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.

Saturday
Apr222017

Ethics, Personal and Societal

 

At a recent psychiatric conference at Yale University, several psychiatrists made the claim that Donald Trump is mentally ill, necessitating his removal from office. Dr. John Gartner, a who is also a founding member of Duty to Warn, an organization of mental health professionals calling for Trump’s removal , said: “We have an ethical responsibility to warn the public about Donald Trump's dangerous mental illness.”

These psychiatrists are violating the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” formulated by the American Psychiatric Association’s Code of Ethics in 1973, which says, “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement. 

A psychiatrist occupies a special role in our society, which is circumscribed by educational, legal, practice, and ethical standards. When the average citizen hears the pronouncement of such a professional, he or she is assuming that the statement  is being made by someone who is following the dictates of his or her profession. This means that a psychiatrist can say whatever he or she wants as a private citizen, but, once his or her title as a professional is invoked, these statements must adhere to the rules that the public relies upon such professionals following. If the public takes a statement  regarding the mental health of a public figure the mental health professional  has not examined personally, nor known outside of his or her public persona, as implying the same clinical and professional standards that apply to other statements made by that professional, then the public is being misled and this is unethical.

The argument made by Dr. Gartner and others is that their personal ethics demand that they violate their professional ethics and that they issue a diagnosis as well as a recommendation for action with regard to President Trump. This raises a substantive issue about what kinds of situations justify one’s personal ethical concerns overriding what society has accepted as normative ethical rules of behavior.

This issue has similarities to the one in which those who claim that their adherence to the legal and ethical guarantees of free speech must be suspended in cases where someone’s exercise of the right of free speech presents a danger to society. In both cases, the individual is taking it upon him or herself to violate ethical (and perhaps legal) principles because of his or her personal ethical concerns.

The best way to think about this (and to distinguish it from cases such as Martin Luther King’s refusal to follow laws that mandated segregation) is to ask whether the ethical rule in question has merit. If the answer is no, the decision is easy. One should not follow a flawed ethical rule. But most mental health professionals and most Americans agree with the Goldwater Rule and the first amendment guarantees of free speech, respectively. 

The tendency for individuals to make exceptions to ethical guidelines when their own opinions and emotions are involved is the reason such guidelines were encoded in the APA Code of Ethics and the United States Constitution. Neither the profession of psychiatry nor a democratic United States would work if exceptions to the ethical rules were allowed whenever individuals decide they are warranted. Such rules are precisely what allows professions and democracies to function. Public statements made by psychiatrists and protests on campuses rely upon a substrate of rules that lend such activities legitimacy. If such statements and protests violate the rules that support them, they are undermining the social contract upon which they were built.

 

 

 

Saturday
Apr222017

Ethics, Personal and Societal

 

At a recent psychiatric conference at Yale University, several psychiatrists made the claim that Donald Trump is mentally ill, necessitating his removal from office. Dr. John Gartner, a who is also a founding member of Duty to Warn, an organization of mental health professionals calling for Trump’s removal , said: “We have an ethical responsibility to warn the public about Donald Trump's dangerous mental illness.”

These psychiatrists are violating the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” formulated by the American Psychiatric Association’s Code of Ethics in 1973, which says, “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement. 

A psychiatrist occupies a special role in our society, which is circumscribed by educational, legal, practice, and ethical standards. When the average citizen hears the pronouncement of such a professional, he or she is assuming that the statement  is being made by someone who is following the dictates of his or her profession. This means that a psychiatrist can say whatever he or she wants as a private citizen, but, once his or her title as a professional is invoked, these statements must adhere to the rules that the public relies upon such professionals following. If the public takes a statement  regarding the mental health of a public figure the mental health professional  has not examined personally, nor known outside of his or her public persona, as implying the same clinical and professional standards that apply to other statements made by that professional, then the public is being misled and this is unethical.

The argument made by Dr. Gartner and others is that their personal ethics demand that they violate their professional ethics and that they issue a diagnosis as well as a recommendation for action with regard to President Trump. This raises a substantive issue about what kinds of situations justify one’s personal ethical concerns overriding what society has accepted as normative ethical rules of behavior.

This issue has similarities to the one in which those who claim that their adherence to the legal and ethical guarantees of free speech must be suspended in cases where someone’s exercise of the right of free speech presents a danger to society. In both cases, the individual is taking it upon himself to violate ethical (and perhaps legal) principles because of his or her personal ethical concerns.

The best way to think about this (and to distinguish it from cases such as Martin Luther King’s refusal to follow laws that mandated segregation) is to ask whether the ethical rule in question has merit. If the answer is no, the decision is easy. One should not follow a flawed ethical rule. But most mental health professionals and most Americans agree with the Goldwater Rule and the first amendment guarantees of free speech, respectively. Some people want to make exceptions to them.

The tendency for individuals to make exceptions to ethical guidelines when their own opinions and emotions are involved is the reason such guidelines were encoded in the APA Code of Ethics and the United States Constitution. Neither the profession of psychiatry nor a democratic United States would work if exceptions to the ethical rules were allowed whenever individuals decide they are warranted. Such rules are precisely what allows professions and democracies to function. Public statements made by psychiatrists and protests on campuses rely upon a substrate of rules that lend such activities legitimacy. If such statements and protests violate the rules that support them, they are undermining the social fabric upon which they are built.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Apr192017

If Universities Can’t Allow Freedom of Speech, Who Can? 

The “Free Speech Movement” began in the 1960s on the UC Berkeley campus. At that time, the campus became the hub of anti-establishment demonstrations. These demonstrations were all liberal and concerned with anti-racism, anti-war, and anti-establishment themes, but the crux of the issue was the students’ right to express their opinions openly.

Fast forward to 2017 when two right-wing, professional provocateurs (Milo Yiannopoulos and now Ann Coulter), invited to speak on the Berkeley campus by the Berkeley College Republicans, both had speeches canceled by the university because of concerns about property damage and student safety. No one doubts that the university has an obligation to protect the safety of its students. But they also have an obligation to protect free speech. “Academic Freedom” has been a concept that has applied to what has been said and what has been taught at universities for decades and was formulated most convincingly by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian born scientist and philosopher who argued for freedom of both inquiry and expression from the point of view of the need for science to be free to consider all ideas. He was making his arguments against Nazi, Soviet and even British attempts by the state to control scientific inquiry. The idea of academic freedom quickly spread to all things taught at universities and was the basis for many professors standing up to McCarthyism in the United States.

UC Berkeley maintains that it has not turned its back on freedom of speech or academic freedom (in this case the freedom of students to hear whomever they want to have speak to them). Nevertheless, they have now canceled another speaker (other universities have also canceled both speakers in the past). So if the university wishes to preserve freedom of speech, but is unable to, who is to blame?

UC Berkeley is partly to blame. In order to guarantee free speech on its campus, the university must make accommodations, which allow any kind of speech which meets the requirements of student sponsorship, to take place. After the debacle with Milo Yiannopoulos and recent clashes in the streets of Berkeley, as well as incidents at other universities, it is incumbent upon the university to make arrangements that will allow such speech to happen with minimal risk to students.

But those who disrupt campus speakers and who impose their will by threatening or attacking other students are also to blame, as are those among the faculty who acquiesce in “shutting down” speech they find offensive or dangerous. It is a weak society that combats ideas by not allowing their expression. That is exactly what Polanyi fought against in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Scholars of free speech are generally in agreement that what makes speech dangerous is the restriction of views that oppose it. None argue that certain ideas are so toxic, except those that involve a direct threat to another person or group, that they can’t be heard. Such ideas become dangerous when their opponents have no opportunity to argue against them, when those who hear such ideas have no opportunity to hear alternatives to them.

Universities should be the places where ideas are debated. A group of protestors are intimidating our universities so that only those ideas and speakers who meet with their approval are allowed to speak. That is wrong, and UC Berkeley and other universities need to figure out how to combat such forces so that Free Speech returns to our campuses. I don’t agree with Ann Coulter on virtually anything— except her right to express her views at a public university.

 

Tuesday
Apr182017

The Paradox of Free Speech

Recent events in Berkeley, California and on campuses across the United States have demonstrated a growing sentiment among some young people that speech by those who espouse certain views must not be allowed. The argument is often couched in terms of preventing views embracing or sympathetic to Nazism or Fascism, from being expressed. Defenses of movements such as Antifa or Black Bloc, both of which mount vigorous and often physical opposition to speakers and marchers perceived to represent Fascism, have cited the failure of citizens in Germany to physically oppose Hitler and his followers as contributing to the rise of Nazism.

Traditional liberals and progressives have been appalled by the confrontational tactics of those who prevent others from speaking, because such actions violate what is considered perhaps the most basic American right, which is freedom of speech. Their critics accuse them of intellectual dithering, allowing dangerous opinions to be disseminated, gathering more supporters and threatening groups such as Jews, Blacks, gays and women. These critics regard it as a moral imperative to prevent such opinions from being openly expressed.

The paradox of free speech is that it allows dangerous ideas to be expressed. There is no doubt that speech can lead people to do terrible things. Goebbels’ Nazi radio broadcasts in Germany in the 1930’s were a major factor in spreading anti-Semitism. Radio Rwanda urged people to hate and attack Tutsi “cockroaches,” leading to an eventual genocide.

If hate speech can be dangerous, how can it be allowed?

What makes speech dangerous is not just what is being said, but the social situation in which it is expressed. The greatest factor making speech dangerous is the suppression of counter opinions. In both Nazi Germany and Rwanda the only voices that were allowed were those preaching racial hatred. Freedom of speech was nonexistent.

Freedom of speech cannot be delimited by the content of speech. If saying some things is not allowed, then speech is not free. If one group decides that opinion X is too dangerous to be expressed, and can suppress its expression, then we open the door to another group, in the future, deciding that opinion Y is too dangerous to be expressed. In America, our constitution and our courts have determined that the only thing we can prohibit from being expressed are “fighting words.” SCOTUS defines these as those “which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Justifications for suppression of speech are usually couched in terms of preventing Fascism. But mob violence or threats of it, sufficient to curtail speech or protests are today being used to prevent the expression of many opinions that only in some people’s perception could lead to Fascism. In some cases, the groups being attacked are blatantly racist or anti-Semitic, even neo-Nazi. But on campuses, speakers who have been “shut down” have included those who are pro-life who represent pro-Israel positions, who have worked in conservative administrations, as well as well-known racist trolls, such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Using mob violence or governmental (i.e. public university) authority to suppress speech is not a defense against Fascism, it is a form of Fascism. It is exactly the technique used in Nazi Germany and Rwanda as well as Soviet Russia and Syria to limit discussion of opposing points of view. Democracy allows even ugly, dangerous views to be expressed and to decide that it is “imperative” to suppress someone else’s freedom of speech, is a step toward losing our democracy. We must not delude ourselves that this is how we preserve freedom.

 

Wednesday
Apr122017

United Airlines and the Doctor: Our Society in a Microcosm

United Airlines didn’t overbook their flight from Chicago to Louisville, KY. The flight was full, but the airlines needed to transport a flight crew to Louisville for another flight, so they asked for volunteers to give up their seats. When no one volunteered, the airline offered $400 for anyone to give up his or her seat. When that got no volunteers, the airline offered $800. Still no one volunteered. The airline designated four passengers as needing to “involuntarily” give up their seats. Three complied, one refused. When he remained in his seat the airline called airport security to remove him. The result was recorded on other passengers’ cell phones. The man, a Chinese-American doctor from Kentucky, was dragged from his seat, down the aisle and escorted from the plane. He returned, his face bloodied from the encounter and again refused to leave and again was forcibly removed.

At the same time that Dr. Dao, the passenger on United flight 3411, was being forcibly removed (and injured in the process) from the plane, President Trump had just bombed a Syrian airbase in order to deter Bashar al Assad from using any more chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war and was also sending the USS Vinson, an aircraft carrier, as well as several accompanying ships to a location near North Korea in order to “send a message” to Kim Jong Un that the U.S. would not tolerate its further testing of nuclear armed missiles.

The response of United Airlines to the resistance of one of its passengers to give up his seat when requested to do so, was to rapidly escalate to the use of force to remove him. The result appears to be that their stock dropped precipitously and the doctor is now suing them. Their CEO has issued an apology and the security personnel involved in the episode have been suspended. With regard to President Trump’s ordering of an airstrike on the Syrian airbase, the result has been a deterioration in U.S. –Russian relations and in U.S. Russian cooperation in Syria. U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets have declined as American forces wait to see if they have anything to fear from the Russians. We have no idea, at the time of this writing, what will be the effect of sending more U.S. naval forces to the area surrounding Korea.

The U.S. options for responding to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria appeared to be confined to military ones. Our response to Kim Jong Un’s display of nuclear power seems to be confined to military options, despite the fact that all experts agree that using diplomatic means to secure China to pressure North Korea is the only way to deal with the situation that avoids a catastrophic outcome. United Airlines’ response to a recalcitrant passenger reflected a mindset that limited its options to the use of force.

We live in a confrontational world in which the conventional view of how to convince an opponent to change his mind is to use or threaten to use violence. The outcomes, when this viewpoint is employed, are routinely negative. The purveyor of violence suffers as much, or more, than the object of his violence. In international military situations, the result is usually that both sides suffer.

Isn’t it time that we changed our way of thinking about how to resolve conflicts?

Tuesday
Apr112017

A Plea for a U.S. Middle East Policy

The Trump administration doesn’t have a plan for the Middle East.

George W. Bush had a plan. It was based on neo-conservative thinking: bring democracy to the countries that don’t have it and which pose a threat to the U.S. The idea was that democratic governments don’t start wars (except our democratic government). That theory led to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The result was chaos. Barack Obama had a plan, which was to exit from a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible. That plan got sidetracked by the Arab Spring, which led to the decision to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. As a result of the chaos left behind in Libya and Iraq, plus the extension of the Arab Spring mentality to Syria, where the resistance to protests by Bashar al Assad led to a civil war, a new entity emerged: ISIS. When Obama left office, the U.S. Middle Eastern strategy appeared to be to continue to fight the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan—with no end in sight—to provide support to Iraqi troops fighting ISIS and to provide military support to rebels fighting Assad in Syria. Only George W. Bush had a coherent Middle Eastern plan and, because it was based upon a total misunderstanding of the Middle East, it destabilized the whole region, and led us into the mess in which we now find ourselves.

Donald Trump had a plan when he took office. He would let Russia and Syria play the major role in fighting ISIS, although he occasionally said he would “bomb the hell of out them.” For sure, we were not going to go down the road of involving ourselves in “regime change” in countries such as Syria.

Well, now we’ve taken direct military action against the Syrian regime in response to their alleged use of chemical weapons. We’ve threatened to mount more attacks if we feel that the way Assad is waging war does not meet our humanitarian standards. According to Nikki Haley, our Ambassador to the U.N., we also are aiming for a regime change in Syria.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says we’ll let the Syrians decide who should rule them.

U.S. Middle Eastern policy is, if anything, fluid. No matter which direction we seem to go, when things don’t work out, which is usually, we take a different tack. Donald Trump is no different than Obama and both are less consistent than the (misdirected) Bush. At least Obama was able to articulate what he was doing and why, at the time he was doing it. Trump does not appear to be able to do so, and his cabinet members and spokespeople seem to go in different, often incompatible directions.

The U.S. has shown a consistent misunderstanding of Middle Eastern politics and culture, so let’s have a Middle Eastern policy that is simply pragmatic. Do what will most likely secure our interests. With regard to ISIS, we don’t want them to occupy land and we don’t want them to continue to mount terror attacks. With regard to Syria, we don’t want Assad using chemical weapons or killing countless civilians and creating more refugees. Do we have other interests in the region? No one has articulated any. We first need to decide if we can do anything to secure our interests. If not, then just sit on the sidelines and watch. If so, then develop a strategy for achieving it.

Saturday
Apr082017

Morality and U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

When Syrian warplanes allegedly dropped deadly Sarin gas on a village in northern Syria, and videos showed men, women and many children dying from the suffocating effects of the gas, President Donald Trump said he was horrified. Within days he ordered air strikes on the airbase from which the Syrian planes had reportedly taken off to drop their deadly load. The retaliatory strike was aimed at sending a message to Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, that, if he used chemical weapons, the U.S. would punish him, militarily.

I’m almost uniformly against using military means to send messages to solve problems, partly because they invariably involve killing, and partly because they almost inevitably lead to further military confrontation. As military strikes go, however, this was a relatively benign one. Probably due to the U.S. having communicated to Russians and apparently some others that the strikes were coming, the death toll from the strike was reported to be 15. The Syrian government reported that 6 military were killed and 9 civilians from surrounding villages, although those numbers are not confirmed.

It is important to know if civilians were actually killed and if, as the Syrians reported, the deaths were from errant missiles, since American reports from both official and unofficial, usually retired, military sources described the missiles as having “pinpoint accuracy,” and we have seen before that such accuracy is exaggerated by the military and collateral damage  almost always accompanies any air attack. While it is clear that the target was the airbase infrastructure not people, deaths of civilians modifies any assessment of the morality of such an attack and can even nullify it.

While rhetoric at home in the U.S. either applauds President Trump for “standing up” to Assad and defending the immorality and illegality of chemical warfare, or castigates the president for “escalating” the war by attacking Syria for the first time, the issue deserves more careful thought than knee-jerk praise or condemnation. A one-off, mostly symbolic attack to demonstrate a “red line” across which Assad should not again step, an attack that was aimed at military infrastructure and not people, may be a good thing, particularly if it is effective in stopping the use of chemical weapons, and if it does not lead to further escalation of U.S. involvement in the war. If, as some voices, including John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have urged, it leads to more attacks against Syria’s air installations, it is a bad thing, as they are both being used to fight ISIS and are protected by Russian air defenses. Degrading the Syrian’s ability to fight ISIS or starting a shooting war with Russia are not positive outcomes. Another danger of the airbase attack is that it furthers the premise that constructive U.S. responses to the Syrian struggle are confined to military options.

The only way for the U.S. attack on the Shayrat airbase to be a moral and effective tactic by our country is if the number of civilians killed was actually near zero and the effect on Bashar al Assad is to stop his use of chemical weapons. In addition, it must not lead to any further military engagement with the Syrians or Russians by the U.S.  If any of these conditions are not met, then the attack was wrong. Finally, this attack, since it was outside the AUMF under which Bush and Obama fought terror groups  and was directed at a sovereign nation, required congressional authority and the president needs to come to congress to explain how this fits our current military mission and what he believes that to be.

Tuesday
Apr042017

Nonsense in the Senate

Judge Neil Gorsuch is a smart, literate, conservative judge. His previous rulings and writings show a mix of decisions, primarily favorable to conservative sentiments (e.g. the Hobby Lobby decision), but sometimes to liberal ones (e.g. against disproportional use of force against a schoolchild, against police “knock and talk” rights). As far as conservative judges to replace Antonin Scalia go, he may be a pretty close match. If the president were a Democrat, Judge Gorsuch would never have been nominated for the Supreme Court. For a Republican president, he appears to be par for the course. So why is there such furor over his confirmation?

Part of the reason for Democrats choosing to filibuster Judge Gorsuch is to pay back Republicans for refusing to consider Obama’s SCOTUS nominee of 2016, Merritt Garland. Democrats are mad and unforgiving, so the story goes, and so is their base. The second reason—the one most often cited by Senate Leaders such as Chuck Schumer or Dianne Feinstein—is that Judge Gorsuch is not “mainstream.” In other words, he is too conservative. A third reason, is that the judge’s performance, in both one-on-one talks to Democratic senators and in committee testimony, was not forthcoming enough for senators to form enough of an opinion of him to be able to vote for his confirmation.

The consequence of a Democratic filibuster of the Gorsuch confirmation will be that the Republicans will choose the “nuclear option” and revise the Senate rules to eliminate the right to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. Gorsuch will be confirmed. The next Supreme Court Nominee will require only a simple majority for confirmation, with no possibility of filibustering him or her.

The rhetoric around the confirmation of Gorsuch vastly exceeds the reality. Democrats talk about the need to uphold the “sixty-vote tradition” for confirming SCOTUS nominees, although 60 votes is the number required for cloture (ending debate), not confirmation. Phrases such as “blowing up the Senate” have been used for invoking the nuclear option, with hand-wringing sentiments that the Senate “will never be the same.” The last time the nuclear option was used, it was the Democrats themselves who used it. Republicans are quick to point this out, and, while expressing reluctance to change the Senate rules, claim that they will be “forced” to do so by Democratic recalcitrance.

The arguments for a Democratic filibuster are supported by most of the Democratic base. It is in order to satisfy that base and continue a wave of opposition to President Trump and his policies, including his appointments, which will translate into votes in the next election, that is stoking the opposition to Gorsuch in the Senate. The cost is that, if another, more extreme conservative is nominated in the future, the use of the filibuster to oppose him or her would be lost. Of course the nuclear option would still be available on the next nominee, but if that person were more extreme, there might not be uniform Republican support for overriding the filibuster rule. 

The real cost of using the filibuster with Judge Gorsuch is that it continues the dysfunctional partisan approach to decision making in Washington. Both Democratic senators and their base are willing to put up with the dysfunction in order to satisfy their need for unrelenting partisanship. This is the same approach taken by Republicans for the last eight years and it is the approach that has left our country split into opposing camps that neither respect nor talk to one another. It’s not only not any way to govern, it is not any way to live together.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Mar292017

The Prisoner's Dilemma Revisited

Mathematician John Von Neumann, co-originator of game theory, famously urged presidents Truman and Eisenhower to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia before the Soviets could amass a large nuclear arsenal themselves. His infamous quote, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today…” reflected his assessment of standoffs in the Prisoner’s Dilemma two-sided, zero-sum game. The results of game theory experiments at the Rand Corporation indicated that when both sides have the capacity to destroy each other, they will not refrain from doing so forever. One side will “defect’ from the agreement and use its power to destroy the other. Von Neumann wanted the U.S. to be the side to defect and launch a “preemptive” attack on Russia. Ominously, he was a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, but both presidents refused to follow his advice.

Von Neumann’s arguments came at a time when the United States had substantial nuclear superiority over the Soviets, who had only recently exploded their first atomic bomb and were nearing development of the hydrogen bomb, which the United States already had. We are at a similar stage in our relationship with North Korea as we were with the Soviets back then. Kim Jong Un has viable nuclear weapons and is developing short and long range missile delivery capabilities.

Although Von Neumann’s so-called “proof” that someone would eventually use their nuclear weapons has not come true—yet—we are at one of the most dangerous times with regard to the use of nuclear weapons since the days when Von Neumann uttered his famous opinion. In response to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said, “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action then that option is on the table.” In other words, a preemptive war is again a possibility.

Retired Army Major Mike Lyons, a senior fellow for the Truman National Security Project, has predicted that the attack “would not focus on just military targets—there would be civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands as well.” If the North Koreans  responded by targeting Seoul or Tokyo using their nuclear weapons, we would be compelled to retaliate with ours.

With brinkmanship on the rise, Monday's U.S. boycott of a U.N. conference on developing a nuclear weapons ban treaty is dismaying. United States UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley cited the belief that such a treaty is not “realistic,” given that North Korea will not abide by it. This argument is a spurious one. Our possession of nuclear weapons has not deterred North Korea from developing their own, and nothing in the proposed treaty would immediately eliminate the weapons we now possess. The truth is that Donald Trump has no intention of allowing limitation of our nuclear weapons. As he said, "Let it be an arms race."

The United States has both a practical and moral obligation to join the U.N. discussion of banning nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons ban would affirm the commitment of the world to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free planet. America should be leading, not opposing such a goal. It would curtail nuclear proliferation by reducing the stockpiles and spread of weapons world-wide—a situation in which people even more dangerous than Kim Jong Un can get their hands on such weapons. Believing that we and others can possess nuclear weapons and continue to not use them is a dangerous test of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

 

Read Casey Dorman’s cold war thriller, Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Deadliest Game, available from Amazon