Saturday, February 21, 2015

        How to deal with terrorism.

At the end of his three-day summit on how to deal with terrorism, Pres. Obama recommended that we be tolerant, that we support democracy, and respect human rights.
It is difficult to resist the impulse to say: "Look who's talking." This president has conducted a war in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. The United States was a leader in the bombing of Libya, and is now a leader in the bombing of Syria and parts of Iraq. The United States is not in a position to recommend tolerance. Given the sorts of friends we have such as the president of Egypt or the king of Saudi Arabia or Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel our support for democracy is, to say the least, beset by ambiguities.
In another portion of his message, Pres. Obama recommended that we take seriously the alienation of many young men both in the US and in Europe. Here is a picture of the young men who have trouble finding work, who are not respected, who are oppressed by the local police force, having resort to murder and terrorism. Were President Bush and his cronies alienated and therefore they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Are the members of Congress alienated who regularly vote to allow the military adventures of our governments, and to lavishly finance the military?
The president of the United States any day of the week kills more people than all the terrorists together.
The entire presentation is hypocritical. We are the largest purveyor of violence in the world and we point a finger at young Muslim men in Europe or perhaps young black men in the United States? This hypocrisy is not only morally objectionable, but we have no hope of dealing with the enormous amount of violence in this world if we insist on misrepresenting it.
For 2015 our government expects to spend $550 billion on "defense." A country that spends more than half its national budget on military equipment and soldiers should not point fingers at violent young men in the inner cities. It is hypocritical, it is a really bad joke, and it shows a will to be untruthful and a refusal to regard violence in the world realistically.
These misrepresentations completely ignore that America is drunk on violence. A good deal of our entertainment in films and computer games is violent to a bizarre extent. One of the standards of masculine virtue is to be violent on the football field and if possible give the other guy a good concussion. Familiar statistics tell us that one in four women will in her lifetime be sexually harassed or raped. Violence within families has reached epidemic proportions. Most Americans take that in their stride but when two policemen in New York, or a few journalists in Paris are murdered everybody is completely outraged.
Our nation is deeply divided over rights to carry weapons whose only purpose is to make violence more lethal. Every year 30,000 Americans die from gun violence. When toddlers accidentally shoot themselves, or women who wear a gun in their bra commit involuntary suicide, no one questions whether we are not profoundly on the wrong path.
Violence permeates our schools. In spite of a great deal of discussion and different programs, bullying continues and guns find their ways into schools.
But we continue to point the finger of blame at "terrorists."
That just makes no sense at all.
Any reflection about terrorism and how to deal with it, that does not begin by facing our own addiction to violence is bound to fail. As long as we go around and sound off about the violence committed by the Islamic State or Boko Haram and act as if we were peaceful lambs, the downward spiral of violence will continue. We will be attacked more frequently and we will go around bombing more and more civilians.
A great deal of the fault for violence in the world lies with us. Until we admit that and until we raise the question whether we want to continue spending too much money on the military, and continue having bases all over the world, and whether it is acceptable to go around attacking people with airplanes and drones in many countries, nothing will change. Windbags, hypocrites, and people who refuse to think about what is going on in the world will continue to confuse the issue.
Very many very innocent people will continue to die.

Monday, February 16, 2015

You call this democracy?

With the beginning of the new year we look forward to a national legislature resembling nothing as much as a married couple about to enter a really ugly divorce. Cooperation has ceased a long time ago. The only kind of conversations consist of bickering, of trading insults, of making absurd accusations that blame the other for what they are clearly not responsible for. The analogy breaks down only because Democrats and Republicans cannot get divorced.
The history of this disastrous impasse is clearly complicated. It involves the fact that ours is a capitalist democracy where political parties act as if they were competing businesses, striving for power to make the other party ineffective. It involves the rapid development of different ways of communicating and the development of complex skills of manipulating information, misleading the public, making criminals appear to be benefactors of the public, and real heroes to be threats to public security. It involves the logic of representative democracy where common people are really sidelined and the country is run by a political class. Democracy is transformed into an oligarchy.
One element in this gradual decay of democratic institutions is our misunderstanding of what democracy should be. The most common account of our democracy asserts that ordinary citizens wield their political power by selecting representatives. If representatives do not promote the projects dear to the voters, they are punished by not being reelected. Central to democracy are elections. They are supposed to be the mechanisms through which common people express their opinions about policies they want the government to adopt. Democracy is about shared decision-making. Hence democracy works out to be a free-for-all between people who think differently about a wide range of issues from welfare, to gun control, to foreign wars, to the treatment of homosexuals. And on and on.
What has been lost in this focus on elections is a simple truth. Democracy does not consist of ordinary people running their country's affairs. It consists of ordinary people running their country's affair together. By focusing on elections, our idea of democracy is all about opinions and, more specifically, about differences of opinions. But differences of opinions are completely paralyzing unless the people who are different know how to cooperate in spite of their differences of opinion.
Only as cooperation is democracy a feasible project. As we see in our present experience and as, I fear, we will see much more clearly day in and day out for the next few years, where elections and different opinions are in the center of so-called democratic institutions, what you get is really an oligarchy. Where different parties fight for the power to impose their ideas on others, the project is a coercive one. The majority gathers its strength to coerce the minority. The democratic promise of allowing everybody to participate in governing – even if only minimally – is broken. Instead the conservatives dominate the progressives, or vice versa. The center of what we call democracy is domination.
A genuine democracy prizes cooperation. It values especially highly cooperation between those who disagree quite fiercely with each other. There are places where pro-life and pro-choice women manage to cooperate on sex education or adoption services projects even though they continue to disagree about the morality of abortion. These groups provide a small part of a foundation for real democracy. They trust each other, they work together. They thereby make it much more difficult to consider forcing the other into positions they find unacceptable.
Democracy is not primarily about voting. It is primarily about people working together in spite of serious differences, in spite of serious disagreements, in spite of the blatant inequities of everyday life in America today.
It takes more than goodwill to promote that sort of cooperation. It takes a good deal of hard work, of very difficult conversations, of joint projects which fail, of being hopeful in spite of real frustrations at the difficulties of overcoming the divisions in our society. The project begins with civility, with foreswearing insults of one's opponents, of voicing one's ugliest suspicions of the other as proven facts, of blaming one's opponents for all sorts of misdeeds. Democracy, as cooperation, begins with being respectful of one's opponents.
If that is not difficult enough – think of being respectful of Wall Street traders who invented subpar mortgages packaged as investment instruments – the next undertaking--having real cooperative projects with people you tend not to trust--is even more difficult. But it is clearly essential.
Until we put major efforts into such cooperations, we should stop bragging about our democracy and instead go to work trying to restore it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


The Polish parliament adopted a European convention opposed to family violence, which includes recommendations for what children should be taught about equality between men and women. In a very bitter debate many parliamentarians objected that teaching children the equality of men and women goes against traditional family values, against established ideas about the different roles of men and women. Many of these objections were based on what were thought to be Catholic values. Equality between the sexes was seen to violate religious teachings.
I thought that was really interesting because it showed that Islam has no special place in the war of men against women. Catholicism can hold its own. It made me wonder whether newspapers in Yemen or in Pakistan constantly reported about priestly child abuse, as our papers continue to report so-called "honor killings."
If you are a Protestant this story may reinforce your detestation of Catholicism. But thinking about that reminded me of the slave castles on the Atlantic coast of Ghana. There slave traders erected massive stone buildings to hold black men and women for shipment to the New World. The ground floor was taken up by a large dungeon crowded with future slaves. On the first floor, right above the dungeon, was the chapel where the Dutch Reformed slave traders sang their hymns in praise of God and thanked him for purging them of sin.
Secularists may want to bolster their case from all these narratives. But the Soviet governments that committed genocide against their own people were devoted secularists. Cruelty to other groups of human beings is not limited to practitioners of different religions. The Nazis had no religious commitments.
Can we learn anything from these horror stories?
It seems to me that male chauvinism, child abuse, vicious racial prejudice, and genocide all are committed by people who are self-righteous, consider themselves better than others, privileged and deserving their privilege – in short people deficient in humility. Men are lacking in humility who believe that it is their role to be the dominant force in the family and in the world, to control resources, make decisions, lay down the law and, where necessary, enforce it violently. Many different religions suffer from the same shortcoming. Secularists are notorious for believing that they are superior to religious persons.
We must understand what humility is.
The humble are prepared to recognize their limits and shortcomings. They can admit those because they have a good sense of what they know and what their competences are. We should not confuse that clear-eyed awareness of what one is and is not able to do of the humble with people who are constantly apologizing, often for what they are not responsible for. Humility is quite different from low self-esteem.
Humility thinks critically. Not for them the credulity of those who consistently distrust themselves. Many people believe what they hear on Fox News, or in other places that promote distrust of established wisdom. The humble trust their own intelligence and use it to form their own opinions. They well know that they may make mistakes but trust themselves to repair those.
Humility respects outstanding accomplishments. But, unlike many people, it does not automatically salute persons in authority – elected officials, doctors, law enforcement, military authorities, ministers. Humility requires both trust in oneself and the willingness to incur responsibility for making mistakes.
Humility is different from the false modesty of many people who secretly believe that they are as good as human beings come, they work hard, they are sexually continent, they are never loud, or drink to excess. They do their duty day-in, day-out-- all the while quietly congratulating themselves for not being like those people – African-Americans in the US, Irishmen in Britain, Greeks and Turks in Germany, Palestinians in Israel, etc.
Aware of what they are good at and where they tend to fail, the humble do not need to bolster their self-respect by looking down on other groups, usually stereotyped.
Humility is especially in short supply in the US. Our position in the world is that of the richest and most powerful people the world has ever seen. Our leaders keep telling us that we must maintain our position of superior power. We are the leaders of the first world. We look down on "old Europe," not to mention on the "developing world," while we marvel at their incompetence.
But that attitude, as the controversy in the Polish parliament illustrates, produces terrible injustices. The attitude that we know what's right, that we do what's right, and therefore can lord it over others, has for long done great harm to women, to children, to Africans destined to be sold as slaves, to Armenians or Jews. Lack of humility, a prominent characteristic of citizens of the US, is the cover for a good deal of brutality in this world.