follow my blog by providing your email

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ethics in Politics: Questions to the Candidates

Today in the Post there were two excellent sets of questions that should be topics for the Big Debates, one set by Fact Checker Glenn Kessler and the other by Conservative Columnist George Will. I have some other questions that won't be asked and probably shouldn't be because they would be answered with general platitudes. Nevertheless I will be listening to the candidates carefully to understand how they do in deed answer these.  Are there questions you would add or subtract or change?

What is your notion of wealth, image of God, definition of human nature? (see previous blog).

What is the most important issue of your presidency?

What is your religion (or spirituality) and how might it affect your presidency?

What do you consider the highest goal for the nation?

Some say we are ready to move into a New Economy. What would be your preferred economy?

What is the role of government?

What is America's role in the world? Has America always acted in accord with the ideals you set for America?

Everybody advocates freedom.  What do you mean by freedom?

Everybody advocates justice. What do you mean by justice?

Everybody advocates democracy. What do you mean by democracy? What inhibits democracy in America and around the world today?

Everybody advocates a "free market." What does this mean to you? Are there limits?

What is your understanding of the right to bear arms? Are there any limits?

What is your understanding of right of free speech? Are there any limits?

How much do you value science? Do you consult science and its general consensus when making decisions? Do you support scientific exploration? Are there any limits?

How would you take big money out of the influence of government policy?

Do you hold for the separation of church and state? If so, what does this mean to you?

What is the "safety net" for you and government's role in ensuring a safety net?

Does everyone have a right to and responsibility for a job? If so or not, why? 

Would you consider a national service?  Why or why not? If so, what kind?

What are the most important public policies for a sustainable world and humanity?

Which immigrants should be allowed into the nation? Which should not? What will be your immigration policy?

Where should the lines against cruel and unusual punishment be drawn today? Death penalty? Torture?

What are the purposes and limits on military action? Use of drones? Intervention?

America has more people in the criminal justice system than any other nation?  Does this concern you? If so what do you advocate we do?

Despite some gains and some very successful people, African Americans as a group, still affected by years of slavery, Jim Crow, and northern urban segregation, are behind in many quality of life metrics? What do you propose we do about this?

Are there other people that are being excluded from full exercise of their citizenship because they belong to a certain group?  If so, what should be done?

Does it concern you that in the US and throughout the world in so-called free market or capitalist societies, the division between the rich and the poor is getting greater? Is this something you would work on? What ideas do you have?

Can America achieve world piece on its own? What role should we have? What should we do to eliminate the root causes of war?

What are the main values/goals that should drive all our public policy? What are the values that are threatening humankind?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Ethics of Politics (again)

The Campaign is getting to its end. Finally! Next week the debates.

At the beginning of all this I proposed using the campaign to critique the American religion--the values of our culture especially as they pertain to our public life. I reflected on Morris Berman's book Why America Failed and used Robert Bellah's notion of the civil religion. Then I examined the websites of Romney and Obama to see if there was a difference in values or at least priorities.  I also tried to recruit some colleagues to help by listening to the candidate speeches, campaign ads, the convention platforms and speeches. No takers here. Guess I should go back to teaching. It would have been a great class assignment.

Good friend Bob Toth just introduced me to David Korten. I ordered his book; but while waiting, I listened to his talk on "Radical Abundance: A Theology of Sustainability." Here he contrasts two notions of wealth, two images of God, two senses of human nature. I think they are instructive for the campaign and American politics.

Consumability, the capacity to control and use up resources, measured in money.
Natural, including human, resources for life, action, meaning, measured in happiness.

Patriarch outside and dominating nature (including humanity) and requiring obedience.
Emerging and becoming Spirit of life and love in everyone and every thing.

Human Nature:
Individual acquisition stimulated by the fear of loss and the flight from want or harm.
Social collaboration stimulated by the desire for connectedness and universal meaning.

The Empire mentality which now activates our collective discourse and behavior measures national wealth as the sum of everyone's value as measured in money, speaks of God as a rewarding and punishing Superman in the Sky, and human purpose as fulfillment of want and avoidance of loss including death. Acquisition and consumption drive us collectively as images of God to control the earth for the good of our kind. And it leads us on a way to non-sustainability economically, politically, culturally as a nation and as a species. It is that gnawing realization that is behind the grief we feel, the anger that we misdirect, the loss of hope in our government and ourselves.

Korten points out an irony. Most people personally have preference for a happiness that is not measured by acquisition and consumption of people, nature, land, and things. Most persons rather see the divine in the relationships in oneself, others, the world as a Spirit of Life and Love. Most opt for an empathic view of themselves and others. Yet this Earth Community mentality does not transfer into our public discourse and policy or our collective action.

So individually we are preferring the way of connectivity.  But collectively we are choosing the policies of separation. Our policies are rooted in fear and distrust of aliens and each other, owning and controlling natural resources, increasing our individual ability to consume. We see government more as a threat to us than a tool of us collectively and maybe because we make it so with our heavily financed party system.

If our Empire mind, policies, and behavior are destroying the conditions for life, freedom, and happiness, should we not choose collectively a different path? I have argued that this path will probably NOT come through politics as it is structured through the party system today, but must come through thoughtful community organizing. Isn't this where the Tea Party went wrong? Certainly many Tea Partiers, like Cousin Vinnie, have legitimate concerns and justifiable anger. But then they wind up misdirecting it with fear of Mexicans, African Americans, homosexuals, feminists, socialists and with the Republican Party (directed by Karl Rove).

In the meantime, let's look at the candidates, their rhetoric and policies and see which path they most represent? Let's examine their websites, their speeches, their debates.

They are both personally good men. Both I personally find likable. (Despite their stupid negative ads!) Both with compelling biographies. Good personal values, good families, good education, patriotic good Americans, contribute to charity.  Both have given generously to help friends and others who need help.

But what is their sense of wealth, image of God, sense of human nature? What do they consider the highest goal for Americans and the nation? Who are they attracting us to be as Americans and as humans? What kind of a collective or public ethic are they promoting? What is their path to sustaining our species and our world?

Let's come back to this after the first debate.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

Rev Rob last Sunday talked about getting lost and finding our way. He said that Quakers, like Unitarians, use the language of the "divine spark" that is in everyone.  It is by that internal light that we find our way when we are lost. Amazing grace!

The light metaphor was used by Plato and picked up by Augustine and then Heidegger for explaining human knowing. The limits of this metaphor were pointed out by Thomists following Aristotle. Neo-Thomist and Kantian Bernard Lonergan especially criticized the "look theory" of knowledge which pretends that everything is just "out there" ready to be found.  Look theory diminishes the creative aspect of knowing by which we craft a model or theory and then verify it through experimentation. When we use language or other symbols to deal with our environment, we are using forms to cut things out of matter and put them into groups.

But acknowledging those limits, the interior light that shines in the darkness to illumine things and especially the way is still a useful metaphor.

Yesterday I read a piece by Howard Gardner on "Reinventing Ethics." I agree with the professor that the old bromides, the moral statutes of past sages, simply don't work anymore. The Ten Commandments and the Analogues don't settle questions of extending life to virtual immortality, using drones against terrorists, planning sustainable cities, and dealing with climate change.  I very much like his solution of gathering the people of professions to consider possible actions, their intended and unintended consequences, what they know and have yet to learn, and the tradeoffs in alternative courses of action. They could reinvent medical ethics, the ethics on uses of biotechnology, limits of technology in defense and foreign affairs, environmental ethics, political ethics, legal ethics, etc. Granting that we can always learn from great ideas of history, Gardner's approach is much better than trying to apply some principles of religion or philosophy that were developed with such a radically different mentality in radically different situations.

However, the philosopher in me won't quite give up.

As I have said often in these meditations, there is a constant principle and guide in all the professionals' discussions and those of us ordinary citizens. It is the "light" of cognitive and moral reason in us all. There is a "humanity" to which we can appeal in our ethical discussions. It is the human way to truth and good, the universal structure of cognitive and moral knowing and doing. Karl Popper, among many others, has articulated the human way of knowing things in the world--reality, truth. John Dewey, among many others, has articulated the human way of doing right or good in the world. Recently neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists have shown how that singular human trait evolved and is administered in the brain.

Whether we are looking at that structure or not, it is operating in all our human actions, including discussing the ethics of our professions or of our everyday world. I think it helps to point this out from time to time; so might I encourage Professor Gardner to include a philosopher in those professional discussions, one who will help them reflect on what they are doing and with what tools so that they see that, despite the diversity of language and outlooks, there is always something which unites us all and makes possible a common space and action--at least for now.

When we all put our little lights together, there is an illumination far greater than that which comes from outside or down from high.  So let them shine.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Why is Cousin Vinnie So Angry? (Part4)

So how can I get to Cousin Vinnie? Getting him not to reduce his anger, but to use it positively.

Not by argument, nor studies, nor debates, nor evidence that attack his conclusions, his judgment, his religion, his party or group or country. Nor would my assurances that in all my experience in poor and minority communities I never knew anyone with the stereotypes I portrayed in Part 1. (Though I am still unhappy with my neighbors shouting.)

Evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists have affirmed that reason has little to do with it.  Don't get me wrong. I think rational inquiry has an important place, but not at this stage of our politics. What is important is what Cousin Vinnie is feeling, his fears, his sense of loss, the challenge to everything he has held dear.

And I have to understand this if we are to work together to make the changes that meet the values that are important to both of us. I have to acknowledge his grief and mine and redirect it beyond the apparent to the real sources of his grief.

"Rub raw the sores of discontent," counseled a former mentor, one totally misunderstood by that great historian Newt Gingrich. Saul Alinsky was a conservative republican in the most traditional sense of that term. His core principle was "a free and open society." He taught people of all races and religions how to use their own institutions to strengthen them and their communities and fight the big institutions, including government, that were threatening theirs. He taught how to form what Hamilton called "factions" in order to have power, not dominating "power over," but collaborating "power with." He counseled that in the process you will have opponents with different interests. But "no permanent enemies! Yesterday's enemy is today's ally."

He taught both the limits and uses of government and how to keep it accountable. For him it was not a question of lesser or bigger government, but to whom it was accountable, who it was working for, whether or not it fostered power and responsibility or took it away from local families and communities. He was certainly not a friend of welfare or charity when it reduced people's power; and he bated the "liberal" mentality for doing that.

Alinsky was especially concerned with the Cousin Vinnies and pushed the churches and community groups to help them organize before right-wing or lefty populists using messages of fear and hate could. He urged that they organize themselves on positive visions for their communities on education, access to health, city services, local business retention. In Chicago he showed that those neighborhoods that organized on fear or hate of "aliens" were the first to dissipate. He indicated that this was so for nations as well.

To find the Cousin Vinnies I go through their churches, their sports groups, their cultural centers, their unions, their neighborhoods, their affiliations. I have to spend time with the Cousin Vinnies. Not talking politics, but their economic interests, their cultural values, their social affiliations--in other words, their stories. I have to connect them with people who have similar interests, values, affiliations--but questioning their solutions, their beliefs, the "bullshit" that they picked up from politicos, advertising, media, and the hidden persuaders. I have to connect them in a way in which they can really deal with their grief through collective action. And so that they can experience the joy of being in community and in action, even when there are losses and setbacks, and the joy of being connectors on their own.

Some of issues that relate to the institutions (economic, cultural, political) that are giving us all grief are:

1) Tax Reform. We all want it simpler, fairer, more progressive, closing the loopholes that take jobs from ordinary people. Tax policy provides incentives and disincentives for certain people and activities. I bet Cousin Vinnie and I could decide what and who we want to provide incentives to--if we just forget our party affiliations.

2) Financial Institutions. We all want to make sure that banks don't take the risks which put us all in jeopardy. Never again.

3) Poverty. We all know that the growing disparity in wealth is dangerous. Instead of blaming greedy rich people or lazy poor people, let's identify the ways to make our "free market" system really free and accessible to all. Public good jobs (infrastructure,

4) Educational opportunity. Reinstate the draft but with options for national service. Expand GI Bill to all national service participants.

5) Language. Press all internet news outlets to edit out all ad hominem and hate comments. Make hate and ad hominem comments taboo, a sign of imbecility. Push standards for political discourse.

6) Campaign finance. Back to (or even a stronger) McCain-Feingold even if it takes a constitutional amendment. Buying elections is what maintains party disfunction.

7) Local development. City building using sustainable standards including considering long term costs of sprawl.

8) Public health and safety. Clean water, air. Community policing.

9) Dry up jobs for illegal immigrants by making those jobs more attractive to citizens, by sanctioning employers, by economic development in Mexico. But of course a path to citizenship for those who have been here contributing to this nation just as we did for the Irish and Poles before them.

All these transcend parties. All these require community building without party affiliation through organizing through churches, neighborhoods, unions, and other voluntary networks to hold all government and industry accountable. This is basic politics which transcends liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic, capitalist and socialist labels. This is the politics of "speak with," rather than "talk at."

Cousin Vinnie, I challenge you. No matter which party "wins" the title in November, can you commit yourself to at least dropping the hate talk, the bumper sticker labels, the stereotypes and start working on these issues for the common good? Or are you just going to keep making yourself miserable by reading and repeating internet bullshit?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why is Cousin Vinnie So Angry? (Part3)


From Middle English anger (grief, pain, trouble, affliction, vexation, sorrow, wrath), from Old Norse angrǫngr (affliction, sorrow), from angǫng (troubled), from Proto-Germanic *anguz*angwuz (narrow, strait), from Proto-Indo-European*amǵʰ- (narrow, tied together). Cognate with Danish anger (regret, remorse), Swedish ånger (regret)Icelandic angur (trouble), Old English angeenge (narrow, close, straitened, constrained, confined, vexed, troubled, sorrowful, anxious, oppressive, severe, painful, cruel)German Angst (anxiety, anguish, fear).

Grief, sorrow, anguish!  Justified.

But misdirected.

Yes, there are bad people, exploiters, who have suppressed or dismissed their conscience in order to advance themselves financially or politically. Populist polarizers and partisans using slogans that incite fear and clan mentality instead of thought. (I put Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, and Sarah Palen at the top of my list here.)

But most, like Cousin Vinnie, are true believers who have little ground experience in minority or poverty communities and are hoodwinked into thoughtless opinions. I do not expect Cousin Vinnie to change. He is too old, too set in ways that are constantly reenforced by what he chooses to hear on the radio, by the barrage of hateful emails and internet sites he has signed up for, perhaps by what he hears at church, and by his desire for absolutes--a right versus wrong, a white versus black, America love it or leave it.

Angry men, white or black, native or immigrant, often do not acknowledge complexities and ambiguity because they are not thinking. (Perhaps some women too, though I do not know any with this kind of anger, except for the exploiters mentioned above.)

Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Linguists like George Lakoff demonstrate the roots of polarization and partisanship in the brain and advance new ways of "framing" (not just what you say, but how you say it) and across-group, human relationships to understand the moral foundations that have evolved in all of us. I find such research and discussion helpful, even necessary, but not sufficient.

When John McCain (R) and Russ Feingold (D) worked across parties with Common Cause and other reform minded NGOs to change election procedures that favored big money, they took on an institution that enshrines and promotes polarization in both parties. The plutocrats who run the parties and most of the economy, culture, and politics of the country could not have that and had the reform declared unconstitutional. (Which perhaps it is since the country was founded by slave-owning plutocrats.)

When Nixon (R) and Moynahan (D) and Republican successors worked with Poverty groups to initiate and support the Family Assistance Program which evolved to SSI and the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), they demonstrated an institutional way to attack poverty and increase assets (and buying power) of working people.

When Fair Housing reformed FHA and the Community Reinvestment Act, supported by numerous community organizations under National People's Action, pushed financial and governmental organizations to greenline instead of redline vulnerable neighborhoods, these were cross sector, cross party groups focusing on institutional, rather than psychological changes. Hopefully the same will be said for the health Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Finance Reform Act both of which in earlier days would have been bi-partisan.

Yes, attitudes matter. Fear and prejudice are used by the wealthy and their politicians to sway masses in a plutocratic democracy. Language, empathy, reflective inquiry can make a big difference. But my Chicago Lawndale experience taught me that the very structures within which we are working (including our cultural, economic, and political forms) are what need to be changed more than attitudes. And that takes organizing--the kind that is often nameless, unappreciated, and without fanfare and whose successes are usually attributed to celebrities. And the kind that can even involve Cousin Vinnie.

What are those institutions and how do we involve the Cousin Vinnies who don't consider themselves part of the 47% freeloaders, but also don't consider themselves part of the 1% and who are genuinely concerned about the state of the "middle class" and "working poor"? How do we redirect their justifiable anger?

Why is Cousin Vinnie So Angry? (Part 2)

Some of us young Jesuit seminarians were asked by Father Jack Egan to help him in his new parish in West Lawndale. This was a parish from which all the white people, many Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics, had fled when the neighborhood turned totally black and mostly Baptist in about 4 years. It was also, as predicted, becoming overcrowded, dilapidated, dirty, and dangerous.

The black families who had bought homes there were the last of the waves of immigrants that had come before. Instead of coming from Europe, they had come from the South to the promised land of the North.  But with them the pattern of immigration broke down. These were upwardly mobile African American families with steady jobs trying to get out of slums. Yet they seemed to have brought the slums with them.

We knocked on doors and talked to community leaders to do self-help projects--get a youth playground, work for a community clean up and regular garbage collection, do a block club or two.  We were trying to listen but had not heard. We heard African American people blaming themselves and their neighbors for their deteriorating condition and maybe the prejudiced white people who moved out: "but who can blame them when you look at what is happening here?"

Finally we did hear and began to discover what was really going on. Sure "culture of poverty among black folk" and "prejudice and fear among white folk" played a role. But behind all that were banks who refused conventional loans, a Federal Housing Authority which refused to insure loans, an insurance industry which refused to insure houses, and a group of realtors and savings and loan institutions ready to take advantage of the situation. They used contract buying to overcharge and keep the deed, bleeding the community and its families of assets. Local businesses couldn't get loans and ran.  And new unorganized residents had little political power in the Daley machine.

I had the opportunity to interview hundreds of families, black families who had moved in and white families who had moved out. I was also fortunate to later work, again through a Catholic parish, in a community further West where many of the white families had taken refuge.  I heard the anger and fear of both the black families and the white families, their desire for work, for education, and a safe community.

I saw that the anger of both the white people blaming black families and black people blaming themselves and white families was misdirected.  They didn't see the invisible structures which shaped their behavior and prejudices.  The patterns of behavior of financial, political, and cultural institutions, often run by "have blacks to dinner" white liberals or even African American machine politicians, that were working for some and not for many and that was destroying the commons.

What I learned was that sociology trumps psychology, institutions trump attitudes.  Yes, we have developed biologically and culturally sensitivities to in-groups and out-groups. Yes, our neurons light up tribal connections and fear of strangers. But the economic, political, and cultural habits, i.e. institutions, that we have fashioned are what reenforce our personal habits of behavior. And if we really want to change minds, we need to change the social habits (institutions) that sustain them.

Overcoming racism and poverty in Chicago was not a matter of black people meeting and getting along with white people, though that wouldn't be so bad.  It was a matter of changing the institutions and knocking down the obstacles that kept white and black families from seeing that the same institutions and the people running them were screwing them both.

I tell this story because it is not so different today.  Anger justified, but misdirected!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why is Cousin Vinnie So Angry? (Part1)

Why is Cousin Vinnie so angry?

He absolutely hates President Obama who represents to him evil liberalism which consists in government taking away people's responsibilities. He totally agrees with Romney about the 47% who don't pay taxes, who consider themselves victims, and are dependent on government. He thinks they should be working as hard as he did and can't stand to see people who want to work not being able to find a job while our taxes pay for freeloaders who, because of government policies and their own laziness, get paid for not working, get free health care and housing, food stamps and other benefits they do not deserve because they have not contributed to the economy.

Bernie and I retired last year, she at 68, I at 73. We saved, have SS, and a monthly disbursement of our 401k which thankfully is maintaining itself in this stock market. Even in our elderhood, even with the mortgage tax breaks we get by refinancing our condo and giving to charity, we are paying at least 15% of our income in taxers.

I work through my church with an organization that is focused on keeping housing affordable and the neighborhood racially diverse in our fast gentrifying DC neighborhood. It is also focussed on assisting tenants, most of them African American, achieve some equity and the possibility of starting a business, getting additional education, and buying a home in their community. Yes, it gets me mad when I see people, especially younger people, gaming the system to avoid taking responsibility to improve themselves and their situation. We have some instances of three or four generations in this subsidized housing. They are taking places that others could use to get ahead.  Some who are working and making a good salary still stay in this Section 8 housing paying market rent just for the security in case they lose their job.

Across from our condo are apartments in which there live a couple, clearly immigrants from some African or Caribbean county, who are going at it day and night.  Loud.  They obviously don't work. I don't know if they are getting housing and other subsidy--but how else could they be living, laughing, shouting, obviously drinking all the time.  Who is supporting them and their behavior. Me? Sometimes I am so pissed off, I yell at them and tell them to shut up and let people who work sleep.

In front of their apartments I am constantly picking up junk, papers, wrappers, and, worst of all, lottery stubs and putting them in the garbage cans which are only a few steps away. These people obviously don't care about their community. How can they afford playing the lottery? And I am probably supporting their habits--through government programs.  Bastards! And you know that many of the youth who are hanging out of the street are up to no good. If they are caught stealing or selling drugs, they will be sent to prison and I will be supporting them again--their board, their room, their food, their health. Double bastards.

What we have is a choice. Are we going to keep coddling these freeloaders and paying for their bad habits through government programs? Or are we going to get government to do just its essential functions--protect free markets and protect citizens against the exploitation of criminals here and abroad? And get government out of the social service game! That's our choice.

Go Cousin Vinnie!  No wonder white men like you and me are so angry.


But first a little story about my experience in Chicago working in a Catholic Parish in West Lawndale (the "black ghetto").  Part 2 next.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


In an earlier meditation, I reflected on partisanship. I reflected that the founders of the US did not want parties. They were republicans who accepted that there would be "factions" or groups that would through accountable government advocate their interests, work out any differences, and come up with policies where everyone or at least most people, all of whom "were created equal," could achieve their common interests in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  

I suppose it was unrealistic of them to not expect political parties and, without a parliamentarian form of government, two dominant ones. The history of the parties is instructive and demonstrates an ongoing tension among a whole bunch of approaches.  When the Republican Party was formed it stood for the industrial North and strong central government over the agrarian South and states rights.

That all shifted when the Democratic Party championed Economic Reform and Civil Rights enforced by the central government, as LBJ said it would. But at least within the Parties were still "factions." The Peace movement (especially the anti-Vietnam war) pushed for limited government; and the community organization movement pushed for more locally accountable government in both parties. Republicans were essential in overcoming southern Democrats in Civil Rights.

My dad was a good Republican because he thought that party more represented his interests as a manager in General Motors. But he recognized the importance of strong unions and was the first to get African-Americans into management in GM, as a leader in the Catholic Council for Racial Justice.

In other words, there were still "factions" within the Parties and this made for more moderation and a search for common cause among the Parties. (Common Cause was started by John Gardner, a Republican.)

We've seen the party system change substantially since the 1980s as more and more polarization, ideological purity, and institutional loyalty have arisen, something you expect from religion (why the separation of church and state is so important), but not in politics.  

In today's newspaper was another article on the campaign. Here is a quote from that article:  "The poll found that a majority of voters embrace the president’s vision of a country that emphasizes community and shared responsibility over self-reliance and individual responsibility, a distinction at the core of the debate between the Republican and Democratic tickets about the proper role of government."

I think this does cut to a basic orientation in the parties today. And one worth discussing and one where good people can differ. For sure self-reliance, even self-interest, and individual responsibility are important goods in the nation. But do they take precedence over community and shared responsibility in the role of government at least in terms of emphasis? Perhaps the answer is at certain times and places, yes. In others, no. Or whose self-interest and self-reliance are we talking about? And whose individual responsibility within the community?

In Catholic Social Teaching and in what is called "social democracy" or even "social capitalism" or even "socialism" as understood in Canada and Europe, there is a "preferential option for the poor," that puts the emphasis in advancing those who have been "left behind," those at the lower end of the economic and political ladder, those with fewer assets or equity, or as Economist Joseph Stiglitz says: the 99% over the 1%. Also there is a general moral prohibition in identifying or subordinating public good to individual self-interest.

But there is also the prohibition against a totalitarian state in which individual rights and responsibilities are denied. And there is the teaching of "subsidiarity," the dealing with issues at the smallest or most local level possible.

In other words, hating Obama as an outsider or "socialist" or an "ass" (as my cousin Vinnie proclaims) is downright wrong--and I think anti-American. But so is hating Romney because he is a "vulture capitalist" or believes in cutting dependency on government. And most of the Internet characterizations within the extreme portions of the two camps undermine our republican form of government. 

And so does all the money necessary to run a campaign. As I heard Republican Senator and Presidential candidate, John McCain, say: The Supreme Court "Citizens United" decision did more to undermine our republican form of government and strengthen our two-party system than any decision since the Dred Scott decision.

So good luck to us in November! I hope we can turn back to being a Republic rather than an Empire run by plutocrats. That is much more important to me than either Party.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In Conclusion

To conclude or perhaps start over, let me offer a personal reflection (as if the preceding ones were not!) that will expose my bias.

I am a church-going non-theist. I do not see or want a supernatural entity, a God, a transcendent being, who is the Meaning and End of it all. Nor do I need or want a religion that claims to be the exclusive or even the best way to Truth and Goodness. But I do need and want a congregation that helps me keep faith.

Spouse Bernie and I found and belong to All Souls Unitarian/Universalist Church--a wonderfully diverse congregation, with a gay white man and an African-American women as ministers, which is committed to no fixed doctrine and whose mission is to repair and rebuild the world starting in their own neighborhood of Columbia Heights DC. As universalists, we espouse tolerance and find value in all religious expressions, their teachings, rituals, and stories, while recognizing the limited and often harmfulness of those expressions including our own.  By unitarian we do not mean One God or One Person in God. We simply mean that we will continue to attempt to discover what will bring us, the whole human family, together, what is common to all of us, and what will give us all meaning personally and collectively.

In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician, physicist, and Christian apologist, presented the wager--the most fundamental wager in life.

One interpretation of that wager (probably the accurate one) makes religious belief--including God, Church, Sacraments, and an afterlife of bliss or punishment--a reasonable choice.  Here is the introduction of game-theory as taught in business schools through which the risks and benefits of certain courses of action can be weighed.  Certainly it is more advantageous to bet on religious belief even if that means lessening a bit of the pleasure or happiness in this life rather than risking an eternity of loss and even pain in the next.

I remember many Christian retreats where the master would ask us to momento mori and compare an eternity of bliss with the temporality of worldly existence.  I know many of my relatives and friends in which the wager still operates. And using game-theory, it makes good sense. But not for me.

This position I think is based on the fear of death, loss, pain, or at least the unknown. Moreover I think it does withdraw at least a bit from the full engagement and enjoyment of this world, this time, this place, this existence. It is the position of all religions that promise heaven or paradise or everlasting life. And I simply reject these beliefs.

However, I advance an interpretation of Pascal's wager that I can support. As Pascal in his pensée 233 implies: we are in every moment of our lives at a point in which there is as much evidence for meaning as there is for non-meaning.  Reason by itself cannot overcome nihilism and the ultimate absurdity of our existence. (Some say Pascal was the first existentialist.) Not mathematics, nor science, nor philosophy, nor theology can dispel nihilism. Only faith--which is the choice for meaning and for continuing the search for knowledge, the decision to keep trying to repair what is broken in our lives, world, and society, the election to enjoy life to the fullest and, yes, to love in the present and hope in the future. It is that decision that tips the balance.

I also think that it is a decision which is revealed and heard as a call in the very in-tension of our human being--one that we can conveniently deny or happily affirm.  It is the most basic of options in everything that we think and do.

Now that's a wager I will make.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Follow your conscience

The Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More, is mostly celebrated not for his position as chancellor to the king, not for his writing, not for his wealth but for acting on his conscience.  I reflect on him during this time of political campaigning when candidates and their handlers often model a lack of conscience.

Conscience, as the word's roots indicate, is a "with knowing." It is the awareness of oneself acting in the world.  In another meditation, I showed that it is consciousness in crisis, decision, and action. It is the background experience of the person as intending to do right or good while she focuses on what she is doing or deciding to do.  It is the primary experience of a person's existence as in tension in the world.

Like Jimminy Cricket for Pinocchio, conscience is always there whether followed or not--the "little voice" we say telling us to do the right thing and be the right stuff. "Follow your conscience" is the sage's moral advice. And following one's conscience is the hero's way.

But most sages also add: "follow your informed conscience."They recognize that conscience can be false and needs to be examined from time to time. For conscience is more than a moral experience, it is also a moral judgment. Judgment means application, reflection, and testing in situations. Conscience is informed by discussions in one's clan or congregation or community. It is informed by religion, art, and myth, especially the stories of heroes and anti-heroes in film, novels, and legends. It is informed by the study of sages and most of all by thinking.

Saint Thomas Moore acted on his conscience, not only by holding true to his oath to a higher power than the king, but also when he burned books of and punished heretics. Saint and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, S.J. was following his conscience when prosecuting Galileo or assenting to the burning of Giodarno Bruno and John of Prague. I accept that Roosevelt was following his conscience when interning Japanese Americans, Truman when deciding to drop the bomb, Kennedy pursuing the war in Vietnam, and Bush when invading Iraq. But that does not make these persons or their actions right.

Nor does it make them evil unless they did not consider or care about the implications of resolving the tensions of their being in this particular situation and in this particular way or unless they refused or neglected information that might give them cause to reconsider their actions. Adolf Hitler's evil was the suppression of conscience because it got in the way of his personal ambitions. Adolf Eichmann's evil, according to Arendt, was rooted in his suppression of conscience by his failure to think.

Conscience is the awareness of one's intentional existence. My conscience is my very existence  intending good in this particular situation--and in tension between what is good for myself and for others, what is true between the past and the future, what is one between my inner world of knowledge and the outer world of actuality, and what is whole between my real and my ideal.

Whether you believe that it was infused in the soul by a supernatural entity or is the result of adaptation by natural selection, conscience develops and belongs to every human being (unless abnormal through defect or illness) and I argue belongs to us as a social group. I would also argue that there is no absolute moral prescription or prohibition or principle except for conscience itself.

I cannot think of a moral maxim or commandment that cannot be overturned by conscience. Certainly all the Judeo-Christian ten commandments have exceptions. The Hippocratic "do no harm" must be carefully interpreted.  The only prohibition I think can claim some degree of absoluteness is against cruelty which includes slavery, child abuse, sex trafficking, and other acts of dehumanization. But capital punishment, saturation bombing, and torture are still advocated by good individuals even as our social conscience develops.

So, Sir Thomas, while a man of your times, a 16th century humanist with all the limitations of your understanding, your works, and your society, you are indeed a man for all seasons in your affirmation of the primacy of thoughtful conscience which is ironically the root of reformation and the renewal of our institutions and world.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Close the Gap

The disparity between rich and poor in and between nations is obscene. This has been well documented by experts of all political persuasions. I really recommend Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality.

There are many organizations, public and private, religious and secular, local, national and international, whose mission is to bring all persons out of poverty and close the inequality gap. Yet despite all the financial, volunteer, and governmental action, the inequality and its costs to all of us continue to grow. It is a matter of will, yes, but it is also a matter of how our institutions, both economic and political, are working or not working.

I cannot think of a more important mission than confronting this obscenity in order to bring all people into full human development. But how?

I don't know; but I propose four principles and corresponding policies for consideration in determining our action.  (I have argued elsewhere for the universality and source of these principles.)

Four Principles:

1.  The Principle of Personal Right: Life, Freedom, the Pursuit of Happiness.

Life: Every person who is born into the world and into the human family should have all the material and biological means to survive and grow simply because he or she exists.

Freedom: Every person should have the means to exercise his or her ability to be free from oppression (liberty) and free for (power) co-creating their world.

Pursuit of Happiness:  Every person should have the means and opportunity to pursue personal wealth and public development including the ability to engage with others in the shaping of their common space (polis).

2.  The Principle of Personal Responsibility.

Every person must ensure that every other person has the right to life, freedom, and pursuit of happiness within his or her ability to respond.  The ability to respond is determined by the limits of space, time, and knowledge.

3.  The Public Principle.

Every person achieves full human development in a social order that accepts and actualizes the above two principles. Private self-interest (personal wealth) must be subordinated to mutual self-interest (public good). While a person may understand that her development includes the accumulation of wealth beyond life's basic needs, this accumulation cannot be at the expense of the public.  Government should not be identified as the public but as a means to guaranteed personal right and responsibility and to achieve a true public (where all have the ability to act together). This means publicly accountable government and other social institutions.

4.  The Strategic Principle.

Strategies for achieving true publics are inclusive (open to all), institutional (relating to existing institutions and building new ones), affirming (focusing on building up, rather tearing down except to remove obstacles), knowledgeable (informed by science, thoughtful, doable or pragmatic over dogmatic).

Four Corresponding Policies:

1.  Set and insure the minimum threshold of income and assets (income, health, education, housing, mobility) needed for biological survival defined within the locality and insured by the public.

2.  Reform income and asset taxes and provide public investment to leverage private investment in institutions of learning, working, housing, food, and clean energy to guarantee public and private resources for achieving the minimum threshold.

3.  Affirm democratic republicanism over plutocracy or oligarchy by removing the influence of private wealth on public decision-making. Reform government and its agencies so that they are accountable to publics not special private interests.

4.  Public/Private organizing and planning. Organize local publics linked to local institutions and interrelate them nationally on a strategy to encourage full human development and attack economic and political disparity. Develop a movement that is organized outside political partisanship linking what is best in existing NGOs.

Next Steps:

  • One on ones with representatives of national and international non-governmental organizations.
  • Assessment of the assets, contributions, and effectiveness of these organizations.
  • Identify and recruit partners.
  • Design what might fit into or hold together these efforts into a bold, measurable strategy.