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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Casting the First Stone

One of the cornerstones of modern criminal law is the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty, built bit by bit through centuries of English, British and now US legal history and precedent, till it has become so firmly entrenched in popular understanding that any watcher of Law and Order or The Good Wife could explain all the finer points and nuances absent any formal legal training. However, this concept is peculiar only to court proceedings, and other forums especially the extra-judicial court of public opinion has no qualms in pronouncing instant judgement on any and every case that passes before it. My affiliations with the Pennsylvania State University and the New England Patriots bring constant reminder that the wider public is willing to forego the niceties of trial in favor of a swift and satisfying public excoriation; if a trial must be had, the public would rather it be held, in true through-the-looking-glass manner, after the sentence has been served.

I have addressed my disappointment with the rush to judge Joe Paterno and there is no need to add to my earlier notes. But recently, a couple of cases arose that gave me fresh perspective on this issue, while reinforcing my basic viewpoint. While Joe Paterno lost his job in undeserved disgrace and that may have hastened his death, the court of public opinion does not often render verdicts with quite as serious ramifications. However, in the end, even a true judicial trial is shaped directly or indirectly by prevailing public perception and opinions, and when the wider public unofficially and oft times unwittingly decides a case before the accused has his day in court, it cannot help but have a significant bearing on the eventual outcome. And occasionally, those prejudices can have far reaching effects. It would be tempting to accuse the news media, and admittedly, they often play a role in shaping perceptions, but in the end, they can only mold and shape opinions, and it is up to each individual to weigh the available evidence and reach his or her own conclusions. To be sure, the news media can exert influence in the way it presents information, but more often than not, in my opinion, we reach decisions that match our own moral view of the world and seek to conform the evidence to our own prejudices. And often enough, we need to feel a certain moral superiority to the accused, ignoring our own failings, even when they match the character of the accused to an uncomfortable degree' mayhap we are especially harsh on the failings of others when we secretly see those same weaknesses within ourselves and seek to convince ourselves of our own superiority by shining a particularly harsh light on the failings of the other.

An excellent study, I feel, was the singular case of the New York Cannibal Cop. Gilberto Vale was accused, and initially convicted, of conspiring to kidnap and murder women with plans to cook them. His own words buttressed the accusations, lengthy discussions and plans on online fetish forums dedicated to cannibalistic fantasies, in which he described exactly what he would like to do to his prospective victims, and discussed making those plans reality with other members of the forum, including with their assistance. Yet, a slightly closer look revealed that there was little reason to believe there was any intent behind his fantasies, as his online descriptions of elaborate preparations had no parallel in reality. And numerous planned D-days came and went without any further reference to missed dates. Vale appeared to get all his fun from simply fantasizing; his fantasies were somewhat different from the norm, it's true, but hardly worthy of a jail sentence. Yet a jury of twelve good citizens were so horrified at the implications of his fantasies that they were willing to convict him for what can best be described as a thought crime. Mayhap these good yeomen were driven by an "ick" factor, so disgusted that they felt he deserved to be locked away and off the streets. Or perhaps, as I suspect, they were scared to admit that his fantasies while darker than their own, were still a reflection of our universal failure to live up to impossible ideals and rather than acknowledge their own perceived shortcomings, would rather shut away the reminder of their human weakness. What I am suggesting, through my pop psychology, is that we all have dark fantasies, often thoughts that we are ashamed to divulge to anyone and we are then scared to show any sympathy for a man portrayed as a monster by the Press and prosecution, since to stand by him might raise suspicions about our own secrets. Few reporters covering the case ever focused on the lack of evidence of a crime or even of criminal intent and instead began the discussion with his monstrosity as a given. I can imagine that no juror would raise a voice in defense of him in deliberations for fear of the censure of his or her fellows within the chamber. And so an all too human, and basically innocent (in all but angelic connotations of the word) individual was found guilty of enjoying thoughts that make the wider public uncomfortable. Not too surprisingly, his conviction was overturned by a federal judge - when the emotions of jurors were no longer at play, the facts of the case were insufficient to warrant a conviction.

My point here is not that Vale was an ideal person. But then again, he has no claim to perfection nor any need to it. If our deepest thoughts were subjected to the same scrutiny, few of us would remain at liberty. But we are so unwilling to admit our own nature that we would rather send a man to jail than admit that his fantasies are not so very different from our own. Perhaps we don't care about cooking and eating our fellows, even in fantasy, but most of us enjoy various guilty pleasures in the secrecy of our minds. And if one man is guilty for his thoughts then so are we all. And sadly, rather than acknowledge that we are all subject to dreams and fantasies, be it of a threesome with Hayley Westenra and Taylor Swift (oh! the music we'd make) or the chance to throw Adam Sandler off a very tall building, and that such dreams are quite normal, and that to feel guilt over them is as foolish as feeling warm when standing on a street corner in Phoenix in July. We do far greater damage when we pretend that we are above such petty feelings, especially when we feel that the only way to hide our own thoughts is to be particularly harsh on anyone else unfortunate enough to have their secrets laid bare to censure. And, boy! do we like to censure!

The recent hack of the adultery relationship site Ashley Madison offered another opportunity to us to really indulge our inner censurer. Some people are fortunate enough to be with their soul mates, some are not. Of the latter, some have the fortitude to stay true to their to vows or walk away, while others seek a measure of happiness outside their existing relationships. We do not walk in the shoes of the individuals and we should leave them to their own decisions insofar as their actions do not impact us. Yet, when a sanctimonious vigilante group published the information of all the Ashley Madison patrons, in the swirling media coverage there was nary a word defending the privacy of the thousands of men (and women?). And the general attitude appeared that they deserved what happened for failing at monogamy, that they had merely got their just deserts, and the moral rectitude of the watchers was mixed with more than a touch of gloating. Yet, no one deserves to have their private life ripped apart and exposed to the ridicule of the rude masses. And in truth, only a few of us could survive that level of scrutiny, and it would behoove us to show less smug righteousness and more empathy. It's not that the patrons of the service deserve a free pass, but the responsibility of issuing that pass, for most cases, lies with their spouse or partner and we have neither the right nor even the moral authority to pass judgement on them.

It is comforting to feel superior to one's peers. But if we are honest with ourselves, which is far harder than we would admit even to ourselves and in secret, we are few of us above reproach and have often fallen short of the ideals to which we hold our less fortunate brethren. And especially, if we would hold people guilty for their deepest and darkest thoughts, then perhaps none of us deserve to even escape the death penalty. But we are not, and should not, be held accountable for stray, or not so stray thoughts. Nor should we answer to the world for our private lives, except to to extent that we make the world a part of our private lives. And above all, we should recall and live the words of Polonious that we should "take each man's censure, but reserve judgment".




Saturday, June 27, 2015

When It Really is Black and White

This past fortnight capped a most tumultuous period in US history, with both moments of soaring hope and expectation and  deepest despair, as the US Supreme Court dismissed the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act and then followed up with a sweeping statement judgement that legalized marriage equality across the nation, while a troubled young man walked into a historic Black church and allegedly gunned down a number of worshipers, simply because they were of a different race from him. While very few, if any, are willing to offer open support for the killing of unarmed church-goers,  the one aspect of this troubled period that worries me most is that so many may harbor deep feelings about which of the above three events were tragedy and which were cause for celebration. However, glad as I am over both the referenced court decisions (though I would have preferred a narrower, less flowery and more legalistic reasoning for marriage equality), this post is not about either of those issues - the Affordable Care Act may face more challenges, but the reality is that it is now a fact of life, and is ever more embedded in the way we buy our healthcare and any disruptions to this in the future are in no one's interest, except perhaps the most committed of ideologues, while the right to equality before the state is now catching up to the tidal wave of public perception that has swept much of the earlier prejudice aside, and it is hard indeed to imagine this country or any other stepping backwards on this matter.

Race relations and prejudices, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. I have largely ignored the topic, waiting for time and distance to provide better perspective, but the slow burn begun when with the killing of Trayvon Martin almost two and a half years ago, were fanned and kept alive by a series of events, from the shooting of Michael Brown to the even more tragic shooting of Tamir Rice.  Less tragic, but still very much an issue to those on the receiving end, were events like the seemingly excessive force employed by Dallas police against a teenage girl. These events were not connected, but they betrayed a sad pattern of inherent racial prejudice - it is unlikely that any of the police involved were racist in the conventional sense of the word, but their prejudice colored their perceptions and actions. It is just as important to note that prejudice colored the actions of the victims in some cases as well. This is not a defense of the killings, just a statement of fact, and it should be noted that the attitudes of young black men towards the police and justice system are justifiably founded, but that collective history, uniformly negative, definitely prejudiced them against taking their chances with the system and set both sides on a track that could only end in tragedy.

While discussing a level of tragedy between cases that all resulted in death may be insensitive, not to add impossible, the killings in Charleston last week are definitely of a different magnitude. This was the only case where the killer had no reason to employ force, except to wantonly kill. And the reported statements of the alleged killer drip with a hatred that most of us imagined long dead. And yet, in the midst of tragedy, the killer may have transformed this nation in a way he never could have conceived - he shone a light on the darkest recesses of our collective soul and dragged into the open the kind of attitudes and behavior generally restricted to the comfortable anonymity of online discussion forums. The unbridled racism and (all too human) ferocity reported by the survivors left no room for lukewarm sympathizers to cloud the issue with speculative non-questions and strawman arguments, while even those more overtly in agreement were aware that he had crossed a line that they did not dare to follow him across.

In many ways, the dangers that every young black man faces daily were finally, and irrefutably on display. The previous events all had something that could be used to obscure that fact - Trayvon Martin was in a physical confrontation with his killer, Michael Brown has just robbed a store which was enough to cloud the issue, even without his reported lunge at the police officer, the man shot from behind in South Carolina was running from a routine traffic stop, and Tamir Rice was holding a realistic looking weapon which he refused to drop when confronted. All these cases could be written off by those who wished to as nothing more than a bit of excessive force, driven by fear on the part of the killer, and the common thread could be ignored, the evidence of racial prejudice could be ignored. But the church killings offer no such convenient escape - a man walked in and shot down nine people, executed them simply because of the color of their skin. He has reportedly admitted that it was difficult to do because of how nicely they treated him for the hour that he spent there before acting, but he found it in himself to go through with his intended plan - he was going to execute them allegedly solely because they were blacks and he was white, and nothing in their personal behavior was reason enough to "forgive" them that sin. And in doing so, he showed all the world the truth - people still die today because of racist attitudes. I have seen an interestingly coordinated attempt to point to some cases where black men killed white people - equally interestingly there are no links or details to these reported cases. In any case the more likely explanation is that a home invasion that results in deaths is just that, rather than an overtly racist plan by radical black men. It is always possible that racist taunts or insults were uttered - racism is not exclusive to whites, and all of us have these tendencies. But the one fact that no one can ignore (or at least must strain incredibly hard to ignore) is that nine black people were executed as a result of race and nothing else; and once we are forced to acknowledge that, we must also face up to the reasons and accept, even if grudgingly that racial prejudices do kill and that today the vast majority of the killing has young black men as victims.

Sometimes, it takes a deep cut to remove the obscuring damaged tissue and start the process of healing. The many cases over the last three years showed us that there was a deep wound in our soul, but it took the Charleston killings to slice away all else and reveal the tumor of racism that lived on beneath. And we have begun the process of healing already. Forced finally to admit the overt racist overtones of the Confederacy and its flag, America has turned away and finally that symbol of prejudice and outdated ideas (like a state's "right" to allow enslavement) is coming down  - from State Houses and monuments to merchandise and computer games. There will still be some - Phil Robertsons and Cliven Bundys of this event - who will cling to their emblems of the past, but they are a dying minority and their overt racism will drive them into isolation as no one with an eye to the future is willing to embrace them or their brand anymore. And we should leave them free to be - they have a right to wrap themselves in the flag, no matter how much it offends the rest of us. We should be content that the State's endorsement of their prejudices is done, and that we have no more reason to fear them - like Sauruman, their staff is broken and their power gone and they can be left in their isolated towers of Orthanc (it goes without saying that the willful defacement of memorials to Confederate dead must stop immediately).

Perhaps the greatest response to the racist murders of Charleston is the one unfolding across America today - a new recognition of the distance we still have to go as a nation. As the President has said, we have come a long way from the Civil War and Civil Rights movement and there is little doubt that the US is one of the most tolerant nations around, where one can transcend skin color to succeed, but to become a more perfect Union, we still have a long road to travel and thanks to a young racist in Charleston, we have begun that journey, not to the racial civil war he envisioned but towards equality and justice for all.




Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Universal Brotherhood of Superiority

This morning, some atheist acquaintances of mine were planning on attending a local mega-church as silent observers but they planned to ask the members some challenging questions after services. They were clear that they were not seeking to start a fight, and chances are the church members would not turn too hostile, but their plan got me thinking: how far should we push in an effort to awake people of faith, and how different are we from them, really? That second question is the really interesting one, I think, if for no other reason than that both groups would recoil in horror at the concept.

Many atheists, especially the adherents to the ideas of Christopher Hitchens, hold that people of faith deserve no special respect for their beliefs, that religion should not be treated different from any other idea and in furtherance of their ideas, spend much of their time probing the inconsistencies in the beliefs of the faithful. While I understand their position, and even agree that religion enjoys an undeservedly exalted position, I'm also more sympathetic to the feelings of those who find comfort and solace in their faith. Above all, as a pragmatist, I see little to gain in insulting the deepest held beliefs of a person, especially as a means of convincing them to change their viewpoint. In this regard, the position taken by the Islamic Center in Phoenix in instructive: confronted with a couple of hundred angry and armed provocateurs, they invited any of the crowd who wished to join them inside the mosque and ended up changing the hate-tinged perspectives of at least some of those who accepted the invite. By contrast the well meaning liberals who gathered in support of the Muslims were far closer to causing a violent outcome when they attempted to outshout the first group and basically raised anger and hatred levels all around. I would wager much that not one person on either side of the police line ended up convinced by the other side, but instead came away even more thoroughly confirmed in their own righteousness.

And self-righteousness is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of all these groups. Be they Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Muslims or militant atheists, they are all convinced that they alone have the right ideals and that all others are foolish for clinging to their "obviously" false beliefs. My fellow atheists would deny that they have beliefs, except those that can be scientifically verified and proved, but even if they are so lucky to hew to no irrational ideas - and in reality, we are as irrational as anyone else, witness the refusal of many atheists to accept scientific studies that disprove their ideas on vaccination - they exhibit the same hubris in their special wisdom that sets them above others who do not follow the same path. In seeking to explode the religious beliefs of some Christians this morning, those atheists were not hoping to convince their antagonists, but rather to demonstrate to themselves at least their own superiority, they sought to wrap themselves in a cloak of smugness that had nothing to do with helping anyone find a new path. I've often wondered if anyone can be convinced to change belief by challenging his or her faith, or even demonstrating the error of their beliefs. We humans have learned to deal with cognitive dissonance so very effectively that even the most absolute proof against our cherished beliefs will make not an iota of difference, our faith and belief will remain unshaken. I'm reminded of a statement by Pope Francis that if he found an extraterrestrial. he would joyfully baptize it, no questions asked; he never once addressed the fact that if he actually found a being from beyond our little insignificant planet, it would wholly overturn the primacy of humans in the Christian cosmic view. Yet, why should I point to religious believers only, when atheists often adopt the same attitude? I recently saw a very interesting article that said we should stop saying we believe in evolution, a bright line between us rational enlightened atheists and the worst of the regressive faithful. The author of the article pointed out that the Theory of Evolution has been subjected to scientific process and scrutiny and that our position should be that we understand or do not understand the theory, since it is not a matter of blind faith. Yet many atheists will proclaim belief in the theory, with all the fervor of the most fanatical of zealots. I do not say they are wrong for accepting the theory, for I have a rudimentary understanding of the theory and see no evidence to disprove it, but I do take issue with an attitude that disparages a group for rejecting that theory with no more knowledge of it, than they have for accepting it. The Theory of Evolution has become a defining issue, but it should be no more contentious than the Theory of Gravitation or the Laws of Motion, i.e. it should be studied , not rejected nor believed in blind obedience to a wider worldview. Blind acceptance of scientific theories without an understanding of the science behind them, no matter how correct they are, does no honor to the scientific method or the person professing that belief, but it does emphasize the brotherhood that binds all of us, theists and atheists, in a common brotherhood of blindness where our own beliefs are concerned. Indeed, the only thing that separates the most convinced of all parties is the actual beliefs, while the passion is not so very dissimilar.

One last thought: if tomorrow, definitive proof was offered us regarding one particular religion - for arguments sake, let us suppose that Thor and his lovely wife, Sif. along with his gentle brother Baldur visit earth proving that the ancient Norse had it right before King Olaf brought Christianity to them at swords' edge - would we atheists bow before that deity, assuming of course no lightening bolts were being hurled at us for refusing? Or would we join all other religionists in seeking to find a way to square our idea of a universe devoid of these gods with that new reality? It is an academic question worth pondering, though I fear the answer would be less than flattering to us atheists that we might suppose.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Call of the Wild

This past week, something that I never thought would happen, actually came to pass: I actually found myself agreeing with a libertarian viewpoint. It surprises me to even write that, but when the State of Maryland and its Child Protection Services intervened to detain two children who were walking home alone, I could not help but feel that there are times when the "less government" crowd is onto something.

Impossible claims aside - and let's face it, I could no more embrace a libertarian worldview than become the next President of USA (or India, for that matter) - I did find myself wondering what was wrong with our government that it devotes its time to grabbing children of the street and threatening to separate them from their parents. Yet, what was even stranger, was the revelation that the officials involved were following the law in their actions - Maryland actually requires that all children under the age of thirteen be accompanied by a guardian. What I did realize, once I'd filtered out all the noise and hyperbole, was that this is a perfect example of what I'd discussed a few blogs ago, that we pass laws with excellent intentions that then become impediments to other equally well-intentioned individuals. In this case, we have a law that was clearly meant to provide protection for children and ensure that the authorities had permission to intervene when they perceived a need. Of course, perception is everything and what the zealous officers of the local police and CPS felt was warranted was viewed quite differently by the parents who were at the receiving end. Hyperbole aside, and I feel quite sure that both parties will exaggerate the aspect that suits their narrative and downplay all else, the fact is that like the blind men conducting a tactile examination of a pachyderm, all are slightly right and also wrong.

Now those who want less government in our lives may immediately point to this case as evidence enough that the government needs to be reigned in and downsized. Sadly, things are never quite so simple. It was not the police in black helicopters who swooped in to seize the children, rather they were summoned by a concerned citizen. I would wager much that the concerned neighbor who saw two small children walking by alone had no idea that it was actually in the law that they should be accompanied but instinctively felt that it was not right and hence summoned the police. He, or she, was driven by the best of intentions and as a quick perusal of any discussion forum will reveal, there are many who share that opinion and would censure a parent for sending their children out alone. There are many though who feel that parents have the right to raise their kids as they see fit and that such laws as allow the State to intervene between parent and child are wholly misplaced and need to be repealed. Life, though is painted in subtle shades of grey, and there is no easy demarcation between the rights of parents and the responsibilities of the State.

Even were it possible to draw a bright line in this particular instance, there are so many more cases that muddy the water. Should children be prevented from touching any alcohol or should parents be allowed to choose when and where their child is exposed to the fruit of the vine? We not only proscribe parents from making this choice, but we threaten them with dire consequences for any infringement. This may be one law that is driven by self-righteous and meddling busybodies, and one that causes far more harm than it prevents but it also enjoys plentiful support. Vaccinations, and the refusal of some parents to allow it, is yet another hot issue, and the State may claim a legitimate interest, while parents may, and do, argue that it is their right to make that decision for their children. Methods of disciplining children is but one more example where the State often intervenes and separates children from parents. The target is abusive parents, but we have yet to find a universally accepted definition of child abuse. While caning or the use of a cat-o'-nine-tails may be generally accepted to be off limits, spanking, slaps and even yelling are still debated with great passion by both sides of the question. There is little doubt in the most egregious of cases, but it is the borderline and debatable cases that usually draw widespread attention, in part because of their ambiguity, and because of the passion they excite by partisans of all political stripes. It is worth noting here, that some of my more militantly atheistic friends claim that indoctrinating children in blind faith is a form of child abuse, an idea with which no religious parent would ever agree, highlighting once more my familiar refrain. One could sift through and find thousands upon thousands of similar examples, and they all show one thing: it is not the over-reach of the State that is the problem, but difficulty in formulating a law that protects the weak and powerless without intruding on the individual's privacy and sovereignty.

In cases such as this, it is worth pausing to reflect that the laws we hate, while sometimes deserving of our approbation, were usually, if not always a result of a public demand. An excellent case in point is the laws on sexual offenders. There are laws that prevent convicted offenders from living anywhere near all sorts of institutions - schools, parks, churches - which were enacted to meet a public desire to be safe from such menaces. Of course, the consequences can be quite devastating for those affected directly and sometimes counter productive; many sex offenders are unable to find accommodation (for who wants a rapist as a neighbor?) and hence logically unable to comply with the terms of their parole. This is but a single extreme case, but there are plenty more like this. The fault is not "the government" for our elected representatives typically act in ways that will win them continued support. And in the words of Lincoln, after all, we have a government of the people and by the people. When it seems that our government is not really acting in the interests of the people, we should take a deep breath and realize that in fact it very likely is expressing the will of the people and it is, we the people who have no clear idea of what we want. We are usually quite clear on how much  the State may encroach upon our lives, but we rarely are in agreement on the proper boundaries for our neighbors.










Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Right to Dignity

"It is better to live on one's knees than die on one's feet"
The dirty old man who reminded Nately of his father was one of the few people who celebrated living bereft of dignity. Tobe honest many, if not most, of us would choose life, even in the most degrading servitude, over the most glorious of deaths. Some cultures might vary, with Vikings, Spartans and Samurai to name but a few who would embrace death in combat over the chance to live, but that kind of thinking must be drummed into one from infancy to truly become a mantra of life (or death, in this case). Not only do few societies today embrace a culture of death so happily, but it is also a lot easier to go out in a blaze of glory when high on battle excitement and a lot harder when one's dignity is stripped slowly and incrementally.

More importantly, few Americans would exult in a chance to demean and degrade their enemies, and even to the extent that they may, they would strenuously deny that they derive an iota of enjoyment from the act. The Romans may have enjoyed the sight of their enemies paraded in chains through the Forum, and roared in approval as those unfortunates met their death for the public entertainment, but we live in more civilized times. We may secretly enjoy the humiliation of our most cherished public figures, but we leave the public stripping to the tabloids and hold ourselves aloof from the act, while gorging our voyeuristic tendencies behind a veil of anonymity. We would never admit especially that we were responsible for the debasement of our idols, and with impressive self-righteousness, we tell each other that it is not our actions that fuel the fire that consumes them but rather that they have fallen only because of their own imperfections.

It is this refusal to admit the degradation of our fellows and our willful delusion that they must somehow deserve their fate that permits the stripping of every vestige of human dignity from "the others". The others could be anyone, marked with the sign of Cain by their enemies and declared to be less deserving of the right to human dignity, the same dignity that we not only demand for ourselves but which we declare the right of all men and is so entrenched in the psyche of Americans. Those others have included, at different times, ethnic groups like the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Asians, the blacks, the Mexicans; it has also encompassed religious groups - the Mormons, the Jews and today, the Muslims; professions have been included, like the Vietnam vets, the hippie students who opposed the War. Sometimes the groups consigned to the outskirts may be logical enough, like union labor or police or fat-cat bankers, but can also include seemingly strange targets, like teachers in Wisconsin, airport flight controllers. But above all, we love to demonize and dehumanize the weakest members of society - the poor and the unemployed.

The one thing that has always marked the stigmatization of a group has been the wish to paint that group in broad strokes, pinning real or imaginary crimes of a few on the entirety. If a few Muslims embrace hatred for the West and employ terrorist tactics, the demagogues then portray all Muslims as guilty by virtue of a shared faith. The miniscule group that uses fraud to enjoy the largesse of a welfare state are proof enough that all the poor and unemployed are out to cheat us and need to be watched carefully at all times.

This latter group has enjoyed a prominent place on our list of hatred for a long time, seemingly bound up into the unique way that Americans view the world, and having only themselves to blame if they are poor instead of living in McMansions. The hatred has surged and ebbed, but never really gone away, and is now enjoying a new energy. Though we know that nearly anyone could have lost their jobs or money in the Great Recession and that many who suffered that misfortune may never recover like jobs or clamber back to the same economic footing, yet we quietly accept the insults heaped on the indigent. Those same unfortunates blamed for being poor were once our friends and colleagues - I'll wager that few of us did not know someone who lost their job or house or both as the recession swept through our nation, destroying lives and wealth. Yet we sit silent, because those erstwhile equals are now the "other". We barely murmur a protest when insults are heaped upon the poor, be in daily imprecations by the all knowing talking heads of TV or the soul sapping demands placed on them by antagonistic governments. We sat silently while Florida demanded that Welfare recipients undergo mandatory drug tests, and though the program never showed any significant evidence that this was justified, still we rewarded its architect with a second term of office, basically endorsing the demeaning treatment of our fellow men. Now we watch passively while Kansas seeks to close a deficit of its own making by cutting benefits to its least empowered, and requires a humiliating accounting of their spending. Seemingly paternalistic and intrusive government is less important than bringing these wastrels to heel!

But hypocrisy aside, the issue here is not the actions of the government, but our willingness to play along. We gladly suspend empathy and embrace the narrative of hatred. Hatred comes in many shapes and colors, and it's not always garbed in black and screaming "Death to America". It can be far less visible and more insidious, erecting walls between citizens, turning us against each other. When we are willing to hate our neighbors, we have no chance to bridge the gaps with the rest of humanity that's further removed. And that suits the demagogues who seek power on the basis of hatred and division. Divided by ideology but united by method, they deal only in hatred of the others, the outsiders; we empower them when we refuse to think for ourselves and reject empathy for those others.

We need to remember that but for a few chances - of birth, of location, of opportunity - we may well be that unshaven, unwashed man standing by the freeway exit, broken and hopeless. Perhaps he too had a good job and comfortable life a few months ago, perhaps he has been homeless for years. Perhaps he worked fifty hour weeks till his employer went bankrupt and ended his idyl, or perhaps he does not care to work. Perhaps he went bankrupt when he ran up huge medical bills, or perhaps he has never paid a bill in his life. The important thing to remember is that we do not know what his (or her) life has been, we have not walked in their shoes or faced the awful choices they've made. We do not sit in comfort because we are deserving; perhaps we made some good choices along the way, but we live well mostly because of good fortune. We were born into reasonably affluent families, we were able to get good educations, we had the right guidance and mentors when we needed them - we had no hand in any of those events, and yet they have placed us where we are far more than anything we've done ourselves.

Humility in the knowledge of our good fortune and empathy for those who fell along the road should be our default stance, rather than a smug self-righteousness. We may not be able to personally help every person in need, but we can start by suspending judgement and we can hold our appointed agents, our government to the same recognition of reality. We universally agree that people deserve a second chance. But, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, they also enjoy a right to "live in peace, honor and human dignity--free to speak, and pray as they wish--free from want--and free from fear". Refusing to treat them as criminals for being poor, refusing to humiliate them for needing help is the first step in freeing them from want and fear. A man forced to live on his knees is not a man able to stand on his feet.








Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Destroying Mephistopheles

Some years ago, I came across a very profound thought in a Fantastic Four comic. Superhero comics, at their heart, portray the unending battle between good and evil, and in this particular story, the end is achieved when Mephisto, evil personified is banished from his own realm. Yet, in victory, one of the heroes explains that Mephisto did not create evil, but rather was simply the face of evil and that so long as evil lived on in the world, Mephisto would simply rise again no matter how often they defeated him. It was a lesson that struck a chord with me and I have never forgotten the idea.

I was reminded of this lesson, not once, but many times over the last few months as the Islamic State rose across Syria and Iraq. The sheer barbarity of these murderous hordes seems beyond comprehension, and as they piled on the atrocities, vows to defeat them have poured in from leaders in both the nations that bear the immediate brunt of their violence as well as those further out in the West. Last week, when they posted a video showing the chilling murder by burning of a captured Jordanian pilot, Jordan vowed to destroy the ISIS. And I found myself asking anew: how do you destroy the evil that drives this rabble?

Military power can never defeat the ISIS. To be sure, the armies now bringing their might to bear against this militia can wrest control of the towns and cities that currently lie in silent suffering beneath the black banners, but this is a war that is not really about territory. In some ways, the ISIS obscured the real problem when they set out to establish a physical nation or Caliphate. Now Syria and Iraq and their myriad allies have a tangible target, be it Mosul, Raqqa or any of the many other towns under ISIS governance. And in turn, when the ISIS sought legitimacy as a state, they undertook the very tasks and burdens that had marked the failure of the preceding regimes there and paved the way for the very success of the ISIS. There are reports that water supply and electricity services have seriously contracted under the ISIS and that farms will produce a fraction of what they did under the far from perfect or tender rule of Assad or Maliki.

But in the end, the ISIS is not a real state, no matter its claims. It is the face of an idea, and ideas cannot be defeated by battlefield victories. The ISIS may be destroyed in battle, its soldiers killed or captured and every last leader of note executed, but unless there is a real change in the mindset of an entire people, it is only a matter of time before another entity arises to feed the madness that infects the world. The ISIS did not train or dispatch the killers in Paris, or those who seem to strike near daily in towns across Europe. ISIS, or at least the original ISIS, did not capture the Egyptian Christians who were killed in Libya late last week. It was Boko Haram, not ISIS who stalks the villages of Nigeria, slaughtering innocents and kidnapping children to sell into slavery. The Lord's Resistance Army flourished in Uganda long before ISIS was even dreamed of, and provides proof, if further proof be needed that the madness may wear the face of one religion more often than others, but can in fact exist in any and every absolutist religion and ideology. Twenty years ago, we called that evil the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's worth recalling that two decades of war against the Taliban have brought us no closer to defeating them.

There are certainly steps that can be taken to constrain the rise of these murderous groups. The governments across the region, from West Africa, across the arc of North Africa and Middle East all the way into Central Asia, South Asia and beyond, have long failed their people at so many essential levels. So many of these countries provide less than acceptable civic services, be it roads, electricity or even drinking water; worse yet, the lands groan under a tyranny of corruption, where even basic justice is usually no more than a dream, and victory in the court of law has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with the depth of one's pockets. Be they secular or otherwise, there has been a collective failure that simply leaves the hapless natives willing to turn to any group that promises change. And harsh as the justice system is in the hands of these nominally Islamic parties, it sadly is often perceived as an improvement over the Byzantine and onerous system it replaces. A functioning and responsive government does not guarantee victory, nor ensure that religious fanaticism will never flourish, but it will greatly improve the chances of both and failure to provide such a government will doom the region to more, and viler versions of these butchers and their murderous ideas.

The second step is far harder. We, the world in general and the afflicted regions in particular, need to embrace liberalism, compromise, diversity and education. For seventy years or more, the governments of the Middle East have fanned hatred towards Israel to divert attention to their own shortcomings. Even governments further afield, with absolutely no real link to the Palestinian people, like India, Pakistan and Indonesia, have nurtured hatred towards Israel in an ill-conceived attempt to keep their Muslim populations pliable. But most of these regimes lost control of the forces they'd unleashed a long time ago, and most of the hatred they'd engendered turned inwards, towards their governments or convenient other targets. Israel was never really the issue, neither her real or imagined acts against Muslims, but hatred once released is easily fixated on alternate targets. It is unfortunate that we cannot turn back the clock and so prevent this madness. Instead we can only try to deal with the matured consequences of that juvenile decision. While honesty at this stage would likely gain little, a toning down of the mindless rhetoric would be a first and vital step. Acknowledging the mistakes of the past and especially embracing the rights of the religious minorities would be a crucial step.

Islam has no governing body, but a synod of Islamic scholars and priests would carry great influence, far more than any single leader. Simply because such an act has never occurred in the past does not preclude one in the future. If there is one thing at which religious leaders excel, it is finding new ways to remain relevant in a changing world. A Council of Nicea-style  gathering, and especially including the leaders of both major branches, could provide the only kind of compelling voice that can convince the credulous believers and footsoldiers of the error of their ways. If such a council did convene, it would finally launch the Islamic world onto a path for modernity.

And in the end, only embracing modernity and tolerance can deliver the Middle East from the madness of the ISIS. Killing a soldier of the ISIS, or a hundred or a thousand, means but little in a word where life in cheap, but de-legitimizing the  leaders and their ideology will make all the difference. In the end, it is impossible to defeat, or even permanently destroy the ISIS on the physical field of battle but they can and must be defeated in the realm of ideas.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Law By Any Other Name

Some days ago I read an interesting article on the stranglehold our laws and regulations have over our daily life. This was a balanced and thought-provoking article, for most part, though it made a few errors in conflating laws and regulations and did not distinguish clearly between the federal government and more localized authorities. However, it reinforced a theory that I'd heard some years ago that there is no longer a single person or small group that controls our lives, but rather that we are at the mercy of a vast and faceless bureaucracy that punishes individuals not out of spite or hate but simply because it exists and functions.

It is hard to dispute that we live in a highly regulated society, and many argue that we live in fact in an over-regulated world. This is a major political issue and even appeals across the political spectrum, though predictably the solutions are less clear than the problem and far less universally accepted. Regardless of which aspect of regulation one chooses to examine, the opposing sides of the political world have widely different responses. Environmental regulation and worker protections are anathema to conservatives while progressives swear we do not go nearly far enough, while abortion restrictions and marriage definition quite neatly flip their positions around. And therein lies the first of the problems: we do not object to laws and regulations per se, just to those that do not suit our political positions. In a world of compromise then, it follows that we will always have regulations that no not suit us; the burning question is whether the laws and regulations we have actually hinder us in our daily lives.

Many business owners contend that they struggle under an unsustainable load of regulations. There is usually some hyperbole involved, but there is also a certain justification for their angst. Yet, as the article points out, each law and regulation taken in isolation is usually justified and quite often widely supported. Laws are usually passed to reflect the wishes of the wider public, and whichever law one chooses to examine will seem justified. The Great Recession is an excellent example, where the excesses of the unregulated financial world plunged the economy into chaos and led eventually to a slew of new regulations designed to prevent a repeat. Similarly, the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT prompted calls for regulation on certain guns (the fact that the public demand led nowhere is moot in this discussion, the point is that Congress reacted to an event and a public demand).

The key however is that laws and regulations make sense in isolation. Taken together we often end up with a jumbled mass of contradictory and mind numbing requirements, regulations that would challenge Daniel himself should be asked to judge their worth and meaning. This is certainly a problem, yet it is not an insurmountable issue, should the goodwill and political desire exist. It must first be recognized that there are three distinct sets of rules, viz. laws passed by Congress (or a lower level legislature) that distinctly specify certain requirements, laws passed but which leave the specifics to be spelled out by regulatory agencies and finally regulations put in place by various entities (both public and private) to help them navigate the first two sets. In the article I cited, it's crucial to note that most of the failures in practice were caused by the third set, and as often as not, caused by a lack of independent thinking or a clear understanding of the reasons for the rules (e.g. the school that banned teachers from calling 911 was attempting to prevent police being summoned too often for discipline issues, and understanding that would have freed the teacher to call emergency services for a medical issue). The second and greater problem is that all public entities (school districts, emergency rescue services, utility agencies) and private companies draft voluminous lists of rules on behavior to avoid being sued, by employees and the public they serve. Congress does not have legislation on acceptable interaction of men and women at work, yet many companies will have lengthy lists of "dos and don'ts" to negate the risk of inappropriate behavior leading to a harassment suit, to offer one example. Human nature is the culprit here; in the absence of regulation, stronger groups will assert themselves at the expense of weaker ones. Human nature also has led to numerous lawsuits against companies and public entities, no matter how big or how small the grievance and how much blame they actually deserved. Hence fast food companies feel the need to warn us that the hot coffee they provide really is hot, or that ingesting unknown chemicals may not be a wise course of action. These are not the result of a regulatory government run amok. The fault, if fault it be (for  reality is never cleanly defined in black and white) lies wholly with us, both the victims who sued and the juries of their peers who so often have rewarded the seemingly frivolous claims with the same largesse of more deserving cases.

While the laws passed by the government often complicate life, they are not always passed with that intent. Most laws are intended to address real needs and pressing problems. But as the years roll by, the vast numbers of laws begin to stack up and inevitably we end up with both contradictory laws and occasionally foolish laws. I am constantly disheartened by the laws in India that still prohibit any intimate gesture between the sexes in public, or the Texas law that criminalized homosexual relations till it was finally struck down by the Supreme Court. There are many more rules, passed decades even centuries ago that are antiquated yet remain in full force, if simply not enforced today. For all we know, there are probably plenty of laws against cohabitation, premarital sex or the like. Laws against blasphemy, swearing and drinking on Sundays have similarly fallen aside as society progressed. But other less visible restrictions remain in effect, forgotten till someone finds a reason to challenge them or use them.

We would definitely gain if all our laws were subjected to an intelligent audit. However, such an audit could be undertaken, leave alone succeed only if every player approached the exercise with an open mind and a spirit of compromise, a combination sadly lacking in most of us. Some have suggested that all new laws include a sunset clause that will automatically retire them unless renewed. I almost endorsed that idea for a moment, but in reality that would greatly complicate life. If every law we had today was temporary, we would have little to no certainty in life. In the most extreme case, one could imagine basic laws against theft and cheating falling prey to political squabbles and failing their renewal, leaving one at the mercy of the unscrupulous. Perhaps a better use of our energy would be to urge that different government agencies get together and reconcile their different regulations so that we have fewer outright contradictions in practice. And we should remember how irksome regulations can be when next we sit to draft rules or regulations that will affect others.

But above all, we need to remember that a world without rules and regulations has no order at all, and will not be a civilized land. It is rules that protect us from chaos and shelter us against the depredations of the greedy and the power of the wicked. The law is, in the end, not so much an ass, as a necessary evil.