Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

Much as we extol the wisdom and foresight of America’s founding fathers, we as a nation have spent over two centuries trying to understand some of their intentions and mightily resisting others.

Among the clauses still being debated are “cruel and unusual punishment” and the Second Amendment’s right to “keep and bear arms.” Among the concepts that have met with resistance is the notion that all “men” should enjoy equal rights and full citizenship. It took over well over a hundred years for the poor, blacks, and women to be recognized as “men” and treated accordingly—and the struggle for equality still goes on.

But of all the good intentions of the authors of America’s first documents, perhaps the one that’s been most trampled and ignored is the vital concept of the separation of church and state.

On January 1, 1802, shortly after taking office as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson responded to a letter from a religious group in Connecticut called the Danbury Baptists. In his response, Jefferson declared his “sovereign reverence” for what he called a “wall of separation between church and state.”

That “wall” is clearly established in the first words of the First Amendment of the Constitution, even before the much more widely known language regarding freedom of speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Please note that the Amendment forbids laws both “establishing” and “prohibiting the free exercise of” religion.

Christianity is a religion. In all its various incarnations, it happens to be, at present, the religion of the majority of people of faith in the United States. But that does't make America a “Christian” nation.

According to the First Amendment, America as a nation can no more be “Christian” than it can be Buddhist, Muslim, or Shamanic. Furthermore, if America were considered a “Christian” nation (in the broad, populist meaning of the word), that would still not make it a “fundamentalist” one. Being a Christian does not mean that one necessarily believes in creationism, speaking in tongues, or a literal interpretation of the Bible.

As an American, I don’t want “born again” Christian cult leaders—people like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Buchanan—caucusing with Congress, proposing legislation, advising presidents on public policy, or meddling in politics in more devious, secretive ways (like the terrifyingly powerful advisers to the “Family” on C Street).

Likewise, I’m opposed to the government’s having an office of “faith-based” initiatives, posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, or displaying crosses on public land. And just for the record, if it were up to me, I’d take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. (The Pledge worked just fine as a gesture of American unity before those words were added in 1954.)

Anyone who doubts that Jefferson’s all-important “wall” has been breached, especially in recent years, ought to read Max Blumenthal’s courageous, meticulously researched, and highly depressing book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. Although the historical focus of the book is the influence of religion during the George W. Bush administration, there are implications than should worry any American, regardless of political affiliation.

Every American should be concerned and vigilant about “religion creep” in the workings of the American government. The briefest glimpse at the state of affairs in many other countries today should be enough to illuminate the critical importance of maintaining the distinction between democracy and theocracy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Relevance of Iraq

Thomas Friedman is a guy seems to travel everywhere and have conversations with everybody who’s anybody. Having read his recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, I’ve been following his columns in The New York Times. His opinions about things may not always be right on target (in my humble opinion), but they’re usually interesting.

Here’s a piece
that’s changed my thinking a little on American’s continuing presence in Iraq. Believing as I do that we intervened in that country at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and for the wrong reasons, I’ve been pretty much convinced that we should get out of there as quickly and completely as possible. Friedman makes a case that what happens in that country in the months and years to come will have implications for our long-term interests and the stability of the world order. I think it’s worth a read.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Proliferation of American Political Parties

With its two-party system, America has always been, more or less, the land of the either-or fallacy. Federal rights or states’ rights, socialism or capitalism, big vs. small government—there has always been a certain degree of polarization.

But once upon a time, there were right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats, as well as a good many centrists from both parties who were near the top of the “bell curve” on any given issue. There were extended periods of time when people seemed to have a general understanding that, philosophically at least, the best position on almost any spectrum is somewhere near the middle.

In the past couple of decades, though, America seems to have drifted toward greater polarization than ever before. I leave it to sociologists to figure out why, but I have a hunch that at least part of the problem is information overload: with new science illuminating human understanding of everything from the birth of the universe to global climate change to the complexities of the human genome, many have opted out of thinking about all that by taking refuge in religion. Theirs is a reassuringly simple, authoritarian world, where everything that needs to be known is written in the Bible and “Christian” leaders tell their followers what to believe. No need to think or deal with the discomfort of being uncertain.

The Christian right has certainly been a major factor in the radicalization—and subsequent marginalization—of the Republican party. Meanwhile, lots of people were getting rich by manipulating public sentiment in favor of big business, unfettered to the greatest degree possible by government regulation and oversight. If you ignore the long-term effects of unbridled capitalism—degradations to the well-being of the poor and middle class, the economy, and the planet—you could make a case that “letting the market take care of things” seemed to be working—until about a year ago, when the house of cards came tumbling down.

Another interesting turn of events is the split that seems to be occurring in what’s left of the Republican Party between plain ol’ generic, vanilla-flavored “Republicans” and the die-hard “Conservatives”—the FOX News fanatics that until recently were considered more or less the foundation of the Republican “base.” But now we have a race for a Congressional seat in New York in which Sarah Palin, among others, has snubbed the mainstream Republican candidate in favor of the even more right-wing Conservative Party contender.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the spectrum, deep dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and Republican ways of doing things led to calls for decisive change. Enter Barack Obama, with his rallying cry, “Yes, we can!” His administration immediately set about implementing changes in many aspects of public life that have only been discussed—sometimes in whispers, for fear of incurring the wrath of the all-powerful right. Suddenly there are new attitudes toward foreign countries and “enemy combatants,” new banking regulations, new ways of looking at health care, and so much more.

So much change happening so fast is refreshing for progressives, who’ve long been weary of waiting and hoping for someone to do something about America’s major problems. But the pace of change is uncomfortable for many who, simply by virtue of the way their brains are wired, most likely have average or less-than-average tolerance for change. Hence, we see the emergence of a group called the Blue Dog Democrats, who are politically right of the progressive end of their party and tend to join with Republicans in crying, “Wait! Stop! Slow down!”

The overall result of these trends is a very interesting state of affairs. To borrow a phrase Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin.’” Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center have turned up the following results:
  1. Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 35% to 23%.

  2. Voters who identify as “independent” now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.

  3. The number of people identifying as Independents is increasing at a much steeper rate than ever before.

So let’s review what we seem to have now. Instead of just the two parties, there are politicians (and, increasingly, voters) who identify as one of the following: Conservative, mainstream Republican, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, and Progressive. Then there are a very large number of politically active Americans called “Independents” who may or may not fit anywhere along the traditional right-to-left political spectrum.

Of course, strategists on both sides of the traditional political aisle are scrambling to figure out just who these “independents” are and what they want. But meanwhile, everyone agrees that we are at a pivotal point in history, and the future of the country and the planet hinges on decisions being made in Washington.

This is obviously a brief commentary on a very large topic, and as you might expect, I’ll have further thoughts to share on the subject. I’ll also be very interested in comments from readers. Meanhwhile, I leave you with some relevant remarks from Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Anglicans and the Catholic Church

Yesterday the Pope announced an arrangement whereby Anglicans dissatisfied with the cultural openness and progressive direction their church has adopted in recent years can now take refuge in the Catholic Church, which continues its official head-in-the-sand approach to dealing with the modern world.

The Anglican Church was created in 1534 as a means for England’s King Henry VIII to circumvent refusal of the Catholic pope to agree to annulment of his marriage. Draconian as Henry’s methods may have been in ridding himself of wives, his audacity in establishing a new church did accomplish two good things for society.

First, the Anglican Communion—which retains many of the customs and beliefs of its parent church—allows clergy to marry, thus eliminating the artificial barrier between priests and society that has proven problematic in many ways among Catholics. Second, by forcing the second of the great schisms in Christianity (the first being the departure of the Orthodox Churches in the 11th Century) Henry helped to promulgate the notion that there can be more than one set of religious beliefs. This undoubtedly helped to stimulate a great flowering of new ideas and the diversity of Protestant Churches that exist today.

Lately, two of the most contentious issues in the Anglican Church and its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, have been the ordination of women and the recognition of committed relationships among same-sex couples. Understandably, some people are slower than others to adapt to change, and in both churches, there are conservatives who have a hard time accepting new cultural norms. In the Catholic Church, one of those conservatives happens to be the Pope.

What’s interesting to me about all this is that, on a shrinking planet, cultural changes that potentially involve hundreds of thousands of people generally involve all of us, one way or another. Here are some thoughts about how the Pope’s little gesture may snowball into something much bigger than he might imagine:

  • From this day forward, there will be a precedent for the notion of married priests in the Catholic Church. Home-grown clergy may not long tolerate much greater privileges for the adopted children of the family.

  • If Catholics become accustomed to the notion that priests can marry, they may find it a relatively small step to entertain the notion of women as priests.

  • If conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians start flocking to the Roman church, more culturally liberal Catholics may very well start migrating the other direction. This may initially result in two large international churches with very similar liturgy but very different political and cultural beliefs.

  • As both churches adapt to change, however, each may find it harder than ever to ignore new cultural trends and equate tradition with avoidance of change.

It may well be that Pope Benedict, the reactionary Pontiff who preached against condom use in countries where AIDS is rampant, has opened the barn door and let out a few horses. Stuffing them back in could be easier said than done.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Price of Life

An odd thing happened to me recently during Breast Cancer Awareness Week. My entire place of business was dressed in pink, and I hate pink. I was in the process of saying so when my phone rang. A beloved cousin was calling to tell me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. With an early diagnosis, however, her prognosis is excellent. That would have been enough of a coincidence; however, an hour later, I got a call from another woman who said exactly the same thing. One hour, two women whose lives had been saved by awareness and early diagnosis. I vowed never to complain about pink again.

Then yesterday at a beauty salon, I chatted with a woman who had just had her toe nails painted pink, with the signature pink ribbon on each big toe. A breast cancer survivor herself, she is big into talking up the value of mammograms with every woman she meets. Having become the (hopefully temporary) guardian of a cat, I then went to the store and bought cat litter for the first time in several months. On the handle of the plastic container was a pink sticker with the ubiquitous ribbon and the message, “We support breast cancer research.”

Here’s a public awareness campaign that works, and thousands of women are alive because of it. The survival rate for those diagnosed early with breast cancer exceeds 96%.

Clearly, mammograms save lives; however, 13 million women in the U.S. aged 40 or over have never had one. For most, it’s a matter of cost. The $600-a-month insurance plan I had last year doesn’t cover them; the $800-a-month plan I was forced to buy this year does, but with a hefty “co-pay.” For many women in America, the cost of routine health maintenance, including mammograms, is simply out of reach.

This is an excellent example of why this country so desperately needs affordable health care, not just expensive emergency care for poor and middle-income families. Optimum health care requires much more than just emergency crisis management. It requires consistent access to health and wellness services—services too many Americans can’t afford.

The status quo is intolerable. Americans have waited forty years for a viable national plan for health services, while the insurance industry and its allies have stalled for time. The wait is over. Now is the time for comprehensive health care reform.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Health Reform and the Ongoing Struggle between Reason and Emotion

No one can make me mad—except myself.

Adolescents are walking, talking bundles of hormones and emotions. Most of them have a rudimentary brain, but many seldom use it in their day-to-day decisions and relationships. Those who are bright and well taught may be able to write coherent paragraphs and do quadratic equations; however, they may be stumped when it comes to knowing who and what to believe when it comes to feelings.

If adolescents feel passion, they assume that the object of their affection is perfect and a potential source of all that is wonderful. If they feel anger, they assume someone has done something to make them angry. Unless someone helps them understand, they have no way of knowing how fickle emotions can be—or, more importantly, that they can choose how to feel.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the elementary or secondary curricula in schools that teaches people the difference between thoughts and feelings—or which to trust when the two are in conflict. Consequently, the habit of acting on emotions and giving them too much credence persists throughout life. Many—if not most—of us muddle along as best we can, unsure when to think with our heads and when to go with our gut, making lots of mistakes along the way. (For a great discussion on this topic, see Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide.)

In America, this lack of general knowledge about emotions and how they affect decision making results in a naïve public—one that can be easily manipulated and exploited. Merchants and advertisers depend on consumers who can be swayed by their feelings—who, for example, can be persuaded to “trust Bayer,” which may cost two or three times as much as identical generic aspirin.

We live in an economy that is largely driven by the ignorance of the consumer—but when it comes to emotional decision making, that’s the least of our problems. After all, manufacturers of name-brand products have to make a buck, and generally, we all agree that competition is a good thing. Buyer beware.

When it comes to political decisions, however, a naïve public can be much more problematic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current struggle over health care reform.

There are at least two sides to any topic as broad as American health care. In a rational country, one side would be focusing on fact-based assessments of the costs of reform, the other on the needs of the people. After all, in an imperfect world, there will always be the need for some cost-benefit analysis.

Instead of doing their job of providing rational, objective assessments of costs, however, members of the GOP (General Opposition Party) and so-called fiscal conservatives have thrown in their lot with the extreme right, which has had decades of success manipulating the public by stirring up fear and anger. Manipulation of public sentiments is a useful tool for preventing progress—especially when “progress” means interfering with a process by which a few become obscenely rich by exploiting the masses.

In the case of health care reform, the extreme right—protecting the interests of insurance companies and for-profit medical industries—has frightened and angered huge segments of the naïve, gullible public with lies about “death panels,” forced abortions, and threats to Medicare. They’ve done this primarily through propaganda—which, like all propaganda, masquerades as “news”—on Fox TV and AM radio. This disinformation campaign has been hugely successful—but that doesn’t make it right.

People who know better—or should know better—just stand by when these lies are being told, figuring that if public sentiment seems to be swinging their way, the end justifies the means. I think it’s wrong to manipulate people through lies. I think it’s wrong for people who should know better to jump onto an emotional bandwagon, regardless of where that wagon might be going.

When adolescents wallow in emotions and enjoy the drama, that’s understandable. When adults do the same thing, it’s a shame. And in 21st Century America, there’s no excuse for intelligent adults to continue to be naïve, emotionally volatile, and ignorant about the difference between rational and emotional decision making.

Objective, fact-based analysis of issues of national concern is readily available. All most people have to do to find it is change the channel.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pride in America

Walk into any American high school on a Friday afternoon. You won’t have to wonder what the school’s colors are—half the students and staff will be wearing them. If there’s a game that night, you’ll know it by an air of excitement and cheerleaders carrying pom poms to classes. It doesn’t really matter if the home team is winning or losing—there’ll be a general sense of unity, optimism, and support for the team. If the coach happens by, people will bob their heads in acknowledgment and call him by his title of respect, “Coach.” All differences are put aside on game day, and all hearts are focused on winning.

Not every day is game day, of course, but that spirit of pride, togetherness, and belonging to something bigger than oneself is part of what motivates everyone in the building to do their day-to-day work. It helps individuals believe in their institution and what it stands for and to value their place in it. Educators know that school spirit is one factor that helps create a positive atmosphere, a sense of mutual cooperation and support, and high achievement.

In a good school—as in a good company or even a strong family—there’s a general sense of pride in belonging. That’s true of countries, as well. And I submit that in America, the Dysfunctional Family, that spirit of pride, ownership, and support for the home team is tragically, and even dangerously, lacking.

The day after an election is game day in America. And for months, now, our coach and our team have been playing to largely empty stands on the home field. Our improbable national cheerleaders—the Limbaughs, Becks, and Palens—have been rooting for the other teams. People who call themselves Americans have been cheering when the others score points. And those of us who want to cheer for our coach and our team often feel that we have to do so quietly or risk being mocked, criticized, or even threatened by the allegedly “loyal” opposition and those who support them.

When Chicago was not chosen as the site for the 2016 Olympics and Rio de Janeiro was, some so-called Americans cheered. Never mind that the United States has been privileged to host the Olympic games a dozen times while the entire continent of South America never has. Never mind that practically the entire population of Rio turned out to show their support and enthusiasm and willingness to work for the honor of hosting the games, while in America, as usual, cynical and negative voices turned the entire process into a mean-spirited “debate.” Never mind that the selection process had been going on for years. America behaved as though the entire matter revolved on a single speech by our president, a last shout just before the final touchdown. And when America wasn’t the winner of the game, the loudest voices were cheering the so-called “failure” of their country.

And when America wins—as when an international committee awards our president one of the world’s highest honors—crowds on the home side boo. When America wins, they shake their fists at the referee.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

America: The Dysfunctional Family

The word “dysfunctional” means, literally, unable to function properly. Applied to people, it means they’re unable to effectively grow, solve problems, take care of routine business, and maintain a general state of equilibrium. When people are not “dysfunctional,” we sometimes say they’re “well balanced” or “well adjusted.”

Functional people are fairly predictable and dependable. Dysfunctional people are not.

Functional people have a good grip on reality and tell the truth. Dysfunctional people may be delusional and/or lie a lot.

Functional people experience the full range of human emotions—including negative emotions such as anger, guilt, or anxiety. For them, though, these emotions are transitory; they get past those negative feelings quickly and then take action to correct whatever problem may have caused them to feel anger, guilt, or anxiety. Dysfunctional people, on the other hand, live in a constant state of emotional turmoil; they tend to wallow in negative feelings, day in and day out, without doing anything about them.

Functional people make short- and long-term goals; they analyze the steps necessary for success and reach many of their goals. Dysfunctional people fool themselves and others into believing they’re making positive changes, but nothing ever really changes.

Dysfunctional people play games. Functional people have honest, adult-adult relationships based on mutual respect, fairness, and honesty.

One dysfunctional person in a family can make the entire family dysfunctional—unless the others work very hard to work around the obstacles presented by that person. Like a spoiled child, the dysfunctional person can suck up all the energy and attention that should be directed at solving problems and moving forward. That’s not right, and it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

Let’s say, for example, that in an otherwise fairly productive family, one person chooses to be continually negative, angry, and spiteful. Odds are that the others will probably spend a good bit of time trying to reason with the disaffected member, offer unnecessary compromises, and generally go overboard trying to please. When none of that works, however, the family must find ways to prevent the dysfunctional person from impeding progress and making everyone else miserable.

So it has been in America in the past few months. There are those who want to set goals, make improvements, and get things done. Then there’s a minority who want to play games, wallow in anger and resentment, and generally impede progress of any kind.

Sometimes there are those who can have a positive influence on a dysfunctional family member, persuading him or her to be less petty, obstinate, and argumentative—to cooperate for the sake of everyone, if only for a while.

In America, perhaps Bob Dole is one of those people.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Anger: The Right’s Best Weapon

Anger is a wind which blows out the light of the mind. –Robert Green Ingersoll

For decades, now, certain entities in this country—pundits, conservative “think tanks,” major corporations, GOP politicians—have been spending a lot of money and energy trying to make you mad. Mad-making is a very lucrative business. How else would a know-nothing blowhard like Rush Limbaugh get rich enough to be thinking about buying a football team?

Why would people pour billions of dollars into enterprises—from cable TV and nationally syndicated radio shows to allegedly “grass roots” web sites and “tea parties”—that are designed to do nothing but stir up anger by whatever means?

Why make up idiotic lies about everything from the president’s birthplace to “death panels”? Why keep dragging emotionally charged non-issues, like abortion and gun control, into every so-called “debate”?

Simple: you can’t be really angry and think at the same time. And these people don’t want you to think. People who are thinking are hard to lead around by the nose.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. Frighten people badly, and as soon as the perceived danger passes, they’re likely to be pissed off. Take something away from them and they’ll feel grief, shortly followed by anger.

In America, the political right has elevated mad-making to an art and practiced it ruthlessly in pursuit of their goals. I’m not saying the left has never been guilty of manipulating people through anger—and it’s a despicable, dishonest practice, whoever does it—but in this country, “conservative” and “pissed off” have come to be practically synonymous. That’s no accident.

When people are angry, they look for a cause of their anger. In this country, there’s a huge, well-funded industry of mad-makers continually standing by to point out who we should be mad at: the president and Congress, of course. Look no further.

Habitual anger isn’t good for people. It raises blood pressure, causes ulcers, and makes us vulnerable to all sorts of stress-related illnesses. But in case anyone’s missed the point in recent months, the “right” doesn’t care about your health. And like a lot of other things that aren’t good for us—from cigarettes to sugar—anger, like any emotion, can be habit forming or even addictive. The people devoted to keeping the right people on the right rich—they know this. They dish out anger like cigarette companies used to give away free cigarettes, and for the same reason—to get you hooked.

Sadly, millions of people are still buying.

Stay tuned for more on this subject in the days to come.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Response to a Reader's Request

Here are a few sources for anyone who might be interested in exploring reasons the Iraq war was—to put it very kindly—ill-conceived:

Then of course there’s any of the books on the subject by Bob Woodward, who’s been obsessing about this matter for several years, now.

One thing that distinguishes this war from the war in Vietnam is the vast amount of information that is instantly and continuously available to writers and analysts. It’s much harder to keep secrets than it was fifty years ago.

Another Point of View

Here's a thoughtful commentary defending American involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

John McCain: Right about Afghanistan

America’s full of negative people willing to sacrifice almost anything of value for the sake of undermining the efforts of the president to bring about positive change. Health reform, improved international relations, economic recovery, environmental responsibility—nothing‘s so important to the nation that it can’t be blockaded for the sake of financial or political gain. That’s why John McCain’s support of the administration in terms of Afghanistan is so important—and so refreshing.

America is weary of war, they say. Well—yeah. After seven years in Iraq—where we had no real enemies or legitimate purpose—of course we are. But now, at last, we have a strategic purpose that couldn’t be more important—dismantling and dis-empowering Al Qaida. Now we’re focusing the might of America where our enemies reside—where Osama bin Laden is in hiding and where Najibullah Zazi and countless other would-be terrorists are trained to attack the United States and its citizens.

The differences between the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan cannot be overstated. In Iraq, we were engaged in a vague, ill-conceived “mission” of nation-building—purportedly trying to bring American-style “democracy” to a country steeped in its own political problems and ancient traditions. In Afghanistan, we’re going after real enemies who have brought great harm to our country and aim to destroy more American lives. In Iraq, decisions were politically motivated. In Afghanistan, military strategists and experts on the ground are helping to build a plan for success.

John McCain is a Quixotic, impulsive man who tends to be easily swayed by the slightest breeze wafting from the right. Nonetheless he’s capable, at times, of exhibiting both clarity and integrity. For the sake of a future free of the fear of another 9/11, let’s hope that his support of the right war in the right place is steady and persuasive to others who are uninformed and “think” with their emotions.

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