Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Age of Pessimism

6/15/2019--As only he can, David Brooks gushes on twitter over a column today in the New York Times by Roger Cohen about Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke is the subject of George Packer's book, Our Man. Cohen celebrates Holbrooke as a man who believed in America and whose pushed intervention in the Balkans may have saved 100,000 lives.

Holbrooke dies sadly neglected by President Obama, whom he tried to serve. The episode does no credit to Obama.

But the real question is, who is Holbrooke? Cohen paints him as mean, vain and empty--almost a higher class version of Trump.

And Cohen fails to draw the obvious connection. The subhead is, This is an age of Pessimism. But America can still remake, redeem and rescue. But if America is led by mean, vain and empty leaders... .

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The No-Prosecution Pledge

6/8/2019--Last Wednesday, before Nancy Pelosi's reported statement that she wants to see President Trump in jail, I sent the following email to Susan Matthews at Slate in a pitch for a piece.

Dear Susan:

The best thing Donald Trump has done as President is something he consciously refrained from doing--he did not prosecute Hillary Clinton. Not putting your defeated opponent in jail is one of those norms that allow American democracy to work.

If you feel there was nothing to investigate, you have more confidence in the Clinton Foundation than I do.

Each Democratic Party Presidential candidate should take a pledge now not to prosecute Trump if elected. Democrats like to quote How Democracies Die about Republican norm violations undermining public life. So, it would be tragic if Democrats violate one fundamental norm that the Republicans did not trash.

Such a pledge would reassure moderate voters without surrendering any economic or environmental policies. So, not only is the pledge the right thing to do, the democratic thing to do, it is also the politically smart thing to do.

Nor would the pledge give up much. Donald is capable of pardoning himself his last day in office, which might work.

I propose 2000 words for Slate arguing for the No-Prosecution Pledge. I know it would get attention. I could have it to you in a day or two.
*********************
No response, which is how things generally go for me.

But the point remains and isn't going anywhere. The way you save democracy is by starting to save it. #noprosecutionpledge The alternative will poison American politics like nothing else.




Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Babbling Barr

6/5/2019--It needs more than I can write at the moment, but the extraordinary words of Attorney General William Barr must at least be noted.

Here is more or less the whole quote:

In an interview aired Friday on "CBS This Morning," Attorney General William Barr explains why he opened an investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation. He doesn't say what the evidence is, but Barr tells CBS News legal correspondent Jan Crawford that there is evidence that makes him believe senior government officials may have acted improperly to authorize surveillance of President Trump's 2016 campaign. He says that led to "spying" on the campaign.

He said the hyper-politicized nature of politics today is a danger to longstanding institutions and he took the job of attorney general because he is at the end of his career.

"Nowadays, people don't care about the merits or the substance. They only care about who it helps, whether my side benefits or the other side benefits. Everything is gauged by politics, and I say that is antithetical to the way the Department [of Justice] runs, and any attorney general in this period is going to end up losing a lot of political capital," Barr said. "And that's one of the reasons I decided I should take [the job] on. At my stage in my life, it wouldn't make any difference."

"I'm at the end of my career," he said. "Everyone dies. I don't believe in the Homeric idea that immortality comes by having odes sung about you over the centuries."

"In many ways, I'd rather be back at my old life, but I love the Department of Justice, I love the FBI, I think it is important that in this period of intense partisan feelings we do not destroy our institutions."
******************************
What does he believe immortality consists in? Clearly, he believes he is doing the right thing and that his critics are wrong. He does not expect reasoned discourse. So to do the right thing means to be criticized.

But this situation is not new. It is the sort of situation John F. Kennedy described in Profiles in Courage.

Except of course that Barr is not giving up anything. He is not being fired. He is remaining Attorney General. He is defending powerful people and making no sacrifice at all. He is just whining.

Barr doesn't have the faith to say, "I am doing the right thing and history will recognize the truth of that. So my conscience is clear." Instead, he invokes extraordinary nihilism--we all die and that is that and so what difference does it make what people think of me? What a juvenile thing from an AG.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

King Trump

6/1/2019--Now with the idiotic threats against Mexico, which, by the way, is not responsible for policing America's border. We are. This latest tariff threat roiled the markets again, which by the way, are about flat versus inflation since the tax cuts went into effect on January 1, 2018.

The frustrating thing about the latest tariffs is that they come on top of nonsense threats against Japan, Canada and Europe. There is no strategy here. Trump's quite legitimate effort to force the Chinese to play by the rules is undermined by all these trade distractions. Why not enlist everybody against China?

Basically, we are seeing the results of too much Presidential power. Why does Trump get to make economic policy at all? He is not Congress. He is abusing his statutory authority since he is often invoking non-existent threats to national security--Canadian products?--but obviously that authority was too broad to begin with.

Have Democrats learned anything? It's doubtful. Liberals are pretty bad about admitting mistakes. They could learn a lesson from Ross Douthat in that regard. We were fine with Obama making policy by himself when Republicans were obstructing and we agreed with the policies. Now nobody agrees with the policies, because there is no policy with Trump--just the latest rant and whim.

But if authority has not been ceded to the President, Trump could not be doing so much damage. Where is the Democratic Party candidate for President who runs pledging to return power to Congress? That is the candidate to support.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Bruno Latour, Science and the Post-Truth Moment

5/25/2019—Leafing through old issues of the New York Review, you get a sense of the speed of cultural dissemination these days. One such cultural moment occurred last fall, when Bruno Latour’s new book, Down to Earth appeared. Ava Kofman did a long review/essay in The New York Times.

Latour is the prophet of the philosophy of science. He and other critics challenged the authority of science back in the 1980’s. I taught his book, We Have Never Been Modern, for years.

So, isn’t Latour responsible in part for the post-truth age that he new bitterly regrets? Does he confess—the same kind of confession that Camus engaged in and which I wrote about last week here?

Not at all. Instead, Latour seems to feel that the unreasonable claims of objective authority—the facts speak for themselves and differ from values—finally came crashing down. Not because of him but because that image of science is not true.

That is not how Latour puts it, but it is the case. Latour would say it is not convincing. But it is not convincing because it is not true. Truth—or rather falsehood—has consequences.

This is what is missing in Latour—the acknowledgment that it is not all up to humans. It is up to us to a great extent. But as one scientist said, sometimes nature kicks you in the ass. We can amend that to say that sometimes reality kicks you in the ass. And here was one such instance—science as purely objective was not true and no amount of convincing would hold it up forever.

I am now beginning to see Dr. King’s teaching in a new light. If your society is built on injustice, it will to that extent be weaker and less resilient than social structures that people agree are just. And, again, this is not because of how convincing we are, but that some structures actually are unjust. Eventually their injustice is seen, though it may take a long time.

Robert Taylor used to call this minimal realism. I don’t know if he would still assent, but I believe this is a fair statement of how things are.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your Purpose

5/19/2019—Tomorrow, I will be interviewing Joseph Carter for the Bends Toward Justice Podcast Series. He wrote the piece in the New York Times in 2017 entitled The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your Purpose.

Carter is not one of the hard-edged atheists types who disdains the human need for purpose. But he does describe the sense of significance that we have as an illusion.

Aside from the truth of his view of things, or even what truth here means, there is the question of the effect of such a belief on our culture. Is this view responsible for the way we are with each other right now? Does it lead to anger and despair?

Let me point to Camus, who came to believe that the answer to that question is yes. Here is a quote from Camus’ Notebooks, which I found in an 2013 essay by Claire Messud in the New York Review of Books. Camus is at a gathering with Koestler, Sartre, Malraux and Manes Sperber, when he said the following:

“Don’t you believe we are all responsible for the absence of values? And that if all of us who come from Nietzscheism, from nihilism, or from historical realism said in public that we were wrong and that there are moral values and that in the future we shall do the necessary to establish and illustrate them, don’t you believe that would be the beginning of a hope?”

Actually, I’m not sure it would matter what certain people say. That might be Camus’ view of the power of the intellectual elite in France. But if people again became convinced… .

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What Impeachment and Court-packing Have in Common

5/15/2019--I find myself in conflict, or at least tension, with the progressive wing of my Party. There, the support for both impeachment of President Trump and adding to the number of Justices on the Supreme Court is pretty strong. I oppose both, as do most members of the Party, for now anyway.

For others in the Party, the lack of support for impeachment and Court-packing is probably pragmatic. The voters in general don't support either move and pursuing either allows the Republicans to frighten moderates with the prospect of radical policies if the Democrats win in 2020. Plus, the evidence of collusion was not there and the Court has not yet done anything dramatic--like overruling Roe. That is certainly subject to change.

For me, opposing both is more a matter of principle. Impeachment essentially for what the voters already knew strikes me as anti-democratic--an attempt to undo the choice the voters made. (yes, I know Trump lost the popular vote, but he ran to win States, not the popular vote, because that is our system. It is not fair to charge him with losing a race that was not run.)

Court-packing is an attack on the idea of a rule of law. If a particular Justice is doing something outrageous, the Justice can be impeached and removed. But adding numbers to change results treats the Supreme Court as just another political branch. (Yes, I am aware that that is how some Republicans are treating the Court--see Randy Barnett's tweet about Obama judges and Trump judges).

But there is even a deeper reason I oppose both and it is the reason that the progressives support both at base. Impeachment and Court-packing enable Democrats to rule without having to convince the country that the policies Trump is pursuing are bad. Both are anti-democratic in the sense of democracy as a rational contest of ideas.

People on the Left have become convinced that you can't change the minds of people. Lee McIntyre put his finger on the problem in his recent piece about the flat-earth position--pointing to headlines like, Why Facts Don't Change People's Minds. But McIntyre was promoting debate. He was suggesting a methodological turn in defending science. He was definitely not giving up on persuasion grounded in truth. McIntyre is arguing that claiming to have the truth in a skeptical age--about climate change or even the shape of the Earth--is subject to "arguments" about proof. Better to ask, honestly, what kind of evidence would persuade the person you are talking with--and talking with is a big part of this. What would convince you that vaccines don't cause autism? If the answer is that nothing would, then we can all see the absurdity of the position. Otherwise, maybe we, or some of us, can move to real exchange.

McIntyre is pointing to the kind of hard work that impeachment and Court-packing seek to avoid. His is the model to follow. McIntyre was not writing only about science, but about political life.

Friday, May 10, 2019

How Nihilism Cripples the Left

5/10/2019—Actually, nihilism does not cripple the Left, but it should. Often, when the Left or Left-leaning institutions want to criticize others, they do so in the name of universalist values, such as “the rule of law” or “truth.” But in other contexts, such claims would be taken to be totalizing fronts for rhetorics of domination. As in, there are many truths. Or, there is no rule of law, only political commitments.

I saw this tendency again recently in an article in the New York Times and an add for The New Republic—not that Left, I know.

The story was from May 7 and concerned the interference by the far right in Europe where the Right has attained actual government power or influence. Political agendas are now interfering with judicial and security functions that had long been thought to be outside politics.

So, for example, the agency that monitors security threats was asked to turn over the identities of informants who had infiltrated the far-right movement. The agency refused. Then the agency was raided by the police.

Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs. Democracy, called this in the article “an assault on independent institutions, the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

But what is Court-packing but that exact same thing? An assault on the rule of law.

The far right just believes there are Trump judges and Obama judges—just like most people do here.

Now take The New Republic ad I got last week—headed “Trump’s War on Truth.” “Only fearless, fact-based journalism can stand up to him.”

Aside from the slippery fact/value distinction imposed here—do we really disagree about facts or do we use facts to support positions we would hold anyway? Even if we limit ourselves to facts, I thought there were no texts, only interpretations. And I thought all interpretations were equal.

The point is, a new kind of objective viewpoint is needed to combat the war on truth. And Trump is not the only, or main, or most important, combatant in the war. That war had been waged for many years, including in the pages of The New Republic. Until the Left takes some responsibility for where we are, we cannot move forward.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Why Study Talmud?

5/4/2019—I’m reading a book at the suggestion of a friend, if all the seas were ink, by Ilana Kurshan. I’m only on page 42, but it is a kind of life affirming memoir of recovering from a bad divorce through a spiritual practice. (Think Eat, Pray, Study Talmud).

The thing not addressed, at least not yet, is, why study Talmud? I mean, why Talmud—that great compendium of Jewish learning. Kurshan notes the practice of daf yomi—learning a page of Talmud a day—as a kind of communal discipline. Jews everywhere are doing the same thing.

But nothing she tells us about what she is learning seems intrinsically enlightening. So, of all things she could do, why study Talmud?

I believe there is an answer to that question. But let’s set a few things straight. One does not study Talmud to learn Jewish law, that is, to learn what to do in terms of keeping the law. First of all, the Talmud is not just about legal issues. (One debate that creates a set piece in the book is the dispute over whether the line in the Bible about the Israelites missing free fish in Egypt referred to food or sex). The Little Talmud was created hundreds of years later, when the authorities decided that the Talmud should have been about law. So, they took out everything else.

Second, even the disputes that are about law—that is, what to do to fulfill the commandments—are often not resolved. As any lawyer knows, you don’t leave legal disputes unresolved.

Nor is Talmud study about keeping the Jewish people together. That is not what the rabbis were doing.

So, what were they doing? They were drawing closer to God. So, you study Talmud in order to draw closer to God—at least if you are being faithful to the rabbis who wrote the Talmud.

What in the Talmud allows one to draw closer to God? Not the content of the rules, which are never clarified, but the disputes themselves. The Talmud is about disputation.

How could disputes draw people closer to God? Jesus would say the opposite would be the case.

The Talmud is a celebration of rationality itself. A celebration of giving reasons and making arguments. God delights in these arguments.

On one level, that sounds like a celebration of cleverness and Jesus would be right that this leads to conflict and anger. But now imagine that reality is rational—think Hegel. The effort to think clearly then mirrors reality—the Talmud is a human imitation of ontology. The rational is the real.

It is the lifestyle of the academies, not their “results” that form a holy life. This means, ironically, that study of Talmud is not the main thing. Study is the main thing. A rational life.

Law school itself could be Talmudic life. Should be Talmudic life. The difference is the lack of holiness in law school. It used to be thought that the common law reflected God’s blueprint for humanity. That is the Talmudic spirit. A law school could be a new academy.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Building Cosmopolis

4/29/2019—I will have a conversation today with Michael Shermer, the author of The Moral Arc, and other books, for the Bends Toward Justice Podcast Series. Michael is a ferocious critic of irrationalisms of all kinds, right and left, from climate change denial to anti-vaccine people.

But Michael does have a particular critique of religion, which he repeatedly emphasizes.

From the perspective of doing something about irrationalism, this inordinate concern about religion is really counter-productive. There is so much good work about the meaning of God that does not involve miracle or any other interference with the laws of nature discovered by science—I am thinking here of David Bentley Hart, for example—that you have to ask someone like Michael, why pick a fight?

This leads to a larger question—how does someone like Michael actually engage irrationalism?

I hope to ask Michael about Bernard Lonergan, the Canadian Jesuit who died in 1984. Lonergan was the author of, among other books, Insight and Method in Theology. Lonergan was very interested in the kind of decline that we are experiencing now. He suggested that part of the response has to be cosmopolis, which is discussed here. Mark Miller describes cosmopolis as “a redemptive community that would motivate people on a cultural level instead of attempting through economics or politics to impose new social structures.” This community is not one that occupies a particular geographic area or is composed of any one profession or discipline. It is a loose formation of people from different walks of life who all see and confront the decline that is all around them.

Cosmopolis differs from the current opposition movements against President Trump. It does not have a program in that sense. It does not look for redemption from any such quarter. Its main focus is on the clarity of thinking. Even that, however, is a misleading formulation because, for Lonergan, thinking includes a form of life in Wittgenstein’s sense. It is as much a matter of character as of cognition. One could say that only a certain kind of person in a certain social context is really adequate to the emergency in which we find ourselves.

My question to Michael is, how to build cosmopolis? I don’t believe that the current form of criticism that Michael practices helps us get there. Dr. King was a person who could build community. Even if the moral arc is entirely a human creation, it still requires community. Secularism is really bad at this. But religion is really good.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

More Religious Violence

4/21/2019--On this Easter Sunday, another reminder of violence perpetrated in the name of religion--this time in Sri Lanka. All religions perpetrate violence these days. I presume the bomber of a mosque in New Zealand on March 15, described as a white supremacist, was a Christian. Hindus oppress Muslims in India. Buddhists in South Asia do, too.

But violence perpetuated by Islamic radicals surpasses all the rest. One day Islam will suffer from this violence as Christianity did earlier in world history--by a wave of secularism. No one is going to put up with killing innocent people in the name of God forever. Eventually, whole societies revolt.

Chris Hitchens is smiling.

Friday, April 19, 2019

God: the Bait and Switch

4/19/2019—When I first voiced frustration over the conception of God prevalent in every synagogue I ever attended, my friend and teacher, Robert Taylor, told me to “translate” this kind of God language into something more believable. But over time I just could not do it. We find today in the Settler movement in Israel exactly the danger of a conception of a God who can do something like give somebody else’s land to me. Many settlers say that God gave Judea and Samaria to the Jewish people and so it is their land and Palestinians who live there have no rights.

But this is not just the view of theologically unsophisticated modern people. The great Rashi taught that the Torah begins with the creation of the world to show that God owns the world and can give the land of Israel to anyone he chooses.

As Martin Heidegger might say, this is to confuse Being with a Being.

This kind of God, who acts in human ways and does things a human being could do if powerful enough and for human sorts of reasons, is exactly the kind of God that Christopher Hitchens made fun of in his book, God is not Great. He thought a lot of the conflicts in the world arose from differing views of what that kind of God had actually done. And he was right.

But Hitchens was criticized because he was describing an infantile view of God. It was the view of God I was taught and the one that seems to be at work in the Church, he claimed. He called the movement from one kind of God concept to the other, a bait and switch.

I am reminded of this because of Easter. C.S. Lewis once said that Christianity was one big miracle. And I agree. The issue for me was always the resurrection, which is why I never became a Christian, though I love Jesus and consider the New Testament to represent the best truth ever written by humans.

Of course, Lewis was also not a theologian. And indeed Lewis really did have multiple conceptions of God—he always said that classical philosophy and Christianity were importantly similar.

But a real theologian like N.T. Wright makes the point very clearly. The claim of Christianity is that the resurrection actually happened. Not metaphorically. Jesus rose from the dead, his lifeless body reanimated in a new way—and thus physically not in the tomb—and confronted and engaged his followers.

But this I cannot accept. Only the kind of God I also cannot accept could so this kind of thing.

Even the Gospel of Mark, which is careful not to dwell on the resurrected Christ’s actions, makes absolutely clear that the tomb was empty and that this was the work of God.

This is in large part why I left Judaism. The monotheistic tradition insists that God can intervene in physical ways, setting aside the usual laws of the natural world. For many of us, something else, and new is needed.

But, to the many millions—billions—of believers, God bless you. And a blessing to you on Easter and Passover.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Two Cases of Independence--the Court and the Fed--and What They Tell Us About American Nihilism

4/14/2019--I will be speaking at Elon Law School in September--see events on the side. The occasion is a law review symposium on judicial independence at Elon on the anniversary of the Judiciary Act of 1869 that set the number of Justices on the Supreme Court at nine.

It is a well-timed event, since calls for Court-packing are only getting louder every day. As readers know, I am appalled by such calls. But they contrast strangely with what is going on with the Federal Reserve.

Donald Trump is packing the Fed with hacks--or trying to. But no one says, well, there are Trump Board Members and Obama Board members. There are, but people are willing to defend the idea of independent Fed decision-making.

Not so with the Supreme Court. Here, in principle there are only influences. There is nothing objective or scientific about the underlying matter--no need for actual expertise. For the Court, it's just, which side has a majority.

There is a lot one could say about this. Money is the most important thing. Capitalism is our main occupation. All of the nominees for the Court are competent, whereas, some of these Fed nominees or potential nominees are unqualified altogether.

But in terms of nihilism, the conclusion is that economic performance is not a value whereas justice is. And values are subjective.

Even people who would prefer a different tradeoff of unemployment and growth versus inflation don't want a President to have any say. They don't want to change the number of Board members to get their way. The reason is that they figure that any qualified member will have the same basic goals.

So, why is this not the case for the Court? Dr. King said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Brown was a unanimous opinion. The Court ended holding American citizens as enemy combatants without charge 8-1. Aren't there principles of justice as obvious and powerful as any theories of economics?

Thursday, April 11, 2019

More Universalism

4/11/2019--George Hutchinson is 89 years old and he has written an essential book for this culture: Facing the Abyss. Now I have only read this review by Edward Mendelson in the New York Review. But it will do for now. The point is universalism.

Hutchinson examines the literary culture of the 1940's and discovers that there were writers. Oh, they were black, white, gay straight, male, female. But they were writers about the human condition, despite their differing viewpoints. It was not unusual for Ann Perry, for example, to write about a white family. No concerns about cultural appropriation. Catetorization is the enemy.

Actually, that is not mostly what Hutchinson is getting at. There are cultures of virtue and cultures of penitence. The culture of virtue trumpets itself. That of penitence aims at self-reflection. The 1940's were one. We are the other. (Guess).

The Universal Declaration of Rights proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948 was not an instrument of Western imperialism celebrating personal autonomy. It was derived from Confucianism and Dewey's pragmatism and emphasized mutual relations. A collaboration between Eleanor Roosevelt and Zhang Pengchun.

The 1940's was a time of unspeakable horror. And of many American sins. Hutchinson does not gloss over that and neither did these figures. But it was also a time of some genuine introspection. We could use some of that. Cable news is self-righteousness. So is our politics.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Universal Christ

4/7/2019--I wonder sometimes why my Christian and Jewish friends don't live fuller, more meaning-filled lives. After all, they believe in a wonderful reality of hope and love that I don't inhabit. Or don't inhabit fully.

Richard Rohr's book, The Universal Christ, is an introduction into everyday mysticism that attempts to capture just such experiences. We can be on the bus and suddenly we become award of the presence of God--aware of a hidden depth of reality right there.

The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead taught that we were always perceiving God but that religious experiences were just that constant awareness occasionally coming into conscious awareness.

The point of hallowed secularism--this blog, my book, my hope for the future--is that this consciousness of the depth dimension of life, as described by Rollo May, could be a common inheritance.

Secularists just don't tend to talk about these things. That is part of the reason that secular life is so flat and unsatisfying. You need mystery and depth to live.

Rohr is a panentheist. I am seeing myself more and more as that.

Here is a review of Rohr's book.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

When Cynicism Came to the West

3/31/2019—Peter Sloterdijk, the German philosopher, wrote in Critique of Cynical Reason in 1987—1987!—that cynicism came to the West through the Enlightenment’s critique of religion:

“I maintain that this enlightenment theory of religion represents the first logical construction of modern, self-reflective master cynicism.”

That critique had two parts. Ordinary people believed the myths and constructions of religion and tried to live by them. Political and religious leaders, and philosophers, on the other hand, did not, and used these religious teachings to keep themselves in power and enforce an oppressive status quo.

If you listen hard enough, you will hear in this critique the very way we today treat our opponents. Pro-life critics talk about Planned Parenthood being in it for the money. Representative Omar’s comment about the Benjamins can be put there, too.

Roberto Unger once criticized this kind of cynicism as failing to capture the consciousness of people we claim to be describing and understanding. We may think they are fooling themselves, but they undoubtedly believe much of the things they say. It may even be that they don’t act consistently with the beliefs they profess. But even that is a long way from the bitter cynicism of the critique.

And it suggests projection by the critic. After all, says Sloterdijk, the one who sees such cynicism is the master cynic. Does this mean that the critic does not believe in what he or she professes?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Two Party Lies that Fuel Political Alienation in America

3/24/2019—The title refers to the fundamental lie at the heart of each political Party coalition in America. These lies make it impossible for either Party to conduct open inquiry into our situation. Thus, politics becomes unreal.

If you live by a lie, you die by a lie.

My friends would recognize the Republican Party lie—human caused climate change is not happening. Thus we don’t need to take any radical action to forestall it.

A lot of Republican politicians know this is untrue. They know climate change is happening and is dangerous, but they pretend that there is time to do something about it. So they can live with themselves.

But some people I have met aggressively deny the facts. They have some theory about false data showing warming or about sources of the change other than human produced greenhouse gases. Or, they claim that the consequences will not be that bad.

They don’t trust the people bringing the news of climate change—the UN, environmentalists, scientists, etc.

As readers of this blog know, I am not one to pretend to know much about science. If a scientific consensus tells me there is liquid water under the surface of one of the moons of Saturn, I just accept it. How would I know?

Similarly, although I can see warming in my own lifetime—very significantly so (in Pittsburgh, below zero temperatures are now rare while they were more prevalent in the 1980s, when I arrived here)—if scientists told me this was just a temporary cycle, I would accept that. They tell me it is climate change and I can see that is dangerous if true.

There is a reason for this lie. The Republican coalition is strongly individualistic. Climate change is not. The Republicans honor private property. Climate change says no one is an island. Cutting down your tree affects me (so does the oxygen cycle).

But no thinking person can easily be a Republican given this lie. Worse, there is no real pushback. There is no institutional presence pushing for action on global warming in the Republican coalition.

The lie on the Democratic Party side is simpler. It is that human life does not begin at conception. At least here there is no serious scientific debate. When else could my life begin but at my conception?

The problem for the Democrats, of course, is abortion. Many women feel that they need abortion to be a legal option to live their lives with any kind of autonomy. Capitalism teaches that we are free to make money independent of others. Pregnancy puts the lie to that assertion. Liberal theory says that we are free to make our own decisions. Pregnancy ends that too. Pregnancy is dependency.

Plus, society is sexist. The consequences of pregnancy fall practically totally on the woman and hardly at all on the man.

So, abortion is felt to be an absolute necessity.

I get that since I am surrounded by it.

But you still cannot get to freedom by a lie. Human life begins at conception. So the only honest thing to say, as Catharine MacKinnon has said, is that despite the biology, the law has to be that protected life begins at birth. That is an honest statement. Brutal but honest.

I can never make up my mind on what the law of abortion ought to be. Certainly where the health of a mother is threatened by the pregnancy, abortion should be legal. And I would interpret that very broadly.

But that is not really the issue. A healthy young woman with bright life prospects is just not ready to have a child. She has no interest in the man with whom she had sex. And she is pregnant. The life she wants is over if she cannot get a legal abortion. More to the point, she will get an illegal one if she has to and that will threaten her life.

Life begins at conception is the truth. It doesn’t tell you that the morning after pill should be legal or not. As they say, biology is not destiny. These are social judgments.

Anyway, those conversations will never happen until that truth of human life’s beginning is squarely and honestly faced. But that is not going to happen anytime soon.

In defense of the Democratic Party, unlike the situation with climate change, there is something of a pro-life faction. My Senator, Bob Casey, is one of its leaders. But it is certainly not a nationally significant group.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

My op-ed on the Bladesnburg Cross

3/21/2019--My op-ed on the peace cross appeared in the Washington Examiner today. Here is the original version (some minor changes and omissions in the paper).
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How the Court Should Rule in Favor of the Cross

The cross in Bladensburg isn’t going anywhere. That was clear from the oral argument in The American Legion v. American Humanist Assoc. The Court may even be unanimous that the cross can stay on public land.

That is not surprising. The cross is an almost hundred years old WWI memorial without further religious reference. Crosses have symbolized the dead of The Great War since John McCrae’s epic 1915 poem, Flanders Fields.

What matters is how the cross stays—do the Justices add to American divisions or begin the process of healing?

Thanks to President Donald Trump, there is a pro-religion majority on the Court. That majority could abolish the requirement of a secular purpose in Establishment Clause cases—the Lemon test—and substitute a no coercion test. That would allow the government to endorse religion, and even endorse Christianity. This would be seen as a big win for one side in the culture wars.

Treating religion as either/or goes back a long way. The legal theorist Ronald Dworkin once asked whether America would be a religious country tolerating non-belief or a secular country accommodating believers. This is like asking who’s the real American. You could hardly be more divisive.

Even Justice Antonin Scalia, much more sensitive to the clash of constitutional values, tended to see these matters as tragedy, in which some valid claims would have to be disregarded.

These cases pit believers against non-believers because the Court has never asked seriously what secular meaning a religious symbol can have. Religious symbols don’t just endorse sectarian commitments. Religious symbols also, and just as clearly, stand for a whole set of other commitments.

The national motto, In God We Trust, for example, means the God of the Bible for the monotheistic believer. But it also means that we live in a trustworthy universe and not in chaos. That is the reason why John Dewey, not himself a religious believer, never gave up the word, God.

Those Ten Commandments displays that so often end up in court remind the religious believer that God is the foundation of human law. But they also proclaim that law must serve Truth. They echo Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..’s teaching that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. These displays are as much a rebuke to value-free originalism as they are to materialism.

Upholding religious imagery for its common, secular meaning is not bringing back the much derided “ceremonial deism,” which claims that religious symbols no longer have religious meaning. Nor is it the sanitized claim that religious imagery symbolizes a “religious heritage,” as if religion is now just a museum trip.

It is the claim instead that the real division in this country is not between religion and non-religion, but between those who see meaning and purpose at the heart of the universe and those who do not. Religious symbols communicate very well on this level to both believers and non-believers.

America is well on its way to becoming a secular society. The question is, what kind of secular society are we going to be? The opioid crisis, the spike in suicides, the general hopelessness and anger in American society, strongly suggest that our secularism will be nihilism. We will just have to get used to the idea that we are alone in an indifferent universe.

But there is another possibility. We can be secularists who still embrace transcendent norms. Many naturalists are experimenting with that kind of secularism.

Government should not be neutral with regard to the question of meaning. It should endorse cosmic purpose. It should proclaim hope. Religious symbols are not the only way to do that, but they are one way.

Any judicial decision in favor of religion versus non-religion will only be temporary. It will ensure that some future secular majority will insist on a naked public square. But a decision that fills that public square with common meaning for all of us will endure.

The Justices have a choice. They can participate in, and further, our divisions or they can help us find common ground and healing. It depends on how they rule in favor of the cross.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Response to My anti-Court-Packing Message

3/17/2019—Just back from the well-organized and insightful symposium on voting rights at the Memphis Law School—maybe the most impressive law school building in the nation (the old customs house in downtown Memphis). Thanks to the marvelous law review staff.

I was the final speaker, late in the day. But energy did not flag when people realized what I was talking about. The responses depended on the orientation of the questioner.

Certainly, the major response was surprise. People had no idea that Court-packing was so likely to be attempted. It helped that Beto O’Rourke endorsed something like it when he announced.

The response by moderates was agreement—I did not hear from anyone really on the Right. I suppose they would have been even more grim. And the agreement was not just about Court-packing, but my more basic point about the destruction of democratic life itself.

There was also the fatalist response—this too shall pass. People are always doing terrible things and we don’t self-destruct—an absolutely true observation, until we do destruct.

Finally, there is the response from the Left—you are telling us to disarm while the Republicans win. This will be the response most difficulty to overcome. Steven Mulroy, a speaker and professor at Memphis, made a creative suggestion that the Democrats use Court-packing as a threat to force bipartisan agreement on an amendment to create term limits for Justices. Certainly that would be better than Court-packing and it would limit the control of the Court that Republican believe they will have for the next 25 or 30 years.

Hard to arrange though, unless you have already overcome the mutual anger of the moment.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Best Column Even by Thomas Friedman

3/10/2019--The column is Ilhan Omar, Aipac and Me. I especially like its reminder of the disgraceful Congressional invitation to Netanyahu over the objections of our President. The column appeared on Thursday, I believe.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Network Message Endorses Nihilism

3/7/2019—Despite impressive performances, especially by Bryan Cranston, and wonderfully effective staging, the fundamental problem with the play Network is the movie it is based on. At least as rendered, the message of the play is one of nihilism.

The news star, Howard Beale, goes through several attempts to figure out what the problem is—-he admits he does not know what should go in the telegrams that are going to the White House—-but ends the play with the peculiar idea that the problem is belief in absolutes.

No one in the play had believed in any absolutes. In fact, Beale had earlier said to the camera that we do what the tube tells us and believe nothing at all ourselves—-very much akin to the Das Man section in Heidegger’s Being and Time: we do what they tell us.

It is a cheap and unsatisfying ending. We have to disagree. Something like religion could not be the problem because no one we see in the play is religious.

The dramatic highpoint of the play is the remarkably staged “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” sequence. But everyone in the theater is aware that just such a feeling of wanting to push over everything got Trump elected. The phrase now sounds like a real mistake. I believe somewhere someone connected with the play said he learned of the value of expressing anger. I doubt people in general agree with that given the way things are today.

It always was a mistake to just get mad. Beale says we’ll figure out later what to do. The main thing is to get mad. Well, now we’re mad all the time so that can no longer be said.

Beale experiments. It’s corporations. It’s individualism. It’s the nation-state.

What comes across is the exhaustion of our elites, specifically the writer, Paddy Chayefsky. Thankfully, Beale still believes in free speech, but not in any of our other values. He criticizes people for not reading books or newspapers, but does not try to educate anyone about anything—-until he has a personal interest in a Saudi takeover of the network. At that point, democracy proves very effective in stopping a merger.

Chayefsky predicted the rise of infotainment, but has no alternative to offer. It’s all a lot of magic thinking. There is some secret that will make the world better.

Network does not want to grapple with the hard work of self-government. It encourages us to demand answers from others—-our elected officials—-without any work on our part. Television makes us political consumers rather than participants.

It would be nice to think that this is what the play/movie is trying to show. That we need to be participants in working out the problems of our society. But that is not the play's point. Instead, fatalistically, we are told that there is nothing much to be done. Nothing beyond not believing in absolutes.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Power of Truth

3/3/2019—Why is it the Democrats cannot quite clear themselves of the charge of infanticide? The real reason is that human life begins at conception. There is no line after that one that makes any sense.

An abortion decision that centered on the life, health and safety of the pregnant woman would still be possible. But not abortion on demand, which is the problem. The issue is terminating a pregnancy that is just not in the person’s plans, but is otherwise no threat.

A lot of the issue here is sexism. The father’s life will continue more or less unaffected. Her life will radically change. If this were different, there would be much more support for abortion. But less demand for it, too.

Matters are quite otherwise with same sex marriage. Here the religious teachings are arbitrary and everyone can see it, which is why there is no longer any support at all for criminalizing this “sin”. Try that experiment with adultery and you will see that people will say it would be a bad idea to criminalize it, but there is still some support for some kind of legal sanction—a penalty in the divorce, for example.

I hope gay Methodist believers will stay and make the denomination throw them out. It may not happen. But even if it does, it will be homicide and not suicide.

Conservatives are always going on about traditional morality. But gay relationships are not actually immoral. Those other teachings are about practices that actually are, even though the teachings are rigid—-most sex outside marriage is exploitive and that which is not is often on the way to marriage and always went on.

So, life and love are the truth. When we go against them, we always run into difficulties. That is the power of truth.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Communitarian Collapse in America

2/28/2019—Ross Douthat wrote a column yesterday in which he discussed the changing view of the State on the Right. Conservatives traditionally defended limited government in order to allow civil society to flourish, including corporate life.

But now with all civil life in decline and corporations unmasked as bad citizens, some on the Right want to turn to government, to some extent at least.

A good column, but, as I wrote in a letter to the New York Times you won’t see, basically beside the point. You can’t adopt policies to address social decline when you have no idea why they happened in the first place.

The renewal, when it does come, will come by way of a secular acknowledgment of the crisis of meaning. With the death of God, the story of human life that was told in the West ended. Nietzsche knew what a momentous event that was. Secularists today are blasé.

The neo-pagans, like Anthony Kronman (Confessions of a Born Again Pagan) and John Gray (Seven Types of Atheism) tell us to cultivate our own gardens and to seek equanimity. No thanks. This is not good advice for this culture.

More helpful, maybe, is a work from 1981 by the German social observer Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason. Sloterdijk also says that “the critical addiction to making things better has to be given up” but, he adds, “for the sake of the good, from which one so easily distances oneself on long marches.”

The long march is Communism. That may also stand for any other project of making things better. They threaten “the good.” But because Sloterdijk can still write of the good, he is still one of us wanting a better world. He is just saying with the doctors, first, do no harm.

Americans are stuck right now not daring to believe in a good that has power, in a truth that will be accepted. It is not all on us. There is a hidden order that all humans are bound to follow—are meant to follow. If you follow it, you have lived a good life and can die with the equanimity that the neo-pagans promise. But it is not just about you. It is about loving your neighbor.

There is a lot here. And not much has to do directly with politics.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Opening of the Memphis talk on Court-Packing

2/23/2019--Here is the opening of the talk I will be giving at Memphis Law School in two weeks. I mentioned the themes back on January 29 below.
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To Save American Democracy, Prevent Court-Packing
Bruce Ledewitz
The University of Memphis 2019 Law Review Symposium: Barriers at the Ballot Box


I never expected to have to ask for help in saving American democracy. And when I say saving democracy, I don’t mean something abstract, like curbing the power of courts or limiting the influence of big money. No, I mean help in preventing a military takeover.

For this can happen here. It might be closer than we think.

It is not news that American democracy is in trouble. Republicans and Democrats do not trust each other. Americans inhabit different narrative universes. We are bitterly divided even though the issues over which we differ appear to be quite ordinary.

The reason the threat to democracy is so clear to me is a 2018 book, entitled How Democracies Die, that compares the current American situation with historical examples of how democracies have actually ended. The authors, Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, show that democracies end when the norms of tolerance and forbearance are violated.

Tolerance means the acceptance that “the other side” will attain power from time to time. Forbearance is the related norm that when this situation occurs, the minority will not do everything within its legal powers to prevent the enactment of the policies of the other side.

Clearly American politicians are not practicing tolerance and forbearance today. In terms of tolerance, the 2016 election was regarded by some Republicans as the “the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” And most Democrats regarded the possibility that Donald Trump might be elected President as loathsome and unthinkable.

In terms of forbearance, the Republican majority in the Senate refused to even hold a hearing on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. More recently, the Democrats filibustered the nomination of Neil Gorsuch without much justification.

In a healthy democracy, you let the other Party enact its policies and then reverse them when your side is returned to power. You can always tear down a border wall, for example. A border wall not an existential threat.

The norms of tolerance and forbearance have been slowly weakening for a long time. Bill Clinton’s first budget, in 1993, for example, passed without a single Republican vote in Congress, for example. In 2013, Democrats ended the Senate tradition of the filibuster for many judicial and executive nominations.

Levitsky and Ziblatt place the major blame on the Republican Party. That may be part of the reason that their book has not had the same effect across the political aisle.

That limited appeal is unfortunate because “who started it” is quite irrelevant. Once tolerance and forbearance begin to slip, partisans on both sides are justified in claiming that every new outrage is just a response to a previous outrage by the other side. When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns. When you fight the absence of tolerance with intolerance of your own, democracy is destroyed.

It takes real statesmanship to break this cycle. It is not clear that such statesmanship is available in America today.

We cannot expect help from the Supreme Court. In the first place, the Justices do not yet appreciate the danger to American democracy. That is obvious from their unwillingness to address gerrymandering on the merits.

But even if the Justices were cognizant of the danger, there is not much they can do. The decline of forbearance does not require illegality. It was not illegal to refuse Judge Garland a hearing. It was not illegal to limit the filibuster. It would be helpful if the Justices proclaimed the fragility of democracy. But in the end, the responsibility to sustain democracy lies with us.

How will American democracy end? In my paper, I describe two nightmare scenarios that could so undermine the legitimacy of the American governing structure that some kind of takeover would be inevitable. These two scenarios are the partisan manipulation of the Electoral College and the packing of the U.S. Supreme Court by increasing the number of Justices.

These two scenarios pose very different threats today. For the moment, the Electoral College looks safe. The current threat is much more likely to come from the Democratic Party packing the Supreme Court.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

John Yoo, War Criminal

2/16/2009—I just had a series of exchanges on Twitter concerning John Yoo, author of the 2002 Torture Memos that gave as a legal opinion the view that coercive techniques could lawfully be employed in the War on Terror. Yoo was Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the time.

There was a series of memoranda, but the fundamental ideas were three—a strained interpretation of illegality that defined waterboarding, for example, as not prohibited by statute or treaty, an understanding of executive power that concluded that any congressional limits would be an unconstitutional infringement of the President’s war powers and an interpretation of the necessity defense that would allow almost any actions to be justified by the threat of terrorism.

This period was a stain on the honor of the United States. And the author should be regarded as a war criminal.

Yet, somehow, Yoo has escaped all blame. He is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at Berkeley. In a world in which blackface disqualifies someone from public office and even the allegation of sexual assault is taken as condemnation, the justification of torture does not affect the public life of John Yoo.

I once tried to get the authors of my casebook at least to take any opinion of Yoo out of the book. You would think that the AALS would pass a resolution condemning him. That he would be shunned. But none of this has happened.

Nor has he ever apologized.

My Twitter exchange had to do with abortion. I will say here what I said there. A nation that tortures its enemies will never embrace the sanctity of life. It has already decided that the ends justify the means.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ishmael

2/12/2019--My class in Philosophy of Law finishes Ishmael by Daniel Quinn this week. I've mentioned the book from time to time on this blog. I always try to assign it in some class or other.

The premise of the book is that the civilization that has its roots in the neolithic agricultural revolution--meaning the civilization of the whole world bar none--believes that the world belongs to man and man has to make it a suitable home. By following this bad belief, this worldwide civilization is destroying the world. Quinn calls this people the Takers.

The Takers think of ourselves as humans, but we broke off from a much longer human tradition, which Quinn calls the Leavers. These are all the indigenous cultures and peoples who ever lived. These cultures are now mostly destroyed by the Takers. In fact, the descendants of these indigenous peoples now are mostly embedded in Taker culture, often against their will or even knowledge.

The Leaver premise was that man belongs to the world and that the world was a garden for all. Following this belief, Leavers lived in harmony with the rest of the life community. Not because Leavers were any less violent, cruel and mean than Takers, but because they were living out a healthy story. Leavers were also happier and healthier.

Quinn believes Leavers were experimenting with civilization in the Americas when Takers arrived and killed and enslaved them. But these experiments are available for Takers to consider and change our way to be in this civilization.

But Quinn makes another point, you might say one about Taker politics. All of Taker civilization is a prison. The only liberation is liberation from that prison. Nevertheless, within the Taker prison, some people have more privileges than other inmates--like in any prison. The ones who have more privileges are wealthy white males. The teacher, Ishmael, a gorilla, warns the student not to become fixated on power within the prison. The point is liberation for the whole world from Taker destruction.

The symbol the author chooses for wealthy, white male privilege is Donald Trump. On page 252. In 1992. You could look it up.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

This Political Moment

2/10/2019—Bret Stephens wrote a good column urging Virginia Governor Northam not to step down. He wrote that at least in the case of non-criminal acts long ago, we should not judge people by their worst moments. You have to judge a whole life.

David Brooks wrote something similar about call-out culture that banishes people over lapses of judgment, like sending an unwelcome photo.

This is something to think about and I admit to mixed feelings. There is a phrase—to be like Caesar’s wife. Politicians should understand that standards for them will be higher. It’s too bad that President Trump got elected despite his horrible behavior—too bad he got nominated.

And Northam was not young—he was a medical school graduate. Plus, racism by doctors is especially heinous. Zero tolerance is sometimes a good thing. But the Germans decided that not all members of the Nazi Party were to be banned from public life. (Heidegger was a notable member).

Then there is the question of crime. Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused of conduct that was criminal. Sexual contact without consent is assault or rape—both serious crimes. But despite the unfairness of past standards, I don’t believe that you just say, always believe the woman. It is reasonable to look at the context and try to decide who is telling the truth.

If even they know. In the case of Dr. Tyson, engaged as they were in kissing in a hotel room, I suppose Fairfax might not have even known she did not want to go further. I can understand why she never said anything.

The case of Meredith Watson seems much worse in terms of potential crime. Her attorney called it rape; there was no consensual romantic activity; she immediately told her friends and posted that there had been date rape. If these things are all true, this was no misunderstanding by Fairfax. And it would have been rape pure and simple. He would still be in jail.

Fairfax has asked for an investigation and he deserves one—so do the people of Virginia. But unlike non-criminal conduct that is shameful, there should be no political statute of limitations on serious crimes. Serious criminal conduct should disqualify someone forever from public life.

So, yes, it’s a good moment to confront our own casual wrongs—racism and sexism and other wrongs. But the overwhelming majority of men have not committed rape or other serious crimes. It is not too much to say that conduct like that is a lot worse than a social error.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Leaver Agriculture

2/2/2019--In the marvelous book Ishmael, which my students in Law and Philosophy read, Daniel Quinn points out that settlement and agriculture was known by indigenous peoples who lived sustainably within their areas. (Weren't the Iroquois an example of that?) People calls these people Leavers.

But the question has always been whether this model is of any use to us--Quinn's Takers.

There is now a model of the kind of agriculture that a Leaver might practice in our society. You can see it in the writing of California farmer Mike Madison that I ran across in a review by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Review in the September 27 issue--Green and Pleasant Land (locked on the New York Review webpage).

The normal farmer mantra is kill everything but the crops, says Klinkenborg. And the average farmer is a complete slave to the likes of Monsanto--seeds are leased. But there are other ways to farm.

Here is a flavor of Madison's farming, with some quotes from Madison.
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The point of all these lists and calculations is to help measure Madison’s efforts to keep his farm in balance with the world. “It is instructive,” he writes, “to draw a line around the perimeter of a farm and then to measure the movement of materials (or energy) across that line, onto and off the farm.” By this standard, conventional farms—heavily reliant on petroleum-based chemicals, fossil fuels, and leased seeds—are sinkholes of consumption. Madison’s goal is to make the farm operation as self-provisioning as possible, so that the farm supplies as many of its own requirements—energy and fertility, for example—as it can. This, of course, is one of the basic measures of sustainability. So is the “psychological well-being of the farm family,” a standard you’ll want to keep in mind while reading This Blessed Earth.

In America—thanks to its abundance of land—there have always been two kinds of farmers: movers and improvers. Movers were the ones who farmed out the fertility in a patch of ground and then moved along to the next patch. This is more or less how America was settled. Improvers were the ones who did everything they could to preserve and increase the fertility of their soil. The intensity of the debate over these methods reached its peak in the early nineteenth century.* In the long run, the improvers faded from the discussion, especially after World War II and the introduction of chemical fertilizers. The movers continue to move, but in a different manner these days. When farmers ran out of new land, they simply mined their way downward through the fertility of eroding layers of farmland until they reached the place we are now.

Farmland, instead of being a carbon sink, has been forced to surrender its carbon. Iowa’s once-black soils are now “a washed-out tan color from loss of organic matter.” All that lost fertility is replaced annually by injections of anhydrous ammonia, which is toxic to soil organisms and slowly acidifies the soil. You could argue that modern agriculture has brought about the most wholesale ecocide on the planet by killing the astonishingly rich microbial life of the soil. It’s worth drawing up another analytical model of the kind Mike Madison employs. Ask, simply, where soil is being replenished with organic matter—cover crops and manure, for instance—and where it is not. What you end up with is a perfect map of the division between conventional, large-scale, industrial agriculture and small-market farms. A map like that would also provide a stark reminder of how colossal the scale of conventional farming really is when compared to small, artisanal farming, something that’s easily forgotten when you’re shopping at the farmers’ market.

Madison believes that “farming is not a perversion of nature, but a natural development in our planet’s evolution.” There is a lot of optimism lurking in that thought. Anyone who can write “I expect to still be farming at age 80” is an optimist at heart, no matter how cautionary or skeptical he often sounds. In fact, I would say that Fruitful Labor may be the most optimistic book it is possible to write that also contains this sentence: “We are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.”
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It turns out that James Madison had a Leaver perspective. Read this last paragraph.

Madison’s fundamental argument about the deep ecology of farming is one that another Madison—James Madison—would have agreed with. In May 1818, while Cobbett was still living on Long Island, the former president—an improving farmer—gave a speech to the Agricultural Society in Albemarle, Virginia. He said something that has become almost unsayable in the world we inhabit now—unsayable at least by the sitting president and his environmental and agricultural appointees. “We can scarcely be warranted,” Madison said, “in supposing that all the productive powers of [Earth’s] surface can be made subservient to the use of man, in exclusion of all the plants and animals not entering into his stock of subsistence.” It is truly painful to leap ahead two hundred years and realize that one of Mike Madison’s reasons for continuing to farm is this: “In an increasingly unstable world it is important to keep the farm as a refuge for family and friends in times of economic collapse and social disarray.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

How to Save American Democracy

1/29/2019--Although we may think that this is the question everyone is asking, it isn't.

The question we are actually asking is how I can win.

The answer to that question will not save American democracy. Democrats today just want to win Congress and the Presidency. They have no intention of healing the wounds that brought Donald Trump the Presidency. Defeating Trump will not save American democracy. To do that, Americans must learn to trust each other again.

Saving democracy requires work on two-levels: philosophical and practical.

On the practical level, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain in How Democracies Die that you have to restore tolerance and forbearance to save democracy. Tolerance means accepting that the other guy sometimes wins gets to govern. Forbearance means you do not do everything in your power legally to frustrate that.

Republicans long ago gave up tolerance and forbearance. They all voted against Clinton's first budget in 1993. Democrats were slower to give these norms up, but they are gone now.

The two worst examples of the lack of tolerance and forbearance are manipulating the Electoral College and packing the US Supreme Court. The Electoral College manipulation was tried and fortunately it failed. The idea was to have Republican States keep winner take all Presidential election but have States like Pennsylvania move to congressional district election. If this had succeeded, Republican minority Presidential rule would be made permanent.

This was a real conspiracy and I don't understand why all Republicans did not oppose it. Some did, which is why it failed.

Court packing is the next threat and I judge its chances to be 50/50. We have to take a stand against it now. It would end all semblance of the rule of law.

But that is why Court-packing is not unthinkable. We don't believe there is a rule of law. We believe with President Trump that there are Obama judges and Trump judges.

So we have to proceed to restore the rule of law as well as oppose Court packing. I will speak in a few weeks in Memphis on these points.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Why There is No Left Federalist Society

1/26/2019—This question was put on Politico by Evan Mandery and then responded to on the Mother Jones blog by Kevin Drum. Mandery correctly points out that the lack of a large idea is a problem. Drum disputes this.

The direct reason for no liberal Federalist Society is that there is no such thing as liberal constitutional theory. But why is that? Why is there no organized alternative to originalism?

Liberal, or Left, constitutional theory is not hard to imagine. You just merge the pragmatism of the framers about the size of government—big enough to counter private power—with an intention to protect human rights, written and unwritten.

So, why is this simple formulation never, never communicated? Because it would require the Left to come clean about rights. The framers thought rights were real—that is, independent of human formulations about them. (think the arc of the moral universe and justice).

But the Left today is anti-essentialism. You cannot say what human nature is or what the universe is. Rights are just made up.

No one wants to admit that the approach of the Left to rights is the same pragmatism as the approach to government power. So, no discussion of Left constitutional theory.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Why Wasn't Fukuyama Right?

1/21/2019--Why didn't 1989 turn out to be the end of history? In retrospect, we think Francis Fukuyama was silly. But the consensus in 1989 was that the combination of government humanity had hit upon--representative democracy, judicial review (the rule of law) and market capitalism with a safety net--was about the best you could do and was not likely to be improved very much and did pretty well for people.

That conclusion did not turn out to be wrong. Although the political world is cracking up, no one has come up with a better ideology. I for one still believe in the system Fukuyama described. Is China a better system?

Fukuyama was destined to be wrong about history because of the rise of new powers--China, for example--the decline of old ones--America--and new threats--like climate change. But why did he turn out to be wrong about politics? Why didn't that three part consensus system prove stable?

The Left says economic inequality and the loss of jobs. But people did not actually get poorer. But yes, life did seem hopeless to many people and that is why Trump and Brexit won. But why did life seem hopeless? Economically things were not that bad for most people anywhere in the West.

Was it the dislocations of 2008?

The Right says two things. Too much government proved intolerable. That's what the rich say. The populist Right says what the Left says, plus nationalism and racism. "We" are disappearing. Here is the crisis of immigration.

I believe that the breakdown occurred because of what I have called The Crisis of Secularism--See my book, Church, State and the Crisis in American Secularism. The crisis is the failure to create what this blog calls Hallowed Secularism. In other words, life has no intrinsic meaning. Traditional religion--Christianity and Judaism--fail to remain vibrant and believable and no other account of meaning arises. So, Trump. Brexit. Nationalism. Populism. The dark forces that are always potentially present are no longer held in check by a myth of intrinsic meaning--a way to fit into the universe.

The way Michael Ignatieff puts this is to say that secular society inevitably disappoints. But that is because he cannot imagine an account of intrinsic meaning arising from naturalism. Alfred North Whitehead would disagree about that.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Love Driven Politics

1/20/2018—Dr. Kathy Glass gave a wonderful Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Address on Friday. Her goal was to reintroduce us to the life and basic teachings of Dr. King. The striking image I took away was the love-driven politics of Dr. King. That is something we don’t do now, of course. What did Dr. King mean?

Well first of all, he meant agape love—in the Christian tradition—let’s say unselfish concern for the welfare of others I do not know. To have concern for the other at the heart of my politics.

And Dr. King meant in particular not just love for the stranger, but love for my enemy. That is, actual concern for the welfare of those who oppose me and seek to do me harm. That is obviously precisely what Jesus practiced, if the Gospels are reliable at all.

This is the foundation of Dr. King’s famous saying—-Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

This is why Dr. King never sought to defeat his enemies, but to convert them. Not to Christianity per se, but convert them to more loving lives themselves.

In Dr. King’s hands, these were purely practical matters, not a matter of an ideal. If you want to see a very simple and direct version, look at his 1957 sermon here.

There are three basic steps to practicing loving the enemy. First, know your own faults and how you have contributed to breakdown of community. After all, in the loving community, we don’t have enemies. We are at fault is the number one requirement. If you cannot see your own hatred, you can’t help anything.

Second, know the good in your enemy. If you think there isn’t any, you are just dealing with caricatures, not people. Your enemy is trying to accomplish something that is not itself pure evil. (Hard to believe with President Trump, but we are instructed to try).

Third, when you have a chance to defeat your enemy, don’t do it. Don’t take your revenge when you can.

This is agape love. A creative force for good in the universe.

Dr. King ended the sermon with the question of why we should love our enemy. Three reasons. Love reduces the chain of hate in the universe. Hate warps the person who hates. And finally, love redeems. It is the only thing that actually improves our situation.

Dr. King gave this sermon in 1957. His life over the next ten years demonstrate the power of his message, and its truth.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What’s Wrong?

Came back to more bleakness. (But had a great trip)

1/15/2018—The answer, it seems, is everything. Political systems are obviously failing. See Trump, Brexit, Europe, China, Russia, etc. Economic systems are failing—see the frustration of ordinary people with the fruits of economies going to the wealthy while ordinary jobs disappear. At the same time, debt is growing—I heard last night $254 trillion worldwide. That is not sustainable. And, on top of all that, as David Brooks pointed out in today’s New York Times, people are increasingly cruel toward each other. Not just hatred toward immigrants but the call-out culture about everybody.

This is why the-world-is-getting-better crowd is having so little impact. See Steven Pinker. It doesn’t feel better.

And then there is global warming, which threatens to end civilization. See Florida flooded and Las Vegas abandoned. (If that is the end of civilization)

But of course all of this really is exaggerated. The world does always have problems and compared with WWII and the threat of nuclear annihilation, things have gotten better.

The reason it feels so much worse is the absence of a beneficent myth. Materialism and positivism are just not sufficient to sustain human life. Neither is science per se. Humans need to live in a meaningful universe. We evolved to believe that and now, with the death of God, we don’t. I know most of the world is composed of believers, but somehow even their beliefs have been undercut. Religion is now itself a source of hatred, rather than love.

So, all we need is a new understanding of reality. One that combines meaning with nature. Not impossible, but more on how later.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Holiday Travel

12/28/2018--Hallowed Secularism takes a break for two weeks because of travel. Happy New Year to all. Maybe the New Year will bring a spiritual reawakening to America. I do sense a change. Tom Krattenmaker, for example, is certainly getting a hearing he has not quite had before. It would be a good thing if we decided that President Trump is not the issue. Only a really spiritually bankrupt country would let a man like that anywhere near the White House. He is symptom not cause.

Biblical religion has a category understood as God's judgment. We are paying a price for the kind of country we have been and the kind of life we have practiced. Dr. King talked about the four evils: militarism, materialism, racism and poverty. America has promoted them all. The last speech Dr. King wrote, which he did not live to deliver, asked whether America was going to hell. Turns out we were.

But Biblical religion has another category--redemption. Exile does not last forever. We learn from our sins. We live better. I hope that will be true for all of us in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Parable that Ends the Novel, The Chosen is a Christmas Parable

12/25/2018--I don't have the novel in front of me, but Potok tells a parable akin to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There is a son who renounces his father and lives a dissolute life. His father sends a servant to ask the boy to come home. He says, "I cannot." The father sends the servant a second time and says, "then come as far as you can, and I will meet you there."

In the classic Christian telling, that is what God did today all those many years ago. Humankind, cut off from God, cannot reach out to him. So, God goes to man, meeting him there, in human life.

Merry Christmas, 2018.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

More of the New Mark Lilla

12/23/2018—Can a person change his mind without ever acknowledging his prior error? Of course the answer is yes. This is what enables Mark Lilla to keep telling everyone what to do without any humility. Actually, he is the person he keeps criticizing.

Lilla was my bete noire in the original Hallowed Secularism book. Lilla had just published The Stillborn God and was writing New Atheist essays about how politics has to be thin, has to be about not harming each other. He argued that this keeps us from killing each other over issues of ultimate salvation. There are no universal truths of politics or morality. We Westerners are always in danger of returning religion to public life.

Everything Lilla stood for then has been proven wrong, or at least insufficient. As Michael Ignatieff has pointed out—see August 4, 2018 below—this kind of politics inevitably disappoints. It is not satisfying to people. We need a more robust commitment to truth.

Of course, this is obvious now that Donald Trump with his war on truth is President.

However, rather than acknowledging his mistake and learning from it, Lilla turned around ten years later and attacked identity politics in The Once and Future Liberal—as if identity politics was not inevitable if there were no universal truths.

Lilla is still confused about truth, but he criticized identity politics as too thin for modern life. Lilla wrote in that book that we need the universal solidarity that his own group, the New Atheists, helped undermine.

Weird. But now, in a essay in the New York Review, Lilla goes one more step in repudiating his former self without acknowledgment. He argues that because the French Left has never had much feel for Catholicism, it “is often caught unawares when a line has been crossed.”

That description fits Lilla and the secular America Left like a glove. Not being aware that a line was crossed—take the loss of tax exempt status for not recognizing same-sex marriage as an example—is the major reason Donald Trump was elected.

The point is that Lilla now recognizes the power and importance of religion, at least culturally and politically, and that he did not before. So, when does he fess up?

It would be helpful if he would, because Lilla’s confession of error might influence other secular leftists to stop going after religion.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Continuing Disintegration of Politics in America

12/18/2018—Today, Paul Krugman published a column today attacking Judge Reed O’Connor’s decision not to sever the Affordable Care Act as “partisan.” This of course is precisely the same attack that was made by President Trump against the decision by District Judge Jon S. Tigar striking down the government’s asylum rules. Chief Justice Roberts responded to that attack by saying that there are not Obama Judges or Trump judges.

There is not even room here for a rule of law. Judge O’Connor may be wrong—-most legal observers believe he should have severed the law—-but there was certainly an argument for honest disagreement. Obamacare was always described as a carefully constructed whole, in which all the parts had to work together. No one thought a simple command that insurance companies refrain from raising rates for preexisting conditions would work without a lot of healthy people buying insurance. Hence the role of the mandate.

This changed when Republicans in Congress repealed the penalty for noncompliance. However, many people obey laws and there was still a command to buy insurance. That command was struck down in a perfectly reasonable decision by Judge O’Connor, given the decision by the US Supreme Court upholding the mandate only because there was a tax connected to it. (A decision I still regard as wrong, but hardly partisan).

The law without the mandate never made any sense. It is still limping along, but the decision not to sever is absolutely defensible.

I don’t believe we should leap to the conclusion that judges are partisan. What they are is ideological, which can lead to different results, but rarely do they vote Party. Bush v. Gore was the horrible exception.

Friday, December 14, 2018

What Will Post-Christianity Look Like?

12/14/2018—I guess I should ask, what does it look like, since we are already in it. The answer of course is that we don’t know. But Ross Douthat is wrong about one direction in may take.

Douthat wrote a column about paganism, which refers to Steven Smith’s new book contrasting Christianity—transcendent religion—with paganism—imminent religion: Pagans & Christians in the City. It’s a replay, says Smith, of an old story. Tony Kronman told a similar story in Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.

But notice that both Smith and Kronman leave out a much simpler possibility—a secularized version of Christianity itself. This is something of the effort Tom Krattenmaker is taking up in his 2016 book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Krattenmaker describes that effort as “translating the language of Christianity to make it accessible, meaningful, and believable to me.”

Now why does Douthat leave this out? Why do Smith and Kronman? In the case of Douthat and Smith, it is because they are traditional Christians. Paganism is no threat, but any sort of transformed Christianity would be—-or so they might think. Tragically, they are not asking the question Paul asked, the question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, “What is God saying now?” Douthat in fact already has named the movements of this direction a Christian heresy in his book, Bad Religion.

In Kronman’s case, it is the opposite problem. He is Jewish and has never known Jesus. He thinks he knows Christianity and is reacting against it. But he has no experience of the greatness of Christianity. If I remember his book, which I need to look at again, Christianity is a comic book.

No, there is no pagan revival. Any religious movement today will be Christianized or anti-Christian. In other words, Jesus is the starting point. An imminent Christianity, but with the magical imminence of Alfred North Whitehead and the being of Heidegger. Something like that. Pretending Christianity never happened is sort of ridiculous.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Democrats’ God Problem

12/102018—Michael Tomasky pointed out the problem in the New York Review in The Midterms: So Close, So Far Apart: Democrats cannot win back the Senate in 2020, and maybe cannot win the Presidency, unless they do better than 25% in rural counties. They have to come closer to 40%. (They aren’t going to win them.) Essentially, this is why Beto O’Rourke lost Texas and Sherrod Brown won Ohio.

Sure there are lots of differences between the two, but the math is hard to contest. It is hard to win a mildly red State unless you do OK at least in rural areas.

Tomasky calls for “a program for rural America.” But I’m not sure much is necessary. Democratic policies are not actually unpopular in rural America. The problem is twofold: cultural and legal.

The main thing the Republicans push in areas like these is the courts. And what is that supposed to do? Abortion and religious liberty.

There is no point in telling a political Party to reduce its support for its core constituency. Abortion is untouchable. The Party could be more open to pro-life Democrats, but the policy cannot change.

That leaves religious liberty. But there are actually two things going on here. One is a sense that Democrats hate religion, which is still very popular in rural areas—at least you can’t actually be against God and do well among voters. The other is the actual caselaw of religious exemptions.

I don’t know how far Democrats can go on religious exemptions. Same-sex marriage is another core Democratic Party position. I believe religious exemptions are no threat to same-sex marriage, but Democratic Party voters may disagree.

But how many votes do Democrats lose in rural areas because of the perception—increasingly a correct one—that the Party is hostile to religion itself?

There is no reason to lose those votes: “Paris vaut une messe,” as Henry IV said when he converted to Catholcism—Paris is worth a mass. You want to win 40% of the rural vote? Learn a religious language you can actually speak. There is natural religion. There are many meanings of God. Jesus is a great figure. Stop talking about reason and superstition. Cure the cultural problem and the political/legal one will follow.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Needed: A Party of Democracy

12/7/2018--The op-ed below was intended for a newspaper, but was never published. So, here it is.
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Since the election of Donald Trump as President, Americans have worried about the end of democracy. Our main focus has been on the sins of “the other side.” Events since the Midterms, however, demonstrate that Americans as a whole have lost faith in democracy. We now need a political party dedicated to democracy itself.

Certainly, the Republican Party has shown contempt for democracy. From unnecessary Voter ID laws, to voting roll purges, to even outright threats and intimidation, Republicans have focused on suppressing opposing voters. Some Republicans even joke about making voting “a little harder.”

Unfortunately, in the 2018 election cycle, and its aftermath, the same willingness to violate democratic norms has been evident among Democrats. Three or four of the flipped seats that gave Democrats their majority in the House of Representatives came about because of a new Congressional map imposed by a four-vote Democratic-Justice majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That decision violated legal regularity: settled law was overturned without argument; a grossly compressed trial schedule was imposed; the Governor was none-too-subtly encouraged to avoid compromise with Republican leadership over a new map. Republican Justices Tom Saylor and Sallie Mundy protested, but only Democratic Justice Max Baer voted both to condemn gerrymandering without endorsing these violations of judicial norms. His was a vote for democracy.

In close elections in Florida, the same lust for victory at all costs could be seen. Democrats showed no concern with seeming irregularities in the vote-counting process. Even if no violations took place, it was obvious Democrats just wanted to win.

Other fallout from the Midterm elections also showed a lack of concern by Democrats about principle. While Democratic candidates for Congress scrupulously avoided talking about impeachment of President Trump on the campaign trail, calls for impeachment emerged almost immediately after the polls closed.

Then there was the willingness of the Democratic Party leadership in Congress to ignore the Constitution in condemning President Trump’s naming of Matt Whitaker as Acting Attorney General. The Attorney General’s job is not to check the President, but to carry out the President’s policies. Sharing the President’s political agenda, therefore, is not only proper, but necessary. Whitaker’s view of the Russia investigation as interminable and unnecessary is not a conflict of interest, but a political judgment. If President Trump shuts down the Russia investigation, it is up to Congress to impeach and remove him, not the AG to stop him.

However, the clearest indication of the decline of democratic commitment was a widely circulated, post-election column by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a mainstream Democratic Party voice, attributing recent failures in Senate races to the unrepresentativeness of the U.S. Senate.

It is true that the Senate over-represents white voters and rural interests. But, the Democrats in 2018 could not hold onto a Senate seat in Indiana—a State not entirely representative of the nation, but one won by President Obama in 2008. Similarly, Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency because she could not win Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania—not exactly foreign territory.

Yes, achieving a Senate majority for the Democratic Party will require convincing a genuinely national majority of the rightness of its policies and candidates. But, that kind of commitment is the heart of democracy.

Democracy is ultimately premised on a moral theory. It is not that the majority has the right to rule. Rather, Democracy is the belief that a majority is more likely to be right over time than is any collection of minority opinion. Democracy requires faith both in my fellow citizens to be reasonable, thoughtful and fair and faith that there are answers to political questions that are objectively right, or at least less wrong, than are other answers. Demographics is not destiny. The job of politics is to persuade people.

If Americans now believe that the universe is just a collection of forces and that political outcomes are just a matter of numbers and money, democracy cannot and will not endure. The Party of Democracy that we need is one dedicated to the kind of deep rationality and trust that truly made America great. That democratic faith has defined America historically. That democratic faith is what we are losing.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

"I Retired

12/1/2108—I don’t believe I’ve told this story on HallowedSecularism. A few years ago, I was visiting the Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh with our grandchildren, when I was approached by a man who was clearly a Lubavitch on one of their Mitzvah Missions. “Excuse me,” he said politely, but are you Jewish?” “I used to be,” I answered. “You know,” he mused, clearly intrigued, “I have asked that question thousands of times, but I have never before heard that answer.”

What followed was interesting in its own right, but it is not my point here. Rather, the point is the story itself. I assumed that I was the only one who might have such a tale to tell.

Imagine my surprise today, therefore, upon read what was essentially the same story in a review of a novel. Francine Prose quotes the vignette in a review of three novels by the Guatemalan writer, Eduardo Halfon. Here is the story—-Prose does not identify from which novel it originates:

"I really remembered only three or four words and a random prayer or two and maybe how to count to ten. Fifteen, if I really tried. I live in the capital, I told her in Spanish, to show that I wasn’t an American, and she admitted that she was confused because she hadn’t imagined there were any Jewish Guatemalans. I’m not Jewish any more, I said, smiling at her, I retired. What do you mean you’re not? That’s impossible, she yelled in that way Israelis have of yelling."

Talk about art imitating life—although, the same thing might have actually happened to Halfon—-it is apparently not easy to tell where the novels leave off and real life begins, with him.

This is going to be my way of telling my journey from now on—I’m not Jewish any more. I retired.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Letter about Kornacki's book

11/25/2018--Unfortunately, the New York Times chose not to print this letter, but I thought my readers should see it. We have to remember that the degradation we see begins with the baby boomer generation.
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To the Editor:

Steven Kornacki is right to choose Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton as the symbols of the decline in American public life. (The Red and the Blue, Nov. 18). Their flaw, however, was not political, but spiritual. These two men, like most of their generation, lacked a demanding moral compass.

Bill Clinton ended welfare, had sex in the Oval Office and executed a mentally retarded man in a failed attempt to win the New Hampshire Primary. Newt Gingrich talked divorce with a hospitalized wife and broke every norm of decency in politics when it suited his ambition. Who is Donald Trump, another baby boomer, but a perfect amalgamation of these two?

When you answer to nothing outside yourself—even the baby boomer God indulged them—your politics will be whatever you need them to be. Thus, the baby boomers destroyed democracy and did nothing about global warming.

Too bad the Greatest Generation raised the Worst Generation. As a baby boomer myself, I feel like apologizing to every young and middle-aged person I meet for the mess we left.



Friday, November 23, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

11/23/2018—Can we count regaining the House as something to be thankful for?

As we gather, our loved ones are all well and reasonably prosperous, as are we. The nation is mostly at peace. (when will all our soldiers come home from Afghanistan?). Many Americans who had not found work are working and though the tax cuts derailed the market rally and threaten recession, President Trump gets some credit for other polices that increased economic growth.

We can also be thankful that an unfit President like him has done as little harm as he has. We can survive more conservative courts, which might even be a good thing if that forces Democrats to seek policy change at the ballot box.

How much more damage might he do before he leaves office. I hope not too much. Trump is certainly tearing up international arrangements that brought peace and growth, but those arrangements found no defenders when he came. So we deserve the blame for that.

Maybe we will appreciate the world we had better when he is gone.

Trump’s hatefulness toward immigrants will be his least lasting legacy. Pittsburgh stands ready for immigrants from wherever. No demonization here.

All in all, much to be thankful for. And things could have been a lot worse.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Is the New York Times Right About China?

11/21/2018—The New York Times has run a series about China emphasizing how China confounded economic and political prevailing wisdom by accomplishing rapid economic growth and innovation without democracy, free speech, the rule of law, or a more or less free market. It did these things, in part, by improvisation—there actually is a free market and there is criticism of the government. And in part it was luck. But in part the conventional wisdom was just wrong.

Partly this is all correct and interesting. And the economic gains are undeniable. But I have not invested anything directly in China because I remain unconvinced. How many enterprises are one arbitrary arrest away from insolvency? How much of the Chinese economy teeters on the brink of contraction because of contradictions that no one can force the leadership to confront?

China has succeeded because it has one thing the US now lacks—a serious political leadership that is pursuing national policies that benefit the country. If you believe government is the problem, you cannot do this. If you believe government is the solution, you also cannot do this. We are irrational. China is not.

But I believe that the old critique is still valid and that China must change or suffer a real collapse. Prosperity is built on freedom and law. One quote from the China series haunts me. A businessman says, I make a profit and pay taxes, why would bureaucrats bother me? Because they can, as he will eventually find out.