The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq

by Kathleen Geier, nationalmemo.com, March 22, 2013 

Excerpt

Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard…Matthew Yglesias…Dan Savage…Christopher Hitchens…Paul Berman…David Rieff…Peter Beinart…Thomas Friedman…

Next up are those heroic journalists – sometimes dubbed the “Keyboard Commandos” — who wanted to re-fight World War II in Iraq. This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear……The inability of these pundits to think straight may simply be a symptom of narcissism poisoning. For them, invasion and war were all about presenting their preferred face to the world — and to themselves. Henry James once wrote that a writer should be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” For these pundits, everything was lost — everything, that is, but their own overgrown egos.

Full text

Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard.

First let’s consider the contrarians. Young Matthew Yglesias, who was in college at the time and thus deserves to be excused, wrote a refreshingly honest piece that noted the seductions of contrarianism: “Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.” It was easy to feel the glow of being an utterly unique snowflake, and yet at the same time to join the establishment. How special!

What Yglesias calls the“fake-dissident posture” held a powerful allure for war supporter Dan Savage as well. Reading between the lines of his stridently pro-war 2003 column, it’s clear that the anti-war types worked his last nerve. Everything about them is uncool — their posters are “sad-looking” and their slogans are cheesy. True, the left can be deeply irritating. Protests are great, but why can’t the organizers come up with better music? Yet that’s a stunningly shallow reason to support a brutal war that left over100,000 people dead.

Next up are those heroic journalists – sometimes dubbed the “Keyboard Commandos” — who wanted to re-fight World War II in Iraq. This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

Paul Berman was another journalist who tirelessly refought the good war from his armchair. As he explained in a roundtable, Iraq was important because it provided an opportunity for intellectuals to “speak up.” How lovely for them! Admittedly, says Berman, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were “counterproductive in some respects,” because “for a while, they appeared to discredit the notion of liberal democracy, which was dreadful. This, apart from the deaths and suffering.” [emphasis added].

On the tape, writer David Rieff is aghast: “All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!” My God, indeed.

Let’s not neglect the pundits of the so-called “decent left.” Obsessed with preserving the martial virtue of the Democratic Party, these types zealously advocated a militaristic version of liberalism.  Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, figured prominently in this group. To Beinart, opponents of the Iraq War were guilty of  “abject pacifism”, and he all but advocated purging them from the Democratic Party, Cold War-style. They might be liberals, but wanted the world to know they were respectable thinkers– not filthy hippies.

The next group, the ones I call the crusading superheroes, advocated intervening in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. They envisioned themselves sweeping into the country like red, white, and blue-clad Captain Americas, ridding the country of evil supervillain Saddam Hussein and spreading democracy and prosperity to a grateful nation. George Packer, who as late as 2005 was claiming the war was still “winnable,” was among the most prominent of these. The compulsion of these types to cast themselves as saviors made them blind to what anyone with eyes could see: Iraq was never a promising case for intervention, as the real experts on the region were desperately trying to tell people. But facts, schmacts — what these guys were jonesing for was an occasion to assert their moral purity.

Finally, there’s the most powerful, if most deeply buried justification of all: Iraq provided an opportunity for dweebish, pasty, desk-bound dudes to indulge in macho daydreams. Throughout history, men have asserted masculine dominance through imperial adventures. While few liberal female pundits were pro-war, many centrist and liberal men were unable to resist the war’s siren call.

The most infamous example of  such macho knucklehead punditry is Thomas Friedman’s 2003 appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. The war, he said then, was “unquestionably worth doing” so we could tell the Iraqis to “suck on this.” Commentary so inane and puerile would sound outrageous coming out of the mouth of Friedman’s fictional look-alike Ron Burgundy; that an actual, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times columnist said it simply boggles the mind.

By 2011, writing as the last American troops pulled out of Iraq, Friedman’s macho swagger had completely vanished. Was the war a wise choice? “My answer is twofold: ‘No’ and ‘Maybe, sort of, we’ll see.’ ” Weasel words don’t get any more weaselly. This week he said merely that America “paid too much” for the war.

Writing this week in The New Yorker, Packer admits “the war was a disaster for Iraq and the U.S. alike. It was conceived in deceit and born in hubris.” Note the passive voice — he takes no personal responsibility for helping to foment the media stampede into war.

For what it’s worth, Beinart eventually saw the war as a tragic mistake. But his repentance came far too late. But Berman clearly has learned nothing and has no regrets. He wrote in The New Republic this week that “the isolationist alternative” to the war was “fantastical nonsense.”

Sullivan eventually denounced the war as tragically wrong – but in the early days, when it actually mattered, he was among its most obnoxious cheerleaders. His buddy Hitchens died in 2011, without ever having second thoughts about Iraq.

As for Dan Savage, his position grew more ambivalent within six months after that highly belligerent column —  but he doesn’t seem to have written a word about Iraq since then.

The inability of these pundits to think straight may simply be a symptom of narcissism poisoning. For them, invasion and war were all about presenting their preferred face to the world — and to themselves. Henry James once wrote that a writer should be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” For these pundits, everything was lost — everything, that is, but their own overgrown egos.

http://www.nationalmemo.com/the-siren-song-of-war-why-pundits-beat-the-drums-for-iraq/2/

Twenty Myths About Unions

By Paul Jay, The Real News, March 23, 2013

Bill Fletcher: I hear from workers that have lower-paid jobs, that they resent union-sector high wages thinking it’s better for the economy if all wages were lower -

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

As most people following The Real News know, unionization rates in the United States are heading towards, well, almost nothing. Private-sector unions are something under 7 percent. With public sector, I think it gets up into the 9 or 10 percent, maybe 11. But the issue of where unions are headed doesn’t look very good. One union leader I heard recently said, oh, well, it’s just cyclical. You know, we’ve lost half our membership. And it occurred to me, yeah, in the next cycle you might lose the other half of your membership, because the unions don’t seem to be doing a very good job at messaging why unorganized workers should be in unions.

And whenever I’ve covered strike struggles and I talk to nonunionized workers watching the picket line, often you hear at least two things said. One, these union workers get paid too much, they’re bankrupting the country, it’s not fair that they get paid that much, and it’s making us uncompetitive. And, of course, the other thing you hear is, oh, the unions are all just corrupt, they don’t really do anything for you. Well, now someone’s come along to try to dispel what he calls myths about unionization.

And now joining us from our studio in D.C. is Bill Fletcher Jr. He’s an immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He’s a union organizer, an activist. And he has has a new book out titled “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Thanks very much for joining us, Bill.

BILL FLETCHER JR., AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thank you.

JAY: So talk about, first of all, what drove you to write the book.

FLETCHER: Well, actually, two things, Paul. One was simply I was asked. Beacon Press in the beginning of 2011 was taken by the upturn in interest in unions, particularly after what was going on in Wisconsin in response to Governor Scott Walker. So they asked me to write it.

But what made it possible for me to write it was an experience I had when I was on a plane about a year before, flying from San Jose and San Diego. And I was sitting next to this woman, a very nice woman in her 30s, and I was reading a book about global union solidarity. And she asked what the book was about, and I explained to her. And she looked at me and said, “What is a union?”

FLETCHER: Now, at first I thought that she was joking with me. And then I realized she was absolutely serious. She had no idea what a labor union was. So I proceeded to explain it to her. As I was explaining it to her, she was nodding her head, and I realized she was nodding her head in that way that someone does when they have no idea what you’re talking about. So when I wrote this book, I was actually writing the book for her. And each chapter dealing with myths or broadbrush criticisms is really written as a conversation with her or people like her who are not necessarily opposed to unions but often have no clue as to what a union is.

JAY: Well, let’s start with the one that’s the title of the book, they’re bankrupting us, because I hear that a lot from workers that have lower-paid jobs, that they resent union-sector high wages. They particularly resent public-sector wages. And instead of them getting organized and trying to get higher wages, they think what would be better for the economy is if the higher-paid workers got paid less.

FLETCHER: That’s true. That is a very common myth. And there’s a few different things I would say about that. One is that at a certain point in the history of the U.S., when unions were much stronger and they were driving the economy in many ways—not controlling, but driving things—what you’d have is with higher-wage jobs, nonunion competitor companies would also feel compelled to raise their wages because they basically wanted to keep unions out. So they wanted to be competitive. As our percentage of the workforce shrank, the nonunion companies felt less compelled to do that, and this gap widened between what unionized workers were facing and nonunion workers were facing.

Second thing is that it’s very common for people to blame others who are weak or actually scapegoated, rather than to identify the real source of the problem. For those nonunion workers you’re talking about, the problem is not unionized workers. The problem is the wealthy, the problem is those that are controlling the economy, who are basically robbing from people like those nonunion workers who maybe 20 or 30 years ago would have actually been at a union.

A third thing is that in the public sector, this notion that the unions are a problem is completely misplaced, because the problem is revenue. The problem isn’t the unions. The problem is revenue. And there have been decisions made by various governments, largely by Republican, but also by Democrats, that instead of raising taxes on the wealthy, they’d instead go after gouging the workers, and therefore to focus on the paid salary of the workers rather than figure out: how do we get more revenue into the economy?

JAY: Well, part of the argument goes, when you talk to some workers who believe this, is they think there’d be more jobs. If only higher-paid workers were paid less, then there’d be more jobs to go around. I mean, what’s the truth of that?

FLETCHER: Well, the truth of that is [incompr.] what happened over the last 30 years in the southern part of the United States with the textile industry. So you [incompr.] textile industry that went from unionized—the pre-unionized of the United States into the South, into largely nonunion facilities, and then kept going south into the Dominican Republic, into Mexico or China or Vietnam. So the issue wasn’t about the existence of the union. These companies were going, trying to find cheaper and cheaper labor. That’s what’s really going on here there. And to the extent to which you have parts of the United States, large parts of the United States now that have no unions, it becomes easier for these companies to play us off against one another.

So these nonunion workers that you’re talking about, they need to understand that the companies are not running into problems because of the unions. Very often they’re running into problems because of their own market strategies, because they refuse to keep up with the technology. A case in point of that would be the U.S. auto industry up through the 1980s, which was not keeping up with technological developments and ended up being outclassed by the Japanese, by the Germans, by the Swedes. Yet it is easier to blame all of this on the unions.

JAY: Now, one of the other myths you talk about in the book—you say is a myth—which is this issue that unions are corrupt and—. But certainly there has been a lot of problem with corruption in unions. So why do you consider that a myth?

FLETCHER: Because in the United States there’s corruption. See, you know, what’s interesting, and particularly if you watch some of these right-wing television programs, they will focus on an example of corruption in the union as a way of saying that unions are the problems. Yet I don’t remember any of these right-wingers talking about when Bernie Madoff carried out his scandal, that maybe we should get rid of capitalism. I mean, maybe that’s a solution to the Bernie Madoff scandal and other such scandals. You see, it’s very hypocritical, the nature of the attack. It is a corruption in unions. There is corruption in any place where there is money.

The question is not whether there’s corruption. The question is whether the institution is doing anything to limit the corruption and to address it directly. So that’s one thing, that in unions as democratic organizations, the most democratic organizations or most democratic unions are the ones that generally are the least corrupt. But the second thing is that there are certain unions that historically were penetrated by the mob, in part because of the nature of the industry itself.

And that was one of the things that I found very interesting when I was doing some research for this, Paul, that there was a—in the 1985-86, there was a president’s commission on organized crime that had a section on unions. And one of the things that they concluded—they concluded two things. One is: the more democratic the union is, the less likely it is to be corrupt and mobbed up. The second is that there’s certain industries that the mob has penetrated particularly because of the nature of the workforce. Where the workforce is transitory, part-time, temporary employees, they’ve been unable to get in.

Now, the way you deal with this is that you have to have a culture within the organization that really is abhorrent to corruption, is constantly struggling for greater democracy and worker control. So of course there’s corruption and there’s been corruption. But what you can see in the union movement is the constant struggle, usually by rank-and-file members, for real democracy and against corruption. That’s more than you can say about Wall Street.

JAY: Now, one of the things which I find hard to understand is I see little to none campaigns by the unions, in a broader way, explaining why unionization is good for unorganized workers. You know, we know the unions have poured tons of money into funding for Democratic Party election campaigns on television, and I guess when they do specific organizing efforts at a specific plant or hospital or whatever, they put money into that. But in terms of general education of the public and the broad section of unorganized workers, I never see anything that explains why a union’s good and, as you’re doing in your book, trying to dispel myths.

FLETCHER: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, Paul. So, first of all, there actually have been over the years, periodically, certain public relations campaigns by unions to talk with the public about why a union’s a good thing. They have happened.

But you see, what I would argue is that that’s not enough, that if you want to convince the public that unions are good, you need a combination of PR, books like mine. But most importantly, you have to position the unions so that they are perceived as organizations that are fighting for the public, for example the Chicago Teachers Union, right, which has an immense amount of parent support. Why? Because parents see in the union that the union is fighting not just for the teachers but for them. Or back in 1997, when the Teamsters went on strike against the United Parcel Service, they had tremendous support from the public because they had built up a lot of goodwill, because they convinced the public and they framed the issue that they were fighting for is that they were fighting on behalf of the need of workers for full-time jobs. And the public loved this. So I think that winning the public is not by any stretch of the imagination impossible, but you need a combination of good PR, good educational books—.

JAY: Yeah, but, Bill, I’m not talking about winning the public. I’m talking about talking to unorganized workers, who as we know is by far the majority of workers, and talking to them about why they should be in a union. And I don’t see that. I mean, when you’re talking about public campaigns, that’s also an issue, of course. I can’t remember the last time I saw an ad for buy union. When I was a kid, I used to see those ads all the time. I talk to union leaders now: why aren’t you guys pushing buy union? And, you know, occasionally you see buy American. But it could be buy nonunion American, buy—if you follow that campaign, not buy union. They kind of—they’ve become so defensive and almost defeatist about their own image, they don’t even try <=”" i=”"> campaigns. But I’m talking about talking to unorganized workers in a broader way.

FLETCHER: In order to talk to workers, unorganized workers, nonunion workers, and to win them, in addition to organizing campaigns you have to position a union movement so it’s perceived on a regular basis as fighting for more than just union workers, whether that is helping unemployed workers get organized and fight for jobs, whether that’s what the Chicago Teachers Union is doing right now. It’s taking up campaigns and positioning themselves to speak on behalf of the 89 percent or 90 percent of the workers—88 percent of the workers that are not unionized.

We need—that’s what we need. We need union leaders that are in fact labor leaders. And that’s the challenge, Paul, and I think that’s what you’ve run up against, where you have union leaders that treat their responsibility as that of the head of a trade association rather than a trade union.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Bill.

FLETCHER: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a columnist, activist, author and labor organizer. He is an editorial board member of BlackComentator.com, as well as the chairman of the Retail Justice Alliance. He is also the co-author of “Solidarity Divided”; and the author of the newly released book,”‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.” He is the a cofounder of the Center for Labor Renewal, has served as President of TransAfrica Forum and was formerly the Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=8834#.USOIX6mmDww

Five Ugly Extremes of Inequality in America– The Contrasts Will Drop Your Chin to the Floor

AlterNet [1] / By Paul Buchheit [2] March 24, 2013  |

The first step is to learn the facts, and then to get angry and to ask ourselves, as progressives and caring human beings, what we can do about the relentless transfer of wealth to a small group of well-positioned Americans.

1. $2.13 per hour vs. $3,000,000.00 per hour

Each of the Koch brothers saw his investments grow by $6 billion [3] in one [4] year, which is three million dollars per hour based on a 40-hour ‘work’ week. They used some of the money to try to kill renewable energy [5]standards around the country.

Their income portrays them, in a society measured by economic status, as a million times more valuable than the restaurant server [6] who cheers up our lunch hours while hoping to make enough in tips to pay the bills.

A comparison of top and bottom salaries within large corporations is much less severe, but a lot more common. For CEOs and minimum-wage workers, the difference [7] is $5,000.00 per hour vs. $7.25 per hour.

2. A single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the U.S.

On a winter day in 2012 over 633,000 people were homeless [8] in the United States. Based on an annual single room occupancy (SRO) cost [9] of $558 per month, any ONE of the ten richest Americans [3] would have enough with his 2012 income to pay for a room for every homeless person in the U.S. for the entire year [4]. These ten rich men together made more than our entire housing budget [10].

For anyone still believing “they earned it,” it should be noted that most [11] of the Forbes 400 earnings came from minimally-taxed [12], non-job-creating capital gains.

3. The poorest 47% of Americans have no wealth

In 1983 the poorest 47% [13] of America had $15,000 per family, 2.5 percent [14] of the nation’s wealth.

In 2009 the poorest 47% [13] of America owned ZERO PERCENT [14] of the nation’s wealth (their debt exceeded their assets).

At the other extreme, the 400 wealthiest Americans [15] own as much wealth as 80 million families – 62% of America [14]. The reason, once again, is the stock market. Since 1980 the American GDP has approximatelydoubled [16]. Inflation-adjusted wages have gone down [17]. But the stock market has increased by over ten times [18], and the richest quintile of Americans owns 93% [19] of it.

4. The U.S. is nearly the most wealth-unequal country in the entire world

Out of 141 countries, the U.S. has the 4th-highest degree of wealth inequality [20] in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon.

Yet the financial industry keeps creating new wealth for its millionaires. According to the authors of theGlobal Wealth Report [21], the world’s wealth has doubled in ten years, from $113 trillion to $223 trillion, and is expected to reach $330 trillion by 2017.

5. A can of soup for a black or Hispanic woman, a mansion and yacht for the businessman

That’s literally true. For every one dollar of assets owned by a single black or Hispanic woman [22], a member of the Forbes 400 has over forty million dollars [23].

Minority families once had substantial equity in their homes, but after Wall Street caused the housing crash, median wealth [24] fell 66% for Hispanic households and 53% for black households. Now the average single black or Hispanic woman has about $100 in net worth [22].

What to do?

End the capital gains giveaway [25], which benefits the wealthy almost exclusively.

Institute a Financial Speculation Tax [26], both to raise needed funds from a currently untaxed subsidy on stock purchases, and to reduce the risk of the irresponsible trading that nearly brought down the economy.

Perhaps above all, we progressives have to choose one strategy and pursue it in a cohesive, unrelenting attack on greed. Only this will heal the ugly gash of inequality that has split our country in two.

 

See more stories tagged with:

wealth [27]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/economy/five-ugly-extremes-inequality-america-contrasts-will-drop-your-chin-floor

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/paul-buchheit
[3] http://www.forbes.com/forbes-400/
[4] http://finance.yahoo.com/news/pf_article_113540.html
[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elliott-negin/koch-brothers-fund-bogus-_b_2253472.html
[6] http://www.thenation.com/blog/166328/week-poverty-obamas-budget-your-servers-budget
[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/25/average-ceo-pay-2011_n_1545225.html
[8] http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/press/press_releases_media_advisories/2012/HUDNo.12-191
[9] http://www.cookcountyassessor.com/forms/cls2srob.pdf
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_United_States_federal_budget
[11] http://faireconomy.org/sites/default/files/BornOnThirdBase2012.pdf
[12] http://www.alternet.org/economy/5-obscene-reasons-why-richest-americans-grow-richer-middle-class-declines?paging=off
[13] http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/12/13/mitt-romneys-47-percent-gaffe-tops-yales-quotes-of-the-year/
[14] http://epi.3cdn.net/2a7ccb3e9e618f0bbc_3nm6idnax.pdf
[15] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/26/opinion/buffett-a-minimum-tax-for-the-wealthy.html?_r=0
[16] http://www.multpl.com/us-gdp-inflation-adjusted/table
[17] http://www.un.org/en/ga/second/64/pollin.pdf
[18] http://stockcharts.com/freecharts/historical/djia1900.html
[19] http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_589.pdf
[20] http://www.usagainstgreed.org/GiniWealthIncomeAll.xls
[21] https://infocus.credit-suisse.com/data/_product_documents/_shop/368327/2012_global_wealth_report.pdf
[22] http://www.insightcced.org/uploads/CRWG/LiftingAsWeClimb-WomenWealth-Report-InsightCenter-Spring2010.pdf
[23] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/19/richest-people-america-forbes-400_n_1896828.html
[24] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43887485/ns/business-eye_on_the_economy/t/wealth-america-whites-leave-minorities-behind/
[25] http://money.msn.com/tax-tips/post.aspx?post=61f838e6-9d67-477d-983f-9f5a7e52691f
[26] http://democracyforamerica.com/pages/738?t=kos2
[27] http://www.alternet.org/tags/wealth
[28] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

A Fearful Price

 

By BOB HERBERT, Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times, December 8, 2009

Excerpt

…The idea that fewer than 1 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re send­ing them into com­bat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent peo­ple should object…the over­whelm­ing major­ity of Amer­i­cans have no desire at all to share in the sac­ri­fices that the ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies are mak­ing. Most Amer­i­cans do not want to serve in the wars, do not want to give up their pre­cious time to do vol­un­teer work that would aid the nation’s war­riors and their fam­i­lies, do not even want to fork over the taxes that are needed to pay for the wars…The rea­son it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to con­tinue fight­ing year after year after year, is because so few Amer­i­cans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fight­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II com­bined. If vot­ers had to choose right now between insti­tut­ing a draft or exit­ing Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two coun­tries in a heartbeat…Here’s George Washington’s view, for exam­ple: “It must be laid down as a pri­mary posi­tion and the basis of our sys­tem, that every cit­i­zen who enjoys the pro­tec­tion of a free gov­ern­ment owes not only a pro­por­tion of his prop­erty, but even his per­sonal ser­vice to the defense of it.”

 

Full text

I spoke recently with a student at Columbia who was enthusiastic about the escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He argued that a full-blown counterinsurgency effort, which would likely take many years and cost many lives, was the only way to truly win the war.

He was a very bright young man: thoughtful and eager and polite. I asked him if he had any plans to join the military and help make this grand mission a success. He said no.

There was an article in The Times on Monday about a new study showing that the eight years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking an emotional toll on the children of service members and that the difficulties increased the longer parents were deployed.

There is no way that the findings of this study should be a surprise to anyone. It just confirms that the children of those being sent into combat are among that tiny percentage of the population that is unfairly shouldering the entire burden of these wars.

The idea that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re sending them into combat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent people should object.

We already knew that in addition to the many thousands who have been killed or physically wounded, hundreds of thousands have returned with very serious psychological wounds: deep depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and so on. Other problems are also widespread: alcohol and drug abuse, family strife, homelessness.

The new study, by the RAND Corporation, was published in the journal Pediatrics. The children surveyed were found to have higher levels of emotional difficulties than their peers in the general population.

According to the study:

“Older youth and girls of all ages reported significantly more school, family and peer-related difficulties with parental deployment. Length of parental deployment and poorer non-deployed caregiver mental health were significantly associated with a greater number of challenges for children, both during deployment and deployed parent reintegration.”

The air is filled with obsessive self-satisfied rhetoric about supporting the troops, giving them everything they need and not letting them down. But that rhetoric is as hollow as a jazzman’s drum because the overwhelming majority of Americans have no desire at all to share in the sacrifices that the service members and their families are making. Most Americans do not want to serve in the wars, do not want to give up their precious time to do volunteer work that would aid the nation’s warriors and their families, do not even want to fork over the taxes that are needed to pay for the wars.

To say that this is a national disgrace is to wallow in the shallowest understatement. The nation will always give lip-service to support for the troops, but for the most part Americans do not really care about the men and women we so blithely ship off to war, and the families they leave behind.

The National Military Family Association, which commissioned the RAND study, has poignant comments from the children of military personnel on its Web site.

You can tell immediately how much more real the wars are to those youngsters than to most Americans:

“I hope it’s not him on the news getting hurt.”

“Most of my grades dropped because I was thinking about my dad, because my dad’s more important than school.”

“Mom will be in her room and we hear her crying.”

The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.

I don’t think our current way of waging war, which is pretty easy-breezy for most citizens, is what the architects of America had in mind. Here’s George Washington’s view, for example: “It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”

What we are doing is indefensible and will ultimately exact a fearful price, and there will be absolutely no way for the U.S. to avoid paying it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/opinion/08herbert.html?_r=0

Where the past isn’t even past. Right and Left in Democratic Politics: The Long View

by Rick Perlstein, The Nation, March 18, 2013

It was only after the ascension of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the Democratic party began to be regarded as fundamentally liberal.

Here’s a pet peeve of mine. It’s when people refer to the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Or who say of a Democrat who makes consistent moves to the right, “Why doesn’t he just join the Republicans?” It’s not the underlying sentiment; I want Democrats to stop doing right-wing stuff as badly as anyone. The problem is descriptive—and, ultimately, strategic. The fact is that the Democratic Party in modern times has always had a conservative wing, one frequently as strong or stronger than its liberal wing, and as such, when progressives speak of the party as a vehicle that naturally belongs to them, as if by right—until conservatives stole it from them—they weaken progressivism. The fact is, the history of the Democratic Party has always been one of ideological civil war. And if you don’t realize you’re in a war, how can you win it?

Let’s review the game tape. Take it all the way back to 1924—when both parties had both left- and right-wing factions (before that year, the great progressive reformer Robert “Fighting Bob” Lafollette of Wisconsin was a Republican), when there was no reason to believe the Democrats would be the ones to become the nation’s established left-of-center party, and when at the presidential nominating convention the civil war came down to 103 ballots (and gubernatorial fistfights on the convention floor) over issues like Prohibition and whether the party should be for the Ku Klux Klan or against it.

It was of course with the ascension of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and after that the idea of the Democrats as an institutionally liberal party became credible, though many delegates who voted for him at the convention didn’t necessary think or know they were voting for a liberal. Many voters didn’t think so, either, but just marked the ballot for him because he had a “D” beside his name: They were Southerners, and saw the Democrats as the only political bulwark against the racial mongrelization of America. The progress of the New Deal, we now understand, rested on a fragile and complicated coalition joining visionary progressives and the most fearful reactionaries—and when an overconfident Roosevelt overreached to try to put the reactionaries in their place, in 1938, he almost lost control of the whole thing.

With the coming of the civil rights era, the war played out against that precise template: Northern progressives asserting themselves, Southern reactionaries threatening to pack up their votes and go elsewhere—a melodrama that began with a bang in 1948 when Strom Thurmond led Dixiecrats out of the convention and into his own segregationist presidential run, and reached its apotheosis in 1964 when five Southern states went for Goldwater. That, of course, truly began the slow steady transition to ideological realignment, with more and more Southern Democrats voting Republican in each election.

But, wouldn’t you know it, a new issue immediately arose to muddy anew what it meant to be a Democrat. In 1968 the floor of the convention once more split right down the middle, fistfights included, this time over the question over whether the Vietnam War was a good thing or a bad thing. But the end of the war didn’t bring ideological unity, either. In fact, the fist post-Vietnam election, post-Watergate, in 1974, inaugurated today’s order of battle between the right- and left-leaning wings of the party. Democrats gained forty-nine seats in the House and three in the Senate, giving the party of Jefferson and Jackson an approximate two-to-one advantage over the Republicans. People assumed a liberal deluge was in the offing, Congressional Quarterly noted predictions that the 94th Congress would become “a labor-orchestrated puppet show.” Ronald Reagan said, “The small fires that at first threatened free enterprise are growing daily into full-scale four-alarm blazes,” predicting, “We’re going to see a flood of expensive, spectacular, and ill-conceived legislation which can’t be derailed or even tempered by the voices of moderation.”

In fact, something like the opposite happened—as could have been predicted by the language of the “Watergate Babies” on the campaign trail.

Thirty-six-year-old Gary Hart was more or less the ideologist of the bunch. His memoir of the McGovern presidential campaign, which he had managed two years earlier, called liberalism “near bankruptcy.”Time called him a “liberal.” “Traditional ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ slogans,” he wrote back in an angry letter to the editor, “are simply not adequate to cope.” He said the best way out of the energy crisis was “to work together. There will be a lot more cooperative ventures between the environmentalists and the energy developers.” His stock speech, “The End of the New Deal,” argued that his party was hamstrung by the very ideology that was supposed to be its glory—that “if there is a problem, create an agency and throw money at the problem.” It included lines that could have come from Commentary, the neoconservative magazine Jerry Brown, who was friends with Hart, liked to read and quote. Like: “The ballyhooed War on Poverty succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” (That was false: the poverty rate was 17.3 percent when LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act was enacted in 1964 and 11.2 percent as Gary Hart spoke.) He called those who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it had ceased to relate to reality,” who still thought the workers, farmers and blacks of the New Deal coalition were where the votes were, “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats.” He held them in open contempt. His outmaneuvered opponent, a once-popular two-term conservative incumbent, said Hart seemed to be “trying to get to the right of Attila the Hun.” A 32-year-old congressman-elect from Michigan, James Blanchard, said “I’m not entirely sure what my political philosophy is.”

There was a political reason for this. These new Democrats, seeds for Bill Clinton’s capital-n New Democrats, were replacing Republicans in predominantly suburban districts. They spoke to the desires of a white-collar constituency—and not that of the fading urban proleteriat (“We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” Hart famously said). And though many of them, including Hart, frequently did yeoman’s work to reimagine progressivism for a new generation (for instance, in the field of environmentalism), some of them, and their immediate successors, also did yeoman’s work selling off great chunks of the old Democratic agenda to corporate bidders—like Tony Coelho, the California congressman elected in 1978 who became head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1980. Exulted a Dallas venture capitalist about this new/old breed of Democrat in a 1986 profile of Coelho, “I’m one of the biggest contributors to the Governor of Texas, but can I get him on the telephone? Hell, no. Sometimes it takes a week. I call Tony any hour fo the day or night and he gets back to me immediately. Some days he just calls to ask how I’m doing. That pleases me tremendously.”

This battle goes way back. It’s written into the Democratic Party’s DNA. Acknowledge the other side, study them—take them seriously. Don’t let them play the underdog; that just advantages them, too. We’re in a fight here—always have been. They think they are the party—just as confidently as we believe we’re the party. The only way to make our vision of this party a reality is to work for it—and not to act surprised when their side works for it, too.

http://www.thenation.com/blog/173393/right-and-left-democratic-politics-long-view#

Three R’s and a Why

by Andrea Batista Schlesinger, The Nation, September 15, 2009

Excerpt

…my investigation into the relationship between inquiry and democracy took me to San Francisco’s Exploratorium…an environment where people can figure out how things work…”nurture their curiosity about the world around them.”

What if we encouraged our citizens to approach democracy just as the students at the Exploratorium approach science? Like science, democracy is a messy business. We try one hypothesis and it doesn’t work, so we try another. It’s through the exploration of democracy that we can uncover its properties and understand our relationship to it.

The Civic Function of Schools…the public school system should prepare citizens for democracy…why our public school system was founded in the first place.

Thomas Jefferson, however, who later made an explicit case for creating a public school system, from the early grades through university, and for that public school system to function with a civic purpose in mind. At his March 4, 1801, inaugural address, Jefferson stated that the principles of justice, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the “anchor of peace” should bethe creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust.” Since the early times of our nation, the question wasn’t if the public schools should prepare effective citizens…the study of American government in the schools and colleges is the last subject to receive adequate attention?” This “practical education in our duties and responsibilities as citizens” is civics. History is the study of that which has happened. Civics prepares each and every one of us to make our own history, by giving us the skills to navigate our democracy

…abysmal performance of American children on these civics exams tells us that we are failing to educate our children about their critical role as citizens…Our young people’s civic ignorance is a long-term threat…

Full Text

 

I was not a very good science student. Thus, I was surprised that my investigation into the relationship between inquiry and democracy took me to San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a science museum with hundreds of interactive exhibits designed to allow anyone, of any age, to interact with the natural phenomena of the world. Rather than offering an authoritative analysis of just how we interact with science, the Exploratorium is an environment where people can figure out how things work, where they can observe, touch and play, and in the process, “nurture their curiosity about the world around them.”

What if we encouraged our citizens to approach democracy just as the students at the Exploratorium approach science? Like science, democracy is a messy business. We try one hypothesis and it doesn’t work, so we try another. It’s through the exploration of democracy that we can uncover its properties and understand our relationship to it. The kids at the Exploratorium fall in love with science because they can touch, feel, see and ask questions about what otherwise seems so remote; we can do the same with democracy if we let children in. As with science, democracy is all around us. But we need to experience it firsthand. There’s a name for that: civics.

 

The Civic Function of Schools

It is bizarre to have to make the case that the public school system should prepare citizens for democracy. This is, after all, why our public school system was founded in the first place.

In his farewell address as president in 1796, George Washington “recommended ‘as an object of primary importance’ the creation of ‘institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.’ He gave a democratic argument for investing in education: ‘In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion,’ he said, ‘it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened,’” explains The Civic Mission of Schools, a landmark report released in 2003. It was Thomas Jefferson, however, who later made an explicit case for creating a public school system, from the early grades through university, and for that public school system to function with a civic purpose in mind. At his March 4, 1801, inaugural address, Jefferson stated that the principles of justice, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the “anchor of peace” should be “the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust.” Since the early times of our nation, the question wasn’t if the public schools should prepare effective citizens, but how.

Yet 100 years later, the American Political Science Association asked, “Is it not a curious fact that though our schools are largely instituted, supported, and operated by the government, the study of American government in the schools and colleges is the last subject to receive adequate attention?” This “practical education in our duties and responsibilities as citizens” is civics. History is the study of that which has happened. Civics prepares each and every one of us to make our own history, by giving us the skills to navigate our democracy.

There is no best formula for preparing citizens. We’ve done it different ways throughout our nation’s history. We’ve emphasized history education–teaching a limited history, at that–to facilitate the assimilation and acculturation of immigrants. Up until the 1960s, we offered civics classes that served as “indoctrination in Americanism, patriotism and so forth. Sort of a mindless George Washington and the cherry tree,” says Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, who has been promoting civic education for over forty years. And though the subsequent “correction,” as the market would call it, led to an improved and more accurate treatment of history, “the history books then left out American government or the history of American government,” Quigley told me. This form of history, too, was inadequate for the preparation of citizens.
Civics education in schools creates young people who turn into the citizens that our democracy requires. And, most importantly, civics in schools works. Young people who study civics talk more frequently about political affairs with their parents, peers and teachers. Young people who have taken a civics course are often two or three times more likely to say they have engaged in political activities than those who have not. Among the 18- to 34-year-old alumni of the Center for Civic Education’s We the People program, 92 percent said they voted in November 2004, compared to 78 percent of the general population.

And young people who participate in civic engagement activities will do better in high school reading, math, science and history, and are more likely to graduate from college. They learn the three Rs but they also learn the why. The why makes all the difference.

The State of Civics Knowledge

If you believe that the success of our participatory democracy is directly related to how it prepares its youngest citizens, then you must worry that our democracy is in sorry shape.

Since 1969, the federal government has tested young people on their civic knowledge–that is, their understanding of the inner workings of government and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The abysmal performance of American children on these civics exams tells us that we are failing to educate our children about their critical role as citizens.

On the 2006 exam, only one in four American twelfth graders was found to be “proficient.” Five percent of twelfth graders tested could explain three ways in which the president can be checked by the legislative or judicial branches. One in two could explain the outcome when state and national laws conflict.

Twenty-eight percent of eighth graders could articulate the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Only one in four could, when presented with a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, explain “two specific ways in which marches and demonstrations such as the one illustrated can achieve political goals.”

Our young people’s civic ignorance is a long-term threat. The decision to vote can be traced to our civic knowledge. “Nonvoting results from a lack of knowledge about what government is doing and where parties and candidates stand, not from a knowledgeable rejection of government or parties or a lack of trust in government,” write Samuel Popkin and Michael Dimock. That was George Washington’s point all along: active citizens are integral to democracy, and schools are the training grounds for those citizens.

The Decline of Civics as a Priority

Civic education is a guaranteed applause line from both sides of the aisle–similar to “energy independence” and “high standards.” And our elected leaders do give it lip service. Said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in 2003, hosting hearings on teaching civics and American history, “It is time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American.” Just one year after 9/11, President Bush brought historian David McCullough to the Rose Garden to launch a new effort to connect America’s young people to our nation’s history. The president said, “American children are not born knowing what they should cherish–are not born knowing why they should cherish American values. A love of democratic principles must be taught.”

Yet Bush’s willingness to back up the statement made in the Rose Garden was inconsistent at best. After budget proposals in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 recommended elimination of funding for the Center for Civic Education’s signature We the People program, Bush did make room in his 2004 and 2005 budgets for the initiative. But his budget for fiscal years 2006 through 2009 all recommended defunding We the People. Bush’s justification for elimination read, “Request is consistent with the Administration’s policy of terminating small categorical programs that have limited impact, and for which there is little or no evidence of effectiveness, to fund higher priority programs.”

Rather than strengthening We the People and the Center for Civic Education, Bush was willing to abandon the program completely. Although the Bush administration created a separate (and completely different) We the People program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, it attempted to push civics programs away from specific spending authorizations and into broad programs where funding was anything but certain. In effect, the administration tried to get rid of the Center for Civic Education.

The education policy Bush championed, centered on the No Child Left Behind initiative, emphasized standardized testing, to the detriment of instruction in history and civics. Bush and his secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, believed that concentration on the basics that get tested would “trickle down” into students’ understanding of history and civics. Spellings assured those who were worried about the absence of classes in history, civics, art and so forth that “job one is to do reading right and well, and some of the rest of this stuff I think will take care of itself.”

But there has been little progress in the performance of America’s young people on civics exams since the introduction of No Child Left Behind. The civics knowledge of eighth graders has not changed since 1998, the last time the exam was offered. Twelfth graders, too, performed the same in 2006 as they did in 1998. Although there was an increase in performance in the fourth-grade pool, fewer than one in two could identify the role of the Supreme Court. Seventy-five percent of students knew that one has to be a US citizen in order to vote in a presidential election; the others thought one must be a citizen to drive a car, own a business or write a letter to a newspaper editor. Only 14 percent recognized that defendants have the right to a lawyer. The average score for fourth graders was 154 out of a possible 300.

Trickle-down theories–whether in economics or in education–didn’t work out too well for the Bushes, and they don’t work out well for the future of our democracy. Students don’t automatically learn history just because they learned reading. They don’t acquire the skills transmitted through civics class just because they can do math. Children cannot apply their reading and comprehension skills to history or civics if there is no forum for the application. And with teachers and schools making dramatic shifts in their educational programming to emphasize the subjects that are being tested, to the point of excluding everything else, Spelling’s argument about the ripple effects of emphasizing the basics becomes impossible to prove.

It’s true that students who read and write better would be more likely to thrive in a history class, and would bring a stronger base from which to engage in a conversation about how to understand and participate in their government. But how would we know? Spellings’s argument is circular: these tests increase reading skills, and–when applied–reading skills improve history, so let’s keep up the tests and take time away from history. Not to worry; students will continue to have the skills to apply to something that they will never learn. Civics, on the other hand, teaches young people not just how to absorb information but also how to question. They ask how their democracy works and why. They ask how it could work better, and what we can do to make it work better.
Still, the institutionalized civics programs of the 1960s were not a magic bullet–they were ineffective at imparting knowledge or excitement about political history or contemporary events. Or, as Quigley put it: the courses were boring. Effective civic education programs now use case studies to bring “reality and relevance into the classroom as well as the excitement of discussion and debate.” Other simulations, such town meetings, hearings and lobbying exercises, develop participatory skills. Quigley’s own Project Citizen, one of the most popular civics programs, “actively engages kids in going into their communities, interviewing people, doing survey research, identifying public policy problems, developing their own proposed solutions and political action plans, and trying to have an impact on City Hall.”

“One of the things about this movement in civic education,” Quigley told me, “is that it does foster an inquiry method. It’s like case studies, examination, analysis, discussion, debate, role playing, simulations.” As Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, puts it, “Civic education that teaches people to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. Instead, we should reform major institutions.” The reform of institutions–whether the local school board or Washington lobbies–begins with asking questions.

“As people, we’re all naturally curious,” Allyson Graul, director of the Youth Civic Engagement Center at Alternatives in Hampton, Virginia, told me. “But in so many ways our society has shut down our curiosity and replaced it with these right-wrong answers.” In Graul’s city, young people are learning how to ask questions again. Their canvas is the democracy of their schools and city. Hampton youth are learning how their government and systems work and are learning that questions are key to their ability to express their own power. High school students are decision-makers–they sit on a youth commission, are hired to work in the planning department, advise superintendents and even give away city funds to endeavors they view as worthwhile. The town created this system of youth civic engagement not because it was cute or because they were motivated by Thomas Jefferson. They did it because they saw the disaffection of their young people, and they knew that the only way to change direction was to let young people ask questions and have the power to deal with the answers.

About Andrea Batista Schlesinger
Andrea Batista Schlesinger is the executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a progressive policy think tank based in New York City. more…

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090928/schlesinger?rel=emailNation

The Self-Made Myth: Debunking Conservatives’ Favorite — And Most Dangerous — Fiction

AlterNet [1] / By Sara Robinson [2] April 25, 2012

The self-made myth is one of the most cherished foundation stones of the conservative theology. Nurtured by Horatio Alger and generations of beloved boys’ stories, It sits at the deep black heart of the entire right-wing worldview, where it provides the essential justification for a great many other common right-wing beliefs. It feeds the accusation that government is evil because it only exists to redistribute wealth from society’s producers (self-made, of course) and its parasites (who refuse to work). It justifies conservative rage against progressives, who are seen as wanting to use government to forcibly take away what belongs to the righteous wealthy. It’s piously invoked by hedge fund managers and oil billionaires, who think that being required to reinvest any of their wealth back into the public society that made it possible is “punishing success.” It’s the foundational belief on which all of Ayn Rand’s novels stand.

If you’ve heard it once from your Fox-watching uncle, you’ve probably heard it a hundred times. “The government never did anything for me, dammit,” he grouses. “Everything I have, I earned. Nobody ever handed me anything. I did it all on my own. I’m a self-made man.”

He’s just plain wrong. Flat-out, incontrovertibly, inarguably wrong. So profoundly wrong, in fact, that we probably won’t be able to change the national discourse on taxes, infrastructure, education, government investment, technology policy, transportation, welfare, or our future prospects as a country until we can effectively convince the country of the monumental wrongness of this one core point.

The Built-Together Realty

Brian Miller and Mike Lapham have written the book that lays out the basic arguments we can use to begin to set things right. The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed [3] is a clear, concise, easy-to-read-and-use summary that brings forward a far more accurate argument about government’s central role in creating the conditions for economic prosperity and personal opportunity.

Miller, the executive director of United For a Fair Economy [4], and Lapham, a co-founder of UFE’s Responsible Wealth project, argue that the self-made myth absolves our economic leaders from doing anything about inequality, frames fair wages as extortion from deserving producers, and turns the social safety net into a moral hazard that can only promote laziness and sloth.

They argue that progressives need to overwrite this fiction with the far more supportable idea of the “built-together reality,” which points up the truth that nobody in America ever makes it alone. Every single private fortune can be traced back to basic public investments that have, as Warren Buffet argues in the book, created the most fertile soil on the planet for entrepreneurs to succeed.

To their credit, Miller and Lapham don’t ask us to take this point on faith. Right out of the gate, they regale us with three tales of famous “self-made” men — Donald Trump, Ross Perot and the Koch brothers — whose own stories put the lie to the myth. (This section alone is worth the price of admission — these guys so did not make it on their own!) Once those treasured right-wing exemplars are thoroughly discredited, the middle of the book offers a welcome corrective: interviews with 14 wealthy Americans — including well-known names like Warren Buffet, Ben Cohen, Abigail Disney, and Amy Domini — who are very explicit about the ways in which government action laid the groundwork for their success. Over and over, these people credit their wealth to:

* An excellent education received in public schools and universities. Jerry Fiddler of Wind River Software (you’re probably running his stuff in your cell phone or car) went to the University of Chicago, and started his computer career at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Bookseller Thelma Kidd got her start at Texas Tech and the University of Michigan. Warren Buffet went to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Nebraska as an undergrad. And beyond that: several interviewees paid for their educations with federal Pell Grants and Stafford loans.

Over and over, the point gets made: public universities — and the good public schools that feed them, and the funding programs that put them within financial reach — have hatched millions of American entrepreneurs who might not have been fledged without that opportunity to get an education.

* The support of the Small Business Administration and other government agencies. Ben Cohen notes that almost all the business training he and Jerry Greenfield had came from extension courses at the University of Vermont and Penn State, and small brochures produced by the SBA. And as they spun up, they also got an Urban Development Action Grant from the federal government. Other interviewees started their businesses in incubators or other quarters provided or arranged by their local city governments.

* A strong regulatory environment that protected their businesses from being undercut by competitors willing to cut corners, and ensured that their manufacturing inputs are of consistently high quality. Glynn Lloyd of Boston’s City Fresh Foods points out that nobody in the food business can get by without reliable sources of clean water; and that the USDA inspection process is an important piece of his quality control.

* Enforceable copyright and intellectual property laws that enabled them to protect good ideas. Abigail Disney recalls that her father, Roy Disney, and her Uncle Walt made and lost one great cartoon character — Oswald the Rabbit — because they didn’t have copyright protection. They didn’t repeat that mistake when Mickey Mouse was born three years later, launching the Disney empire.

* A robust system of roads, ports, airports, and mass transit that enabled them to reliably move their goods both within the US, and around the world. Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing (the makers of Fat Tire beer) points out that “Beer is heavy, and it needs to be transported in vehicles. Certainly, the highway system has been important to New Belgium Brewing.” Lloyd also points out that Boston’s excellent public transit system enables him to draw on a far wider employee base.

* The government’s role in creating the Internet, without which almost no modern company can function. Anirvan Chatterjee built Bookfinder.com (now a subsidiary of Amazon.com), the world’s biggest online used-book marketplace, as an entirely Internet-based company — an achievement that wouldn’t have been remotely imaginable without DARPA, the establishment and enforcement of common protocols, and significant congressional investment in the 1980s to take the Internet commercial.

* The ability to issue public stock in a fair, reliable, regulated marketplace  — a benefit that raised the value of several interviewees’ companies by about 30 percent overnight. Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets, spoke with concern about the loss of trust in this system over the past decade. “The corporate scandals [Enron and Worldcom] caused people to stop trusting the numbers that companies were reporting. Imagine how much value is created by trust and the whole system that assures that trust?”

Besides the government, most of those interviewed also locate their companies in the context of a large community of customers they utterly depend on for their success. “It takes a village to raise a business,” says Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots, a sustainable products company that came about through partnerships and grants from UC Berkeley, Peet’s Coffee and other interested parties.

Others are quick to acknowledge the contributions of their employees, without whom their companies wouldn’t exist. When Gun Denhart and her husband sold their company, children’s clothier Hanna Andersson, in 2003, they distributed a healthy portion of the sale proceeds to their employees, prorated on the basis of their length of service.

All businesses exist within a vast network of human connections — customers, vendors, employees, investors, and the communities that support their work. These stories make it clear: saying you did it all yourself and therefore don’t owe anybody anything is about as absurd (and self-centered) as saying that you raised yourself from babyhood, without any input from your parents, and therefore don’t have any further obligations to your family.

The Role of Luck and Timing

We all know wealth isn’t just a matter of hard work, brains or talent. Most of us probably know hard-working, brilliant, or extraordinarily talented people who aren’t being rewarded at anything close to their true value. So perhaps the most intriguing and useful part of the book is a long discussion of the many other essential factors that go into making someone wealthy — factors that are blithely brushed off the table whenever the self-made myth is invoked.

Rich conservatives have to downplay the role of luck. After all, if we think they’re just lucky, rather than exceptionally deserving of exceptional wealth, we’ll be a lot more justified in taxing their fortunes. But luck — the fortunate choice of parents, for example, or landing in the right job or industry at the right time — plays a huge role in any individual’s success. Timing also matters: most of the great fortunes of the 19th century were accumulated by men born during the 1830s, who were of an age to capitalize on the huge economic boom created by the expansion of the railroads after the Civil War. Likewise, the great tech fortunes almost all belong to people born between 1950 and 1955, who were well-positioned to create pioneering companies in the tech boom of the late 1970s and 1980s. Such innovative times don’t come along very often; and being born when the stars lined up just so doesn’t make you more entitled. It just makes you luckier.

Because Americans in general like to think we’re an equal society, we’re also quick to discount the importance of race, gender, appearance, class, upbringing, and other essential forms of social capital that can open doors for people who have it – and close them on those who don’t. The self-made myth allows us to deflect our attention from these critical factors, undermining our determination to level the playing field for those who don’t start life with a pocket fat with advantages.

What Changes?

The book winds up with specific policy prescriptions that can bring the built-together reality back into sharper political and cultural focus. The last section shows how abandoning the self-made myth for a built-together reality creates fresh justification for a more progressive income tax, the repeal of the capital gains exemption and raising corporate and inheritance taxes. It also makes a far more compelling philosophical backdrop against which progressives can argue for increased investment in infrastructure, education, a fair minimum wage, a strong social safety net, and better anti-discrimination laws.

But the most striking thing about the book — implicit throughout, but explicit nowhere — was the alternative vision of capitalism it offers. Throughout the book, Miller and Lapham seem to be making the tacit case that businesses premised on the built-together reality are simply more fair, more generous, more sustainable, and more humane. While far from perfect (Disney’s empire being one case in point), they are, as a group, markedly more aware of the high costs of exploiting their workers, their customers, the economy, or the environment. Owners who believe themselves to be beholden to a community for their success will tend to value and invest back into that community, and they seem to be far more willing to realize when they’ve got enough and it’s time to start giving back.

The implication is clear: if we can interrupt American’s long love affair with the self-made myth, we will effectively pull the center tent pole out from under the selfish assumptions that shelter most of the excesses of corporate behavior that characterize our age. This isn’t just another point of contention between progressives and conservatives; it’s somewhere near the very center of the disconnect between our worldviews. The Self-Made Myth is an essential primer that gives us the language and stories to begin talking about this difference, and the tools to begin to bend that conversation in some new and more hopeful directions.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/story/155149/the_self-made_myth%3A_debunking_conservatives%27_favorite_–_and_most_dangerous_–_fiction

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/sara-robinson
[3] http://www.powells.com/partner/32513/biblio/9781609945060
[4] http://www.faireconomy.org/
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/self-made-myth
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/responsible-wealth
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/fair-economy

 

Are Republicans Committing Treason?

AlterNet [1] / By Cliff Schecter [2] July 20, 2011

Excerpt

Once upon a time…there was a political party that had a set of core beliefs to which they actually adhered.

Among them was that actually balancing the budget…Foreign military adventures should be limited to our national security interests…protecting the economic interests not only of an elite few, but of the great many Americans who toiled in our factories and fields.

This party was known as the Republican Party…one could at least see some logic in their beliefs and understand that they…were doing what they thought was right for the United States of America.

Today, this once respectable organization…When facing changes to this nation that make them uncomfortable, they choose national hate….When facing a choice of what is good for the US or their personal bank accounts, they inevitably go with the latter.

The one caveat is that it’s not Republicans, so much as the forces of the anti-American, gun-toting, religious and corporate Right that have taken over the GOP who are responsible…

Charter members of this anti-American Right include the National Rifle Association..

the “pro-business” Right’s support for finishing a four-decade quest to hollow out US manufacturing…

We used to make big things in the US, often with direct government investment. Whether it was the federal highway system, the Sears Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge – these were not small undertakings. It was a proven method of creating jobs and wealth, as well as a source of national pride…

US slipping in quality-of-life indicators..

World Health Organization’s ranking the US in 37th place, our impressive 33rd place in children’s ability to navigate math and science, or 39th place in our environmental quality…

Lest one think this list is biased, I have not even gone into the details of the outing of an undercover CIA agent (see Karl Rove) or the Right’s current crusade to make the US default on its debt (and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s incentive to profit off of this, as he has shorted US treasury bonds in his personal investment portfolio)…

Full text

Once upon a time, in a land that now seems to have been populated by tooth fairies and unicorns, there was a political party that had a set of core beliefs to which they actually adhered.

Among them was that actually balancing the budget, as opposed to just talking about it, was sacrosanct. Slow change, while necessary, had to be balanced against the traditions of the United States, ones that had mostly served us well over two centuries.

Foreign military adventures should be limited to our national security interests. And one of the single most important components of diplomacy was protecting the economic interests not only of an elite few, but of the great many Americans who toiled in our factories and fields.

This party was known as the Republican Party, and while one might have disagreed with them on their policy prescriptions to cure any particular US ill, one could at least see some logic in their beliefs and understand that they – with some obvious exceptions from time to time (ahem, Joseph McCarthy, ahem) – were doing what they thought was right for the United States of America.

Today, this once respectable organization has turned into nothing so much as a collective id the size of a David Vitter Pampers shopping spree. When facing changes to this nation that make them uncomfortable, they choose national hate. When facing ideological worship versus the greatness of the US, the former always wins the day. When facing a choice of what is good for the US or their personal bank accounts, they inevitably go with the latter.

Every. Single. Time.

In simple terms: We, the people of the United States, are the maid. The GOP is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Any questions?

The one caveat is that it’s not Republicans, so much as the forces of the anti-American, gun-toting, religious and corporate Right that have taken over the GOP who are responsible for papa’s brand new bag. The Right is Darth Sidious to the GOP’s Anakin Skywalker, Angelina Jolie to foreign-born children.

And yes, sadly, the Dark Lord has also sunk his hooks into quite a few in the Democratic Party, just somewhat less in number and relevance.

Charter members of this anti-American Right include the National Rifle Association, whose executive vice president-cum-Waldo impersonator, Wayne LaPierre, pushes new and more deadly weaponry into the hands of American criminals and terrorists without a first thought of the common good of his country. Giddily referring to US law enforcement agents as “jack-booted thugs”, and using fear of a black president to encourage the militia mentality among his most deranged (and armed) followers, his reign at the NRA has facilitated their retreat into revolutionary rhetoric, which has included plans by associated paramilitary groups to kill police officers and government officials.

Not so good for the US, but great for selling weapons to support LaPierre’s $1.27m salary, as well as NRA board members who earn a paycheck by owning companies that pay their bonuses based on firearm sales.

It also includes the “pro-business” Right’s support for finishing a four-decade quest to hollow out US manufacturing and destroy what was once, as succinctly put by polymath and top-rated progressive radio host Thom Hartmann, “the American way of life”. A few elite moneymen get rich, while the United States’ ability to create things that don’t come with fries or an apple pie, once a source of great pride to, you know, Americans, has gone off clubbing with Casey Anthony.

No political will to fix US infrastructure

Last week, China broke the record for the longest sea bridge in the world with the opening of the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. Quite symbolically, it passed Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which had previously held the record.

You’d think that this, in and of itself, would pain those on the Republican Right and their friends among the Blue Dog Democrats, “patriots” who never hesitate to tout American greatness. But for some reason – perhaps campaign contributions make a soothing bubble bath? – their refusal to fund the slightest hint of improvement or addition to US infrastructure is allowing it to collapse quicker than John Boehner at an all-you-can-drink Margarita marathon at Bahama Mama’s.

We used to make big things in the US, often with direct government investment. Whether it was the federal highway system, the Sears Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge – these were not small undertakings. It was a proven method of creating jobs and wealth, as well as a source of national pride.

These days, it’s the historical blindness and hatred of any spending contained in a philosophy that underpins simplistic calls for “austerity”. Contained in budgets written by small-minded men such as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, it has seen corporate cybernetic organisms posing as legislators do what once would have been unthinkable: pave the way for Chinese exceptionalism.

US slipping in quality-of-life indicators

Yet perhaps right-wingers’ work to undermine America is nowhere as evident as it is in the everyday indicators of how we are doing as a country. Whether it is the World Health Organization’s ranking the US in 37th place, our impressive 33rd place in children’s ability to navigate math and science, or 39th place in our environmental quality (we’re still two spots ahead of Cuba!), I simply don’t understand how one can claim to love the US and blithely ignore or work to exacerbate these indicators by gutting government every day.

But then again, what should we expect from a movement whose leaders, such as that dimwitted dolt known as Texas Governor Rick Perry, openly discuss secession? Or, as I pointed out in last week’s column, the blood diamond-accruing conman Pat Robertson, who has wished Sodom-like destruction on the United States, because gay couples in New York now have the right to marry?

Secession? Destruction? There used to be a term to describe people who wished these tragedies would befall their own country. Today that term is “Republican presidential candidate”, whether from the recent past (Robertson in 1988) and potentially – God help us – the future (Perry in 2012).

Lest one think this list is biased, I have not even gone into the details of the outing of an undercover CIA agent (see Karl Rove) or the Right’s current crusade to make the US default on its debt (and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s incentive to profit off of this, as he has shorted US treasury bonds in his personal investment portfolio).

Humorist and writer Leo Rosten once said that “a conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they’re dead”. Today, however, the love for radicals and radicalism is alive and kicking on the Right, and sadly for the US, it doesn’t seem ready to die anytime soon.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/story/151711/are_republicans_committing_treason

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/cliff-schecter
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/republicans-0
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/gop
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/conservatives-0
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/radical-right
[7] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Another Word on “God and the Twenty-First Century”

by Michael Benedikt, Tikkun, March 5, 2011

Excerpt

It is no longer necessary to invoke the name of God to explain or promote compassionate action. Today we understand we have evolved that capacity…what are commandments? Ways of bringing goodness to life through actions, through deeds…These are the words of three champions of monotheism [Judaism, Christianity, Islam]…But what should followers of these theist traditions think of the good practiced by nonbelievers — people who would say it’s quite unnecessary, and even counterproductive, to bring “God” into ordinary morality, who would offer that morality can and should be understood from an entirely scientific, evolutionary, and historical point of view thus: the capacity for empathy, fairness, and altruism is wired into human beings and even other higher mammals from birth, thanks to millions of generations of reproduction-with-variation under the constraints of natural selection. Similarly, the laws of civility — from the Eightfold Way and the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — are the culturally transmitted legacy of thousands of years of human social evolution overlaid upon older, natural reproductive-selective processes. Whereas laws of civility may once have needed the rhetorical force of God-talk to establish themselves, today they can be embraced rationally in the service of peace and prosperity.

Full text

It is no longer necessary to invoke the name of God to explain or promote compassionate action. Today we understand we have evolved that capacity and can choose to exercise it.

There’s the story of a young atheist arguing with his Orthodox Jewish father about the existence of God. It’s late Friday afternoon. After an hour or so, the father looks at his watch and concedes, “Well, my son, God might or might not exist, but it’s time for evening prayers.”

Mitzvot are what matter. And what are mitzvot — what are commandments? Ways of bringing goodness to life through actions, through deeds. Said Rabbi Shimeon: “Not learning but doing is the chief thing.” Said Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord! Lord!’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of God” (Matthew 7:21). Said Muhammad: “If you derive pleasure from the good you do, and are grieved by the evil you commit, you are a true believer.”

These are the words of three champions of monotheism. Their pragmatism is bracing. But what should followers of these theist traditions think of the good practiced by nonbelievers — people who would say it’s quite unnecessary, and even counterproductive, to bring “God” into ordinary morality, who would offer that morality can and should be understood from an entirely scientific, evolutionary, and historical point of view thus: the capacity for empathy, fairness, and altruism is wired into human beings and even other higher mammals from birth, thanks to millions of generations of reproduction-with-variation under the constraints of natural selection. Similarly, the laws of civility — from the Eightfold Way and the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — are the culturally transmitted legacy of thousands of years of human social evolution overlaid upon older, natural reproductive-selective processes. Whereas laws of civility may once have needed the rhetorical force of God-talk to establish themselves, today they can be embraced rationally in the service of peace and prosperity.

In short, the nonbeliever holds that arriving at the enlightened understanding that good actions are good-for-us, that better ones are good-for-us-all, and the best are good-for-all-living-things requires neither God nor religion. God (in their view) is actually “God,” a useful fiction at best, a mental catalyst, rather like the square root of minus one: put into the equation only to be taken out later.

This dismissal of God and “his” goodness — in favor of evolution and its goodness — leaves modern, science-educated theists (and deists) unsatisfied. They believe that centuries of religious architecture, literature, and music ought not be treated only aesthetically and/or anthropologically, bracketed from real life, and considered to be about what was once picturesquely believed — but rather as capable, still, of transporting the self and transforming the world for the good. They believe, likewise, that ceremonies calmly asking for God’s blessing in progressive churches and synagogues the world over may not be worship in the traditions of self-abjection or irrational ecstasy, but they do more than “improve group fitness.” There’s a reason that the seal impressed upon births, marriages, and deaths by the invocation of the deity is so poorly replaced by secular language.

For modern, science-educated theists, the theory of evolution and the way it accounts for the origins of ethics and aesthetics is not wrong, then, just inadequate. Arthur Green’s excellent essay in “God and the Twenty-First Century,” the March/April 2010 Tikkun, represents one response, one solution. It is to divinize evolution, to understand evolution as God’s only mode of operation. Evolution has a direction, which is the attainment of ever higher levels of complexity and organization — of ever greater “intensifications of beauty,” as Alfred North Whitehead put it — in the arrangement of matter and energy in the universe, culminating in human consciousness. This passage from dust to mindfulness, this many-billion-year saga, is sacred in its entirety. It is the new “Greatest Story Ever Told.”

In Divinizing Evolution, What Becomes of the Problem of Evil?

If evolution itself is seen as wise and benevolent, even divine, how come it involves so much suffering? Or is there a better way to conceive of “evolutionary spirituality”? Creative Commons/William Li.

Reading Green brings to mind earlier attempts to divinize evolution: Whitehead’s process, Henri Bergson’s creative evolution, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmogenesis, Samuel Alexander’s emergentism, as well as the “evolutionary spiritualities” (Andrew Cohen’s term) of Leibniz, Schelling, Hegel, and J. Huxley, for whom humankind was “nothing else but evolution become conscious of itself.” The danger with reconciling theism with science by sacralizing evolution, however, is the tendency to assign to evolution a wisdom equivalent to the God of Genesis. The resulting problem is an old one: the “problem of evil.” For just as it is difficult and even impossible to reconcile the existence of a single, absolutely powerful, knowledgeable, and beneficent Creator God with the innocent suffering that surrounds us, so one cannot hold to a good, evolution-devising, evolution-endorsing, or even evolution-constituted God for whom the agonies and early deaths of uncountable living creatures through history are justified by the result, since the vast majority of those agonies and deaths contributed nothing to evolution.

Evolution, overall, may be “good” in as much as it eventuated in our being here to read and write articles like this. But looked at with any precision, evolution is a slow and messy affair, tragic in most directions. Is God really that careless, that wasteful? The evolution of species may be “the greatest … drama of all time,” as Arthur Green says, but on the evidence, it would seem that only a small and recent chapter of it begins to be “sacred.” It’s the chapter that opens with Eve’s eating of the apple, the allegorical mark of the emergence of human conscience, and it’s a chapter that’s still being written.

What If God Emerges From and Evolves With Us?

I suggest that the only version of “evolutionary spirituality” that keeps God good and that makes spiritual as well as evolutionary sense, sees God him/her/itself as emerging from and evolving with us, and not existing before.

This is not so strange an idea, or so new. As talmudist Aryeh Cohen, coming from quite another direction, writes in his careful essay in the same issue of Tikkun: “It is in the practice of justice that God exists and that redemption may happen.” The next logical step multiplies implications: perhaps it is not only in the doing of good (in “the practice of justice”) that God exists, but as the doing of good (as the practice of justice) that God exists. “God” is not a noun but a verb, as David Cooper declares in his book about the Kabbalah; but more pointedly God is not a being, but a doing. If God is as God does, and God does only good by definition, then it follows, in so far as doing (over mere mechanical action or reaction) involves even a trace of foresight, creativity, and review, that God’s existence and continuance is in human hands, no less than our continuance, increasingly, is in God’s. The human species is new in cosmic history. Doing good is newer still. God is not everywhere always, therefore, and never was; God is — only where good is being done, and when. Humanity is “theogenic,” and God “ethicogenic.”

I understand that these declarations are under-supported in this short article. But consider this: seeing God as goodness performed, like music or dance, allows an educated believer to say “God” and to mean by “God” something viable, actual, and energizing that needs no apology or bracketing or empty hyperbole to promote. It encourages them — it encourages us — to understand that religious texts, and especially ancient religious texts, are not poor science or arcane readings suited only for ritual use, but recordings of the emergence of — and generators, still, of an openness to — that new, tenuous, and “vertical” dimension of human experience we call the ethical. This is the dimension into which we step, as out of a basement into fresh air, each time we volunteer ourselves into selflessness, or choose what is best for all, or welcome necessary complexity. One might call it elevation through submission — submission not to God Almighty (this is the old hyperbole), but to the gentle and persistent current of joy and care that runs through life: a charge coming to us from everywhere and nowhere to “choose life,” consciously, for all living things, in the freedom to do otherwise.

The step into the ethical dimension and its upward loft is not arduous. It is often a small one. Said Moses to the Israelites:

Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your hearts, to observe it … Choose life, that ye may live (Deut. 30:11-14, 20:19).

Look out of your window, then. Every animal not shot, every walker not carrying a gun, every car waiting patiently for a traffic light to change, every repairman writing up a job fairly, every person dying in a fresh hospital bed rather than on a battlefield or in a gutter, every street that is swept, every bush that is trimmed, every toddler studying a worm, is God evidenced and instanced. We should look upon these things and be glad, even reverent. We should rejoice at peace and simple decency, and not take them for granted. They are not the product of raw, biological evolution, but of the divine process of civilization, a process to which we contribute. Our “cup runneth over,” and by our ethical actions, that cup runs over for others. This is the wonder of good doing. “The wonder of [good] doing,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel,

is no less amazing than the marvel of being … and [it] may prompt us to discover “the divinity of deeds.” In doing sacred deeds, we may begin to realize that there is more in our doing than ourselves, that in our doing there is something — nay, someone — divine. [It is] “through the ecstasy of deeds” that we learn “to be certain of the hereness of God.”

How Should We De-Anthropomorphize God?

One perpetual challenge for thoughtful theists — a challenge almost as great as how to interpret evolution — is how to deal with theological anthropomorphism, which is the second entry point for atheists after the problem of evil.

As Stewart Guthrie points out in Faces in the Clouds, anthropomorphism takes two forms. The first is easy to detect and easy to suppress: seeing the man in the moon or thinking that snakes are reincarnated bad people, that volcanoes are angry, that the stock market “shakes off” bad news, and so on. It is the stuff of instinct, of children’s books, poetry, and colorful journalism.

The second form of anthropomorphism is not as easy to detect or neutralize. It is part of thinking itself. As Kant argued, space and time may or may not be “out there” apart from our thinking. More commonsensically, we know at some level that whereas we are born and die, the universe may not have had a beginning at all and may not end. Certainly, the universe is neither beautiful nor ugly nor safe nor dangerous, except to us. But neither, really, is it large or small or old or young. We might say that the universe “just is.” But metaphysical “being” too might be an indiscriminate extension of what our own persistence feels like to us. And so on. Like metaphor in language, this form of anthropomorphism is endemic to all human perception and thought, and we just have to live with it. We are, after all, part of the universe — even though we may be the only part evolved enough to ponder its form and meaning — and so can’t be totally wrong.

Where, then, should religious anthropomorphism lie on the spectrum between children’s-book animism on the one hand and Nature-article objectivity on the other? Choosing the first as inevitable, atheists will gleefully quote the pre-Socratic wit, Xenophanes, who reasoned: “If lions could think, their gods would have manes and roar,” or cite Ludwig Feuerbach, who more seriously portrayed God as the wishful projection of human virtues onto an indifferent cosmos — and regard both as evidence of God’s nonexistence.

In defense of this critique, serious theologians and philosophers have long sought to move to the other pole, devising ever less anthropomorphic descriptions of God. Among them are Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura (“God or Nature”), Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, Whitehead’s Process, Tillich’s Ground of Being, Hartshorne’s Eminent Self-Creation, Kaufman’s Creativity, and Green’s Sacred Evolution. Important to note is that while each helps de-anthropomorphize divinity (at the price of God’s addressability — but that’s another story), each also leaves God presiding over the Beginning and underlying all historical developments; each leaves God, though not human in any way, omnipresent, beyond understanding, and without end (Ein Sof), and thus, like the God of the Bible, the suitable object of awe. It would seem that the capacity to inspire awe, by size, beauty, power, and age, is the one capacity without which no God, in our estimation, could be considered God. Do you recall God’s answer to Job? Even a de-anthropomorphized God, it seems, would answer Job in essentially the same way.

What If God Is Young and Weak?

I think that these theologians and philosophers’ hyperbolic descriptions of God might be, if not a mistake, then an unexamined habit. For God may not be the oldest and strongest force in the universe, but the youngest and weakest one, neither celestial on a throne, nor embedded among subatomic events, but enacted in daily human encounters, choices, and deeds. This is a God to cherish, not to fear. Our tradition of depicting God with a human voice “and an outstretched arm” may not, then, be the result of naive anthropocentrism, but rather a reflection of the fact that voluntary goodness emerges from the matrix of human life in acts of love, duty, beauty, compassion, forbearance, and wisdom — it emerges from motherly, fatherly, brotherly, sisterly, and neighborly acts whose recently evolved, high-order complexity is essential not only to our happiness, but to our continuance and even to that of life on earth. Is it not miracle enough that a whole new level of being/doing is struggling to its feet on this planet? And if we are inclined to concede that the emotion of awe is necessary for any God to be God to us, may we not feel awe at a child’s first words? Or radical amazement at the flowering of the Torah on this speck of dust drifting among the mindless, wheeling stars?

Influenced variously by the Hasidic masters, Felix Adler, Martin Buber, Emanuel Levinas, and Abraham Joshua Heschel were among the pioneers of the line of Jewish, existential, “theo-humanistic” religious thinking that we find in practitioners today as different as Michael Lerner and Harold Schulweis (both Heschel students). This line of thinking is happy to see divinity at work in ethical human relationships — people with each other and with other living things. It speaks often of human partnership with God. It celebrates the godliness of certain human deeds. But that divinity, that partnership, that godliness is derivative still, and dependent upon the much greater godliness of God the Creator/Sustainer/Evolver of the Universe, who remains in place, as it were, at the alpha and omega points of existence. I propose that we can let go of this conception and, in holding God to be good only, consider seriously that our ethical actions are the very substance of God, and say dayenu. I have tried to describe this variant of humanistic Jewish theology in my book God Is the Good We Do.

In Conclusion

As every reader of Tikkun knows, the word “tikkun” means healing, repair, uplift. Healing, repairing, and lifting-up are deeds, not just doctrines; they are transformations of the world around, not just private adjustments of attitude. Tikkun, one might say, is the obligation that evolution bequeaths to the creatures it “blesses,” first with consciousness and then with conscience, to effect life’s further evolution without causing or countenancing involuntary suffering.

Let us resist the tradition of claiming that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Let us stop competing with each other to compose dizzying encomiums to God’s cosmic creativity, eternity, wisdom, and might (shadows of kingship, all), and embrace instead the humbler truth at hand: that divinity is evidenced — indeed constituted — not by how the stars twirl or how life began, but by how graciously we step forward into the next moment.

Michael Benedikt holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism at the University of Texas at Austin. The son of two holocaust survivors, he is the author of God Is the Good We Do (Bottino Books, 2007).

http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/another-word-on-god-and-the-twenty-first-century

Tim Wise on White Resentment in a Multiracial Society

 - interview by Mark Karlin, Truthout, March 2, 2012

Dear White America, Letter to a New Minority [4]” is the latest book by Tim Wise, a specialist on white privilege, and the emergence of white resentment as power becomes shared among all citizens of the United States.

Truthout Talks With Tim Wise

Excerpt

…it took America – this place where the old divisions would need to be put aside so as to subjugate indigenous persons and maintain chattel enslavement of Africans in the name of “the white race” – to really bring racism, as we know it to fruition…If the elite could make the poor Europeans believe they were members of the same “white” team as the rich Europeans, then the prospects for class-based rebellion would be dampened…

it’s not that the election of Obama caused the racism of course, but it certainly gave those with deep seated racial resentments and anxieties a new opportunity to articulate those under the guise of mainstream politics….the sense of otherness surrounding him is even greater. He stands as something of a symbol of the transition from the old, white narrative of America to a new, multicultural, multiracial norm – and it’s a norm for which many, many whites simply are not prepared and about which they are not pleased…

My goal isn’t so much to assuage whites as it is to confront us with the reality that, ultimately, racial equity is in the interest of all of us; that the nostalgic remembrance of the past is not only problematic in that it tethers us to a narrative that overlooks the fundamental evil of those “good old days” for millions, but also because it commits us to the kind of nation that is not sustainable for anyone in the long run….The inequities to which the nostalgic are so indifferent are literally a dagger pointed at the heart of most all of us… I don’t expect the truly nostalgic white folks to much care – they will never be satisfied until their white republic is restored – but I do think there are millions of other whites, perhaps younger and less attracted to this “Pleasantville” kind of nation, who can be brought into allyship with people of color, and that’s what I think we should focus on…

 

[poor whites]have been subjected to intense racial propaganda for generations, which has sadly left them clinging to…the psychological advantage of believing oneself superior to someone, anyone of color, even though you are suffering economically…the U.S., more so than elsewhere, has cultivated the notion that “anyone can make it” if they try hard enough…at some level, even the poorest persons hope that one day they will be one of them – or if not rich, at least comfortable. So class consciousness becomes harder in such a place, and yet, when one’s class position doesn’t rise very much from generation to generation (and for many whites it still doesn’t), they content themselves with their perceived superiority relative to persons of color, and settle for that, rather than fighting for a better deal for all workers, white and of color…

few whites have ever been confronted with the dysfunctionality of our privilege, and racial inequity generally. Rarely has the anti-racist message been one that clearly confronted whites with the ways in which these disparities damage not just people of color, but indirectly, us as well. I think there is at least a chance that if that becomes a key part of the narrative, as mentioned above, that enough whites can be peeled away from our tendency to engage in race-bonding, and instead to begin thinking about solidarity more seriously…

if you want to problematize a key identity – in this case whiteness – which people have become wedded to over time, you have to replace it with something. You have to give people some personal incentives for giving up the safety and security of all they’ve known, so as to trade it in for something else. The way I hope to do that is by making it as clear as possible that whiteness, while providing real advantages relative to people of color, comes at a cost. It tethers us to an economic system that ultimately harms all working people, by keeping them fighting with one another, by convincing us to slash safety nets in the name of free markets and “small government” (even as millions of whites then come to need these same programs and assistance in order to keep their heads above water), and by prioritizing individual success and accomplishment at the expense of the collective good. So for those who are deeply committed to whiteness, perhaps nothing can be done. But for many, many others, I think there is at least a chance that that kind of message can hit home…

It’s incredibly difficult [for any group to willingly surrender privilege and power] But then again, if the cost of clinging to those relative privileges and advantages outweighs their benefits, in the long run, then realizing that can help us begin the process towards relinquishing them in the name of equity and a better deal for all…

this nostalgic vision of the 50′s (or really the pre-1960s, let’s be honest) is due to the way in which the country in those days seemed to be so clearly white, protestant, straight, etc, and how the 1960s and 70s confronted the nation with its warts, with its injustices, none of which white America wanted to see. They remember those days fondly because it was before they had to share the notion of Americanness with those who were fundamentally different, racially, culturally, ethnically and so on. It was a time of “innocence” to them, even as it was a time of intense racial terror for millions. That’s why the cries of “I want my country back” are so clearly about race, at least in terms of their background noise…

[question - Why does the debate about "big" vs. "small" government today have racial overtones?]

Big government was something that was hugely popular, even among white people, right up until the 1960s….But as soon as people of color gained access to the same programs that whites had always had access to, that is when we discovered our “inner libertarian,” and things like government intervention in labor markets or housing markets came to seen as bad, and destructive, and a cause of laziness, etc. It was very convenient. And as social policy and programs to help the have nots and have-lessers became more and more racialized, support for those efforts dropped…

if black people, because of their incompetence, ethical depravity and criminality had managed to wipe out $12 trillion in wealth (mostly owned by white people, I should point out), which is what the Wall Street con men managed to do from 2007 to 2009, in just 18 months, you know what the discussion would have sounded like. People would have openly discussed the race of the perps…we are more comfortable blaming the “other” for the mess, rather than placing it where it belongs.
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Mark Karlin: Isn’t the white “tribal identity” that exists in America an extension of the white European colonization of most of the world at one time or another? The white patronizing notion of “civilizing the savages” is sort of in the historical white bloodline that we inherited from the nation we won our independence from, the once mighty British Empire.

 

Tim Wise: Yes, of course, although there is also a bit of a uniquely “American” twist. On the one hand, there is little doubt that an ethno-cultural supremacist mindset drove those early colonists, who saw nothing wrong with conquering the land and bodies of others so as to expand their own power. On the other hand, whiteness – as a specific, fixed, racialized and immutable identity – didn’t really exist in Europe to any real degree.

 

The term white was not, in fact, used in the European context to universalize the various European ethnic and national identities:

after all, those national and ethnic groups had been slaughtering each other for generations. They hardly thought of themselves as members of a single team, let alone family. So while white supremacy has its roots in the class, religious and ethno-national systems of Europe, it took America – this place where the old divisions would need to be put aside so as to subjugate indigenous persons and maintain chattel enslavement of Africans in the name of “the white race” – to really bring racism, as we know it to fruition. Whiteness was really something of a trick, developed for the purpose of uniting otherwise disparate Europeans, first, so as to make the subordination of “non-whites” easier, but also (and importantly), to paper over the otherwise deep class cleavages that had long beset those from Europe. If the elite could make the poor Europeans believe they were members of the same “white” team as the rich Europeans, then the prospects for class-based rebellion would be dampened.

 

MK: You describe in your open “letter to a new minority,” that far from the election of Barack Obama ushering in an era of a post-racial society, it seems to have intensified white racial anxiety. Bill Maher did a riff the other night that Barack Obama has to be the Jackie Robinson of presidents, turning a blind eye to disrespect and racial resentment that directly confronts him. Did his election force the cockroaches of racial animosity to come out of the woodwork?

 

TW: I think it did. It’s not that the election of Obama caused the racism of course, but it certainly gave those with deep seated racial resentments and anxieties a new opportunity to articulate those under the guise of mainstream politics. The election of a man of color challenges the fundamental notions that many whites have long had, about what a leader is supposed to look like. And since this particular president is not only a man of color, but also has a name that seems “exotic” to some, and had a father who wasn’t even African American, but rather, straight off the continent of Africa itself, the sense of otherness surrounding him is even greater. He stands as something of a symbol of the transition from the old, white narrative of America to a new, multicultural, multiracial norm – and it’s a norm for which many, many whites simply are not prepared and about which they are not pleased.

 

MK: You write very much as a healer, trying to assuage the anxiety of the white majority that is on the verge of becoming a minority – as has already happened in California. You write, “as the economy implodes and the future creeps up on us as thick and murky as chowder, those directions we’ve been following seem no longer to suffice.” But you also recognize that it is dream of returning to some idealized Disneyesque period of white patriarchal rule that tugs at the emotional angst of so many whites. How else will they be assuaged?

 

TW: My goal isn’t so much to assuage whites as it is to confront us with the reality that, ultimately, racial equity is in the interest of all of us; that the nostalgic remembrance of the past is not only problematic in that it tethers us to a narrative that overlooks the fundamental evil of those “good old days” for millions, but also because it commits us to the kind of nation that is not sustainable for anyone in the long run. We simply cannot survive if we get to that day in, say, 25-30 years, when people of color will be half the population and whites the other half, if we remain a place where people of color are still 3 times as likely to be poor as whites, twice as likely to be unemployed, have one twentieth the net worth as persons in the white half, on average, nine years less life expectancy, etc. The inequities to which the nostalgic are so indifferent are literally a dagger pointed at the heart of most all of us. It is my hope that if we come to understand how the pain we’re now seeing in white communities – the unemployment, housing foreclosures, inadequate health care access and such – is linked to the pain in communities of color (where these crises have been longstanding), that perhaps we can begin to forge some solidarity across racial lines. I don’t expect the truly nostalgic white folks to much care – they will never be satisfied until their white republic is restored – but I do think there are millions of other whites, perhaps younger and less attracted to this “Pleasantville” kind of nation, who can be brought into allyship with people of color, and that’s what I think we should focus on.

 

MK: Why is it that so many poor whites – let’s say in Appalachia – feel closer to white billionaires, who care nothing about their economic plight, than poor minorities, who share their economic travails?

 

TW: First, because they have been subjected to intense racial propaganda for generations, which has sadly left them clinging to what DuBois called the “psychological wage of whiteness,” which means the psychological advantage of believing oneself superior to someone, anyone of color, even though you are suffering economically. Unfortunately, when your real wages and working conditions are poor, the weight of the psychological wage intensifies and can become a crutch to which one clings in moments of insecurity. Also, the U.S., more so than elsewhere, has cultivated the notion that “anyone can make it” if they try hard enough. Unlike the feudal monarchies of Europe, where the poor and working class knew full well they were never going to be on top, here, the reigning ideology – the secular gospel if you will of America – is that individual initiative trumps all. If one believes that, then it becomes less likely that one will problematize the rich, or criticize them, or seek to challenge them, because at some level, even the poorest persons hope that one day they will be one of them – or if not rich, at least comfortable. So class consciousness becomes harder in such a place, and yet, when one’s class position doesn’t rise very much from generation to generation (and for many whites it still doesn’t), they content themselves with their perceived superiority relative to persons of color, and settle for that, rather than fighting for a better deal for all workers, white and of color.

 

MK: You make this appeal to whites who are deeply attached to their racial identity in terms of political and social power: “One thing is certain though, we cannot hold onto the old ways and move into the future at the same time.” But, as mentioned earlier, isn’t that the whole point for them? They want to go backward, not forward.

 

TW: Yes, they do. But few whites have ever been confronted with the dysfunctionality of our privilege, and racial inequity generally. Rarely has the anti-racist message been one that clearly confronted whites with the ways in which these disparities damage not just people of color, but indirectly, us as well. I think there is at least a chance that if that becomes a key part of the narrative, as mentioned above, that enough whites can be peeled away from our tendency to engage in race-bonding, and instead to begin thinking about solidarity more seriously.

 

MK: In your introduction, you recognize that most people whom you are speaking to in your book won’t be reading it. You bring up the issue that some of them will accuse you of being a self-hating white. How then does one overcome racism and bigotry among those who rely so heavily on being white, as you say, “mean[ing] something”?

 

TW: Obviously, if you want to problematize a key identity – in this case whiteness – which people have become wedded to over time, you have to replace it with something. You have to give people some personal incentives for giving up the safety and security of all they’ve known, so as to trade it in for something else. The way I hope to do that is by making it as clear as possible that whiteness, while providing real advantages relative to people of color, comes at a cost. It tethers us to an economic system that ultimately harms all working people, by keeping them fighting with one another, by convincing us to slash safety nets in the name of free markets and “small government” (even as millions of whites then come to need these same programs and assistance in order to keep their heads above water), and by prioritizing individual success and accomplishment at the expense of the collective good. So for those who are deeply committed to whiteness, perhaps nothing can be done. But for many, many others, I think there is at least a chance that that kind of message can hit home.

 

MK: Beyond the identity issue of feeling more “worthy,” perhaps – in some cases – more “chosen by God,” being white entitles one to certain privileges, you argue. Playing devil’s advocate, isn’t it terribly hard for any group to willingly surrender privilege and power?

 

TW: It’s incredibly difficult. But then again, if the cost of clinging to those relative privileges and advantages outweighs their benefits, in the long run, then realizing that can help us begin the process towards relinquishing them in the name of equity and a better deal for all.

 

MK: You have a fascinating account of an email exchange with a Tea Party member who claims that racial resentment is not a motivating factor in the group. She asserts that lower tax issues are a major goal. But when asked about the year, by you, in which she thought taxes were at an acceptable level she mentions 1957. As you point out, “the top marginal tax rate in the United States was ninety-one percent” that year. So, what do you suspect was really going on in her head?

 

TW: I suspect her nostalgia for the 1950s has very little to do with taxes or the size of government at that time, since taxes were far higher and government spending was significant and growing too (and government had always been huge for white people). My guess is that this nostalgic vision of the 50′s (or really the pre-1960s, let’s be honest) is due to the way in which the country in those days seemed to be so clearly white, protestant, straight, etc, and how the 1960s and 70s confronted the nation with its warts, with its injustices, none of which white America wanted to see. They remember those days fondly because it was before they had to share the notion of Americanness with those who were fundamentally different, racially, culturally, ethnically and so on. It was a time of “innocence” to them, even as it was a time of intense racial terror for millions. That’s why the cries of “I want my country back” are so clearly about race, at least in terms of their background noise.

 

MK: Why does the debate about “big” vs. “small” government today have racial overtones?

 

TW: Well, simple. Big government was something that was hugely popular, even among white people, right up until the 1960s. In the 30s, whites (including Southern rural whites) loved big government. It saved them during the depression. It gave them rural electricity, jobs, retirement programs, roads, schools, FHA loans, etc. Of course, those big government programs were also mostly if not exclusively for white people: blacks, for instance were largely excluded from them. Indeed their exclusion from the programs had been a precondition for southern senators supporting the New Deal actually. But as soon as people of color gained access to the same programs that whites had always had access to, that is when we discovered our “inner libertarian,” and things like government intervention in labor markets or housing markets came to seen as bad, and destructive, and a cause of laziness, etc. It was very convenient. And as social policy and programs to help the have nots and have-lessers became more and more racialized, support for those efforts dropped. In fact, one international comparison found that the factor that most explains why the U.S. doesn’t have the kind of social safety nets so common in other western industrialized democracies, is because whites believe black people will abuse the programs if we have them here. Of course, the irony is that then the programs that millions of whites need, especially in times like this, aren’t there for them either.

 

MK: You make a very insightful observation about how things might have unfolded if the Wall Street con men responsible for breaking our economy’s back had been black. Can you elaborate on that?

 

TW: Well, think about it. I mean, if black people, because of their incompetence, ethical depravity and criminality had managed to wipe out $12 trillion in wealth (mostly owned by white people, I should point out), which is what the Wall Street con men managed to do from 2007 to 2009, in just 18 months, you know what the discussion would have sounded like. People would have openly discussed the race of the perps. They would have said things like: “I bet those people only got those jobs because of affirmative action. They weren’t probably even qualified to be on Wall Street.” Of course, when white people destroy that kind of wealth (20 percent of the accumulated net worth of the entire nation), not only do we not see it as a matter of racial pathology, or evidence that white people might be particularly unqualified for bank or stockbroker jobs, or whatever, but instead, we try and turn around, take the blame off of them, and put it back on poor black people, by lying and saying that the reason the housing markets crashed is because banks were forced to make loans to “minorities and other risky folks,” as FOX’s Neil Cavuto put it. And this, despite the fact that there is no evidence at all that loans made in furtherance of fair lending regulations had anything to do with the crash. In fact, loans like that tended to perform better than other loans. But we are more comfortable blaming the “other” for the mess, rather than placing it where it belongs.
http://www.truth-out.org/dear-white-america-letter-new-minority/1330718926