Sunday, March 29, 2020

Thinking of the Virus and the Earth in a Different Way

3/29/2020—Brian Swimme tells a very strange and mysterious, indeed impossible, story in the documentary, Journey of the Universe. During the past 4 billion years, the heat radiation coming from the sun increased by 25%, because of changes in nuclear fusion in the sun.

This should have caused problems for life on Earth, because life only exists in a narrow band of temperature.

It turns out that the temperature did not increase by 25%, because at the same time, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere dropped, allowing the Earth to cool.

But why should this have happened? Swimme says that you could think of the Earth not as dead or mechanical, but as a kind of living system designed for the flourishing of life. One way that happens is if carbon becomes the shells of animals and sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

But if we think in terms like those, why should not the virus be another natural response to increasing temperature? We know that greenhouse gas emissions will now actually fall because of the catastrophic effect of the virus on all economic and social life.

I am not claiming this is the case. I don’t understand how such things could happen without the kind of intervention that Christians used to call God’s judgment.

But that just raises the question of the virus in a different way. Five hundred years ago, Christians would have called the virus a purposive act of God and would have looked for the cause of such an action—like the sailors inquiring of Jonah what he had done to cause a storm at sea.

Where are the Christians calling the virus God’s judgment for the abuse of the natural world that is leading to climate change? The Bible says that if God’s will is not obeyed, the rain will not fall. Well? In many places, the rains are already beginning to fail.

The absence of a robust theological response to the virus is the clearest indication that God is Dead.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Foreboding About the Stimulus Bill

3/28/2020—Look, even I tweeted that the unanimous passage of the stimulus bill in the Senate was good news. I wrote in my column that the response to the virus shows that we can still work together in an emergency.

But I am still troubled. First, so much red ink. Of course you do that in an emergency. But we passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, when we run a $1 trillion dollar deficit every year.

Worse, no one even said anything about it.

The American people are being led by irresponsible people. We could at least have pledged to cut the yearly deficit when we have recovered from virus. We could at least have mentioned that this situation is why you don’t cut taxes during a boom—you will need the money later when there is an emergency.

National governments are not just like households, but they are not totally different either. If they were, we wouldn’t have taxes at all.

So, the unseriousness of the culture is allowed to grow.

The second part is the partisanship. How much of the unanimity comes because there is a Republican in the White House? Would Mitch McConnell have done this if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016?

You’d like to think so. But, deep down, I don’t believe it. And that means, ironically, that it is a good thing Trump won. Democrats would do this for the good of the country, while the Republican leaders would have put Party first.

After all, McConnell said you don’t allow a sitting President to put a Supreme Court Justice on the Court in his last year before an election, but recently said if there were a vacancy right now, he would fill it.

He is just a disreputable and dishonest person.

I hope I am wrong about this.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Age of Evasion

3/21/2020--In the book I am working on, I am planning on a chapter entitled The Age of Evasion. The idea is that after the Death of God and the collapse of values, people don't necessarily embrace materialism. We may, instead, embrace deadlock. That is, faced with an unacceptable view of reality--that it is composed of indifferent forces and matter--humans may just stop inquiring and deciding about important matters.

I am reminded of this because of the curious irresponsibility being shown by political leaders during the current virus crisis.

It is a form of irresponsibility not to make the tough decisions. Closing everything down for an uncertain period of time, without any assurance that it will work any better than something more limited, is irresponsible. It will bankrupt and impoverish many people. How many? It depends on how long it goes on.

It would take a gutsy person to say out loud that a couple of thousand deaths of mostly already sick people is not worth causing that amount of suffering. How many people will die within the next two years because of decisions that are being taken now?

Then, having decided that it is worth it to impoverish people, it is proposed to add trillions to the already swollen debt by sending $1200 checks out that don't change the fundamental situation anyway.

Better to allow some level of business activity that would put a lot more than $1200 in people's pockets.

Brett Stephens has it right today in the New York Times.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Still No Community Transmission

3/17/2020--Happy St. Patrick's Day. But of course it is not happy. Governor Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses yesterday. But, actually, it will not be enforced. So, it amounts to a suggestion.

The reason for this may be that, while there are now six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County, for example, there is still not one confirmed case of community transmission. (Story here). That would mean that County government would lack authority to order these closures and might mean the Governor lacks authority as well.

But more than a lack of legal authority, it probably means that this measure is a mistake. Government officials and health officials also have been acting as if these closures have no costs of their own--as if it is better to be safe than sorry. I wish instead they had translated the loss of income that they are causing into future deaths of despair. For that is going to happen to some people who will go bankrupt or simply lose all their savings or will live in destitution.

Less stringent orders--reducing restaurant capacity, ordering business to serve fewer people at a time, etc.--would not have been as effective, but they might have been sufficiently effective to retard and spread out community transmission. After all, it is not as if these measures either are going to prevent community transmission. And less stringent measures would be far less costly to people. Some income is better than none.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Krugman's One-Sided Book: Arguing With Zombies.

3/11/2020--The Pennsylvania Capital-Star today published my column criticizing Democrats and liberals for their fixation on overturning the Citizens United case in particular and the power of big money to control politics in general. But another theme of the column is that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in criticizing so-called zombie ideas--ideas that are discredited by evidence but never go away--is partisan. The Right has a number of these bad ideas, such as that tax cuts pay for themselves, but liberals have them too. Krugman ignores that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Proud to be a Democrat

3/4/2020—Forget Bernie’s qualities for a minute. I don’t have a big problem with Bernie except that I don’t think he will win. But forget that—he might have a better chance against Trump than does Biden.

I want to focus on the fact that Amy and Pete did the honorable thing—the thing that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz could not bring themselves to do in 2016. They acted. They sacrificed their own campaigns to do what they think is the best way to stop Trump.

That is an honorable act, even if they are wrong about Bernie as a candidate.

You might say that they sacrificed nothing. They were not going to be the nominee anyway.

But neither was Rubio. And he refused to get out.

It’s hard to face reality and admit defeat. Just ask Warren.

So, just for a moment, forget whether Biden can win. Just think about the fact that in 2020, two politicians in America acted dramatically to further the public good. It was just the kind of thing that Americans used to do.

I didn’t think we did things like that anymore.

Take that, Mr. Ross, decadence, Douthat.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Crisis Over Recusal

2/26/2020—This topic requires more room than I can give it right now. President Trump is calling on Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor to recuse in cases involving him. The real issue is judicial independence and the rule of law. If you believe that all law is now politics, not in the policy sense but in the partisan sense, then the idea of a rule of law is impossible. As one commentator wrote, Bush v. Gore was the first case in which people really thought the outcome turned on Party affiliation. That was a real low for the Court. It is no surprise that the Justices have ideological positions. But now, in our highly polarized setting, Party affiliation seems to be on display. Or, we think it is. Ginsburg had no business calling candidate Trump a “faker” when he was the likely Republican nominee in 2016. Roberts said we don’t have Obama judges and Trump judges, but, as I have written previously, no one agreed with him.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

David Brooks Channels Ishmael

2/22/2020--David Brooks writes that Bernie Sanders will probably win the Democratic nomination because he is a mythmaker and the other Democrats are not.

This sounds like Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael, in which the gorilla teacher, Ishmael, explains that Hitler dominated German life because he offered a "story." (I don't mean that Bernie is like Hitler).

American life right now is notable because of the absence of any story about human existence. The religious stories largely fail to resonate. The secular stories of progress also fail. Materialism is not a source of any understandable story. Under materialism, human life is a unreasoned accident.

So, we simply need a new story.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Age of the Decadent Thinker

2/15/2020—Here is the letter to the editor that I wrote addressing Ross Douthat’s several page essay in the New York Times last Sunday—The Age of Decadence.

To the Editor:

Ross Douthat’s essay, The Age of Decadence (2/9/2020) was disappointing. Not because he was wrong—since the piece was basically Douthat’s view of things, he could hardly be called wrong—but because it was so pointless. Douthat’s view of history is that of ebb and flow. We happen to be in an age of decadence now. A renaissance will come, but all we can do, he writes, is “look and hope” for it. Conveniently, this lets Douthat completely off the hook.

Douthat’s view is especially odd because one of his prime examples of previous ages of decadence, the decline of the Roman Empire, was occurring at the same time that the Patristic Era was unfolding—one of the most creative periods in the history of the Church. Those Christian leaders presumably did not feel decadent.

If Douthat is too worn out and fatalistic to find the creativity occurring right now, let him turn his column over to someone who is not so jaded. The decadence here is that of Douthat, not of society.

The passivity of Douthat’s thinking is striking. Here we are and there is nothing to do about it. I suppose there is such a thing as decline. The US certainly seems to be in decline right now. Britain was in decline after WWII. China has been on the rise. Etc. And surely there are forces involved that no one can immediately alter.

But is any of this relevant to how we should live? What we should do? It is certainly not an excuse for doing and thinking nothing. Offering no help at all.

Can’t one look into the sources of this supposed decadence? Are they material? Cognitive? Spiritual?

And why didn’t the editors at the New York Times ask Douthat about any of this?

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Sprit of the Age

2/9/2020—Humanism and materialism are not sustainable. Neither is solipsism. Nor, for that matter, is skepticism.

So, today, I can read in the New York Times on both the Right and Left, Ross Douthat and Jamelle Bouie, repetitive theories of history. (Right now we’re down).

I also have on my desk the a January 19, 2019 review of books on liberalism and democracy by David Bell, “ Each of the three books under review makes a renewed case for elements of the liberal ideal, but with a powerfully heightened sense of its fragility and of the contingent factors behind its historical development.”

And also on my desk a letter to the editor about a review by Elain Blair, which will not get published. Here is what I wrote.

To the Editor:

Elaine Balir writes, concerning a moment in Ben Lerner’s novel, 10:04, “Lerner…is writing in a time of doubt about the realist writer’s authority to take us very far beyond the bounds of his own experience.” [“Learning to Fight,” NYR, February 13, 2020]

Undoubtedly, Blair does speak for the cultural moment. But this unthinking solipsism must be confronted in order to defeat it.

Think of the implications of Blair’s understanding. The rich author cannot write about a poor person. Not really. Because he cannot know what it is like to be poor. Similarly, a man cannot write about a woman. A white author cannot write about a person of color.

But why stop there? The soloistic student famously said to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “No one can know my pain.” How could an author have “authority” to write about anyone else? He cannot know another.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein retorted, “Are you sure you know?” How can Blair grant the author authority to write about “his own experience,” as if that fraught category were self-evident? We don’t know ourselves.

The only authority is truth. Ben Lerner can write a social novel to the extent he is true to its characters and situations. That is our only authority and it is an exacting one. There is no escaping judgment. Vapid nihilism leads only to the abyss. An abyss all too obvious in our current political life.
The problem with all of this is that we take these views as obvious and self-evident. Or as beyond investigation. In other words, there is no actual truth we might learn.

This is really the age of evasion about learning anything.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

David Brooks and the 4 Narratives

2/1/2020--David Brooks writes in a tweet: "There are 4 narratives in American Life. Individualistic competition (current meritocracy), cultural warfare (Trump), class warfare (Sanders), collaborative pluralism (Weavers). Pick one."

This refers to his January 30 column about the future of American politics.

The problem is that it is such blather.

Four? Why not more? Why not less? Trump and Sanders could easily be warfare. Why is individualism its own category? Shouldn't it then be individual/social?

Of course Brooks is a columnist, not a philosopher. So, clarity is not the issue. Nor logic.

But, what is pluralism?

And where is communitarianism--the idea that we are all this together serving a common good?

Yes, people are different and groups are different. So?

Was Dr. King practicing collaborative pluralism? Is economic justice pluralistic or universal?

How about solidarity as a category?

Or Truth?

Back to the drawing board, David.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Tamsin Shaw and “the need for us to converge on some shared values to have a functioning form of government.”

1/18/2020—I received this in an email from the NYR Daily, which is a really interesting effort by the New York Review to bridge the gap between the day to day and the magazine itself, which comes out twenty times a year.

Shaw wrote an essay on William Barr and Carl Schmidt, which I understand because of the friend/enemy distinction that Barr is prone to, but which is also really overblown given that Barr is a practicing democrat.

Shaw’s first book was about Nietzsche’s political ideas—Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism (2007). This is from the Princeton Press description:

"Shaw argues that the modern political predicament, for Nietzsche, is shaped by two important historical phenomena. The first is secularization, or the erosion of religious belief, and the fragmentation of moral life that it entails. The second is the unparalleled ideological power of the modern state. The promotion of Nietzsche’s own values, Shaw insists, requires resistance to state ideology. But Nietzsche cannot envisage how these values might themselves provide a stable basis for political authority; this is because secular societies, lacking recognized normative expertise, also lack a reliable mechanism for making moral insight politically effective."

The quote in the title of this entry is actually quite despairing given Shaw’s view. She clearly believes that Nietizsche is on to something. But the problem is the lack of “recognized moral expertise.” Well, how could there be expertise about the will to power? Why should the will to power “converge on some shared values?”

There is a pretty obvious answer to this problem, but Shaw would say that it just isn’t true—moral realism of some form. If values are real—leaving aside what real would mean—then such a thing as “recognized moral expertise” would be possible. The problem would be to convince a culture that one moral answer is better than another—closer, at least, to true.

This would be difficult but not insurmountable.

It would be a task that one might attempt. As things stand, Shaw must remain essentially hopeless—-as was Nietzsche. So, why should she even hold out the possibility of achieving political legitimacy? Should she not admit that this is now impossible and we are doomed? Why does she lack the fortitude to face the facts?

I suggest that her inability to do this stems from Shaw's unwillingness to give up. Good for her. I suggest, however, that she then get to work and stop lamenting. Are there real values or not?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Douthat on Truth in the Humanities

1/12/2020--It's like a breath of fresh air. Ross Douthat wrote a column in today's New York Times about what the Humanities Department professors say about themselves. It's not an attack but feels like one.

Douthat was reading Endgame in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Douthat starts with Simon During, who likens the decline of the Humanities to the decline in Christianity.

During’s essay is very shrewd, and anyone who has considered secularization in a religious context will recognize truths in the parallels it draws. But at the same time they will also recognize the genre to which it belongs: a statement of regretful unbelief that tries to preserve faith in a more attenuated form (maybe “our canon does not bear any absolute truth and beauty,” but we don’t want to live with an “empty heritage” or “disown and waste the pasts that have formed us”) and to make it useful to some other cause, like the wider left-wing struggle against neoliberalism.

And if there’s any lesson that the decline of Christianity holds for the painful death of the English department, it’s that if you aspire to keep your faith alive even in a reduced, non-hegemonic form, you need more than attenuated belief and socially-useful applications.

But what could that "more" be?

A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation and recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.

It's simply that some things are better--contain more wisdom about the human condition--than other things.

The Humanities must offer judgment about what is worthwhile, says Michael Clune. No, say G. Gabrelle Starr and Kevin Dettmar--we can offer only approaches to knowledge. But no other discipline promises only an approach; they offer knowledge.

The irony says Douthat is that the age of white male hegemony is over. Now it is possible to assemble a worldwide canon. But there must be faith in the thing itself.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

David, It Was Already Done--It's Called Hallowed Secularism

1/4/2020--Now if could only get David Brooks to read Hallowed Secularism.

A friend just sent me a column by David Brooks from February 2015, calling for an "enchanted secularism." Anyone out there know Brooks well enough to tell me how to alert him to the book, Hallowed Secularism?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Secular Responses to anti-Semitic Violence

12/29/2019—This is not a blog entry about gun control. Of course it is morally permissible to kill someone who enters your home with a machete. And, since we live in a world where people enter your home with a machete, some people will want to have a gun for self-defense.

That said, it is jarring to read the response of Randy Barnett, the great conservative jurisprudential thinker, to the attack on a Jewish Hanukah celebration in Monsey, New York.

New York needs to join the 40 CCW states and pass “shall issue” concealed carry laws and Jews need to arm up & train. It’s not going to be a perfect solution, but nothing is perfect. As a Jew, this is one reason I both own and have my CCW permit, though I don’t *need* it—yet.

Randy thinks of himself as shooting someone who is threatening him or someone else. I doubt he thinks that doing so would traumatize him for life—-or, he might say, it would still be better than being dead.

I feel the same way. As I wrote above, this is not an entry about gun control.

But, now I think about the Hasidic Rabbi—-Chaim L. Rottenberg-—in whose home the attack took place. Is it so clear that he would want to shoot the man who entered his home with murderous intent?

For a secularist like me, death is the end. So, it is senseless to worry about tainting your soul with a violent but morally justified act to prevent being killed.

But, if I thought I would stand before God to account for all the actions of my life, then it would not be so clear. To kill to prevent others from being killed? Yes. To prevent my own death? Maybe not.

It is worth mentioning that this is exactly the kind of thinking that drove Zionists crazy during WWII and its aftermath. They were looking to create a society of Jews who would be able to act to defend themselves. And the policies of the current State of Israel are evidence that they succeeded. Israel is certainly a normal State in terms of self-defense.

The world cannot understand religious belief. This was shown in the general amazement at the reaction of the Amish to the murder of five children in Lancaster County in 2006.

Well, I can’t either. Not really. Let’s just say that the world will not be redeemed by more concealed carry gun permits.

But the world might be redeemed by something very different.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas 2019

12/25/2019--Well, it's not 1862. Or 1941. Our country is more or less at peace--though the endless war keeps costing American lives. Our country is prosperous--though its economy is dependent on red ink and oil, neither of which can last.

But Americans are divided, as we have not been, perhaps, since the Civil War. And we face a peril that threatens all of humanity in climate change that has proved very difficult to deal with.

We are short on hope.

Secular society needs to hear the message of Christmas. The universe is on our side--on the side of life and goodness and truth. The universe intervenes in what science calls emergent phenomena, which miraculously bring forth new possibilities that are greater than the sum of what was present before.

Hope is anti-entropic.

So, although many of us are not Christians--we may follow other traditions or none at all--let us all celebrate the birth of a child who will be a savior. Out of unimaginable weakness, unsurpassed strength.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Light in this Dark Season

12/22/2019—Timothy Egan wrote a column for yesterday’s New York Times entitled, There is Light in this Dark Season.

I thought the column was about Advent. It wasn’t. It was about secular acts, including politics. They were things that did not speak light to me.

It is always dark at this season. Dark for the short days—-in the Northern Hemisphere—-and dark because we live in a fallen world of violence and lies. Always.

That is the beauty, grace and hope of the Christian story. That is the light in this dark season. Jesus is always being born. A savior.

But, you may say, I don’t believe in Christ. I like the teachings of Jesus, but that’s all. Today, Nicholas Kristof answers, it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian. It matters if you are a follower of Jesus.

This is not a dumbed down message for a secular age. It was more or less the same message Karl Barth gave in 1911 to a labor union:

“If you understand the connection between the person of Jesus and your socialist convictions, and if you want to arrange your life so that it corresponds to this connection, then that does not at all mean you have to ‘believe’ or accept this, that, or the other thing. What Jesus has to bring to us are not ideas, but a way of life. …And as an atheist, a materialist, and a Darwinist, one can be a genuine follower and disciple of Jesus.”

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Today's column on hate speech in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star

12/17/2019--My column ran today in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star addressing hate speech.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Things Are Worse for Truth than We Think

12/15/2019—Paul Krugman wrote a column this week about climate change and the Republican Party that contained his usual invective. Republican leaders are evil.

But the column got me thinking about my friends who are skeptical about climate change claims and what their skepticism really means.

My friends, after all, are not receiving money from the fossil fuel industry. They have nothing to gain either way from denial.

One thing is certain. My friends are convinced that there is a political agenda that uses climate change as an excuse for policies that have nothing to do with climate change. This is the reaction to the Green New Deal. And they are clearly right about that.

But the rest of the reaction is quite strange. My friends say that no model can predict the future,or some such thing. This is certainly true in a theoretical sense, but we use models all the time.

My friends are also skeptical about the agenda of the researchers themselves—that they have professional interests in promoting climate change and in suppressing evidence that points in the opposite direction.

This is actually quite crazy. Science does not usually work that way. A scientist who showed that climate change is not happening would receive scorn at first, as scientists always do when they confront a settled consensus, but there are many examples of such revolutionary work eventually winning the day. Such a person would eventually be vindicated.

My friends are treating scientists as if they are politicians, which they are not.

Of course, the big example of the same kind of thinking among people on the Left is the denial of the efficacy and need and safety of vaccines for childhood infectious diseases. It is not as widespread as climate change denial, but it is just as impervious to evidence.

And all of this is part of the revolt, at least in the West, against expertise. Maybe that revolt is overstated, but something is happening.

The question is, how did all this happen and what does it mean? I believe it all roots in the Death of God, but that is another subject.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Churchill Champions Free Trade and Castigates Republican Tariffs as Secular

12/7/2019--In 1903, Winston Churchill delivered a speech rebuking the policy of his own Party, the Conservative Party, favoring tariffs. He argued that protectionism,

"means a change, not only in the historic English Parties, but in the conditions of our public life. The old Conservative Party, with its religious convictions and constitutional principles will disappear and a new party will rise...perhaps like the Republican Party in the United States of America...rigid, materialist and secular, whose opinions will turn on tariffs and who will cause the lobbies to be crowded with the touts of protected industries." [William Manchester, The Last Lion, 353 (1983)]

Churchill saw that free trade is not just an economic policy. It is a faith in the solidarity of humankind. It is peace. It is a generous spirit that we are all one. This is surprising, since Churchill was an imperialist. But he had a sufficiently great spirit that he could identify with all. He never would have proclaimed England First. He championed a prosperity for everyone. And he believed that free trade would get us there more reliably than any other policy. Furthermore, he believed that the grasping for national advantage must inevitably lead to war.

Again, surprisingly to us, he saw capitalism as inherently moral and religious. We think it is not, because we don't have real capitalism. We have indeed special interests seeking narrow advantage, masquerading as capitalists. Adam Smith, after all, was a supremely religious man.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Good Day for the Rule of Law

12/4/2019--They say that you can only celebrate a judicial decision as a vindication of the rule of law if you really dislike the outcome.

Based on that standard, I can honestly celebrate Nov. 21, when the California Supreme Court decided a case known as Patterson v Padilla as a good day for the rule of law.

Patterson was the case in which the California court unanimously struck down the state statute that would have required President Donald Trump to release five years of his tax returns before he could qualify for the California primary ballot.

The court held that the law violated California’s state Constitution, which guarantees recognized national candidates for president open access to the State primary.

The outcome is not what I would have liked. Like most Democrats — and like most Americans — I believe that Trump should release his tax returns and I am mystified that he has gotten away with not doing so. The California statute had been passed on a party-line vote and was a very popular partisan challenge to Trump.

The impact of the decision was also not its most important aspect. Trump said he would pass up the California primary rather than comply with it and the law had already been enjoined by a federal court.

What was great about the decision was that, despite our highly partisan environment, it was rendered by a court on which a majority of the justices had been appointed by Democratic governors.

This Democratic dominated court still rendered a unanimous decision against the law. Here we have an example of judges vindicating the requirements of the law despite what must have been their personal preferences. The real winner in the case was the rule of law itself.
The above is the opening of my column celebrating Patterson v. Padilla. Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

11/28/2019--Happy Thanksgiving. This is the holiday that has successfully made the transition to secular expression. And, unlike Christmas, it has done so with its soul mostly intact. It is a holiday of giving thanks and of being thankful. No wonder modern capitalism has no interest in it and just wants to get on with shopping.

But the holiday is also acceptable to secularism because it makes no demand on us to change. If anything, it is a celebration of what we are today. Gratitude is undoubtedly a religious expression, but it pales before Teshuvah--repentance. The high holy days, or lent, of any of the periods of self-reflection and prayer have not made the leap to secular cultural expression. They are what we most need today.

So, Thanksgiving is religious enough to challenge us only a little--too much for capitalism's taste--but not enough to really help us.

Enjoy your turkey.

Friday, November 22, 2019

What is the Point of this Column?

11/22/2019—Blanch Vivion Brooks wrote a column today in the NY Times, entitled We Need a Religious Left.

Sure we do, for the reasons she writes and for many more besides.

But, what is the point of saying so if we don’t have one? People do not leave religion—or even just have no contact with it—out of choice. It happens organically. Many members of this generation just don’t believe in God. You can point out that this has bad effects as much as you like. You can’t manufacture belief.

I left Judaism because I no longer believed in God and because I was becoming more and more irritated at the manifestations of belief I encountered in synagogue. That is not a criticism of believers. But what is beautiful to them is just infuriating if you don’t believe.

Anyway, I was told that my seething anger was the least religious comportment imaginable.

It was time to go.

And if you tell me that actions like mine undermine social life, just what am I supposed to do about it? I already know that this is the case.

Maybe a column like this can help convince secularists that religion is a good thing very often. That would be helpful.

But it can’t bring back religion. Faith does not work that way.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019


11/19/2019--Yesterday, the Online Pepperdine Law Review published a debate on Court-packing between San Francisco Sociology Professor, and founder of Pack the Courts, Aaron Belkin, and me. My contribution is entitled, A Call to America's Law Professors to Oppose Court-Packing. Professor Belkin responds. The exchange can be found here and here.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

What’s Wrong With Impeachment

11/14/2019—I could come up with a list.

1. Impeachment will not remove President Trump. Since I don’t think he has done enough to warrant being removed, in terms of the matters being discussed, this is not a bad thing. But it means that impeachment is irrelevant to getting rid of President Trump.

2. Impeachment distracts from worse things that President Trump is doing. How does Ukraine stack up against trying to end DACA? That is a really terrible thing. 80% of Americans support DACA. Yet, although the Supreme Court heard oral argument on ending the program, no one is talking about it because of the impeachment hearings. Impeachment is a gift to President Trump.

3. This one thing—asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden—is corrupt. But, by itself, I doubt that it is sufficient to warrant removal from office. Which brings me to…

4. It must be obvious that the Democrats are just using Ukraine as a kind of symbol for “everything else” that actually does justify removing Trump from office—including that he was grossly unfit in the first place. But, this is the problem—he got elected anyway. Impeachment only makes sense over Ukraine if you agree anyway that Trump should be removed from office.

5. Impeachment should not be partisan. The supposed answer to this is that it is the Republicans who are making it partisan. But I am not sure this is so. If the evidence showed that Trump countenanced a burglary into the DNC and then covered it up, I think a few Republicans would support impeachment and probably removal.

6. Hunter Biden really is corrupt and Joe Biden really did have a conflict of interest over Ukraine corruption, therefore, that should have kept him a million miles away. I agree that Trump still should not have been using military aid to force a foreign government to investigate the matter, but there really was something to investigate.

7. Since the President does actually believe that Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered with the 2016 election, efforts to get Ukraine to investigate that are not per se impeachable.

8. Holding up military aid is not an impeachable offense by itself. It’s laughable to hear Democrats and media voices complaining about that—like that is not a common practice. You shouldn’t do it for a corrupt motive, but if President Trump had been using the aid to obtain the release of an innocent American from a Ukraine prison, you think that would be impeachable?

9. Finally, for now, impeachment isn’t helping beat Trump in 2020—and won’t.

10. Already came up with one more--President Trump's view that Crimea should go to Russia, which a witness called inflammatory, is not only not impeachable, it is nobody's business in the State Department to denounce. They might try to counsel Trump on its wrongheadedness, but it is his call--like running guns to Britain in 1940 despite American neutrality.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Politics of Carl Schmidt versus the politics of Abraham Lincoln

11/7/2019--I can now sum up in a nutshell what is wrong with American public life--though this is not the same as being able to do something about it.

The Nazi jurisprudential thinker understood politics as realm of friend-enemy. This is precisely how we act today in our two "sides." And we mean it. For the right, the prospect of a Hillary Clinton Presidency made the 2016 election the Flight 93 Election--fight or you die.

Hillary Clinton?? What was she supposed to do that would lead to that? Her Supreme Court would not grant religious exemptions to believers who wanted to discriminate against gay people? Even the loss of a tax exemption is not dying. And, anyway, courts only enforce laws that legislatures pass.

For the Left, the prospect of a reelected Donald Trump is unfathomable. And he can only be reelected by a minority of the electorate. He could only be another Electoral College special. How long before the Left invites the army to take over.

The temptation is always to a politics of friend/enemy. That is why Schmidt is so powerful a thinker.

But the much greater politician was Abraham Lincoln, who said at his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." And elsewhere, "Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?"

But, to look at things like Lincoln, you have to feel a common humanity with your political opponents. We do not feel that way today.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Shooter and the Death Penalty

10/27/2019—Today is the commemoration of the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh last year. I have nothing to add to all the beautiful sentiments that have been offered.

But it is hard for me to believe that the government fails to see how destructive it is to be asking for the death penalty in this case.

The death penalty accomplishes nothing, but it is at least understandable when victim family members want it. Then, at least, the sentence provides closure for the victims.

But, in this case, for lots of reasons, the community affected by the shootings have made it very clear that they do not want the death penalty—in fact, are opposed to the government seeking it.

I am not suggesting that their view of the death penalty should control. But their recovery should control. Basically, the members of these congregations just want to move on from the shootings. If it were not for the death penalty, the shooter, whose name I will not use, would probably already have disappeared into the Pennsylvania life-without-parole system. The community would never have to hear about him again.

But, because of the death penalty, everyone will have to not only relive the events, but hear how unfortunate the shooter was in life—or whatever bull the defense will dredge up in the sentencing hearing.

This is destructive for survivors, unless they want it. You would think that the government would understand that and just let it go.

It is not as if these white nationalist shooters are deterred by the death penalty. Whatever deterrent effect the death penalty might have in general, these people are attracted by the idea of death. They would more likely be deterred if nothing special happened to a shooter—there would be no glamour.

This is the curse of politics. If only the government would reconsider.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What is the Universe?

10/22/2019—Bernard Lonergan asks, Is the universe on our side? It is a big question. But, before we can even begin to think about it, we have to ask, what is the universe?

For most people, the universe is what we can know with the senses, however enhanced by the tools of science. In fact that is all there is. There are invisible forces and matter—-gravity, dark energy, dark matter-—but even these can be indirectly measured by their effects.

This is materialism. And, as Alfred North Whitehead points out, it leaves out a lot of human experience. The self. Time. Causation. Therefore, this account of reality must be incomplete.

There is another sense in which materialism is incomplete. There is a blueprint that underlies the sensible universe. All that we see participates in this blueprint. You could call this blueprint God, but it would not be a God who talks and wills like a person. This God would be less personal than that, although I suppose we humans would sometimes experience the blueprint in personal ways.

Is referring to a blueprint a metaphor? Yes. But I believe it is a close one. How about, “it is as if there is a blueprint underlying everything?”

Martin Heidegger in Poetry, Language, Thought, indicates the blueprint. Heidegger is meditating on language. The poem is spoken purely and can help us understand language. (come into the neighborhood of language).

The poem Heidegger chooses is A Winter’s Evening by Georg Trakl. The speaking of the first two stanzas of the poem “speaks by bidding things to come to world, and world to things.” (202). And later, “The dif-ference lets the thinging of the thing rest in the worldling of the world.”

Heidegger stretches language here to show us a deep ordering of reality. This is appropriately how things are. How things are in relation to everything else.

Humans have a lot of names for patterning like this. I guess Jung’s archetypes are another example. The point is that reality is not just one thing after another. It is not chaos. It is ordering all the way down. That is a good thing because that is the only kind of reality that humans could possibly inhabit.

Materialists have a term for this human need-—“false pattern recognition.” But at the level of metaphysics, they have no basis for supposing that these patterns are false. The claim that ordering is made up is a kind of faith. A faith in materialism. Not a persuasive faith. And one that is killing us.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Why the Democrats Need to Tap the Brakes on Impeachment

10/14/2019--I forgot last week to post a reference to my column on impeachment in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. You can read it here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Yom Kippur and the Shootings

10/9/2019—The Jewish community in Pittsburgh continues to struggle to come to terms with the shootings a little more than a year ago that killed 11 persons and wounded others at a synagogue building housing three congregations. Because of the timing, the shootings have been on the minds of many during this High Holy Day season.

Actually, all of Pittsburgh is reminded of these events. That is obviously true of me, but I retain many ties to Judaism, including an awareness of the liturgical calendar.

Commemorations climax today, on the holiest day of the year—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

On this day of fasting, Jews seek forgiveness of sins, both individually and collectively.

The Christian question after such a horrific act tends to be one of forgiveness of the perpetrator. This echoes Jesus’s call from the cross—Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

This is a theme that Dan Leger, who was badly wounded in the shootings, referred to in a story in the Jewish Chronicle. Dan, whom I have known for years, and who is a spiritual source for many at Dor Hadash and in the community generally, said that when he awoke after the shooting, the first thing he said was the Shema, the second was “I love you” to his family. The third thing was, “God forgive him,” very much like Jesus.

I am not aware that this fits exactly with the meaning of Yom Kippur, however. On the cross, Jesus is not concerned with his own sin and the point of Christian theology is that he was blameless—without sin.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is about one’s own sin. Obviously, there is no direct relationship to a terrible Anti-Semitic act of violence, for which the victims bear no blame.

On the other hand, Rabbi Friedman, an Orthodox rabbi in the Chasidic tradition, tells a story from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder, who told of a man who kept two ledgers—one of his sins and the other of God’s sins. He tossed both in the fire, saying, “if you forgive mine, I will forgive yours.” We could think of the shooting as an offense by God.

Then there is the communal theme. On Yom Kippur in the Torah, the sins considered are more national than personal. The sins of the Jewish people. After the Holocaust, this led Jewish thinkers like Emil Fackenheim to radically rethink the relationship of the Jewish people to God.

Here is what Fackenheim said: “we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, , would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.”

Fackenheim should be remembered today, but I actually cannot remember anyone talking about him. Of course, I have not been attending these remembrances, so maybe I just missed it. Fackenheim was not enough to keep me within Judaism. But I have been living with the world as a meaningless place, just as he feared.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

What are the High Holy Days About?

What are the High Holy Days About?

10/2/2019—I have been reading the essay, Language, in Heidegger’s book, Poetry, Language, Thought. In this essay, Heidegger asks what language calls? Language calls what is far. It calls us to the absence of what is far. Language does not round up what it calls.

The same is true of God. The High Holy Days are not about renewing a program of social justice. They are about the holy. They are about God and humans.

One does not pray to bring oneself closer to God. Closeness to God is not a human achievement.

Nor does one pray to bring closer. God is far away.

Rather, one prays to bring the absence of God closer. That is the penitent posture. One prays into that absence for forgiveness.

Out of that renewed spirit, it is possible to imagine a program of social justice. But it would only be one that arose out of human solidarity.

So, the point of the High Holy Days is longing for God. Unlike other holidays that some other theme—law for Shavuot, freedom for Passover, nature for Sukkot—the only theme of the High Holy Days is God and my inability, through sin or simple distance, to be in God’s presence.

Shabbat also has this theme, which is why Psalm 27:4 is said: “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.”

But, it may be asked, what has all this to do with the atheist, who does not believe in God? Someone like me.

But who longs for God more than the atheist, for whom the distance from God is truly infinite? The believer has God in his pocket. Not so the atheist. It is impossible to think of a character like Chris Hitchens as anything but a jilted lover. Hitchens had God and then he lost God.

That would be true of most atheists of a certain age. Most of us grew up believers and we know what we have lost. There is a different kind of atheism growing now—the young, who know nothing of the God experience.

So I said to my teacher, I miss Kol Nidre. Then for a moment I felt close to the divine. No, he said to me. Now you have Kol Nidre. If you had continued going to that service, you would eventually have lost it through repetition. It remains for you now holy for all time.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Taking Court-Packing Off the Table

9/28/2019—It would be nice to be able to take Court-packing off the table. On Friday, I gave a talk at the Elon Law Review Symposium on Court-packing—“Saving Judicial Independence From Court-Packing’s Nihilism.” I argued that Court-packing—the addition of the number of Justices beyond the nine set in 1869—bespoke a kind of jurisprudential nihilism. Marbury v. Madison pronounced America a government of laws and not of men. But the proponents of Court-packing did not believe that. They need bodies and votes.

And the Republicans are just the same. That is why they are busy packing the courts in their own way. Mitch McConnell says he wants to have a permanent impact. But how can you know how judges will rule in the years to come—unless this is all party and partisan and not reason.

Akhil Amar of Yale Law School delivered the keynote address of the symposium. And he also condemned Court-packing. He added an additional objection to partisan Court-packing—that the other side, the Republicans in this case, would regain power and add even more Justices to the Court. It would spin out of control, he warned.

I was impressed that there was a feeling of agreement in the room. The kind of agreement that goes beyond politics.

I also criticized the AALS for having “Pillars of Democracy” as the theme for the January 2020 annual meeting, while refusing to raise the issue of Court-packing. Presidential candidates discuss it, but not law professors? Are they afraid to confront the progressive wing of the Democratic Party?

Now that I have heard a national figure like Amar weigh in, I believe the academy will not much longer be able to avoid the issue.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Nihilism in the Heartland

9/22/2019--I don't think I have ever read a book review that depressed me so. This is what it looks like when the universe doesn't care about my purpose--nothing left but cut off individualism and conspiracy theories. This is why the Socialist Workers Party hates the identity politics of the progressive wing--it divides people. Rich Lord's review of We Are Still Here in the PG.
Jennifer M. Silva spent Nov. 8, 2016, in a coal town in Central Pennsylvania, and when she arrived for an interview wearing an “I voted” sticker, it didn’t go over well.

“I wouldn’t be proud of it, no offense,” her interviewee told her. “Are you paying attention to what’s going on around you?”

Yes, she was, and if you are too, you’ll find many chilling moments in Ms. Silva’s second book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America.” If you’re familiar with post-industrial towns and neighborhoods, you’ll recognize her interviewees, ache for them and likely quake for our future.

By Jennifer M. Silva
Oxford University Press ($24.53).

Ms. Silva, an assistant professor at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, spent months in midstate coal towns, conducting more than 100 interviews with a diverse selection of natives and newcomers. Her goal was to explore the ways the lives of working-class Americans inform their politics. She ended up scraping for something — even something painful — on which to pin some hope.

“They have all become acutely distrustful of the institutions that could connect their individual problems up to collective action,” she writes. Many of her interviewees were “struggling to convince themselves that ‘America’ stands for something larger than individual greed,” and diving deep into cynicism and conspiracy theories that only render them less politically relevant.

Studies from decades back found that most working people had some sense of allegiance — to their union, church, profession, political party or country, Ms. Silva writes. In 2016, she found allegiance “virtually nonexistent,” replaced by a fatalistic version of rugged individualism.

Ellen, for instance, “derives a sense of self-worth from rejecting dependence on others and sacrificing to make it on her own,” while maintaining a cold distance from a heroin-using sister and frowning on the family members and public servants that preserve her.

Jacob, a welder, “projects fearlessness, emphasizing his willingness to take risks and live with the consequences” and scorns fast-food workers who aspire to earn more, noting that he has “more chances of dying at my job than they do at theirs.”

The parade goes on, with interviewees reflecting that great American value of standing on your own two feet — and getting nowhere. Asked whether they’ll vote, nearly two-thirds say no.

“Whoever they want to win is gonna win, and it’s all a matter of who has more money,” Danielle tells Ms. Silva.

“Big money runs this country,” Austin adds, explaining his decision not to vote. “If you think they’ll take less so you can have more, you’re ignorant. They keep us bickering amongst ourselves while they live above the law.”

The decision not to vote, of course, does nothing to shake the grip “they” have on our nation’s resources. And yet, even those of Ms. Silva’s interviewees who have coherent hopes for government don’t vote on that basis.

Her subjects “express a great deal of support for policies that expand opportunity in terms of education, health care, fair pay and good jobs,” she writes. But if they vote at all, they’re likely to choose the candidate who is “in your face” and “don’t give a crap” what anybody else thinks, as one interviewee puts it, “because we don’t give a crap, and that’s what this country needs.”

One thread excited most younger interviewees: conspiracy theories. “Betrayed by institutions, detached from political or religious organizations, and distrustful of government,” Ms. Silva writes, “young working-class adults briefly lit up, their faces flushed, words flowing quickly, when they proved to me that they could not be fooled by the illusion of democracy.”

Ms. Silva notes that democracy historically serves working people only to the extent that they “form associations based on a larger sense of ‘we.’”

What unites many of her characters? The presence of trauma, often due to sexual abuse, abandonment, economic dislocation, injury or addiction in their lives or their families. Ms. Silva wonders “whether affinities built around pain could serve as a bridge between individuals and the larger society, perhaps replacing or supplementing older kinds of identity politics, like class or race.”

Certainly, the #MeToo movement has shown that alliances built on trauma can move the needle. It remains to be seen whether pain can be a long-term organizing principle and can overpower interviewee Daniela’s chosen philosophy: That as long as “nobody’s messing with us, and nobody comes to my door and nobody’s threatening me, putting a gun to my face, I don’t have to worry about nothing.”

Bends Toward Justice Podcast--Where You Can Hear It Now

9/22/2019--here is the announcement made at Duquesne this week by Jennifer Rignani, our communications director.


It is with great enthusiasm that I share with you the pilot podcast series “Bends Towards Justice”, an original podcast created and hosted by Duquesne University School of Law Professor Bruce Ledewitz and executive produced by the school of law communications office. We’d told you all previously that this was in production and we just wrapped it!

This thought-provoking show is produced in partnership with The August Wilson African American Cultural Center and funded by The Pittsburgh Foundation. The podcast asks a simple, but fundamental question—do we agree with Dr. King that arc of the moral universe bends toward justice? The guests in this series provide a variety of perspectives on that question. The goal of the podcast is for the listener to understand what is at stake in this question and to come to a decision.

We are working on a rollout of the series on social media and encourage you to please share on your feeds and please provide Bruce and I feedback or thoughts on the show.

Here it is: Soundcloud

Thanks all!

Warm regards,

Jennifer Rignani
Communications Director
Duquesne University School of Law
600 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15282
O 412.396.2462 C 412.977.5795

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Constitution Day 2019

Tuesday, September 17, is Constitution Day. It is a day that Americans celebrate the blessing of constitutional government. But, Constitution Day, 2019, comes at a time of unprecedented breakdown in American public life. Not since the Civil War have Americans been as divided and distrustful as we are today. And, unlike the period of the Civil War, there is no one great issue, the resolution of which might allow a return to normal rule. It is a symbol of our time that the book about politics most discussed today, is How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

These authors remind us that the threat to democracy almost always comes from within. When we regard preventing political success by our opponents as the most important goal and are willing to sacrifice long-norms of restraint to frustrate that success, democracies die. Unfortunately, that describes the thinking of many Americans today.

Constitutional democracy relies on faith in one’s fellow citizens. The first amendment protection of free speech reflects the belief that truth has the power to persuade. Equal protection and due process reflect the belief that the majority will treat the minority fairly and with respect. Regular elections reflect the belief that we are capable of self-government. Religious liberty reflects the belief that there is an enduring meaning to human life in which we all share. That is the faith that must be renewed today if the Constitution is to endure.

Abraham Lincoln expressed that faith perfectly and simply, in his First Inaugural Address, in 1861, on the verge of civil war. He said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” On Constitution Day, 2019, what must be renewed is not our faith in a system, but in each other. Lincoln failed to renew that faith, in his time. In our time, we must not fail, but succeed.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Bends Toward Justice Podcast Debuts This Week

9/12/2019—Recent related projects have limited my postings here. There will be announcements about all that in the coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, the podcast series Bends Toward Justice debuts this week, I hope, on Soundcloud. Here are the program notes:

“Bends Towards Justice” is an original podcast created and hosted by Duquesne University School of Law Professor Bruce Ledewitz. The five episode pilot series is available now at The podcast asks a simple, but fundamental question—do we agree with Dr. King that arc of the moral universe bends toward justice? The participants in this series provide a variety of perspectives on that question. The goal of the podcast is for the listener to understand what is at stake in this question and to come to a decision.

Episode 1: Introduction to themes in Martin Luther King’s concept that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

Bruce Ledewitz is a professor of law at Duquesne University School of law. He specializes in constitutional law, law and religion and law and the secular. He is the author of American Religious Democracy: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics (Praeger 2007), Hallowed Secularism: Theory, Belief, and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan 2009) and Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism (Indiana University Press 2011). Ledewitz received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and his J.D. from Yale Law School

For Ledewitz, America is a society fallen into nihilism. For many Americans, there are no objective sources of meaning and history has no shape. But nihilism has arisen almost accidentally, out of a failure of the culture to defend truth. This podcast is a first step in challenging our nihilism.

Jesse Francis, who interviews Ledewitz in Episode 1, is a graduate of Duquesne Law School, where he and Ledewitz had an opportunity to explore the implications of nihilism. Francis is an associate in the Dickie McCamey law firm in Pittsburgh.

Episode 2: A conversation with Michael Shermer: Despite the discourse, at present, humanity is kinder and gentler.

Michael Shermer uses Dr. King's image of "the moral arc" to express his view that there is moral progress and that humanity has become better over time--kinder, gentler, more inclusive--and that this does express a truth of the universe. Recent trends that suggest decline are temporary and not an existential crisis in America and the West. The moral universe or right and wrong is real, but is not a metaphysical entity. It is an expression of enlightened humanity. Though not himself religious, Shermer has a great appreciation for what religion has done and does for moral progress. Like all things, religion is not all good or all bad. The issue for Shermer is what beliefs lead to actions that promote the flourishing of sentient beings. Those beliefs need to be encouraged. That overall movement is the moral arc for Shermer.

Episode 3: A conversation with Carter: If the universe doesn’t care about your purpose, does that mean life is meaningless?

In 2017, Joseph Carter wrote an op-ed for the New York Times as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Georgia entitled, “The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your Purpose.” He wanted to explore the tension between the world of purpose that we see and the scientific reality of mechanistic forces that actually order things.

As a materialist, Carter argues that there are no intrinsic purposes in reality. But, on the other hand, humans need a sense of purpose and the world seems to hold together through the purposes of entities, including humans. Whether our purposes are real or illusory depends on who is asking the question and why. And in the struggle to achieve material fairness for people, it doesn’t really matter whether justice is inherent or not. Either way, justice is what we need to be working toward. The fact that purpose is not inherent does not mean the universe is meaningless.

Episode 4: A conversation with Christian Miller: Is character in decline in America?

Christian Miller’s work has been concerned for years with human moral character and specifically how we can improve our characters and why it is important for us to try to do so. He sees Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as also concerned with character and the way in which the character of Americans can be improved to be more in keeping with the ideals and promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The elements of character Dr. King particularly emphasized were faith, hope, compassion and courage.

The question for Christian Miller is whether and how these religiously infused characteristics can be transmuted in such a way that they are available to secular society. Without God, it is not necessarily the case that justice will triumph. We even see some evidence that character is in decline in America. But even if there is a God, there is a danger from a misunderstanding of Dr. King’s teaching—that we human beings can sit back and wait for the triumph of justice rather than actively pursuing it. Another problem is the moral relativism in the culture, which Miller rejects. Justice and character must be worked at and that will be difficult if we believe that all morality is equal.

Episode 5: A conversation with Tracey McCants Lewis: Will the moral universe bend toward justice?

Tracey McCants Lewis has made numerous contributions to Pittsburgh and the region. She has been a tenured professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law, she is Deputy General Counsel to the Pittsburgh Penguins and serves on the Board of Directors of the August Wilson African-American Cultural Center. McCants Lewis is a leader in the movement for social justice, in recognition of which the Urban League awarded her the Ron Brown Community Leadership Award in 2017. Part of that leadership is her current work at Duquesne Law School’s Civil Rights Clinic where, among other things, students provide advice and represent individuals pursuing expungements and pardons.

For Tracey McCants Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is not just a hero out of history, but a constant and contemporary source of inspiration. When Dr. King taught about the arc of the moral universe, it gave people at that time a sense of optimism and hope. Many of the things Dr. King looked for have come true, though much remains to be done. Some of those good things have even happened in hockey. In his plays, August Wilson exemplifies the seeking of justice that Dr. King was pointing to.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Is Hallowed Secularism Any Longer the Question?

8/31/2019—Since the publication of Hallowed Secularism in 2009, I have assumed that this formulation would be adequate to address the spiritual crisis of this culture. I have not reconsidered this question in light of the current crisis—politics in the age of Trump. I am now not so certain that this is the direction this culture needs to go.

What are we now seeing in regard to secularists in America? I don’t know where I read this, but some significant portion of the nones say they believe in God but are leaving religious/spiritual issues in abeyance until their lives are settled.

This, along with the asserted belief in God unsupported by any institutional, or for that matter, regular, expression, makes me wonder what this group is saying. It now seems to me that their purported belief is just another means of evasion in a culture that is filled with evasion. Hallowed is just not adequate.

Maybe what is needed is spiritually disciplined secularism. This would be a secularism especially for the mind. The participants would pledge to engage all of the traditional spiritual issues. In this way, secularism would not be just an avoidance of religion. It would be in fact be a higher level of engagement than most believers experience.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Would I Help Donald Trump?

8/24/2019—Anniversary Day—16 years.

Partisanship is an ugly thing. This came up this week with the question, would I help Donald Trump if it would help America?

During one of the more erratic week in his erratic Presidency, someone floated the idea of reducing payroll taxes to forestall the possibility of a recession. Now, there are many reasons to oppose doing this, including the fact that this recession threat is sort of self-induced by Trump’s ineffectual China tariffs. (Ineffectual in bring a deal).

But one normal reason for opposing the idea, that we can’t afford it, really doesn’t make sense. A recession would increase the deficit far more than a payroll cut would. And the cut would be temporary.

Trump quickly withdrew the idea for reasons known only to him. But, I asked myself, would I vote for this if I were in the House? The answer was, maybe not—not just because it would not work but because it might work. If it did, it would enhance Trump’s chance of reelection, which a recession would completely kill.

Trump is so horrible, that I found myself thinking, maybe the single most important thing is that Trump be a one-term President. So, even at the cost of Americans hurt by a recession, you don’t pass a bill to try to prevent it.

This is why I say that partisanship is an ugly thing. I used to think the worst thing about Mitch McConnell was his statement in 2010 that “[t]he single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But, here I am saying the very same thing.

At the very least, it made me understand McConnell better.

Even so, it is still hard for me to change my mind, considering all the harm that Trump is doing. Yet, if McConnell was wrong, which he was, I must be too. Defeating Trump cannot be the most important thing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Change Point in the Culture

8/20/2019—I have been writing about nihilism so long that I assume everyone knows that this is the fundamental problem facing our culture. But, of course, most people have no idea what nihilism is and why and how it might be a threat—-let alone how to combat it.

So, the juxtaposition of two op-eds on Monday—one from the right and one from the left—Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel, on the one hand, and Michelle Goldberg, on the other, may mark a cultural shift. We can call them twin diagnoses of nihilism.

Carlson and Patel are telling the story of a culture in which “nothing matters”—quoting James Kunstler. Such a culture breeds the despair of the mass killer or the suicide addict.

Goldberg is telling the story of a post-truth culture that lacks faith in a rational future, referring to the thought of Peter Pomerantsev. The need for facts is predicated on an evidence based future.

Each column exhibits the usual partisan myopia. Carlson and Patel ignore the role of capitalism, because that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of the problem—the problem with “the jobs they hold” is not that they are controlled by “tech monopolists” but by their boses. Goldberg thinks the lack of faith in history came from philosophy and ignores the collapse of religion.

But they both see the same thing. There are no objective values—there is no source of meaning.

Ah, but what do we do about it? The problem has nothing to do with Washington, as such. And there is no way to “get history moving again” without talking about why it stopped moving in the first place.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

How Unfriendly Is the Internet?

8/18/2019—I don’t usually have the experience of getting real pushback on twitter—mainly because no one much reads what I say. But I responded to an anti-gun control tweet last week, mildly pointing out that the column in question had failed to address universal background checks and large capacity clips. The point of the column had been that most gun control proposals would not actually accomplish very much.

Well, you would have thought the roof had fallen in. I got so many responses that twitter asked me if I wanted to limit access to my responses to me—I have no idea what that would mean. And there were some angry people. And I did idly wonder if anyone would come by and shoot me.

But, mostly it was people vigorously, and none too politely, disagreeing with me and suggesting that I don’t know what I am talking about. This was fair game—if you’ll pardon the expression—although I had not actually made the arguments people were attributing to me.

Lots of people pointed out that “clips” is the wrong word—magazine is what we are talking about. And, indeed, I would not know one from the other. Other people pointed out that I had not read the original column closely enough to notice that the author was a woman and not a man, as my grammar suggested. They were right about that. I had paid no attention and my easy assumption that the author was a man was nothing but sexism.

My point in this one, small, example is that although the comments were unpleasant, they were not false and they were not dangerous. I’ve read much worse actually addressed to me in anonymous letters.

It’s not the same as what others have experienced, of course. No one harassed my family. No one threatened to kill or rape me, etc. But it is a reminder that some of the vitriol on the Internet really is free speech.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What Would “Bends Toward Justice” Mean to Doris Lessing?

8/15/2019—I am the moderator of the Bends Toward Justice podcast series, in which I talk to people about the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

It is pretty clear what Dr. King meant by this, at least in a general way. He did not invoke God per se, but something good is in charge of history. Progress is slow and not linear, but it does happen. Usually, anyway.

The question for the podcast is what this means today to people without Dr. King’s strong religious faith?—which is most people.

So, enter Madelaine Schwartz, reviewing Lara Feigel’s book about Doris Lessing: Free Woman. (NY Review, 9/27/2018). Feigel uses Lessing’s work, The Golden Notebook, to introduce themes of life and liberation.

Here’s the relevant quote from the review: “Yet Anna believes that 'every so often, perhaps once in a century, there’s a sort of—act of faith. A well of faith fills up, and there’s an enormous heave forward in one country or another, and that’s a forward movement for the whole world. Because it’s an act of imagination—of what is possible for the whole world. In our century it was 1917 in Russia. And in China. Then the well runs dry, because, as you say, the cruelty and the ugliness are too strong. Then the well slowly fills again. And then there’s another painful lurch forward.’”

This is maybe more detailed than Dr. King had in mind. And Dr. King would have included particular nations—he certainly expected more justice in the US.

But Lessing’s observation is good, because it points out that progress in one place in the globe inevitably affects everyone else. There is something irresistible about justice.

Also, Lessing is helpfully pointing out that it may be more imagination than justice. First we have to imagine a future before a future can occur.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Here is the column on mass shootings and our spiritual crisis

8/11/2019--the column appeared today in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Putin on Western Values

8/10/2019—On Sunday, my column about mass shootings will appear in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, for which I write a biweekly column. So, I won’t scoop myself here. But the column ends with a quote from Vladimir Putin that has not received enough attention in America.

Putin said in June that the liberal idea has become “obsolete.” He was referring to specific matters that of course people differ about—gay rights, multiculturalism, etc. But on a deeper level, he was equating popular views with truth. So, he was claiming a great deal more. He was claiming that rights are not real. That truth has no power. That self-determination of a people can be manipulated.

Putin was not exactly greeted with outrage. And this is the issue. Would Americans die to save the Union, as thousands did in the Civil War? Would Americans die to save democracy and human rights, as thousands did in WWII? Maybe. Americans would fight to protect America from invasion or attack—in fact we do. But what about our ideas and ideals?

America has always been about an idea, not group and not place. This is why the notion of American nationalism is so repulsive. That idea has basically three manifestations—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address—you can add other pieces of Lincoln’s expression. Rights are primary. Governments must be limited by structure and law. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That’s really it. It’s also the liberal idea that Putin says is obsolete.

The validity of Putin’s claim rests with us and he knows it. He meant, even the West no longer believes in this. If we do, he is wrong. If we don’t, he is right.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

America Needs a Substitute for God

8/8/2019—The genre that is needed today is an answer to the question, What Has Gone Wrong and What Can We Do About It? This was the subtitle of the book, Democracy in America, by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens. But it is the question lots of people have been asking since Donald Trump was elected President.

But it’s obvious that whatever went wrong predated Trump and in fact paved the way for such a person to be nominated in the first place. Furthermore, if we can imagine a world without Donald Trump, it is not clear that the hatred in American politics will be healed by voting him out of office.

So, if what went wrong was not Trump and if what we can do is not just get rid of him, what did go wrong and what can we do?

What went wrong is that God died. People, especially on the American Left, have a very hard time accepting that diagnosis. But if we think of the pathologies of American life, from baseless hatred, to the death of truth, to the deaths of despair in the opioid epidemic, to distrust of science—and on and on and on, we can see that they are mostly what you could call spiritual matters. If nihilism is the lack of a story that answers the question, what is this all about?, we have fallen into nihilism.

Anyway, grant me that for the moment. Grant me that there is no longer a culturally shared, beneficent and reliable universe that works for our good. When there was, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could remind us that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, we could hope to one day to join with our opponents to jointly serve truth. As he did.

If this is the problem, what is the solution? You can’t go home again. The God who could deliver all that is gone for many people—too many for that story to serve as the foundation for our civilization. And many of the people for whom He is gone still go to church. That is why so many churchgoers are angry at the world, rather than grateful for Christ.

But just because God is dead, it does not follow that the beneficent universe of right and wrong died with Him. All we need are new sources for meaningful human life. Meaningful here means “meaning filled.” It used to be said, if you want peace, work for justice. Now we can say, if you want healthy politics, work to ground meaning. Those sources are available. More on that.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Roger Cohen on Truth

7/27/2019—The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a column about the inhumanity of Donald Trump today. It was pretty searing in its depiction of Trump’s reaction to Nadia Murad at a meeting on July 17.

But Trump was not the point, really. Cohen started out with the notion of truth as an absolute commitment. Cohen begins with a quote from Robert Musil: “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.”

But what Cohen doesn’t realize, or doesn’t want to realize, is that the attack on truth did not begin and does not rest on Trump or Boris Johnson. Nihilism began on the Left, with sophisticated opinion. And it is with us still.

When will the Left accept responsibility for paving the way for the death of truth and, more importantly, come to a decision about truth? (I’m talking to you, Mark Lilla) Are there universal truths about humans and the universe? Is nationalism false because of those universal truths? If so, identity politics and the anti-appropriation movement are also false.

Cohen is right on the disease but wrong on source and on the cure.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Strong Reactions to Column on the No-Prosecution Pledge

7/26/2019--It will be hard to face down the lock him up segment of the Democratic Party. My column in Politico set off a twitter storm, which of course was my purpose. I am trying to put out the case against this sort of thing.

The three things that the critics do not see. I am not proposing anything new. Americans just don't go after defeated candidates, especially for President, especially using the criminal law. Second, Democrats would and have used dirt on political opponents and Hillary would certainly have done so in 2016. Finally, President Trump may have wanted to go after Hillary, but he did not do it. You have to judge him on what he did, not on what he wanted to do.

I should also say that if you shut down an investigation out of honest belief that you are innocent and it is within your authority to shut it down, that probably is not obstruction of justice. So, how in the world could the President be prosecuted anyway.

And don't get me started on the pardon power.

So, a little real world publicity. But will it do any good?

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Justice Stevens R.I.P.

7/19/2019—There are a lot of aspects to Justice Stevens legacy. Maybe most revealing of the rule of law is the Scalia/Stevens opinion in Hamdi. Nothing of Obama judges and Trump judges there.

That opinion is to me the high point of the career of Justice Stevens.

The doctrinal low point was this line from the opinion for a unanimous Court in Jones v. Clinton, the decision that allowed the Paula Jones litigation to go forward and led ultimately to Clinton’s impeachment: “The litigation of questions that relate entirely to the unofficial conduct of the individual who happens to be the President poses no perceptible risk of misallocation of either judicial power or executive power.”
That was stupid because cases like Paula Jones only go forward and are only financed because someone is President. They are brought by political enemies.

To me, the real low point, however, was Justice Stevens’ concurrence in Thornburgh in 1986, which struck down parts of Pennsylvania’s abortion regulations. There, Justice Stevens called the view that a fetus is a person “a religious view,” as if no one could think so except for religious reasons. He was probably the most anti-religious Justice in the history of the Supreme Court.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Adam Gopnik vs David Frum

7/14/2019—I haven’t read the book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventures of Liberalism, by Adam Gopnik, but if it is as tedious and superficial as David Frum’s review in the New York Times, the book won’t be helpful.

Anyone who praises “the liberal heritage of free speech, rule of law, scientific inquiry and individual conscience” is certainly on the right side of things. But Gopnik sounds incapable of fundamental analysis. I suspect this is because, as an atheist, he has no feel for religious experience and truth. See below.

Take this example from the book--“The basic American situation in which the right wing wants cultural victories and gets nothing but political ones; while the left wing wants political victories and gets only cultural ones. … The left manages to get sombreros banned from college parties while every federal court in the country is assigned a far-right-wing activist judge.”

Now this makes no sense. Much of what the Left wants from the courts is also cultural—not all but much. Is forcing the cake maker to make a cake for a same sex wedding political or cultural when cakes are freely available? How about contraception coverage by a religious employer when contraception is freely available elsewhere? Many of our political controversies are about cultural supremacy.

The right-wing judiciary is a threat to unions and that is not cultural. But do most progressives care all that much about that? Unfortunately, no.

Gopnik’s fear of truth is revealed in this comment about dogmatic religion—"If you think you have unique access to the truth, why wouldn’t you be intolerant of those who reject that truth?”

Revelation is not why people are intolerant. For that matter, truth is not why people are intolerant. Those religious traditions were the source of our respect for conscience—as well as the source of the Inquisition. It is a mixed bag. (To be fair, Frum sees that this applies as well to the secular Left.)

Intolerance arises from the content of the truth one believes she possesses. Dr. King taught that means are ends in the making. That is one basis of tolerance. I don't do everything I can to defeat error.

But no one is or should be tolerant of error as such. If I respect you as a person, I try to persuade you of the truth for your own sake. Out of love. I don’t persecute you. And I only act against you if you are harming others. Spreading your error is not harm because I believe your error will not stand up to shared investigation. In the end, truth will prevail. Thus, truth is the not a threat to tolerance, but its source. Think Gamaliel in the Book of Acts. There was no need to act against the new Jesus movement. If it was from God, it should not be opposed. If it was not, it would fail.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Happy Fourth

7/4/2019--No postings until next week. Have a happy holiday.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

All Our Problems are Related

26/29/2019—When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. I’m that way about nihilism, which I blame for all our problems.

Nihilism is closely related to Hallowed Secularism, because nihilism is what happens to a believing culture when God dies and you don’t develop hallowed secularism.

So, today in the New York Times, Roger Cohen laments the decline of the liberal idea—basically, the American post-war consensus of democracy, market capitalism and the rule of law.

But Cohen does not understand what happened. It was not erosion, though there was some of that. Americans no longer believe in the universe. The liberal idea was founded on faith. Not just in God, but in the path of history, the reasonableness of people and a benevolent universe.

When, instead, history is contingency, people are flawed in their thinking, and the universe is just forces, all that is left is the will to power. Then power is serving only oneself. That is our decline. It would be stupid to be magnanimous in a reality like that.

Same issue with Bret Stephens’ column—nothing for him in the Democratic debates. Why? They are all narrow identity politics. But that is what happens when universal ideals decline. You are left with identity and tribe. Try truth and justice instead. That’s what we used to have. Dr. King even believed that the racist would be redeemed. Try telling that to Senator Harris.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Sohrab Ahmari Doesn’t Believe in God

6/27/2019—A lot has been written about an essay in First Things last May by Sohrab Ahmari. In the essay, Ahmari argues that the civility exhibited by National Review writer David French is inappropriate given the stakes in the culture war. Ahmari also says that cultural renewal is not enough to win back the culture war—"it doesn’t work that way.”

The reason I say that Ahmari does not believe in God, aside from one revealing aside when he accuses French of “an almost supernatural faith” in culture—as if supernatural faith were a bad thing—is that he does not take seriously the idea that God is the Lord of history.

In the context of losing the culture war—drag queen readings in the public library is the one that sets Ahmari off—there are two options for someone who believes that God is in charge. The first option is the route of Gamaliel in Acts—if this is from God, we must understand it and not oppose it. If it is not from God, it will pass away. Since abortion remains a moral concern for Americans while same sex marriage does not, maybe God has done a new thing. Maybe same sex marriage is God’s will. Many Jew hated what the new Jesus movement stood for (also a Jewish movement, of course)—they thought it violated traditional morality.

The second option is to assume that the people I am contending with are sinning and will be punished along with our whole society. This is Jesus addressing the women of Jerusalem—don’t weep for me, but for yourselves and your children. The days are coming when people will say it is better not to have been born. If Ahmari believed this, he would say to French, your mistake is that you do not love your enemies. If you did, you would do everything to save them from God’s wrath. You would not be held back by the secondary virtue of civility.

What Ahmari believes is that God is powerless and irrelevant. It is all up to Ahmari. He is Lord of history. So, he decides what must be done.

We are all atheists now. We are all nihilists now. This is the time of the will to power.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

All the Justices Get Religion Wrong Again

6/23/2019--One secular critic wrote that at least the Supreme Court in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association case did not accept the idea that a cross can stand as a symbol for all the dead, including Jews and other non-Christians and nonbelievers. That idea was the great threat.

The fight over the cross became a substitute for fights over the Pledge of Allegiance. It was as if the cross would be forcing a dead nonbeliever to endorse Christianity.

So, why not just put up symbols that everyone accepts? Because they don't have power.

The great thing about the endorsement test, now on its way out, is that it asked the right question. Is government endorsing religion? If government is endorsing something else, the Constitution is not violated. And the reasonable oberserver is the one to ask.

People don't realize that the reason we are filled with despair and anger is that we no longer have a story that promises peace. Religious stories promise peace. But many of us, and the culture as a whole, no longer accept them. And that is true of the religious people too. They no longer accept their own stories, which is why so many religious people are filled with anger and despair too.

When government uses religious symbols to tell stories of peace, the symbols should be constitutional. And if they are using religious symbols because they are familiar to everybody, that should not be a problem. The reasonable person has to see that the government is not endorsing the sectarian aspect of the religious symbol but its attempted universal message.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

What the Supreme Court Should Have Said, But Didn't, in the Maryland Cross Case

6/22/2019--This is the op-ed I wrote last March for the Washington Examiner in the Cross Case decided this week. The cross stayed, as predicted. There was no majority opinion on how to approach religious imagery in the public square. (This is a repeat of the March 21 blog entry since this is the time people are interested in the case.)
The World War I memorial cross in Bladensburg, Md., isn’t going anywhere. That was clear from the oral argument in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association. The Supreme 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 do they begin the process of healing?

Thanks to President Trump, there is now 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. This would be seen as a big win for one side in the culture wars.

The treatment of religion as an either-or proposition 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.

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

The national motto, "In God We Trust," for example, certainly refers to 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 using 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 a higher truth. These monuments reinforce 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.

To uphold religious imagery for its common, secular meaning is not to bring back the much-derided “ceremonial deism,” which claims that religious symbols no longer have religious meaning. Nor is it equivalent to the sanitized claim that religious imagery symbolizes a “religious heritage,” as if religion is now just a curiosity for museums.

It is rather that the real division in this country is not between religion and irreligion 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 believers and nonbelievers alike.

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, point toward a secularist 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.
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 do represent 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 can 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.