Thursday, September 22, 2016

An Open Letter to Fred Barnes

9/22/2016—Fred Barnes asks the question, why aren’t there any anti-Hillary Dems in the September 5, 2016 Weekly Standard. His point is basically that Republicans are willing to police their own, but Democrats are not. Thus, the outpouring of anti-Trump Republicans and nothing comparable on the Democratic side.

A few points. First, both Democrats and Republican rank and file are about equally dissatisfied with their candidates. According to a Fox poll on September 15, “Eighty percent of Republicans back Trump, and 81 percent of Democrats support Clinton.” These are pretty low numbers for a Presidential candidate at this stage of a race. Especially among young voters, dissatisfaction with Secretary Clinton translates into support of third party candidates. So Barnes’ premise is wrong about the rank and file.

Second, some of the column confuses policy and character. Most Democrats do not agree that the Clinton foreign policy was “disastrous” as the column puts it. That is just a disagreement, about the Iran nuclear agreement, for example. It’s a tough world and a lot has gone wrong. But, the last eight years have contained fewer major mistakes than the previous eight.

Third, not everyone agrees that the Clinton problems are that serious, especially compared to comparable issues with Donald Trump. The Clinton foundation peddled influence, clearly. But nobody got anything. As Paul Krugman put it yesterday, the Trump Foundation engaged in more or less open bribery. Clinton’s email scandal shows her as secretive, but not dishonest. The continuing refusal of Trump to release his tax records undoubtedly means he has something to hide—if only how little money he makes and has.

But Barnes is right about Party leadership. Leading Democrats do not talk publically about Clinton’s serious personal lapses. The reason for this is obvious—they do not want to do anything to help Donald Trump. The question is, why this lockstep response at the top? This kind of unity is unusual among Democratic Party leadership. It is much more normal for Republicans. So, why the reversal this year?

This gets to the heart of the matter. Speaking for myself—not a Party leader, of course, but an outspoken person. Barnes does not understand who I think Trump is and what a Trump victory would mean. I am not certain that after eight years of Donald Trump, there would be another Presidential election. It took Mussolini around three years before he began to dismantle the democratic structure of pre-war Italy. Unlike Clinton and all the major Republican candidates this year, and unlike President Bush, whom I loathed, I have to worry with Trump about whether he believes in, or understands, constitutional checks and balances.

Barnes surely believes that President Obama rules unconstitutionally by decree. But what does Obama do when a court orders him to stop doing something? He stops. Barnes must be positive that a President Trump would also obey court orders. But I don’t have his confidence and I am not willing to take that chance.

Do you think, compared to the possible end of constitutional government in the United States, I care about Clinton lapses? I don’t deny them. I discount them. If Clinton were running against Rubio, I would have to think about them. But with Trump, there is the potential for real harm of the kind that has not been threatened since the 1930’s.

Now, I may be wrong about Donald Trump. But let Barnes convince me of that, rather than wondering why more Dems are not anti-Hilllary.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

You Have a Moral Obligation to Vote for Hillary Clinton

9/21/2016--I just put the following message up on my door: You have a moral obligation to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to defeat Donald Trump. I don't care for her, but he has the potential to be Mussolini, with all the damage to America and the world that would follow. In 36 years, I have never before put a political message on my door at school.

I know some young people who are not voting or are voting for third party candidates. They must not understand how dangerous Donald Trump is. Trump is impulsive, narcissistic and undisciplined. If he wins, it will vindicate all the illusions about himself that he already has. It's hard to imagine him living within constitutional limits. People complain about Barack Obama's tendency to rule by executive order. Now imagine that ten times worse without the restraint of obeying court orders to stop. And then there is the harm in foreign and military policy.

It's hard to quite understand people supporting him. How do they know what he will do if he is elected? He probably does not know. Trump believes in winging it.

Trump is the same person he was earlier. It's just that he is having a sane month. And that could allow people to vote for him.

But still, Trump doesn't have enough votes to win. It's that Hillary is not holding on to the votes of people who don't like Trump.

Mussolini did not come to power through a coup. He was invited to form a government within the democratic process. If all the citizens of Italy devoted to democracy had united and opposed him, he would not have come to power. They undoubtedly did not consider him a serious threat. People who are not voting or are voting for a third party candidate are making the same mistake.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

“moral relativism in its most base form”

9/14/2016—Now we’re getting somewhere. The liberal op-ed columnist Andrew Rosenthal wrote yesterday in the New York Times (What Trump Supporters Want You to Believe) that Donald Trump’s comments praising Putin—“‘It’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly in that system, he’s been a leader. Far more than our president has been a leader.’”—constitute “moral relativism in its most base form.”

OK. So, who is not a moral relativist? Who is willing to say that one kind of human life is better than another? Who is willing to say that there is a normative order in the universe? Next you will be willing to condemn gay marriage as unnatural.

I’m joking about the last point. But until recently every secularist I have met has been a moral relativist in principle. Since most secularists believe, or think they have to believe, that the Big Bang was an accident without meaning and purpose, there is nothing they can be other than materialists. And materialists are generally forced into moral relativism.

To not be a moral relativist, you have to commit to the proposition that some things are right and some things are wrong, not according to human opinion, but according to reality. In principle, religious people believe this—although there are plenty of functional atheists in church, synagogue, mosque and temple—but secularists don’t.

By the way, the heart of hallowed secularism is a protest against materialism and moral relativism, but this has not exactly caught on yet.

So, of course Donald Trump is a moral relativist. But he had good teachers—the very people now criticizing him for it. The left is morally relativist to its core. I don’t mean that as an insult but as a description. And it doesn’t mean you don’t feel strongly about your positions. You just can’t justify your positions apart from human will.

And, by the way, we now see how moral relativism—which is actually not about morality but the nature of reality—so it is ontological—demoralizes society and undermines healthy politics. Under the domination of this way of thinking, every position is just “what I happen to think.” So, genuine persuasion cannot happen. There is no truth of the matter out of which to be persuaded. I can force you or fool you, but I cannot persuade you. This impasse explains a lot about our current, partisan, hate-filled politics.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Are the Right and the Left Anti-Semitic?

9/11/2016—I pause before beginning to remember the men and women who lost their lives fifteen years ago in terrorist attacks. I remember thinking then that the attacks would not change that much. In a sense that was true. There had been terror attacks in the few years before 9/11—and federal criminal trials of terrorists as well. (As there should have been since).

But it was different. 9/11 militarized terrorism, which previously had been treated as another form of criminal activity. This led to dealing with terrorism through military interventions, which was a grave error. The first Iraq war had come as a response not to terror, but to invasion.

The world is now quite different than it might have been. And, as a young person I know said the other day, not many good things have happened in the US since 9/11.

One more thing that has changed is that the Israeli-Palestinian impasse now seems to have permanently been solved by Israel militarily. Ironically, Putin is the one putting pressure on Israel to make concessions and is scheduled to hold talks. But not much is going to come of this. There is a slow creep to occupy all of the West Bank. Partly it seems to be motivated by orthodox religion, but also by simple nationalism.

The motif that allows Israel to deflect criticism about this is anti-Semitism. This week’s Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh contains two stories about that subject—one about the alt-right and the other about the left.

Barry Shaw’s piece about the left is the most impassioned and determined. It notes that support for the Palestinian side is strong among those who, like the Black Lives Matter Movement, identify with exploited groups. His point is, along with Alan Dershowitz, that you don’t have to take a stand on Russia and Saudi Arabia to be in good standing on the left—but you do on Israeli policy.

I would call this silly if the subject were not so serious. I am sure the left is quite anti-Putin—although there is some anti-Ukrainian tropes among the left—and certainly anti-Saudi Arabia. But Israel has always touched America deeply—remember the wildly popular movie Exodus? Israel has always had a very close relationship with the US, including financially and militarily. So there is a sense in which the US is implicated in the treatment of Palestinians in a way we are not implicated in other injustices in the world. Plus, Israel is an outpost of the West in the midst of the Islamic world. Not exactly imposed by the West—Britain certainly did not support Israel’s creation consistently—but a part of the story of Western imperialism all the same—how else was Britain involved at all? If Muslims had been allowed to control the territory after WWI, there would never have been an Israel. So it is not crazy to see in this conflict responsibility by the West.

Anyway, those people so angry about the boycott movement should do more to promote peace. I don’t know whether this is possible. Where still after all these years is the Palestinian movement pushing for a realistic settlement? Israel is not going away and the right of return will not be granted.

The one thing that people opposed to Israeli annexation of the West Bank can do is to be very clear that Israel has no right to any of the West Bank. The settler movement has obviously won over Israeli public opinion, but that does not mean that the rest of the world has to accede. Yes, at this point, there are facts on the ground. But they are not justice. It is a little late in the history of religion for one religious group to claim that God gave it title to property.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Is Secularism Doomed to Superficiality and an Incapacity to Sustain the Human Spirit?

9/6/2016—Mark Miller has done a tremendous service in translating the thought of Bernard Lonergan into a more or less easily digestible bite-size in his book on Lonergan, The Quest for God and the Good Life (2013). I highly recommend it.

After making the attempt on a couple of occasions to read Lonergan’s masterpiece, Insight, I believe I am in a position to say that Lonergan is quite a daunting thinker. Mark Miller renders Lonergan much more accessible then he would be to most of us on our own.

There is a chance that Lonergan is the key to the renewal of American public life. Lonergan was a great student of the human being and human civilization and their trends. Clearly a religious thinker, Lonergan nevertheless was quite secular in describing what human nature is like and how human thinking works. There is a real naturalism in Lonergan that does not dissolve the possibility of transcendence.

It is a serious question how secularism will respond to the emergency of American public life. Democracy is broken and it is not clear how it happened or what can be done about it. Nor is it clear at all that secularism possesses the depth of resources – – or maybe I should say the resources the depth – – that would permit a renaissance of hope. I am shocked by the absence of hope and presence of cynicism among so many Americans, especially the young.

But how can a secularist approach anything with depth? After all, the point of secularism is that this world is all there is. The key to that puzzle must be to recalculate depth in this world. In that regard, a translation of religious terms must prove possible.

To see what I mean, consider the following poem by Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, quoted by Mark Miller in his book (I am unable here to properly format it):

Nothing is more practical
than finding God, that is, than falling in love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything. It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love, and
it will decide everything.

The question is, can this poem speak to a nonreligious consciousness?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Ben-Hur, Done That

8/30/2016—Why remake a religious class movie if you are not interested in religion? The new Ben-Hur movie is a lot better than people are saying. Yet, it is absolutely inferior to the 1959 version on several grounds. On the other hand, some choices made by the Director are just different, not inferior, but revealing of a different cultural stage.

The one, obvious way that the new version is not as good is the crucial depiction of Jesus. The actor, Rodrigo Santoro, is fine. But he is reminiscent of Liam Neeson in the Episode 1 Star Wars movie—likeable, rugged, intense, good. But the movie chooses an intensely naturalistic portrayal. There is no sense of transcendence—handled with great skill and piety in the 1959 version. The movie makes it seem odd that people were so affected by Jesus.

The other naturalism is in Judah Ben-Hur himself. He has no obvious religious feelings in the new movie. This makes little sense in the context of first century Israel. Nor does it make his conversion believable.

The other obvious flaw in the movie is just in storytelling. In the 1959 version, all ends were gathered up. For example, the new movie is forced to explain—how the mother and sister are affected by the crucifixion, how they are freed etc.

The ways in which the movie makes choices that are revealing involve the role of evil. In the 1959 film—and book, I guess—the event that brings down the house of Hur is an accident—a shingle breaks off. Not only is this poignant, it gives Messala a choice to do the right thing.

Conversely, in the new movie, Judah harbors a zealot who shoots Pontius Pilate with an arrow. Obviously, there must be retaliation. This is not as dramatically interesting. (It also makes Judah into a fool).

The other problem with Messala is related. Just as he could not do anything for the family even if he had wanted to, he is a compromise figure in general. Messala is portrayed in the new movie as trying to do the right thing but being frustrated. In the 1959 version, Messala makes a real choice for evil and suffers the consequences.

This is my final beef with the movie—the happy ending. Yes, in the 1959 version, there is a happy ending, but not for Messala. He is killed in the chariot race. And Judah plays a role in his death. This is not undone by the miracle around the crucifixion. In the new movie, Messala lives and everyone is reunited. This is pablum.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Murder Rate is Down

8/26/2016—Paul Krugman today in the New York Times criticized Donald Trump for his dystopia. Donald has been going around reaching out to minorities by describing America’s cities as unlivable hellholes. He is the law and order candidate.

Except, says Krugman, that none of this is true—unlike Donald’s earlier claims that there are no manufacturing jobs. Krugman argues that the murder rate (a proxy for violent crime because it is so easy to count) in cities did climb from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. But after that it dropped and is now back to its earlier-in-the-century rates. Cities are as safe as they have ever been.

Good news. But Krugman’s larger point is a values point—critics said that the reason crime was up was that Christianity was in decline. You have to restore values, they said. Well, says Krugman, no you don’t.

For those of us who have been bemoaning nihilism, this raises a question. What does nihilism look like socially? Does nihilism mean that people will go out and kill? That has actually been a criticism of Nietzsche for a long time. See Leopold and Loeb in 1924.

Well, maybe nihilism does not look like that. Maybe nihilism looks like our current political dysfunction. Or, maybe it looks like tolerance for gay marriage—not justice, but you-can-do-what-you-want. Maybe nihilism is not so bad.

I have to think about all this. One thing looks pretty certain. Organized religion is not headed for a comeback. So, the moral foundations for society will have to come from somewhere else.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

America Would Not Ban the Burkini

8/18/2016—Well, for one thing, it would be unconstitutional. In addition, most Americans believe it is one’s own decision to wear clothing because of religious beliefs.

Some French towns have now banned the clothing a few Muslim women use to go to the beach. The media reports it is something like a wetsuit and covers most of the body.

It’s just anti-Muslim bigotry.

I’m actually happy to see these bans because they demonstrate the intolerance of Europe. Yes, France is an especially anti-religious society, but other European countries have banned the building of Mosques.

Now, as the Trump campaign demonstrates, America is not all that tolerant either. But we are more welcoming of people than perhaps any other country in the world. That is our heritage.

Back to Europe. For years, some people on the left have promoted a kind of narrative about religion. It was said, that religion is not necessary to be a decent society. Europe was secular and Europe was generous and kind. And happy, as polls showed.

The European welfare state is a genuine accomplishment I wish America would emulate. But we now see that it is based on self-interest. We take care of ourselves. The European welfare state is most akin to old people in America (I am one) voting to protect social security.

The trick, however, is to build a genuine community, in which other people are protected by public policies. People not like oneself. Now, religiously-oriented America looks a lot better.

Does all this mean you can’t be good without God? Of course not. It means, however, that religion provides a healthy base for a society. Now that religion is waning, another source of meaning and goodness is urgently needed. Humanism will not cut it. That is just an unjustified worship of oneself.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Hottest July in Recorded History

8/15/2016—This is like a nightmare—actually, it is a nightmare. NPR just reported on NASA’s conclusion today that July 2016 was the hottest July on record. It was 1.5 degrees F higher than the long term average (I believe they use 1950 to 2000 as the benchmark, but I have to check.)

Well, no one said defeating global warming would be easy. No one even assured us it would be possible. The difficulty is not the nightmare. Not even the harm is the nightmare.

More valuable than any policy, even a crucial policy like fighting global warming, is truth. The denial of global warming in its human causation is the nightmare.

I don’t get it. There are still people—I am talking about leaders in our government (in fact Donald Trump among many others) who still say the whole notion is made up. They say the warming stopped or even say that the numbers are cooked.

But even worse, because seemingly intentionally misleading, there is Paul Ryan, who acknowledges warming but says climates change all the time. It will warm now and will presumably cool later. (This might turn out to be true in the long run—there could always be another ice age). Ryan denies that humans are causing this warming. In other words, scientists in the 1980’s noticed the build up of gasses and warned it would warm the planet. Now the planet is warming and what? It is just a coincidence?

But why wouldn’t Ryan want to do something to stop this? He has kids. Surely he can’t really care more about his career than their safety.

George Will says people like me want to stifle debate. But you don’t debate facts. There is no judgment to bring to bear. Warming is happening or it is not. Humans are causing it or they are not. It is not debating if suddenly in one realm standards of proof are absurdly elevated. We accept many scientific findings with far less warrant than we have about the warming climate.

Anyway, go ahead and debate. The scientists do that every day. But I have been hearing since the 1990’s that this isn’t true—my son’s swimming coach used to tell me it is all made up. Yet it continues to get warmer—as if it were true.

We can’t even start to protect ourselves unless we can reach a consensus that the threat is happening. At that point, there will be tremendous disagreement about what and how much to do. That won’t bother me. But the denial. It is a scandal by evil people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What They’re Doing to Bill McKibben

8/10/2016—On Sunday, Bill McKibben published an op-ed on how he is being followed and how maybe his daughter is also being followed. Apparently a GOP opposition research group has decided to follow him and one other environmental leader to get embarrassing pictures. The pictures are meant to show that McKibben is a hypocrite—he uses plastic bags for shopping when he forgets to bring cloth etc.

McKibben wanted to make the point that we are living in the world of choices corporate power has given us—he mentions Exxon. That is, we have to fly because corporations have blocked fast trains, for example. And to change that world, we have to live in it. So, McKibben wants to show the context.

But I am more interested in a minor comment he makes. McKibben is not sure that his daughter is being followed. “When my daughter reports someone taking pictures of her at the airport, it drives me nuts. I have no idea if it’s actually this outfit; common decency would suggest otherwise, but that seems an increasingly rare commodity.”

Common decency is an increasingly rare commodity. But I wish McKibben had admitted that in this regard at least, the environmental movement is no different. The left demonizes the corporate leadership at Exxon. They are just liars and criminals—knowing the truth about global warming, they have deliberately misled the nation for their own profit. They will be responsible for many, many deaths.

As I write those words, I am certain that this is the attitude on the left because this is my attitude. But if I believe my opponents are evil, I cannot be surprised if my opponents feel the same way. Even if I am right about them, I should not pretend that they are overly zealous but I am not.

In other words, if I could change Exxon’s policies by following the CEO and his family around with a camera, wouldn’t I do it? Of course I would.

Since common decency is in short supply in our political life, we are going to have to pay very careful attention to our own characters. Since we are not going to change our behaviors, changing our candor might be a good starting point.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

And One More Thing—The Candidates Are Too Old

8/3/2016—I am 64-years old. I just realized that both Presidential candidates are older than I am. Donald Trump is 70; Hillary Clinton is 68.

This is ridiculous. Barack Obama will be 55 tomorrow. Happy birthday Mr. President.

What difference does this make? The baby boom generation—my generation—has already failed to make the world a better place. Or, if the world is better in some ways, my generation has nothing left to offer. It has led us to where we are now. Something new is needed.

That something new is not directly related to age. But it is directly related to technology. Most people in America have now grown up with the Internet and have been formed by it and by all that it implies. Trump and Clinton and I have not. So, whoever wins will be incapable of addressing the new world people are living in.

A recent article in the New York Review—In the Depths of the Digital Age, by Edward Mendelson, addresses these matters. I was surprised by how my assumptions are not the assumptions of my students in law school. Just one example—when I was around 13, I spent the summer at Pine Valley Camp in Canada. One day, I found an old Playboy Magazine. It was amazing to me. I had never seen a woman that undressed—she was of course not actually naked. I had never read sexually oriented discussion—it was not very graphic. I hid that magazine so I could get back to it. (Naturally, it disappeared).

According to Mendelson, the experiences of a 13-year old American boy today are different. I assumed that. But I never considered how different. Let’s just say, there are no such secrets for him. No guilty pleasure. No shame, but no satisfaction either. The world of sex has speeded up and is no longer sweet.

It’s just one example. But it is enough to remind me that there really are differences today among age groups. If we are at a dead end, then, like John Kennedy, we should at least start with a generational shift.

Real change—change you can believe in—is not going to come from Clinton or Trump. There is not anyone I know of in public life who could bring such change—Bernie is even older, after all—but not these two.

Ironically, the one voice that can teach us something new about technology is Martin Heidegger. He would be 127 today.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

It’s Materialism

7/31/2016—Last week, David Brooks wrote a column about the nation’s problems—and the fact that Hillary may have a hard time understanding them. The major problem is spiritual. Americans feel things are falling apart. But Democrats are too materialistic to recognize and respond to this.

Well, Brooks is a conservative—although not this year. So, he does not want the kind of economic changes that Bernie Sanders does. But really what were those changes? A ban on fracking? Breaking up the big banks? Higher taxes on the wealthy? I doubt Brooks has big problems with all that. So, I don’t think Brooks is just trying to avoid anything.

Hillary will have a hard time responding because she has not been an uplifting figure. And as the columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote yesterday in the Post-Gazette, there is still no case for Hillary—Continuity Now! ?

Anyway, I have been sounding this theme for a long time. Once you say that values are subjective, your society is not going to last. You can tell from listening to Hillary from years ago in Arkansas that she does not share that belief. But can she address it?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Trump

7/25/2016—I was traveling last week and so could not avoid watching some of the Republican National Convention. It is revealing to compare what observers are saying about it now versus how it seemed then.

Several people I respect have said that the convention atmosphere was toxic and unreal. Almost violent. Yet, it seemed strangely normal at the time. This is the power of the “is”. Nothing seems so extraordinary when it is happening.

There are several themes going on. One is Trump himself—-self-regarding, ignorant, impulsive and dishonest. A bad President. Strangely bad. Unprecedentedly bad. You can have an ordinary man as President. Truman was ordinary. But Truman served in the army in WWI. It is hard to imagine Trump serving in the military.

Then there is the country. To get elected, Trump has to convince the country that things are a lot worse than they are and that he can fix them. Why is it that he might succeed? In coal country, here in western Pennsylvania, the answer is easy. The jobs were really good and Clinton is the perfect symbol for people who are killing those jobs on purpose for some liberal do-gooding goal of global warming that those people will not pay for but coal workers will. All you need is someone who is willing to lie about global warming and lie about coal jobs. There is plenty of evidence that these voters know they are being lied to. They would rather have someone who cares enough about them to lie.

But for everyone else? Things are just not that bad. FDR said it, at another time that fascism really did threaten democracy—the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And it would be a lot easier today to actually improve things than it was in 1932.

But, would it be easier? There is something sick in the spirit of the nation today that was not so sick in 1932. You saw it in the hatred toward Hillary at the Republican Convention—-and Trump had nothing to do with it. Hillary really had nothing to do with it. The feeling was the same for Bill Clinton, once, and Barack Obama until recently.

But it is also true for the Democrats, to a lesser extent. I’m not speaking about disliking Trump, who really is an exception. Some Democrats feel almost the same way about Hillary that the Republicans do. The policy divisions were so exaggerated in the primary campaign. The political narrative was so unreal. Trade was a symbol. Do all these educated people really want to end foreign trade? What would that even mean? Maybe the recent deal is not great—-Krugman cannot make up his mind about it—but NAFTA? That deal strengthened the American auto industry. You can’t have good jobs unless you have an efficient economy. This economy uses foreign trade to become more efficient. This economy uses automation to be more efficient. Both these things eliminate some jobs. But they do work for the economy as a whole. And it is working right now.

Wages are stagnating, but that could be changed. The wealth all this produces just needs to be moved around a little more.

The feeling I have is that we hate each other. The issues are almost beside the point. That is the sickness.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lessons from My Uncle’s Funeral

7/21/2016 – – My uncle passed away last weekend. Last night there was a memorial service for him in Ormond Beach Florida in a small synagogue that he and his wife of 68 years have been very active in.

The service was reminiscent of the memorial service held for my mother back in 2007. That service was also held in a small synagogue that she had been very active in.

When most people moved to Florida, they seem to lose institutional connections to any community. Of course it depends when in life one moves here. But I know a lot of older Jewish people who never set down any roots in Florida at all. Thus, their universe gradually constricts to family members.

But my mother and my uncle were not like that. They engaged tremendous energy in their new synagogues. They took up important organizational roles. They gained new friends. And they were both loved in these new settings.

There is a lesson here for secular life. My brother and I said to each other, after the service, that there could not be an event like this upon our deaths. Because we do not belong to synagogues, there is no institutional basis to our lives.

Well, I suppose you should not live your life so that you have a nice memorial service when you die. On the other hand, my uncle and my mother were actually much happier than most people are because their lives still mattered, even quite late in life.

Secular life tends to be institutionally isolating. There is no necessity for that course. But there is nothing built in to prevent it either. In addition, I am sure that both my uncle and my mother, neither of whom was probably religious in belief, also gained a lot of satisfaction from the ritual rhythm of Jewish life. Life is just better when you are going to synagogue every week and celebrating the holidays every year.

What are the rituals of secular life going to be? What will be its community? What will be its rhythm? The difference between an empty secularism, which is the direction in which we seem to be heading now, and a hallowed secularism, which this blog is supposed to be about, lies in part in the answers to these questions.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Future of Democracy in the Islamic World

7/16/2016—I don’t trust Recep Tayyip Ergodan as far as I can throw him. He has restricted free speech in Turkey and is planning a strongman Constitution that does not bode well for the future of Democracy. Plus he provoked the conflict with the Kurds.

Nevertheless, Erdogan is the elected President in a genuinely free election. So, of course, President Obama, and other NATO allies, condemned the coup attempt. And it apparently failed.

The more basic issue is whether there can be an Islamic Democracy. In 1992, the Islamic Front in Algeria appeared to be winning national elections and was forestalled in a coup. In 2006, the US refused to recognize Hamas as the winner in legislative elections in Gaza. In 2013, Morsi was overthrown in a coup in Egypt.

The West cannot preach democracy but support or promote coups whenever we don’t approve the winners. Remember Tom Lehrer—For might makes right/until they see the light/ they’ve got to be protected/all their rights respected/till someone we like can be elected—Send the Marines.

Eventually, there will be Islamic Democracy. Eventually, a tamed Islam will emerge—just as a tamed Christianity emerged in Europe after the wars of religion in the 16th century. Westerners have to stop saying things like, they don’t understand democracy or they are not like us. All people want freedom and democracy.

The West has lost confidence. I am not sure why. It may have something to do with the crisis of meaning.

Of course democracy in the short run makes everything worse. It flames popular hatreds. But those hatreds are there anyway. Only democracy can defuse them eventually. Only free speech can lead the way to solutions. It is still true that democracies don’t go to war with each other.

The West solved the problem of religious democracy. We just have to have faith in our own system.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Black Lives Matter So Much that Police are Needed

7/8/2016—this morning brings news of six killings yesterday—two civilians in police shootings in two cities and four fatal shootings of police officers in Dallas, with more officers wounded. It is a horrific reminder of the violence and race issues at the heart of America.

But I want to tell a different story. Last month, there was a shooting at a basketball court in the afternoon in a park near my house. At the time, children, overwhelmingly African-American, were practicing for youth football and cheer leading. One girl was wounded.

Rather than cancel these youth activities, organizers asked members of the nearby community to show up at the first practice held after the shooting and asked for increased police presence. So, there we all were—mostly older white neighbors, city officials, and several officers—watching kids practicing under the watchful eyes of older black men and women who were doing coaching it looked like they had been doing for years. It was an inspiring sight.

That night, there was no question of tensions between the police and the community. The police were there to help hold off the forces of drugs and gangs and guns that were one possible alternative for the hundreds of young black children playing in the bright sunlight. That night another alternative seemed possible, one symbolized by the positive organization of youth sports.

That night, my neighborhood, which generally practices social racial segregation amidst its physical integration, was united with hope for these kids and a determination that they not be claimed by the streets.

It was also a reminder of what the true threat is to black lives in America. The unfortunate police shootings must be investigated and, finally, wrongful shootings must be punished, which they rarely are. But those are tiny exceptions. Tuesday night, the police officers, black and white, were there to help. And they wanted nothing for those children but a full and healthy life. The real threat had come from the casual violence on the basketball court weeks before. There was the threat that might one day kill and cripple many of these kids.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Home and My Uncle William’s Funeral

7/2/2016—My Uncle William died last week at over 100. He lived a very full life. What was noticeable to me was the difference between his funeral and that of his brother—my father—a few years ago.

On the surface, these two men were very similar and led similar lives. Both were talented small businessmen. Both took their Judaism seriously. But the decision of my father to move to Florida, at first for part of the year, and them permanently, altered the parallel trajectory of their lives.

When my father moved to Florida, he gradually cut ties with his long-time synagogue. No continuing, long term social institution was substituted. So, by the time my father died, he was in daily connection only with family.

In contrast, Uncle William remained an active member of his synagogue and this helped keep him in contact with other people. This made for a much more vibrant social life. You could see this at Uncle William’s funeral, which can be viewed online. A large turnout, mostly, but not entirely family.

Part of the difference between them was health. My father was very healthy until age 90, but weakened considerably after that. Uncle William was healthy almost until the very end of his life.

But part of the difference was moving to Florida. Dad did not substitute a new synagogue there and never resumed regular worship. I’m not sure why.

The implications of this for hallowed secularism are troubling. Currently, secularism has no social structure. That is fitting since American secularism tends to be individualistic. But a human life requires a social network. How will secularism manage that challenge?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Humans Will Walk On Mars in the Century

6/28/2016--Ever since the 1972 Presidential race, I have been out of step with my fellow progressives on the question of space exploration. I believe such exploration is part of the human need to explore and learn. I have never understood why great men like Thomas Berry were opposed to such things. Sure, the race to the moon was wasteful. So what? There were certainly spin offs from scientific breakthroughs that recouped some of the cost. The benefit was incalculable. What is the price tag on the pictures of the Earth from the moon?

Especially now, with the inward looking politics of Brexit and the zero sum game approach of Trump and Sanders--no sense that everyone can win--not Mexicans for Trump, not the rich for Sanders--there is need for policies that are expansive.

And there is plenty of money. Space exploration is a good thing and costs relatively little. The money it does cost would not have gone into food for the poor, after all.

This is all why I greeted yesterday's news of the further development of the Chinese space program with glee. Even hidebound conservatives, even anti-technology liberals, will not want the Chinese to get too far ahead in space. Maybe this Presidential election will not make the promise to go to Mars, but the next one will.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Purposeful Obfuscation on Gun Control

6/22/2016--Oh, give me a break. I don't usually write on gun control issues--and almost never to take the Party line against the pro-gun side, but the latest Republican proposal on guns is really too much.

That proposal, written about today by Ramesh Ponnuru in the Post-Gazette, is that if someone on the terrorist watch list tries to buy a gun, the government has 72 hours to go to a judge with "probable cause" that the person is involved in terrorist plotting (that last phrase is from Ponnuru, but the "probable cause" part is in the bill.) If probable cause is found, the judge bars the sale.

This is a joke for quite technical reasons that most Americans will not know but the authors of this absurdity do know. The standard for arrest is probable cause. Therefore, if the government has probable cause to believe anyone is involved in criminal activity, the government already has the power to arrest and charge them, often holding them in jail until the case is heard, in the case of terrorist related charges.

So this proposal is literally absurd. Its only purpose is to give Republican legislators something they can vote that sounds good. Ponnuru calls it more respectful of civil liberties and more realistic about errors on the watch list. Maybe Ponnuru just does not understand how the legal system works. But I assure you, the government would never need to act under this proposal if it became law. The government already arrests such persons.

The good idea is the one I mentioned in my last entry and which would happen anyway if someone were not permitted to buy guns. The government should have to satisfy some level of scrutiny since the no-fly list is quite overbroad and inaccurate. You would know the Republicans were serious if the proposal were to force the government to satisfy reasonable suspicion, for example. But probable cause--no. That level of scrutiny is all you need for an arrest.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

How Heller Resolves the Gun Issue

6/16/2016--I have never been able to convince my fellow gun-control progressives, but DC v. Heller, the case that, in 2008, held that Americans have a constitutional right to have a gun, and McDonald v. Chicago, which extended Heller to the States, helpfully resolves the gun issue. The reason it does so is that it removes the possibility of confiscation of guns from any conversation about gun control. So, in theory, Heller should make it easier to enact sensible gun restrictions.

To see how this might work in practice, consider the issue of the no-fly list. After the horrible tragedy in Orlando, gun control advocates have renewed calls for suspension of gun purchase rights by persons on the government's no-fly, anti-terrorist watch list. Yesterday, Donald Trump agreed with this position.

In the past, this proposal has foundered on the ground that there are mistakes on the no-fly list, which are difficult to get removed. So, many innocent people are on that list and cannot seem to get off. The NRA and its allies do not want that problem exacerbated by adding guns to the list.

But now consider the impact of Heller. Courts are understandably reluctant to second guess the government about people on the no-fly list. This reluctance cannot be extended to the loss of the right to buy a gun, however, because that is a constitutional right. So, courts will have to grant hearings and put the burden on the government to justify the loss of the right to purchase guns. The net effect will be a list without obvious errors.

Progressives have not made this argument because they are afraid that it would entrench Heller. Well, guess what? Heller is entrenched. It is not a broad right--it allows a ban on concealed carry, for example--but it is robust where it applies. It will not be overruled. And it can be used to expand gun control if one knows how to use it.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Clinton Clinches

6/9/2016—I am one of the many Democrats who find it hard to warm up to Hillary Clinton. I believe she is dishonest, or at least manipulative. The email issue, which does not seem to me all that serious by itself, is a continuing symbol of what I don’t like about her. She did that to be sure to keep things private that had to be shared, at least with others in the government. It is that kind of control issues that both Clintons have always had problems with. That is why they are known collectively as Clinton, Inc.

And there is her support for the Iraq War.

Plus, I am tired of the Clinton drama. Bill Clinton was not a good President. His personal behavior was a disgrace, of course, and it did hurt the country. In addition, his new-Democrat policies hurt poor people badly. The very, very poor, especially badly. Now people who have no money often cannot get welfare, even if they have young children. Clinton is partly responsible for all that.

Nevertheless, I have no real problem supporting her. It is true, as she said yesterday, that if you want a rise in the minimum wage, you have to support her. Hillary and Bernie are actually very close on domestic economic issues. Trump is just another Republican on the most important economic issues—though he does not support cuts in social security. Even on banking issues, Hillary supports Dodd-Frank. Trump wants to eviscerate it.

And then there is global warming. Here, there is no comparison. Hillary supports the Paris Accord. Trump wants to undo it.

On all these matters, Trump is mostly just another Republican and Hillary and Bernie are Democrats. Those are the differences that matter in most Presidential elections.

So, no, I have no problem supporting Hillary.

Of course, there is more. Hillary is a woman. I am proud that a woman is nominated for President and I get to vote for her.

And there is one more matter. Donald Trump is a lunatic. So, even if I could not stand Hillary, and even if I did not agree with her on most issues, I would vote for her. So should everyone else.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Heart of Hallowed Secularism

6/4/2016--I'll be traveling some in June, but I will try to be more faithful in blogging. For my term as Associate Dean at Duquesne Law School is ending and my life in thinking is about to begin again.

This last week I spoke to a group of civilians--non-lawyers--about Judaism as part of a class on Comparative Religion. At the same time, I submitted a proposed paper to the Association of Religiously Affiliated Law Schools to speak at their meeting in September. These two matters come together for the future.

The issue is American Democracy and what is wrong with it. Why are we so angry and disappointed? Some say the reasons are material, but I believe the reasons are basically spiritual. We are a people who are lost. We no longer get our orientation from traditional religion, but we have no substitute. Most secularists--people who don't go to Church or Mosque or Temple or Synagogue--and some who do, subscribe to a worldview that is a dead end. They think they are rationalists--hence the Reason Rally today in Washington.

But they are not rationalists--they are a kind of materialist. They reject God for the silliest reason: that he is invisible and inexplicable. Well so is quantum entanglement.

I am what you might call a minimal materialist. I reject God as a being. But of course all thinking religious people reject God as a being also.

The heart of my alternative to God as a being is hallowed secularism. Secular because there cannot be a quasi-physical realm like a heaven where spirits act like people. Hallowed because this reality is holy--the missing ingredient at the Reason Rally.

My hero is Sarah Blumenthal from the book, City of God, by E.L. Doctorow. Sarah is a liberal rabbi and gives a talk. God is something evolving, she says. And what about humans? We live out a teleology that gives one substantive indication of itself--that we live in moral consequence.

There you have the future of secularism--teleology and moral consequence. Teleology: this reality is not an accident. Yes, it has random features. But look at humans. We are the universe becoming aware of itself. No mere materialism can capture that. And we know what it means to live a moral life. That means that morality is real--not a matter of opinion. So much flows from that.

Of course we disagree in the present about moral questions. But we do a really good job historically in figuring out the right answers to moral questions.

But, shockingly, I could almost describe Judaism as a teleology of moral consequence, too.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Anti-Zionism or Anti-Semitism?

5/30/2016—The really good newspaper, Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle, covers issues of interest to the Jewish community with amazing journalistic integrity. It is not unusual to find Arab and Palestinian voices in the newspaper criticizing the policies of the current government of Israel. And it is common to hear liberal voices within the Jewish community challenging unthinking support for Israel and defending American politicians who want America to play a more balanced role in the Middle East. The debate over the Iranian nuclear accord played out in the pages of that newspaper. I read it every week.

But one area where the magazine either is less even handed, or, perhaps, I don’t know what is going on, is the issue of where the line is drawn between a genuinely anti-Zionist stance and antisemitism. By genuinely anti-Zionist, I don’t even mean people who feel that the State of Israel should never have existed. The newspaper would undoubtedly call such people anti-Semitic. No, by anti-Zionist, I mean people who believe that the State of Israel has become racist in recent years and is so now. That its treatment of the Palestinian people is shameful—a violent occupation of a civilian population that would like to live in peace. That most Israelis no longer even want a Palestinian State to exist in the West Bank. That Arab Israeli citizens are second class citizens. In other words, that Israel is now a nationalist, dangerous apartheid State.

When this line, which I have never been able to make my mind up about—the Israelis I know are not representative, but they have come reluctantly to the conclusion that there cannot be peace with the Palestinians because Palestinians don’t want peace and these Israelis oppose the policies that disadvantage Arab Israeli citizens; that would not be racist in any way—is presented on college campuses, the Jewish Chronicle sometimes characterizes it as anti-Semitic. And many Jews do the same.

One thing is clear. The current government of Israel does not want an independent Palestinian State—for religious reasons (it would be on land some believe was promised by God to the Jewish people) or security reasons (inevitably, such a State would be taken over by fanatics staging attacks on Israel). After all, the current random attacks on Israelis are the reason the consensus in Israel changed against peace.

But is such criticism anti-Semitic? I don’t think it starts out that way. There are Jews, after all, who share this view of Israel. But we have to remember the insight of Carl Schmidt, the German/Nazi theorist. He wrote that once you have the friend/enemy distinction, all other oppositions follow. If a people occupy your land or oppose your policies, you eventually come to hate that people and not just what they do.

All this, of course, is miles away from the amazing anti-Semitic ranting that Jewish journalists are beginning to absorb from Trump supporters, which Jonathan Weisman wrote about in the New York Times a few days ago (here). That stuff is purely nativist. But it is comical. Impossible for me to take seriously as a threat to Jews. Donald Trump himself is a product of New York values. No one ever thought of him as anti-Semitic. The notion is ridiculous.

Well, why doesn’t he call out his supporters? For the same reason Lincoln accepted support from anti-immigrant groups. In politics you take all the votes you can get.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Shining Hour of Conservative Columnists

5/23/2016--This will ever be known as the shining hour of conservative columnists. I have four in mind: George F. Will, Ross Douthat, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer. I don't read these four every day, so it's possible I have missed something. But as far as I have seen, these four have bucked the trend inside the Republican Party to come to terms, and support in some form, Donald Trump as the Party nominee for President.

Now, you may say that this is hardly a test--that anyone smart enough to be a columnist would understand how dangerous Trump is. But that attitude misunderstands how politics works. William Safire, a great conservative columnist, once wrote that he supported Republican Party positions even when he had doubts about them because in American politics, to have any influence, you have to be on one side of the two party system. That is basically true. If Trump wins in November, opponents in the Democratic Party will continue to work and will have a home. These four men, conversely, would be marginalized in such an event. Eventually, one way or another, they would cease to have the position they have now. And they know it.

Furthermore, at least Will loathes Hillary Clinton and the others have really grave doubts about her fitness to be President. Yet, none of them is criticizing Republicans who are planning to vote for her.

The reason they are acting in this way is that they believe what they have been saying for a year--that Trump is not another politician. Not only is his word worth nothing--this is actually not true of politicians in general because they need to be loyal to their Party's coalition--but he has no democratic instincts. Trump really does not understand the restraints of the constitutional system in a way that most politicians take for granted. Think of an even less principled Richard Nixon. Think of putting the IRS in Trump's hands. Well, think of putting any power into his hands, really.

Yet, the crawl toward Trump of Republican Party officials is what you would expect of the Party establishment. They know how bad Trump is, but they have nowhere else to go. Right now, they are just hoping he is defeated and they can get back to normal politics.

Nor do I believe a Paul Krugman or other liberal columnists would do the same thing if the situation were reversed. These four columnists are loyal to a political tradition independent of Party that I am not sure liberals have. Liberals agree with each other on some policy points, but when they disagree with each other--as on free trade, for example--liberals don't have an abiding ideology to fall back on.

So three cheers for the big four: Will, Douthat, Brooks and Krauthammer. Their country owes them a debt.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How Can There Be a Compromise?

5/17/2016—I’m going out on a limb here and saying the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is an ideological opponent of the Obama Administration. The Becket Fund provides the lead attorneys (maybe there are others, I don’t know) in Zubik v. Burwell, the challenge to contraception coverage under Obamacare that the US Supreme Court yesterday sent back to the lower courts to try to work out a compromise. But any compromise that is possible would be a win for the Administration, so how could the Becket Fund agree to any such compromise?

Why would any compromise be a win for the Administration? Because any agreement would ensure reproductive services for women employees of religious employers (again, I’m not following the details, but according to the media the services involved are only for women. I guess vasectomies are not provided by Obamacare, which is too bad). And, politically, any compromise would show that the Administration is not an enemy of religious liberty, which is a key ideological plank of conservative opposition to President Obama in particular and Democrats in general. The Becket Fund cannot afford to be part of that.

I am assuming two really serious and related points. First, the Becket Fund is ideological first and does not want to work with liberals to find common ground. Maybe I am wrong about that. If so, I will be happy to apologize. If I am right, the Becket Fund is not alone. Plenty of groups on the left are like that.

Second, and both related and defamatory, I am assuming that the Becket Fund puts its ideology ahead of the interests and desires of its clients. That is a serious charge because it would ordinarily get a lawyer disbarred. And, again, I don’t know this to be true. It just looks that way from afar. It is possible that the clients here are just as political and ideological as is the Becket Fund—could that be possible for the Little Sisters of the Poor?

I never understood this case from either a legal or a theological point of view. All the government ever asked of the religious institutions is that they fill out a form claiming they wanted to be exempt from certain coverages. At that point, their insurance companies provided the coverages for free. Economically this made no sense, of course, but no one ever showed that the plaintiffs were charged for anything. How could the plaintiffs have objected to this in the first place? Weren’t they really objecting to employees practicing birth control and did not want to say so? Why did they not just fire people who used these coverages? They could, you know.

So, I always thought the plaintiffs were picking a fight on purpose. The fact that the Supreme Court thinks there might possibly be room for compromise suggests to me that the Justices also cannot quite figure out what the problem is for the plaintiffs. But, months from now, when the election has been held, I predict that the cases will be back with no compromise.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Beginning of the End of Religion as a Political Force

5/10/2016—The decline of religion in America as a potent social force can be documented in different ways. For one, all those surveys showing a growing group of “nones”—their response to the question, what is your religion? This is so especially among the young. And there is the parallel drop in attendance at formal religious institutions, especially the mainstream Protestant, Catholic and liberal Jewish denominations.

But you can also look at the matter of the decline of religion socially, legally and politically.

Socially, the fracturing of social structure that lies behind the rise in mortality rates among Whites involves the decline of religion and other forces of hope. David Brooks wrote about that today in the New York Times.

Legally, you see the decline in the movement from Establishment Clause type cases, in which religious symbols are used by government, to Free Exercise type cases, in which religious believers are the plaintiffs complaining that government is infringing on their freedom to practice religion. These cases are now brought under statutes.

But the most startling aspect of the decline is political. This year’s candidates are the least religious I can remember—although Ronald Reagan did not seem particularly religious. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has not practiced his Jewish faith—although he is much more respectful of religion than some of his secular supporters. Hillary Clinton has tried to convince the voters of her deep Methodist roots, but I doubt most people associate her with Christianity.

Then there is Trump, who receives votes from people who identify with religion, but who seems almost totally devoid of basic Biblical knowledge—he called one of Paul’s letters “two” rather second, for example.

This year, there really is no religious vote that someone could cast even if she wanted to do so. And the next President will be even less religious, publicly, than President Obama, who was himself not particularly religious.

This is an important trend, not likely to reverse any time soon.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Response by Professor Freeman

5/2/2016—I posted on this blog a letter to the editor that I wrote to the New York Review criticizing Professor Samuel Freeman’s defense of the commitment of several thinkers of the left to forms of moral realism. I claimed that the figures he was defending, most notably John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, are in fact guilty of this charge of relativism.

Professor Freeman wrote back to me a short, elegant response. I would post it, but I have learned that it is unfair unless one has specific permission to post someone’s email online. So, let me just say that Professor Freeman makes three points: first, that Dworkin and Dworkin relied on the Kantian idealist tradition specifically to derive objective moral truths; second that my own intuitionist approach presupposes the existence of God and is hardly convincing; and third that I am mistaken that liberalism can only be justified by relativist principles. Finally, as an aside, my assertion that moral realism can only be based on the derivation of an ought from an is false. There is God’s will and there is also the account that claims that there are fundamental moral laws or principles that are constitutive of practical reasoning.

My response is not going to be as well organized as his criticism. As for Rawls, speaking only for that aspect of A Theory of Justice that relies on the hypothetical social contract of the original position, it does not produce theories of justice that are objectively true. It is not possible to be certain what principles of justice the participants in the original position would consent to. It might be justice as fairness or it might not. What Rawls is actually relying on is a different moral principle—that people are properly bound by what they consent to or would consent to under certain stated circumstances. But I am not willing to grant that this principle is objectively true.

As to the matter of the justification of liberalism, I don’t mean to suggest that principles of liberalism can only be justified on relativist grounds. I am making a kind of political/rhetorical point that the left in law only does justify liberal principles—in certain matters, such as gay rights—on relativist grounds. If there is some other account, and I believe there must be, Freeman should criticize the reasoning in the Lawrence case. I would like to see that.

Finally, as to the ought and the is. Dworkin is making the point that the existence of God is irrelevant to the moral truths of religion. This is on pages 26-27 of Religion without God. That is probably so. But let us consider Dworkin’s example. When I see someone threatened with danger, I have a moral responsibility to help if I can. But it is not the fact of the danger, but the background moral truth that people have a general duty to prevent suffering, not the mere fact of the threat that created the ought—that I ought to intervene.

But now ask, what is that background duty based on? To extend Dworkin’s analysis, that ought is based on the is that a person is objectively worthy. And thus worthy of saving. A rock is not, but a person is.

I can put this more simply. The principle that Dworkin is supporting is intrinsically both an ought and an is—it is morally wrong to let someone suffer unnecessarily. Or, later, cruelty is wrong.

Dworkin tries to wriggle out of this self-contradiction by changing Hume’s categories. An ought cannot be justified by “some scientific fact”. (27). But the point of Dworkin’s book is that something like cruelty is a fact. And the moral wrong of letting someone suffer is also a fact.

So, moral obligations do derive from the state of the world.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Redemption of American Public Life

4/30/2016--Classes ended last night. I will have more to say about my class in Philosophy of Law, which ended with a meeting at my home. It was a marvelous experience, but now the work sparked by that class begins. I told my students on Constitutional Law that it is their task to repair public life in America. The question is whether law school is giving them the tools to do that. Likely the answer to that is no, for now. Or, yes only in part. Or yes, in potential.

One place to start this repair is the acknowledgment of the damage that popular nihilism has done and continues to do. By popular nihilism I refer to the lack of commitment to lasting and powerful truth. (Calling this objective truth raises philosophical issues I am not equipped to deal with at this point. "Lasting" will do to distinguish it from opinion.)

Let's start with the nihilism in political/philosophical discourse. Samuel Freeman responded to this charge against the left in a review in the New York Review a couple of weeks ago. Here is a proposed letter to the editor that I sent in, but which will evidently not be published.
_________________________
To the Editors:

While there are no factual errors in his review of Roger Scruton’s recent book, there are omissions and a lack of nuance that permit Samuel Freeman to doubt that the American left is subject to the "bleak relativism" and opposition to values objectivity of which Scruton accuses it. (The Enemies of Roger Scruton, NYR, April 21) Clearly some of the figures that Professor Freeman mentions are in fact relativists. Certainly this is so, and famously so, of Richard Rorty. It is even true of John Rawls, who had to place the source of justice in the hypothesized human consent of his “original position” because there was for him no source for objective values.

But a lack of commitment to values objectivity is even true, strangely, of one seemingly great exception to the charge: Ronald Dworkin. Yes, Dworkin always insisted that values were real—that cruelty is really wrong, as he wrote in his last work, Religion Without God and in the pages of this magazine. But, in that last work, Dworkin also repeated his long-standing fealty to David Hume's position that one cannot deduce an ought from an is. Unfortunately for Dworkin, just such a deduction from fact to value is necessary for the moral realism that Dworkin defended. We will now never know how Dworkin might have resolved this tension, since it was never pressed on him during his lifetime. (For some reason, Professor Freeman omitted the American philosopher most committed to moral realism—Hilary Putnam. But Putnam grappled with the left's nihilism for much of his life and even mentioning his name would have reminded readers of just how correct Scruton is on this matter).

The context of the left’s value relativism is both philosophical and strategically political. Philosophically, it reflects the death of God and the collapse of religion. Strategically, it reflects a cheap advantage in the culture wars, where traditional morality can be easily attacked as mere opinion.

One sees this strategy of undermining traditional values in the left's support for Justice Kennedy’s deeply nihilistic majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case that set aside criminal penalties for gay sexual relations. Kennedy concluded that condemning conduct a majority considers immoral is not a legitimate government interest. How does Justice Kennedy and the left then imagine that progressive taxation or the protection of wilderness are to be justified? These policies can only be defended properly as morally right. And the same is true of gay rights. The only proper ground to set aside bigotry against gays is for the Supreme Court to call it bigotry. Justice, not tolerance, is what’s needed.

This is not just a problem for the left, however. Scruton and the right are also subject to the death of values. Thus, Scruton’s commitment to traditional institutions as a source of values is just another form of Rawls’ grounding of values in human consensus. Indeed, as I show in a recent article in the Akron Law Review, The Five Days in June When Values Died in American Law, the jurisprudence of the right and the jurisprudence of the left are both deeply compromised by the collapse of values. This is a serious matter that cannot be engaged until it is acknowledged. Professor Freeman’s misguided defense of the value objectivity of the left just postpones that needed reckoning.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Democrats Are Wrong About Money

4/23/2016—Democrats and people on the left generally are wrong about the power of money in public life and it is affecting their analysis of the current problem.

Harpers magazine contained a telling statistic this week. When asked the percentage of Republicans who earn $250,000 a year, Democrats estimate 44%. Of course, given the skewed distribution of wealth in America, this figure could not be accurate. The actual number is 2%.

This is important, because it suggests that the power of money to capture the Republican Party is not direct self-interest. No. People are actually persuaded by the Koch Brothers. The problem is political, not structural.

But, isn’t it dark money? Isn’t it hidden? There is certainly some of that. But not much. Mostly, people have been persuaded by arguments, or at least by certain phrases. Low taxes. Small government. The left has been unable to persuade.

But can’t money just get its way? Does the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders suggest that it can? At least money need not get its way directly in politics. The voters vote—-not lobbyists. You can get elected if you can convince the voters.

Money has real power. But campaign finance is the least of the problem. Lobbying is a greater potential influence, but even there the main use of the money is persuasion. Powerful economic interests argue that their policies are good for people and they can hire lawyers and economists to make the case. Conservative macroeconomics has always held a certain sway in America. We are not socialists.

Ironically, if you want to see the brute power of money, look at how corporations are ganging up on North Carolina because of the anti-gay-and-others law. But, notice that the left has no problem with that. Just wait until the NFL says no Super Bowl in New York until the income tax goes down. Then we will hear about the power of corporations.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ted Cruz on the Second or Third Ballot

4/18/2016—Ross Douthat saw this coming awhile ago. There is really nothing to stop Ted Cruz except Donald Trump on the first ballot. And that probably won’t happen because not many Republicans fear a Cruz nomination more than a Trump nomination.

And they are right. Cruz is a different kind of candidate. He could win. Calling him a wacko bird, as John McCain did, won’t mean much to a lot of voters. The Republicans who don’t like him will happily support him compared to Hillary Clinton, whom they really dislike, or Bernie Sanders, should he win the nomination.

Well, I guess I should be happy that it will not be Trump, who is a dangerous man in a way Ted Cruz is not. But think about Cruz running the country. He calls for a return to the gold standard. Obviously he denies global warming. Fortunately, he is bad on immigration, which is the only issue that will really hurt him. (I know he is extreme on abortion, but any Republican candidate will have a similar position, or that person could not win the nomination).

Cruz also means that the Republican Party will not necessarily have a bad election. After all, Hillary has already shown that she is not a great candidate. Against Trump, Sanders supporters would happily vote for her—would see the necessity of doing so. Not so against Cruz.

I am leaving out how Trump supporters will feel about Trump’s losing the nomination in a process they may feel is tainted. But how deep was their attachment to Trump? Will they translate Trump’s desire to defend social programs into an understanding that Cruz is against their interests? Well, if Hillary understands that dynamic, she could get somewhere. But Hillary is fundamentally a free trader and Trump is not. That will probably foreclose an appeal like that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Future of Law School

4/13/2016--The ABA has been asking law schools to engage in what they call outcomes assessment. The idea is to operationalize what law schools think they are teaching and then to measure educational success.

Except this is a juvenile task--at least the way it has been presented so far. The bar exam is already a test of whether students learn the substantive law and can communicate analysis in written form. The exam is not everything, but it will do. And students can tell whether they are getting their money's worth on their own.

But, after hearing about this from some experts, I wondered whether the question of outcome might be more deeply posed. Here is what I came up with for Duquesne Law School.
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I don’t know whether what the ABA is going to be asking of us is trivial or unnecessary or both, but it has provoked a question in me that perhaps justifies last Friday’s exercise: what is our goal in educating students at Duquesne Law School? It has always been true that Duquesne educates competent, responsible attorneys whose record of public service is unequaled, certainly unequaled by any law school remotely similar to Duquesne in size and resources.

Now, in a genuinely dark time in American public life, perhaps this tradition should be noted and emphasized in a more determinate way as an intentional institutional outcome, thus giving substance to the ABA’s exercise.

To suggest this as part of the long-range response to the ABA, I propose the following remarks.
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Outcome: Students will graduate from Duquesne Law School with values, knowledge and skills to help solve the crisis in American public life.

That there is a crisis in American public life is hard to dispute. This crisis is characterized by hyper partisanship, political gridlock and a toxic and trivialized public square. The constitutional tradition has always placed the legal profession at the center of American public life, with a self-recognized responsibility for the health of self-government. In a sense, the client of the American Law School is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. This form of service is consistent with Duquesne Law School’s own mission and the school’s professional obligations. To serve this client, Duquese Law School must itself be a community of faculty and staff that is open and intelligent. Only in that way will our graduates become open and intelligent.
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Values: Students will exhibit civility, commitment to the rule of law, a greater commitment to the welfare of the people, responsibility for self-directed, open inquiry, respect for rational analysis and dedication to a life of service to the public good at the different levels of client, legal system, nation and humanity.

I chose civility rather than tolerance because, while civility of discourse is necessary if each member of the community is to be free to engage in open inquiry, there should not be tolerance of bad ideas. Rather, the Law School’s aim should be to foster sound judgment. The rule of law is an important professional commitment, but the Law School motto is a reminder that even the rule of law must not become an ideology on which lives are sacrificed. Open inquiry is hard to maintain in a world brimming with forms of political correctness on all sides and the Law School has not always lived up to this value. Nevertheless, it must remain a realistic goal to be fostered by faculty recruitment as well as by faculty conduct. At this professional level, student self-direction is required, which is to be encouraged by faculty as model as well as instructor.
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Knowledge: Students will gain familiarity with the vocabulary, substance, processes and methods of American law, the principles of institution building, mediation and conflict resolution and, most important, the science of human flourishing, including the spiritual life of humanity and the role of humanity in the natural world.

All law students must graduate from law school with a working knowledge of the American legal system in all of its phases. Duquesne Law School graduates must also become expert in sustainable institution-building and conflict resolution that promotes justice. Nevertheless, very little knowledge is generated in law school. Most of the knowledge that is needed for legal education will come from the natural and social sciences. But this knowledge must include respect for spiritual life and the natural world.
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Skills: Students will be competent in both the adversarial system and forms of mediation and will develop the capacity to judge when and to what extent each is needed to promote the public good in all of its levels. Students will be able to craft transactional devices needed to operationalize legal rights and duties. Students will have simulated or actual experience in navigating the legal system, structures of government and private economic and social organizations.

Not every student will gain equal levels of skill in all of these areas. But all of these skills are necessary for the graduating student and the curriculum must foster the acquiring of these skills to the extent possible.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Religious Liberty-Gay Rights Problem

4/7/2016--First, let me acknowledge that my very heavy semester has been taking a toll on my blogging. Too bad, because so much is going on.

On the religious liberty front, America keeps descending into an unworkable model of division. On the one hand, there is the push for protection of gay Americans against discrimination. On the other, there is a push directly for just such discrimination in the name of religious liberty.

We see this playing out in several States right now, adding in the transgender thing that I have not understood yet.

The first question is, why should any religious believer want to discriminate against gays? I'm not talking about religious institutions themselves and whom they employ. But why would a Christian not sell or rent to a gay person or couple? Landlords don't typically enforce morality in the lives of their tenants. Certainly, any landlord who rents to unmarried couples, which they all do, has no legitimate claim to refuse to rent to a gay couple. The Catholic Church has never supported economic discrimination against gays in the market, for example.

And that kind of inconsistency is also why these religious liberty laws are not helpful. Religious believers and their supporters in law now argue that there can be no judgments by courts about the burden being imposed on their religious beliefs. So, even if the discrimination they want to practice makes no sense theologically, they get to discriminate. I don't think America can accept that kind of economic discrimination.

I grant that there are two situations in which religious discrimination might be justified. First, religious organizations surely get to decide who should work there. And if they don't want people working for them who publicly flout their principles, that makes sense to me. Second, a wedding is for many people not just a commercial event, but a religious one. So, if a believer does not want to participate in a gay wedding, that seems a different situation. But even here, I expect these matters to sort themselves out eventually.

These are pretty dark days in American public life. Part of the problem is the lack of desire for compromise and common ground. Well, sometimes you shouldn't compromise, I know. But usually you should.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Well, If It is a Crime, Why Shouldn’t Women Be Punished?

3/31/2016—It took Donald Trump to expose the disconnect between the pro-life movement’s rhetoric and its policy prescriptions. Trump said yesterday that the mother should be punished if she has an abortion. Then he backed down. Presumably that is finally the end of him.

But, if the unborn child is a human being and her mother kills her, it is murder. After birth no one says a mother should not be punished for killing her child. No doctor forces a woman to have an abortion, or even encourages her. Why should the doctor go to jail and not the woman?

How about the father who encourages her and pays for the abortion? Does he go to jail?

The reason for this disconnect is that Roe v. Wade has protected the pro-life movement from having to legislate much of anything besides putting abortion providers out of business.

So, how should the doctor be punished? Logically, it should be the death penalty—intentionally taking the life of a child is a capital crime aggravating circumstance in many states.

Well, we are not going to do that. So, let’s finally admit that while the unborn child is human, abortion is not murder.

I call myself pro-life, but that is certainly my position. Maybe the way to handle abortion is with an emergency pill shortly after an unwanted conception, when the ball of cells is not recognizably human. After that, at some point—when is the issue, since most people don’t know they are pregnant for awhile—abortion is banned except when the life or health of the mother is at stake. And health would be broadly defined. This would accomplish what I have always wanted—a legal regime in which abortion is discouraged, but is not usually illegal.

Even this would not be the actual state of affairs, since some states will have abortion on demand and the right to travel to those states is constitutionally protected.

Anyway, we can thank Trump for exposing the false debate we have been having until now.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Religious Exemptions

3/25/2016--In a little noted change, Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law, and the country's leading expert on church and state, submitted a brief on behalf of a Baptist group supporting the government's position in the contraception exemption case that was argued in the US Supreme Court on Thursday. Laycock has said that he had never supported the government in such a case before.

In this case, a group of religious organizations claim that the exemption they enjoy from covering birth control under Obamacare is not enough. The exemption still renders them complicit in the procurement of birth control by their employees.

The details of what they have to do under the exemption are contested. But for me they don't matter. It is clear that the organization does not pay for any medical procedures that they oppose on religious grounds.

The problem is the way that the religious organizations say these kinds of cases should be resolved. The cases are being litigated under a statute--the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)--that generally prohibits the federal government from placing a substantial burden on the practice of someone's religion unless the Government has an extraordinary justification. The religious organizations seem to be saying that only they can judge whether a government practice is a substantial burden on their religious practice.

This is exactly the sort of claim that the late Justice Scalia feared would be made when he wrote in the Smith case in 1990 that religious believers have no constitutional protection against a generally applicable law. It would court anarchy to allow every religious believer to decide the validity of his own claim.

Well, here we are. The burden on religious practice, whatever it is under the facts, is exceedingly modest. But the plaintiffs in this case say that such a judgment cannot be made by a Court. Maybe they are right, but if they are right, RFRA will have to repealed. And eventually it will be. That is why Professor Laycock is siding, this one time, with the government.



Sunday, March 20, 2016

Maybe Finally a Debate on Trade

3/20/2016—Maybe now, finally, America will have its debate on free trade. Since Bernie and Donald sound very similar on the issue, and since so much of the working class anger seems to focus on free trade, and since the trade issue has seriously hurt Hillary, the debate now seems inescapable.

Readers of this blog know that I have been writing about the dodges of the free traders for awhile. My favorite foil is Paul Krugman, who, as an economist knows the value of trade, but as a columnist cannot bring himself to challenge the progressive wing of his Party.

It is a fair question and now has to be answered. Would America be better off economically if we avoided trade? The answer seems to me so obviously no that I have a hard time treating it as a real question. The problem with the debate is to estimate fairly the alternatives. Those alternatives have to be pretty open trade versus pretty closed trade. You don’t get to choose only the favorable aspects of trade because your trading partners would then be doing the same thing.

So, if you don’t send some manufacturing jobs abroad, you have to ban a lot of imported products. To keep manufacturing air conditioners, you have to ban the import of foreign air conditioners. But then you have to live with expensive air conditioners in all businesses. Eventually, everybody is worse off, including the workers in those more expensive industries.

Plus, a lot of lost manufacturing jobs are being lost to innovation, not trade. Robots are costing a lot of jobs and are doing the same thing that trade is blamed for-—helping the better educated, better off workers at the expense of workers at the lower end of manufacturing. This exacerbates inequality. But I have not heard any candidate criticizing robots.

It is an important debate and the anger of workers, especially the white working class, shows how democracy has failed to promote actual discussion. We can thank Bernie and Donald for making our elites talk about the reality of trade. But Bernie and Donald are still wrong.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Three Conservative Commentators Breaking Out of Conventional Wisdom

3/16/2016—What America needs is candor from its political class. It’s getting that and more from Charles Krauthammer, Ross Douthat and David Brooks. It’s more candor than you hear from anyone on the left.

David Brooks is the least surprising. He has always been a little unusual. He wrote a column last week in which he insisted that the Republican Party not turn to Ted Cruz in order to stop Donald Trump. It’s Not Too Late on March 8, 2016. The point of this column was a real effort to reorient the Republican Party: “If the G.O.P. is going to survive as a decent and viable national party, it can’t cling to the fading orthodoxy Cruz represents. But it can’t shift to ugly Trumpian nationalism, either. It has to find a third alternative: limited but energetic use of government to expand mobility and widen openness and opportunity. That is what Kasich, Rubio, Paul Ryan and others are stumbling toward.” The strategy he recommended foundered in Florida.

Douthat also pointed to a brokered convention, but one with a much clearer notion of how that happens. He called on the Party elite to reject Trump at the Convention and live with the consequences. The Party Still Decides on March 12, 2016: “Denying [Trump] the nomination would indeed be an ugly exercise, one that would weaken or crush the party’s general election chances, and leave the G.O.P. with a long hard climb back up to unity and health.

But if that exercise is painful, it’s also the correct path to choose. A man so transparently unfit for office should not be placed before the American people as a candidate for president under any kind of imprimatur save his own. And there is no point in even having a party apparatus, no point in all those chairmen and state conventions and delegate rosters, if they cannot be mobilized to prevent 35 percent of the Republican primary electorate from imposing a Trump nomination on the party.”

Then there is Krauthammer, who characterized Bernie Sanders’ description of his Judaism as an indictment of American Judaism. Bernie Sanders, on March 11. Sanders responded to a question about his Jewish identity by referring to the importance to him of the holocaust. Krauthammer was not criticizing him—“I credit him with sincerity and authenticity.” But he felt that victimhood could not be a proper basis for Judaism. For Krauthammer, rabbinic practice, which is the orthodox approach, and tikkun olam, prophetic repair of the world, are both valid as authentic Judaism. But not just the holocaust.

A very honest, very difficult column to write.

The political right had a much better week than you thought.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Not Trade but Wages

3/12/2016—Notice how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump sound the same on free trade? What in the world has happened to the Democratic Party? Where has all this protectionism come from?

I blame the economic leadership of the Party in large part. Finally, today in the PG, Paul Krugman had a modest defense of free trade. It basically came down to this—that America should not renege on prior deals. That is not much of a defense.

The point should not be jobs per se but wages—though the two are related. At a 4.9% unemployment rate—practically full employment, it is hard to argue that the problem right now is too few jobs. The problem is wage stagnation. People who attribute wage stagnation to free trade are overlooking how small a portion of GDP trade makes up. Wages have not stagnated because free trade gives employers leverage to move abroad.

What has happened is that business is keeping a higher percentage of earnings for itself and shareholders than it used to. Wages are not getting the same percentage of the pie as was true in the past. This, not trade, is what needs to be remedied.

The remedy is to push up wages. The simplest way to do this is to raise the federal minimum wage. The slogan should be, America, you deserve a raise. The target should be any candidate for the House who opposes increasing the minimum wage. Once implemented, wages will go up.

Beyond that, the only way I know to put upward pressure on wages is to make it easier to unionize. That effort will face the strong pro-business bias of the US Supreme Court. It is unbelievable that some Justices—Alito, for example—equate union bargaining with associational rights under the First Amendment. That is bizarre. For wxample, there are people who oppose the minimum wage. That does not make the minimum was a free speech issue. Once the political activity of unions is removed, as the Court did years ago, there is no free speech issue in requiring fees for matters of economic representation.

In any event, the point is that it is not trade that is the issue. The issue is wages. Here, I bet Bernie agrees with Hillary and not Donald.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Bill McKibben Proves Me Right on Campaign Finance, Though He Probably Doesn’t Agree

3/7/2016—I have been involved in a mostly ineffectual campaign finance debate with Larry Lessig and many others about the problem of money in American politics. A book review by Bill McKibben of Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, reaffirms me in the belief that I am right and that the mainstream left is mistaken about the fundamental questions of money in politics.

Just to review, and there is a law review article from Cleveland State Law Review coming out shortly on these issues, my main proposals are the following. First, that the problem of the domination of American political life by the right is primarily a political, rather than a financial issue. Second, that campaign-finance is only a small part of the ways in which money influences policy in America. Third, that the problem of money in political campaigns is about independent spending, rather than about the totals of spending.

Now, I don’t mean that either Bill McKibben or Jane Mayer agrees with me in these issues. But between them, they illustrate the soundness of my beliefs. Take the matter of the political, rather than the financial analysis of the political influence of conservative thought. Jane Mayer begins her book in 1980. It is only from that point on that she examines the rise of big spending on the right. But, it should occur to people that Ronald Reagan was elected overwhelmingly in 1980 basically on the very platform that Jane Mayer attributes to the Koch brothers and others. The success of Ronald Reagan in 1980 strongly suggests that the basic message of low taxes and small government is popular with the American people, who have always, left and right, distrusted government.

In terms of the second point—where and how the power of money manifests— McKibben describes how Mayer shows the Koch Brothers’ network at work on the issue of climate change. Basically, “they poured tens of millions of dollars ‘into dozens of different organizations fighting climate reform.’” They hid the sources of the money and, if Mayer and McKibben are to be believed, which I do, they basically paid people to lie about climate change and to raise false charges against honest researchers. Obviously, I’m not defending any of this, but it has nothing to do with campaign-finance. Similarly, these right wing networks don’t just spend money in political campaigns, they spend a lot of money in lobbying and in providing jobs to out of work former officeholders. All of these activities are obviously protected by the First Amendment. The whole story does, I admit, suggest that perhaps democracy and capitalism cannot coexist, which Karl Marx would certainly have anticipated, but it does not suggest in the slightest that campaign-finance reform is relevant to the power of money in American life.

In terms of the third point—how right-wing money works in American elections—McKibben explains that the $200 million spent in 2010 by this right-wing network was primarily “Republican–aligned independent groups” running “absurd attack ads.” These absurd attack ads are unfair, but the main point is that they only can be run, and only would be run, by independent groups. Candidates by and large don’t run these ads.

Remember, my proposal is to eliminate campaign contribution limits. If all of this right-wing money went to candidates, it would be spent giving those candidates an advantage, it is true, but that advantage would only lie in the ability to make policy arguments. It would not be used to tear down political opponents.

We see the power of attack ads run by independent groups right now in the growing movement to try to stop Donald Trump. I don’t hear any liberals complaining. These ads, run by independent groups, will be just as unfair to Trump as they have been unfair in the past to Democrats. This is what we need to rein in. We do not need to overturn Citizens United or SpeechNow to end independent spending. All we need to do is eliminate contribution limits.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Will Negative Ads and so forth Hurt Trump?

3/5/2016—Well, I would have thought so. Is Trump immune? We’ll see today, I guess. The question is, is Trump actually increasing his support or is he still at the 35% level and wins because he has so many opponents? (Trump is at 35% in Kansas in the latest poll, but might win because the rest of the vote is split). But in Louisiana and Mississippi, polls show him at over 40%--that is a real lead.

The question I’m asking is how much Trump has changed everything? Or is it just that his opponents will not cooperate? What would happen if Cruz and Rubio skipped Ohio? If only Rubio faced Trump in Florida? Trump would lose.

So, is it Trump or is it the lack of discipline and integrity among the remaining candidates that is leading Trump to the nomination? If Trump is so bad, why can’t they put their ambitions aside? And in the case of John Kasich, is it not clear that he will not be the nominee no matter what? So, why would he not tell his supporters to support Cruz or Rubio—whoever in a State has the best chance to beat Trump?

Former Utah Governor Leavitt was right that Trump could be beaten piecemeal, but only if the remaining candidates cooperated.

Would Trump win a convention in which he lacked 1237 delegates going in? On the one hand, Trump is no one’s second choice, so you would think he would not gain delegates on a second ballot.

But, Trump is slick and reckless. He has the money and connections to offer jobs to a few delegates who would put him over the top. He might be willing to risk skirting bribery laws.