Month: January 2016

The Hijacking of Morality

Quote of the Week:  “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”  – Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur Clarke warned us about the tendency of those wearing religious trappings to act immorally, and even to foment deliberately immoral principles and objectives.  Religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are complex structures of thought, filled with self contradictions that allow for these religions to be used for contradictory purposes – to argue, for example, both for and against slavery, for and against war, for and against religious toleration, etc.  However, there is an easy test by which we can determine whether an argument, religious or otherwise, is moral – how, in effect, to determine if morality is on track or has been “hijacked.”  That test is the liberal ethic of building a community of care and welfare, the vision of the City on a Hill.  Morality is ultimately not a question of religion, enshrined as it can be by religious thought.  Morality is not found in God’s House; but in the hearts of people doing the moral work of building a city of love and care and communal responsibility for those around us.

Humans are for the most part essentially moral creatures.  All human civilizations, societies, and cultures have moral systems; and for that matter the gross similarities on moral rules (prohibiting murder, protecting children, etc.) vastly outweigh disparities.  This is even more true of religions, which are virtually universal in their agreement on basic moral questions (disagreeing instead on doctrinal questions, like the number and names of their god(s), the relationship of physical to metaphysical realms, days and times and methods of worship, etc.).  That humans always manage to impose an identical moral order on their religions, and on their societies and cultures (not to mention on agnostic and atheist philosophies) proves that religion gets its morality from people, not the other way around.  Morality is a human quality, not a religious one.

All religions are theories of philosophy.  Philosophy is merely “the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”  Religions are first and foremost theories about the nature, composition, and origin of the universe, questions fundamental to philosophy in general.  All philosophical systems – religions included – are ultimately moral systems, because humans are moral creatures seeking to impose their natural moral standards upon their thoughts, impulses, laws, cultures, etc.  Religions represent natural human curiosity about – and the need to explain – the universe around them; and religious morality derives from both our natural human norms and from social and cultural differentiation.  No religion developed in a vacuum.  All religions grew out of existing moral, philosophical, political, social, and other systems, and kept certain basic standards while imposing certain other new standards.

Political ideals are also philosophies, and they similarly derive from basic moral norms as well as imposing new moral standards.  Furthermore, political and religious ideology are often intimately intertwined.  Human thought remains fixated on systems inherited from the past (systems in which people grow up and which therefore can be central to their conception of the world around them).  Early thinkers sought to explain complex and (at the time) immeasurable phenomena through simple religious statements; and their explanations have been passed down the generations to the religions of today.  Political idealism, often informed by preexisting religious ideals, also interacts with and shapes developments in religious thought (as in such trends like Wahhabism and the Great Awakenings of the nineteenth century; and the twentieth century movements of religious conservatism and extremism).

The interaction between religion and politics has had ramifications both great and terrible.  The American liberal ideal of the City on a Hill exemplifies a civilization informed by Christianity and enshrining a social collective with an imperative to care for all people and to welcome all seeking refuge.  However, despite the essentially liberal ethic that derives from Christianity and the other great religions, religion carries with it a risk that bleeds over onto politics as well.  Religious messages can be confusing, complex, and self-contradictory; and many have perverted religious messages to pursue immoral objectives of greed, selfishness, and intolerance.  In fact, much in the way of religious conservatism (of all colors) falls under this description, including the Religious Right of the US, the settlers’ movement of Israel, and the Islamic theocracy of Iran.  Even more extremist religious conservatives like ISIS, al Qaeda, and terrorist killers like Robert Dear and Dylann Roof pervert religious messages into immorality, denying messages of peace, love, and tolerance; and perpetrating violence and hatred.

Religious conservatism effectively abandons the liberal moral ethic enshrined by religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and works against the community of the City on a Hill.  Such movements and their sympathizers used religious arguments to support slavery, to rationalize and push forward imperialism and Manifest Destiny, to ignore and even justify the Holocaust, to continue repressive regimes like those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, to fight against the extension of civil rights in the US, and even to argue against basic health care services to the poor like those provided by organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  In all of these cases, religious arguments contradicting the basic liberal ethic of the very religions cited were used to justify oppression, intolerance, and violence.  Values hostile to the major religions of the world, as well as to most human moral norms, are given religious justification by those claiming religious titles and citing religious sources.

Clarke may have misspoken somewhat when he criticized the “hijacking” of morality by religion.  Religion does not “hijack” morality; but it does promote the abandonment of morality (even while being itself an expression of moral principles), by those wearing religious garb and identities.  There is, however, a simple way to tell the difference between religious leaders arguing immorality (the “hijackers”) from those arguing a moral message.  The litmus test is the liberal ethic of community, the construction of the City on the Hill (and the construction in fact, not simply the patriotic lip service to an ethic otherwise ignored).  We find morality ultimately not in God’s House; but in the hearts of those building our City, extending the community of care and welfare to all people.

Headline image via Google Image Search.


Traversing the Thin Line Between War and Peace

This week, in accordance with plans announced last year, the United States Army is deploying roughly 1,300 personnel from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) to Iraq, in what is characterized as a regular rotation.  The division headquarters is replacing the division headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division as the command component of a DMCU (Division Multi-Component Unit).  The DMCU is a joint coalition force responsible in part for training and supporting Iraqi military and security personnel, as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve mission to combat ISIS.  The 101st Airborne’s headquarters elements will include about 65 personnel from the Wisconsin National Guard.  The division headquarters has been home-deployed since February 2015, when it returned from a five-month deployment to Liberia as part of the relief effort to stop the spread of the Ebola virus.

In addition to the headquarters rotation, the division’s 2nd “Strike” Brigade will be replacing the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade as that formation returns to its home base in Ft. Drum, New York.  The combat elements of the 2nd Brigade trained recently at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Major General Gary J. Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne, expressed great confidence in the brigade’s ability to perform its mission.  The troop rotation is ultimately going to leave approximately the same US troop strength in Iraq (currently around 3,000) as before.

The USN and Iran Face Off in the Gulf? (Or Not)

Meanwhile, on January 12, two USN patrol boats with ten sailors aboard (nine men and one woman) were detained by naval elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGN) for “snooping around” (the Iranian accusation), or for “mechanical issues… leading to both boats inadvertently drifting into Iranian waters” (the American response, paraphrased from the Reuters feed on the incident).  The Iranian government assured the US State Department that the Americans would be returned to US custody very shortly.

Headline image of 101st Airborne helicopters via Google Image Search.

Image of USN riverine patrol boat released by Reuters, courtesy of the US Navy.

Who is at the Helm?

The New York Times recently featured a discussion about the political direction of the nation, and various reactions to it.  Having myself answered telephone polls that included the question, “Are you satisfied with the direction in which the nation is moving?”, I am troubled by the failure of polls using this question to address the more fundamental question of who is driving the nation in that direction.  The responses posted by the Times, and the reactions they reveal, also show a problem with both the question and with what American voters think about and respond to.

The main problem which President Obama has had to contend with since even before winning the presidency is the economic situation.  The Bush Recession and the financial meltdown of 2008 pushed President Bush into a corner, and during the 2008 presidential race, Bush asked the two contenders, Senators Obama and McCain, to the White House to discuss it and advise him how to deal with it.  Senator Obama’s plan became the road-map to recovery, used by both Bush and President Obama.  While there was a halt to the meltdown, and while job growth has continued almost unabated since 2009, Republicans and their supporters question the president’s performance and claim that Republicans would have done better.  They of course ignore the fact that the recession and meltdown both happened on their watch; and they ignore the fact that neither Bush nor McCain had an effective plan to deal with them (which is why Obama’s plan was implemented by Bush).  They also ignore the fact that job growth and overall economic performance have generally been better under Democratic presidents than Republicans.  So is the problem “direction,” or “velocity”?  The Republicans have a legitimate concern that Democratic recovery is too slow; but they had no alternative means of achieving a more rapid recovery, with the modern job market globalizing and market shares of foreign nations edging out American manufacturing and other services.  So whom is to blame?  The Republicans who had no ideas and allowed the problems to manifest, or the Democrats who have repaired much of the damage but too slowly from the point of view of their critics?

Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and others on the left have also demonstrated significant problems deriving from the increasing concentration of wealth in the US.  Some of the reasons why recovery has been slower than would be liked also derive from this problem.  As wealth has been concentrating (lower-end wages remaining the same over time, but wealth expanding at the top), union and middle-class jobs, which provided much of 20th century America’s income and consumption, have been edged out.  As income and consumption reduce overall, there is less demand for manufactured goods and for the jobs producing them.  There is less money to invest in small businesses (and less consumer support for those businesses).  This allows large corporations to push over smaller ones (itself causing further wealth concentration into the large corporations at the expense of “mom and pop” local businesses).  Congressional leaders like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pushed for supports at both consumer levels and business levels to even the playing field; but with foreign competition growing and here to stay, America faces a 21st century economy that will have to be very different from our 20th century hegemony.  Both Democrats (like Bill Clinton) and Republicans have helped to loosen the regulatory environment that creates living spaces for smaller companies and protects them from larger corporations.  And unions have fought to preserve the incomes of their own workers, inciting resentment from others towards their seemingly “overpaid” members, who have traditionally been the nation’s principal consumers and job creators.   So whom is to blame?

A new political environment has evolved with populist movements arising like the petty-fascist reactionaries of Trumpland.  The Republicans bloviate with hate-filled language about homosexuals, abortions, and foreigners to incite actions like the multiple county-based oppositions to the SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling and the Colorado Springs shooting at the Planned Parenthood facility.  They ignore the calls by Black Lives Matter and other movements for a dialogue on racial discrimination, and their snide remarks about African Americans struggling for their rights helps fuel incidents like the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston.  They do not even manage to distance themselves from heinous incidents like the Charleston shooting.  The racist group inspiring Dylann Roof’s shooting, Council of Conservative Citizens (the ideological descendant of the Citizens Councils of America , or “White Citizens Councils”), is currently campaigning for Trump in Iowa.  Extremism is looked upon from the right as normal and acceptable.

Are there growing extremes on both sides?  Where is the leftist “extremism” about which the right so often complains?  While Sanders suggests that large corporations will not “like him,” he, Warren, and Reich push not for some communist utopia of “people’s republics” dictating production, consumption, and classless society, but instead for a leveling of the field that allows small companies to co-exist with the large.  They seek a capitalist environment in which workers can achieve personal security and agency while working for profitable companies.  They seek a society in which the police do not target specific groups or races, but instead protect all citizens under their watch.  They seek a society that builds the City on a Hill, the vision for America that has always been and remains the nation’s central, and founding, ideal.  In what way are these goals “extremist”?  So whom is to blame for extremism?  Both parties, or just one – the Republicans?

When poll-takers ask their respondents the question, “Are you satisfied with the direction the nation is taking?” they ignore the question about who is doing the driving.  Both sides of the spectrum have reasons to be fearful about our “direction,” as well as about our “velocity.”  And on the economy at least, both sides are more in agreement about direction, disagreeing more about velocity.  The party in the White House created the plan steering the nation back toward job growth (the desired direction for both parties), while the party in Congress has yet to advocate specific means that would change our velocity.  So which party is to blame?  And where in our course corrections do we find racist and bigoted populist movements of the far-right, like Trump’s movement; or activist movements of the left like Black Lives Matters?  To which direction are they trying to steer us, and is our ship turning toward them?  Economically, where do we find the rocks of foreign competition and increasing globalization, around which we must steer to get to our port?  These questions are far too complex to be enshrined by one simple and myopic question.

Headline image from Forward Now! (posted August 20, 2013), via Google Image Search.

On Science and Ignorance

Quote of the WeekThe greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

These words by University of Chicago historian and Congress Librarian Daniel Boorstin bring to mind the consistent rejection of science by the Republican Party, and the “debate” on science that takes place in the party divide.  Republicans attacked former chemist and current Pope Francis, after issuing his Laudato Si’ encyclical on global ecology last year.  They also lampooned President Obama during their most recent debates for his involvement with the Paris Climate conference.  Yet Republicans do not merely deny science; they pretend to a knowledge of a “different” science.  For example, Senator Cruz used satellite data to attempt to disprove global climate change.  The scientist whose work Cruz was citing later distanced himself from Cruz’s argument, saying the senator had misunderstood his data and the conclusion.  Cruz has also shown a fatal misunderstanding of science in general, fatal in particular because he is the chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.  When Republicans complain about the inefficiency of the federal government, it is lamentable that they never think to include, as an argument, that the US Government should not have legislators untrained in science telling the scientists themselves what science is or is not.  That is not merely ignorance; but the “illusion of knowledge.”


2016’s First Tracking Poll: Voters Expect a Clinton-Trump Race, and a Democratic Win

Less than a month away from the opening of the primaries and caucus season (beginning with the Iowa caucus on February 1, and the New Hampshire primary on February 9), NBC News partnered with Survey Monkey to release their first tracking poll of 2016.  The raw data of the tracking poll reveals a predictable separation of poll respondents from political reality within the Republican camp, and a far more sobering touch of realism from potential Democrats.

Despite Ted Cruz‘s recent surge in Iowa, and Donald Trump‘s continuing inability to get any Republican establishment endorsements (historically a key indicator of success in winning the party nomination), poll respondents leaning towards the Republicans still doled out more support for Trump than for any other candidate (with 33.7%; 39% among men and 29% among women).  Cruz and Marco Rubio were Trump’s principal challengers (with 16.8% and 13.5% respectively).  Those describing themselves as Trump supporters were also largely “absolutely certain” that they would vote for that candidate (51%); whereas Cruz and Rubio’s supporters are less committed, with a “large chance” that they would vote for their candidate (49% of both candidates’ supporters answering so).  Interestingly, despite largely avoiding traditional conservative platform issues and promising substantial increases in government spending, Trump also polled the highest among those considering themselves “very conservative,” with 33% of that group (the far more conservative Cruz got 30%; and all other Republicans polled in the single digits).  As a second choice candidate, Cruz gained the largest share of other candidates’ supporters (with 22%).  Trump and Rubio finished neck and neck as a second choice (with 14% and 13% respectively), while Ben Carson tied at 11% with that old Republican favorite, “Don’t Know.”

The Republican results in the poll clash dramatically with the picture from within the party machinery, where the actual nomination process will largely take place.  While the bulk of the decision will be made through the primary and caucus process, a reliable indicator of nomination potential is endorsement by the “superdelegates” (major Republican leaders in the party, state governments, and Congress).  Trump has yet to gain a single endorsement (out of the sum total of over 180 committed thus far).  Bush, faring meagerly in the polls, is still at the top of the machine’s food chain, with 46 endorsements; Rubio is running second with 38, and Cruz is down in seventh place with 12.  If either Cruz or Rubio pulls out of Iowa in strength, they can leave with both state party delegates and further superdelegate endorsements in their pockets.  Ultimately, tracking polls show who is winning the struggle for the American sitting at home.  The primaries will determine the victor in the struggle for the American going out to vote.

Meanwhile, back in the Democracy, Clinton got 53% of her party’s supporters; with Sanders running at 36% and Martin O’Malley running a consistent 2%.  While overall Republican “certainty” about their candidate for the primary ran 38% (with “large chance” respondents at 40%), Democrats were somewhat more stalwart about their chosen favorite; with 48% “absolutely certain,” and 33% in the “large chance” group.  While Sanders supporters largely looked to Clinton as their second choice (30% of the party seeing her as such), Sanders’s result at 31% (barely beating “Don’t Know,” who so far seems to be running a strong campaign in both parties) indicates that many Clinton supporters are looking to O’Malley as the horse to back at the convention if Clinton flames out.

As with the Republicans, the endorsements picture shows an even simpler reality.  With almost 460 party “superdelegates” having endorsed a candidate, Clinton has a virtual monopoly on the party machine, with 456 endorsements.  Sanders has only two; and O’Malley has but one.

Looking overall at both parties, poll respondents generally favored the Democratic Party over the Republican Party, despite a marginally conservative-leaning respondents pool.  Asked to identify as either “very” conservative or liberal, or conservative or liberal, or moderate, the mean response put the audience at just over the conservative side of the moderate range.  Nonetheless, asked to rate the parties from 0 (worst) to 10 (best), the respondents gave the Democrats an edge with 4.26 over the Republicans’ 3.71.  The Democrats showed further strength in that of the 3,700 respondents, Clinton supporters were the largest group (830, or 22.4%), and Sanders ran a strong second place (558, or 15.1%).  Trump was obviously the top-scoring Republican, with 497 (13.4% of respondents), while Cruz and Rubio together had slightly more (13.6%, with 282 and 221 supporters respectively).  The two main Democratic candidates got 37.5%, to the top three Republicans’ 27%.  This, of course, leaves out the 35.5% who either supported other Republican candidates (and O’Malley’s roughly 2%), or favored the always popular “not sure.”

Ultimately what this poll shows is that, without any endorsements, primaries, or caucus votes being considered (the actual mechanism by which candidates will use to win – or lose – the nomination), the poll respondents at least expect a Clinton-Trump race; with Clinton holding a strong edge over the erstwhile Republican front-runner.

Headline image via Google Image Search

Stirring Up the Stew

“Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up you get a lot of scum on the top.” –Edward Abbey; a philosophy, environmental, and popular-literature writer from the 1950s though the 1980s.

This week, Spark! is introducing a new weekly blog, the Quote of the Week.  Each week, we will feature a commentary on someone’s witty saying, reflecting on how that saying fits into modern politics, history, or society.

Our first Quote of the Week, by Edward Abbey, is full of relevance in that it reflects some political attitudes by both the Left and the Right in American politics.  Both sides tend to view each other as “scum” (and themselves, of course, as the cream of the crop, to mix metaphors as well as the stew).  In a social context, Abbey’s advocacy of “stirring” implies using the institutions of our society (education, immigration and assimilation, welfare programs to build the City on a Hill, etc.) to keep opening up opportunities for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.  From this social message we can also derive a liberal political imperative, to keep fueling support programs, to strengthen equal opportunity and affirmative action, and to fight for individual rights.  And in our party system and government, we can also derive an imperative to break apart the large banks and to dismantle Citizens United, to keep lobbyists away from our political leaders, and to separate as much as possible the strains of inherited wealth (especially that of power-seekers like Donald Trump) and the pathways to actual political and legislative power.  While Trump himself seems to be stirring up the stew (by attacking establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush), keeping people like Trump away from the far more toxic potentials of political power was at least part of what Abbey may have had in mind.

Spark! The Mission for 2016

Happy new year, and welcome to Spark!  For those readers who are new, you should check out our overall mission statement.  In brief, our mission is to heighten the political dialogue in the US with reports and commentaries on themes of political importance (dealing mostly with either national or international events).  Last year, Spark! went online for the first time, and dealt with political events like the presidential debates and the terror attacks in Paris in November.  We looked at individual politicians, like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz.  We commented on various general themes, such as the foundational American notion of the City on a Hill, a central theme for this blog; as well as on the meaning of Thanksgiving, and some lesser subjects.  We presented reviews of Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices, and of the film Trumbo.  We ended the year with a “Primer on the Primaries,” and that old media standard, a Year in Review, looking back at some of 2015’s most important political moments.  We also relaxed with some lighter moments, our “Blogs of Lightness,” often seeing what other authors, pundits, and voices are saying.

Now that 2015 is behind us, Spark! is looking forward to an exciting year.  We hope to build the blog into something worthwhile and substantial, something that can capture the interest of readers and commenters, and perhaps even diversify its voice through additional writers and other forms of media presentation.  Spark! will be working with WordPress and other outlets to expand its audience and its outlook.

Nonetheless, Spark! will be just one of millions of inconsequential blogs as long as only a few people read each article.  If you like something, you should “like” it on our blog space, “like” it on Facebook or Twitter, and “share” it with your friends on social media.  Shared links (in emails, etc.) are also good for getting the word out.  Also, if you enjoy reading Spark!, or if you think we got something wrong, you should also comment on anything that captures your interest.  Our slogan is “Fomenting a Political Conversation”; but if we’re just talking to ourselves, no conversation ensues.  You read our words; now let’s have some of yours!  (We would, of course, prefer your comments to be helpful, not insulting; “conversation” implies an exchange of ideas between adults, not just invective and rhetoric.)

Thanks for reading us in 2015, and for coming back (or starting up) in 2016, and welcome to Spark! and to 2016.