Monday, December 29, 2014

CIA Torture Report

Revelations of torture practiced by the CIA have set off a number of passionate debates.
There are some CIA employees who, when asked to torture prisoners, refused and left the agency. Their reason: “America does not torture.” Wish it were true! We do not have to go back to times of slavery but only pay attention to what happens in our prisons today, to know that that boast is empty. America does torture.
A more interesting debate goes back and forth about the efficacy of torture. Opponents assert that the information gained from torture is completely unreliable. The current and previous heads of the agency insist that torture yielded information which actually saved lives by preventing other terrorist attacks. Unfortunately the information on which such claims rest is classified and we have to just trust them.
This debate is interesting for its background. It only makes sense to argue about the effectiveness of torture if you are willing to say that torture that prevents other terrorist incidents is justified. If you believe that America ought not to torture—whatever the outcome -- it is pointless to argue about the actual results of torture. If torture is morally wrong and you will not sacrifice morality for security, the question of outcomes is irrelevant.
Here some readers will chime in and say something like “The ends do not justify the means.” But that only serves to muddy the waters. In all sorts of situations, we believe that the end does justify the means. Many people believe in the death penalty. We are willing to kill people for the sake of closure for the victim's family or for the sake of discouraging people from committing horrible crimes. Everyone is willing to have a life saving operation however painful. Many women are willing to go through the excruciating pain of natural childbirth for the sake of having a healthy baby.
In many situations we do believe that the end justified the means. Does national security justify torturing suspects?
In the conduct of foreign policy, not only the CIA, but the US government, as a whole, is completely unscrupulous. Here is a chilling example I came across recently.
The Ebola epidemic in Liberia got as bad as it is because the early warnings by the Liberian government were not heeded by the population. The Liberian government is widely distrusted by the population, not only for being massively corrupt, but even more because the President, Ellen Sirleaf, was involved with the different dictatorial regimes that wreaked havoc in Liberia in the 1980s and 1990s. These military insurgencies were sponsored and supported by the CIA because the Liberian government of the 1970s was thought to lean to the left and was therefore not acceptable to us. So the CIA unleashed a civil war that killed thousands, drove many more from their homes into exile in neighboring countries, and destroyed the political structure of the country. One long term effect is that the government is so unpopular that many Liberians believe that the Ebola epidemic was the work of the government.
Moral scruples do not inhibit our government.
Since we constantly present ourselves as humane, freedom loving, morally punctilious people, our actual behavior is hypocritical.
The blatant immorality of our foreign policy makes us fiercely hated and often ridiculed. It makes us ever less safe as it inspires fanatical hatred of the US and motivates more and more people to set out to hurt us.
Worse, we act as unscrupulously and morally reprehensibly as the worst of our enemies. For the sake of what we—often mistakenly—believe to be our interest we are willing to bring down the scourges of totalitarian regimes, civil war, massive killing and displacement of populations. We are indifferent to the suffering we impose on millions of people all around the globe.
Is there any doubt that that is completely unacceptable?
Here is a good resolution for the New Year: Congress must defund the CIA.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Are you happy?

For the last 20 years or so, social science researchers have studied human happiness by going around and asking many people whether they are happy. One thing they discovered was that most people draw a sharp line between the happiness of their life over all, and their current condition. Someone may be confined to a hospital bed in acute pain after a serious accident and complain about that while saying at the same time that their life, all and all, is a happy one. Someone else may be having pleasant experiences, lazing around on the beach without worries about money, in the company of good friends, but nevertheless feel profoundly sad and discouraged about life as a whole.
Happiness as a whole is different from happiness in the moment the social scientists conclude. They are confident that their results are reliable. They trust the information gleaned from their questionnaires.
But the project is misguided for two reasons.
What the questionnaires tell them is not about human happiness but about the pressures we feel in our society to do well, to succeed, to be happy. From the day we were born we are told that in the United States everybody can make their life better; everyone can make something of him or herself. The clear implication is that, barring extraordinary misfortunes, if your life does not turn out well it is because you didn't work hard enough or made bad choices. If you are unhappy you have, most likely, only yourself to blame.
In a world that raises these expectations you would not expect people to admit that their life is a disappointment to them. They may admit to current, temporary problems while insisting that they are nevertheless a happy person.
Asking people whether they are happy does not tell you much about what their life is like and more about what they feel they ought to think about it.
But asking people about their happiness is misguided for another reason. Once you receive answers to your questionnaires you are no wiser than you were before. What is someone telling you who says he is happy? He might be saying that his life is exciting. There is great promise of good work, of interesting collaborations. He is deeply embedded in his family life and marvels at his children growing up. But of course he might be telling you something very different. He might think that his life is not too bad, that it might have turned out a lot worse than it did, even though it is a bit of a disappointment. Someone else might say she is happy because she thinks that all the many troubles she is enduring now are simply the price she is paying for happiness in the afterlife, sitting near the throne of God and rejoicing with the choirs of angels.
Someone who tells you he is happy is not giving you a lot of information. He may simply not want to talk to about his life, or may be too indolent to think about it. The many questions thoughtful persons raise about their life are very different.
This person may think their life is monotonous; they are bored. They then need to try to explore what else they could do that would make their life more interesting, more varied, less predictable. They need to think about how much structure they need, how regular their days have to unfold. They need to ask themselves what seems to keep them imprisoned in their present condition, why they have not already spiced up their life.
Another may think that the days are too crowded, that they have no time to sit quietly and catch their breath. Which of the things they do are important, which of them are important to them? Which ones can be dropped? Can they get some help to unload some tasks?
There is a good deal of sadness in human life. One does not meet one's expectations in one's career. This splendid future one was anticipating does not materialize. A beloved partner dies. One becomes old and infirm.
It takes considerable wisdom and good friends to find one's way through all of that. But it is not as good a life if one does not try to face those specific difficulties.
One must attend to the specifics of each day to make one's life good. Talk about happiness is so general and indistinct that it obscures what it takes to live as good a life as one is able to and as good a life as one's circumstances allow one. It is a distraction to keep us from thinking.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thanksgiving and World Hunger

It is Thanksgiving time. Colleges all over the US have Hunger Day festivities designed to acquaint them with the facts of World Hunger. At best they might also learn that 14.5 million households in the US suffer from hunger. There are close to 16 million children in those underfed households.
But in these Hunger Day events no questions are raised about the causes of all this poverty. We are certainly rich enough that no one need go hungry.
Nevertheless poverty is rampant, at home as well and abroad. In my last blog I pointed out that domestic poverty is due to the failure of our brand of free market capitalism to create enough jobs and to create jobs that pay enough to allow people to have sufficient food.
Economists are fully aware that the free market system is imperfect. Markets provide all those commodities that some enterprise can make a profit producing. But some of our major needs are not met by for-profit enterprises: most of our schools are not for profit. The record of for-profit education is inglorious. While many health care providers—insurance companies, physicians, drug companies, and medical appliances companies make plenty of money, they cannot produce health care that the majority of Americans can afford. People have to go without health care or receive government subsidies. For-profit health care is not a success because it is not accessible for most of Americans.
Police and fire protection are not for profit, neither are bridges and roads. Parks, museums and symphony orchestras are non-profit. Building public monuments, Boy and Girl Scouts, Youth sports, the Ymca's and Ywca's are not profit making undertakings. Large parts of our lives are not serviced by the market.
We have known this for a long time. Corporate leaders and the “experts” in their pay are the only folks who deny this. But their opinion reflects self-interest, not facts. There is absolutely no evidence for their claim that the free market solves all economic problems.
But now we are discovering another market failure of our capitalist system: it does not provide enough jobs, let along enough jobs that pay enough for people not to go hungry.
These failures of the market account for poverty at home. Widespread hunger abroad is due to hypocritical and unscrupulous interference with attempts of other countries to feed their hungry populations.
Countries such as India and South Africa have food security programs that buy the farmers' crops at “administered prices” above market value, to stabilize prices and pay struggling farmers a living wage. Crops purchased by the government feed the poor.
The United States and other developed nations want to place harsh restrictions on these subsidies and on efforts to reduce the hunger of the poor. They decry it as restraint on the free operation of the market. Developed countries produce agricultural products more cheaply than small farmers in the underdeveloped world. They can undersell local farmers, put them out of business and add to the poverty in places such as India or South Africa. The developed countries try to prevent poverty reduction in the under-developed world because it hinders their unfettered pursuit of profits for themselves. Mass starvation is of no interest to them as long as they can make more money. In their pursuit of profit, first world agricultural producers are completely unscrupulous.
But their attempts to limit anti-hunger efforts in poor countries is also utterly hypocritical because the US and other developed countries also support agricultural prices through subsidies to farmers. At home they are willing to compromise their enthusiasm for the free market, at least when it benefits large agricultural corporations, but when it comes to saving the poor from hunger abroad, free markets come first.
Millions of people go hungry and die young because capitalist markets fail us in important respects. Pretending to be devoted to free markets and free trade when all they are looking to is their private profit, capitalists make their economic system even more destructive.
When they come around to tell you about the blessings of the free market, run the other way.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who is to Blame?
The killings of young black men in Ferguson and, more recently, in Saint Louis and in many other places, as well as the recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union that in Boston black men are much more likely to be stopped, and interrogated by police than whites, has once again drawn attention to racist practices by many police forces all over this country.
In their treatment of black men, especially young ones, many police forces are out of control.
Large scale, continuing protests by many Americans, black and white, show that many of us are appalled by this resurgence of anti-Black racism. Actually, it is not a resurgence at all. The racism has been there all along but lately it has been so dramatic that even we whites cannot overlook it any more.
Clearly serious changes have to be made. Racist police practices have to be stopped.
At the same time, as a white man, I worry that we will once again take the easy way out and point the finger at individual police officers and individual police chiefs and put all the blame on them.
Whites, liberals and leftists, do that to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the continuing racism that poisons our society. We blame the police, we blame “the government,” we may also blame mass media. Some are critical of the supposed Archie Bunkerism of the working class. But they do not understand that everyone, even white anti-racists, as members of this deeply racist culture, are implicated in its maintenance.
At the heart of racism is the belief that Black people are significantly different from whites, that, with very few exceptions, they share certain characteristics which are overwhelmingly negative. Black people are different, they share specific qualities, and those make them undesirable members of a white society.
The white anti-racist rejects that last belief: Blacks, anti-racists believe, are not inferior to whites. But what is very difficult for us white anti-racists to give up is the idea of a largely homogenous group--”Blacks” or “African-Americans”--which is significantly different from us whites. Growing up in racist America, white anti-racists are also imbued with this map of our society in which distinct and significantly different groups—Blacks and Whites—live together uneasily. Racist whites regard the others as inferior; we anti-racist whites regard them as equally as good as us, or sometimes as better, and at other times as victims of racism whom we, white anti-racists, need to assist in their struggle for liberation.
But that is a mental map that humiliates those regarded as different. There is great diversity among Black people, in bodily characteristics, in mental traits, in their emotional make-up, in abilities and interests. Blacks, just like whites, think and feel differently about their looks, their social status their histories as members of their families. Being white is essential for the Neo-Nazi. It is insignificant for many other whites. Lumping many, very different people under some common label manifests one's disinterest in knowing them for who they are. Not being interested in knowing a certain group of people is a way of showing contempt and disrespect. Approaching strangers and acting as if one knew them already—being prejudiced, pre-judging others—is profoundly insulting.
Some people respond to that difficulty by claiming to be “colorblind.” But ignoring the racial divisions that exist in housing, in education, in employment, in incarceration rates, and elsewhere is just another way of helping to maintain racist divisions. The evils you ignore can continue to exist without your opposition.
White anti-racists confront a serious dilemma. On the one hand we should treat each individual as the individual they are and not worry much about their group characteristics. On the other hand a racist society does lump people into groups and in so far as these distinctions are often unjust we cannot ignore them.
So our task is complex. We must resist the injustices done by racism and racists to a specific group of people. We must at the same time train ourselves not to think of these persons only as members of their group but take them individually as fully seriously as we want to be taken seriously ourselves. We must stop talking about “they”; we must learn not to notice their group membership as the outstanding characteristic of persons we meet. When you meet someone you do not know, you not an “African-American,” a woman, a white. You meet a person unknown and it is your job to find out who this person is. We demand from others that they see us for who we really are, and we hope to see others for the individual person they are, with their own history, and their own outlook on the world. We must learn ourselves, and teach others, not to allow group characteristics to come between us and the other person.
Racism will not disappear as long as we only see types and not unique human beings. Most of us find it quite difficult to get beyond the group traits through which our society defines us. We maintain the racial and gender and disabilities maps that are part of our culture. To that extent we are complicit in the racial injustices committed in this world, regardless of how hard and sincerely we are fighting them.