Tuesday
Oct172017

The Citizen's Dilemma

Diane Feinstein is in trouble in California, because progressives believe she is too “middle of the road” and must be replaced by someone who will stand up to Republicans and oppose them on virtually everything. She is criticized for opposing Medicare for All and for voting for 11 of President Trump’s cabinet appointments, compared to progressives Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and others, who voted for four or less. At the same time, Steve Bannon is leading a movement to unseat any Republican who does not support President Trump completely or who continues to support Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority leader. The candidates Bannon suports are those who express not just Trump loyalty, but adherence to a nationalist, “America First” position that is compatible with white ethnic identity politics.

Barack Obama’s presidency was hampered by a Republican political establishment that opposed every issue the president supported. The Democratic response during Obama’s first term was to use their majority in congress to ram through legislation devoid of Republican input. During Obama’s second term, when the two houses of congress were held by Republicans, the president was forced to put measures in place using executive orders, which made them vulnerable to being overturned by his successor. During Trump’s first year, the legislative paralysis has not lifted, despite the Republicans holding both houses and the presidency. Tea-Party Republicans have opposed mainstream Republicans on health care and in almost all instances, Democrats and Republicans have failed to work together. The president, like his predecessor, has enacted measures using executive orders.

There is a breakdown in cooperative governing in Washington DC, which many Americans lament, but which the current widening gap between the two parties’ bases promises to extend. Beneath this breakdown in the ability to govern cooperatively is a philosophical and political gap between groups of grass roots Americans, or at least the most vocal and politically active of them. This gap is characterized by disparagement of both the views and the personalities of “the other side” in any disagreement, as well as insistence on non-cooperation as a sign of loyalty. Campus political discussions have devolved into rants by provocateurs and riots by those who oppose them. The media has become blatantly partisan with each side accusing the other of manufacturing news.

While dysfunction in both politics and in reasoned political discussion reigns, ordinary citizens are pushed to “take sides.” The political bases representing both the right and the left insist that not to oppose their enemy on every issue is to join them. The promise of this level of dysfunction is that not only will nothing constructive get done in this country, but that what works at the moment will fall apart as we become a political system unable to fix our own problems when they arise. There are many who claim that this is already the case and that the dysfunction in our criminal justice system, our economic system our healthcare and education systems is what requires a new approach to reorient the system around new principles. The problem is that the means to arrive at such new principles is fast disappearing because each side not only believes its principles are correct, but that compromise or discussion with the other side must be forbidden and when it occurs, punished. This attitude creates a dilemma that cannot be solved so long as it exists. Instead of looking for divisions that can be exploited, we, and our leaders should be seeking grounds of agreement on a shared vision for our country. To do that requires talking—and listening—to each other.

Tuesday
Oct102017

American Exceptionalism: The Facts

Americans are proud of their country, so much so that oftentimes signs of concern or criticism are seen as unpatriotic and disrespectful. It can be difficult to have a knowledgeable and fact-based discussion of what needs to improve in the country, because admitting its flaws is seen as not honoring the country. But what are the facts? I’ve presented some below, with data gathered from the World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO), the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, and by NationMaster, an international statistical data website

We’re number 1!

The United States leads either the world or the developed world (36 OECD nations) in the following:

Charitable giving: We are either #1 or #2 (behind Myanmar), depending on the source. Americans are generous. Myanmar supports a large Buddhist monk population with private giving.

Military spending: We spend 4 times more than our nearest competitor, China. However, in terms of percent of GDP we are 4th, behind Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia.

Healthcare spending: We are #1 in the OECD in healthcare spending per capita.

Education: Total spending per student, including college: we are #1 in OECD

Firearms related deaths: We are #1 in OECD

Incarceration rate: We have 666 persons/100,000 in prison, which is #1 in the OECD and 2.5 times greater than any other OECD country.

 

We’re not number 1

Healthcare: Although we spend more money on healthcare per capita than any other OECD country (twice the OECD average), our lifespan is 1 year less than the average OECD country and 3 years less than the average European member.  Our infant mortality is 37% greater than the OECD average. We rank 28th in number of physicians per 1000 people, 25th in number of medical school graduates and have 86% fewer hospital beds per 1000 people than the average OECD country. Our healthcare system has poor outcomes and is understaffed, the latter outcome as a result of physician organizations, such as the AMA,keeping medical school admissions at low numbers in order to increase salaries.

Education: The American population is well educated compared to other OECD countries. The U.S. has 6% more college graduates than the average OECD country. Although we spend more money per student than any other OECD country, only 70% of that spending is public money, compared to 84% in other OECD countries, which ranks us 15th among OECD countries. More than a quarter of spending on education comes from personal or family resources. Our outcomes are also poor: on PISA scores, which directly compare knowledge and skills among OECD member nation students, we score average in reading, but 23rd in science and 31st in mathematics.

Violent crime: The U.S. murder rate is triple the OECD average and we have five times more people in prisons than the average OECD country.

Americans are exceptionally generous, exceptionally militaristic, exceptionally well armed and deadly toward our fellow citizens, exceptionally likely to imprison our fellow citizens, and make exceptionally poor choices with regard to the design and efficiency of our education and healthcare systems. How often does our national conversation or our political debate focus on these facts? Very seldom. Instead, we debate whether we are too capitalistic or socialistic, whether criticism of the system is patriotic or not, and focus our legislative debates on cultural issues that have little chance of changing how our country actually functions.

When we function poorly compared to countries that are economically similar to ourselves, it may be time to examine what we are doing and what they are doing and see if we can modify our system to improve our outcomes.

 

Casey Dorman is editor of Lost Coast Review and author of "2020," a new political novel, to be found on Amazon.com 

Sunday
Oct012017

What is Patriotism?

The world was not created with countries. In fact, at one time we had only extended family groups, then tribes, then cities, then city states, then empires, then countries. Nations are the most recent in a long line of ways to divide up the population and the territories they occupy. They are not natural divisions of humanity, nor natural divisions of geography, they are artificial constructions of humans, looking for ways to aggregate as groups and to govern themselves. Think of Star Trek. The Federation is some kind of interplanetary consortium, the members of which are planets, rather than countries. Planets (at least in science fiction) produce different racial groups and cultures and are easily distinguishable physical entities separate from other planets. Countries are social constructions.

If we owe our allegiance to our country, even to the point of sacrificing our lives to our country, is it because we were born there, or is there another reason? If nations are artificial ways of dividing up people and places, then to be willing to die for the one we happen to be born in seems unreasonable. If they are based on some kind of natural division among humans, then we might feel some innate allegiance to those who resemble us. If human divisions are based on cultural differences, then we might feel an allegiance to our familiar culture, though it may or may not coincide with the boundaries of a nation.

In the main, nations fall into the category of what are called institutional fictions. They exist as entities we have created and yet we act as if they had an existence above and beyond our own construction of them in our shared imaginations.

Our allegiance to a country should be not because we were born in it, or because it contains people who resemble us, but because it includes characteristics, which were created by its citizens as the rules by which the country operates, that exemplify the moral values we subscribe to. We should then owe equal allegiance to any other country that has created the same characteristics as the rules by which it operates. This gives us a moral compass to guide us in deciding what we value in our country and what we do not, and what we support or oppose in the way our country operates.

The attitude, “My country right or wrong,” is a perversion of any rational reason for supporting a country’s policies. “My country” is a social construction and my citizenship within it is, in many cases, a matter of happenstance, such as birthplace or place of refugee asylum. The only way that we give moral value to our allegiance to our country is by evaluating its actions, policies and values against a moral criterion that does not include deciding they are right simply because they are what our country does. If we find that our country is not fulfilling the moral requisites that we expect it to fulfill, then, if we want to remain supportive of it, we must strive to change its policies and behavior. If we cannot, then we must decide when the balance of moral versus immoral governmental behaviors has tipped so far that we can no longer maintain allegiance to the country. But doing everything we can do to shape the behavior of the nation in which we live, in hopes of bringing that behavior in line with our moral values is rational action. It is what is called being patriotic. Honoring every action of our country with blind allegiance is not patriotism, it is irresponsibility.

Casey Dorman, Editor, Lost Coast Review

Author of the political novel,2020, available on Amazon.

Saturday
Sep302017

Taking a Knee

Our country’s flag is a symbol of the country itself. Our national anthem is a method of paying homage to the country through music and stirring words.

The United States of America is a society and culture  that has changed and will change over time. As citizens of the United States we may support or disagree with the policies, the laws and the behavior of our fellow citizens or the behavior of our country as a unit (e.g. it’s participation in a treaty or in a war). If we disagree enough, either with a particular policy or national behavior, or with a large number of them, we may choose to show our disagreement by indicating that we no longer respect what our country is doing. This can be shown by refusing to stand for the presentation of the flag or the singing of the national anthem.

During the Vietnam War, in which I opposed American participation, I remember watching flag burnings and thinking that this was a legitimate way of showing opposition to a policy of our country that was wrong, although I would not have burnt a flag myself, partly because such behaviors were too often interpreted as hating our country, which I did not. It never occurred to me not to stand or sing the national anthem, as I always felt that its words represented  an affection I felt for my country, despite my despair at the way it was conducting itself. However, if someone had suggested that I not stand for the anthem because the country was not living up to what the words stood for, I am sure I would have agreed and sat. I always believed that America, in its very heart, was better than what its policies at that time led it to do and sitting for the anthem would have been a way to express that belief.

For some reason people talk about “disrespecting the flag” as if the flag itself is something sacred, as opposed to it being a symbol.  The country that it symbolizes is a fluid entity, its identity based on how its people and government conduct themselves at any particular time. We salute our flag because of what it represents, not because the cloth itself is sacred. Some have said that the flag or the anthem represent respect for our men and women in the military, which has never been what either the flag or anthem stood for, as they symbolize something much broader—our freedoms and ethics and cultural beliefs—that goes well beyond our military actions or the behavior of our soldiers. Our status as a beacon of freedom rests on our constitution and our values. These are sometimes protected by our military, but they are not synonymous with our military. Current protests involving the flag or the anthem have nothing to do with our military or the men and women who serve in it.  In modern times, while the U.S. has many laudable features, it is failing to protect people of color from discrimination, economic inequality and assault by law enforcement. The guarantees of freedom and equality that our part of our country and are what our flag and anthem symbolize, are not available for a segment of our population. A legitimate way to, peacefully, show one’s despair and opposition to these failures of our country is to sit or kneel during the playing of our anthem or the presentation of our flag. Those who engage in such actions are demonstrating their belief in our country  and their faith that it can do better.

Casey Dorman, Editor Lost Coast Review

Author of the political novel, 2020, available on Amazon.

Saturday
Sep232017

The Trouble with Antifa

By Casey Dorman

I’ve recently seen a number of articles and even a book defending the tactics of Antifa and other groups that use violence to fight alt-right and neo-Nazi demonstrators, and speakers. Some of have cited historical instances, such as the Civil Rights Movement using the Deacons of Defense to protect nonviolent demonstrators, or Gandhi’s words, suggesting that violence may a necessary resort in some cases. These citations have misrepresented these instances. Although Martin Luther King, Jr. consented to using the Deacons of Defense to protect marchers on at least one occasion, and Mahatma Gandhi said that if someone was unable to use nonviolence to “protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death,” he could use violence, he was clear that it was “second best”  and neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor Gandhi regarded violent protest as a useful or valid method of achieving their goals. Finally, claims that German “passivity” allowed Hitler to come to power misrepresents the support he had among the people. Furthermore, Hitler used violence perpetrated by Communists as the excuse to suppress freedom of speech and assembly and was supported by the citizens who feared “street violence.”  The fear of “violent Bolshevism” was as strong a recruitment tool for Nazism as was anti-Semitism.

There are several very definite dangers in the use of planned violence as a method of protest:

1. It often results in public support for those it opposes. While those on the left may never equate the behavior of neo-Nazis and Antifa-like groups, there are many among the public, supported by conservative media, who do, and it is these people who are the most likely to be swayed by racist or anti-Semitic rhetoric or to support ultra-conservative policies and political candidates. They are the ones who need to be targeted for anti-racist messages and persuasion, because they are the ones who are most likely to fall prey to White Nationalism.

2. Despite the claim that the presence of a violent component to protect or augment nonviolent protesters, is more effective and insures the safety of the protesters, a 2015 study by Erica Chenoweth and Nancy Schock of the effect of “violent flanks” within larger nonviolent movements found that:

a. Violent flanks that emerge from within otherwise nonviolent campaigns appear to decrease these campaigns’ likelihood of success.

b. Mass participation is the strongest determinant of nonviolent campaign success, and violent flanks have a negative effect on participation levels, suggesting that violent flanks can indirectly contribute to campaign failure.

c. In case studies, armed movements were consistently shown not to protect nonviolent activists but rather to put them at greater risk, as authorities used the presence of armed actors to justify widespread repression against all resistance movements, violent and nonviolent alike.

3. Those who support groups such as Antifa claim that the evil they are opposing—neo-Nazism, the KKK, White Supremacy—presents a far greater threat of harm than anything they are doing to stop them from expressing their views, so the aim of preventing them expression is a valid one. The difficulty here is that the violent group itself is the arbiter of which views should be allowed and which not. We have laws, based on our constitution, on what speech is allowed and what is not. Such laws have protected not just neo-Nazis, but Communists, flag burners, war protesters and athletes who show their defiance in public. Antifa has “shut down” not just neo-Nazis, but Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopolous, Charles Murray, and Ben Shapiro, while other groups have used violence or the threat of violence to stop Israeli speakers from speaking on campuses, anti-abortion activists, and conservative politicians (e.g. Condoleezza Rice). Once violence is the determiner of what views are allowed to be expressed, we are no longer a free society.

I am terrified of the threat of Nazism and White Supremacy, but malignant ideas should be opposed by arguing against them, not by using violence.

Casey Dorman is editor of Lost Coast Review and the author of the new political novel, 2020, which can be found at Amazon

Wednesday
Sep062017

Why Not Address Kim Jong Un's Worries?

Nearly every article written about North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, talks about how he is terrified of the U.S. mounting an attack to displace him as his country’s leader and possibly to reunite the Korean Peninsula under a government from the South (China fears the same thing but to a lesser extent). His development of nuclear weapons is usually seen not so much as a ramping up to a nuclear conflict but as the development of a bargaining chip in his negotiations (loosely defined) with the U.S. and South Korea.

The U.S. response has been to insist on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and repeatedly to insist that, in any talks with North Korea, the elimination of their nuclear weapons program has to take top priority. Previous negotiations, agreements, and sanctions over the last several administrations have all had this same objective: to keep North Korea free of nuclear weapons. It seems absolutely clear that that strategy has not worked. North Korea not only has nuclear weapons, it has a hydrogen bomb, and it has developed ICBMs capable of reaching mainland U.S.

The U.S. positions have not changed in response to North Korea’s changing nuclear threat. The latest messages from the administration have been to accuse Kim Jong Un of  “begging for war,” and to propose a fuel sanction on his country (something that will probably not happen, given China is its biggest supplier of oil).

It’s time to negotiate with Kim Jong Un and place his priorities at the top of the list. We are fearful of his paranoia and poor judgment, so shouldn’t our first priority be to lessen his paranoia rather than to heighten it with greater threats? Take reunification off the table by proposing a permanent treaty between North and South Korea instead of the current armistice. Put reduction, suspension or elimination of joint U.S. –South Korea military exercises on the table as a bargaining chip. Include a pledge to not attempt to overthrow the Kim Jong Un government in the discussion. Put all of the economic sanctions on the table. After putting these issues on the table, then we can explore what reductions and safeguards in his nuclear and missile programs Kim Jong Un is willing to concede if we concede some of his points. Attempt to gain at least an informal agreement to continue to pursue complete denuclearization as a long-term goal. Ask for stringent oversight by international organizations on all nuclear agreements and on issues such as selling of nuclear material or expertise to foreign governments or other entities (e.g. terrorist organizations).

The objection to the above approach is that it is seen as giving in to North Korea’s demands or at least losing the leverage we currently have because of our military and economic strength, which are a threat to Kim Jong Un. The answer to this objection is to simply look at where that strategy has gotten us. It is time to pursue another strategy, one that is based on the reasons Kim Jong Un is threatening us—which are his fears. Putting issues on a negotiating table loses nothing. It means that we are willing to talk about them, not that we will agree to them, unless of course our own demands are met. Long range, we are better off with a less fearful Kim Jong Un and a North Korea that is a more respectable part of the international community. And, after all, none of the things mentioned above, which Kim appears to want, is actually unreasonable.

Sunday
Aug272017

Man's Inhumanity to Man

I recently wrote a commentary about the use of violence in fighting hate groups such as White Supremacists and neo-Nazis. The reasons against using violence were very practical. Now I want to address a more basic issue, related both to violence and to hate.

Most of us are horrified by the actions of the Nazis and the holocaust they created, or by ISIS with its beheadings, enslavement, mass killings and bombings. We can’t understand how human beings can act that way toward other human beings. How can a person regard another person as less than human, regard their life as meaningless? It happens a lot. In Rwanda, Hutus killed 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsis, their neighbors, in a deliberate genocide, with an estimated 200,000 Hutus participating in carrying out the killings. Radio messages urged,  “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches.” In Russia, Chechen rebels took 1,000 school children hostage and 330 of them were killed. In Iraq and Syria, countless people have died in bombings aimed at those who practice a different from of Islam. In America, Native Americans were almost exterminated and were rounded up and confined to “reservations” in order to make room for European settlers. The slave trade and slavery itself killed at least 17 million Africans and perhaps four times that many. Lynching of Black people in the United States after the Civil War resulted in at least 3,500 Black people being hanged. I’m leaving out countless racial, ethnic or nationalistic horrors committed during modern history. And I’m leaving out most of the wars that we often consider noble, but result in as many or more deaths as the transgressions mentioned above.

How can people treat their fellow human beings in this way? Given the myriad racial, ethnic, national, and religious reasons behind such wanton hate and killing, we must conclude that all humans are capable of such behavior. Most of us don’t feel as if we are, but we must be wrong. What we know is that regarding one’s fellow human being as not deserving to live—or on a lesser plane, not deserving to live as well as we live—is a sentiment that can be encouraged by persuasion, by indoctrination, and by propaganda.

What I often wonder is whether the behavior that is abhorrent, which I see around me and in our history, isn’t dependent upon one major factor, which is giving ourselves permission and even encouragement for expressing hate. Hate is based on anger, or at least it gets its motivation through anger, and anger is a natural human emotion. We are all going to hate some things and some people at some times in our lives. But when hate is encouraged as the proper reaction to someone, particularly if that person is someone we don't know personally, but is hated because of the group to which he or she belongs, then it threatens to spill over into systematic violence. It does so because we no longer see the other person as an individual who is probably more like us than he or she is different from us (because most people are similar to each other in most basic human characteristics).

We all have people we hate because of the groups to which they belong. Many people regard this as appropriate because the groups themselves are evil. I wonder, though, if, once we give ourselves permission to hate enough that we want to destroy the other, if such hatred really is appropriate. It can become our accepted way of reacting to those we consider our enemies.

I’d like to figure out if there is a way to undermine the (perhaps normal) reaction of hating those we oppose and denigrating their humanity to the point that we want to harm them. According to Christian sources, Jesus urged people to do this, but even Christians don’t seem to take his advice seriously. I’m an atheist, so I can’t even fall back on a religious reason for trying to see the humanity in my enemies as, for instance, Gandhi did. But I’d like to explore if this is possible, because the amount of hatred I see around me is frightening and discouraging.

 

 

Saturday
Aug262017

Violence is Not the Way

By Casey Dorman

The democratic processes upon which this nation was founded were devised to prevent disagreements between citizens or between citizens and the government from being settled based on force and violence. Instead, we use voting—either directly on issues or for representatives who will speak for us—to express our opinions and disagreements. We use public assembly—a right guaranteed by our constitution—to express our approval or disapproval on issues. Through our government, we enforce laws that protect the right to express ourselves in speech or writing or art, the right to assemble and express our opinions, and the right of the press to express its opinions.

Today, many otherwise sensible people are questioning whether violence, employed by private citizens against those they believe are espousing views that threaten our democracy or some of our citizens, isn’t the correct and legitimate response to silence those who demonstrate those views.

There are reasons why this is not a good idea.

·      In general, taking matters into one’s own hands and defying the law by using violence against a fellow citizen is a solution that, if allowed, undermines both the rule of law and the guarantee of safety within our society. Personal justification for using violence cannot be the final arbiter as to when it is legitimate to use it or not. Laws, which are agreed upon by our citizens, must be the rules we follow or we lose all semblance of order in the society. No one is safe.
·      Violence provokes violence. When people are attacked, they often attack back. This has several consequences: it risks lives, it often results in the injury or even death of those not directly involved in the conflict, the side with the greatest means of using force wins – which has nothing to do with who is right or wrong.
·      Confronting ugly ideologies with violence has a history of often fueling those ideologies. By and large, small factions such as neo-Nazis in the U.S., radical terror groups, and revolutionaries have gained recruits and converts when their activities are publicized by accounts of violent confrontations against them. White Supremacists within the U.S. are using such confrontations as recruiting tools, Islamic terror groups in the Middle East have used the specter of Western military force as the bogeyman to recruit jihadists. Nonviolent opposition, conversely, has a history of gaining sympathy and support for those employing it.
·      The public’s reaction to violent confrontations is often to want to suppress it without making distinctions as to which side has the higher moral ground. The massive restriction of street protests, of public discourse and the suppression of critical voices in the media and elsewhere in Germany was supported by most of the citizenry who viewed the street violence between Nazis and Communists as frightening and disruptive and, following the Reichstag fire, which was blamed on the Communists, they allowed such suppression of free speech, resulting in only the voice of the government being allowed.
·      Overt violent revolution, as we have seen across the Middle East, has most often resulted in the collapse of order and in bloody civil war or an authoritarian takeover of the government by the military or a dictator. Even revolts that have begun peacefully, as in Syria, when protesters responded to government force by resorting to armed violence themselves, became devastating civil wars with no clear winner and millions of losers.

We have democratic processes in this country for expressing opinions and making sure that policies represent the will of the majority with guarantees of the rights of minorities. Giving them up is not wise. 

Monday
Aug212017

Culture Wars vs Political Wars

By Casey Dorman

One of the things I find odd is that on Democratic or Progressive websites, most of the posts these days are about opposing White Supremacy or neo-Nazis or racists. Why odd? Because everyone should be opposed to White Supremacy, neo-Naziism and racism, not just Democrats and Progressives (and polls suggest they are). Similarly, LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage, are now part of our culture and are affirmed by a majority of Americans, as are equal rights for women. So why do websites that are politically oriented identify these cultural issues as centrally important to their message?

One of the main reasons is that President Trump’s reluctance to denounce White Supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis, and his ongoing claim that “both sides” in clashes between such groups and those protesting against them are to blame, not to mention his assertion that both sides include “fine people,” has made a cultural question a political one. When members of his own party are unwilling to denounce the president’s message, this makes their party vulnerable to a racist characterization. In this sense, Democratic affirmation of equality and inclusion can distinguish the two political parties. This is surely the fault of the Republicans, as failing to embrace decent human values is both a political and moral error.

But claiming a moral high ground, particularly in self-righteous tones, is not a political platform. The party that simply flaunts its moral credentials and offers no programs, risks losing the support of voters who are looking for concrete policies to meet their needs.

The two major political parties have longstanding differences related to the degree to which the federal government should actively try to affect local government and the private sector with regard to the environment, education, health care, public safety, public health, income disparities, unequal treatment by the educational system, the criminal justice system, the health care system or in hiring practices. Democrats and progressives favor more federal government involvement and Republicans and conservatives less. Debate about these issues and the underlying philosophies related to them can be lively and useful. It should be the goal of both parties to fix these problems. How to do that can distinguish the parties’ platforms.

American society contains genuinely malignant individuals and groups who espouse racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, gay-bashing, and female disparagement. These people march, make speeches, recruit members and often engage in violence. They are to be identified and ostracized by all of us, regardless of our political affiliation. Sometimes such malignant people are involved in politics, but most politicians do not espouse these views, regardless of the party to which they belong (President Trump has added to this problem by not distancing himself from such views or the people who hold them, and this has further confused the political and cultural arenas). It is a self–defeating endeavor to spend the majority of our political agenda trying to “out” those in the opposite party who disagree with us by accusing them of having disgraceful and immoral attitudes or self-righteously proclaim our own aversion to such attitudes. It turns our political activities into a series of cultural affirmations or bashings, which fail to become an agenda that can actually fix real problems.

If we are going to make political progress as a society, then it is the responsibility of all of us to deal with our political differences in a way that will gain a result, not just vent our self-righteousness. We should feel free to condemn and oppose malignant ideas, behaviors and groups, regardless of our political affiliation, but we also need to actually propose and debate different political approaches to policy. As laudable as calling for removal of Confederate statues and calling the president a racist may be from a cultural point of view, it is not a political program, despite the applause it garners from Democrats and Progressives. There are large segments of the voting population who will stop listening to us if we concentrate all our effort on talking to each other.

Casey Dorman is the author of the new political novel, "2020" available here.

Tuesday
Aug152017

A Nonviolent Response to Violence?

The neo-Nazi, White supremacists who converged on Charlottesville over the weekend came to make a statement: they wanted to show their strength in numbers and their will to push their viewpoint, despite opposition from the American mainstream. Their numbers weren’t terribly impressive, except that for many of us, the fact that there are such groups at all and that they are not just isolated paranoid and misguided individuals, but instead are aligned in groups, is frightening. Their will was quite evident. They were anti-Semitic, anti-nonwhite, anti-immigrant, belligerent, vocal,  and ready and hoping for violence, and often, armed. Both their vocal pronouncements and their behavior represented the antithesis to our American ideals of equality, inclusion and justice for all. One of their group, motivated by hatred, prejudice and God only knows what else, killed someone and injured many others.

For those of us committed to a nonviolent approach to solving social and political problems, the White Supremacist groups present a particular problem. Not only do they employ violence in their demonstrations, their vitriolic speeches promote violence based on discrimination and prejudice. After all, the Nazis whom they emulate attempted to extinguish the entire Jewish community, and there is little reason to believe that those who give Sieg Heil salutes don’t support such an approach. Similarly, those who identify with and give the KKK salute must be assumed to support an approach to Black people that includes slavery, segregation and lynching. Can nonviolent opposition to such people succeed in containing or eliminating them or at least their power?

Nonviolent resistance has been shown to be more effective than violent resistance in effecting government change or overthrowing dictatorships (Chenoweth and Stephan, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2014). But a key component of nonviolent resistance is mass demonstrations that show the government’s or a dictator’s lack of concern for rights and human life in its response, thus mobilizing even more of the society to oppose them. In America, the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. was successful in reducing and in some situations, eliminating racial discrimination in the face of hatred and bigotry that was at least as virulent, and shared by more people, as that espoused by today’s alt-right. However, the situation in which the malignant actor is a minority on the fringe of society and their threat is that they will attract more to their point of view, is different than that of challenging the regime of a dictator, or segregation and Jim-Crow laws that discriminate against non-whites.

In America, the right of malignant minorities to express their views—even views that are racist and hateful— is upheld by Supreme Court interpretations of the first amendment. The only legal recourse to suppressing the views of groups such as neo-Nazis is when those views can be tied directly to incitement of violence, which is prohibited by Supreme Court decisions. It actually seems reasonable that much of what was said and done by White supremacists in Charlottesville might fall under such a prohibition.

But legal remedies won’t work for prospective White supremacist demonstrations when incitement to use violence cannot be proved in advance (the argument that the organization “stands for violence” has not been successful in previous court challenges). Many people have concluded that the only solution is physical intimidation of such groups, i.e. punching enough neo-Nazis in the face to dissuade them from marching again. It’s conceivable that this could work, although should the courts step in, those who urge such behavior could be hoisted on their own petard and charged with inciting violence. They might conclude that it is worth being charged with such a crime in order to accomplish their goal. Up to this point, such violent responses, when they have occurred, have had the unfortunate outcome of blurring the distinction in many people’s minds between the provocateurs and the responders. Violent melees appear as out-of-control clashes and both sides are blamed, losing the moral advantage for those who oppose the White supremacist viewpoint (mostly by changing the conversation to one of who is being most violent instead of who is promulgating hateful, racist views). Although, those who are firmly against racism and discrimination are in little danger of confusing the moral issues, those who are most vulnerable to the White supremacists' message are, and to some extent, it is their minds which this battle is about. Giving them and the media outlets to which they listen as few reasons as possible for excusing the behavior of those who are bigoted and racist is an advantage in winning the minds of the entire American population, not just in convincing those who already agree.

Nonviolent resistance has relied upon the moral ground afforded by revealing the unreasonable, unprovoked, and one-sided use of violence by its opponents. Nonviolent resistance also relies upon large numbers, demonstrating that those who favor their viewpoint (in this case diversity, inclusion, fairness and justice) far outnumber those who favor the alternative viewpoint. This serves to isolate their opponents from the rest of society. Nonviolent resistance can use a variety of methods, such as drowning out speeches with song, barring access to space to promote a message, voicing an alternative message to a larger crowd at the same time, etc. The possibilities are almost numberless and only a lack of imagination should convince someone that violence in return is the only option. Finally, nonviolent resistance exemplifies the ethic that hate is unacceptable much more than does punching someone in the face.

The aim of resistance—violent or nonviolent—is to insure that the White supremacy movement in America shrinks, rather than grows. Which approach will be more successful in doing this? I would be arrogant if I said I knew the answer to this question for sure. But for the reasons cited above, as well as many others, my preference is nonviolence.

Friday
Aug112017

Ethics and Group Differences

James Damore’s memo at Google has raised issues about the ethics of  discussing differences between groups of people. People seem more certain than they should be about the issues raised.

“All men are created equal” is a social truth, agreed upon by a democratic society. “Some people are born with damaged brains or bodies” is another type of truth, subject to verification. Does “some people are born with damaged brains or bodies” have a bearing on the truth, “all men are created equal”?

Most people would say no. The reason is because “all men are created equal” is not a truth that is subject to verification. It is a normative statement, which means, “all men should be treated equally,” or “all men are equal in status and rights in the eyes of society (or God),” and reflects a cultural norm, rather than an empirical fact, subject to verification. “Some people are born with damaged brains or bodies” is an empirical fact, not a statement about a cultural norm.

An ethical issue can arise in genetic studies if a group of people has been labeled as genetically inferior by reason of their group belongingness, and exploring the truth of this assumption as an empirical question serves to further denigrate them. (On the other hand, if empirical studies show that the assumption and the label are incorrect, is this an equally egregious ethical violation?)

If it is a reality that there are genetic group differences, when is it ethical to study them? Suppose one group is more prone to a particular disease than another, or one group is particularly resistant to a disease compared to other groups. Is it ethical to study group genetic differences in these cases, especially if such an exploration might cure the disease? Suppose one group is taller or shorter or thinner or fatter than another. Is this fair game for genetic studies?  What if one group is faster, better at mathematical calculation, better able to carry a musical tune? Do we reach a limit at which the study of differences becomes unethical?

Is it right to say that to conduct a study, the results of which might reinforce social discrimination and thus jeopardize adherence to the normative statement, “all men are created equal” is wrong?  What if the likelihood is that the results will not confirm discriminatory prejudices and thus make it more likely that a group will be treated as equal?

Suppose that, given our current inability to conduct value-free research, i.e. research that is not influenced by social expectations and the results of which can be interpreted separately from social attitudes (e.g. that group differences will be interpreted as based on genetics, even with no evidence that this is the case or vice versa, that they will be treated a result of cultural prejudices, without evidence that that is the case), does this situation, which probably applies to much research on group behavioral variables, raise ethical concerns about doing the research at all? This might be similar to questions about doing research on nuclear fission when the likelihood is that the results will be used to make a bomb or research on genetic manipulation in embryos when the likelihood is that the results will be used to alter embryonic genes so that a child’s traits will be selected according to parental preferences.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they should demonstrate that the issue is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Thursday
Aug102017

Solving the Problem with North Korea

Without complete knowledge of American, South Korean and North Korean military capabilities on the Korean peninsula, it is difficult to make specific recommendations about how to solve or at least de-escalate the standoff and mutual threats between the U.S. and Pyongyang. Clearly, bombastic threats from President Trump have the effect of increasing counter-threats from Kim Jong Un. Clearly, Kim Jong Un plans to continue developing his nuclear weapon deliverability capability and demonstrating his progress to the world. Clearly, current approaches to de-escalation are not working.

By all reports, Kim Jong Un is wary, if not terrified of the prospect of a U.S.  led or instigated takeover of his country. His fears are based upon the absence of a permanent agreement to divide North and South Korea, the presence of American weapons and troops in South Korea, a large, well-equipped South Korean military, and repeated joint military exercises near his borders by the U.S. and South Korea. All of this military preparedness on the part of the U.S. and South Korea is justified by Kim Jong Un’s and his predecessors’ threatening language and actions against South Korea, and now against the United States as a potential target of North Korea’s military weapons.

The response and approach of the U.S. has been to both build up and maintain military preparedness to defend South Korea and to enact and get the rest of the world to enact economic sanctions against North Korea.

Historically, the United States has engaged in numerous efforts to forge agreements with and curtail both nuclear and missile development in North Korea, extending through several U.S. administrations. There have been times when these have appeared to be successful and other times when they have dissolved into mutual accusations and failure. An extensive summary of this negotiation over the years is available at https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron .  What this summary reveals is that North Korea has used the threat of nuclear development as well as of supplying nuclear material to other countries as leverage to try to secure both lifting of sanctions, when they were in place, and “rewards” for lost income due to curtailing its illicit exchange of nuclear material and expertise to other countries. They have always held out the possibility of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula as a goal, if suitable conditions could be negotiated. However, each time progress seemed to be made, they either were shown to have been cheating with regard to their own nuclear activities or they backed out of agreements when they perceived themselves to be slighted or disrespected, mostly by the U.S. The United States, for its part has made genuine efforts to relieve tensions, including suspension of sanctions and even removal from the state department’s list of terrorist countries, although there were few times that at least parts of the North Korean economy were not under sanctions, often for supplying nuclear material to other countries.

What is clear from the historical record is that North Korea uses its nuclear development and its militancy as a bargaining chip and that at least parts of its economy are dependent upon its ability to supply nuclear material, expertise, and ordinary weaponry to other countries, something they have demanded compensation for discontinuing. They are also convinced that the United States, in particular, feels it has a right to place what they see as unfair demands upon their military and economic activities (restricting their ability to launch satellites, for instance), which is seen as an insult.

The United States is faced with an adversary that uses belligerence and brinkmanship as a negotiating tool, and occasionally has been rewarded for doing so, although most often it has led to their punishment by the international community. They have managed to occupy near-center stage in American military foreign policy for years, which seems to be something that pleases them. Given this situation, what can the U.S. do to relieve tensions and reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea?

North Korea is on a reward schedule, which on the surface appears self-defeating, but like a gambler who loses routinely but wins occasionally, or a misbehaving child who is usually punished but occasionally rewarded with attention, they have fallen into a pattern of high frequency provocation as a method of securing rewards. One option is to increase sanctions (which just happened via the U.N.), which has had some success in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table in the past, (though mostly not under Kim Jong Un). The problem is what to do if such sanctions don’t work, as they can only be extended so far. Another option is to threaten them with military retaliation for their own threatening behavior (which our president just did). The problem here is that any military action is likely to escalate into disaster. A third option is to resume talks with everything on the table— a permanent peace treaty between North and South Korea, lifting of sanctions, removal from the terrorist list, economic aid, removal of American troops and weapons from South Korea and in return their denuclearization—or not, but perhaps cessation of testing of weapons and missiles, cessation of shipments of materials to other countries, re-signing of inspection agreements with IAEA and other organizations, peaceful talks and collaboration with South Korea—who knows what else?

Of the above options, the third—resuming talks—appears least likely to result in disaster. Given the long history of occasional rewards for belligerence, we need to find ways to provide the rewards North Korea seeks and tie them to non-belligerent, peaceful and constructive actions on their part. We need to look for the sporadic positive behaviors on their part and we probably need to provide a pathway for those to occur. In the long run, it can be worth it.

Wednesday
Aug092017

Google's Problem is America's Problem

The flap about James Damore’s memo at Google, in which he makes assertions about male/female differences and criticizes the company’s “ideological echo-chamber” in its training programs and workplace policies, is symptomatic of a larger issue in American society. A significant portion of Americans, in academia, in the media, and in the larger society, appear to have reached a consensus that the way to confront ideas that are not shared by the majority (in that particular setting) is to ban or punish them, rather than discuss them. The line of reasoning usually goes that certain categories of ideas, such as those which are sexist, or racist, or anti-religion, for instance, are harmful if expressed, because they promote prejudice and they encourage hate. This is undoubtedly true. But then, the next step is to assign ideas to these categories.  This step is a subjective one. When James Damore asserted that there were temperamental differences between males and females that might impact self-selection of employment choices, he didn’t think he was being sexist. Many of his colleagues did, and Damore was fired for voicing his opinion. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher may criticize all religions for inciting people to hate and violence, but if they mention a specific religion in their criticism, they are considered prejudiced and “hate mongers,” and Dawkins is refused a venue to voice his views, while there are calls for Maher’s television show to be canceled. In each case, rather than discussing the ideas, we decide they are an instance of harmful prejudice and urge that they not be allowed to be expressed.

In our society today we have extreme groups who are prejudiced and hateful and are racist, sexist, hateful toward some religions and ethnicities, and often urge violence against those they hate. These are the alt-right and neo-Nazi groups that seemed to have gotten new life during this current presidency. The fear of many is that if small, microagressions against vulnerable individuals or groups are left unchallenged, then they threaten to grow into the extreme macroagressions of the militant far-right.

The alt-right and neo-Nazi rhetoric is a long distance away from the prejudices that plague the minds of ordinary people, but can the latter grow into the former? Agreed upon prejudices that are not revealed or discussed are fertile ground for the growth of increasingly extreme views, which each seem, at first, only a small distance from the traditionally accepted viewpoint, but their acceptance leads to expression and then acceptance of even more extreme views. This is a verified process of groupthink. But the answer to combating such growth of virulent opinions is to expose them and discuss them, not to prohibit them. The Nazi menace in Germany began its greatest growth in 1933 when public discussion became narrowed and limited by the Hitler regime. The Germans accepted it because they were told that the ideas of the most vocal opponents of the Nazis, the Communists, were too dangerous to be heard.

We make the mistake of identifying the ideas and opinions as what threaten us when it is the restriction of discussion that sows the seeds of groupthink and Orwellian Newspeak. The essence of democracy is critical discussion, not enforcement of certain viewpoints. Such enforcement results in an eventual curtailment of democracy.

 

Saturday
Jul222017

Does Nonviolence Require a Spiritual Basis?

The following is an excerpt from Casey Dorman's longer, published essay, Atheistic Nonviolence, which is available on Amazon as a Kindle or paperback book. Click Here

Does Nonviolence Require a Spiritual Basis?

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gandhi stands as perhaps the most convincing and articulate advocate of nonviolence. Despite sometimes making confusing statements regarding the acceptability of violence, most of Gandhi’s writings suggest that the choice between violent or nonviolent opposition to oppression, for him, was not based upon a decision about the most efficacious strategy, but rather upon whether one accepted the spiritual truth that nonviolence is “the law of our being.”  As he said, “Belief in nonviolence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.” He asserted that if these things were not true, “the whole of my argument falls to pieces.” In other words, Gandhi saw nonviolence as a means to enact the quality of love, which, in his mind, characterized God and the humans, which God created.

Gandhi’s philosophy, as he articulated it, is a deeply spiritual one. He often faulted himself for falling short in having the courage to live by it in all situations, and he faulted his followers for not believing it at all, but rather as seeing nonviolence as a political strategy.

Martin Luther King was an admirer of Gandhi, both of his political strategy and his spiritual philosophy. He referred to Gandhi as ‘‘the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change,’’ a statement which at least gives credit to Gandhi as the architect of King’s political strategy. As a result of his trip to see, first hand, the results of Gandhi’s nonviolent actions, which led to Indian emancipation, he said that he learned,  “True non-violent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

After King’s participation in the Montgomery bus boycott, King gained a spiritual realization.

"…in past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power."

 

The two foremost advocates, examples and spokespeople for nonviolence in our time both saw it not just as a method of protest or resistance, but as an expression of their faith and a technique that was based upon their view of God and of man’s relationship to God.  In fact, as Martin Luther King wrote, his faith was deepened by his participation in nonviolent resistance. Is it possible to be committed to nonviolence and to nonviolent resistance without having any faith in a supreme being or any sense that there is a spiritual basis for human existence?

Most, but not all, spiritually-based nonviolence rests upon an assumption that love of one’s fellow man is one of the inherent characteristics of humans, in fact, other than love of God, of which it may be an expression, it is the defining characteristic. Gandhi says this most clearly, as mentioned earlier, and premises his argument for nonviolence on that belief. Martin Luther King believed the same thing, although it is unclear whether he based his nonviolent method upon this belief or whether he developed the belief after practicing nonviolence. At any rate, the possession of love for all humans and the belief that humans will respond positively to overtures of brotherly love seems at the core of many, if not all, nonviolent philosophies.

 

An Evolutionary Basis for Love and Cooperation

One need not believe in a human spirit, nor in a supreme being, force or spirit to believe that humans are innately loving toward each other and that the tendency to respond to overtures of love with reciprocal love is a species-wide trait. For most of us, simply living life and falling in love, being cared for by parents, having children, or being around friends, provides personal evidence that love of our fellow human being is a powerful force in all of our lives. Nearly every one of us has had the experience of being emotionally touched by the distress of family, of friends, of even strangers who are sick, hurt, handicapped, or the victims of war or natural catastrophe. Every day we see evidence of other human beings showing tenderness, caring, or even risking their own well-being to take care of or protect others, often others they do not personally know.

Many people who experience love, either personally or as something they observe in others, see it as evidence of something “deeper” than mere biology within the character of humans. However, thanks to what we have learned about behavioral evolution and genes, there is ample evidence that the presence of love and mutual caring does not require a magical force or spiritual presence for it to be present in a species. Although it would be both hazardous and disingenuous to assert that the behavior of our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, demonstrates the presence of loving, comradely behavior as their preeminent trait (since they are often aggressive and brutal toward one another), they also display caretaking, mutual affection and helpfulness toward one another. In fact, chimps are not alone in responding to each other with reciprocal helpful behavior—behavior that entails an immediate cost to them but will increase the likelihood of a future reciprocal benefit— it can be seen in most primates, in a number of bird species and in vampire bats. According to Robert Trivers, the evolution of reciprocal altruism (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine – but sometimes involving even genuine sacrifice and risk) is dependent upon the inheritance of certain dispositions, including emotions of liking, friendship, trust, gratitude, sympathy and guilt. Not only have other primates, such as bonobos or chimps inherited these dispositions, but so have humans, perhaps at a considerably greater level, since human behavior is characterized by much greater and more complex cooperation than any other species. In all the species that display these characteristics, they are present for the same simple reason: they conferred an evolutionary advantage to the individuals who possessed them.

This is not to say that human beings are not aggressive toward one another. They are.  All we have to do is to look around us to witness murder, cruelty, war, and domination. To deny that aggression is a strong motivator of human behavior would be to deny reality. And in humans, it has been present as long as our tendency to cooperate. Modern scholarship suggests that mutual aggression was a natural state of our hunter-gatherer predecessors, as it is among present-day chimpanzees. Annual death rates from conspecific aggression were approximately 0.5% of the population among hunter-gatherers, and 20-25% of males died by being killed by other members of their species. These numbers are staggering by modern standards, especially considering that hunter-gatherers used no guns, warplanes, drones or bombs to achieve these numbers.

Looking on the bright side, 75% of hunter-gatherer males did not die from murder nor did a substantially larger percentage of females. And although our history books are crammed full of accounts of bloody wars and conquests and we seem to mark history by such events, the vast majority of human interactions have always been cooperative. Rome may have extended its military presence over a large portion of the ancient world, but, as we say, it wasn’t built in a day, and building Rome took massive cooperative behavior among its citizens (as well as the use of slaves). Similarly, Egypt, at the beginning of “civilization” constructed great pyramids and temples. Archaeological records suggest that workers on the earliest, and greatest, of the pyramids were Egyptians themselves, not foreign slaves. The story of the development of civilization is the story of mutual cooperation among human beings. And such cooperation, considered as a form of reciprocal altruism, is dependent upon inborn dispositions of liking, sympathy, trust and gratitude. So we can say that such dispositions are an essential component of modern human beings and therefore can be a basis for nonviolent solution of conflicts.

Humans are inherently violent and they are inherently cooperative. Both propensities reside within the human genome. While Gandhi thought that love needed to be the “essence” of the human spirit in order for nonviolence to work, in truth, it only needs to be present within the human psyche. After that, it is a matter of contextual contingencies, many of which are involved in “culture,” as to whether aggression or cooperation will determine how humans will actually behave in any particular situation.

Valuing Human Life

There are practical reasons for being nonviolent and being committed to nonviolent methods when trying to solve a conflict, even if one’s opponent is violent. These reasons may be ample, but is there another reason, besides the practical one for choosing nonviolence, a reason that is not spiritual? The basic reason for choosing to use nonviolence rests on the value one places on human life, even of lives one does not know personally, and on avoiding human physical suffering. If one holds these values, then he or she will always strive to find a nonviolent solution to a conflict, regardless of whom it is with. There may be times when this is not possible, but they will be the exception and, if my earlier analysis of the causes of conflicts is correct, they will be rare. But can this position be justified without involving spirituality?

If human life stands by itself, without any imbued sacredness from a spiritual source, either external to it or inherent within it, then why try to protect it at all costs? As I have argued above, we are very probably genetically endowed with a tendency to feel love, liking, friendship, gratitude, trust and sympathy, as the basis of cooperation and reciprocal altruism. This makes it unlikely that we will have to construct our emotional responses to other humans from scratch, based upon our experiences or our culture. As part of this genetic endowment, which was shaped by evolution, we are disposed to protect those who are close to us, and perhaps those with whom we have reciprocal interactions. Of course these are not our only genetically based tendencies. We are also disposed to be angry, aggressive and perhaps territorial, distrustful and physically violent in response to threats against our being. As humans, we have more choice in which dispositions to obey than do most other animals.  So the question comes down to why make the choice to avoid hurting or killing others?

The choice is probably not as free as we might think. For some of us the dispositions toward liking, loving, sympathizing, and even trusting are stronger than for others. Some others may feel less sympathetic, less prone to like others, and more distrustful. Most things that are part of our genetic endowment are inherited by the species as a whole on something like a normal curve—some people have more, some have less and most are in the middle. What may feel as if it's a free choice is often simply the tendency to go with our dominant disposition. Of course we could have done differently, but we just felt like doing what we did. And after the fact, we accumulate reasons why we did so. So some people may feel as if the natural thing to do is to pursue cooperation in order to resolve a conflict and others may feel as if the natural thing to do is to pursue confrontation and dominance. In other words, nonviolence will not appeal to everyone, although Gandhi, in particular, demonstrated that, at least on some occasions, a very large portion of the population can be persuaded to follow a nonviolent course of action.

Most of us are not Gandhi-like and we are going to respond with the dispositions that most naturally come to fore in a situation, based upon both our underlying genetic traits and our culture and training. If we are taught to empathize with those who are vulnerable or downtrodden, if we are taught that everyone has positive qualities, which are often covered over by anger and fear, then it is more likely that we will respond to situations of conflict with efforts to solve them nonviolently. If we learn how to de-escalate conflicts, we are more likely to think in terms of de-escalation than confrontation. If we are taught the evils and costs of war instead of being taught its glories, we are less likely to embrace war as a solution to international disagreements. If we learn enough about others to allow us to see them as similar to ourselves, then we are more likely to feel our natural dispositions toward sympathy, trust, liking and gratitude toward them, which will make us favor cooperation over confrontation.

I favor nonviolence as the method of conflict resolution at a personal, national and international level. I can, and I believe I have in this short essay, made arguments in favor of using nonviolence to resolve conflicts and resist injustice. My reasons are not based upon my spiritual beliefs, but the reason I am disposed to favor nonviolence and seek and give credence to reasons that support this choice are no doubt based upon the influences of my parents, my education, and my cultural environment, as well as my genetic traits. To me this means that more people can be convinced of the virtue of nonviolence if they are exposed to education and cultures that favor empathy, sympathy and trust and present cogent, rational arguments in favor of nonviolent means to resolve conflicts and resist injustice and de-emphasize the nobility, glory or necessity of using violence. I have no objection to basing one’s choice of nonviolence upon one’s spiritual beliefs, but I hope that I have shown that it is not necessary.

Interested in this topic? Casey Dorman's new book, Atheistic Nonviolence contains practical arguments against the use of violence for conflict resolution as well as why a nonviolent stance need not be spiritual. Find it at Amazon.

 

Tuesday
May232017

Trump's Middle East Tour: The Military-Industrial Complex is Alive and Well

President Donald J. Trump is in the middle of his International tour. He’s already sold $110 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia in a deal that is expected to providefighter jets, tanks, combat ships and anti-missile defense systems.”   His economic advisor, Stephen Schwarzman has made a deal for $20 billion in infrastructure investment between his own company and the Saudis. He managed to frame the difficulty with Islamic extremism in mostly military terms and somehow blame most of terrorism on Iran—a Shia nation who has been helping the Syrians fight ISIS. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are fundamentalist Sunni terror groups, many of whose members and even leaders are from Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism, or Salafism, has been the official Muslim doctrine, endorsed by the country’s royal family, and the starting point for extremist views. Trump presided over a partial Saudi-Israel rapprochement, which is based on the two countries’ mutual hatred of Iran. During his speech to the Saudis and 49 other Sunni Muslim countries, Trump praised Bahrain’s fight against terrorism, which is composed as much of tyrannical imprisonment of opposition leaders and members of its Shia majority as of anything else, and Saudi Arabia’s fight against “terror” in Yemen, which has been condemned as war crimes by most of the world. All of this while Iran re-elected a moderate president, who staked his reputation on the success of the nuclear deal that Israel opposes and Trump has threatened to back out of.

President Trump has turned foreign diplomacy into deal-making in the interests of selling arms and bringing financial investments to his wealthy business cronies (we don't know if his own company’s business interests, or those of his son-in-law Jared Kushner have also profited from these types of deals). As his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has said, U.S. foreign policy under Trump is concerned with what profits America, not what agrees with American values. And profiting America means profiting big business and arms manufacturers.

There’s a lot wrong with the president’s approach to foreign policy. The Sunni-Shia feud in the Middle East is one which the United States has never understood and has a record of supporting whichever side allows us to buy cheap oil and agrees to say nice things about us or allow us to use its country for military bases. Never mind if their internal politics creates and in some cases supports the development of the very terrorist organizations that have attacked us in the past and continue to pose a threat.

Most Americans, even liberal media pundits applauded Donald Trump’s choice of Tillerson, Mattis, and McMasters for his chief foreign policy cabinet officers. But Tillerson represents commercial pragmatism taken to the extreme—a man who opposed acknowledgement of climate change when it served his company’s interests to do so and agreed with it when it served him to do so. He is a man who was adept at striking deals with Vladimir Putin and other autocrats and dictators in order to obtain oil rights for his company, Exxon Mobile. Generals Mattis and McMaster may have served their country honorably, but they see the world in terms of military strategy, not peaceful diplomacy. These points of view, combined with Kushner’s and Trump’s emphasis on negotiating shrewd business deals for the financial establishment, are what have determined our country’s foreign policy on this first presidential international trip. The danger is that this is both a morally bankrupt policy agenda and a short-sighted recipe for disaster based upon a narrow view of the Middle East and a desire for immediate financial profits.

Wednesday
May102017

American "Leitkultur"

An article about Germany in today’s New York Times by a German writer, Anna Sauerbrey, raises an interesting issue for those of us in the United States. Sauerbrey discusses an article published in a German newspaper, in which the author, Thomas de Maiziére, listed characteristics that define German culture (the concept of Leitkultur). Sauerbrey doesn’t publish the  list, but indicates that it contained such values (cited as “non-negotiable”) as “the priority of law over religion, respectful manners in everyday life, being part of the West, being proud ‘Europeans’, and being patriotic.” In addition, as if to emphasize at whom such a list was aimed, the article by de Maiziére also mentioned, “We shake hands” and  “We are not burqa,” these latter values directed toward Muslim men’s reluctance to shake the hand of women and Muslim women wearing face-covering clothing.  In other words, the  importation of Muslim cultural behaviors is not what de Maiziére meant by German Leitkultur.

Sauerbrey laments the delineation of German cultural characteristics that exclude the behaviors of immigrants, who have their own values based upon the cultures from which they immigrated. Partly, she says, such insistence upon discouraging cultural plurality is doomed. As she says, Germany “needs to accept that it will be less homogeneous.”  She goes on to say that, “Germany will have to accept that respecting the law is enough… In accepting pluralism, we will truly live up to our constitutional values.”

What is the relevance of this discussion to the United States? Although some claim that the traditional culture of America is “European,” that is only partially true, since it ignores Africans who were here since the beginning of the country as slaves, and it ignores Native Americans, both in North America and from what is now Mexico and Central America. Even from Europe, despite a predominance of British among the earliest settlers (excluding French in Canada and Louisiana and Spanish in Florida, Texas and California), with the increase in population coming mostly from immigration, the variety of Europeans and later Asians, led to varied cultural traditions becoming “American.” Culture continues to change with the influx of Middle Easterners, Africans, Asians, and Mexican and Central Americans into our society.

More so than in Germany, the “constitutional values” of the United States rest upon elevating the law above the sanctity of any other cultural practices, including the tenets of any particular religion, “traditional family values,” norms of dress, styles of social greeting or even of acceptable social decorum or self-identification. America’s “non-negotiable” values are all based upon the sanctity of individual freedom as guaranteed by law.

In America it doesn’t matter which day one goes to religious worship, or whether one goes at all. It doesn’t matter who one dates or even marries. It doesn’t matter whether or not one covers one’s head or face in public or whether someone follows strict religiously dictated guidelines for what one eats or whether one’s eating habits are good for his or her health. It doesn’t even matter which religious or philosophical figures one follows or even if one decides to follow none of them and denigrate all of them. All of these things are the subjects of individual decision because our constitution guarantees that they are, and we all agree that the central factor in our cultural identity as Americans is that we agree to live by our constitution.

In America our Leitkultur is the culture of inviolable individual freedom, which is not subject to the vagaries of whichever culture happens to be dominant in the local or national society, but is guaranteed by law.

Tuesday
May022017

Freedom Is Not About Ideas

I personally hold a number of social/political ideas: capitalism is creating increasing income disparity and undermining the public good; many law enforcement agencies treat minorities unfairly compared to how they treat Whites; it is immoral and unfair to send law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have established a stable life in the U.S. out of the country; everyone in the country should have free healthcare; the greatest threat to the human race is climate change and we need to use government regulations to control it; virtually all religions create more animosity than they do good; the greatest social challenge we have in this country is to improve the lives and economic prospects of people of color… I could go on.

There are many Americans who believe the opposite of me. America is not a great country because it contains citizens who hold both my beliefs and beliefs that don’t agree with mine. America is a great country because it allows its citizens to hold such diversity of beliefs and protects the right to hold them. We have laws that guarantee that one group cannot impose its ideas on another, except through the mechanisms of the democratic process. And even then, our Bill of Rights guarantees that the majority cannot intrude on the minority’s expression of its beliefs beyond certain limits.

What makes America free is that we all agree to abide by a set of rules, which apply equally to all of us. It is not that we believe a particular idea, it is that we cannot be restricted from expressing our opinion about it. It is not that we believe religion; it is that we are not allowed to impede its expression. It is not that we value the individual dignity of life, we are not allowed to take it or the opportunity to achieve it, away from others. It is not that we value any particular race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender; it is that we are not allowed to discriminate against people because of any of these characteristics. It is not what we believe about these values that matters with regard to preserving freedom, it is that we all agree that our laws must protect all of us by limiting the kinds of actions we can take, regardless of our positions on these values.

Today, there are many of us who believe that the ideas we either believe in or fear are so important that we are justified in setting aside the rules that govern our society in order to either achieve or combat these ideas: Certain ideas must not be allowed expression. Religion can be used as a basis of restrictions if it is a religion we think is harmful. Some gender identities can be discriminated against if we believe they are unnatural. Violence is a legitimate tactic to use against those who express ideas we believe are dangerous.

A democratic society delineates the mechanisms for achieving consensus so that actions can be taken by the society as a whole. Undemocratic societies use other methods that do not depend upon consensus or they use the power of consensus to restrict the rights of those who don’t agree with the majority. These other societies are not free. They are run by despots or by majority religious or ideological groups who are determined to allow only their own values to be expressed within the society and often employ Draconian methods of suppression of their opponents.

America needs to reaffirm the importance of living by the rules that protect its freedoms.

 

Sunday
Apr302017

What Democrats Can Say Instead of "No"

Democrats have failed to coalesce around a coherent political agenda. They seem satisfied with name-calling and voting no on anything the Republicans propose. In other words, as one pundit put it “there is plenty of energy, but no direction” in the approach of the Democrats.

The blame for congress’ lack of accomplishments has been laid at the feet of extremists in the grass roots of both parties. The voters on both sides, so the story goes, see any compromise as evidence of disloyalty. Democrats can’t do a lot about grass roots Republicans, but they can attempt to meet the needs of their own supporters with a program that satisfies a progressive agenda without its chief aim being to thwart their opponents. They have to stake out a set of positions that, if adopted, would make them support any politician, regardless of party, who agreed to them. Most importantly, such positions can be a yardstick against which to measure their own party’s candidates. Their elected politicians’ yays and nays can be completely determined by whether or not what they are voting on conforms to this progressive agenda.

Here is what such an agenda should contain:

Universal health care: Free health care should be provided to all Americans, either via government subsidy of insurance premiums (as in Medicaid and Medicare) or government provision of medical services. This can be achieved in one fell swoop or incrementally, by beginning with a public option.

Aggressive carbon emission regulation: Any progressive candidate or program must reinstitute Obama-era emission regulations and extend them. Long-term independence from the use of fossil fuels must be a goal, although transition to alternative fuel sources can be gradual and must be realistic.

Path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants: Those who have been in the United States without legal permission and have not broken any laws except minor ones (e.g. traffic laws, checking in with immigration), should be allowed to stay and pursue citizenship. Violent criminals should be aggressively pursued and deported if they are undocumented.

Reasonable and generous plan for refugees and immigrants: America should welcome refugees and make it possible for immigrants to come to America, join our workforce and become productive citizens. Public programs to support refugees once they arrive have been shown to produce stronger allegiance to the U.S. and need to be part of a refugee program.

Federal program to guarantee civil rights in criminal justice: Persons of color and other minorities are not treated equally by many local and state law enforcement agencies and the federal government must  take actions to insure the civil rights of these minorities when they interact with law enforcement.

Reinstatement of Dodd Frank  or similar controls on the financial services industry: Financial de-regulation risks another economic disaster.

Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United decision: So long as corporations can determine election outcomes the country will not be in the people’s hands.

Support for legislation and Supreme Court nominees that reaffirm abortion rights and equal pay for women: Women’s rights cannot be in jeopardy in the United States.

 

This is a bare-bones progressive agenda. It does not include foreign policy or international trade agreements, both of which are issues upon which progressives disagree too much to demand adherence to a single position.

None of the above positions is extreme. Most of them are supported by a large segment of the American population. Strict adherence to such an agenda is not a purist position that sacrifices the good for the perfect. By promoting such an agenda, Democrats can reassert their own aspirations for the country.

 

 

 

Saturday
Apr292017

100 Days of Trump

I faced three questions in evaluating President Trump’s first 100 days in office: why do it, can it be evaluated fairly, and should it be evaluated fairly?

The answer to why is that 100 days into a new presidency, it makes sense to take stock. Evaluating the Trump presidency fairly is much harder than deciding whether or not to do it. If anything has become clear since Trump’s election, it is that fair is in the mind of the person making the judgment. It matters from which sources one gets his or her news and opinion. Entire issues are either amplified or ignored by such media outlets as Fox News, the New York Times, CNN, etc. Non-mainstream sources are filled with fake news, biased news, retreaded news and extreme opinions. How one knows what is actually going on, much less what is important is a function of his or her tastes in news, which in turn is a function of his or her political leanings. Finally, the question of whether Trump’s first 100 days should be evaluated fairly is perhaps one that is unique to our times. Biased opinions are considered mandatory by many people on both sides. Deciding that President Trump may have done something right is considered disloyal by a large segment of the population, as is deciding that he has done something wrong by a smaller, segment of our country. A “fair and balanced” assessment of presidential actions is considered giving comfort to the enemy and undermining the movement to oust the current president (and his party) from power in the next election (and for some people, before the next election, through impeachment).

So with some trepidation, I will evaluate Trump’s first 100 days. With regard to one of my major concerns (and I would argue that it should be everyone’s), the climate and the environment, Trump has been a disaster and the only saving grace is that his de-regulatory actions may be relatively ineffectual. The country is moving toward alternative energy sources with or without the EPA. Forces within the White House, and even some within industry, are urging the president to remain within the Paris Climate Agreement. On the downside, the natural environment and wildlife will suffer almost immediately from some of his actions, which take away their protections. And the kind of real progress on slowing or halting climate change that is absolutely necessary for preserving life on our planet takes more aggressive actions, not fewer.

Trump’s health care efforts, his tax plan, his aggressive targeting of undocumented immigrants, and those who protect them, his actions on immigration are all onerous to the extreme, but, thankfully, partially mitigated by the president’s ineptitude in developing policy about them. All would, if implemented, cause untold suffering on the most vulnerable members of our population.

In foreign policy Trump has been bold, if not honest, in his approach to such adversaries as Syria and North Korea. Until a policy has been fully articulated, the jury is still out in this area.

Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was not as bad as it might have been and seemed a reasonable one, given the president’s party and campaign promises.

Then we have the president’s behavior itself, which by any standard has been unpresidential, impulsive, and downright embarrassing to the country, particularly his tweets, his lying and his bragging.

Finally, the Democratic Party’s response has been ineffectual and unwilling to provide a bold progressive alternative to the Republican agenda.

That’s Trump’s first 100 days in my opinion (and in 600 words or less).

Wednesday
Apr262017

Reflections on the Words of a Pope

 

Pope Francis addresses different issues than those addressed by the world’s political leaders. They talk about the uses of power to achieve their goals. His subject is our souls. I am an atheist, so when I hear Pope Francis speak about this, I must translate the idea of a “soul” into words I can understand. For me, he is talking about the inner, conscience-driven personality of each of us, which determines our behavior toward the world and toward others. Fortunately, the Pope makes such a translation easy, since he talks mostly about how we think about and behave toward each other in our daily lives, rather than the fate of an ephemeral “soul” in the hereafter.

The Pope’s recent TED talk provides a wonderful example of his message, and an example that deserves reflection from each of us. The essence of his talk was that we need to realize that the core of being human is being connected with other human beings. In particular, he urged each of us to feel connected to those who are less fortunate, who, in his words, have been “discarded,” and are being wasted while we pass them by, as did the Priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He urged us, and by us he meant those with power and wealth, but also each individual who was in reach of his words, to not see the world in terms of things and money, but in terms of human beings.

Francis pleaded for a “revolution of tenderness.” He asked us to open our hearts to those around us—and he meant those anywhere on the planet—and see them as our fellow human beings, as people we can care about. His words gave me both hope and inspiration.

It is easy to see the antithesis of tenderness in the behavior of our political leaders. As the nation with the most powerful military in the world, we approach most international problems in terms of how to use our military force to solve them. We address ideological differences in Afghanistan with an influx of troops to favor the side that favors us. We address a civil war in Syria with arms and military support for the rebels we hope will favor us if they win. We confront North Korea’s nuclear weapons aspirations with threats, sanctions, and our mighty navy. Hardheaded “realists” tell us that trying to recognize the humanity of our opponents in these situations is foolish, and that military power is the only message to which they will listen. We say this despite admitting that the real solutions to these problems will be political, not military, and in the face of the abject failure of our military solutions so far.

Pope Francis reminds us that tenderness starts in our own hearts. The first step is recognizing the humanity inside of those we oppose.  Many of us belong to partisan camps, which vilify their opponents. Calls to understand each other are labeled traitorous. It has become not only perfidious to listen to those we oppose, but even to allow them to speak. We have disparaging labels for everyone who disagrees with our point of view.

Those we vilify are persons like ourselves whose life experiences have brought them to a different point of view than our own. To distance ourselves from them with self-righteous wrath or even violence, is to fail the humanity inside of us, which we must seek within ourselves to allow us to reach out to our fellow human beings. That is what a “revolution of tenderness” requires.