Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts

by Matthew Hutson, New York Times, March 30, 2013

Excerpt

MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences…We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors… Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know….knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous. But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely…

Full text

MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?

We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.

Philosophers and psychologists often distinguish between two ethical frameworks. A utilitarian perspective evaluates an action purely by its consequences. If it does good, it’s good.

A deontological approach, meanwhile, also takes into account aspects of the action itself, like whether it adheres to certain rules. Do not kill, even if killing does good.

No one adheres strictly to either philosophy, and it turns out we can be nudged one way or the other for illogical reasons.

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses.

Class can also play a role. Another paper, in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that upper-income people tend to have less empathy than those from lower-income strata, and so are more willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater good.

Upper-income subjects took more money from another subject to multiply it and give to others, and found it more acceptable to push a fat man in front of a trolley to save five others on the track — both outcome-oriented responses.

But asking subjects to focus on the feelings of the person losing the money made wealthier respondents less likely to accept such a trade-off.

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

And other published studies have shown that our moods can make misdeeds seem more or less sinful. Ethical violations become less offensive after people watch a humor program like “Saturday Night Live.” But they become more offensive after reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which triggers emotional elevation, or after smelling a mock-flatulence spray, which triggers disgust.

The scenarios in these papers are somewhat contrived (trolleys and such), but they have real-world analogues: deciding whether to fire a loyal employee for the good of the company, or whether to donate to a single sick child rather than to an aid organization that could save several.

Regardless of whether you endorse following the rules or calculating benefits, knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely. In recognizing our psychological quirks, we just might find answers we can live with.

Matthew Hutson, the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane,” is writing a book on taboos.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/opinion/sunday/how-firm-are-our-principles.htm

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/

Susan Jacoby on Secularism and Free Thinking

Moyers and Company, March 1, 2013

Journalist and historian Susan Jacoby talks with Bill about the role secularism and intellectual curiosity have played throughout America’s history, a topic explored in her new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.

Excerpt

“I’m sure there are plenty of atheists and various kinds of unorthodox religious people in Congress, but they don’t talk about it,” Jacoby tells Bill. “I think that either proclaiming allegiance to a religion or shutting up about it is still an absolute requirement.”

BILL MOYERS: …Since America’s beginning, every generation has had to engage in the battle over freedom of religion and freedom from religion…[Robert Ingersoll's] outspoken views on evolution, religion and reason, the separation of church and state, and women’s suffrage…

SUSAN JACOBY: … his dates are 1833 to 1899…he decides that speaking out on behalf of reason, on behalf of Darwin’s theory of evolution, against attempts to introduce more religion into government, that this is more important to him than his political ambitions….

BM: You say he was one of those indispensable people, who keep an alternative version of history alive. What was the alternative version of history he kept alive?

SJ: …he put forward the astonishing idea that the Bible was written by men, not actually directly handed down by God…

BM:: You call Robert Ingersoll, quote, “One of the most important champions of reason and secular government in American history.” And he raised the issue of religion, as you say, the role of religion. That the role it ought to play in the public life of the nation for the first time since the founding generation that wrote the Constitution.

SJ: …he made a lot of people aware of something that had been forgotten…ours was the first constitution in the world…It separated church and state. It didn’t mention God…The fact that the Constitution didn’t mention God still stands as — religious fundamentalists are constantly trying to explain this away, saying it was an accident…It was said that, “Under this constitution, an atheist, a Jew, or God help us even a universalist could become president,” …Lincoln certainly could not have been an atheist, but he wasn’t religious in any conventional sense.

BM: He [Lincoln] actually said the glory of the founding generation was that they did not establish a Christian nation. And he praised those founders who wrote our Constitution for establishing the “first secular government that was ever founded” in the world at a time when government in Europe was still based on union of church and state…

SJ: the majority of the founders believed in a kind of providence, a deity. They were speaking in the language of natural rights. They weren’t saying there’s this kind of God or that kind of God that created you. They were saying, “We’re all equal by nature.” But it is in fact very important, the Declaration of Independence, while a declaration of independence, did not found our government. That’s why we had to have first the Articles of Confederation which didn’t work, and then the Constitution…

BM: … politicians, including the president, end every speech with “God bless America.” They do that routinely, ritualistically.

SJ: Nobody realizes that nobody ever did that before 1980... Public religiosity has become more important. And this is an idea I borrowed from really the great American religious historian Martin Marty. He said, “What this emphasis on symbolism is about is about ownership. It’s not about religion. And it’s also about a religion which is much more insecure than it was 50 or 100 years ago.”… today. We have no spokesman like Ingersoll…we don’t have anybody who is part of sort of the regular public fabric of the nation who talks about these things from all formats all the time…who will come out and talk about the relationship of religion to public issues in this way….

BM: How do you explain the political agility of fundamentalists to get their worldview inserted into the textbooks?

SJ: How I account for it is they’re better organized. Ingersoll was always saying that. That religion is an organization for the perpetuation of its own values…

BM: …His great fear was that invoking divine authority in politics, simply shut down the discussion.

SUSAN JACOBY: And how right he was. That what it’s intended to do. Because if you believe in divine authority, then how can there be any other answer but what divine authority tells you…

SJ: …All of Americans have absorbed the fact that atheism is a bad word….Others prefer to call themselves humanists. You can be all three. An atheist, agnostic, a secular humanist, a freethinkerWhich is that we have free will. And we are responsible for all the evil in the world…the answer to that is it’s a mystery…

BILL MOYERS: You quote Ingersoll  “We reward hypocrisy and elect men entirely destitute of real principle. And this will never change until the people become grand enough to do their own thinking.”

SJ: And to admit to their own thinking… to open up their mouths and tell other people about their own thinking…

Full text

“I’m sure there are plenty of atheists and various kinds of unorthodox religious people in Congress, but they don’t talk about it,” Jacoby tells Bill. “I think that either proclaiming allegiance to a religion or shutting up about it is still an absolute requirement.”

Partway through the interview, Bill presents a short clip from the documentary The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today, the story of how Illinois mother Vashti McCollum faced down three years of “headlines, headaches and hatred” to fight for the separation of church and state in her son’s school. Her efforts resulted in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court decision that struck down religious education in the public schools.

Interview Producer: Candace White. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Associate Producer: Julia Conley.

The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today courtesy of Jay Rosenstein Productions.

http://billmoyers.com/segment/susan-jacoby-on-secularism-and-free-thinking/

BILL MOYERS: Zack Kopplin is just the latest in a long line of dissenters and freethinkers.

Since America’s beginning, every generation has had to engage in the battle over freedom of religion and freedom from religion – whether it’s Roger Williams fighting Puritan intolerance in New England, the deism of Jefferson and Thomas Paine in the early days of independence, or a man you may never have heard of – an orator so famous in the 19th century that standing-room-only crowds turned out wherever he went — just to hear him speak.

He captivated audiences — with his wit and warmth — and enraged them, too, with his outspoken views on evolution, religion and reason, the separation of church and state, and women’s suffrage.

Robert Ingersoll was his name and he’s the subject of a new biography by scholar and journalist Susan Jacoby. She’s a writer possessed, as the New York Times has written, of a “fierce intelligence and nimble, unfettered imagination.”

Susan Jacoby specializes in American intellectual history with several books to her name including this favorite of mine, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Her new, must-read book, is The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.

Susan Jacoby, welcome back.

SUSAN JACOBY: I’m very happy to be back here today.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Ingersoll, once our most famous orator, a towering public intellectual between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century? What drew you to him?

SUSAN JACOBY: It’s hard to exaggerate how famous he was in the last two decades of the 19th century. Lecturing was then the chief form of mass entertainment, even though newspapers– newspapers were read and widely circulated, there was no TV. There were no movies. Lecturing is what people went to to be entertained as well as informed.

And like everybody of his generation, his dates are 1833 to 1899. He was in the Civil War. He joined the Republican Party during the Civil War, because he was an abolitionist. But after the Civil War, something happens to him.

He starts speaking out on behalf of separation of church and state, against what religion was silent about, about slavery for so long, and what religion was still silent about, about what needed to be done to provide true equality and education for former slaves. He is an active Republican. He has strong political ambitions. But he decides that speaking out on behalf of reason, on behalf of Darwin’s theory of evolution, against attempts to introduce more religion into government, that this is more important to him than his political ambitions.

Which is the thing that first attracted me to him. Because I look around now at people, at congressmen who are so scared about what’s going to happen two years from now that they can’t vote against the National Rifle Association. And I think, “Who do we have in public life today who would give up big ambitions like that?

BILL MOYERS: You say he was one of those indispensable people, who keep an alternative version of history alive. What was the alternative version of history he kept alive?

SUSAN JACOBY: Well, first of all, he should be famous in American intellectual history if he’d done only one thing, which he did. He revived the memory of Thomas Paine. The historical reputation of Thomas Paine so famous, say, by 1800 because of the role he played in the revolution. “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Even school kids today know that. But he had really been eclipsed.

He was driven out of England, charged with treason, for writing The Rights of Man. His book The Age of Reason, which was published in 1793, the first part of it, in which he put forward the astonishing idea that the Bible was written by men, not actually directly handed down by God. The Age of Reason was published when he was in jail in France under the Jacobins, for opposing the execution of Louis the XVI, because he didn’t believe in capital punishment as no free thinkers ever have.

Teddy Roosevelt, the future president, wrote a biography in which he called Paine “a filthy little atheist, which esteems a dirty bladder of water” — bladder meaning a sack to carry in, not bladder the organ in the body – “as something to throw on all religion.” So Ingersoll revived Paine’s reputation.

You can say that because we’re not a nation in which the majority of people are freethinkers, although secular America is growing we know from the Pew poll. You can say that he deserves to be obscure. But that’s not right. Because history is a relay race. It’s not some kind of a thing in which people’s attention and views turn overnight.

Look how long it took to obtain women the vote. He is important because he kept this alive into the 20th century, until after the Scopes trial. Stupid intellectuals in New York and Boston decided that religious fundamentalism was dead, because Clarence Darrow had humiliated Williams Jennings Bryan on the stand. Well, as we know now, it wasn’t dead at all. It just retired a bit from politics and was biding its time.

BILL MOYERS: You call Robert Ingersoll, quote, “One of the most important champions of reason and secular government in American history.” And he raised the issue of religion, as you say, the role of religion. That the role it ought to play in the public life of the nation for the first time since the founding generation that wrote the Constitution.

SUSAN JACOBY: That’s part of his importance, and he made a lot of people aware of something that had been forgotten, which were that ours was the first constitution in the world — well, the first constitution, basically. I mean, you can’t really call the Magna Carta anything like a constitution. It separated church and state. It didn’t mention God.

BILL MOYERS: At a time when every government in Europe was uniting church and state.

SUSAN JACOBY: The fact that the Constitution didn’t mention God still stands as — religious fundamentalists are constantly trying to explain this away, saying it was an accident. Like men like Adams and Washington and Madison did things with words by accident. As Ingersoll pointed out and is true today, the fact that there was no God in the Constitution was debated at every state ratifying convention.

It was said that, “Under this constitution, an atheist, a Jew, or God help us even a universalist could become president,” which was true in theory, but has actually not turned out to be true in practice. One thing that was true is you did not have to belong to a church throughout the 19th century to become president, as Ingersoll often spoke of Lincoln. And it very much shows what the attitudes were during the Civil War, which was thought by many to be God’s judgment. And Lincoln certainly could not have been an atheist, but he wasn’t religious in any conventional sense.

And anyway, this Protestant ministers came to Lincoln and they wanted to amend the Constitution to replace “We the people” not with God, but with Jesus Christ. And Lincoln said, “Well, I will do what my conscience and my sense of my duty to my country command.” And what his choice to do was absolutely nothing. And Ingersoll talked about this, about these secular traditions.

BILL MOYERS: He actually said the glory of the founding generation was that they did not establish a Christian nation. And he praised those founders who wrote our Constitution for establishing the “first secular government that was ever founded” in the world at a time when government in Europe was still based on union of church and state.

“They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought.” Was that the intellectual grounding for his opposition to the claim that we were a Christian nation or that we should have God in the–

SUSAN JACOBY: Yes. And I would say that probably the majority of the founders believed in a kind of providence, a deity. They were speaking in the language of natural rights.

They weren’t saying there’s this kind of God or that kind of God that created you. They were saying, “We’re all equal by nature.” But it is in fact very important, the Declaration of Independence, while a declaration of independence, did not found our government. That’s why we had to have first the Articles of Confederation which didn’t work, and then the Constitution.

And it is very significant that they did not put this language in the Constitution. And, of course, the reason they didn’t do it wasn’t that they were all atheists or anything like that. The reason they didn’t do it is they looked at what went on in Europe. And they said, “We don’t want any part of it.”

One of the things Ingersoll again pointed this out. The last execution for blasphemy in France took place only ten years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence in the town of Abbeville — the Marquis de la Barre.

It happened only ten years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, 20 years before the Constitution. This is what the founders were looking to. And it’s very understandable that they didn’t want to found, not just a Protestant nation, but a Christian nation. They saw what that did there.

BILL MOYERS: It turned to war, violence. In fact one of my favorite Ingersoll quotes is from the centennial address he gave in Peoria, Illinois, on the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. Recollect that, “the first secular government, the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more. Every religion has the same rights and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, the genius to know that no church should be allowed to have the sword.” They knew what the sword and faith had done in Europe.

SUSAN JACOBY: And they also knew the history of our own country, which loves to talk about the Puritans as if they were religiously tolerant, when the first thing the Puritans did was set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. And, this not being Europe instead of killing Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, there was plenty of places, there was Rhode Island for them to go to.

BILL MOYERS: Exile them.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, but it was all right. They could start their own form of religion then. I mean, just as the Mormons got chased all the way across the country. But eventually, there was still land where they could set up and start persecuting Indians who didn’t — who didn’t believe, and also other kinds of Protestants who didn’t believe with them.

But one of the things was, then when the Constitution comes along, the states still all have all of these laws privileging Protestant Christianity. So also what they were doing in the Constitution is saying, “The federal government isn’t going to allow this. We’re going to let everyone run for office.”

BILL MOYERS: Do you think any American politician would dare describe the secular spirit and letter of the Constitution as Ingersoll and others did in his time?

SUSAN JACOBY: No, no. Because an American — the only declared atheist member of Congress, Pete Stark, retired this time. I’m sure Congress is exactly like the polls. I’m sure there are plenty of atheists and various kinds of unorthodox religious people in Congress. But they don’t talk about it. You never hear President Obama making a speech about separation of church and state. He will occasionally allude to it.

But I think that either proclaiming allegiance to a religion or shutting up about it is still an absolute requirement.

BILL MOYERS: I wonder if you just turn off your mind when you hear or look the other way when you hear or don’t even think about it anymore when you hear politicians, including the president, end every speech with “God bless America.” They do that routinely, ritualistically.

SUSAN JACOBY: Nobody realizes that nobody ever did that before 1980. Politicians did not, when I was growing up in the 1950s–

BILL MOYERS: Same here. So what do you think when you hear that? I heard it the other day twice in one of the president’s speeches.

SUSAN JACOBY: Public religiosity has become more important. And this is an idea I borrowed from really the great American religious historian Martin Marty. He said, “What this emphasis on symbolism is about is about ownership. It’s not about religion. And it’s also about a religion which is much more insecure than it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

In other words, if you have confidence in the viability of your religious institution and your own faith, you don’t need to hear the president saying, “God bless America.” Quakers and Baptists in the early 18th century would have hated that, because they were opposed to government getting in on the religious attack.

But they would have been absolutely horrified at that. Teddy Roosevelt even, who is probably one of the most devoutly religious presidents we ever had. He tried to get “in God we trust” off the coinage. And he was attacked by the then religious right, this religious president, for being atheist.

The reason Teddy Roosevelt wanted God off the coins is the government in his view had no business putting God on money, putting God and maman together. So we really see how many of these issues that Ingersoll was dealing with, they mirror the things today. We have no spokesman like Ingersoll.

And while we have many spokesman for atheism, among the new atheists, we don’t have anybody who is part of sort of the regular public fabric of the nation who talks about these things from all formats all the time, not in terms of — I never do debates about the existence of God. Why would you do that? Who are you going to convince? I like to talk about public issues. But we don’t have in Ingersoll somebody who’s that well-known and important, who will come out and talk about the relationship of religion to public issues in this way.

BILL MOYERS: How do young people respond to you when you say, “I’m an atheist”? What questions do they ask?

SUSAN JACOBY: Bill, I get asked to lecture mostly at religious colleges, historically religious colleges, whether they’re Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian, not too many of those left, or Baptist. I think because they’re more interested in presenting a whole range of views, their questions at religious colleges are extremely intelligent. They know more about secularism than students at secular colleges do, because part of instruction at a liberal religious college with lots of faculty who aren’t members of that faith, whether it’s Georgetown or whether it’s Augustana College.

Part of it is education, not only in different religious traditions. But — this is why they have people like me to speak, but also secularism, freethought, atheism — a lot of their parents think they’re sending their kids there to get a good orthodox religious education, but what they often get is their first exposure both to kinds of religion and ideas that they haven’t.

And I’m often asked questions about – they, in other words, they’re more likely to know that there isn’t God in the Constitution than kids at secular universities are. Because they’ve had courses that discuss the role of religious freedom and religious repression and secularism in the founding of the country. They aren’t likely, they aren’t likely to be people who, for instance, like this moronic Texas school board, which in its list of thinkers who influenced the revolution two years ago. And it’s now, two years ago replaced Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Aquinas. Anybody at a good religious college would know that wasn’t true.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the political agility of fundamentalists to get their worldview inserted into the textbooks?

SUSAN JACOBY: How I account for it is they’re better organized. Ingersoll was always saying that. That religion is an organization for the perpetuation of its own values.

Freethought is never – and that was true, by the way, of feminism for a long time. So I think one reason Ingersoll has been forgotten, as Paine was, nobody’s come along to do for Ingersoll in this century what he did for Paine. I’m not an orator who gets asked to speak in 50 states or I would gladly do it.

BILL MOYERS: He was ahead of the times in so many–

SUSAN JACOBY: In everything.

BILL MOYERS: He was a feminist. He was for women’s rights. He was for eight-hour working days. This in the Gilded Age, when the great wealth was spreading.

SUSAN JACOBY: And he was a Republican.

BILL MOYERS: He was Republican. His great fear was that invoking divine authority in politics, simply shut down the discussion.

SUSAN JACOBY: And how right he was. That what it’s intended to do. Because if you believe in divine authority, then how can there be any other answer but what divine authority tells you.

BILL MOYERS: And he defended blasphemy, which is impiously speaking of religions, not because he despised religion, but because he wanted to stop the appeal to an authority that could make all the discussion and debate irrelevant.

SUSAN JACOBY: Well and there were still a lot of state blasphemy laws, which were never enforced because they so clearly violated, you know, not only the 1st, but the 14th Amendment by then. But at the time, you know, it’s not until the 20th century that the 14th Amendment gets applied to the rest of the Bill of Rights. And so what Ingersoll was against was anti-blasphemy laws that could send people to jail. And while they weren’t enforced, they were still on the books. And there was a blasphemy trial in New Jersey.

BILL MOYERS: Morristown, New Jersey.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, in Morristown, New Jersey.

BILL MOYERS: A free thinker was on trial for circulating a pamphlet that denied the Bible was authorized by God and infallible.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, the same Thomas Paine thing a hundred years later.

BILL MOYERS: One of my favorite sites in Morristown is the drum head depicting Thomas Paine writing “Common Sense.”

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s what Ingersoll said in the defense of the fellow who was on trial. “I deny the right of any man, of any number of men, of any church, of any state to put a padlock on the lips, to make the tongue a convict. Blasphemy is the word that the majority hisses into the ear of the few.”

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah. And it’s interesting. After that trial, a number of ministers who attended came up and shook his hand, as well. The jury, of course, found the blasphemer guilty. Although the governor saw to it that he didn’t get sent to jail. The governor of New Jersey then was not somebody who wanted New Jersey to go down as the last state that sent somebody to jail for blasphemy. So he commuted it to a fine which Ingersoll paid.

BILL MOYERS: $200 bucks I think it was.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah, something like that.

BILL MOYERS: In those terms. But here’s the paradox to me. Politicians still, in Ingersoll’s time, politicians still had to pay greater obeisance to religion than in the founding generation a century earlier.

SUSAN JACOBY: Much more.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

SUSAN JACOBY: Because this idea that we had been created as a Christian nation was, and particularly in Ingersoll’s day, this was a period of great unease for Protestant religion, which basically, it wasn’t just Christianity. It was Protestant Christianity. And here come all these immigrants after 1880. A lot of them are Jewish from Eastern Europe, who are obviously not Christians. And a lot of them are Catholics from Southern Italy and the Slavic countries. And at that point, the power structure of American cities was still run by Protestants.

Well, with all those Catholics coming up and setting up their parochial school system, the first really large scale religious school system, this is a period of great unease about how — and American Protestantism itself is splitting in a way that affects our country, as you know very well, to this day, in that we have Protestants of the Henry Ward Beecher variety, who say, “Let’s see how our religion can accommodate to the secular knowledge of Darwin’s theory of evolution.” And you have fundamentalists for whom William Jennings Bryan was the great spokesman, although he wasn’t nearly as conservative as some of the anti-evolutionists today.

BILL MOYERS: No, he was quite liberal in social policy.

SUSAN JACOBY: Oh, in social matters, yes. But even on religion, who say, “No, no, every word in the Bible is literally true.” And this split in American Protestantism, which really begins to affect every aspect of politics in the late 19th century, which is why Ingersoll’s issues were so prominent. This is the split we have today, too. Except that now Protestants have joined forces with the conservative wing of American Catholicism.

BILL MOYERS: I’ll be back with more from Susan Jacoby in just a moment. But first, this is pledge time on public television. That’s why we’re taking a short break so you can show your support for the programming you see right here on this public television station.

BILL MOYERS: For those of you still with us, sixty-five years ago, the Supreme Court voted eight to one to uphold the rights of one woman and her fifth-grade son who went up against popular opinion to keep religious education out of public schools. Vashti McCollum was the woman’s name. She and her family lived through two lower court losses, intimidation from her community in Champaign, Illinois, and three years of what she called “headlines, headaches and hatred.” Here’s a brief look at the Peabody Award winning documentary, “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today,” the story of her fight for the separation of church and state in America.

ED DESSEN in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: She had a terrible time. The town hated her.

RON ROTUNDA in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: She was not the hero to many people, she was somehow the devil incarnate.

NARRATOR in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: She was called “that awful woman” by her neighbors, and “that atheist mother” by newspapers across the country. Her friends stopped returning phone calls rather than risk speaking with her. She was branded a communist, and the Illinois State Legislature nearly stopped her and her husband from ever working at the state university again. She received up to 200 letters a day, some of the writers claiming they would pray for her; many wishing for much worse.

VASHTI McCOLLUM in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: They heard this down at the Piggly Wiggly down there on Main street, They’re going to lynch you. Oh I said, is that all?

NARRATOR in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: All because, in 1945, Vashti McCollum, a young mother of three from Champaign, Illinois, would file a historic lawsuit that would forever change the relationship between religion and public schools in America.

VICTOR STONE in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: It has been listed as the foundation case for prayer in school and religious education in school.

DAVID MEYER in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: What McCollum did, was it endorsed a view of the first amendment that pushed public life and religion into separate spheres divided by this wall of separation. I think public opinion polls show that a majority say they think the term, a wall of separation between church and state is written into the text of the First Amendment, and of course it’s not. It’s an idea, it’s a metaphor, that is contestable, but it’s one that the Supreme Court put the weight of the Constitution behind in the McCollum decision.

JIM McCOLLUM in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: All cases involving the crossing of the line regarding establishment of religion – crèches on public property, ten commandments in public buildings and on public property, prayers in schools and this sort of thing, all these stem from the McCollum case. That’s basically the significance of the case.

NARRATOR in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: The case would shine a national spotlight on this small, central Illinois town, turning Vashti McCollum into an unlikely champion of the separation of church and state.

WALTER FEINBERG in The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today: What courage it must have taken for a mother and her young children to stand up to that and say “this is something that you can’t do. You cannot bring g-d into the public school”.

ANNOUNCER: We now return to Moyers & Company.

BILL MOYERS: You mention that Pew Research study, which shows that the number of people who say they have no religion at all, they call nones, N-O-N-E-S.

SUSAN JACOBY: Oh, I hate that so much.

BILL MOYERS: But they’re growing in number.

SUSAN JACOBY: Well I think that there are many more members of that group who are atheists than will admit it. Again, I think a lot of that group just says, “Oh, well, I don’t belong to any church.” But if asked, “Are you an atheist?” they won’t say so.

All of Americans have absorbed the fact that atheism is a bad word. And they think there are a few more who call themselves agnostics. Others prefer to call themselves humanists. You can be all three. An atheist, agnostic, a secular humanist, a freethinker. I’d answer to all of them. But I’m an atheist. And I think a lot of those people are, too. There is a particular group in the Pew Poll, who won’t say they’re atheists, they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

I don’t respect people like that very much. Because I think that they’ve bought into the idea that to be a humanist, to be concerned about your fellow human beings, to show that concern, that you can’t say you’re an atheist, because that’s what so many people think.

It’s important to show that atheists who move about in the world, who get married, who love their children, who buy clothes and like makeup, we’re just, we’re like everybody else who’s a humanist in many of our values. We are not–

BILL MOYERS: You’re just not going to heaven.

SUSAN JACOBY: We’re just not going to heaven. We’re not somebody — no, but once you can’t demonize people, once you know that this person down the block you like is an atheist, you can’t think about atheists in the same way. When you began to know that they were people you knew.

BILL MOYERS: What’s hard about being an atheist in an obviously pluralistic society soaked in religiosity?

SUSAN JACOBY: There’s nothing hard about it in New York City, obviously. What is hard about it, I can really answer that question, because the “Dallas Morning News” reprinted the piece I wrote about atheism, which mentioned Ingersoll’s views that atheism and agnosticism were the same. But this piece I wrote was reprinted in full in the “Dallas Morning News” the week after it ran at the Times.

My author website nearly crashed with e-mails from people of all ages, from all over Texas, saying how thrilled they were to read this piece talking about what their lives were like in small towns in Texas. The oldest person who wrote me a letter was an 85-year-old African American man from Amarillo, who talked to me not only about his experiences as an atheist in Texas, but as an atheist in the African American community in Texas.

In other words, groups in which African Americans are among the most religious people in the country. And while it doesn’t translate into economic conservatism, many of them are very religiously conservative. And he said how wonderful it was to have something to show his friends. And I thought, “My God, there really is a hell, an African American atheist for 85 years in Amarillo.” He was somebody who revered WEB Du Bois, who, of course, was an atheist, but never got much traction in the African American community on that issue.

BILL MOYERS: Why are you an atheist?

SUSAN JACOBY: Why? Because it’s what makes sense to me. I look at the world around me. I’m an atheist because of — which has made a lot of people an atheist, because of the theodicy problem. The problem of if there is this all good, all powerful, all loving god, you know, how come kids are shot in Newtown? How come people when I was young died of polio– a child I knew? How come?

It started me thinking about what every religious thinker has thought about and had to come to grips with, which is how do you account for the problem of evil beside your belief in an all-powerful God? Well, the classic Christian answer, which satisfied Augustine, does not satisfy me or any atheist. Which is that we have free will. And we are responsible for all the evil in the world.

No, I think the evolution of the polio virus and Darwin’s theory of how it happened is responsible. That there is no such thing as intelligent design. If God had been an intelligent designer, what purpose would polio serve? Well, the answer to that is it’s a mystery. We don’t know what God’s plans are. That’s what my mom told me when I was a kid. My mom stopped going to church when she was 85 years old.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

SUSAN JACOBY: I asked her why. I knew it couldn’t be my influence, certainly. She said, “I’ve been thinking about the problem of evil. And it makes no sense.” She said, “Why should people suffer?” because, of course, she knew so many people unlike her who had lost their minds to Alzheimer’s. She said, “This makes no sense.” She said, “I do not believe that there can be a God whose plan this could be a part of. I never could have said this when my parents were alive. If being old is good for anything, I can do exactly what I want.”

 

BILL MOYERS: What Robert Ingersoll come to mean to you in the great intellectual tradition of America?

SUSAN JACOBY: He — first of all, he shows how even if you don’t get remembered for it in perhaps the way you should later on, that doesn’t deny the role you play anymore. Nobody knew who Elizabeth Cady Stanton was from about 1900 until the new feminism really began to take hold in the 1980s, because she was written out of the suffragists movement for writing a book called “The Woman’s Bible,” which criticized all the misogyny in the Bible.

The fact that nobody knows about you and maybe history doesn’t give you your just reward and certainly not in every time, because there are fashions in history, doesn’t mean that you didn’t play an important role.

So he carried on a tradition. And just as those feminists who got written out carried on a tradition which was picked up later on. And the second reason he’s so important is that he is a model of what you have to do to fight for an unpopular idea. And you can’t do it by hiding behind other labels, because other people are going to criticize you for it.

BILL MOYERS: You quote Ingersoll saying that the result of all of this public religiosity that was surrounding him and surrounds us today is that quote, “We reward hypocrisy and elect men entirely destitute of real principle. And this will never change until the people become grand enough to do their own thinking.”

SUSAN JACOBY: And to admit to their own thinking.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

SUSAN JACOBY: Not just to do their own thinking, but to open up their mouths and tell other people about their own thinking. When he died, an editor in Kansas said, “There will come a time when men–” he talked about the political career Ingersoll did. “There will come a time when men may run for office and speak their honest convictions in matters in religion. But not yet,” he ended his editorial. Can’t we say that now? “But not yet.”

BILL MOYERS: Robert Ingersoll said of Thomas Paine, “His life is what the world calls failure and what history calls success.” Can the same thing be said of The Great Agnostic?

SUSAN JACOBY: I hope so. What I would like to see is history calling his life a success more than it has since the 1920s. That’s my aim here. His life was a success. And it should be recognized as a success and a very important contribution to the cause of reason in this country, one which is just as relevant today that was when we were fighting about the same issues 125 years ago.

 

BILL MOYERS: The book is The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Susan Jacoby, thank you very much for being with us.

SUSAN JACOBY: Thank you.

http://billmoyers.com/segment/susan-jacoby-on-secularism-and-free-thinking/

A Great Debate

By GARY GUTTING, New York Times blogs, February 19, 2013

Excerpt

…our political “debates” seldom deserve the name…Is there any way to make genuine debates – sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible – part of our political culture?..Such debates will not end our political disagreements, but they will set much higher standards of discussion, requiring fuller explanations of positions and even modifications to make them more defensible. It’s unlikely that either side would ever simply give up its view, but, politically, they would have to react to a strong public consensus if they had not made a respectable case

The only major obstacle to implementing this proposal would be getting the parties to participate. Here, I suggest, shame would be a prime motivator

Of course, many people will not have the time, interest, or the ability to follow debates of this sort. But those who do – including the leading commentators and opinion-makers – will be among the most concerned and articulate, and their views will have a significant effect on the terms and tone of the general discussion.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

So why not give reason a chance?…

 

 

Full text

This is the year of what should be a decisive debate on our country’s spending and debt. But our political “debates” seldom deserve the name. For the most part representatives of the rival parties exchange one-liners: “The rich can afford to pay more” is met by “Tax increases kill jobs.” Slightly more sophisticated discussions may cite historical precedents: “There were higher tax rates during the post-war boom” versus “Reagan’s tax cuts increased revenues.”

Such volleys still don’t even amount to arguments: they don’t put forward generally accepted premises that support a conclusion. Full-scale speeches by politicians are seldom much more than collections of such slogans and factoids, hung on a string of platitudes. Despite the name, candidates’ pre-election debates are exercises in looking authoritative, imposing their talking points on the questions, avoiding gaffes, and embarrassing their opponents with “zingers” (the historic paradigm: “There you go again.”).

There is a high level of political discussion in the editorials and op-eds of national newspapers and magazines as well as on a number of blogs, with positions often carefully formulated and supported with argument and evidence. But even here we seldom see a direct and sustained confrontation of rival positions through the dialectic of assertion, critique, response and counter-critique.

Such exchanges occur frequently in our law courts (for example, oral arguments before the Supreme Court) and in discussions of scientific papers. But they are not a significant part of our deliberations about public policy. As a result, partisans typically remain safe in their ideological worlds, convincing themselves that they hold to obvious truths, while their opponents must be either knaves or fools – with no need to think through the strengths of their rivals’ positions or the weaknesses of their own.

Is there any way to make genuine debates – sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible – part of our political culture? (I leave to historians the question of whether there are historical precedents- like the Webster-Hayne or Lincoln-Douglas debates.) Can we put our politicians in a situation where they cannot ignore challenges, where they must genuinely engage with one another in responsible discussion and not just repeat talking points?

A first condition is that the debates be focused on specific points of major disagreement. Not, “How can we improve our economy?” but “Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?” This will prevent vague statements of principle that don’t address the real issues at stake.

Another issue is the medium of the debate. Written discussions, in print or online could be easily arranged, but personal encounters are more vivid and will better engage public attention. They should not, however, be merely extemporaneous events, where too much will depend on quick-thinking and an engaging manner. We want remarks to be carefully prepared and open to considered responses.

Here’s one suggestion for an effective exchange. The debate would consist of a series of four half-hour televised sessions, carried out on successive days. In the first session, the Republican, say, presents a pre-written case for a particular position (say that tax-cuts are better for the economy than stimulus spending). The Democrat, who will have read the Republican’s presentation beforehand, presents a 15-minute point-by-point response. In the second session, the Republican asks the Democrat a series of questions (no more than one minute per question and three minutes per response) on the debate topic. In the third session, the Democrat questions the Republican. In the fourth session, each side has 15 minutes to present a final argument. This, of course, is just one idea. I welcome readers’ suggestions for refinements or alternatives.

Such debates will not end our political disagreements, but they will set much higher standards of discussion, requiring fuller explanations of positions and even modifications to make them more defensible. It’s unlikely that either side would ever simply give up its view, but, politically, they would have to react to a strong public consensus if they had not made a respectable case. Further, the quasi-official status of the participants, as representatives chosen by their parties, would make the parties’ politicians answerable to points the representatives have made. If Congressman X says at a press conference, “Lower rates have always produced higher tax revenues,” reporters might point out the party’s representative had to retreat to a more nuanced position. Such nuance might open the path to fruitful compromise.

The only major obstacle to implementing this proposal would be getting the parties to participate. Here, I suggest, shame would be a prime motivator. Given strong popular support for such debates, it’s hard to see how the parties could answer the charge that they are shying away because they don’t have confidence in their ability to make a convincing case.

Of course, many people will not have the time, interest, or the ability to follow debates of this sort. But those who do – including the leading commentators and opinion-makers – will be among the most concerned and articulate, and their views will have a significant effect on the terms and tone of the general discussion.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

So why not give reason a chance? How about a televised debate in the next few weeks on some key differences in the Democratic and Republican budget proposals? Here’s a concrete suggestion: Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Charles Schumer debating the question: Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?

It may not draw the number of viewers that “American Idol” does, but it would surely be an improvement on the status quo of our political debate.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone. He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/a-great-debate/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130220

GOP, Thomas Hobbes Rig Elections

By Thom Hartmann and Sam Sacks, Tuesday, 22 January 2013 , The Daily Take, truth-out.org

Excerpt

… [election rigging] efforts around the country aren’t just to secure Republicans political victories over the next two to four years and beyond. They’re also to, in the opinion of Conservatives, save the nation from the “evil-natured masses.” They actually believe that by rigging elections to give them power, they’re saving America from the unwashed masses. This mistrust of voters reveals the heart of the difference in worldviews between Conservatives and Liberals.

The Conservative line of thinking comes from Thomas Hobbes’ [17th century philosopher] worldview that man is inherently evil….we cannot be trusted to govern ourselves. Instead, we must be governed by a strong central authority like a King or Pope…Calvinist thinking…claimed that there’s a small group of individuals who have been pre-chosen by God to rule the rest of us. They’re known as “The Elect.”… they were the ones who were rich and powerful, because God made them so…this view that man is best governed by a small, wealthy elite remains alive. It’s the core assumption of the Conservative ideology…

This is why Liberalism is so important.

It was John Locke in the 18th Century who…argued that man is not motivated by malice, but instead by reason. And through reason, “we the people” can actually govern ourselves through laws based on reason.

To Locke, any sort of government that operates without the consent of the people – and without reason – should be overthrown…

To this day, this issue of how much power voters should have, compared to billionaires, churches, and corporations, remains the fundamental point of cleavage between Conservatives and Liberals.

For the last thirty years, the Conservative worldview has prevailed in America… [President Obama is] trying to put Hobbes and his Conservative ideology back into the dustbin of history. And it’s time that we as a nation ask ourselves a fundamental question: Are we capable of governing ourselves as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson believed? Or should we simply let the modern-day kings, the billionaires, run things, as today’s Conservatives believe? Our Founding Fathers answered that questioned with the Declaration of Independence. We must answer it anew today.

Full text

While the nation was hypnotized by the Second Inaugural of Barack Obama on Tuesday, Republicans in Virginia moved America closer to the place envisioned by the 17th century dystopic philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

What they did is jam a new redistricting plan through the state senate that created more safe seats for Republicans, virtually assuring Republican domination of the state Senate come the next election in two years. It was blatant election rigging.

In an interview with TPM, Democratic state Senator Creigh Deeds blasted the surprise redistricting plan. “It goes against every tradition,” he said. “It was a dirty trick.”

And get this, the only reason why the measure passed a split state Senate with twenty Republicans and twenty Democrats is because one of those Democrats – civil rights leader Senator Harry Marsh – was in Washington, DC attending the inauguration. So, with a single vote advantage for a single day, Republicans pounced.

Just like Republicans in Pennsylvania pounced last week when they introduced legislation to change how their state allocates Electoral College votes. Rather than a winner-take-all system, which granted President Obama all of the state’s twenty Electoral College votes last November, Republicans want votes handed out based on which Congressional districts were won by each candidate. Why? Because they gerrymandered the congressional districts in 2010. Under this scheme, Mitt Romney would have actually won 13 of 20 Electoral College votes in Pennsylvania despite losing the statewide popular vote by four points. Again, it’s blatant election rigging.

To make matters worse, Republicans state lawmakers in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin are all considering similar changes that will make it virtually impossible for a Democrat to win the White House in the future.

As Joe Biden would say, “This is a BFD.”

But these efforts around the country aren’t just to secure Republicans political victories over the next two to four years and beyond. They’re also to, in the opinion of Conservatives, save the nation from the “evil-natured masses.” They actually believe that by rigging elections to give them power, they’re saving America from the unwashed masses.

This mistrust of voters reveals the heart of the difference in worldviews between Conservatives and Liberals.

The Conservative line of thinking comes from Thomas Hobbes’ worldview that man is inherently evil. As Hobbes describes the natural state of man, our “state of nature” is a place where, “there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

As such, we cannot be trusted to govern ourselves. Instead, we must be governed by a strong central authority like a King or Pope.

There’s also a strain of Calvinist thinking to this Conservative fear of voters. While Calvinists in centuries past also concluded that the masses are, for the most part, wicked, they also claimed that there’s a small group of individuals who have been pre-chosen by God to rule the rest of us. They’re known as “The Elect.”

How did we know who these special individuals were? Well, they were the ones who were rich and powerful, because God made them so.

This is a very convenient ideology for the rich and powerful to convince us all to buy into. And it stuck for centuries, as people were reduced to mere serfs or servants, ruled by a “benevolent” King or an “enlightened” religious leader.

Today, Kings and Theocrats have been largely pushed aside. But this view that man is best governed by a small, wealthy elite remains alive. It’s the core assumption of the Conservative ideology that is each and every day eroding the power of the electorate in states across America. It’s why people like Grover Norquist would call for drowning American democracy in the bathtubs of oligarchs like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson – after all, you just can’t trust a government that offers “free stuff” like Social Security or universal healthcare to the rabble.

This is why Liberalism is so important.

It was John Locke in the 18th Century who first pushed back against Hobbes’ “state of nature” and argued that man is not motivated by malice, but instead by reason. And through reason, “we the people” can actually govern ourselves through laws based on reason.

To Locke, any sort of government that operates without the consent of the people – and without reason – should be overthrown. Needless to say, Hobbes’ absolute Kings and Oligarchs, who derived their consent from God or their riches, and not reason, shouldn’t exist in Locke’s world.

Ultimately, as the Enlightenment moved along, Locke’s idea prevailed over Hobbes. And it was in the tradition of Locke that our Founding Fathers became revolutionaries and overthrew the King of England. And it was in the tradition of Locke that Thomas Jefferson fought with the early royalists to spread democracy to more and more people.

To this day, this issue of how much power voters should have, compared to billionaires, churches, and corporations, remains the fundamental point of cleavage between Conservatives and Liberals.

For the last thirty years, the Conservative worldview has prevailed in America. It says we cannot trust the people to govern themselves, and so we must trust the wealthy elite and the market to organize society. And with recent democracy-suppressing efforts in Virginia and Pennsylvania, Conservatives use this worldview to rationalize their behavior.

But now, with President Obama saying “we the people” five times in his Second Inaugural, it’s clear he’s trying to put Hobbes and his Conservative ideology back into the dustbin of history. 

And it’s time that we as a nation ask ourselves a fundamental question: Are we capable of governing ourselves as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson believed? Or should we simply let the modern-day kings, the billionaires, run things, as today’s Conservatives believe?

Our Founding Fathers answered that questioned with the Declaration of Independence. We must answer it anew today.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.

 

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/14069-gop-thomas-hobbes-rig-elections

 

Human Intelligence Peaked Thousands of Years Ago: Study

Common Dreams staff, November 13, 2012 by Common Dreams

Stupidity trend will continue, says new research, but collective education can save us-

Humankind’s intelligence peaked thousands of years ago and advanced civilization has made life so easy for so many that our trend towards stupidity will continue as the ingenuity and intellect once needed for basic survival erode even further.

This, anyway, is the argument of a new study out in the journal Trends in Genetics, authored by  Stanford University professor Gerald Crabtree.

Crabtree’s study claims that harmful genetic mutations—occurring generation after generation as society advanced—have reduced our “higher thinking” abilities and the accumulated result has led to a gradual dwindling of our intelligence as a species.

The Guardian explains that Crabtree’s thinking is a speculative idea—one he’d be happy to have prove wrong—but also a simple one:

In the past, when our ancestors (and those who failed to become our ancestors) faced the harsh realities of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the punishment for stupidity was more often than not death. And so, Crabtree argues, enormous evolutionary pressure bore down on early humans, selecting out the dimwits, and raising the intellect of the survivors’ descendants. But not so today.

“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” Professor Crabtree says in the paper.

“Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2,000 to 6,000 years ago,” he continues. “The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile.”

Speaking with the Telegraph, Prof Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, pushes back against Crabtree’s hypothesis, saying:

[Prof Crabtree] takes the line that our intelligence is designed to allow us to build houses and throw spears straighter at pigs in the bush, but that is not the real driver of brain size.

In reality what has driven human and primate brain evolution is the complexity of our social world [and] that complex world is not going to go away. Doing things like deciding who to have as a mate or how best to rear your children will be with us forever.

Personally I am not sure that in the foreseeable future there is any reason to be panicking at all, the rate of evolution with things like this takes tens of thousands of years…no doubt the ingenuity of science will find solutions to these things if we do not blow ourselves up first.

Other scientists were also skeptical. “At first sight this is a classic case of Arts Faculty science. Never mind the hypothesis, give me the data, and there aren’t any,” said Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London.

“I could just as well argue that mutations have reduced our aggression, our depression and our penis length but no journal would publish that. Why do they publish this?” Professor Jones said.

“I am an advocate of Gradgrind science – facts, facts and more facts; but we need ideas too, and this is an ideas paper although I have no idea how the idea could be tested,” he said.

“You don’t get Stephen Hawking 200,000 years ago, he just doesn’t exist,” University of Warwick psychologist Thomas Hills told website LiveScience.

“But now we have people of his intellectual capacity doing things and making insights that we would never have achieved in our environment of evolutionary adaptation.”

Despite his own research, Crabtree does not predict a future of diminishing returns for civilization and says that the species’ ability to thrive is inherent in advanced civilization, and specifically in our ability to share information with one another. “Remarkably it seems that although our genomes are fragile,” Crabtree says, “our society is robust almost entirely by virtue of education, which allow strengths to be rapidly distributed to all members.”

The Independent offers this quick survey of man’s descent into stupidity:

Hunter-gatherer man
The human brain and its immense capacity for knowledge evolved during this long period of prehistory when we battled against the elements

Athenian man
The invention of agriculture less than 10,000 years ago and the subsequent rise of cities such as Athens relaxed the intensive natural selection of our “intelligence genes”.

Couch-potato man
As genetic mutations increase over future generations, are we doomed to watching soap-opera repeats without knowing how to use the TV remote control?

iPad man
The fruits of science and technology enabled humans to rise above the constraints of nature and cushioned our fragile intellect from genetic mutations.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/11/13-0

 

Myth and Its Dangers

by Gary Hart, published by HuffingtonPost.com, October 7, 2012

Excerpt

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” John Kennedy, speech at Yale University during the Cold War

…Myths in politics… “Widely held but false idea” is one dictionary definition of myth in common usage…myths abound in recent American political history. Perhaps the most glaring and consequential was the myth that Iraq under Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction…Myths in politics are dangerous… Reason and facts are sacrificed to opinion and myth. Demonstrable falsehoods are circulated and recycled as fact. Narrow minded opinion refuses to be subjected to thought and analysis. Too many now subject events to a prefabricated set of interpretations, usually provided by a biased media source. The myth is more comfortable than the often difficult search for truth. If this strange world were the product of mere laziness it might be understandable. But today’s political myths are more perverse. They are a conscious hiding place from a changing, challenging, and often uncomfortable new world….Myths which have no basis in truth, or which do not operate as metaphors for religious truth, eventually fade away with the passing of those who perpetuate them and in the face of reality and fact. But the most dangerous myths create demons where none exist, the demons being anyone who disagrees with the myth-makers. In the meantime, however, they serve not only to delude the deniers but to frustrate our Founders’ belief in the progress of the human mind.

Full text

Myths play a central role as metaphor in many world religions, according to Joseph Campbell. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth he studied the world mythologies, found common themes in a wide variety of cultures, and reached a startling conclusion: myths, he said, come from dreams and, therefore, people around the world have common dreams. It is a profound and still controversial insight for religion, psychology, and human culture. Students in all these fields continue to consider the power of myth.

Myths in politics, however, play a much different role. “Widely held but false idea” is one dictionary definition of myth in common usage. For reasons that are still unclear, myths abound in recent American political history. Perhaps the most glaring and consequential was the myth thatIraq under Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

There are other cases in point. Barack Obama is a Muslim born inKenyaand therefore not an American citizen. These are myths, yet they are widely believed in certain circles. Poor people are poor by choice. A classic myth. A rising tide lifts all boats. Much more true when we were an industrial society and manufacturing products created jobs. Much less true when the economic tide is one of finance and money manipulation which lifts the gilded yachts but not the rowboats of the rest of us. Jobs are not created when crackpot financial schemes make hedge fund managers rich. Thus, a myth.

Myths in politics are dangerous. In an important speech at YaleUniversityduring the Cold War, John Kennedy said:

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

He was speaking of the myths on both sides that perpetuated a Cold War in a dangerous way.

Exactly 50 years later, no assessment comes closer to describing much of our current political world. Reason and facts are sacrificed to opinion and myth. Demonstrable falsehoods are circulated and recycled as fact. Narrow minded opinion refuses to be subjected to thought and analysis. Too many now subject events to a prefabricated set of interpretations, usually provided by a biased media source. The myth is more comfortable than the often difficult search for truth.

If this strange world were the product of mere laziness it might be understandable. But today’s political myths are more perverse. They are a conscious hiding place from a changing, challenging, and often uncomfortable new world. Globalization, immigration, cultural and racial diversity are threatening and frightening to many who wish to freeze the former comfortable world in time and prevent any change.

Myths which have no basis in truth, or which do not operate as metaphors for religious truth, eventually fade away with the passing of those who perpetuate them and in the face of reality and fact. But the most dangerous myths create demons where none exist, the demons being anyone who disagrees with the myth-makers. In the meantime, however, they serve not only to delude the deniers but to frustrate our Founders’ belief in the progress of the human mind.

Gary Hart is President of Hart International, Ltd.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-hart/myth-and-its-dangers_b_1946636.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=100812&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief