Thursday, April 16, 2015

Taking a Break for Campaign Finance Reform

4/16/2015—My responsibilities this year at Duquense Law School have been preventing me from traveling and speaking—-and thinking, actually. But tomorrow, I take a break and head to Cleveland-Marshall Law School to speak at a symposium on campaign finance reform sponsored by the Cleveland State Law Review. The keynote speaker is Professor Larry Lessig, whose book, Republic, Lost, has achieved best-seller status.

I will be proposing the counter-intuitive strategy of eliminating contribution limits as a way of restricting the super PACs. Without contribution limits, money would go to candidates—-an enhancement of democracy—-and legal independence of the super PACs would be gone. That independence is a function of enforcing contribution limits. I am hoping for an op-ed tomorrow in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Going After Faith

4/12/2015—I have always thought that Philip Kitcher is the best of the New Atheists. That is the group that came to the consciousness of the American public around ten years ago arguing against religion. The first wave of the movement culminated in the late Christopher Hitches’ blockbuster, God In Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Other well known members of the group were Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. My own books, particularly American Religious Democracy (2007) and Hallowed Secularism, (2009), which no one can afford to buy, were written in opposition to certain aspects of the New Atheism, though acknowledging the reality that many people were leaving the religious traditions—including the author.

Kitcher was the best of this group because of his compassion for people, especially in Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith in 2007. He knew that religion offered something that people needed and he thought that trumpeting atheism without regard to that was almost cruel.

Kitcher’s recent book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, appears to continue in that vein. I haven’t read it yet so I’m not going to discuss it. I want instead to inquire after its starting point.

Why would anyone want to argue “the case for” an alternative to religion? In much the same way that almost all people born into a religion end up becoming members of that religion without actually evaluating the other religions, people don’t “choose” to cease believing and become secular. Once that happens, people might “choose” to leave or stay in a religious tradition physically, but once the supernatural becomes unreal, that is the end of a certain kind of faith. At least that is what happened to me. (I know that there is a tradition of radical doubt within the religious traditions, which leads to crisis, but that is another matter. In a culture in which the supernatural is in question, doubt need not be experienced as crisis.)

So, why seem to argue against religion and for secular humanism? In his review of Kitcher’s book in the New York Review, Adam Kirsch points out that “secular humanists have the duty to be evangelists.” That is how Kitcher and the others feel--evangelists against religion--and it is the wrong starting point. Since Kitcher has always said that faith is great for those who have it—-something Christopher Hitchens could never admit—-and since faith is not an option for those who don’t, why argue at all? In other words, why should the nonaffiliated write about religion, other than as a resource for secular life?

Therefore, the subheading of Kitcher’s book should have been “Life in Secular Humanism.” Kitcher knows this—-in fact, the blurb on Amazon reads, “Although there is no shortage of recent books arguing against religion, few offer a positive alternative—-how anyone might live a fulfilling life without the support of religious beliefs.”—-so why does Philip still speak of argument? Why does he devote a chapter to vindicating doubt about religion and another to refined religion that does not espouse supernatural belief?

The answer is that Hallowed Secularism—-or secular humanism-—is hard. Criticizing religion is easy.

Philip Kitcher does not accept the responsibility of this hour. How do we now live, now that God is dead? It is a simple question. But the question haunted Nietzsche. I doubt that the answer to that question is any kind of humanism. Humans are not in control of reality.

It may be that among the nonaffiliated, the differences may finally have to be confronted, which the preoccupation with religion still prevents. For me, the category of the transcendent is the starting point. Phillip points out that the transcendent cannot function the way traditional religion does. Fair enough. But is the transcendent real? Does it teach humans something lasting about reality? If it is real, then it, not reason, is our proper starting point.

The holy does not disappear when one stops going to church, synagogue, mosque or temple. It just becomes harder to live by it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Only Ten Years Stopping an Iranian Bomb

4/8/2015—I feel like I am living in some fantasy land. I heard an analyst today say that the proposed deal with Iran is a mistake because it would only delay an Iranian bomb for ten years and after that it might be easier for Iran to build a nuclear weapon than it is today.

I would have thought that the guarantee that we would have ten years breathing space would be greeted with rapture. A lot can happen in ten years, including peace and regime change or reform.

Everything I have heard about the deal makes it sound like the real thing. And the extremes to which critics are going to criticize it makes it sound all the better.

Which brings me to the real point. What is it about Iran that makes the Israeli government so crazed? Yes, Iran backs Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel. But really doesn’t Saudi Arabia do the same thing? And Israeli seems close to a tacit deal with the Saudis.

My theory is that the problem for the Israelis is that the Iranians are actually religious. The government of Israel is basically secularist. And that is true even on the right. There is a fear of what a really religious state might do—drop a bomb to bring on the apocalypse, maybe.

But Iran has not acted in such a weird way. The country suffered horrible loses in a war with Iraq. I don’t believe they would welcome an Israeli retaliatory bomb dropped on Tehran.

We made the mistake with the Soviet Union of thinking it would risk nuclear war. That was never true. It is not true of Iran either.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Making the Worst of Religion

4/3/2015—I hope my reaction was not partisan. One of the best pieces of news in years was the President’s announcement yesterday of a possible, not-yet-quite-final nuclear weapons deal with Iran. The very specificity of the announcement seemed to shock everybody. The New York Times referred to it as “surprising” and even Republicans in Congress were hesitant to condemn it. A real deal would change the politics. American does not want more war. Especially in the Middle East.

So, what headline does the Tribune Review run in its Passover story? Nuclear Deal in Iran Casts Pall Over Jewish Holiday in Pittsburgh.

Now, granted this newspaper is an opponent of President Obama. But it is still a newspaper. If the basic reaction the reporters had encountered had been cautious, overwhelming joy, they would have reported it. (My experience with the Tribune Review is that the reporters are very fair).

So, how does that look to everybody? It looks like another example of a religion in the way of peace.

This occurs at the same time that Good Friday arrives on the heels of religious believers forced to retreat on discrimination against gay people in Indiana and Arkansas.

Welcome to the new face of religion—discrimination and war.

Of course religion is supposed to stand up to the culture. So, all I can say here is that the religions in question are wrong. I’m all in favor myself of protecting that 70-year-old florist from delivering flowers to a gay wedding if she does not want to. But if that religious protection had been coupled with a gay marriage bill in the first place, and the rest of the bill linked with protections of sexual orientation from discrimination, none of the controversy would have happened. Religious believers offer gays nothing and then are surprised at the reaction.

Where is the lure of religion? Where is its surpassing beauty in a world of gray ordinariness? It’s there. Many, many millions will experience it during the next few days in Good Friday and Easter and Passover. But one of humankind’s reservoirs of insight is drying up, like a California lake.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Can the Cross Mean?

4/1/2015—What can the cross mean to the nonreligious? (I mean the nonaffiliated). After all, the cross is the intensely Christian symbol. What can it mean for the rest of us?

I’ve been reading Martin Heidegger’s difficult masterpiece, Contributions to Philosophy. Heidegger is on the traces of being. Heidegger writes that the original thrust of western philosophy turned from being to beings. That tradition of metaphysics culminated in the various sciences and is now exhausted. He is seeking a new beginning.

Philosophy seeks after the truth of being. Being is a formal symbol, which can be contemplated as how the holy, the sacred, comes to us. We have a hint of being as refusal.

Refusal is the mysterious secret of human life. We don’t know much. We can’t know much. But we can know that.

What is Jesus’ last moment on the cross but the refusal? “Why have you forsaken me?” God does not speak or reassure.

Yes, I know it is all happiness ever after on Easter, but that is not true of the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, the only way we know that the Kingdom of God endures after the cross is through the life of the participant.

Heidegger presents a new understanding of Christian knowing.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Think about Religious Exemptions

3/29/2015—For the last several years, I participated in a group that urged legislators to enact compromises on the issue of gay marriage. The legislature would amend the state’s marriage law to allow gay marriage, while at the same time enacting a religious exemption from participating in gay marriage. The group’s intellectual leader was the nation’s leading expert on church state, Douglas Laycock.

The group’s raison d’ĂȘtre has disappeared because the courts have brought about gay marriage judicially, thus leaving legislatures only to deal with the issue of religious exemption.

But religious exemption by itself, without the compromise of permitting gay marriage in the first place, presents a serious political problem. To understand the problem, and to see how it is playing out in Indiana right now, the reader must understand that there are two ways to think about a religious exemption from any kind of general law.

Perhaps the classic way of thinking about a religious exemption is to imagine a Jewish or Muslim prisoner who requests not to eat pork. The religious believer is focused only on his or her own religious life in such an example. The religious exemption is not intended to be a protest against the policy generally of prisoners eating pork.

But now imagine a devout prison guard, perhaps a Roman Catholic, who opposes the death penalty. The guard requests a religious exemption from participating in an execution partly out of concern for his or her own religious life but partly also as a protest against the underlying policy of the death penalty.

It is not usually necessary to distinguish between these two ways of thinking about religious exemptions because the religious believer in the second situation is usually such a minority that the protest part of the exemption is practically insignificant, politically speaking. The prison guard might hope to delegitimize the death penalty through a religious witness, but has no realistic expectation that this will happen.

But now consider the case of gay marriage. Although proponents of religious exemptions like to frame the issue in terms of the first example – – the 70-year-old Florist, who only wishes to be left alone by a gay couple about to be married – – the clearly political message being propounded by requests for gay marriage exemptions is opposition to gay rights. Religious believers are using exemptions to try to halt or retard the legitimation of gay marriage in particular and gay rights in general.

It is really not fair for proponents of religious exemptions in this context play such a double game. That is why compromise, like the Utah example in which discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was linked with a religious exemption, can work, whereas simple religious exemptions spark controversy, as in Indiana right now.

I am not suggesting that anything can be done to limit the problem of religious exemptions in the current political context. But it would be helpful to think in these terms. It would help explain to religious believers who are not involved in the gay-rights issue to understand why people might oppose religious exemptions. And it would also help proponents of gay rights and gay marriage to more clearly delineate what they can accept and cannot accept by way of religious exemptions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Holding Back the Chinese Tide

3/25/2015—Is there anything as pathetic as an aging power attempting to retard the rise of a new one? Or, as pointless? Thus, the failure of the Obama Administration to convince our allies, especially Germany, to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was both comical and embarrassing. Great Britain, Germany and France joined last week. Italy to follow.

Joining the Bank should have been seen as positive--as a way of bringing the Chinese into the international community in a way that might have enabled our European allies to influence their new partner in territorial disputes China is having with its neighbors. (Of course, our allies can still play that role).

But really what was the point? China is a rising power and very wealthy. And, unlike the US, able to act coherently. The surest way to conflict with China—unnecessary conflict—is to refuse to recognize that fact. In setting up this bank, China was not invading Ukraine. Was not insisting on its own sphere of influence to the exclusion of anyone else. China was expecting to use its new power to expand its influence. That is what nations do.

If this was a subtle game—I doubt it—reassure Japan and South Korea by appearing to oppose the Chinese Bank, it was too subtle for me. I was just embarrassed by my country.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Problem for Post-Netanyahu American Judaism

3/21/2015—Let’s assume that Netanyahu ran a racist campaign in which he revealed his true colors. He believes Arab Israelis have no place in Israel. He opposes creation of a Palestinian State. He wants the West Bank for Israel. He’s willing to bomb Iran. Etc.

Now what for American Judaism? Jews have been acting like supporting Israel through American power is a given and a good thing. That stance is now impossible for some American Jews because the policies above, which a majority in Israel voted for, do not deserve American support. So, support for Israel will have to end, or at least diminish. The Jewish vote in America is about to split. The Republican candidate in 2016 might get one-third of it. And maybe more than one-third of Jewish money.

But that is just politics and might be reversed by a deal with Iran that would force Congressional Republicans and Netanyahu to back down. America is not in a mood for war with Iran. The Democratic nominee for President in 2016 would love to run on such an agreement.

More difficult for American Jews is the religious question. Just what is Judaism apart from support for Israel? What is Judaism apart from identity?

The pre and post-war period of Jewish thought looks now like a golden age that ended. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were widely read in America. Who is read now among young American Jews? And the religious current was so strong that it could fruitfully merge with secular thought, as in the work of the Jewish existentialist Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. This is no longer happening in America.

The next step for American Judaism will have to be back to theology. Or, should I say, back to religious thinking. It is not clear that the resources are there for such a step.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sustainable Political Thinking

3/17/2015—The current conservative insistence that social disintegration is unrelated to money—so that the current push by the left to do something about income inequality will not raise taxes on the rich—is curious. It proceeds from an assumption that income inequality is not inherently bad, so that it is necessary to invent another goal other than redistribution to justify it. But, if worker productivity gains do not translate into more money for workers, then the bosses are stealing money that properly belongs to workers. You can correct that in different ways—stronger unions for example—but you don’t need a theory of culture to do something about it.

But the conservative drumbeat, by Ross Douthat and George Will, for example, reminds me that there is more to political life than money. In the same way that ecological systems must be sustainable, political life must also be sustainable. Political life that is nothing but argument by one side against the other is not sustainable.

There are different ways of thinking about the styles of political life. Right now, all America has is ideological confrontation. (It is not really ideological). That is getting us nowhere. This style suggests far more differences among Americans than is really present. We exaggerate our differences because our political goals are merely oppositional.

What would a more sustainable political life look like? I’m not sure. And maybe it is not possible. I’m told that the Permaculture Movement has an aspect of decision-making style. And it was once thought that President Obama’s career as a community organizer would aid him in building consensus in Washington. But that did not happen.

Maybe here, in styles of thought, is where philosophy could be of service to politics. Not philosophy in the analytic style of logic—though a little of that could not hurt in politics—but Martin Heidegger’s questioning after being. A more soulful politics. On the other hand, did Michael Lerner’s politics of meaning go anywhere in the 1990’s?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Would Prosperity Matter?

3/14/2015—The extent to which working people have contributed to the prosperity of the owners of capital is truly astounding. Since 1979, I read today, productivity has grown over 60%, but wages have climbed only 6%. Put another way, if wages had matched productivity, which in economic theory they should, the median wage today would be $54,000 rather than $35,000. That is a lot of money and it has gone to shareholders of corporations rather than to workers.

Now, what America should do about that, or whether anything could be done about that, is one question. But another question is whether a more equal distribution of the fruits of labor would make any difference.

That second question asks what you think the basic problem in America is. If you think the basic problem is economic, then obviously you try to do something directly about the money. But if you think the basic problem is something else, then you do something about the money, but also you look to do something else as well.

A friend of mine said last night that the basic problem in America is a general social breakdown. Students are dropping out of school. Families are not being formed. There is a general lack of social solidarity. There is great distrust.

If he is right, let’s ask whether a fairer distribution of income might contribute to more social cohesion? Would students be more likely to stay in school if they saw themselves getting really well paying jobs? They might. If the median income were much higher, would some people marry and raise children who now decide not to do so? They might. So, even if we accept what could be called a conservative view of America’s troubles, that the troubles are moral, we might decide that economic inequality has to be aggressively dealt with.

For me, the more fundamental breakdown is not economic or moral. It’s hard for me to give it a name. Let me say for now that the problem is that we hate each other. And it may even be deeper than that. Our language may be exhausted. (But that would not prevent us from doing something to spread the wealth around.) Maybe all our troubles start there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Well, Some Dare Call it Treason

3/11/2015—The news is dominated by the letter from 47 Republican Senators to the Iranian leadership explaining that they will not be bound by any deal President Obama makes with Iran. Even the sympathetic Daily News called them “Traitors” on the front page.

Well, why not? Why not send such a letter? Another sympathetic newspaper, the Tribune Review, wrote today that the letter was giving President Obama a dose of his own medicine. We have a President who legislates in violation of the separation-of-powers and a Congress that conducts its own foreign policy, also in violation of the separation-of-powers.

Yesterday, New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented relativism as it affects family life. He was referencing, if I remember correctly, Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. The poor lack values, Brooks wrote.

But Brooks is wrong to see nihilism only among the poor and only in intimate life. Here, in the President’s Executive orders and the Netanyahu speech and Iranian letter, is the face of nihilism. For nihilism is the lack of restraint that comes when there are no standards other than my own will. It is the will to power. Why shouldn’t the President act to promote good policy as he sees it? Why shouldn’t the Republicans try to protect the nation from the folly they fear?

None of us has faith that our existing institutions will vindicate the good in the long run. So, we have to act. We are ensnared in what Heidegger called the nihil, the nothing. All that is left is self-assertion. And it is on all sides.

I’m not without hope that we will not remain in this plight. Heidegger famously said “only a God can save us.” And he did not mean a return to old-time religion. But he did mean that a saving could happen.

The question is, how does it happen? I wonder if we could begin to prepare in law?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Watching the Left Behind Movie

3/7/2015—Last night I watched the highly entertaining Left Behind movie, starring Nicholas Cage, Chad Michael Murray and Cassi Thomson, and based sort of loosely on the novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

Let me say up front that, as Jackson Cuidon wrote in Christianity Today, this is not a Christian movie in the sense of raising any serious issues of theology about the Rapture in which believers are taken up to heaven by God before the tribulations of the end times can begin. Instead, it is, on the surface, a basic disaster movie with a plane landing with little fuel and a kind of alien movie, in which supernatural forces disrupt human life. Or maybe, as Cuidon also writes, it’s basically Harry Potter. [He also points out the cruelty with which a dwarf is treated in the movie as showing its unchristian heart.]

The rapture event is portrayed as entirely a matter of belief. You get taken because you believe something—presumably Christ as your savior. Other pious believers are not taken. This is symbolized by a Muslim in the movie. Undoubtedly, the producers were afraid to use a Jew in this context. This avoids the issue of the liberal Christian. In the movie, the world is binary—you are either a recognizable believer or not (or a child—all the children are taken). No instance of a rich person not taken because, although professing faith, he amassed too much money. One insincere minister is shown.

One issue raised in the movie is whether a loving God would act this way. Thomson’s character doubts it. Lots of people are killed, after all, when the Rapture happens. Airplane pilots are taken at a higher rate it seems than other adults.

Nor is the question raised whether Mom, who is taken, should have renounced Christ to be with her daughter in her time of need.

But I have more sympathy for the movie’s religiosity than Cuidon does. It’s very clear that the characters who are not taken are lost. A number of them are conventionally sinful—Cage is about to have an affair, for example. But some—Murray and Thomson—are not. They are good people who have not thought deeply about what human existence is about. They are brave and even loving, but they are in a kind of limbo. And because of that, they have no views on the structure of existence, human or otherwise. No critique by them of economics or anything else. Murray, the famous reporter, is asked about the tsunami he covered. He criticizes a believing woman who stayed with her child when she should have evacuated because God would protect her. But this is just the joke about God and the rowboat. (“I sent a rowboat to save you.”)

Revealingly, when he is asked by Thomson about the meaning of the tsunami, he has no answer. Not even, all those people could have been saved if more money had been spent on warnings.

So, Left Behind is a kind of wake-up call after all. Don’t drift through life. Make a decision. Not about religion, but about reality.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Foreign Leader Speaks

3/4/2015—Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to a joint meeting of Congress that the deal that President Obama is trying to make with Iran is a bad deal and should be rejected. I did not watch. Of course there are good and bad deals and I have no idea what the Administration will be able to do with Iran. From the perspective of a deal, Netanyahu’s speech might be helpful, since it will show Iran how difficult it is for the President to go forward. This might encourage Iran to reduce its own demands.

I am interested in what the speech will mean for the future of American Jewry and American politics. It seems obvious that Israel is now a politically partisan issue in a way it was not before. Before, Israel enjoyed almost automatic political support. But now any position Israel presses in America will be evaluated more like any other issue.

If the Administration does make a “one-year” deal with Iran—freezing activity so that it would take one year to make a bomb, Americans will support it. Such support would be overwhelming if Americans paid attention to foreign affairs. But it will be pretty high if the Administration mounts a “the alternative is war with Iran and more terrorism as a result” campaign. The Republicans are riding a bad horse here.

If that happens, American Jews will for the first time line up on the opposite side of a position that Israel is pressing. You might say that has already been happening in regard to building settlements in the occupied territories, but the matter has never been presented that dramatically.

The fundamental question is not an Iranian bomb, as important as that obviously is. The fundamental question is the nature of Judaism in America. If Judaism is not support for Israel, what exactly is it? The answer to that question will determine if Netanyahu’s speech will be seen in retrospect as a marker on the path to the end of Judaism in America or as the first step in a religious rebirth.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Is There Something Wrong?

3/1/2015—I am visiting our grandson and family and my thoughts turn to his future. (It is also my birthday) I see America and the West in general as running out of steam. Our basic commitments, such as democracy and the rule of law, no longer seem to inspire. As we experience one more threatened government shutdown, we must acknowledge that forces more powerful than our criticism of this or that political figure are in play. People in public life may not be at all different from how they were before. It may be the context that has changed. It may not be possible now to
perform properly in American public life.

If so, what does that mean for the life of my grandson?

As a symbol that something may be deeply wrong, take a look at pages 22 and 23 of the New York Times Book Review of February 22, 2015—two weeks ago. On page 22 is a review of Tom McCarthy's Satin Island; on page 23, a review of Jonathan Lethem's Lucky Alan short story collection.

The reviewer of McCarthy's book likens him to the French theorist Guy Debord, who coined the term "society of the spectacle." I can't tell that much from the review, but McCarthy writes about a world dominated by corporations and technology, from which authentic human relationships have more of less disappeared. This is the commodification of experience, of which Debord wrote. McCarthy doubles as a cultural critic of a decidedly ironic bent—his collaborator is Simon Critchley. It is questionable what these people offer beyond parody and loss.

Michael Greenburg's review of Lethem uses terms like absurdism to describe him. The best story, he writes, is the last one, Pending Vegan, in which a man with his family "feels under spiritual assault upon entering SeaWorld.

The point here is the lack of authenticity. This is not some personal failing. It is, instead, an absence of credibility. There is no larger story that makes sense of existence. Both these writers feel that.

The only beginnings of an alternative that I know of is the work of Martin Heidegger. Critchley's last book was about Heidegger. Maybe something will happen to change things and usher in a more hopeful future. But would you bet your life on that?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Transformed Without God

2/24/2015—The question is often asked, and resented by the religiously unaffiliated, can you be good without God? Obviously you can, say those who call themselves nonbelievers.

It’s the wrong question, for two reasons. First, religious practitioners are not good. They are terrible sinners. Just ask their traditions. The word “good” here means, I haven’t killed anybody. It does not mean I have lived in dedication to others, to truth, in depth or anything else. It does not even mean I have been faithful to those around me. It does not mean anything important. Jesus said, why do you call me good?

So we’re not good and that is related to the second point—-the question of life is not ethics. The question is transformation and human possibility. Organized religion is not too good at that. But non-organized religion is terrible at it.

To illustrate this, listen to how Phil Zuckerman describes secular life in his new book, Living the Secular Life—(by the way, I got this from a book review by Susan Jacoby in the New York Times) “He extols a secular morality grounded in the ‘empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world.’”

Now nothing about this is terrible. But it is boring. It’s proud of itself for accepting that we die. But Martin Heidegger long ago spoke of authentic human life as being toward death—-sein zum toda. Indeed, Cicero described philosophy as learning to die. This is not new and Zuckerman's take, extolling pragmatism, is empty. What is pragmatic if I’m going to die anyway? Does pragmatism mean reasonably self-regarding but not hurting anybody, at least not doing so outside normal limits? Why not just quote Google—don’t be evil?

But Google can be sinister, too. Good people are monsters sometime. Maybe most of the time.

Now, contrast this with the call to enlightenment in Eastern religion. Or the call to self-sacrifice in Christianity—he who would save his life will lose it. And what about living in depth, in art, for example? Or devotion to truth? Or anything that would make life worthwhile?

There is a view in secular thought that the problem with human life is the belief in transformative possibility itself, that such a view leads to death camps. This view was stated classically and elegantly by Isaiah Berlin. I just reread A Message to the 21st Century in the New York Review of Books, which says this specifically:

“Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.
The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. …This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false.
So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen.”

Berlin admits that his view “is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march.” His view “does not engage the generous emotions… .” But it will keep you from killing anybody and may to a certain extent improve the world.

This is the dead air of positivism. It is Phil Zuckerman’s air also. And I want to tell you that if all you can aim at is not killing anybody, you will not even succeed at that.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bad News From Ukraine

2/20/2015--There is plenty of bad news in the world this week. Certainly ISIS. The economic situation in Greece. But the potentially dangerous news had to do with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, is playing a deadly game. And no one knows what he wants--does he?

This morning, Ukrainian military forces continued their retreat from Debaltseve, while British fighters scrambled to intercept Russian bombers near the British coast.

We may assume that nothing is accidental. Putin is insisting on a free hand in Ukraine and is threatening--what? War with the West? Over what? A land bridge to Crimea? Incorporation of all Russian speakers into Russia?

At some point, there will be a response from the West that will be harmful but insufficient to deter Putin, who has put all his eggs seemingly in the Ukrainian basket. He can't back down without real political pain at home.

It is funny to see Putin participating in "cease fire" talks he has no intention of honoring. Putin controls the military situation in eastern Ukraine and there would be a cease-fire if he wanted one.

Meanwhile, what happened to the Obama Administration and its talk of military assistance to Ukraine? Where are the missiles extended to Poland?

Economic sanctions have worked. But they have not been dramatic enough. It's time for a different kind of response, mainly to remind Putin that he is playing with fire. Because he is and does not seem to realize it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Why Does ISIS Have Any Support?

2/13/2015—After all, everything about ISIS is repulsive to decent people. And that has nothing to do with the nature of one’s religion. Its action are horrifying to Muslims too.

And yet it does attract thousands of Western youths. Why?

I believe the reason is the emptiness of Western life—the bankruptcy of our ideals. The exhaustion of our tradition.

Two hints of this from the New York Review of Books. Sarah Birke in How ISIS Rules attributes the growth of the group to the absence of “convincing ideologies” in the West. And Mark Lilla in France on Fire points out that Republican ideology collapsed in French schools in the 1970’s and nothing really took its place.

What do we believe in? Conservative and libertarian thought is at heart a corrosive individualism. Capitalism is greed. Technology is an addiction. And liberalism no longer believes in its proffered truths.

Worst of all, we Americans have failed to build a political culture of affection and community. We hate each other. We mistrust each other. Why should young people find our way of life enticing?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Deep Cynicism of the Political Parties on the Electoral College

2/10/2015—A couple of years ago, the national Republican Party floated the idea of moving a couple of blue leaning states they controlled from winner-take-all Presidential election states to congressional district winning states. What the Republicans did not explain is that such a move would destroy democracy in the United States.

The reason this is so is the peculiar way we Americans elect the President. We do not vote directly for President but for Presidential Electors state by state who meet in the Electoral College and cast their votes for President. This system is a holdover from a theory of the framers of the Constitution that the President would be selected not democratically but as a result of a deliberative process—-like the way Cardinals elect the Pope.

America evolved to regard its President as necessarily democratically elected and that understanding sits uneasily on top of this rickety structure. Most of the time, the Presidential candidate with the most votes wins. Even when this does not happen, as in 2000, the vote is close.

The reason an undemocratic Electoral College usually yields democratic results is that most 48 states practice winner-take-all. Thus, Republican votes in California are discounted, as are Democratic votes in Texas. The system only works as a whole.

The system would also work if all the states divided their electoral votes by congressional district.

But if a couple of blue states changed to congressional district while the rest remained winner-take-all, only democratic votes would be discounted nationally. The result would be that the Republican candidate for President would usually win, even if that candidate received less votes. This might happen every time.

Obviously, that would be the end of democracy in America. Eventually, the people would wise up and some military coup would end Republican rule. The Republicans who floated this idea had no notion of how dangerous this idea was.

But to see how deep the cynicism is, in both Parties, the New York Times reports that Nebraska, one of the two states with congressional district election, is considering moving to winner-take-all.

All believers in democracy should rejoice. We need all states to go to winner-take-all and stay there.

But this is not how the matter is seen. Republicans are pushing it because they want to maximize their electoral vote—“It’s obvious that the majority of citizens of the State of Nebraska are Republicans,” said J.L. Spray, the state Republican chairman. “They want to have the maximum voice in the Electoral College.” Meanwhile, “Democrats, not surprisingly, are fighting back.”

No. Democrats should be very happy. They should press for a national commitment to keep the Electoral College as democratic as possible by having the same system in every state. But Democrats are no more committed to democracy than are Republicans.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Building Better Secularists

2/7/2015—Some kind of watershed in the growth of secularism passed this week. Four days ago, David Brooks wrote Building Better Secularists, which was a column about what secularism needs to be healthy—obviously of great interest to a hallowedsecularism blog. Last Sunday, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, two secularism stories appeared: Re-Creation, about the godless Sunday Assembly movement, and Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Sherman’s op-ed, Morality on the March, about how great the non-religious Enlightenment was.

OK. So secularism continues to grow. I’m glad I got in on the ground floor.

But all three instances demonstrated the same nihilism in secularism. Brooks was mildly criticizing, while it was unconscious in the Sunday Assembly and Sherman.

For Brooks, Phil Zuckerman’s book, Living the Secular Life, is the model of growing secularism: “Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.”

Now, of course, this is nuts. There is no reason to think that people who don’t go to church reason at all, just as there is no reason to think that people who go to church employ reason. Choice is usually an illusion, as much of psychology teaches us. Secularists are as prone to groupthink as anyone else—actually more, as you will see if you try to be pro-life in a Unitarian Church. Brooks makes this point and calls for “an enchanted secularism.” [holiness, Brooks, not magic—hallowed secularism].

The nihilism is implicit here. One builds one’s own moral code because the only standard is to thine own self be true.

The nihilism is also a little hidden in Sherman, who believes he is celebrating morality. But he give away the game by his reference to “human natural rights.” This is Sherman’s weak spot, because the point of natural rights was that they are independent of human choice. That is why majorities cannot take them away from us. Natural rights might be grounded in reason, of course, but it is the kind of reason employed by the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis—rights are what is proper to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we humans are. Efforts to ground rights outside traditional religion have proved impossible—have proved impossible within religions also, as Nietzsche saw.

Finally, the nihilism is explicit in the Sunday Assembly movement. These are people who feel they cannot go to church or synagogue, but who crave community. They are the people that Zuckerman and Sherman are writing about.

But, listen to how one such member described her spiritual journey—“it made more sense to be agnostic, to be open-minded, not believing any one thing is right or wrong.”

Now, thank God, (if you’ll pardon the expression) this person does not believe that. She believes plenty of things are right and wrong. But once you are in this habit of speech, you are lost. Reason is impossible. Reason requires the burning determination to understand the way things actually are. Thinking is only possible in an ordered universe. And an ordered universe is one in which, though we see darkly, as St. Paul said, we know it is crucial to reality that we believe what is true.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Sanctions Crowd Want War with Iran

2/4/2015—The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reported last week on efforts to build a veto-proof majority to back more sanctions against Iran. Iran has warned that such a bill would end efforts to reach a deal with the Obama administration and an international coalition to reduce the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

I disagree strongly with the sanctions crowd, but isn’t it irresponsible to say the “want war” with Iran? Isn’t that kind of rhetoric what’s wrong with American politics?

But it isn’t always wicked to want war. Churchill would have preferred an early war with Hitler, before Germany could complete its rearmament. If you believe, as the columnist Charles Krauthammer does, that Iran would use a bomb against Israel out of religious anti-Semitism despite the losses that use would cost Iran, then of course you prefer war with Iran over any feigned negotiations. The government of Iran must be just playing for time, as Hitler was doing.

Actually, I should say, this crowd does not want war. They want to perform an act of war against Iran—-bombing its production facilities—-to which they believe Iran will be unable to respond. Well, who says Iran will be unable to respond? To me, that is war.

These people do not realize that they just demonstrate the need for Iran—-or any other State—-to have a bomb and a delivery system. No one is suggesting bombing North Korea.

But more to the point, the fanatics here are the crowd itself. To them, the Iranian leadership is not fully human. And it is the same paranoia that used to say that the Soviet Union would be willing to absorb the losses of nuclear war.

We now know that the Soviets, having suffered so much in WWII, abhorred the idea of world war. They never intended to attack the West. That was a psychological projection by some officials in the United States.

Similarly, Iran lost heavily in the eight years of war, from 1980 to 1988, against Iraq. Those who say Iran would just attack Israel notwithstanding the certain Israeli retaliation, are making the same mistake we made with the Soviet Union.

The idea that bombing Iran would do much to stop the march to a bomb is another fantasy. The sanctions are working. They have certainly helped drive Iran to the table. If negotiations fail, there is plenty of time to increase them. I believe the real fear of the sanctions crowd is that a deal will be reached. Since they believe peace is impossible, any deal will just aid Iran in its drive to genocide against Israel. If you believe that, you prefer war.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

How to Think About Constitutional Government

1/31/2015—I am reading the manuscript of a new book by Randy Barnett, Georgetown Law School professor and the author of Restoring the Lost Constitution. It is great and Barnett is the most profound and provocative legal writer in America today.

Barnett’s approach is to try to return us all to what might be called “first principles”: what is constitutional government all about? And the basic answer is that the purpose of government under the Constitution is just what it was thought to be in the Declaration of Independence. Government is instituted to secure our fundamental rights and the consent of the governed is presumed to be just that. No one would consent to a government that did less or more than that.

The Constitution is not a first principle in this sense. The constitutional system is just one way to structure a government that could reasonably be expected to accomplish the goal of securing our fundamental rights.

The framers thus might be wrong about the best structure. The structure of government must be strong enough to defend the nation and prevent interference by others with individuals pursuing their own happiness. But, of course, the framers might also be wrong about what fundamental rights are.

They might even be wrong about the reality of fundamental rights. If they are, Barnett’s premises become a kind of Rawlsian experiment—-Rawls' original position-—of asking what a hypothetical group of people would consent to concerning government.

Now, in this context, the structures of the Constitution should be thought of as experimental, not fundamental. And I think they should be tested by history. That is, if some government action that needed to be taken to secure our fundamental rights, would not have been taken if the constitutional structure were strictly construed, then the structure is defective. (This is like asking how well a current climate model would have predicted past climate change—if it was inaccurate then, we should not trust it now).

So think about Martin Luther King’s call to J. Edgar Hoover in 1964 for the FBI to do a better job investigating the murder of civil rights workers and church bombings. There is no obvious constitutional authority for such federal investigations. These crimes were carried out by individuals whom the local authorities sometimes refused to indict, but sometimes just did not try very hard to investigate.

So I believe that congressional power should be thought of as available whenever the states prove incompetent to act to secure our fundamental rights. (there was a moment at the constitutional convention when something like was passed).

This view makes the litigation over Obamacare—-National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius—-questionable but trivial. The question should never have been whether Congress could force Americans to buy broccoli. As a matter of regulating commerce, the answer to that should have been, why not? Such a requirement would have increased the flow of commerce.

The question should have been whether any government can force Americans to buy a product. The NFIB case was always a fundamental rights case masquerading as a commerce case for reasons of legal strategy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Politics at the Water's Edge

1/28/2015—Too late perhaps, but newspaper reports indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is suffering politically during the Israel election campaign for his decision to become part of a domestic political dispute in the United States. Specifically, some voters in Israel worry that Netanyahu's decision to speak to Congress without the approval of President Obama may redound to Israel's harm. That is undoubtedly the case.

The decision by John Boehner, Speaker of the House, to invite a representative of a foreign power to come to the United States in order to criticize the foreign-policy of the president of the United States, is shocking. It used to be said that politics stops at the water's edge. You could not imagine, for example, Congress inviting Winston Churchill to speak to Congress without the approval of FDR. But, that era is long gone. We no longer have that kind of political discipline.

What is almost comic about Boehner's decision, is that the notion of Congress having its own foreign policy is a direct violation of the separation of powers. It is far more of the violation of the separation of powers than anything done by President Obama in his executive order regarding immigration. Outside of spending and treaties, the president alone makes the foreign-policy of the United States. Basically, you change the foreign policy of the United States by electing a new president.

I'm only sorry that president Obama did not force Netanyahu to the public humiliation of canceling the speech. Since President Obama controls the veto at the United Nations, that would not have been hard to do.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

More Nihilism on Abortion

1/24/2015—In a column today in the New York Times, Gail Collins puts her finger on the real issue in the abortion debate—-when does human life begin? She notes that opponents of abortion grudgingly recognize exceptions to bans on abortion, like rape, because they believe that life begins at conception.

But then she adds this: “But the question of when a fetus inside a woman’s body becomes a human being is theological. If you truly believe that human life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, you can’t admit any exceptions. The only real debate is whether you get to impose your religious beliefs on the entire country.”

Why is this question theological? Everybody agrees that a fertilized egg becomes a human being sometime. When is it? There were cultures in which the death of a child within ten days of birth was treated differently from a death later in time—-or so I remember. When is that definition not a matter of theology? At birth? But why?

It has always seemed inescapable to me that my life began when sperm fertilized egg. I don’t feel like this is a theological issue and I’m not aware of any theological teaching on the matter influencing me. I just cannot think of another point at which my life could be considered to have begun.

Isn’t there anything of truth here? No. Because there are interests at stake—-the interests of pregnant women in being able to get an abortion. So the question becomes theological, which means subjective, which means any answer is as good as any other, which is how nihilism works.

This is how global warming denial works too.

Of course human life begins at conception. The question is not theological. It is biological.

The legal, social, question, however, is how a society that has ultrasound images of developing babies treats early human life. Does such a society allow abortions and when? You can even call that theological, if you mean it is inescapably normative. But it is normative for everyone. Here, compromise is inevitable.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

We’re On a Crash Course

1/21/2015—The U.S. Supreme Court reached practically the only result it could yesterday in Holt v. Hobbs, the case of the Muslim prisoner who wanted to grow a full beard in an Arkansas prison and compromised by proposing a ½ inch beard. Prison authorities still said no and the Court held unanimously that this refusal violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. (RLUIPA). The case was ably handled by the dean of law and religion, Douglas Laycock.

The main takeaway from the unanimous opinion is that even “idiosyncratic” religious beliefs are protected by the statute (although this instance was clearly not such, Justice Alito went out of his way to state that agreement by others is not the test) and the heightened scrutiny of the Act means just what it says.

Most states now have statutes like RLUIPA and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In many contexts, religious believers are going to be able to challenge government policies on the basis of their own perceived religious needs. Under the standards of Holt, many should win.

And, if the “spiritual but not religious” crowd decides to get in on this action, how will the courts make any judgments about what is and is not a religion?

Years ago, in limiting the reach of the Free Exercise Clause, Justice Scalia warned that this would happen. Most people, including me, thought that he was insufficiently protecting religious liberty. History may prove him right.

On the other hand, these are statutes. They were passed and they can be repealed or modified. Undoubtedly, one day they will be.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How Serious is Global Warming, Really?

1/18/2015—I don’t mean by this headline to refer to the effects of global warming (not climate change—the problem is that it’s getting warmer). Those effects are really bad. I am referring to the effort to prevent the harm. Is such prevention possible without changing everything?

I have always thought that global warming fits easily into a capitalist model. It is a case of the tragedy of the commons—an example of a massive but simple market failure. Nobody owns the climate. If someone did, then you would have to pay to change the climate and no one could afford to do so. Economic growth would then have to proceed without changing the climate.

Capitalism knows how to deal with market failure—you redefine property rights and/or regulate the price structure to compensate for the failure. In the case of global warming, you allow losers to sue winners—south sea nations whose land is disappearing—and you put a massive tax on forms of emissions—carbon, methane etc.—that contribute to global warming. Since the point of such a tax is not revenue but to change the price of products, such taxes get returned to the public. Lower social security taxes, as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer proposes.

In theory, none of this is inconsistent with a continuing market economy.

But Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, argues that this kind of thinking is wrong. And dangerous. In her view, the instincts of climate deniers are right. They know deep down that if they admit the truth of global warming, their whole world will have to change. No more growth. No more private economic activity. Government regulation of everything. No more absurdly rich people.

But this could be good. Because such a massive change could destroy the worst excesses of the current socio-economic-political arrangements of late capitalism.

This is very much worth thinking about. But here is my first take. Prior to WWI, some people in Europe yearned for a big change—and they got it. The pre-war world was destroyed. And it took WWII to destroy the colonial system. But those events were so horrible in themselves that you have to wonder about this kind of catastrophic change-making. Maybe global warming would be preferable.

And anyway, command economies don’t necessarily deliver either equality or environmental health.

There is also a danger in imagining that global warming will deliver the sorts of changes that someone really wants anyway but cannot get politically right now. That is using global warming, not dealing with it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heidegger and the Jewish Question

1/14/2015—An exchange in the December 4, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books shows once more how we need to understand the philosopher Martin Heidegger in order to confront the condition in which humans find themselves today. Specifically, Peter Gordon had written in the October 9, 2014 edition a story about new publications of Heidegger’s notes. Bruce Henley wrote a letter to the editor in December noting “Martin Heidegger’s bizarre metaphysical equivalence between mechanized food production and death camps.” Gordon responds and notes Heidegger’s opposition to the “racial breeding” of the Jews.

Since I rely so heavily on Heidegger, it may seem I come to his defense. Well, yes and no. Heidegger’s action in the 1930’s were not courageous, insightful or even honorable. He clearly hoped that Hitler and the Nazi movement would represent a third way between America and the Soviet Union. He joined the Party and became Hitler first Rechtor—University President.

But he resigned his post by 1934 and during 1935 to 1936 wrote his Contributions to Philosophy, some of which would have gotten him shot if it had been made public. Contributions is now available in English and there is no excuse to ignore what it tells us. Heidegger criticized racial politics and the manipulations of mass media—pretty clear references to the regime. He may have felt the same way about the racial orientation of the Jews—I don’t know. But in the 1930’s it would have been impossible not to think in racial terms considering the emphasis in German society. Heidegger was not supporting the final solution—undoubtedly he was horrified by it.

And this is the point about industrial farming. Heidegger saw the roots of mass murder not in individual guilt but in the foundation of technology itself. Here is the quote, from a lecture in 1949:

"Farming is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the peasantry, the same as the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb."

People who find this outrageous are not understanding Heidegger’s point. He is saying that these matters are beyond individual guilt. Technology is destroying the world. I would have thought that in the world of global warming that may kill millions, if not billions, Heidegger’s point would be better understood.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Islam is Violence, Judaism is Exclusion, Capitalism is Inequality, Christianity is Colonialism

1/10/2015—In the wake of the horrific shootings in France, Muslims all over the world have protested that Islam is a religion of peace—which of course in a sense is true. There are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Obviously, Islam allows for peaceful existence.

But the major reigning ways of existence all have flaws at their heart that must be confronted if these ways of life are going to lead to human flourishing. They are inherent, not accidental. Specifically, Islam has not yet confronted its violent past. Islam originally spread largely through violence. Its current calls for violence still resonate. Death for denigrating the Prophet is not heretical. The Saudi punishment of 1000 lashes for free expression is not so different from the shootings in France.

These flaws are tendencies, not the whole truth of these traditions. But if you pretend they don’t exist, they just remain.

Judaism in its turn has never solved the problem of the stranger, the non-Jew. God’s plan for the world always centered on the Jews, not on anyone else. That is why the movement to deny democracy in Israel to non-Jews resonates. That is why peace with the Palestinians is a theological necessity, not just a political one.

Similarly, inequality in capitalism is not easily eradicated. It is part of the inherent logic of capitalism. Can it be cured or even tamed? I doubt it.

Of the four traditions I mentioned in the title, the colonialism of Christianity, which arises from the call to make disciples of all nations, is the closest to being confronted. Christianity has denounced nationalist colonialism. But Christianity still defends its efforts to spread itself. It now claims the right to do so nonviolently.

Maybe that is the answer. None of the traditions can be cured, but each can be reformed so that its flaws do less harm. But there is no pretending the flaws do not exist. They are historic tendencies that must be confronted.

Secularism and liberalism are not immune from this analysis, either. They tend to materialism and individualism respectively.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

29 Nome, Alaska—11 Pittsburgh

1/8/2015—It’s been very cold in Pittsburgh the last few days. And it was very cold last winter. How then can 2014 have possibly been the warmest ever?

I noticed a pattern last year that has held up this winter. When it is cold—not record breaking, but cold—in Pittsburgh, it is unseasonably warm in Nome, Alaska. And vice versa. When it is warm in Pittsburgh during the winter, it is seasonable in Nome.

This suggests to me that there is not as much cold air to go around in the Northern Hemisphere as there used to be. And the warmth in Nome dwarfs the cold in Pittsburgh. Right this minute, around 7 p.m. local time, it is 29 degrees in Nome—16 degrees above normal. In Pittsburgh, it is 11 degrees below normal.

This has been the pattern. Pittsburgh is not setting records, but Nome is close to doing so.

Pittsburgh will warm up. Nome will get colder. But the trend is unmistakable.

People still doubt global warming. George Will just wrote a column about it—a weird one about how other factors warm and cool the climate, as if anyone ever doubted that. But even as they deny, the climate keeps warming.

Friday, January 2, 2015

What Obama Can Do On Iran

1/2/2015—I was listening to NPR interviewing US Senator Marco Rubio yesterday morning. I had heard in an advertisement for the interview that Senator Rubio was trumpeting the likelihood of a veto proof majority in Congress for additional sanctions against Iran.

This news has left me angry, even astounded. President Obama clearly believes that a deal with Iran is close and has therefore been conciliatory. There have also been indications from the leadership in Iran of a similar desire for a deal. News reports had indicated that the reigning Iranian people were encouraged by President Obama's language and were very desirous of peace. Under the circumstances, it seemed to me that Senator Rubio was trying to wreck the deal intentionally for political reasons – – he is considering a run for the Republican nomination for President in 2016. Such a cynical calculation struck me as almost treasonous.

However, after listening to the interview, I believe I have done Senator Rubio a disservice. He pretty obviously does not believe that any deal with Iran will be forthcoming. Senator Rubio does not believe that the leadership of Iran wants a deal. Therefore, from his point of view, he is wrecking nothing at all.

In addition, all Senator Rubio said in the interview was that Congress preliminarily would require President Obama to report any deal to Congress before it goes into effect.

So, Senator Rubio is sincere. But he is still terribly misguided. Senator Rubio's conclusion that no deal with Iran is possible amounts to nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, he is not being candid. If no deal is possible, and if a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, then military action against Iran should be undertaken. It is not a matter of sanctions.

I am going to try to reach someone who advises President Obama, perhaps with some other law professors, about the legality involved in all this. First, if President Obama has authority to enter into an executive agreement with Iran, then Congress has no authority over such negotiations nor over any such agreement. Teh President cannot be ordered to report anything. Whether the president has the authority is another matter.

Second, Congress clearly does have authority to enact mandatory sanctions against Iran. The president would be obligated to carry them out. But such sanctions would be ineffective unless they are part of the coordinated action by America and her allies. Such unanimity is present now, but would not be present if unilateral sanctions enacted by Congress scuttle a deal.

Therefore, I would urge President Obama to throw down the gauntlet if Congress attempts to interfere with negotiations with Iran. The President should enter into an agreement, should agree to the beginning of the process of normalization of relations and should denounce sanctions enacted by Congress. In fact, President Obama should publicly and expressly urge our allies to ignore any such increased sanctions. That would render the sanctions ineffective and would help gain the trust of the leadership in Tehran.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Radical Religious Message of A Charlie Brown Christmas

12/30/2014—I did not see A Charlie Brown Christmas this year, though I read that it did air on ABC uncut on December 16. The radical message of this class Christmas story is simply that it properly sets its feel-good story of the little Christmas tree against the background of the Gospel message—Linus quotes the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verses 8 through 14 from the King James Bible, in which angels from heaven tell a group of shepherds of the birth of the baby Jesus, and instruct them as to where they can "find the babe" who is the savior.

It is safe to say that today, although the story of the miserable little tree that only needed a little love versus the commercialization and gift-giving frenzy of Christmas, might still be able to find a national audience, the link to the Gospel would never be permissible. The show still airs because in 1965, when it was made, the link could still be made. And the show is too beloved for the networks to pass up.

The triumph of love and giving is a theme in a lot of Christmas programs. But the actual Christmas message itself cannot be told today to a mass audience. Nor could it seriously be suggested today that all the kids in the neighborhood celebrate your basic Protestant Christmas—-Linus is reading from the King James Bible. It’s not true anymore—-and was not true in 1965.

And what is the link? On the simplest level, the Christ child is this Christmas tree, rejected by society as poor and marginal, but seen in a different way, a true symbol of love. The truth of the universe is here, at the margins and with the rejected ones. Charlie Brown is the Christian seeker, whose doubts and failures are used by God to bring the world closer to Christ.

I urge everyone to see it and show it to their children, whatever their orientation. The best part of the show is the lightness with which all of this is done. For on the one hand, A Charlie Brown Christmas is too religious for a mass audience today. But on the other hand, it is way too secular for a Christian audience. It makes its religious points with real restraint.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Religion as Tool, Not Identity

12/27/2014—In America, if you ask someone whether she is religious, you will probably get an identity-type answer, as in, “I am a Christian.” And you may get more specific identities—-I am a Presbyterian or I am an Orthodox Jew.

The reason Americans answer that way is the monotheistic tradition in the West. Under monotheism, a person follows one God, as reflected in one religious tradition.

Increasingly, however, this approach is not helpful to some people. Some people do not find any religious tradition that speaks to them as a whole. Instead, they might want a Christmas service for beauty, a Yom Kippur service for repentance and a Buddhist ceremony for tranquility.

The monotheistic traditions hate this sort of thing. They even have a critical name for it—syncretism. A person is supposed to belong to one place of worship in one tradition.

There is something to be said for a one-church life, especially the communal aspects in a fragmented and individualistic world. But this life is not for everyone.

I am told that in China, there is much more mixing and matching of religious traditions, especially Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. (I don’t know about the over 100 million Christians in China—-but you can hear the identity language in my describing them as “Christians).

I believe that genuine spiritual seekers—-a horrible term because of its humanistic implications—-must break this church monopoly and must free their minds to think of the religious traditions as tools in a lifetime of discovery rather than as limiting identity.

The hard part of this is to know enough to be able to participate in the different ceremonies and traditions of each religion. That requires real study. The other problem is that the one-church people may be insulted. There is less and less of that, thankfully.

Another problem, though, is the potential absence of humility in the religion-as-tool approach. It suggests that humans are in control, using religion. Tool may be a bad image.

So, perhaps instead, it would be better to think of the religious traditions as signal receivers, like radio telescopes, and the realm of the divine as a gigantic transmitter. Then one could say that she finds the signal strong in some contexts but not others. And we go from tradition to tradition, trying to gain signal strength. The fault then could well be in ourselves rather than in the religious traditions. Nevertheless, better to move the radio than to miss the program.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Mourning, 2014

12/24/2014—It’s Christmas Eve Day. What is the best way today to commune with the Christ child? In my neighborhood, the holiday season is marked by parties and comraderie, but by little else. There is no resonance with the holy story itself. And there is no sense of the new hope that the birth of the savior of the world used to bring—the sense of new possibility.

In his lectures on the poet Holderlin around 1935, Martin Heidegger attributes this description of the religious moment to Holderlin: it is a time of holy mourning, in which the only way to show respect for the old gods, who have fled and are absent, is to refuse to call upon them.

I used to feel in synagogue that it was not possible to show reverence for God that way—-that all the rites had become false. And of course I said I did not believe in God. But maybe that just meant that God had fled.

In this lecture, Heidegger associates the mood of holy mourning with Nietzsche, as well as with Holderlin. He is speaking of all those who know the gods have fled and are willing to live forthrightly with that knowledge—-awaiting a return of divinity.

Now you may want to change terms—-using meaning for divinity, for example. I won’t quibble and neither should you. There are many invisible forces that human beings do not control. We don’t control our own moods, nor that of our age. We don’t control the sense of the darkening of the world. We don’t control the trivialization of technology, in which shopping and playing computer games is somehow viewed as worthwhile activity.

So, what is hallowed secularism but holy mourning? Well, I admit that I’m not sure the gods have fled. Maybe we just pushed them away.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Questioning Capitalism

12/21/2014—I signed an online petition yesterday for Bernie Sanders to run for President. I don’t believe the petition specified how he might run, whether in the Democratic primaries or as an independent, and I don’t want him to do anything that would help elect a Republican President, but I do want him to run.

Sanders has no realistic chance currently to win the Democratic nomination. That candidate is likely to be Hilary Clinton, which is OK with me. I want Sanders to run to raise the issue of capitalism.

Sanders is a socialist. These days, no one knows what a socialist is. The European socialist parties are essentially social welfare parties, which means they favor broad safety nets and public spending. That would be a big improvement over anything America offers in its politics, but it is still not the reason I support Sanders.

I want to make capitalism a question. Since the collapse of Communism in the late 1980’s, and really long before, since Communism had long been discredited as tyranny, there has not been any alternative to the global capitalist system. The reason cannot be that this system has operated well. It has not. It has been beset by regular crises. Its long term growth has not been rapid. Its benefits have been increasingly concentrated in the wealthy. Its innovations have tended to be trivial. Its skewed price system has contributed to global warming. And right now, it is sputtering.

Making capitalism a question would also lead to political debates in America that would get beyond government and taxes. Why do white working class voters favor the Republican Party? They benefit disproportionately from Obamacare and yet they oppose it. Is this what the Marxists used to call false consciousness? Or is it a sense that liberals despise working people?

Socialism takes no position in theory on issues of race, or gay rights, or guns, or abortion, or religion or immigration or other issues America calls social. I guess socialism must say something about the environment since that is so much a consequence of economic organization.

I hope that a Sanders candidacy would be similarly restrained on all those other issues. A Sanders candidacy would ask the question, is capitalism a good economic system? Can we imagine a better one?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Good News on Cuba

12/18/2014—As I grade exams, it is impossible to think enough to write—in this blog or anywhere else. I ask my readers’ indulgence.

Nevertheless, at least a mention of the good news on Cuba. This is an example of why President Obama is so great. Whatever meaning nonrelations with Cuba and the trade embargo once had, they have been out of place for many years. Only dinosaurs wished their continuation.

As for the trade embargo, lifting it requires congressional action, which will not be forthcoming. But it will represent one more reason to vote for Democrats for Congress. Wouldn’t you like to vacation in Cuba?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Tough Guys Who Favor Torture

12/14/2014—Justice Scalia was quoted last week defending torture. He reportedly said that nothing in the Constitution prohibits torture in interrogation of enemy combatants and that torture would be justified if there were a bomb under New York City.

Well, in order. The Constitution forbids torture as punishment (Eighth Amendment) and in interrogation (Fifth Amendment). I suppose there could be different rules for the War on Terror, but that would go to necessity (see below).

As for necessity. Of course there are different rules for an emergency, but these people don't understand the difference between an emergency and the ordinary course of events.

If there is a large bomb set to go off under New York City, you do not waterboard a suspect. You bring in his six year-old son and his four year-old daughter. You tell him if he does not give you the location of the bomb, you will shoot his son. Then you do it. Then you bring in the daughter and repeat. If necessary, you kill his mother.

The point is that in a true emergency, normal moral limits are suspended. But you must not do regular business that way. If you do, if you decide the ends always justify the means, you become a monster—just as we Americans have become.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Justification for Torture

12/11/2014—I was afraid for a moment that some politicians would attempt to justify torture after the release by the Senate Committee of the report of its post-9/11 investigation of CIA interrogation methods. Thankfully, there has not been very much of that.

It’s nice to be a superpower. So our officials will not be tried as war criminals by any international court. That is too bad.

I would prefer an international tribunal to any attempt to try anyone here, which would just be dismissed as partisan.

Here is what the author of the torture memos, John Yoo, wrote: “‘You might even approve waterboarding in the time of emergency,’” Yoo wrote, “‘if limited only to enemy leaders thought to have information about pending attacks….I thought the CIA’s proposed interrogation methods were within the bounds of the law – just barely. They did not inflict serious, long-term pain or suffering, as prohibited in the federal statute banning torture.’”

Why is John Yoo not shunned by the legal academy? He is a law professor at UC Berkeley, treated as completely normal.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

There Was a Moment

12/9/2014—There was a moment when Judaism became a universal religion. There was a moment when it abandoned its emphasis on religious law binding only its members. There was a moment when the love of God became its guiding and only principle.

Unfortunately, that moment passed. The Jewish group pressing for these changes diverged and ultimately became Christianity—with problems of its own, including its overliteralization of the image of the son of God.

When the moment passed and the Roman Wars came, Judaism became more inward and law bound than ever. And the long march toward its crisis over the meaning of the non-Jew, spurred on by the unspeakable violence of anti-Semitism, began.

That march has come to its logical climax in today’s State of Israel proposing to redefine the State so as effectively to abandon its commitment to democracy and equality for non-Jews. Does it matter at this point whether the legislation passes or is defeated narrowly out of a fear of what the outside world might think? That such a law would be seriously considered makes the point that Judaism is finished as a world religion.

The point is theological, not political. Is the redemption of all humankind God’s plan or not? Or is God’s concern just for the Jewish people? Most American Jews, blindly basking in America’s Protestant culture of democracy and equality (all right, more theoretical than real, but still…) assume their religion is like them. But I believe Netanyahu is right about what Judaism became.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Death of Meaning in Law and Life

12/6/2014--I have been thinking about the meaning of the death of meaning. Several different kinds of formulations have been coming to me about where we are right now in our culture. Here is one that a friend has said inappropriately puts law front and center when really it is about governance.
Whatever you think is the role of law—that it resolves disputes or oversees social bonds or gives regularity to life or limits government or imagines new social/political/economic institutions—it can only accomplish that role within a setting of meaningfulness. Law is the opposite of one thing after another.

That setting of meaningfulness need not be the creation of law, nor need it be law’s role to maintain it. But law can only function within it. Law functions to translate human power out of its simple givenness. Law can thus be understood as the enterprise/discipline that renders the actions of human power meaningful.

That will be heard as law justifying power and American law has often served that role—the subordination of women was once referred as “the law of the Creator.” But the announcements that the actions of human power are discriminatory, unjust, unfair and untrue also render the actions of human power meaningful. American law has done all that too.

Law comes on the scene because human beings need a setting of meaning or we die. This need is much like the experience of volunteers in experiments suspended without sensory inputs. After a time, they start to go mad. Without inputs of meaning, human beings go politically mad, as we doing now.

Law as the enterprise that renders human force meaningful helps us to interpret numerous aspects of legal history: why the legal opinion evolved, why Lon Fuller thought legal positivism not a genuine jurisprudence, why legislatures can act, but judges must explain, and so forth.

The understanding of law set forth above helps the reader understand why I view the death of meaning in American law as a momentous event. If the death of meaning becomes dominant, as it is on its way to becoming, law becomes impossible. This article, describing the death of meaning in American law, responds to this crisis as the first part of a two-part undertaking. In the first part, we see the path law is currently on. In the second part—elements of a new jurisprudence—we consider how we might begin to turn around.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

More Reasons the Democratic Party Coalition Collapsed

11/30/2014—I was listening to a radio interview of Bill Pricener on Christian radio yesterday. Bill is the Director of the Allegheny branch of the YMCA. The branch is right on my street and I use it almost every day.

It became clear that Bill and the interviewer are more concerned about poverty and hunger in America, especially among young people, then just about anyone I have ever known. Bill spends his life attempting to alleviate hunger and poverty. This is not, for Bill, any kind of antigovernment crusade. The YMCA is happy to take federal government dollars in order to assist it in providing food for kids. Bill is particularly concerned to make sure the kids have food during the day so that they can learn. Bill and the interviewer were very critical of a society like ours in which people still go hungry.

Yet, not only do I doubt that participants in the interview regularly vote Democratic, we know for a fact that most of the listeners to the interview do not. They vote Republican. We also know that generally speaking people like Bill, and people like the listeners to Christian radio, who speak in gospel terminology--they talk about mission, God, purpose, and so forth--are not welcome among many progressives. These progressives are made uncomfortable by the language of faith and by the fact of faith.

So we have this strange situation in which people who share a deep concern for social justice find themselves on opposite sides of a political divide that does not reflect all of their concerns. This weakens the possibility of creating a coalition in America in which issues like hunger are effectively addressed. There would be huge support from progressives and many people of faith for a massive expansion of government programs that provide food in the schools, including taxes to pay for it. But it cannot happen because of a cultural divide.

I mostly fault progressives here because we indulge our distaste for religious life though such religious commitments are often irrelevant to commitments of politics and policy. Progressives should be reaching out to Catholics and Protestants who share a lot of general commitments with progressives, and even share some very specific policy positions. Why should it be necessary that everybody agree about abortion and gay marriage in order to do something about hunger?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pope Tells Haggard Europe that it is in Need of Cultural Renewal

11/26/2014—It goes without saying that secularists don't need religion. That is the constant refrain. But it is also true that the most secular region on earth—western and northern Europe—is suffering severe cultural malaise. And the next most rapidly secularizing society—America—is also.

Does the sense of decline have any theological significance? Maybe it is just that these societies are aging. That would not necessarily be an independent variable, since declining birth rates can be a sign of cultural despair. So it could be that aging cultures decline and declining cultures do not have high birth rates.

But America has a large immigrant population and there is still this sense of decline. Of course, it is also true that America has been very much on top for 60 years and so relative decline is inevitable.

All of that is true—and yet… . If the universe is an accident, maybe it is difficult to get too worked up over anything. Maybe secularism does have a problem that the Pope was speaking to.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Secular Death Penalty

11/21/2014—Yesterday, I participated in a debate with the very able proponent of the death penalty, William Otis, who teaches at Georgetown Law School and has had an illustrious career in government. I learned a great deal.

I spoke first and presented the understanding of a religious death penalty—how it prescribes a penalty that is not final from its perspective and which allows the condemned prisoner a second chance to inherit eternal life, or the Kingdom of God, or whatever its understanding of ultimacy is. I contrasted this with our current death penalty practice, which I called brutal, bureaucratic and hate-filled.

Professor Otis spoke next and reminded the audience of just what the death penalty deals with—a series of chilling and violent acts by extremely dangerous men, who were obviously beyond any kind of rehabilitation. He did not seek to justify the system of the death penalty, only the justification of the death penalty for such actions and such men.

Here is what I learned. Justice in the abstract is not at the heart of the proponent’s interest, for a simple death by lethal injection is not what men such as this deserve. They deserve to be tortured to death, to experience the kind of pain that they inflicted.

My point, which was not well expressed, was that since, for whatever reason, we are not going to meet out justice, how do we decide which lesser penalty to inflict? Why does death recommend itself to the proponent, if justice does not demand it?

Now you could answer that death is closer to death by torture, which is what they deserve, than is a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. But there are a number of answers to that. Yes, but it is also closer to something about death by torture that even the proponent shies away from. Yes, but it is not necessary. Both penalties do the same thing: the prisoner is in jail until he dies. Yes, but although the prisoner will have some joy in life, his suffering in prison will also go on for his whole life, thus increasing the penalty.

Professor Otis implied two other reasons to choose death over life, even when justice does not uniquely demand death. One is that the prisoner’s existence mocks us. (One prisoner did that expressly by trying to contact the victim’s family). Second, the prisoner cannot be redeemed.

Here we see the difference between a religious death penalty and a secular one. The religious death penalty seeks to improve the ultimate existence of the wrongdoer. Punishment is not the enemy of the prisoner and he is not the enemy of the community—the prisoner is like the rest of us, only more so. It is the heart of the religious death penalty that the prisoner can be redeemed. He must be punished, but redemption is always the goal. In the Talmud, the prisoner prays, “may my death be expiation for my sin.”

So, in the end, the secular death penalty is a garbage disposal while the religious death penalty is not. I cannot prove that this garbage disposal is bad for society, but I believe it to be. And I am not certain that the proponents of the death penalty that Professor Otis invoked, in particular Abraham Lincoln, shared his conception of the death penalty. I am pretty certain that Lincoln did not view the men he sentenced to death as beyond redemption.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Not Serving the Interests of the Country

11/20/2014—As a supporter of President Obama, I’m sorry to see him going down the road of today’s Executive Order on immigration. I’m going to say that on KQV in a few hours and I wanted to say it here first. The Republicans won the last election. Why not let them govern? They would pass a bill. Maybe they would have compromised, or maybe the President would have vetoed it. Either way, wouldn’t that have been better? We’ve already waited a long time. Why not a few more months?

Could it be that it is now the President’s team that does not want compromise on this or other issues? Again, maybe it would not have happened. But the Republicans now control. They have to produce. It would have been better for the country if they had had the chance.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Beautiful Movie

11/16/2014—I finally had a chance to see The Fault in Our Stars. What a touching, wonderful movie. (And has anybody noticed how much Ansel Elgort’s Augustus Waters resembles Jeff Bridges in the 1984 movie Starman?)

But I was disappointed that the spiritual/religious theme was not brought to the fore in the movie, when it apparently was in the book. What is life about in the movie? Hazel Grace Lancaster is one tough cookie, and she decides to live the life she has been given. In one of the movie's two climactic moments, she tells Augustus, now that he knows he is dying of cancer soon and is disappointed that he will never make his mark in the world, that he has made his mark. He wanted to be loved and admired and he is, by her and by others. Even though that will be ephemeral, we already know her feeling that all of life is ephemeral—the stars go out too, it is enough. And, Augustus does get this, as his eulogy of Hazel makes clear: we want to be remembered, but Hazel knows the truth—she wanted to be loved deeply by one.

The other climactic scene is with her parents. She is relieved to know that when she dies (not if), they will go on living well. She has no doubt that they love her. She is not disappointed that her death will not be mourned forever. She has the generosity of spirit to want them to live—in a way, for her, who has been deprived of the chance.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, and it contrasts as realism compared to the stylized Christianity of the early scenes in The Heart of Jesus Church and to the not-quite-right-anymore version of the 23rd Psalm we hear in the background at Augustus Waters’ funeral. In fact, the limits of the Christian story, or any religion’s story, among America’s young are apparent in this movie. The secularization thesis is alive and well.

The book is different, I hear. (I haven’t read it). The book is open to the deep teleology that I wrote about last June—you could look it up on this very blog. Hazel’s Dad talks about the universe wanting to be noticed by us.

But the hidden point of the movie’s religiosity is not teleology but eternity. I thought it was too subtle to be caught, but maybe I am just dense. The author, Peter Van Houten, played as well as a badly written part can be, by Willem Dafoe, answers the pair of dying lovers wanting to know how the characters in his cancer themed novel do after the book ends, by telling them in essence that the question is stupid. It is a novel. But then he adds a reference to what the author John Green has elsewhere referred to as “Cantor’s diagonal argument, [that] the infinite set of real numbers is bigger than the infinite set of natural numbers.” Some infinities are smaller than other infinities. Hazel and Gus had a little infinity, as she says in her own eulogy for Gus.

Now, what is this little infinity that they had but the Kingdom of God? When Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you (usually translated in you), he is not referring to himself, but to the presence of the Kingdom right here, and right now. Stop looking for something special—the Kingdom is here in a moment or nowhere.

Grace and Augustus got to taste the Kingdom of God. Therefore their lives are not a tragedy. The tragedy is to die without having tasted the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is a small infinity. Why can’t the churches hear the Gospel when it is offered?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Climate Deal with China

11/13/2014—Well, of course, it’s not a deal in my legal sense—not a treaty and not even aiming at immediate steps within the authority of the two leaders who signed it. And it is not a substitute for rejecting the Keystone pipeline, which Bill McKibben (whose comments I read this morning) seems to feel with be the President’s implicit message when he permits that project to go forward, either on his own or by not vetoing a statute approving the project.

But it is very good news all the same. The United States and China are the leading emitters of greenhouse gases, China the leading developing nation, the United States the least likely to actually act on global warming. So, the seriousness of the action is helpful. Plus, this takes away the argument that we should not act while others refuse to do so.

But, as McKibben also points out, our efforts pale compared to, for example, Germany, which already gets 31% of its power from renewable sources. The only sensible action for me is to finally switch power sources myself, which I have not done yet and will do this week.

All the same, the effort to derail the pipeline makes no sense to me. The economy works as a system. You don’t obstruct a project when the price system says to go forward with it. You change the price system. There are many ways to do that—a tax on carbon, cap and trade, even reducing demand for carbon energy by public persuasion and economic forecasts. The one thing government should not do is command the market not to make rational decisions.

McKibben, a great man whom I adore, seems to feel that if the pipeline is built, it will be used. But, in the context of the sale of a product, that is not so. The oil will be shipped if it is economical to use it. But, if it economical to use it, the oil will likely be used whether the pipeline is built or not. That is not the way to change an economy. It is like saying, don’t build roads because of what will be transported on them. No. You regulate those products, not the way they are transported.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

How Destructive Is Capitalism?

11/9/2014—It is of course absurd to imagine a non-capitalist economy. After all, what is the alternative? China? Russia? Those are not economic systems at all. They are simply systems of occasional political interference with market forms in the name of the self-interest of powerful elites.

So, it is frustrating when the philosopher Martin Heidegger criticizes our prevailing way of life in favor of something else. But it is never clear what the something else is or could be. This is not a criticism of Heidegger. He is not a social mechanic.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember just how destructive capitalism is. For only in that way will any kind of change ever take place.

By destructive, I am not referring to the recent tendency of the world economy to bubbles and to serious recessions. Capitalism is not even producing the results that it promises for poor people and for the world in general. Just ask Europe.

But I suppose those problems can be addressed. I am referring to the way in which capitalism makes us complicit in our own destruction – – something Lenin would have recognized in an instant.

Here is an example. Alaska is a red State. It elected a Republican senator last Tuesday. But I heard a report on NPR that I do not believe reflects any bias by the network. The story interviewed water resource and utility officials. They deal with the effects of global warming everyday. Those effects in Alaska are very clear and very destructive. The permafrost is melting. No one denies what is happening. No one denies that humans are causing it. These officials are in no sense deniers of global warming.

Yet at the same time, because Alaska is so dependent economically on fossil fuel extraction, there is absolutely no support for serious efforts to reduce or halt global warming by holding down greenhouse gas emissions. So Alaska is spending time and money dealing with the consequences.

Not only is this a trap, everyone caught in it knows that it is a trap. Everyone knows that global warming is harming Alaska. But market realities are such that absolutely nothing can be done about it. This is the consequence of capitalism. And it is more irrational and more dictatorial than any religion has ever been.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Election of Anxiety

11/6/2014—The results of Tuesday’s mid-term election were surprising. Who expected Democrats to do that badly and who could explain why a moderate Republican governor in Pennsylvania was trounced?

I heard an analysis on NPR on Wednesday morning that Republicans had succeeded in turning voters’ attention away from the economy, where there had been improvement, to issues of competence in government, such as ISIS and Ebola.

Republicans would dispute the first part of this analysis. There was no need to turn voters away from the economy because, as President Obama’s poll numbers show, he does not get credit for a recovery that has left out most people.

But there is something to the issue of competence, though that word is too meek. Americans today fear that bad things are happening generally. The inability of the government to protect us, from the Secret Service failures, to Ebola, to dark forces in the Middle East beheading Americans, feeds these fears. The world is a frightening place.

In this analysis, the election was decided a few weeks ago, in the midst of the Ebola panic. I am here challenging the liberal refrain that last minute Republican money decided things. That money just made matters worse.

In this analysis, President Obama really did deserve the poor showing he caused. The President’s policies are actually quite reasonable and have been effective. But he was not at all reassuring during the last few months. In a dangerous world, he did not seem to know what was going on. That, rather than Republican policies, seems to me to be the takeaway from this election.