the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Thai, the Indian, Brazilian, Indonesian working class. What is left is mostly service work.
Service work is of different sorts: there are doctors, nurses and many kinds of medical technicians, there are teachers, there are people getting information from the public, giving advice and informationall of them jobs that require aptitude, skill, experience and dedication. Anyone should be proud of doing that work.
But the bulk of service work is short term requiring little skill. They are jobs easily learned: being a “sales associate” at Radio Shack, shuffling papers in an insurance company, cutting up vegetables in a restaurant kitchen. Working class jobs used to be life time careers. It took a good while to get very good at them and then you stuck to them because it was good work. Many of today's jobs are dull pretty soon. They do not require a particular commitment; there is not a lot to learn. The jobs are often unstable so people move from one job to another every few years. What you do has lost importance. How much you earn is all that matters. Working people have lost an important source of pride and satisfaction.
Exporting all the good working class jobs abroad may have made a lot of money for capitalists. It has only impoverished the lives of working people by depriving them of their fromer sources of pride. Hence we see much more depression, more addiction, more violence in families and without, more cynicism, prejudice, and just plain nuttiness.
Bringing good work back to the US is not just a matter of increasing income or growing the job market. It has to do with making life better for many Americans.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What is there to be afraid of?

Iran greater threat as al-Quaida slips, US saystrumpeted a headline in yesterday's paper. At first I thought this was one more competition: the Patriots versus the Giants, Mitt Romney versus Newt Gingrich, Iran against al_Quaida. Iran is up in scariness; al-Quaida is down. One more hyped competition to keep us amused.
Is it also one more competition set up to confuse us about real issues, real threats? As the RomneyGingrich competition is orchestrated to deceive us about who holds the real power in our country, this competition is meant to confuse us about the real threats to our liberties and our lives.
Yes terrorism is a threat. 9/11 was just a particularly gruesome example of that.
But here is what scares me: Mitt Romney has released the names of some of the donors to the super PAC supporting him. Among them is a hedge fund manager who last year supported an advertising campaign against building an Islamic center near ground zero. Also represented is a Texas builder who financed theSwift Boatcampaign against Sen. Kerry. Then there is John Paulson who sold securitized subprime mortgages and then bet that they would fail. Also on the list is one of the Koch brothers, among other things an opponent of the wind power project on Nantucket. Both brothers stand to gain heavily from the transcontinental Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Should Romney win, and be the next president, he would be surrounded by racists, by people who do not hesitate to stoop to dirty politics, by others whose views are designed to hasten environmental Armageddon, by investors who shamelessly enriched themselves at the expense of millions of Americans. That's something to be really scared about.
But there is more.
Joshua Fox, a little while ago made a documentary againstfracking.He is working on a sequel to this documentary. He was in the audience when a House subcommittee held a hearing about the EPA's report about fracking. When he pulled out his camera to film the proceedings, he was handcuffed and arrested. No free speech rights for him while millionaires may literally spend a million dollars in support of their favorite political candidate. To limit that spending, the Supreme Court said, would limit their 1st Amendment rights.
Anyone who takes a picture of police in action will have the same problems as Joshua Fox. It is illegal in the Land of Abraham Lincoln to take a picture of on-duty police—especially when they beat up on people.
We may be worried about Iran, but we are getting to be more like that country every day.
Does that scare me? It makes me think of moving.
And finally there is the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act. This act annually authorizes the budget of the Department of Defense. But here is how Counterpoint describes this year's version of the National Defense Authorization Act:
This years legislation contains highly controversial provisions that empower the Armed Forces to engage in civilian law enforcement and to selectively suspend due process and habeas corpus, as well as other rights guaranteed by the 5th and 6th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, for terror suspects apprehended on U.S. soil. The final version of the bill passed the House on December 14, the Senate the following day (ironically, the 220th birthday of the Bill of Rights). It was signed into law by President Obama on New Years Eve. With his signature, for the first time since the Internal Security Act of 1950 and the dark days of the McCarthy era that followed, our government has codified the power of indefinite detention into law.
If they call you a terrorist, the military can lock you up and throw away the key. That's just a step away from Syria where the government calls its opponents “terrorists” and bombs them in their houses and kills significant numbers of them.
The US government has a secret no-fly list of people who should not be allowed on airplanes. How do you get to be on that list? No one knows. If you are on it, can you go to court and confront your accusers? Don't hold your breath but send a contribution to the ACLU anyway. They are trying to fight this.
Worse, the government has a secret kill list. They have already assassinated two American citizens in Yemen with drone strikes. Who else is on the list? Is there a way of getting off it? Again, there is very scant information.
The Constitution and its implementation is getting a bit frayed around the edges.
For those of us who have lived under totalitarian governments, the idea of secret government lists of people to be kept off planes, out of Congressional hearing rooms, and perhaps to be killed, is profoundly frightening. The provisions of the National Defense Appropriations Act add to the fear.
When constitutional law professors, turned President, are willing to kill citizens without their day in court, and send others to the military brig indefinitely, no one is safe.