Tag: blogging101

When So Few Words Cause So Much Harm to So Many

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

And there lies the heart of the problem – or one of them, at least.  Today that poorly constructed sentence, with no connective phrasing indicating the relationship between the “well regulated Militia,” the “security of a free State,” or the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” would be edited until it actually made sense (unless, of course, it were posted as a meme on Facebook).  Is the right of Americans to own weapons seated solely, or largely, upon the intent of maintaining a people in arms against a foreign invader or domestic oppressor?  Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia argued in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), is there no necessary relationship, and does the Second Amendment simply promise unfettered rights to arms regardless of the “militia,” or the “security of a free State”?

While this is an interesting constitutional argument, over 30,000 lives are taken each year by firearms in the United States.  Roughly a third of those lives are victims of apparently deliberate violence; while suicides account for the largest share of gun deaths each year.  The many Americans lost each year (equivalent to losing the entire Vietnam War all over again every 21 months) deserve much more than an “interesting constitutional argument.”  Furthermore, as national fears ramp up over an increasing wave of violence (the rise of mass shootings, the rise of police violence against civilians, and the fears of foreign terrorism), gun-rights advocates opposing further regulations and gun-control advocates seeking further regulations both cater to fears of those around us.  The gun lobby and those gun-owners who oppose regulation portray a multitude of apparent threats to themselves, and to their families and homes.  They also ally with more extremist elements expressing fears of the “Other,” and with an increasingly publicly acceptable bigotry against non-whites.  The gun-control advocates fear that they may be next to die to some crazed, Christian “holier than thou” shooter in their church, school, or shopping mall; or that their nephew with problems may be the next to use a weapon to end his life.

President Obama, tired of more than a year of almost weekly “thoughts and prayers” consolations to the nation for the latest shootings du jour, finally moved past a catatonic Congress to enact changes to gun sales regulation via the few powers available to his office.  Immediately, the predictable firestorm of reaction was raised against the President by those in the gun lobby who had eagerly awaited such action for seven years without satisfaction.  The tightening of existing regulations on the sale of firearms now seemed to them to be inaugurating the president’s long-awaited crusade to take away their guns.  Quickly the president rose up to the challenge of national dialogue, in a time when we Americans do not bother to actually listen to each other any more.  At a “town hall” meeting hosted by CNN in Fairfax, VA, the president took questions from representatives from both sides of the gun issue.  Although the NRA’s headquarters is located just down the road from the site of the “town hall,” that organization refused to contribute to the dialogue, preferring instead to steer the issue silently through campaign contributions.

The president attempted to connect with gun-owners and sellers, reminding them that each of them probably had to pass background checks themselves.  His executive order focuses on ensuring that everyone purchasing a firearm passes through the same process.  There was not a lot of listening in the hall that night, however; and the president had to repeat his insistence that new regulations would not result in anyone’s guns being taken away, or even make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to acquire firearms.  When George Lakoff wrote about “framing” political dialogue, this was precisely what he was talking about.  People (on all sides of political and moral questions) create “frameworks” within which new information coming in must either fit, or be discarded.  New facts and arguments which do not connect with existing views of reality are simply discarded; not accepted or even noticed as facts or as being relevant, however well reasoned or argued.  Therefore, it does not matter how much the president reassures conservative gun-owners that he is not “coming for their guns”; since the NRA has spent millions of dollars convincing them that he is, that is their reality regardless of what the new executive order actually spells out, or what the president says to explain the language or intent of the order.

Unlike the gun lobby, however, the president made it clear that at least he was listening to  the other side.  He recognized that the Second Amendment (ambiguity notwithstanding) guarantees the right to own weapons, and that the right to do so is not going to go away.  Those of us who are not killed each year by gun violence are simply going to have to live with the most heavily armed national population in the world.  But, as the president noted, there are ways we can work to ensure safety, to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists as much as possible.  At the “town hall,” at least, one side (the gun lobby) was “framing” the president’s words into an intent to take away their guns; while the other side (the president) was in fact listening and responding to their fears, even accounting for them into his executive order and his message.

There were more stalwart opponents of gun rights at the town hall, however.  Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago (a longtime acquaintance of the president) argued that in Chicago, it is easier for kids to get guns than it is to get computers.  He asked the president why gun ownership and control could not be handled like that of cars (legal, accessible, but heavily regulated, insured, etc.).  The president reminded the father of the public’s paranoia about the government, citing last year’s Texas freak-out over military maneuvers in a state proud to house some of the largest military bases in the country.  Were the government to take firmer steps, especially without Congressional support, the public outcry would simply escalate past the administration’s ability to get anything done.  The president’s executive orders and arguments now positioned him in the center, rather than on the left or right; with the left arguing for greater controls, and the right arguing for fewer controls (or at least against more controls).  The president showed a willingness to listen to both sides.  Nonetheless, in our divisive political culture, the conservatives view the president’s words and actions as being on the left rather than in the center, as those of an activist and opponent rather than as a mediator between two opposing forces.

There is a simple explanation as to why one side in particular, the conservatives fearing a gun-seizing federalist tyranny, wears greater blinders than the other.  As lawyer and blogger Jack D’Aurora noted, the answer is easy:  “follow the money.”  There’s gold in them thar frames. There is money and power to be made by keeping people afraid and “clinging to their guns.”  And until we work harder to push corporate contributions and moneyed political interest groups out of our representatives’ pockets, they will continue to sell us their products and their consequences.  Until we push the NRA and the gun manufacturers (some of whom have also been attacked by the NRA for attempting to improve gun safety, as the president noted at the town hall) out of congressional offices, we will have to live – or die – with an overarmed and under-listening population.

Headline image from a posting by Odyssey, via Google Image Search.

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.

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.”


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.