Sunday, November 26, 2017

Musings on a Thanksgiving Weekend

Whenever I turn to a news site, whether in paper form or on-line, I find above all else the spewing of bile.  More than any time in my memory, we American news junkies are witnessing what a Hobbesian state of nature looks like – a war of all against all.   I thought the whole purpose of living in civil society was to avoid that kind of climate. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate why we’re fighting all the time.  There are good reasons why our political parties and our media outlets have become so polarized.  I’ve never been a “turn the other cheek” kind of guy.   Still, it’s sad to think that W.B. Yeats may be turning into a prophet once again.  He’s the guy who wrote after World War I, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”  When it comes to politics, I’m not even sure there is much of a center these days.  Our political sphere is starting to resemble a boxing match, where the two fighters are either punching each other or returning to their respective corners to get a breather before the next round of pugilism.  In such an arena, there is little room for civility, compromise, or compassion – let alone a political center. 

But let me not add to the fisticuffs, at least not this weekend.  This is a time to express thanks for what we do have, not to whine about what we don’t. 

Let me start with the most important thing: family.  I thank my lucky stars that I did not drink the Kool Aid of Marxism when exposed to it as a child, for then I might view the institution of family as a bourgeois tool to support the status quo.   Instead, I view the institution of family as my single greatest source of happiness.. 

I am so incredibly thankful for my omni-patient wife of 29 years, my mother of 96 years (that’s how long she’s been alive, and she keeps on ticking), my two ever-inspiring daughters, and my extended family in NY, DC and Indiana.  But let me candid – I’m especially thankful for the fact that this coming March, my wife and I expect to be grandparents for the first time.  Is there any status on earth more purely wonderful than that?   At least that’s what others tell me.  I’m looking forward to finding out for myself.

Second, I am thankful for my friends – the ones on the East Coast, the Midwest, the West Coast, and the tiny number overseas.  When you think about it, most of your family was always sort of stuck with you.  By contrast, your friends chose you.   Sometimes you have to question their taste, but thankfully, that’s their problem, not yours.  I am just happy to have found people in different walks of my life who will put up with my neuroses, my habit of talking when I should be listening, my twisted/sophomoric sense of humor ... in short, all my charms.

Third, I am thankful that after all the sturm und drang of the past year, there’s reason not to side with all the Chicken Littles of the world.  Personally, I am confident that we won’t be getting into a nuclear war, won’t be persecuting minority religious or ethnic groups, and will be continuing to respect our glorious First Amendment.  America might not be living up to its aspirations of being, in the words of Jesus, “the light of the world, a city that is set on a hill.” But nor do I believe all our best days are behind us.  I am thankful for the great men and women who created this country and built what in so many ways has been a role model to other nations.  May we soon enough be that “light unto the nations” that was discussed in my own people’s Scriptures.

Fourth, I am thankful we live in a time when certain critical trends are unmistakably positive.  Internationally, longevity is increasing, whereas poverty is decreasing.   Nationally, acceptance of the LGBT community is increasing, whereas the feeling that men can sexually harass with impunity is surely decreasing.   MLK Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Perhaps he was being a tad optimistic generally, but one thing is clear: in certain respects, the arc of history clearly bends toward justice, and we in the year 2017 are witnesses to clear manifestations of that principle.

Fifth, I am thankful for my two dialogue societies that keep on thriving after nine years (in the case of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington) and sixteen years (in the case of the Washington Spinoza Society). respectively.  Of the many things that keeping me from moving out of my home town, those organizations are near the very top.

Finally, I am thankful for having hobbies that allow me as an individual to enjoy life – including both politically-correct hobbies (like reading works of philosophy and religion) and politically incorrect ones (like watching inordinate amounts of football).  We are not mini-computers with perfectly empathic hearts.  We’re flesh and blood creatures with ids as well as superegos.  Personally, I happen to enjoy watching world class athletes run, jump, throw, catch, and smash into each other.  Yes, I recognize that my favorite sport damages athletes’ brains no less than their knees.  But what I can say?  I’m still thankful that I have found hobbies that give me happiness in life, and for the past roughly 52 years, watching football has been one of them.   Occasionally, for one reason or another, I feel compelled to boycott the sport.  Right now, I’m thankful this isn’t one of those occasions.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Don't Get Distracted

If you want to talk about Roy Moore, have a conversation with yourself in your morning shower.  Then be done with Roy for the day.

If you feel the need to get a laugh at the expense of funnyman Al Franken, tell yourself a joke.  One joke.  Then move on to another topic.

If you want to gasp at the thought that anyone would seriously consider allowing elephant hunters to bring their bounty back to the good ol’ US of A, be my guest, gasp about it.  Be shocked and appalled.  For five minutes. 

I am not here to belittle the importance of respecting women, stopping sexual assault, or treating animals ethically.  I’m a vegan who has been married for 29 years and has two daughters.  Those topics are all extremely important to me.   But right now, all these topics, and every other topic except for one, are distractions.

Let’s keep our collective eyes on the ball, shall we?

This past week, the “People’s House,” as they used to call the U.S. House of Representatives, voted out a tax bill that ought to be known as the “Mega Donor Giveaway Act of 2017.”    The Republicans in the Senate are proposing a similar but not identical bill that would merit the same title.  All the talk about fiscal conservatism that the bills’ proponents had been yapping about from’09-‘16 would be thrown out the window.  Apparently, the new policy is, “Deficit be damned!  Trickle down will have its day!”

But does trickle-down economics really work?  Or more specifically, what is its track record?   Let’s analyze that question carefully.  Let’s bring before Congress the neutral, respectable economists who study that field as a science rather than use it as an opportunity to promote an agenda.  Let’s engage our best journalists to summarize the reports that these respectable economists have written about the topic to date so that we the people can intelligently consider the issues for ourselves.  And please, let’s not just sit back and shut up as the Congress tries to ram through a comprehensive tax bill without an opportunity for public consideration. 

So far, the polls I’ve seen indicate that the American public opposes the Republican tax bills by a two-one margin.   Shouldn’t we be asking the question why?  Don’t the bills’ proponents need to appear before their constituents in town hall meetings and discuss with them why it is so important that we cut some people’s taxes dramatically while other, less affluent people can expect a tax hike?
And here’s the real question:  if these tax bills seem poised to fundamentally reshape the wealth patterns in America, why isn’t this issue captivating our attention?  Must we always devote the majority of our public policy focus to the sex and violence scandals du jour?

Perhaps the only way to get the media to stay focused on these Republican tax plans is to present them as scandalous.  But that shouldn’t have to be the case.  Sometimes, we as a society need to be smart enough to recognize when Congress is flirting with enacting a law that can change our nation for a generation or more.  Reagan’s trickle-down efforts reshaped America to the point where the nation I grew up in during the ’60s and ‘70s hasn’t returned.  Back then, we thought that our affluent people were doing just fine.  But little did we know that the Gipper was about to present them with a boost that would substantially redistribute wealth ... and in their favor.  Now, we are faced with the prospect of another law that could have equally dramatic effects in the same direction.  

Is that really what we want?  And do we want to let it happen without engaging in a serious national conversation about it?  

I realize that tax policy isn’t sexy.  But if we need sex to hold our interest, we’re no better than those predators we’ve all been obsessing about.  

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Taking Democracy Seriously

What does it mean to “believe in democracy”?  Clearly, it requires you to want the rulers of government to be chosen by a vote held among the citizens at large.   But the real controversial question is, does it require you to care that the percentage of citizens who ACTUALLY vote be as high as possible, or is it enough that a vote was held and no portion of the citizenry was precluded from voting?

In other words, to be an authentic democracy, must we go out of our way actively to encourage voting by all races, colors, creeds, and socio-economic classes?  Or is it our view that voting is a privilege, not a right, and citizens who don’t prioritize taking advantage of this privilege don’t deserve our encouragement to participate in elections? 

These questions tend to be on the back burner in America today.  Instead, our chattering class would rather talk about more “substantive” issues like immigration, tax, or health care policy, rather than such “procedural” topics as whether election days should be federal holidays to encourage voting.   Perhaps pundits may be unmoved by the need to enact election reforms because we’ve already come such a long way in achieving a level playing field at the voting booth.   No more is suffrage denied to particular races or genders.   No more do we have literacy tests or poll taxes.  Now, at least in theory, anyone who really wants to vote can do so.  So, shouldn’t we devote our attention exclusively to more pressing matters?

Hardly.   I would argue that election reform should be at or near the top of our national agenda.  Indeed, I would say that America’s claim to being a democracy turns precisely on whether we take seriously the questions raised at the beginning of this post.

Consider me in the group that believes that legitimate democracies exist for the betterment of all the citizens, not just some of them, and that the higher the percentage of voters, the more secure, just, and prosperous a society becomes.  We stopped allowing literacy taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the best educated.  Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to Phi Beta Kappans and National Merit Scholars?   We stopped allowing poll taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the most affluent.  Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to country club members and families who stand to benefit if the estate tax is eliminated?

Plenty of people I know would like to see Election Day become a national holiday (or, in the case of odd-year elections, a state holiday in the relevant states).   Nevertheless, in election after election, this reform fails to get enacted, and nobody even wastes much ink on the topic.  Why is that?   Would we not agree that this one concrete change of law would effect a material change in the percentage of voters?  Would we not agree that a society as affluent as ours could easily afford to allow an extra day off from work every couple of years?  Then what explains the failure to make this change? 

Months ago, I detailed the United States’ horrid voting stats compared to other economically advanced nations.  Our problems in this area were on display again this past week.  The Democrats of the state of Virginia are falling all over themselves raving about the tremendous increase in voting in that state over previous elections.  But the fact is that the majority of registered voters in all parts of the state continued to stay away from the gubernatorial race.  And in New Jersey, only 37% of registered voters showed up to vote for governor.  That’s 37% of REGISTERED voters, not eligible voters.  Stated simply, with everything that happened this past year to spark our national attention to the political process, we’re still a nation of non-voters.  Some democracy.

Sadly, I suspect that our unwillingness to show up and be counted is exactly what many American leaders are counting on.  I’m talking the “voting is a privilege, not a right” set.  If pushed to tell the truth, they may privately acknowledge that voting is difficult for wage earners who live from paycheck to paycheck and can hardly afford to miss several hours of work.  But they also would point out that working class people could, if sufficiently motivated, show up at their local precinct and any loss of income in the process would presumably be a modest one.  More to the point, these “don’t get out the vote” types presumably also realize that if the voter rolls were expanded, the new wage earners, especially if they live in the inner cities, would not be likely to vote the same way as the truly privileged set.  They may not, for example, vote for politicians who wish to see the benefits of income tax reform go primarily to the people who pay the most taxes and earn the most income, which is obviously the direction that tax reform is taking.  So why, the argument concludes, are we obliged to make it any easier for the working class to vote?  Isn’t it their responsibility to show up and unseat the politicians that currently represent affluent Americans in Washington and in state houses throughout the land?

This past week, Dan Rather and Elliott Kirschner came out with a book entitled “What Unites Us.”  It’s kind of an intriguing title, don’t you think?  The authors set out to discuss what they call the “great experiment in democracy” and the values that over the years have helped this experiment succeed.  But I have to ask, in light of the fact that more Americans miss the opportunity to vote than seek it, and that we won’t even encourage our working class to take Election Day off from work, can we identify the belief in democracy as one of our unifying values any more?  Can we really say that we stack up in this regard to countries in Europe or Australia where voting percentages dwarf our own?

For decades, Dan Rather’s voice has been far more uplifting than mine.  That’s one reason I like him; he offers plenty of hope without sounding clueless.   But this is the Empathic Rationalist blog where there are even more important values than being hopeful, such as being brutally honest.  For me, it is not enough to say that America stands for democracy.  We must first answer the questions raised at the beginning of this post. 

Do we or don’t we believe that a democracy is a place where most eligible voters vote, and if they don’t, where the powers-that-be find ways to encourage them to do so?   For me, there is no other type of full-throated democracy.  The alternative, the half-hearted model, is dragging down our democracy, our republic, and our potential.    

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Evil Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

"For many are accustomed to arguing in this way: ‘If all things have followed from the necessity of God’s most perfect nature, why are there so many imperfections in nature?  Why are things corrupt to the point where they stink?  So ugly that they produce nausea?  Why is there confusion, evil, and sin?’  As I have just said, those who argue in this way are easily answered.  For the perfection of things is to be judged solely from their nature and power; things are not more or less perfect because they please or offend men’s senses, or because they are of use to, or are incompatible with, human nature.  But to those who ask ‘Why God did not create all men so that they would be governed by the command of reason?’ I answer only ‘Because he did not lack material to create all things, from the highest degree of perfection to the lowest:’ or, to speak more properly, ‘Because the laws of his nature have been so ample that they sufficed for producing all things which can be conceived by an infinite intellect.’”

Such was the statement by my favorite philosopher (Spinoza) regarding perhaps my favorite philosophical question.  It can be framed as, “How can we reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil?”

Evil has been on the mind of most of us lately.  Just think back to this past Tuesday, when a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” drove a truck into a well-traveled cycleway in lower Manhattan.  Or think back a month to when a gambler in a Las Vegas hotel shot hundreds of people who were attending a country music concert.  Every time one of these mass killings occurs, we become a nation of criminal investigators.  Why, we ask, did this happen?  Have we found co-conspirators?  Plans of additional attacks?   Clues as to how the killer was radicalized?  A history of mental illness?  

In short, we become obsessed.  And we bring this same singular focus to stories about plane crashes or such natural disasters as hurricanes.  Whenever, in fact, large numbers of people lose their lives, limbs or even property in a manner that flies in the face of our sense of fairness, we are shocked to the core.  We experience similar emotions when hearing about individuals who are struck down prematurely by cancer, crib death, or some other seemingly unjust cause.   Our hearts, you see, are wired to expect happiness to accompany virtue and tragedy to accompany vice.   Otherwise, what’s the point of behaving ourselves?   What’s the point of “living right”? 

It should be obvious by now that the word “evil” when used in the context of the initial theological question I raised in this blog post is not confined to so-called “moral” evil, such as the type exhibited in Manhattan or Vegas.  Philosophers also use the term “natural” evil in reference to hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other “acts of God” that can’t simply be blamed on human misconduct.   Arguably, these latter acts are even more of a challenge to theology than is human-induced suffering. 

It was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that allowed Voltaire to lampoon the Abrahamic apologists to such a devastating degree that the Lord’s reputation on earth has never fully recovered.   How could any omnipotent, omnibenevolent force seize the lives of tens of thousands of seemingly innocent people, often in the most excruciatingly painful manner imaginable?   Many have attempted to satisfactorily answer that question, but in my opinion, nobody has yet succeeded, not even Spinoza.  What’s more, to reflect on the events of two centuries after Lisbon -- where Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot butchered tens of millions – is to realize that our planet faces one disaster of Biblical proportion after another, after another, after another.  And these disasters are not interrupted by manna flowing down from the heavens, or by prophets walking through seas that have been parted. Indeed, for me, whether I’m reflecting on Lisbon or Auschwitz, I get the sense that the ultimate power broker is one and the same.  And if I can’t blame Hitler for Lisbon, how then can we blame anyone but God for Auschwitz?  By the same token, if can blame God for Auschwitz, then what room is there in my world for the Devil?

These are the kinds of questions that make me want to get up in the morning.  These are kinds of questions that make me feel lucky to have been born to human parents.  The beauty of the human condition is that we can ask them.   Other species can’t. 

Some might tell you that grappling with such questions is a waste of time.  We should concern ourselves only with “practical” matters – questions that can be answered, and answered “profitably.”  Oh, how “rich” is that word, “profitably”? 

Well, for my money, the most practical questions imaginable are precisely the ultimate questions of philosophy, none of which can be conclusively answered by any of us or contribute much to anyone’s bank book.  The questions are as easily asked as they are impossible to resolve.  There is nothing practical in merely framing the questions and then, just as quickly, moving on to something else.  But when we seriously grapple with them – when we struggle with what our common sense tells us, or with what happens when we follow the logic of each of the leading schools of thought, or with how our previously held notions stand up in light of rigorous questioning – that’s when the magic happens.  That’s when we find ourselves changing our lives on the basis of our philosophies.

Do you want a really practical suggestion?  The next time you hear about a mass murder or a natural tragedy, don’t spend the next week reading press reports on the who, what, when, where and why of this latest act of “evil.”  Instead, pick up a copy of Susan Neiman’s award-winning classic, “Evil in Modern Thought.”  It won’t shed any light on whether some lunatic acted alone.  But it will help you figure out what to make of this concept known impersonally as “divinity” or personally as “God.”