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Why Can't We Talk About These Things?

A lot of topics are hotly debated within the United States, particularly in a year of a presidential election. Most of the debate appears to be a be a back and forth argument from entrenched positions with virtually no discussion of the merits of either side’s points. Some topics are even off limits. Several issues that are important and/or divide our country are listed below. I think if we could  discuss subjects such as these rationally, we might take a step forward in becoming a civil nation.

Abortion and “a woman’s right to choose” is one issue, which represents such a cultural split within our country that frank and open discussions, outside of the academic literature, are rare. On one extreme are those who, for religious reasons, believe that, since God  created life, any taking of life is a sin. On the other extreme are those who believe that a woman has a right to make decisions about what happens to her body and so long as the baby is still within the mother’s body, it is her decision whether or not to terminate its life. Most of the discussion has centered on the United States Supreme Court and its1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which when supplemented by the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, provides complex arguments weighing the right of the individual (in this case the mother) for “personal privacy” against the obligation of the state to protect the “potentiality of human life.” The written opinions within these two cases provide a revealing glimpse into the thinking of most of the justices at the time. In both cases the issue of the viability of the fetus, i.e. its ability to continue to live outside the body of the mother was an issue, mostly in deciding when the transition of maternal right to privacy became less compelling than the fetus’ potentiality for life.

There are lots of areas of discussion on this topic. Why, for instance is the viability of the fetus outside of the mother’s womb a particularly important issue, especially since its date has been shown to be dependent upon the state of medical procedures? If medical procedures advance to the point that unborn fetuses can be sustained almost from conception in artificial conditions, does that mean we are talking about a person at all stages of fetal development? And what do we mean by “person?” When can we say that a mother and her fetus represent two people, not one? Does allowing a mother to die by saving a fetus amount to deliberate killing if it is the absence of performing an action to save the mother’s life (a version of the “trolley problem”)? And many more issues. These are useful issues to discuss and could inform both legal and medical decisions. The outcome of all of these issues, I believe will reflect cultural and societal norms at the time they are discussed and might be different if discussed at a different point in history. That should give pause to those who believe that their opinion on the issue represents an unchanging, objective truth.


What kinds of gun control, if any, would reduce gun deaths in the United States is another issue that is hotly debated, but usually from starkly different philosophical points of view. The extent to which the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution protects private gun ownership is a related, but not the same issue. From what I can tell, there are not sufficient data to answer the first question in all cases, that is for all types of gun control. The problem, of course is that even when the issue is scientifically researched, the data are naturalistic, rather than experimental, and too many extraneous variable are uncontrolled to provide cut and dried answers. But, given this proviso, that the data are flawed, there are data. A productive discussion would look at all of the available data for each type of gun control (e.g. background checks, internet sales restrictions, assault rifle bans, trigger guards, etc.) and evaluate its adequacy according to scientific standards and begin the conversation from there. It seems imperative that the discussion of the effects of gun control be evaluated separately from the question of whether such measures would be allowed by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 2nd amendment. That discussion is only a useful one once it has been determined what the effect of gun control measures are most likely to be. I would welcome such a constructive conversation.


Who are the rebels in Aleppo, why are they still fighting and what methods are they using?

Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin claim that the rebels in Aleppo are terrorists, include many foreign fighters, some aligned with al Qaeda or ISIS, are conducting a jihadist war, and are committing atrocities in the manner in which they are both controlling the noncombatant citizens in eastern Aleppo and murdering citizens loyal to the government in western Aleppo by military raids and shelling. The Western press and the United States government have focused almost entirely upon Assad government and Russian bombing of eastern Aleppo using among other things, internationally outlawed barrel bombs, and cutting off  rebel-held sections of the city from food, medical supplies and other forms of humanitarian aid.  Both Russia and Syria have been accused by the West of “War Crimes.”

The war in Syria and the situation in Aleppo is being fought in the press and in international public opinion as well as on the ground and in the air in Syria. Current and future American actions will be determined as much by the public opinion generated in this war as by the military situation on the  ground. I’m sure that reporting in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere is completely one-sided on this issue. But in the United States the government does not control the press and it is the responsibility of the press to provide a complete picture of a situation such as this. I don't think this is being done and, until it is, our citizenry is not capable of making fully informed decisions on what they believe is the best course of action for our country in Syria


Is there a relationship between anti-Israeli rhetoric and activity and anti-Semitism? Progressives these days are almost uniformly aligned against Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians. There are lots of things they object to in Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians, such as Israel’s massive use of force whenever a conflict occurs between Palestinians and Israelis, Israel’s continual building of new “settlements” in areas within Palestinian territory or that are the subject of negotiations regarding eventual ownership of the land, restrictions upon imports to Palestinian areas, upon travel by Palestinians, upon work, upon access to capital and continued maintenance of poverty conditions in much of Palestine. On the other side, Hamas continues to call for the demise of Israel as a country, continues to shell Israeli villages and support terrorists attacks from stabbings to shootings to suicide bombings within Israel. Other countries who profess support of Palestine, such as Iran, have also called for the total annihilation of Israel. 

There are issues on both sides of this conflict, even though it may be wrong to equate them and one side may be more to blame than the other. But within the progressive community in the United States, the rhetoric is almost all one-sided. And within the conservative community in the United States it is almost all one-sided on the other side. Recent polls in Israel have suggested that at least half of Israeli’s do not support many  of their government’s actions toward the Palestinians and issues such as the expansion of settlements by Israelis are hotly debated within Israel. At the same time, many progressive groups and individuals in the United States routinely express antipathy toward all Israelis, attempt to ban any Jewish Israeli speaker from speaking on college campuses, and attack either verbally or sometimes physically, pro-Israeli campus groups or Jewish student organizations. The University of California Board of Trustees attempted to label anti-Israeli speech or support for the anti-Israeli BDS movement as anti-Semitic and ban it from campuses. This was far too broad a brush with which to paint objections to Israeli policies, but supporters of the ban pointed to many instances in which opposition to Israel was tainted by anti-Semitic messages.

Israel and its actions and the United States policy toward Israel are important issues both for Americans and for the rest of the world. There are both honest disagreements and there are ideological prejudices that are brought up in conversations about Israel. At the same time, anti-Semitism has been a scourge within our country and worldwide for most of history and it is rearing its head again in Europe and in the United States in some of the organizations that have jumped on the Donald Trump bandwagon (although not by Trump himself as far as know) and even on some college campuses. Along with several other prejudices, such as against people with dark skin and women (and now Muslims in Europe and America), prejudice against Jews is something that constantly has to be guarded against. But guarding against prejudice can’t stop us from having an honest conversation about the policies of Israel.


Why is religion given special status with regard to freedom of expression? The first Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But should following a religion or being a religious institution give an individual, a business or a church additional rights that don’t belong to people who don’t have any religion? For instance, churches don’t pay property taxes, donations to churches are tax deductible and churches don’t have to complete the paperwork other non-profit charities do. In fact, churches don’t have to prove they are charities, and many aren’t. Churches can be exempted from laws regarding providing contraception services in the health insurance they provide for their employees, or in some cases from laws regarding use of banned substances such as peyote. People who want to claim conscientious objector status to avoid combat military service must show a religious objection to such service, a personal philosophical objection will not do. Medical practitioners who object to performing certain procedures or dispensing certain drugs may do so if they can show a religious objection and refer the client to another provider without inconveniencing the client. These concessions to religious belief appear to me to go beyond what is guaranteed by the first amendment.

This topic is occasionally discussed, as John Oliver recently talked about it on his program. However, the examples he had to give to make the argument for not allowing tax exempt status for religions were of so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers and televangelists, who are notorious for lining their own pockets with money for donations. No one, except perhaps Bill Maher and, in England, Richard Dawkins, is asking us to question the very concept of giving special status to religions and religious beliefs, compared to secular belief systems or organizations. No one dares to. Certainly not politicians, who generally hasten to prove that they are religious and even in some cases, such as Mike Pence, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, that he considers himself a Christian as his foremost identity, rather than as a citizen or family man.

I have no real objection to the tax exempt status of churches, although I do believe that conscientious objection to killing people in the military extends well beyond and may not even include a religious belief and should be honored regardless of whether religion is involved. But mostly, I think it’s time for a discussion of these issues.


Reader Comments (4)

Come on Casey....give me something to work with here! Your title had me ready to jump in...then, it was just your liberal perspective spewing out. You try, you really do try to be fair and balanced, but you just can't help yourself! Fair is fair...I am the same way. As always, nice to hear from you.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torphy

I think many progressive readers would think my comments are teactuonsry

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

That is, reactionary

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

These issues are fairly tame and discussed on a regular basis. If you really want a challenging subject, try discussing intelligence diifferences between the sexes.....or even across the human cline.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Wheeler

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