Archive for October, 2015

The Agony of Asar

October 31st, 2015 No comments


Jacobus Capitein was a slave forcibly taken from his parents in Ghana at age 8 in 1725. He was given as a gift to a trader in the Dutch West India Company named Jacobus van Goch. This owner reportedly treated him as an adopted son and sent him to school in the Hague, where in 1742 Capitein penned a doctoral thesis on slavery that defended the institution and the right of Christians to hold slaves. It may be that his motivation was to argue in favor of baptism for slaves in response to another minister of the time, Godefridus Cornelisz Udemans, who had argued that slaves who had been baptized had to be freed after seven years. Whatever the motivation, the thesis provides a counterpoint to the abolitionist slave narratives that would arise contemporaneously such as that of Olaudah Equiano in 1745 and, much later, American narratives such as that of Frederick Douglass (1845).

During the lifetime of Jacobus Capitein the views he expressed in his treatise fit very neatly into the popular thinking of the age. Europeans were transporting slaves across the Atlantic by the millions and being rewarded with huge profits. The common sentiment was that slavery was a natural if unfortunate fact of life, sort of like the way we think of homelessness today. The abolitionist movement was nascent, though during the next century it would bring about an end to the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire and hopelessly deadlock US politics.

Part of the reason for the really astonishing change in public attitude brought about by the abolitionists was the compelling nature of the slave narrative, of which there were many. In the case of the Douglass narrative, the author calmly and without bitterness chronicled the life of a plantation slave in the American south. His eloquence (it remains easily accessible to this day) and the train-wreck fascination of the details of the story caused many to question the justice of the institution of slavery itself, adding momentum to the abolitionist cause. Yet the very existence of Capitein’s treatise allowed those who were comfortable with slavery to deny its brutality and destructiveness.

We should always celebrate the good fortune of those whose encounters with authorities do not smell of institutionalized racism, and we should praise and hold up as examples those officials who are able to carry out their duty in a professional manner. But we must not allow these positive stories to lull us once again into the tempting daydream of denial. One anecdote does not a truth make. Institutionalized racism is real, measurable, and destructive.


Social Media “Justice”

October 30th, 2015 No comments


Do you guys remember the movies about the Roman Empire where the mob would occupy the stands of the Coliseum and scream for more and more bloody entertainment? Whether it was the lions or the gladiators, the blood-crazed spectators ate it up. Doesn’t it seem that our whole culture is becoming more and more like that? To be honest, it probably always was, but technology has propelled vigilanteism to monstrous proportions.  To be able to join in a media created outrage and give it our “thumbs up” on social media seems to offer some kind of catharsis; a sense that we are part of a greater whole, that our ideas about justice are valid, and that we can count on the world to be “fair.”

But mob justice is not fair. That’s why we have laws and courts. Our system of jurisprudence is not perfect. I remember once seeing a Richard Pryor skit where he talked about going to the courts to find justice. “And that’s what we find,” he quipped, “just us.” But as imperfect as our system may be, it is a far sight better than rule by the mob. It proves to be quite easy to whip the crowd into a frenzy. It happens continuously, and you have to wonder why anyone would be so interested in doing it. Who benefits? It’s not us. We have to choose to trust the courts or the mob.

World expects believers to work together for peace, pope says

October 29th, 2015 No comments

Pope Francis poses for a selfie with a member of the inter-religious community during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 28. (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters) See POPE-AUDIENCE-INTERRELIGIOUS Oct. 28, 2015.

“Let us ask the Lord to make us be more like brothers and sisters, and more like servants to our brothers and sisters in need.”

Click here for full story.

America Already Has Socialism

October 12th, 2015 No comments

mlk socialism

The idea of rugged individualism is almost synonymous with the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville noted it in his Democracy in America (1835), although contrary to what most believe his portrayal of individualism was less than glowing. Americans are proud of this characteristic, having fully embodied the Enlightenment notion of the elevation of the individual over the collective. They believe it is a source of American strength and freedom. Frederick Jackson Turner in his highly influential thesis “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893) decries the closing of the frontier because he argues that the existence of the frontier was the only thing that kept the American character from succumbing to the decadence of “civilization,” i.e., the sorry moral and material fate of our European forebears who lived in cities and had to learn to cooperate. Or not.

In contrast, for as long as there has been socialism, Americans in general have been against it. This seems almost intuitive, the idea of sharing everything in common, of being connected to and beholden to a group, is antithetical to the concept of rugged individualism. Where in other places those who were left with nothing were quick to see the potential advantages of socialism (when you don’t have anything, sharing everything seems like a good idea), in the United States Americans rejected the idea because they see it as an impediment to opportunity. The Gospel of Wealth proclaims that while they might not have anything now, the only thing keeping them from great wealth is hard work and maybe a little luck. Canadian author Ronald Wright aptly noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

The idea of boundless opportunity is a matter of patriotism. That’s who we are as Americans. Opportunity is waiting for those with the courage to act boldly to seize it. And the one to do so is always depicted as this rugged individual. Our heroes have always been cowboys (an entirely separate if not unrelated branch of American mythology). To work hard against the odds to make a life for yourself and your family is the American way. In contrast, to band together with your fellows to benefit the community is suspect. It’s foreign. It’s like cheating. When a man stands by the side of the road begging we condemn him. Why doesn’t he get a job like me? When people are driven to seek public assistance by ill-health and/or lack of opportunity we brand them lazy and immoral. In effect, to be rich, or at least prosperous, is equated with Americanism; poverty with disloyalty. And this ideology completely ignores economic realities.

One of the most ironic of these realities is that there already is socialism in the United States. According to the Oxford Online Dictionary Socialism is defined as “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” The entry also notes, “The term ‘socialism’ has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state Communism, and social democracy; however, it necessarily implies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market.” Hence the inherent opposition to socialism by capitalists.

The paradox lies between “owned or regulated by the community as a whole,” and “an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market.” The untrammeled workings of the economic market, AKA laissez-faire, assumes that if individuals are left free to pursue their own enlightened self-interest, they, the State, and everyone will benefit. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” so they say. However, it was recognized at the height of the industrial revolution that untrammeled capitalism was exploitative and destructive. It was the misery created by untrammeled capitalism that motivated the advent of trade unionism, socialism, communism, anarchism, positivism, and other social experiments in the industrialized countries designed to alleviate the suffering of the masses.

Contrary to what labor activists would like us to believe, in the United States the answer to this social turmoil was Progressivism. Progressivism was a middle class movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that sought to address the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. The original Progressives were Republicans and some of their aims included Women’s Suffrage, Civil Service Reform, Progressive government reform such as the Initiative, Referendum and Recall, direct election of US Senators, and restructuring of State and local governments to get big money out of politics and make it more responsive to the people, Anti-Trust and Anti-Monopoly laws, stricter Child Labor laws, 40 hour work week, Anti-Prostitution laws, and Prohibition. In 1912 the Republican Party split between the Progressives led by Theodore Roosevelt and the Big Business interests led by William Howard Taft. The split led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, who took on the mantle of Progressivism. Progressivism has been associated with the Democratic Party since then.

What separated Progressives from Socialists and Trade Unionists was their Middle Class background. They were appalled at the suffering they saw around them, but at the same time they realized that without reform there was a real possibility of social upheaval that could lead to conditions that would harm their material interests. They weren’t socialists, they enacted reforms to prevent socialism. Regulation and reform saved capitalism. Capitalism was saved a second time in the twentieth century by reforms enacted during the Franklin Roosevelt administration that are still condemned by Big Business and their political allies as “socialist.” An objective look at the legacy of the New Deal, however, reveals that of all the industrialized States at the beginning of the Depression, only the United States emerged with capitalism and democracy intact.

But more recently, the United States government, first during the administration of George W. Bush, and then under the Obama administration, doled out billions of dollars to save large corporations from bankruptcy, under the theory that they were “too big to fail.” In other words they were able to make the case that their failure would lead to an even worse economic crisis. Leaving aside the moral predicament of giving money to bail out the people who through greed and shady business practices had caused the crisis to begin with, by accepting money from the government these corporations were in essence accepting money from the people of the United States: “the community as a whole.” Thus, the people became the rightful owners of at least part of these corporations. And that, kids, is socialism. At least in theory. I mean, that part about the people owning the government. You know, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” That sort of thing.

The problem is that the people don’t own the government. Applying the Golden Rule (“Whoever has the gold makes the rules”), government is almost exclusively controlled by Big Business. Big Business owns both Parties every branch of government, and the mainstream media. And they govern for their own benefit, not ours. And so we see a well-document massive redistribution of wealth, facilitated by the government, not from the rich to the poor, but the other way around. It’s not Marx’s “from each according to their ability to each according to his need,” it’s “from each according to their poverty to each according to his greed.”

So those who seek to brand Bernie Sanders and anyone else who wants to curb the influence of Big Business against the public good “socialists,” in order to tap into the historic American antipathy to socialism, are themselves the recipients of massive government largesse at the expense of the people. It seems they only dislike socialism when it doesn’t serve their interests. They only dislike socialism when it actually helps people.

I think the newest generation of Americans is already sensing this. I think as people become more aware of how they are being played they will generate more and more enthusiasm for anyone who is willing to stand up against Big Business and Big Money. Because the reality is that the people who are being exploited the most still are the ones who have the most political clout, if they would use it. Freed from the distractions of divisions over race, politics, religion, false patriotism, and cultural inanities, Americans can once again reform the system for the benefit of the many. That’s not socialism, that’s Americanism.

The Right to Bear Arms

October 8th, 2015 No comments


We have a discussion about gun rights and gun ownership every time someone decides to use guns to accomplish some horrific act of violence. Unfortunately the discussions are scripted and the outcome predictable. We center our arguments on the Second Amendment, but to very different interpretations of what it means.

As with pretty much every other discussion of current issues historical context can be revealing. In the case of the Second Amendment, during the period leading up to the Revolutionary War colonists became more and more convinced their rights were being violated by the Parliament and began to form militias in order to defend themselves. From the point of view of the Crown, which we must not forget was the legitimate government of the colonies at the time, these militia were mutineers and rebels, and sought to disarm them. It was in fact an expedition sent to seize a cache of arms in Concord, Massachusetts that led to the confrontation on Lexington Green where the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired.

During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, the most powerful argument against the creation of a national government arose from the specter of Parliamentary abuse before the Revolution. People were afraid of creating a national government that would be powerful enough to trample on the rights of states and individuals. So, as a condition for ratification, Congress was tasked with creating a Bill of Rights that would guarantee freedoms won in the Revolution. It was in this context that the Second Amendment was formed.

The entire purpose of the Bill of Rights was to limit the power of the national government from infringing on inherent rights. The history of the wording of the Second Amendment is torturous (as is the final wording itself), but once adopted, seemed to intend to prohibit the national government from disarming the states, as the Crown had tried to do the colonies before the Revolution. As a limit on the national government, the amendment had no effect on the right of the states to regulate gun ownership, and that right was assumed until 2010. Everyone recognized that people have an inherent right to self-defense, but also recognized that the states have legitimate reasons for regulating and limiting those rights.

This interpretation was the dominant understanding of the amendment throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1939 the Supreme Court acknowledged a right to gun ownership in connection with membership in a State Militia, but the right to individual gun ownership was not seen as protected by the amendment until 2008, in the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller. That case affirmed a guarantee of the right to own guns for lawful purposes, but also affirmed that the states have a right to regulate gun ownership to support public safety. Thus, even though the Court did rule that people have a constitutional right to own guns, they at the same time acknowledged that the State has legitimate reasons for restricting those rights.

The right to gun ownership arises from a different area of law than the right of the states to maintain a militia. This individual right acknowledges the inherent right of every person to self-defense. That right was inherited in the United States from English Common Law, where it was recognized as a right centuries earlier. In fact, the right of self-defense is not granted, it is inherent. It is a “natural” right.

It is, however, a good thing to reflect on what might be meant by a “natural” right. A natural right is a right one would possess in the State of Nature. The State of Nature is an imagined prehistoric condition where there is no law or civil or political society. Everyone is at perfect liberty to do as they please as long as they do not violate the liberty of others. But Enlightenment philosophers like Locke recognized that there is a danger in the State of Nature in that there is no restraint against the violation of one’s liberty (which includes life) other than the force and violence that can be mustered by the one whose rights are being violated. Therefore that right to use deadly force in defense of life and property is seen as inherent. But it is the need to defend one’s liberty that becomes the basis for the formation of civil and political society (government): the collective protection of liberty.

In the Second Amendment we see both the right to individual and collective self-defense defended. But because we do not live in the State of Nature but rather inhabit a civil and political society the right of self-defense must be balanced with the duty of government to maintain public safety. When gun ownership violates the public safety, the State has a duty to act. This has been affirmed by the Supreme Court.

So the right to gun ownership for lawful purposes is upheld in the Constitution, but the right of the State to regulate gun ownership in support of public safety is also defended. Whenever an event like what happened at Umpqua Community College occurs we hear a call for more regulation of gun ownership as a way of trying to prevent more tragedies. In response we hear a very loud and hysterical group of people who vow to defend their rights to gun ownership to the death.

But while I have heard many proposals for the regulation of gun ownership, I have never heard of a serious proposal to ban guns altogether. Every reasonable person recognizes there are legitimate reasons for owning firearms. At the same time reasonable people should be able to recognize that there are legitimate reasons to limit gun ownership.

The paranoid view is that any regulation of gun ownership is an attempt by the government to trample on individual rights. This view sees the government as the enemy and the only defense of liberty as the force and violence that can be mustered by the individual (and perhaps his fellows). This is a vision of life without civil or political society, a state of lawlessness, where justice comes from the barrel of a gun. It is a minority view, nevertheless it is powerful enough to squelch every attempt at reform. The belief that any individual or group of individuals might successfully defend themselves using violence against the United States government is comedy, except apparently people seriously believe it. Witness the farce of the Governor of Texas calling up the National Guard to defend Texas against an invasion by Obama’s army this past summer. It is at the same time laughable and deeply disturbing. It is absurd. And its cost is the gruesome murders of more and more innocent victims.

October 2nd, 2015 No comments
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