Monday, September 20, 2021

Two Recent Columns--the Texas Anti-Abortion statute and Justice Wecht and the Death of God

 9/20/2021--Last week was obviously too busy. I failed to list here two columns that came out. 

One was on Sunday, 9/12, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I am Resigning from the Pro-Life Movement, about the Texas anti-abortion law. I have been trying to get the DFLA, of which I am a member, to take a stand on the Texas law. Other elements in the pro-life movement are similarly upset with the Texas law and the willingness of the pro-life movement to embrace the Texas law--see AP story here.

The other column was in the Capital-Star, where I usually write, about a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion by Justice David Wecht that expressly set forth the Death of God as an aspect of public life. You don't usually get such clarity on issues like these. But it does demonstrate the emptiness of law.

A similar dispiriting story appeared in Harper's, written by Barrett Swanson, about influencer houses, where young people go to try to make it in the industry--so of do it yourself celebrity over nothing. Read it if you want to understand suicide among young people and the emptiness of University.   

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Forgiveness

 9/16/2021--On this day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we secularists should ask, how do we find forgiveness? Yes, we can ask the person we have wronged, and in the Jewish tradition, one must do that. But, the tradition does not expect this always to be successful. One need only ask forgiveness a specified number of times--any more than that is considered an act of violence.

And even when the wronged person forgives, that is not perfect forgiveness. We still know and they still know. 

And anyway, what secularist do you know who even thinks about how he or she wronged someone.

No, secularism has a long, long way to go before we can have a flourishing secular civilization. Psychiatry is not a substitute for introspection. And that introspection is going to have to be really searching. 

When I practiced Judaism, I used to feel on Yom Kippur that the whole sin thing was overdone. (Except on rare occasions when my failures in personal relationships were too obvious to ignore). Now I think that we do violence all the time to everyone around us. But we mostly keep it hidden. We don't love properly. We are envious. We are vain. 

This I think is to be human.

This most generalized falling short of living rightly is what we most need forgiveness for. 

Only religion offers that kind of forgiveness so that we really can start over tomorrow.

How will secular life deal with this?  

 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty Years Later, 9/11 is finally over

 9/11/2021--With the departure from Afghanistan, 9/11 has finally ended. During these twenty years we have lost a great deal. America is divided and diminished. But the immediate crisis of radical Islamic terrorism is diminished as well. Attacks continue, but, as David Brooks has written, that path is not the future. And that is clear to most. 

What is the future for Islam? What is has always been--a growing secularism. Growing unbelief. The example of the Taliban just brings that future closer.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Secular Repentence

 9/10/2021--It came to me today, and I cannot further develop it right now, that in our efforts to build secular civilization--our great work, as Tom Berry might say--we have to have religious categories. One such category is prayer. Another, especially obvious during the Jewish Days of Awe, is repentance. I never hear anything about that from secular sources. But it is as necessary as tuning an instrument. 

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The steal in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

9/2/2021--This week's column in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. It was not clear until 2020 just how bad this particular attempt to deal with the Electoral College would be. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

What Has Gone Wrong and What Can We Do About It?

Ha 8/15/2021--In 2019, I published a book review of three books in the Tulsa Law Review. These books were all about the divisions in American public life. The name of the book review was, WHAT HAS GONE WRONG AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT? Most of the Introduction follows.

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Introduction: This Moment in American Politics

It is a mark of how bad things are in American public life that most people who read the title of this book review will immediately understand that it refers to the current state of politics in the United States.

Here is how Lawrence Lessig describes our condition in America, Compromised, one of the three books discussed in this review:

"There is not a single American awake to the world who is comfortable with the way things are. Every one of us has a sense if only a sense that with our nation, something is not quite right .... We've not been as divided as a people since the Civil War."

Now, ignore Lessig's smug reference to Americans “awake to the world.” That is his partisanship showing, a matter I return to below. Lessig is saying that all or most Americans know that something is wrong. Perhaps that by itself is not so shocking. The reader probably feels that way, too. I know I do.

But why are we so sure that anything is wrong? The unemployment rate is hovering around 4%. The economy is growing. Our military is still engaged in the Middle East, but at low levels. Racism is declining, as evidenced by the effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement in bringing attention to police wrongdoing and the historically low black unemployment rate. The #MeToo movement has exposed various forms of sexual oppression and harassment in the workplace. Nothing is objectively wrong in America right now.

Yet, despite all that, Lessing is obviously correct that Americans are divided--more than at any time since the Civil War.

Think about that. At the time of the Civil War, Americans were divided over slavery. A moral demand for freedom was imposing itself, threatening the fundamental social, economic and political arrangements of nearly half the country. Americans would go to war against each other over that demand for freedom, resulting in over 200,000 combat deaths.

Compared to slavery, what are Americans divided over today? Free trade? Wages have stagnated, but for most people are not actually falling. People are economically stressed, but how could that make us more divided than we were during the Depression?

White resentment over the loss of privilege is certainly a part of this story of division. But, Pennsylvania was won by President Donald Trump when Erie County, which President Barak Obama in 2012 had won by sixteen percentage points, went Republican. The story of how that happened cannot be simple racism.

Some people would say that abortion is a moral issue equivalent to slavery, but surely that view is a minority one. In one survey, only 45% of registered voters said that abortion was “very important” to their votes in the 2016 Presidential election.

And it is not really the case that Americans are divided over President Trump. It would be more accurate to say that the deep divisions in America allowed him to become President in the first place. We must remember that as early as 1993, not a single Republican in Congress voted for President Bill Clinton's first budget. American divisions were becoming set as early as twenty-five years ago.

In the Jewish tradition, the rabbis taught that Jerusalem fell to the Romans because of “baseless hatred.” The defenders of the city were so divided that they could not concentrate on its defense.

Surely that description--baseless hatred--is the most accurate description of America today. We hate and mistrust each other and we seize on issues not so much because we disagree, but in order to express that very mistrust and hatred.

But why do we hate each other? And what can be done about it? That is the question books like these seek to answer.

In a recent book review, Daniel Drezner refers to the “21 st-century cottage industry of books devoted to how things went off course.” The bar for adding to this genre, Drezner says, should be high. The three books reviewed here meet that bar. Each book has an important story to tell concerning what went wrong and how America might go forward in a better direction.

Nevertheless, in the end, there is something elusive about America's current moment that none of these books, nor indeed any of the other books in this genre, can quite touch. As I suggest at the end of this review, in each of these three books there is a hint of a spiritual crisis--a crisis in American secularism and American religion--that they do not address, but which eventually will have to be confronted if America is ever to heal.

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The title of the review was a play on the title of one of the books under review: Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What Can We Do About It?, by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens. (The third book, in some ways the most important, was How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.)

As the reader can see from the Introduction, I thought the three books had ultimately failed in their essential purpose—explaining why American public life is broken and giving us a path back to health.

I thought I knew then what was wrong, and it had to do with the Death of God and what that absence meant for Americans’ understanding of the universe we live in. America needed a new, non-God-centered, account of the meaning of life. 

Things are not much better now, two years later. Trump is out, which means the tone of American public life is improved. But in terms of division, a virus variant is raging because millions of Americans refuse to take a life-saving vaccine, and most government leaders refuse to require vaccination, on account  of politics. That's pretty crazy.

In my new book, The Universe Is On our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life, I believe I have succeeded in diagnosing what went wrong in America and what we can do about it. The book will be published in October by Oxford University Press.

Only you can decide if I am right.

 

  

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Lale Gul Wants to Lie on the Beach in a Bikini

8/14/2021—Lale Gul is a young Dutch novelist who has broken with the traditions of her Turkish immigrant family and has written a fictional account of her journey to secularism. The New York Times ran a story about her today. She says, “I’m done hiding. I don’t believe in God and the religious and cultural rules that were set for me.”

To say I sympathize would be an understatement, since the same thing happened to me. To say I understand would be a gross overstatement since her family now shuns her and she has received death threats. Leaving liberal Judaism in America is a very different matter. People do it every day and often don’t even notice.

But there is something Gul does not yet understand. She will. Secularism is empty and dangerous. Plenty of young women have come to various forms of harm from wearing a bikini. I’m not speaking about rape, though that does happen. I’m talking about Gov. Cuomo and everything his behavior represents.

Eventually, secular culture will deal with its sexism and indeed is in the process of doing so right now.

The emptiness is something else entirely.

Islam is not just rules, but a way of life—a story of the universe. What is the secular way of life? What is its story of the universe?

So, Lale Gul, welcome to secularism. But I’m afraid you will find it is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Omission in Tuesday’s Column: What About Ritual Life in Secular Civilization?

8/5/2021—Tuesday’s column in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star about Tahmima Anam’s novel, The Startup Wife, shared the novel’s joke about people without religious traditions needing an app to come up with rituals for important events in their lives. You can’t detach rituals from the worldview—story about the universe—that formed them. So the idea of an areligious use of religious rituals is silly and ultimately dangerous.

That is fine insofar as it goes. But I was just reading a story in the New York Review about Malcolm X’s ministry that reminds me that ritual life and rules for living are part of any rich and satisfying human flourishing—and where does come from in secular civilization?

In other words, an app for ritual is a joke. But what is the actual alternative?  

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Startup Wife Shows We Need Help With Our Spiritual Infrastructure--This Week's Column

 8/3/2021--This week's column in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star is about Tahmima Anam's new novel, The Startup Wife, and what the book tells us about religion in America. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Give Trump the Presidential Medal of Freedom

 7/31/2021--I am sympathetic, more so than most, to the vaccine reactions. According to a recent New York Times story, the Delta variant often just flames out. We already know that masks are not really needed or that effective when you are vaccinated. We now know vaccinated people carry the virus and that they can contract it. But they don't get sick.

I can't figure out why Tucker Carlson is so mad about these things--see his comments. By his own reasoning, the best thing to do by far is still just to get vaccinated, notwithstanding everything else he says.

Anyway, in such a partisan and crazy environment, nothing can really be done. But one possible response is to go back to the source of so many of our problems--Donald Trump.

It was Trump who understood early that nothing would help but a vaccine. He did everything he could to get them produced and he succeeded. So, let's give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts. 

Trump would not be able to resist this. And his followers would watch. And they might then get vaccinated. It's worth a shot.



Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Universe Is on Our Side is now on sale on the OUP Website

 7/27/2021--Another matter that went unmentioned in the last two weeks on this blog is that my book, The Universe Is on Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life is now on sale in advance on the Oxford University Press website. Go ahead and order your copy now before the rush.

Last Week's Column in Pennsylvania Capital-Star

 7/27/2021--I have been off for over a week due to family visiting. Last week's column concerned the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer--I was urging him to retire now.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

How to Raise a Secular or a Religious Child

7/10/2021--I am shopping around an article about how to raise a secular or a religious child. The basic idea goes to consistency and commitment. That is, if you believe in the God of a religious tradition, you owe it to your child to deepen that commitment and to affiliate with the institutions of that faith. You help your child form an identity in that faith tradition, which as Father Carl Chudy writes, is extremely important.

Conversely, if you don't believe in God or the supernatural, and do not see your beliefs reflected in the teachings of any religious tradition, you need to communicate early and consistently with your child--a young child can perfectly well understand the circle of life from The Lion King.

What we are seeing today is drift, both in adults and in the raising of children. That is not surprising: we are in the midst of an extremely rapid social transition to a secular society.

But it is not good for children. What is the story of the meaning of life you hope to convey to your child? 

The irony is that one way to raise a secular child is with a meaningless religious upbringing. And one way to raise a religious child--a return to a more orthodox life or some cult--is for a secular parent never to address fundamental questions that every child has.

I would like to set forth some of these ideas, but am having trouble finding an outlet--any ideas from a reader are welcome. 

 

 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Yes, DA Zappala should go but not by a legal ethics probe

 7/8/2021--this week's column in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Greatest Column Ross Douthat Ever Wrote

 7/5/2021--Ross Douthat wrote a column for the New York Times on April 4, 2021 that is arguably hthe best and most important he ever wrote. It was longer than the usual 800 words or so. It was on the front page of the Sunday Review--What Has the Pro-Life Movement Won?

The assumption of the column was that the 6-3 conservative majority would probably do something to marginalize if not overturn Roe v Wade. But, would the country actually choose life?

The answer was probably not, in part because the pro-life movement had never really been a utopian movement in favor of the lives of the unborn and their mothers. Instead, it had been a conservative appendage to Republican small government ideology. That is not a vision of life but of something much smaller.

Utopian is the key. What is the pro-life world really to be?

 

 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Better Than July 4, 2020

 7/4/2021--Happy Fourth of July to everyone--a lot better than last year.

I want to share with my readers the opening of a section of Chapter 9 from my forthcoming book, The Universe Is on Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life. We were already starting to do better, but July 4 might have been the worst moment of the year.

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Back from the brink

Independence Day, 2020, was a dark time in American life. President Trump delivered a divisive and incendiary Independence Day Address, more like a campaign rally, promising to defeat “the radical left, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters…the angry mob” and to “protect and preserve the American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America.” Every racist dog whistle was sounded, every angry instinct provoked, despite the fact that the demonstrations had been mostly peaceful and, anyway, had mostly melted away by July 4. Mobs defacing statues were certainly not a national problem by that time.

But it was not just President Trump that represented an American crisis. The pandemic caseload was spiking despite months of total or partial economic and social shutdown. Deaths had not yet caught up, but it was expected that they would. People were frightened and frustrated. Physical fights were breaking out in grocery and convenience stores over whether to wear a mask. It was also expected that the new surge in cases would interrupt, if not end, the budding economic recovery. At the same time, Russia was suspected of paying a bounty for the deaths of American soldiers. China had just ended Hong Kong’s partial independence, which no international coalition seemed prepared to contest. Two American aircraft carriers were on their way to the South China Sea, signaling a new and dangerous level of confrontation with China.

And it was hot. Really hot. And dry. Over most of the country. Climate change had not taken a break with the pandemic.

It was at this moment that the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote what might have been the bleakest July 4 message ever: The National Humiliation We Need. The column began with the American failure to rein in the virus. Because of that failure, Americans are depressed and many important economic and social institutions were about to go under.

No matter what the upcoming election result in November—and Brooks thought the American people had already decided not to reelect President Trump—the economic future looked bleak, political division appeared to be permanent, racial discrimination remained, despite progress, and social capital was crumbling, including family formation.

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So, we have to say, on July 4, 2021, we have actually come through something and we really are in a better place.