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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another Beginning

Explorations:  Essays on the Final Objective

These essays are intended to appeal to the explorer in you, or stir it up in case you are in danger of losing your sense of adventure because you have been told you are too young, too old, too stupid, too disadvantaged, too undereducated to be the explorer you really are.  Or worse, because you have been deluded to believe that you have already achieved your final objective and don’t need to explore any more.

Past explorers have named the objective of their quests many things:  Happiness, Holy Grail, Golden Fleece, Unified Field Theory, Transcendentals (Good, Truth, Beauty, One), Just City, Great Society, Paradise Lost, God, Meaning, Fountain of Life, Infinity, Billboard at the End of the Universe, or simply, in the words of the greatest of ancient explorers, Odysseus, home. 

My personal explorations have been in the name “ethics” for the “good life.”  Many years ago I was in a doctoral program in social ethics, course work finished with dissertation proposal and data in hand, when I was seduced into social activism, i.e. community organizing and development. (As a student once said to me: “you talk a good line, Mr. Smith. Do you ever do anything about it?”)  But even during a life of social action under both public and private auspices, I kept up my reading and thinking in the field of ethics.  And now, hardly rich, but retired from income cares (thanks Social Security, 401K, and pensions!), I want to put my thought and action together.

The reason I want to appeal to your inner explorer is because I need to keep prodding mine.  Life is an exploration.  Stop exploring, with all the new learning that implies, and you stop living.  And, because I am under sentence of death, life is all the more precious to me right now.  A good friend of mine has just been told that malignant tumors have entered most of the glands and organs of her body; she will die in four months.  She reminds me of my less precise but still present diagnosis evident in my aging body. 

So I better get going so I can find the objective of my quest soon.  But of course you already know the ending of my exploration and the upshot of all my meditations: the objective we are searching for under any name is in the exploration itself.  So there you have it.  End of story.  Stop reading if you want right here.  But never stop exploring.

For those of you who want to keep exploring with me, however—and I thank you profusely for this—here is what I intend.

Classically the question is:  what is the “good life?”  How do we do good and avoid evil?  Where do we find the meaning of our existence?  When are we happy? 

But, as valid as this question still is, we no longer live in classical times.  Nor even are we anymore in modern, i.e. enlightenment, times.  We have entered what many have called a postmodern world of relativity without absolutes where humans have passed from being playthings of the gods and even cogs in a machine fashioned by a Deity to being evolving bits of information in an emerging holographic universe. 

In such a universe, now being discovered by science, and entering into the thought patterns of culture, can we explore the ethical question that still keeps raising itself?  Is there any objective basis on which to plant an answer?  Are there any moorings in this sea of turbulent winds?

One answer is to simply avoid sailing.  Don’t accept the world as it is.  Refuse science and avoid its findings and technologies.  That’s what they are doing who deny evolution, climate change, and neuroscience and fight its technologies.  Keep that old time religion which was good enough for mother, good enough for father, and good enough for me.

Another answer is to follow the winds, let them take us where they will.  Put aside the ethical question as non-relevant.  Go along with where scientific and technological progress is leading us.  Have the experts show the way.  Let liberal secularization be our new religion and our transcendence to a new humanity.

Yet I, like you, am excited by the advances in science and technology and their possibilities for the future of our species.  I think that quantum physics is helping us not only understand our place in the universe, but also remove obstacles holding us back from achieving our greatest potential.  I think that evolutionary psychology and neuroscience provide us a new look into human nature and make it possible to discover moorings to weather the turbulence and the standards by which to navigate our future without simply leaving it to the experts and blowing where “progress” would take us. 

But because it is an affirmation of our exploration, you will hear me say again and again that, while I think there are fixed stars by which we might navigate our future, neither the point of view by which we see them, nor the media by which we express them are fixed.  In my explorations I will find appearing in events objective truths that we might use as stepping-stones in our postmodern morass.  But even these stones may adjust themselves.  That just makes the exploration so much more fun.

What do I hope to get out of this?  Some guidance, some ways of asking the right questions as we go forward.  Yes, there are still important concerns about birth control, euthanasia, crime and punishment, homosexual unions, racial and sexual equality, role of government and taxation, hypocrisy in religion and politics that are both personal and policy issues that we need to think about.

But we as a life form are facing some momentous decisions:  Shall we march toward the “Singularity” in which we extend life indefinitely through biological engineering and mechanical technology as described by Ray Kurzweil? How do we respond to the new “totalitarianism” which, unlike governmental controlled 20th century fascism, bolshevism, and populism, is established in our centralizing systems of finance and commerce and our culture of economic and technological growth as described by Morris Berman? How shall we deal with (or prevent) the economic and ecological collapse predicted by the World3 modelers?  How do we structure our living spaces to promote what is best in us while preserving the very conditions of our survival as told by Jeb Brugmann?  How do we prevent the decline of stagnant political institutions as analyzed by Francis Fukuyama?  And where is transcendence or openness to spirit in our fast-expanding entropic, informational, holographic universe? 

Now that the ethical question has shown itself, here is what I propose for its pursuit. 

Part I is a series of essays in exploration of a model for a universal ethics that accounts for previous models, that can be tested by use, and that is accessible by all of us. In these essays I use the findings of contemporary science and philosophy to discover a dynamic human existence that not only explains, but also guides our activities towards fulfillment and happiness.  This is my optimistic meditation that I could entitle the Progressive Mind, but instead I call it “My Holy Grail: A Universal Ethic.”

Part II is the exploration of the American (and, by extension, western or modern) religion and its role in the decline of our civilization. In these essays I deal with the relationship of ethics, morality, and religion and examine how and why progress as economic growth has undermined our humanity and threatens our existence.  You guessed it.  This is my pessimistic meditation that I could entitle the Depressive Mind.  But I name it: “The American Religion and Its Morality.”

Part III is the exploration of our self and our world as we could be here and now if we so choose.  In these essays I consider what thinking, judging, and acting are all about and how they uncover what is evil and propel us to good in our present circumstances.  This is my advocacy meditation that I could entitle the Thoughtful Mind.  But let me just name it the final objective of my search: “Achieving Integrity.“

Let us begin our explorations.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Religion, Culture, and Morality

An appendix to my thoughts on the America Religion.  Some definitions.

1.  Religion as an element or aspect of culture.

What is the relationship of religion to culture?

Let me start by defining culture.  By "culture" I mean a society's language, art, science, education, religion and its total symbolic system through which all its activities are expressed.  Culture is a dimension of human social existence and the expression (the expressing and the expressed) of the meaning and values of a society.  It is the "glue" or "bonds," that hold a society together, the raison d'être of a symbolic social order.

Religion is an element or aspect of culture.  It is a system of expressions or beliefs of the ultimate or supreme meaning and value in a society, the measure of all other meanings and values.  Religion is often expressed in stories and rituals.  The stories are of beings, sometimes supernatural, responsible for the beginning and rescue of the society; and the rituals are reenactments of the acts of creation and salvation of the society.  I think it a mistake to equate religion with a belief in supernatural entities, including God or gods.  Moreover, if you define "God" as the "object of ultimate concern" (Tillich), then God, whether a supernatural entity or not, is omnipresent in human existence.  Atheism, as Spinoza demonstrated, is merely the denial of God as a personified, supernatural entity, but not the denial of religion.

In my definition, we are wired for religion as we are wired for culture.  Religion is an integral aspect of culture; and culture is a dimension (along with economy and politics) of the total human symbolic enterprise and system by which we deal with our environment (world, universe, multiverse).

2.  Morality and Religion

Is morality founded on religion?  Is religion necessary for morality?  In my definition, yes.

Morality is the system of mores or societal rules which determine correct or incorrect, good or bad, behavior.  It is the behavior control mechanism of a society.

Culture (as I have posited before) is distinct, though inseparable, from economy and politics, the public and private tensions of our existence.  If there is a social order, there is a culture.  In fact we are recognizing that any social organization (e.g. a corporation, church, tenants association) has a culture which undergirds its goals and activities.  Again culture is the dimension of human social existence that expresses its meaning and value: the answer to our question "why?," the objective of our desire to know.

Religion is the element or aspect of culture that expresses its foundational meaning and value.  It is the predominant belief system of a culture underlying and motivating all its symbolic expressions, and the rules of correctness or incorrectness, blessing and taboo, for human behavior; that is, morality.

While morality is grounded in religion, an aspect of culture, it is not necessarily any particular religion, e.g. theistic or judeo-christian or any particular culture, e.g. western or eastern or indigenous or modern.

3.  Types of religion in culture.

How does religion relate to culture?

In Divinity School I read Richard Niebuhr' book, Christ and Culture, where he showed using Weberian "ideal types" the various role that Christianity has played vis-a-vis culture.  This is helpful for understanding all religions and their relation to culture.

The five types are: (religion) againstofover, along side, and transforming Culture.  Religion can be seen as 1) the ideal that conflicts with and overcomes culture must (e.g. sharia or biblical law), 2) the ideal in the existing culture as accepted by the established order (e.g. morality), 3) the ideal that stands over culture with its own legitimacy and institutions (e.g. supernatural), 4) a parallel ideal and institution (e.g. two kingdoms), 5) an ideal that is in perpetual dialogue, critique, and question of culture (e.g. ethics).

I think it is also useful for looking at various responses to American culture:  evangelism (James Dobson, Pat Roberts), moralism (William Bennett, NYT Ethicist), dogmatism (Catholic and Mormon Bishops), separatism (New Age, fundamentalist sects), social justicism (MLK, Dorothy Day, Paulo Freire).

The source of the religious ideal can be ambiguous in all five types:  e.g. from within or outside nature, from reason (science) or authority (divine revelation), from evolution or creation.  Some would like to say both.

Return to the Future or the Myth of the Eternal Return

One of the themes I find in many good conservatives is a sort of nostalgia for a lost past--e.g. the 50s or time of the greatest generation, the time of the founding of our nation, the 13th the Greatest of Centuries, the moment when Socrates or Jesus or Gautama Buddha walked the earth.

"The best guide to the future is the past," Berman says.  That means many things.

The desire to return to a paradise lost before the sin.  

Before cellphones and iPods for example. Yesterday while jogging, I saw a Mom walking her kids along the creek train hardly noticing, much less talking with them--cellphone or, was it her iPod?, in her ear.  Couples eating lunch texting.  Kids traveling with their families but focused on the video screen.

Before open free sexuality without stable relationships made possible by birth control devices, pornographic media, sex toys, gay rights, and books.

Before the internet, which makes it so easy to shop, barraging us with ads enticing us to buy the latest convenience or entertainment. And my computer which puts me in contact with the total world, all my Facebook friends, without any personal, physical touch.

Before single family homes on cul-de-sacs with electric door-opening garages facing the street where I can enter my car without having to face any other resident and go right to my TV or computer using  energy who cares from where or how it is affecting the water, air, or climate.

So they counsel a return to village life before industrialization and that old time religion. There are indigenous villages in Australia's Outback or deep in African jungles or South American rain forests where we might still experience a past without the evil consequences of industrialization--if there highways on which we can drive our cars, or nearby airports, or trains to take us there.

Learning lessons of the past to guide new social construction.

The Bush Pentagon reviewed the Battle of Algiers to get tips on torture against terrorists.  Bernanke and Geithner studied the Great Depression to get tips on how to get out of our latest.  Many writers are studying the Decline of the Roman (British, Ottoman, etc) Empire to get tips on keeping the American Empire going.  This is one way to use history as our teacher.

Here is another way:  Weber studied China to understand the bureaucratization of the West.  Arendt studied Athens to get a understand the principles of democracy.  Heideggar studied the pre-Socratics to understand ontology.  Jaspers studied the Axial Age to understand the great religions.  Von Bertallanfy studied Newton to understand scientific method.

And in daily communal life:  Want to learn who people are, their character, their personalities, what makes them go?  Listen to their stories.  The same for organizations and civilizations.  Reenact their origin stories with them.  Think Studs Terkel's interviews and books, Story Court on NPR, Living history projects where young people listen to the stories of their elders.  In this kind of learning through history, we learn not only them, but us.

The Past as Foundation

The past we know does not exist except in the present, our presence to our world, to each other, to our selves.  The return to events is really a return to our human being, even Being itself, according to Heidegger.  It is indeed in events that multiplicity in unity, truth and the subject appear, Alan Badiou teaches.  What I think this means is that the return we seek is not chronological.  The return we see is contact with who we have been, who we are, and who we have the possibility of becoming with each other in our universe.

I have called this "integrity" in my own ethical model which I have explained elsewhere.  This stands in between past and future, in judgment of the morality of our present culture, in contradiction to both the absoluteness and the relativism of modernity.  But it appears only in the event--not pure thought, not ceaseless busyness, but thoughtful action.

The answer is not to turn back the clock negating the decisions we have already made nor trying to run from the present into some non-existent space.  Neither nostalgia or narcissism is the answer.  Here in this space, now in this time, and with these persons is the lost past to which we can return.  The original moment is now in our creation of publics.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What is to be done? (continued)

Political change occurs when people come together on their own initiative to create a space for speech and action.  That is the true nature of power.  It is the event where people appear and are recognized.

I experience power.  I experienced it in the black families who formed the Contract Buyers League, the Hawaiians who developed their own enterprises, the Fresno urban dwellers who pushed their City to grow in a new, more sustainable way. I experience it in the housing, community development, and tenant organizations with which I am now working.  I experience in the union of DC and Maryland churches, mosques, and synagogues that are building an organization where neighbors can discuss and act for what is best in their neighborhoods.  I even experience it in my condo association, my neighborhood and its associations, my church congregation, my daughter's parent-teachers association.

I know that true power (the ability to act in concert) will not come from private individuals or corporations simply trying to get wealthy, nor will it come from government agencies.*  Private organizations and government agencies can help, but change will only come when people set new principles for action and then confront their institutions and hold them accountable.  When they are taken over by economic corporations or by political parties, as is happening with the Arab Spring and already happened with the Obama Change and the Tea Party, they lose their independent initiative and power.

Jefferson called on every generation, not to uphold the original revolution and its constitution, but to re-do, re-enact the foundation.  Arendt argued that the "pursuit of happiness" articulated in Jefferson's Declaration did not mean private, individual property and riches, but "public happiness."  Spaces of freedom, like the town halls or community assemblies, where people can recognize each another as equals and shape common lives are expressions of public happiness.

This of course is the communitarian republican tradition when people stand together for political freedom over economic liberalism.

So Doctor Berman, I know humanity led by American hubris is dangerously close to extinguishing itself. I agree that this extinction will not happen in some grand apocalyptic event.  Nor do I hope for the Great Leader or Prophet or Movement or Technology to save us.  But I refuse to Drop or Tune Out.  Like you, I will use solitude to think and express.  But I will also use my ability to associate to encourage moments of innovation and power.  I have confidence that good people can and will get together and use their abilities to imagine, to verify, and to organize themselves to solve problems and shape common space.

It may not happen.  But I will not go slowly, lonely into the night.


* Note:  Obama in the heat of the economic crisis said "We will act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times."  Romney recently said at the University of Chicago: "when the heavy hand of government replaces the invisible hand of the market, economic freedom is the inevitable victim."

Well a plague on both their houses.  I will worship neither government, nor the market.  Having worked for both and necessary as they may be, I will rely on neither corporate or government bureaucracies to discover the meaning and power of humanity.  And I will shout that there is a more important freedom than economic freedom, a more important good than economic goods.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What is to be done?

I agree with Berman.  America is failing--has failed.  Even by its own measure of economic growth, the financial institutions which led to the latest failure, saved by government, are still too big to fail, are wallowing in cash that provides huge bonuses to those that preside over short term profits and to expert lobbyists undermining new regulations to prevent another fall.  We know that another boom and bust will come.

I am in conflict.  I depend on the growth of my 401K to maintain my income.  I love my iPad, computer, and smartphone (although I can get along without the TV very well).  I watch my grandchildren's' brains rewire with internet games content in their virtual worlds.

Here seem to be my choices:

1) Elections. The first choice in any democracy. Canvas for and vote in the right party and the persons that present the policies that will lead to the future that I prefer. But, in my judgment, America is really a plutocracy in democratic trappings. Monied interests prevail in choice of candidates, defining issues, shaping policy. Both parties intend the same with somewhat different approaches. Both are bent on saving the economy (which again I say is not bad). Both make it the measure of all (which again I say is bad). Both confuse ethics with morality, public policy with personal polls, social justice with private (usually sexual) mores.  All with overwhelming support of the American electorate from who they come.  Berman has reason to expect no changes here.  Consumer marketing plans, litmus test issues, mass media presentations, poll tested proposals, factions listening only to themselves, popularity contests with private ballots do not a republic make or lead to a just social order.

2) Love it or Leave it. We just got back from Belize.  In the small Garifuna village of Hopkins and in the jungle Mayan villages in Cayo, we encountered laid back people who didn't know they were poor, lovely, welcoming, happy people.  We also found émigrés from US, Canada, and Europe, not trying to make their fortune, but to enjoy a different life style.  Berman moved to Mexico where "not everything works, but everything works out."  Years ago a bright classmate of mine seeing where America was heading sold all they had and moved with his wife and children to teach math in New Zealand. understand well these moves and have often contemplated following suit. But my loved ones are here and I need to be in physical touch.  Also the crisis I believe is not just America's.  Japan, Europe, Russia, Korea, China are on the same march to affluence.  This is a human crisis.

3) Tune Out.  Berman speaks of the "monastic option."  Find a space where new values can be learned and supported.  A commune, a counter culture, a congregation, a country club where you simply don't have to deal with it.  We just moved from California to Takoma Park, MD.  It has the feel (and some reality) of being a town where people know, greet, and look after one another.  Very diverse in race, income, age, and lifestyle, we have no problem paying higher taxes for our wonderful parks, our running and biking trails, our bright schools, our library, our community center, and lots of affordable housing.  We walk to the Metro and to the Co-op, shops, farmer's market, coffee shops and eateries along Carroll Avenue.  Here I could easily become a kind of hermit, read, think, avoid the hamster wheel. But I don't want to.  And is the "purity" that comes with this a kind of individualist righteousness that reflects the very religion we question?

4) Fight Back.  The Unabomber fought back as did Bin Ladin attacking the key symbols of the American Religion: military research labs, Pentagon, Trading Center.  The passion, selflessness, and dedication to a transcendent principle is admirable.  But the unconcern for persons, the lack of empathy, the disregard of people with whom we are related, the sacrifice of human existence to principle is the very objective of our loathing: the pursuit of individual riches, the worship of the invisible hand, the sapping of the ethical core of our country.  But like the prophets we can fight back nonviolently with words, alternative lifestyles, symbolic actions.  As I believe great intellectuals, artists, preachers, religious women are doing.  Berman says they are not being heard and having little effect.  Perhaps.  But they certainly have an effect on me.

5) Organize!  The problem with the American religion and the morality it sanctifies is that it makes "making it" the end-all of human existence.  Of course we need to make it, to consume, to satisfy life's basic needs, to survive and thrive.  We now as a species have the ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide health care and income to all humans on earth and maintain the earth itself.  Our science and technology, our ability to solve problems, to produce goods is magnificent.  But there is so much more than our ability to produce and consume things.  We also have the ability to think, speak, and act.

To be continued

The Supreme Ritual

Years ago when our children were small we went with friends to New Mexico to stay on a Cochiti Pueblo to experience the most sacred ritual of the tribe.  The pueblo is divided into two moities, the Turquoise winter people and the Squash summer people.  The moitie "warriors" having gathered in their respective kivas (ceremonial chambers) would dance alternatively in the open, competing to encourage the heavens and the earth to be kind as the growing season began.  Though the day started out clear and cloudless, during the dances clouds began to gather.  When it started to rain, I turned to little Suzanne and said:  Isn't it amazing? It's raining? "Of course, Dad," she replied.  They're dancing."

The dance of Obama and Romney begins. The final teams are selected. The score cards printed. The play books written. The cameras are rolling. Millions of dollars have been collected to hire the coaches and players and attract the participants. The bets are placed. There will be a winner and a loser in this four-year ritual.  But it never really ends because as soon as there is a triumph the losing team is preparing to defeat the winner.

We can get a sense of the American religion and the interests, values, affiliations that motivate Americans through the presidential election contest, its highest ritual. We can unveil the symbols of the contest to discern the American religion's underlying meaning. We can find the main tenets of its salvation theology with its warnings against damnation and its promise of paradise in candidate websites. We can read the candidates' sermons for the pronouncements and prophesies they use to inspire their congregations and keep them on the path to glory.

This will be our ongoing inquiry until the winner is declared, but let us start with the issues selected by the contesting teams.

It's the Economy, Stupid

On their websites: Obama put "Jobs and Economy" as the #1 issue. Romney has it as "Jobs and Economic Growth." 

Yes, there are different approaches: the old 19th century or U of Chicago more libertarian approach vs the New Deal or Keynesian approach. And there are different nuances: focus on "fairness" in Obama with the rich paying more and the disadvantaged getting more assistance; focus on "growth" in Romney: the rising tide, the filter of wealth from the top down.  Obama believes government should be an equal partner with the private sector and use its resources to support programs that create jobs and channel towards the new economy. Romney believes that government should get out of the way to allow the ingenuity of the private sector working to pursue wealth to set the agenda and use the market for its purposes.

But the measure of success for individuals and for the collective remains the same: compensation or income, value of stocks, GDP, amount of wealth or assets, housing prices, consumption, balance of payments. The higher all these measures are the more successful we are.

Most pundits seem to accept uncritically that this election is about the economy and whether people see that Obama saved it and we are on the road to recovery or that our recovery is slow because Obama policies interfered too much.  

America First

In his State of the Union Address, Obama said that those who say America is in decline don't know what they are talking about. Romney is calling for an American Century in which America continues (or regains) its dominance. He explicitly claims "American Exceptionalism" and attacks Obama for apologizing for America (which Obama never has done).  

National Defense/Military. The Obama national defense has centered on killing the leaders of Al Qaida and stopping terrorism. He would not scale back the military except to make it more efficient, but keep adding to its technology and making robot warfare (drones). Romney cannot really criticize the Obama defense tactics though he does just as Kennedy attacked Eisenhower/Nixon for the missile gap (which there wasn't).

Foreign Policy. Romney attacks Obama for being too weak in foreign policy, by announcing withdrawal from Afghanistan and by not being more militant with North Korea and Iran. Romney expresses a more robust defense of Israel and containment of China. Obama has been adamant about support for Israel and has led in developing sanctions on North Korea and Iran.  

America's Role in World. Obama is reading neo-conservative Robert Kagan who advises Mitt Romney but supported Clinton's intervention in the Balkins and has not criticized Obama. Decline is a choice that America should not make. Only this nation with a strong military can preserve the present world order of corporately structured free enterprise that brings economic progress to the world.

Romney and Obama, wearing their flag lapel pins, profess to retain America's dominent role in the world making it safe for individuals and corporations to pursue wealth.  

  • Under "values," Romney talks about stopping abortion, marriage between man and woman, stem cell research. Obama talks about equal rights, women's health care (including contraception), progress for LGBT, stopping hate crimes. 
  • Romney talks about Gun Rights; Obama doesn't.
  • Both use the word "fairness" but mean different things. Obama is closer to Rawl's definition of substantive justice: dignity of all human persons. Romney speaks of justice as opportunity provided in a free economy without government intervention.  
  • This consistent with immigration views. Both want secure border. Obama wants education assistance for children of immigrants even if illegal and a path for citizenship for those here illegally but contributing to the American economy and community. Romney against "amnesty" as magnet for further illegal immigration.

Nature and Role of Government
  • Spending--Romney: less spending for everything except military. Obama: investment strategy in research for manufacturing, education, renewable energy, infrastructure.  
  • Regulation--Both talk about reducing unnecessary regulation. Romney would eliminate EPA and HUD, cut regulations for all business transactions. Obama wants to enforce regulation of financial institutions and equal rights.  
  • Obama wants to maintain tax breaks for middle class but raise on wealthy (Buffett rule). Romney wants no new taxes and to reduce for all investors and those with large capital who invest in economic growth.
  • Both want to maintain but reform Social Security/Medicare--both vague on how.  
  • For Romney, the role of government is to remove obstacles to free enterprise which will add to the accumulative wealth of the nation. For Obama, the role of government is to lay tracks for economic investment in a changing economy and insure basic needs are provided for everyone's subsistence.

Energy (and Environment)

  • Romney focuses on oil, drilling, fragmenting, shale; wants to remove environmental restrictions on exploration, production, and transmission of oil, natural gas, nuclear and limit alternative energy research. End the EPA regulation of carbon emissions and in general all environmental considerations if they impede economic growth.
  • Obama wants an "all the above strategy" which keeps producing traditional energy in a way that does not harm the environment, but provide greater research and investment for renewable energy.

Education and Labor

  • Romney says leave it to the states and to the private sector to come up with the best education system.  Obama wants to use Bush's "No Child Left Behind" but allow states to set standards. He also want to extend student college loans and support for community colleges.
  • Romney is against organized labor and believes that workers and businesses are best served through pro-choice without labor union influence in "right to work" states. Obama has little to say on labor unions though worked with them to save jobs in the auto industry.

Health Care

Romney will repeal the Affordable Health Care Act even though it was based on his own Act in Massachusetts. Obama will continue and strengthen the Act so that healthcare is available to all citizens in a way that contains its cost.

Conclusion:  There are some differences in emphasis and approaches. Romney wants a more passive government with less investment in infrastructure and investment. Obama a more activist government providing investment in new technologies and infrastructure. Obama believes that government needs to provide minimum resources to maintain human life. Romney believes this can best be accomplished through a free market where the industrious succeed and the weak or lazy fall. But both measure success in terms of economic wealth. Both advocate a strong military to keep America dominant in the world to protect free enterprise and technological progress.

The American religion is strong. The ideal community is where individuals are pursuing and achieving happiness, i.e. the ability to produce and consume. Whether government's role is to remove obstacles (Romney) or to provide partnership and investment (Obama), the private sector working to increase private wealth is the main actor in the social order. Economic growth is the measure of human success.  America's role is to preach, model, and defend free enterprise for this human success.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Three Stories

I have three stories to illustrate what I have been saying,

1.  Lawndale, Chicago.

In the late 1960s, a few of us were learning community organizing working with Father Jack Egan in Presentation Parish.  After some months, a root cause of the decline of the neighborhood was uncovered.  Upwardly mobile black people with steady incomes and down payments, trying to buy homes in a community where realtors were scaring out white owners, could only buy houses through land installment contracts, not conventional or FHA mortgages which were unavailable since the area was deemed "too risky"--simply because black people were moving there.  White intermediaries were able to get conventional loans using the black families' down payments and then "sell" to black families at inflated prices while retaining the titles.  Black families who missed payments were liable to eviction without any equity.  It was simply how the "free" market worked in most segregated cities of the North.

Through organization the families, experiencing the devastating results of higher costs, overcrowding, and deferred maintenance, learned about the practice and began to act to renegotiate their contracts to what traditional mortgages would have been in an open society.  It was a long tough action that included demonstrations, payment strikes, resisted evictions, and a major lawsuit.

As organizers we were taught that people only act on self-interest and were told by our mentors to keep our "theological values" out.  That certainly seemed to be the case since families were organizing and risking everything in order to get a better financial deal.  But then the chairperson of the Contract Buyers' League, Charlie Baker, at a general meeting in Presentation Hall declared:  "I'm glad I bought my house on contract." This seemed to violate the whole principle of self-interest. "Why?' he said, "because it brought us together."  I realized then that there was a higher good that the people were experiencing: the good of associated action, of people power, of community.  It was not the hope of getting a better deal for themselves that drove them.  It was the hope of building their neighborhood and community.  Out of this came all kinds of self-help efforts: block clubs, clean ups, mutual aid groups.

2.  Honolulu, Hawaii.

In the 1980s I took the position of Executive Director for a nonprofit health and community services planning organization in Hawaii. Moving with my family into a very "local" community, we learned to appreciate the values of the host community: their link to the "aina," the land not as a commodity; their "aloha" spirit; their "appropriate" technology in fish ponds, breadfruit cultivation, healing; their sense of spirituality in the ocean, mountains, volcano and especially the "aina."

This was the Reagan years in the US when unions were opposed, taxes on the wealthy were lowered, regulations to guard the environment and civil rights were lowered, government (except the military) was contracted, and human services were cut.  Companies were being attracted to "right to work" southern states to avoid paying workers more, investors were making fortunes, and the military was flush--so much so that a captain in the Navy at Pearl Harbor who was on my board told me that they were spending money just to get rid of it "like drunken soldiers."  During the 80s, consumer credit increased by $5 billion, commercial real estate boomed (then busted with the S&L scandal), housing building continued its suburban cul-de-sac and gated community expansion, personal savings went from 8% to 0%, the national debt was tripled and most of the rise in income went to the top 2%. The good times were here again.

In Hawaii, I found the contrast with the Mainland palpable especially in my work with indigenous and local communities.  The Reagan revolution and its values were never accepted by Hawaiians even in the Republican Party.  Reagonomics, high government spending with less public oversight for economic growth focused on wealthier Americans and the military, worked for some--but not for Hawaiians.

3.  Fresno, California

in the 2000s, I became the Field Office Director of HUD for the Central Valley, California. Here the economy was being being driven by developers cutting huge tracts out of rich farmland (as they had done to LA and Santa Clara Counties before) to build housing less expensive for the immigrants from the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Southern California, but more expensive for the more impoverished residents of the Central Valley.  Of course this boom busted too and the region became one of the highest foreclosure areas in the nation.

But a coalition of urban planners, center city dwellers, church groups, progressive farmers, and even thoughtful builders began to experiment with "new urbanism" including center city diversity, transit corridor revitalization, and planned communities without fences and gates, denser, more diverse in income, ethnicity, and life style, with less impact on air, land, water. Developers fought back saying this was interfering with progress and the free market.  But recently in a hard fought confrontation before the City Council, a general plan was adopted with new urbanism principles and requirements. More important, the coalition shows promise of ongoing broad-based organization to hold city officials accountable.


In each of these stories, I found other principles of action than self-interest or the individual pursuit of wealth. The market, while important, is not the commonweal. The sense of community (polis) and the culture of spirituality appear in these stories as higher goals for humanity.

Clarifying the Crisis

I have followed many of my mentors (Dewey, Tillich, Niebuhr, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, now Berman) in identifying the American crisis, which is truly a global human crisis, as the reduction of human life, meaning, and action to economic concerns.  Berman says that instead of printing "In God We Trust" on the American dollar, we should print "What's In It For Me?"  Of course in the American religion's concept of God as the Invisible Bestower of Wealth, it means the same thing.  

But please understand.  I am not disparaging the economy.  I am not against money and people getting it.  

Money is important.  Money = the ability to consume. We are living bodies (e.g. animals) and need to consume matter/energy to live. And because we need to consume, we also need to produce.  Production/consumption (i.e. the economy) is essential to life. The human capacity to increase production (first hunting/gathering, then agriculture, then crafts and trading in the market, then industrialization, now information technology) is definitely a progressive advance of the human species to provide all that is necessary for life.  Conserving the earth, the condition for biological life, is also essential, i.e. the link between ecology and economy.

But when biological life becomes the only good, when we are totally bent on survival, or beyond survival when just keep expanding our economy to get more and more ability to consume, we are losing some other goods--and ironically we are depriving many others their ability to maintain life in a increasingly disparate world and we are destroying the very condition for life.

Association to shape common space (e.g. "politics" in its root meaning--not the way we use it today) is a fundamental good as well and the source of our power and freedom. I would argue that while economy is a basic good, association for common good is a higher good--that we seem to be losing today by making the economy the only standard of success.  

Another higher good is value itself, that which a culture expresses in its language, art, religion, manners, science, sports, architecture, cities, and spaces for recreation and discovery.  Civilization (derived from "civis" meaning city/state) also articulates this concept.  Though I admit that in some societies there are household gods for the private sphere, religion is a part of culture and civilization, should not be subordinate to the economy, but an expression of what transcends the surviving and thriving of biological life.

To repeat:  there are three interdependent, goods that relate to three motivators and capacities of human existence: self-interest (production/consumption measured by money), affiliation, or what Aristotle called "recognition," (association for common good), value (culture and its activities and expressions).  When culture and politics are subordinated to economy, we have what Berman is talking about and what have been becoming as a nation of "hustlers." We have a politics and a culture corrupted by money.

Again I am not saying self-interest, the pursuit of the ability to consume (money), is wrong or bad.  It is a basic need (and I would say "right") for all of us so that we can be about higher pursuits. I am just saying let's not make it the end-all, the purpose of our existence. I can see young people thinking they need to secure the basic needs of life and so are focused on "making it." But we older, wiser people should be much more progressive and balanced than that.

Correct balance and proper subordination within the three realms is the aim of an ethics of integrity over against our current morality. Human dignity is #1 and that means ability and opportunity to speak and act with others to shape our common space and time (i.e. freedom and power) with respect for the earth which is the condition of our existence. This ability is only there if people have their basic material needs satisfied and are educated to think and express themselves creatively.  

Economics, Culture, Politics.
Self-interest, value, community.
Money, language, power.
Private wealth and cultural value in support of, not replacement for, common good. 

Economic behavior is a means to the end, Civilization is the expression of the end, Associational Being and Action in tune with our earth and universe is the end.

Monday, May 7, 2012

So what's so bad about the American Religion?

I concur with Berman and his long tradition of social critics beginning with De Tocqueville as to the nature of America's religion.

I concur that both political parties, the left, right, and center, so-called liberals, conservatives, and moderates, are generally adherents to this religion but compete like Pueblo kiva dancers in their 4 year reenactment of the religion's central ritual.

I also concur that this religion is destructive to America and to humanity--though possibly for different reasons than Berman.

I think that this religion is destructive, not because of the free market capitalist economy it advances, not because of economic institutions (corporations, governments, entrepreneurs, schools), and not because of the advanced technological products.  I think the religion is destructive precisely because the American economy, its goals and means, its symbols and activities, is the religion.

It is destructive because it assumes and advances a vision of human nature and future that is destructive of human nature and future.

It is destructive because it is out of order, out of balance, out of sync with who we are and who we might be.

It is destructive because the morality it advances is unethical; it lacks objective meaning, lacks value attuned to the good, lacks consistency with reality, lacks ultimate integrity.

I explain.

There are (at least) three motivators of human activity: 1) self-interest or the fulfillment of human ability to survive and thrive biologically/materially; 2) affiliation/recognition or the fulfillment of the human ability to socialize, speak, and act;  3) meaning/value or the fulfillment of the the human ability to understand, create, and be open to the infinity of the universe.

These three springs of human being relate to 1) economy for satisfying the needs of life, 2) politics for satisfying the desire for association or love, and 3) culture for satisfying the desire to understand or meaning.  We poetically name these three: body, heart, mind.

The problem with our American religion is that we have reduced all these realms to the pursuit of material wealth.  We have put our politics and culture to the service of our economy.  We have made economy, production and consumption of material goods, the end-all and measure of human success.  And we have lifted up the USA as the definitive symbol and model of this morality.

In an ethic of integrity (I refer to my ethical model), the three realms would be in tension, in sort of a balance of power, limiting one another.  And within each of the three there would be limiting tensions as well.  But when the economy becomes the religion, when human being and action, culture and politics, are measured by economic growth, we have lost our integrity and our humanity.  In Berman's words, America has failed.

What Berman calls the "alternative tradition" in American history, that of communitarian republicanism, is really the assertion of politics (in its root meaning of constituting a polis or an open space for speech and action) over against, or at least along side of, economic concerns.  And we create a culture (search for and expression of disinterested value and meaning) that sustains both.

Instead, we have made the summit of our aspirations, the benchmarks of progress, the fulfillment of our humanity a matter of production and consumption.  Our crisis is the demise of true politics and the community it engenders and of true culture and the meaning and value it expresses.  This is our crisis--the one lately being exposed by Berman, but as he points out continually also exposed by social and political thinkers throughout our history.

The crisis that is generated by our worship of economy, I would argue, is not just an American crisis, but a human crisis.  It is not only America that is in danger of collapse; it is the total human prospect.

Next: I try to clarify the crisis we face.

The American Creed

I believe in God--the Invisible Maker and Bestower of All Wealth.

I believe in the Divine Messenger(s)* from God whose words are inscribed in the Holy Book** written by people inspired by God.

I believe in the Sacred Institution(s)*** established through God's Messenger(s) in order to communicate God's words and commandments and to interpret them for our times in order to guide individual behavior and the behaviors of all governments and secular institutions.

I believe that it is through the sacred institutions that individuals hear God and work together for the individual and family wealth of all believers.

I believe in God's Commandments**** as delivered by the Divine Messenger(s) as the font of human and American morality and commerce.

I believe in America which is chosen by God to be the light of individual liberty and the right of all individuals to pursue their own happiness through their own labor.  I believe that the divinely prescribed good for America, God's Will, is served when all citizens work to pursue their own goods in a free market.

I believe America is harmed when its governments and secular institutions undermine sacred institutions and infringe on the responsibility of individuals to pursue their own wealth.

I believe that God has blessed America with great resources and commands that Americans multiply through family life, work hard to gather the resources of the earth that God has provided, and use these resources to be happy and to create other resources for the personal happiness of all believers.

I believe that America's destiny and duty is to advance and protect (militarily if necessary) property and wealth for all believers through gathering and using the resources of the earth.

I believe that God rewards those who follow the commandments with happiness including the ability to produce and consume goods in this life and beyond.

* Moses, Jesus, the Prophet, Moroni, Founding Father, Adam Smith
** Torah, Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Constitution, Declaration
*** Temple, Church, Islam, Conference, Supreme Court
**** See ten commandments in blog 5/7/2012

America's Religion (3)

Roman Catholic raised and educated, I became an advocate for and practitioner of the "social teachings of the Church."  I was active in the Bishops' Campaign for Human Development which provided resources to communities to educate and organize themselves for social justice.  Poverty is defined by CHD not merely as economic deprivation, but also as lack of political power.

We worked with Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and other congregations to assist low and middle income neighborhoods and regions achieve the power of assembly, speech, and action to better their communities taking on local institutions and government.  Our focus was economic, political, racial justice over charity. While only a small minority of  clergy and parishioners participated in this focus, we felt we had the backing of strong, ecumenical religious leadership.

But by and large, leadership and laity became more concerned with "family values" and the purity of dogma in a closed belief system.  The churches and their schools became the means to assimilate families into the upwardly mobile aspiring suburban middle class and the American religion of success through the pursuit of wealth.  My Divinity School teacher, Gibson Winter, wrote about this in his Suburban Captivity of the Churches.

Ken Auletta's article on Stanford U, "Get Rich U," in a recent New Yorker Magazine says well what great institutions in America achieve and others, even religious ones, aspire to.  Stanford was founded by Railroad Baron Leland Stanford not as an Ivy Tower but to "qualify its students for personal success, and great usefulness in life."  It has achieved its objective admirably as the engine, workshop, incubator of the tech industries of Silicon Valley which have fed back into the campus with financial support, consultation,  instruction, and employment.  It models the quintessential American institution.

I taught at a Jesuit high school that prepares young men for college and success in business and the professions with the same value orientation of a Stanford.  Many of the graduates are successful in their accumulation of wealth, have developed a local club through which they can give each other business, and often support the school that encouraged their success. Catholic parishes and institutions, once defenders of immigrant and worker organization and power, now are beholden to their wealthy parishioners and alumni for support.

With some notable exceptions, religious institutions promote acts of charity for the deserving poor rather than voluntary organization of working, or want-to-be working, poor fighting for public policies of social justice.  Most of all, as Weber and other sociologists demonstrated, they enshrine the values of "making it" economically and providing more for themselves, their families, and perhaps their tribe or cult over vague considered notions of the "general welfare" or "common wealth." As a model for seminarians, the waterfront priest has given way to the wall street priest.*

Now the 10 Commandments of the true American civic religion:

1.  One God, no strange gods before: private pursuit of wealth, other values later.      
2.  Don't take name in vain:  keep oaths (see #8) especially with partners and stockholders
3.  Keep holy days:  go to church or temple to learn and sanctify the American creed..
4.  Honor father/mother:  self/family interest first; respect authority.
5.  No killing:  except in war to achieve and protect property (for God and self-defense).
6.  No adultery:  family values first (sexual mores over social justice).
7.  No stealing:  honor individual private property rights.
8.  No false witness:  maintain trust, contracts.
9 & 10.  No coveting neighbor's wife or goods:  Property rights above all (within the clan).

Nothing against the first amendment here.  Post the tablets in any civic place.

*Note: I am referring of course to Father Corridan (or Jack Egan, Geno Barroni, Dan Berrigan) and C John McClosky (or John Cronin, Archbishop Dolan, Robert Sirico).  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

America's Religion (2)

Mircea Eliade, the great historian and philosopher of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, identified in every religion a creation myth and its axis mundi. The center or axis of the creation is represented by the place, usually a high point, around which the world is ordered, often a sacred mountain or tree.  Creation is celebrated each year in a reenactment of the myth, a ritual that descends first into chaos and then moves to order around the high spot or a tree or a pole that represents the point of creation.

In ancient times temples at high points in the cities were used to represent the axis mundi.  In medieval times cathedrals and mosques spiraled up to show the link between heaven and earth.  Many have pointed out that skyscrapers, often bank buildings, are now the highest points in the city.  It is significant then that the American New Year comes after a night of reveling with the dropping of the illuminated ball at Times Square.

Here are some of the elements of the creation myth of America (which can be found in all popular histories of the United States and most American history text books).
  • Christian groups led by Divine Providence flee oppression and separate themselves from the old countries in Europe (or Missouri in the case of the Mormons) to start a new nation under God, with freedom to acquire land and forge for themselves.
  • The colonies unite to declare freedom from England, its monarch and its taxes and found a new nation that will allow free commerce and unlimited growth.
  • The country expands (manifest or divine destiny) so that civilization can overcome savagery and paganism and so that industrious individuals and families could stake out on their own.
  • The nation maintain its union through a Civil War to end the backwardness of the South, overcome agrarian slavery, and increase industry and technological progress especially into the West.
  • The nation grows economically by taming and accumulating of land, by harvesting natural resources, by invention and development of new technology, by efficiency in organizing capital and corporations.
  • America becomes the Global Power through which it overcomes evil empires, becomes the beacon of freedom to pursue wealth through industry, and is the protector of free industry from dark forces.   
Where is the axis mundi or holy center in this creation story?  There are many in a progressively expanding horizontal culture.

I now live in the Holy City--Washington, DC, where the Washington Monument is the point around which all the beautiful public buildings, memorials are organized.  Many Americans make pilgrimages to the holy city each year.

I already mentioned Times Square, but really the skyscrapers of New York, mainly those that organize trade and finances (emulated by all the major cities and especially Chicago as the nation spread westward), are centers of the American Religion.

I grew up in Cleveland and Detroit--probably the most important of industrial cities right after the civil war (which made Cleveland) up through the World Wars (which made Detroit).  No longer of course.

I worked in San Jose, Silicon Valley, which became the informational technological center, wiring the whole world with its products and information.  When you are there you know that really the center of creation is Stanford.

The American religion in an expanding nation has many centers. And because it is a religion without community, without moral core, without objective values, perhaps it has no center.

Next: the ten commandments and the churches' role in the American religion.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

America's Religion

Two traditions have competed in the history of North America.  They are 1) the communitarian republican tradition and 2) the individualist pursuit of wealth tradition, with the latter totally dominating the former.  Puritan leader George Winthrop preached aboard the Arabella sailing to America that what his companions must be vigilant about is that the "good of the public oversway all private interests."

But, as Berman points out, this was not to be, although that rhetoric arises from time to time as in "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."  The "public good" became not a higher good, but is reduced to the aggregate of the pursuit of individual wealth.  As Bellah noticed in his comprehensive review of the American character in Habits of the Heart, although there were still some who dedicated themselves to public service over private interests, even they had lost the language of communitarian republicanism.

Let us look then at the American Religion: (this is a work in progress)

Supreme Being or Higher Power:  Invisible Hand of Market, Source and Bestower of all Wealth--sometimes personified in language of particular private religious traditions.

Sacred Text: US Constitution as guarantor of the right and freedom to pursue and defend property wealth and the ability to consume (money).

Good news: America is the exceptional nation, chosen by God to be an exemplar for and protector of the nations following in America's example; America is the land where anyone can achieve riches if they follow the commandments; public good or commonweal is the accumulation of individual effort to accumulate wealth.

Commandments (later I will put these in the form of the J/C ten commandments): equip yourself and children to pursue wealth; maintain order primarily the law that protects property; protect institutions that encourage free enterprise; use mass media to advance technological progress; produce and consume things; work ceaselessly to keep seeking and getting more (hustle!); create government that supports and does not infringe upon the private pursuit of wealth; do not descecrate sacred text or symbols.

Sacred symbols:  American flag including lapel pin; dollar; signs of acquisition; (e.g. house, yacht, art work, stock portfolio), diploma (primarily from Ivy League or major university), government buildings and corporate headquarters, Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Saints (models for emulation): Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Warren Buffet, Mitt Romney, etc.  The "troops" fighting to maintain American hegemony and protect America's interests.

Ministers of the gospel: president with economic council, corporate executives, film producers, economists, bloggers, political parties; pastors, bishops, ayatollahs who help maintain the present order, teach the American dream, encourage people to work hard and be successful.

Heresies and heretics: socialism (Debs, Harrington, Marxists); communitarian conservatism (Emerson, Thoreau, Kirk, Kekes, Mumford, Niebuhr); worker organization (Lewis, Reuther, Chavez); (local community organization (Mother Jones, Ruskin, Alinsky, Rathke, Malcolm X, Freire); Intellectuals (Berman, Harrington, Hedges, Arendt, Liberation Theologians, Marxists, Crossan, Klein); Artists (Lewis, Melville, Baldwin, Wordsworth, Twain, Hughes, Hawthorne, Miller).

Highest principle of action and measure of success of persons, institutions, nations: economic growth (primarily through technological progress and corporate efficiency).

Sacred institutions: corporation, financial institutions, trading centers (Wall Street); in government--military to protect trade and keep order, treasury and Federal Reserve Bank, judiciary to protect Constitution and freedom to pursue wealth; charitable foundations and organizations that relieve strains on existing system; Ivy League and certain major universities that prepare persons to best equip themselves for economic success; private religions and churches that teach the values of existing system.

Next:  Creation Myth, Axis Mundi, Ten Commandments

Friday, May 4, 2012

Why America Failed

Please read Why America Failed by Morris Berman. 

And please open yourself to his perspective and try to understand what he says from his point of view before you reject it out of hand.  His writing is truly heresy to the American creed.  You will not want to accept it.  Just please give it a hearing and allow us to talk about it without bad-naming it.

As I stated in earlier blogs, I have embarked on an enterprise to reassess America’s religion by examining the speech and action of this year’s presidential campaigns.  What Berman gives me unsolicited is a well-researched, thoughtful articulation of the American religion today with its creed, holy books, sacred symbols and places, creation myths, supernatural entities, saints and martyrs.  Thanks to his gift, which I accept gratefully, I can more easily review the American religion as it appears in the campaign as well as test our formulation of it. 

Yes, we can accurately call Berman’s work a “conservative, republican critique of America.”  But it is not the “conservatism” of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Ryan, and Romney Republican Party.  Far from it!  And he demonstrates that Kennedy-Johnson-Clinton-Obama Democratic Party is really not much different in its core (or lack thereof) than the other Party.  His work will give you little consolation or rationalization for your choice in the latest super-bowl of American politics.

I too have great problems with Berman’s book.  I will argue with his description of America's operating values though in general I do think he is correct.  And I do not want to accept his prescription.  But my major problem with his writing is that he exposes my hypocrisy, my banal complicity with evil, and my conflicted desire to have a moral center even as I trash it by my own behavior.

Berman stands on the shoulders of a lot of American moral critics, many of whom he names (Hanry Thoreau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Vance Packard, C. Wright Mills, Robert Bellah, Christopher Lasch, Lewis Mumford, Chris Hedges, Joseph Stiglitz, Walter Hickson) and many he does not.  Berman represents what Walter Breugemann calls “the prophetic imagination” in American religion, culture, and polity. 

But he goes further.  All previous prophets imagined an America that would change.  Berman argues that such change is now, and probably always has been, a fantasy.  America will not, probably cannot, change.  It can only continue its lemming-like march over the cliff. 

And that I cannot, will not, accept.  I have to act at least “as if” redemption is possible.  

My next blogs will converse with Bergman’s thoughts.  I will try to summarize his description of America’s religion.  I will try to show how the American religion is already being proselytized in the presidential campaign.  Then I will try to answer VI Lenin’s question: what is to be done and see if it differs from Berman?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Fairness Doctrine

The Economist just posted an article on Romney and Obama's use of "fairness" and questioned whether there was a valid philosophical difference in their use of the term. As opposed to one critic who said that Romney was just trying to steal and obfuscate the term.

I agree with the Economist writer. There is a valid debate here.

Obama speaks of closing tax loopholes for the super wealthy so they pay their fair share so we can fund housing, healthcare, education, social security for the less fortunate. Romney said it isn't fair when public service workers and other unionized workers get more pay than those who are unorganized and get more than what the market will bear, nor is it fair to pass on debt. Two very different concepts of fairness. One more focused on wealth inequality. The other more focused on market inequality.

Equality is a concept of the revolutions. The American stressed birth equality and "freedom and justice for all." The French egalité along with liberté stressed overcoming oppression. The Russian revolution stressed rule by the proletariat. All three were expressions of "class warfare," in the sense of overcoming the monarch, the aristocrats, and the czar.

As Hannah Arendt pointed out, while all three revolutions started out as expressions of political equality through American town hall assemblies, the French societés, and the Russian soviets, the latter two, overcome by the social question,were betrayed--as was the American in its institutionalization. "All power to the soviets" became all power to the Bolshevik party controlled government. The free societés were succeeded by the Terror and the Napoleonic empire. And the direct democracy town hall tradition was succeeded by representative government and the parties.

So we have a tension between political equality/fairness and economic equality/fairness with the economy dominating politics.  (See my previous blog.)

And in the economic realm, we have a tension between substance and process--wealth distribution and market freedom.  John Rawls in his Theory of Justice was a spokesperson for the notion of a social contract in which all institutions act with a "cloak of ignorance" as to who is benefitting.  All humans would have the same benefits and starting point.  This is the "liberal" notion of creating a society in which all have the basic necessities of life (living wage, shelter, healthcare, education, social security).  Government, as the instrument of fairness, should assist those who have been held back and left out including veterans who give up years of their life in war, the progeny of former slaves, formerly oppressed immigrants and refugees, the disabled, and children in poor families.

Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics are spokespersons for the "conservative" doctrine of equality of opportunity that removes the barriers of government regulation so that the free market can operate in a way that can be used by the most talented and assertive so that benefits will accrue to them and the market through increasing the wealth of all.  They demonstrate that the "redistributionist" approach actually retards economic growth to the detriment of all.  Government's role is not to ensure equality of wealth, but to protect the market locally and worldwide in order to encourage entrepreneurial and corporate activity.

Can these points of view be synthesized?  Probably not in their static belief systems.  But actually they have been synthesized in American pragmatic (i.e.non ideological) politics since Teddy Roosevelt if not before.

But today they seem to be polarized into a stalemate or gridlock with one side calling the other "vulture capitalists" or "nanny state socialists," and one party's stated priority to discredit the president over serving the nation and now a president no longer believing that compromise is possible.

I of course would like to synthesize these viewpoints in a new theory of ethics that would lead to a practice that does reconcile all these tensions in the notion of integrity. Can we have a really free market and at the same time make sure we all have the same starting point? Can we ensure that all people have the opportunity to the higher goods of civilization and associational power by ensuring that their basic life needs are not a major concern?