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Finding our humanity

September 2nd, 2017 No comments

What is happening in South Texas and Louisiana is unimaginable. Here in San Diego, in the 72 hours ending at 4AM Tuesday February 28, 2017 rainfall was recorded ranging from 9.04 inches at Mt. Palomar observatory to 1.95 inches in Oceanside.[1] If you can remember that weekend people were losing their minds, as if the world was about to end. By contrast, in a similar period in the path of Hurricane Harvey up to 50 inches of rain fell. Dropping over 15 trillion gallons of water. It was a much more powerful storm than Sandy or Katrina. We might even call it a storm of biblical proportions.

I’m not going to follow the lead of others who have blamed the devastation on lesbians or Republicans. I am, instead, going to observe a real miracle. There were two kinds of images that came out of the storm: pictures that tried to relay the immensity of the event both in terms of human suffering and destructive power, and others showing the sacrifices and heroism of first responders, rescue officials, and ordinary citizens.

The last two years at least have been especially polarizing in the United States. The days before the storm were exceptionally so, as Americans pointed fingers at each other with accusations of racism, fascism, and violence. No doubt the people in these photos, both the victims and the rescuers, were as caught up in the drama as everyone else. But in the face of disaster, these people didn’t stop to ask, are you racist?, Are you #BackLivesMatter? Are you liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, straight or gay?

This is a hopeful sign because it shows that we are fundamentally generous and caring. But why is it that we can only find our common humanity in the midst of calamity?

[1] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/weather/sd-me-heavy-rain-20170228-story.html

America Loses its Mind

August 26th, 2017 No comments

Novelist Kurt Anderson has written a piece appearing in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine entitled “How America Lost its Mind.” It’s an intriguing title and a piece sorely needed in our current “post-truth” conundrum. He argues that Americans have always possessed a cultural tendency toward belief in the rationally unbelievable. It may be true, and it’s not surprising given that the country was born out of a David and Goliath-like contest between a makeshift barely-organized Colonial Army and the great Empire of the world (with quite a bit of help from King Louis XVI of France, who would later lose his head in the French Revolution).

Anderson proposes that this propensity for dreaming big dreams has historically been balanced by a tether to what he calls reality, which, as an atheist, he puts forth as the rationality of the Age of Reason. Although I disagree that everything one believes must be supported by rationality, as there are many things we know to be true that cannot be explained rationally, I do believe both that American history is characterized by a highly inflated sense of self and also a shared general agreement about what is real and what is not. In other words, that there is something that we can all agree is “real.” Anderson’s article traces the loss of this common agreement beginning in the 1960s and the anti-war movement and culminating in a nation in which people essentially create their own personal realities with the individual as the anchor and center of reference. He writes:

Why are we like this?

The short answer is because we’re Americans – because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.[1]

What Anderson describes is the dilemma created by the collapse of the Enlightenment metanarrative: summed up by a deep faith in “progress.” It is the overarching belief that humans through their own efforts in science, technology and education will inevitably create a man-made paradise. It started with the Enlightenment Philosophes and climaxed in the Marxist economic critique. “Progress” was the general Truth™ underlying all of American life and thought.  But it was rejected, as it ought to have been, after the horrors of the 20th century –  the Western Front, the Holocaust, and the Atomic Bomb – demonstrated its fallacy.

The consequence is what scholars call “post-modernism.” The fundamental rule of the Enlightenment was that there is a single monolithic and unchangeable reality that every educated person can discern through “reason,” which essentially resolves to scientific measurement. When that faith system collapsed, the idea that there is a single truth that we can all agree on collapsed with it. The locus of truth shifted from the exterior world to the individual. In the sixties, as Anderson notes, America had “a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.[2] The problem isn’t “right vs. left,” it is that there are as many “truths” as there are those who want to believe them, and because they do not require any external validation, these “truths” are unassailable.

Our national loss of a connection to a common narrative has led to our current political challenges because while all of us agree that “progress” is the goal, we no longer have general agreement as to what that looks like. For some, progress would be returning to a time when the United States was filled with righteous Christian folks chosen by God to further the cause that makes the United States exceptional, ironically not the gospel of Jesus Christ but that of John Locke and Adam Smith.

For others, progress consists of overcoming the shortsightedness and injustices of the past and creating a society that embodies the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address. The ultimate tragedy is that all sides point to the same words and identify completely different things. Why? Because they don’t mean what they mean, they mean what we think they mean. Without a commitment to a common reality, anyone who disagrees with you is not wrong, they are insane. Or deliberately evil.

To be fair, this is not new. Ratification of the Constitution was accomplished by leaving contentious issues unresolved. For example, the Constitution nowhere states that the Union cannot be dissolved. If that had been specified, many Southern States, even in 1787, would not have joined the United States. Some walked away believing they had created a confederation of convenience, and others a permanent union.

During the first Presidential Administration, these ambiguities set the groundwork for US politics to the present in the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Is the United States an idyllic landscape of liberty where a prosperous agrarian middle class pursues happiness? Or is it an economic powerhouse rivaling Great Britain? The conflict very nearly ended the American Experiment in 1800. In order to preserve the union, the antagonists reluctantly compromised, effectively confining political conflict to the ballot box until 1861.

Politics in 1800 evoked at least as much passion as politics today. Both sides saw the other not as opponents but enemies, not only of themselves, but of the country. And yet, rather than watching their dreams come crashing down around them, they found a way to overcome their biases and save the country. Why? They must have agreed that whatever had been created, preserving it was worth more than political victory. But they also must have inhabited the same intellectual universe. Think about that word: uni. One.

Now let’s take a look at a very sad but telling incident that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. Permits were given for a “Unite the Right “rally to participants and opponents. The organizers of the rally were avowed White Supremacists who idolize Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They are allied with or perhaps have morphed into a combination of their own Nazi views and the racist ideology of the Ku Klux Klan. They came to town heavily armed, and marched through the streets with torches shouting Nazi and racist chants, seeking to intimidate. They were met by unarmed leftist groups who nevertheless confronted them. There was violence. In the end, a deranged White Supremacist drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding several others.

The rallying point of the march was to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. Americans are in conflict over such statues because they are seen as symbols of White Supremacy and a war fought to defend the institution of slavery. Interestingly, the events of the weekend prove that both protesters and counter-protesters view the statues just so. After the events in Charlottesville the Great-Great-Grandsons of Stonewall Jackson wrote,

Last weekend, Charlottesville showed us unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists. The people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend were there to make a naked show of force for white supremacy. To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology.[3]

Nevertheless, the argument employed by those who defend the statues is not that they are White Supremacist intimidations, but rather that they represent Southern “heritage.” Southern heritage conjures a narrative called the “Lost Cause,” which works to salve the sting of defeat for Southerners by explaining the Civil War as a noble cause that could not be sustained against overwhelming odds. Therefore, those who fought for the Confederacy were actually heroes.

The noble cause is most often summarized in the words “States’ Rights,” implying that the Union was trying to violate the sacred rights of the Southern States. This was indeed the rationale employed by the authors of secession and by those who fought, most of whom were not slave owners and would never have fought to preserve slavery. In fact, for Southerners the issue of the Civil War was exactly the same as the Revolutionary War. The latter was sparked when the Parliament acted to deprive the colonists of their property without their consent. “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” Southerners argued that their property rights were being threatened by the Federal government in the same way. The catch is that the items of property they sought to defend were human beings. The “Lost Cause” narrative emphasizes that Southerners were fighting for their rights, but leaves out that the rights they were fighting for consisted of keeping human beings enslaved. “States’ Rights” and slavery are inseparable.[4]

And therein lies the nub. The facts are entirely knowable, and in a reality based world they would be indisputable. But in a world where reality can be whatever I want it to be, facts are meaningless. What you say may be true but I don’t care because I’m entitled to my own (“alternative”) facts. Leaving the statues up or taking them down are equally useless, because the statues are not the problem The problem is the meaning assigned to those statues by the various actors.

I think it is fairly obvious that armed thugs marching through the streets spewing hate are not concerned about Southern heritage. Their issues are White Supremacy and racism (this isn’t arguable, this is what they said, loudly and gleefully). There may be others who are concerned about Southern heritage. Because they don’t want to believe they are White Supremacists and racists (and perhaps they try not to be), and/or because they truly believe these things stand for something good.

The first group is beyond reason. The second group I don’t know. I think if we could remove the study of history from the realm of narrative fantasy and tether it to verifiable facts, perhaps we could agree on something. If we could agree on what is true and what is false we might be able to see each other as fellow human beings rather than madmen and demons. And then, even though we disagree with and perhaps even don’t like each other, we might come to recognize that our differences are not as big as our common welfare.

Is that still possible?

Tolerance doesn’t mean I agree or approve. It means I disagree and disapprove, but I’m not going to try to stop you.

[1] Kurt Anderson, “How America Lost its Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2017, 76.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian, “The Monuments Must Go: An open letter from the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson.,” Slate, August 16, 2017, 1, accessed August 25, 2017,  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/08/stonewall_jackson_s_grandsons_the_monuments_must_go.html.

[4] Please don’t take my word for this; read the words of those who moved to destroy the nation: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.

“…to bigotry no sanction…”

August 21st, 2017 No comments

George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport 17 August 1790

Washington Letter

Touro Synagogue is America’s oldest synagogue and a national historic site. Find information on history, services, tours and accommodations.

Don’t be a sucker…

February 16th, 2017 No comments

Cold War wisdom for the age of Trump. 1947 War Department video reminds us what makes America great. Source: Internet Archives. At 17 minutes it’s a bit long for the 21st century attention span but it will definitely be worth your time.

Won’t back down…

February 13th, 2017 No comments

If You Still Support Trump

February 1st, 2017 No comments

An open letter to those who still believe Donald Trump will “Make America Great Again”

I am a veteran of the United States Navy who served during the Vietnam War. I am writing to condemn the Trump administration’s assault on decency and democracy and your immoral defense of it. We may disagree on specific policies and the direction of government, you may be conservative and I may be liberal, but we should not disagree on those things that have made the United States the beacon of light in the world: liberty, equality, justice. It was these principles I volunteered to defend during wartime.

Trump supporters have said they like a man who speaks his mind and is not constrained by “political correctness.” This, they say, is what drew them to Donald Trump, even though the mind he spoke and continues to speak is apparently filled with unprincipled ambition, overweening pride, prejudice, vindictiveness, and pettiness. So may I say at the outset that I intend to write plain truth, not softened by subtlety, about the embarrassment this administration already is to the United States, and about the culpability of Trump supporters.

Mr. Trump claims to have a desire to “make America great again.” It is a slogan designed to instill a fear of national decline. It points to a mythological age when the United States was not only the most powerful nation on earth but also the best, in terms of its commitment to the principles embedded in our founding documents. Mr. Trump declared on the campaign trail that the last time America was great was when Ronald Reagan was president. But Mr. Reagan himself used this slogan hearkening to the era immediately following World War II, when the United States had reached the pinnacle of its sense of mission by selfless sacrifice to overcome totalitarianism and by standing to defend American values for the entire world.

That vision of greatness must be tempered in the rational mind by inconvenient facts. Among these are: that for all of its military might and superiority, the United States has not been able to achieve a successful resolution to any major military commitment since World War II, that the United States has squandered much of the goodwill it gained from its victory in World War II by supporting anti-democratic, tyrannical, and immoral regimes around the world, that America’s self-righteous self-congratulation at the end of World War II ignored major injustices in the fabric of American Society concerning civil liberties and civil rights that would explode into rebellion in the years following, and which we still struggle to resolve. None of these pressing concerns can be rectified by supporting a buffoonish demagogue. We will do well to remind ourselves that Adolf Hitler was regarded as a buffoon, until he stole an election and set out to make Germany great again.

It was not with greatness but inconvenient facts that during his campaign for the Presidency Donald Trump painted a dystopian picture of America, tapping a into discontent arising from the fact that reality is at odds with the noblest vision of what we tell ourselves America ought to be. But, paradoxically, Donald Trump’s own words, actions, and history bubble up from the depths of America’s fetid historical darkness and are antithetical to our fundamental values. To be sure, he did not tap into an overwhelming discontent, more people voted against him than for him, and many of those who voted for him did so holding their nose hoping he might somehow be better than what many felt was an even grimmer alternative.

In fact, Mr. Trump’s core supporters are a minority who until the last few years have been on the fringe of civilized society: neo-Nazis, the KKK, conspiracy theory nut jobs, and xenophobes. They have succeeded in creating a paranoid alternative universe that Trump now puts forward as his vision of what is not great about America. This fake reality is built upon a foundation of twisted truths and naked fabrications that mischaracterize the threats America faces. They identify anyone who is different as a threat. They fail to realize that they themselves present the greatest menace to American values. They are no different in their malicious ideology than their historical counterparts. The difference is that we thought we had relegated them to the dustbin of history. Now this sentiment has a champion in the White House.

By casting aside every appeal to decency in public discourse as “political correctness,” Trump and his core supporters captured the imaginations of many who have come to feel that their government doesn’t really work for them. In that they are not wrong but as is the case with all demagogues the blame is cast where it does not belong. Encouraged by what can only be described as an “alternative fact” (lie) machine that blame has been amplified against Mexicans, Muslims, gays, liberals, essentially everywhere but where it belongs: against the big money players.

I can agree that the rank and file of Trump supporters are not evil people. I can agree that they may have been duped by slick salesmen, as we all might have been.  But the events that have occurred since the election, and particularly since Mr. Trump was inaugurated, indicate clearly that Donald Trump is not for the little guy or for the country. He is for himself above all, and secondarily for his billionaire cronies. He and his regime throw little hate filled treats to his supporters to distract them from the real power grab. It has come time to say plainly that people who still support him are not the patriots they imagine themselves to be. In fact, they are unpatriotic and against America’s core values.

  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to appeal to people’s fears rather than their aspirations.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values for a political candidate to openly encourage violence against his opponents.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values for a leader to disrespect and denigrate vulnerable individuals and groups, to relentlessly threaten one’s critics with lawsuits or worse, and to mock a person’s disabilities like a playground bully.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to criticize and seek to circumvent First Amendment rights to free expression.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to ridicule American patriots: those who sacrificed in war and those who sacrificed at home for civil rights.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to cozy up to our nation’s most ardent enemies.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to put the nation and indeed the world at risk by impetuously tweeting foreign policy threats against our rivals.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to discriminate against any ethnicity, nationality, or religion. Period.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to twist the language of liberty into “America First” jingoism.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to turn the nation’s back on the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to present to the world a face that is jealous and fearful rather than one that is generous and accepting, as Americans historically are.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to use the Presidency as a platform for spreading extremist falsehoods.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to place the welfare of the people at risk to aggrandize oneself and one’s billionaire cronies.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to place one’s personal welfare and ambition before adherence to the constitution.
  • It is unpatriotic and against America’s core values to continue to support a man who is openly celebrated by neo-Nazis, the KKK, and America’s foreign enemies.

It is morally inexcusable to continue to support this man. If you do, you are unpatriotic and stand in opposition to America’s core values. The fact is those who claim to love the country the most have unleashed radical forces that threaten to undo America’s greatness, perhaps irreparably. Many Trump supporters may believe they are true patriots, as those who clamored for secession in 1860 thought they were being true to the constitution as they actively destroyed it. However, history has judged that action to be treason. And history maintains a vigilant eye.

It is time for all Americans: young and old, liberal and conservative, all religions and ethnicities to speak out vigorously for America’s values and against the Trump administration. It is time to speak out against division, xenophobia, bigotry, and injustice. Donald Trump is no more friend to conservatives or the little guy than he is any group that is currently the target of his ire. Silence not only works against your own interests, it places you on the wrong side of history.The world is watching. History’s judgment will be merciless.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bernie gets a standing O at Ebenezer

January 17th, 2017 No comments

We have become an international joke…

January 16th, 2017 No comments

Donald Trump inauguration TV listing goes viral – BBC News

A TV listing of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration has caught people’s attention both in the UK and the US. The Sunday Herald TV critic Damian Love reimagined the ceremony as a return of the classic science fiction series The Twilight Zone.

What Are You Willing to Suffer for Justice?

January 15th, 2017 No comments

I think we should start now preparing for the inevitable. And let us, when that moment comes, go into the situations that we confront with a great deal of dignity, sanity, and reasonableness. – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956[1]

If Martin Luther King Day has any meaning to us at all beyond a day off, it is usually reflected in a sense of inspiration drawn from a victorious struggle for justice. And so it should be, because Dr. King was a mighty warrior for justice, who shook America’s racist foundations by a martyrdom of agape – self-sacrificing love – and that is how we ought to remember him.

Racial tensions being what they are today, it is hard to remember that we once regarded the Civil Rights Movement as a heroic movement for equality. Americans today do not see themselves as equal. America is marked by bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. The beloved community that King imagined, a community where, in his words, “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”[2] seems as far away now as it ever has.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in the Constitution and the institutions of American government, and he also believed in the essential goodwill of the American people. Today our government at almost every level has been taken over by lawless men who flout our Constitution, our ideals, our principles. Today we see America’s leaders cozy up to foreign enemies and denounce true American patriots. We see them countenance division and exclusion that are foreign to our founding documents, from which we draw our identity as a nation. Goodwill seems to be in short supply in America today.

America has never been perfect, but with two exceptions America’s leaders have always held the welfare of the nation above partisan dogma or personal ambition. The first exception was the Civil War. The second is now, where Republicans in Congress who once vehemently denounced Donald Trump stand in line to lick his boots. And just as in 1861 there were throngs who cheered the ringing of the bells of secession, so now there are at best misguided “patriots” cheering on the destruction of our Republic.

On this commemoration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I am saddened to suggest that the inspiration we need to draw from his life and the Civil Rights Movement is not a celebration of the triumph of justice but a commitment to continue the struggle for justice no matter the cost. That is the real moral of King’s life, and it is a lesson that all true patriots will need to learn and heed in the days and weeks ahead if we are to survive as a free people. What are you willing to suffer for justice?

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address to Mia Mass Meeting at Day Street Baptist Church” (Speech, Day Street Baptist Church, Montgomery, Al., April 25, 1956), accessed January 15, 2017, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-mia-mass-meeting-day-street-baptist-church.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” (Speech, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963), accessed January 15, 2017, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.

Hitler was elected, so was Mussolini…

December 30th, 2016 No comments

This is how the dictators came to power in the 1920s and 1930s. Good people remained silent or acquiesced. People expressed hope that something good would come of it. Mussolini would wring the laziness out of Italy and make the trains run on time.

How the US Went Fascist: Mass Media Make Excuses for Trump Voters – BillMoyers.com

The rise of Donald Trump to the presumptive Republican standard bearer for president in 2016 is an indictment of, and a profound danger to the American republic. The Founding Fathers were afraid of the excitability of the voters and their vulnerability to the appeal of demagogues.

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