Archive for category Culture

Gay Marriage and the Enlightenment


The Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage caused great celebration, symbolized by the Rainbow White House.   However, if you venture into the right side of the blogsophere there is a sense of anger and dismay.  Erick Erickson at Red State paints a picture of a society that has “lost its mind” with a wildfire burning and “normal” people being trounced by the insanity.

To many of us who support gay marriage and welcome the cultural shift of the last few decades, such a view might seem bizarre.  No one is hurt by allowing gays to marry, this simply expands freedom and one has to be a bigot to oppose that, right?   That is a view I hear among young people who are just as perplexed and angry about such opposition as the red staters are about gay marriage being made the law of the land.

A bit of perspective.  In the 1700s, centered in France, the enlightenment began.  After the explosive advance of science in the 1600s, beginning with Galileo and ending with Newton’s discovery of classical physics, people turned their rational minds towards understanding society and humanity.  They encountered a world built on tradition, religion and superstition, and started to tear apart that edifice.

Perhaps better than any other philosopher, Burke recognized the need to balance enlightenment progress with respect for tradition and culture

Perhaps better than any other philosopher, Burke recognized the need to balance enlightenment progress with respect for tradition and culture

It started with the Deists.  Believers in God (usually due to the need for a “first mover” in order to get a “world in motion”), they tore apart the Christian Bible, finding contradictions and pointing out that the God of the Old Testament is more like a petulant child than someone worthy of praise and love.   Some like Rousseau saw God’s word in nature, but after the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 Voltaire decided that while God made the world, there was no sign God really cared about it.  God doesn’t need our love, our fellow humans do, Voltaire declared, beginning an approach that today is called “secular humanism.”

The attack on tradition began in earnest.  In Great Britain this attack was pragmatic and  gradual – the divine right to rule gave way to a parliament, and the power of the nobility and the Anglican church slowly waned as reforms dominated the 1700s and 1800s.  In France the assault on tradition took the form of a radical revolution that wanted to change everything right away!  That failed – and it showed a weakness of the enlightenment: reason is a tool, it does not provide the kind of values and core world view that a religion might.  Once they pushed aside tradition, they couldn’t agree on how to move forward.  Tradition and culture hold a society together; you mess with that at your peril.

Yet that is the enlightenment project – messing with tradition and culture.  Edmund Burke, a conservative who hated the French revolution, didn’t oppose that project, he only insisted it move carefully and gradually, with progress showing respect for tradition, even as those traditions lose power.

Expanding women's rights, from voting to working and having equal rights, was as dramatic a change in culture as gay marriage

Expanding women’s rights, from voting to working and having equal rights, was as dramatic a change in culture as gay marriage

Every step of the way, there were those convinced society was collapsing.  Women getting to vote!  That is not what God intended.  In the South the assault on slavery led to a civil war.  Women getting equal rights, entering the work force, not being subservient to their man – that to many seemed a direct rejection of Christian teaching.  Every step of the way, society was seen as going deeper into the darkness.

In way, the critics were right.  Unmoored from some kind of rule book, free to choose what we construct, we dabbled with Communism, Nazism, other forms of fascism and fought great wars.  For awhile the West embraced radical racism, justifying conquest of virtually the entire planet, destroying cultures and looting natural resources.  Many would say, with justification, we still do that, albeit in a less overt manner.

Yet there is no going back.   If we opened Pandora’s box, it can’t be closed.  Once we examine the world rationally and recognize that religious traditions are mythological and really can’t be true, we can’t say “oh well, it’s better just to believe in them.”  Once women can work and succeed, we can’t tell them to just find a mate to serve.  Once we make marriage about love, we can’t say that divorce shouldn’t exist and we should bring back “traditional marriage.”  Once gays are accepted and can marry, we cannot tell them to scuttle back into the closet.   And for all the difficulty our enlightenment freedom creates, it’s worth it.

The enlightenment opened up Pandora's box of human liberty.  It's worth it.

The enlightenment opened up Pandora’s box of human liberty. It’s worth it.

The enlightenment is a process of human liberation.  It is about freedom, it is about constructing a social world rather than adhering to past teachings and customs.   It is a dangerous endeavor, as the holocaust, communist dictatorships, the French revolution, colonialism and capitalist sweatshops demonstrate.   It is what has led to consumerism and global warming just as it has led to liberty.

That’s how we should understand opposition to gay marriage.  They read this into the enlightenment’s dark side, a divorce from tradition, an anything goes mentality that can lead to chaos, lack of moral grounding, and collapse.  Psychologically, they yearn for a “right answer,” stability, and a sense of security in the social world.   Religion, tradition, and the values those represent are comforting and powerful to them.  Symbolically, gay marriage represents a threat to all that.

The advent of the birth control pill led to the sexual revolution of the 60s, altering traditional marriage forever, making it about love and choice, with most marriages ending in divorce.

The advent of the birth control pill led to the sexual revolution of the 60s, altering traditional marriage forever, making it about love and choice, with most marriages ending in divorce.

But every step forward in the last 300 years has meant that.  The rock band Rush sums up the enlightenment’s impact on the West well:  “It’s the motor of the western world, spinning off to every extreme, pure as a lover’s desire, evil as a murderer’s dream.”  Our freedom and rational thinking have led to advances in human dignity, as well as crimes against humanity.    It’s a journey worth taking, even if landmines are scattered about.

In this case, gay marriage is to me up there with giving women the vote and the right to work, ending slavery, and eliminating the aristocracy and the divine right to rule.  It expands human dignity and value, making it compatible with what Martin Luther King Jr. calls natural law in his “Letter to a Birmingham Jail.”

It is, however, just a step along the path we in the West have been traveling for centuries.  And while I see it as a very positive step, I appreciate those who fear losing tradition.  To keep us along a sustainable path of progress, we do have to respect the dangers of moving too fast, as Burke might say.  The enlightenment is need of a kind of spiritual core to help us avoid the negative extremes.  Even if traditional religious stories cannot provide that, they point to the need to take values seriously – something I plan to write about soon.

On this issue I think we haven’t moved too fast.   Support for gay marriage is now a majority position, and among young people it’s at near 80%.  We’re changing along with the culture, not moving out in front of it.   The enlightenment project of expanding human liberation, a difficult and dangerous journey, moves forward!




I recall the interview in the summer of 1995.  I was in Dresden, and had an interview with an elderly member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the difficulties of German unification.

In Berlin there was a controversy brewing about the above shown “Ampelmaennchen.”   The icons of East German traffic lights showed a little man with a hate, green and walking to indicate “walk,” and read with hands spread apart to indicate “don’t walk.”   In Berlin the goal of unification meant standardizing traffic lights, which meant doing away with the Ampelmaennchen in favor of the more modern West Berlin figures.

In 1995 this emerged as a full blown controversy, with groups protesting in favor of the Ampelmaennchen and pressuring the Berlin government to back down.   At first it refused, and the Ampelmaennchen became a symbol of a growing East German resentment for what they felt was a take over by the West.   Not that they wanted communism back – only a few aging stalwarts wanted that – but they wanted a new Germany that could be shaped by them alongside the “Wessis,” rather than simply having the West shove a new system down their throat.

As I chatted with the man whose name I forget (I’ve got it written down somewhere if I dug through my records), I told him about how it seems like the “wall in the head” was dividing Germans with as much power as the original wall had divided them physical.  It was Ossi vs. Wessi.   You could tell an “Ossi” (easterner) by their clothes and dental work; it was clear almost all the time which Germany one was from.


1961 "No one has the intention to build a wall."  Forty years later: "Many have no intention of removing the wall in the head" (Ossi vs. Wessi)

1961 “No one has the intention to build a wall.” Forty years later: “Many have no intention of removing the wall in the head” (Ossi vs. Wessi)

Moreover, the former Communist party (SED, now renamed PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) was rebounding quickly in the East.  Most thought it would vanish as Communism was discredited; instead, as East Germans felt alienated in the new system, it quickly became the most powerful political force in many parts of the East.   Was unification failing?

The gentleman had been part of the Ost-CDU, one of the “block parties” which offered symbolic opposition yet had to promise to support the SED (Socialist Unity Party – the Communists) in East German politics.  Many Ost-CDU politicians were distrusted because they had collaborated; others saw it as a way to raise different voices.   Angela Merkel, the most famous Christian Democrat from the East, was not a member of the Ost-CDU, she joined Democratic Awakening (DA) after the wall fell.  The DA later merged with the CDU.

“It’s just a matter of generational change,” he told me.  ” This generation will never accept it completely, their world has changed too much.  As much as they hate communism, they don’t know anything else, and resent demands from the West.  They aren’t used to having to work hard because in communism there wasn’t enough work – ten people did the job one person could do.  That was to avoid unemployment.   Come back in 25 years, you’ll see.”

It is now 25 years since the wall came down. Perhaps most obvious of the change is the Berlin public transportation system.   The idiosyncrasies and annoying detours caused by the wall are gone.   When we went to Potsdam I tried to go the old route via Wannsee.   We got there, but then I found out that  the S-Bahn cuts through the city now, the system is efficient and unified.

The subway system in 1988, the red line dividing the two Berlins

The subway system in 1988, the red line dividing the two Berlins

Now the city is whole, and the wall only a memory

Now the city is whole, and the wall only a memory

I thought of  that conversation in Dresden as I walked through Berlin two weeks ago, noting that it was now virtually impossible to distinguish Wessi from Ossi, or to see where the wall had been.   A top the television tower in old East Berlin it was clearer – the ugly architecture of “real existing socialism” distinguished itself from the more vibrant West.   The S-Bahn stations also showed the difference; in 25 years the infrastructure rebuilding remains an on going project.  Berlin is still a “city of cranes,” as construction vehicles dot the city, rebuilding train stations, neighborhoods and homes.

The architecture of Communist East Berlin can be described as a cross between bland and ugly.

The architecture of Communist East Berlin can be described as a cross between bland and ugly.


With “Ossi” Angela Merkel now in her ninth year as Chancellor, her reputation and success has led to a point that she no longer is distinguished by the fact she’s the first woman and first ex-East German Chancellor.   Rather she is Angie, perhaps the most powerful woman on the planet.   She’s compared with Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer.   When Kohl plucked her from the young DA party to become Family Minister on his cabinet, most thought it was purely symbolic – he just needed an Eastern woman.   She’s shown herself to be much more.

In 1990 Merkel would start as deputy premier of the last East German government, then join Kohl's first united Germany government as a minor cabinet member

In 1990 Merkel would start as deputy premier of the last East German government, then join Kohl’s first united Germany government as a minor cabinet member

The notion of generational change is powerful.   The differences have blurred.   The West clearly dominated the change, but not completely.  The old PDS ultimately linked up with disenchanted Social Democrats in the West, who thought their party had drifted too much to the center.   That allowed the creation of the leftist “Linke” party, altering the German political landscape.

Perhaps most symbolic is the survival of the Ampelmaennchen.  Not only did the Berlin city government give up on its effort to standardize all traffic lights to the modern sleek figures of West Berlin, but they decided that as they replace or add new signals in the West, the old Ampelmaennchen figure will be preferred.  Thus the Ampelmaennchen are no longer East Berlin phenomena, they are all over in the West, helping blur the distinctions between east and west.

For the last quarter century cranes have been ubiquitous on the Berlin skyscape

For the last quarter century cranes have been ubiquitous on the Berlin skyscape

Generational change yields new politics; one sees that in the US as well.  A generation ago gay marriage and a black President named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable.    In Berlin, however, it is profound and communism is very quickly becoming an historical oddity, a short lived failure.

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Obama Destined to be Remembered as a Great President

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama.   But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong.   The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.

My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest.   The reasons full into four categories:  1)  Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.

Domestic Policy:   The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year.   It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis.    There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad.  But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century.   He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009.   He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs.    Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008.  Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.

He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift.  He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive.   Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.

Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more.   Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people's future, Michelle Obama's focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people’s future, Michelle Obama’s focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

Foreign Policy.   The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations.   He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence.  Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008.    Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama's foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America's image in a way many Americans don't yet grasp.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama’s foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America’s image in a way many Americans don’t yet grasp.

Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War.   President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.   When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws.  That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation.   Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.

Economic success.   When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control.   Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs.   That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.

Personal/cultural factors:  Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency.   He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy.  He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse.   Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.

The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change.  They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies.  He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift.   The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes.  He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path.  He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.

Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory.   Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.


The Far Right is Driven by Fear!


And that’s just one of the many tweets and posts of racist outrage over a Coca-Cola commercial celebrating diversity.   If you want to see a series of screen shots of equally or even more offensive bizarre-ness, click .here

So what did Coca-cola do to offend America’s brownshirts?  Seems they had a commercial where “America the Beautiful” was sung in a number of different languages.   The song reflects a sense of love for the splendor and diversity of this land.  To me it was the perfect song for Coca Cola to use to celebrate America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Here’s the ad:

Reactions from the right have been swift and harsh.   Besides the neo-nazi vomit one can find on the link above, pundits put their feet in their mouths reacting.    In a surreal statement, Fox’s Allen West said that the commercial showed that Americans are not “proud enough” and that this commercial was truly disturbing.  More from West:

 If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing “American the Beautiful” in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come — doggone we are on the road to perdition. This was a truly disturbing commercial for me, what say you?

The irony.   If you are scared, defensive and weak, you will fear that an ad showing diversity somehow threatens ones own status.  Fear of other languages singing “America the Beautiful” is the response of a coward, of someone who doesn’t understand or accept the reality of American diversity and change.

Over at Breitbart Patrick Leahy whines about an “openly gay couple” being in the ad (how dare they do that in America!) and claims:

As far as the executives at Coca Cola are concerned, however, the United States of America is no longer a nation ruled by the Constitution and American traditions in which English is the language of government. It is not a nation governed in the Anglo-American tradition of liberty. It is instead a nation governed by some all inclusive multi-cultural synthesis of the various forms of government in the world, as expressed by the multiple languages used in the Super Bowl ad to sing a uniquely American hymn that celebrates our heritage.

Besides the fact that Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics for the song, was a lesbian, what on earth in that commercial opposes the Constitution?   And really – liberty is only an Anglo-American tradition?   Are the only free people those who speak English?

It’s fear.  They fear diversity, they fear a country in which soon over half the population will not be white, and an ever growing hispanic minority gains political and cultural clout.  The fear globalization, they fear change, they fear the inevitable.  They are scared little children, grasping at something that is already slipping away.

Fear drives the worst in our nature.   People afraid lash out angrily.   They hurt others, thinking that the damage is justified.  They rationalize heinous acts, believing them defensive.  They lose the capacity to see just how absurd and bizarre their claims are.  Rational thought is the first victim of fear.

Do they forget that America is made up of immigrants - about 80% come from families who originally did not speak English!

Do they forget that America is made up of immigrants – about 80% come from families who originally did not speak English!

Glenn Beck demonstrates this by being unable to separate homage to American diversity from everyday politics:

“It’s an in your face — and if you don’t like, if you’re offended by it, then you’re a racist. If you do like it, you’re for immigration, you’re for progress. That’s all this is, is to divide people.”

Uh, no.  It doesn’t say a thing about immigration.  And why on earth would one be offended by it?  Oh wait, I know!  FEAR.  Glenn Beck is very scared man – he recently thought that Kenmore was in a liberal plot to change America because it calls some of its dishwashers and vacuum cleaners “progressive.”

Sigh.   They are right on one thing – America is changing, and they can’t stop it.   Just as America in 1985 was fundamentally different than America in 1935, so it will be profoundly different in 2035.   Change is the American way, and increases in diversity and the impact of globalization can’t be stopped.  It is inevitable that they will lose the strange “English only” fantasy of what they think America should be.    They are fearing the inevitable.

Yet it floors me that they don’t realize how pathetic and whiny their reactions sound.   They are humiliating themselves, making themselves laughingstocks, and they don’t even know it!



A New Age?

“We are in the most fundamental way, Stone Age people ourselves.  From a dietary point of view, the Neolithic period is still with us.  We may sprinkle our dishes with bay leaves and chopped fennel, but underneath it is all Stone Age food.  And when we get sick it is Stone Age diseases we suffer”  – Bill Bryson, At Home, pp. 46-7.

Are we really just late Stone Age people?

Are we really just late Stone Age people?

Bill Bryson’s brilliant book At Home, tracing the history of the house and its various rooms, starts with a chapter on how and when people actually started to have homes for the first time – when the first cities arose back around 10,000 BC.    He notes that it’s odd that people formed cities and switched to agriculture.   Hunter-gatherers had a better diet, were healthier, and the move to agriculture was in some ways a step down.   Of course, larger populations could grow and the human need for community was far better achieved when we weren’t simply searching for game in small groups.

He also notes that this happened all around the globe at about the same time – give or take a few thousand years.   That may seem like a wide discrepancy to us, but given that humans have been around for almost 200,000 years, it’s pretty amazing that suddenly we developed agriculture.   Some foodstuffs like corn (maize) are completely human made, reflecting a remarkable capacity to manufacture new plant species.   In a real sense, that was the start of our “age” of humanity.

Bill Bryson's "At Home" is the latest must-read from the witty intelligent author

Bill Bryson’s “At Home” is the latest must-read from the witty intelligent author

Sure, there are sub-strata – the iron age, the bronze age, etc.   Perhaps from a wider perspective humanity entered the “mechanical age” or the “age of agriculture” about 12,000 years ago, and that age is ending.   Civilizations rose and fell in the last 12,000 years, but something happened in Europe to create a whole new reality.   The Europeans moved from a traditional view of the world — one with practical knowledge built on core religious beliefs and long held traditions — to a radically new understanding of reality.

With the enlightenment individualism reached a new level.   Up until then individuals existed, but identity and core perspectives remained communal, even in Europe.  The idea of “individual rights” would have been virtually meaningless in most of human history, individual rights were always part and parcel of community rights and values.   Distrust of tradition and an embrace of reason freed the human mind to go places that were either off limits or at least unimagined before.  The printing press created the capacity to spread ideas and knowledge, making rapid growth in understanding and science possible.  Gunpowder took war and politics to another level, making possible the sovereign state and the conquest of the globe by European imperialists.

With the industrial revolution humans (workers) ceased to be seen as individuals with worth, but as objects; simply means to an economic end

With the industrial revolution humans (workers) ceased to be seen as individuals with worth, but as objects; simply means to an economic end

Through the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism – an entirely new mode of production that greatly expanded the capacity of humans to create material wealth – humans came to see the planet as an object to be conquered, exploited and used for whatever humans wanted.   The environment was no longer sacred, but there to used as we see fit.

All of this led to the ultimate breakthrough – modernism.   If I could label the new era, it would be the quantum era, one where science, knowledge and technology create a dramatic breakthrough in human capacity comparable to the rapid and still inexplicable (at least with any certainty) rise of agriculture and cities 12,000 years ago.   If we are still at base Stone Age humans eating Stone Age food and getting Stone Age diseases, we may be at the beginning of not just a new era, but a new age of human development which could last 10,000 or so as well.   Looked at in that light, this is an extremely exciting era to be part of!

Will our future be megapolis life, artificially produced and engineered?

Will our future be megapolis life, artificially produced and engineered?

The new era will see new foods, new diseases, new cures, and probably a completely new way of life.  If we could glimpse 5000 years into the future, we might be appalled at how different it would be.   The core family structure might give way to something new, the new individualism may mean human culture will be completely remade.

One thing is likely: the new era will have its peaks and valleys, major disasters and eras of plenty and prosperity — even if those terms take on completely different meanings.  The glimpses we see are both compelling and frightening: genetic engineering, lack of privacy, borders ineffective, humanity more divorced from nature and community than ever before.   Or will we reject that path and try to develop a future more in tune with nature and each other, choosing that over the materialist individualism of the post-enlightenment era?

Fat, connected and having all our needs taken care of by machines - is that the future?

Fat, connected and having all our needs taken care of by machines – is that the future?

Where this new era is leading is yet unknown.   Our modern physics, genetic discoveries, and ability to manipulate both the planet and life itself is new territory.   This brave new world will yield a new kind of human.   We’re straddling eras as we dash madly into a future that is almost uncertain to be unlike anything we have yet to imagine.


The Conservative Critique of Capitalism

To Limbaugh even a conservative critique of capitalism is "Marxism"

To Limbaugh even a conservative critique of capitalism is “Marxism”

While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”

The charge is absurd.

Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced.   Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions.   Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions.   History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity.  I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.

When the Church built the new St. Peter's it used an early capitalist method: selling indulgences (time off from purgatory).   That had an unfortunate side effect for the church: the reformation

When the Church built the new St. Peter’s it used an early capitalist method: selling indulgences (time off from purgatory). That had an unfortunate side effect for the church: the reformation

Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas.  The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism.  He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.”   He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering.   Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.

The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible.   Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder.   Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.”   Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.


The Argentinan Pontiff knows poverty – and is becoming very popular among Catholics

The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal.   Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing.   They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture.   It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption.  It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility.   Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.

Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals.  It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring.   The culture maintains social stability and order.  Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything.   Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe.   That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.

For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values.  That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.

Count Karl Marx as one of Adam Smith's fans!

Count Karl Marx as one of Adam Smith’s fans!

Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic.   While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context.   If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era.   Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly.   Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.

To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes.   Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom.  Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship.   Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare.  A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas.   Custom has been replaced by fad.  Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”

Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters.   That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist.    The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works —   So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.


Racism and White Male Privilege


One of my favorite websites now is “Upworthy,” a progressive website that focuses on pointing out hypocrisy and passing along inspirational stories and snippets.  It’s not the usual stuff – it’s usually snippets that inspire or surprise.   In this case a young woman shows her particular take on the George Zimmerman case:

Some people disagreed with my refusal to condemn the jury verdict in the Zimmerman case.   Yet I agree in the reaction of anger at how a case like this symbolizes the ongoing persistent racism in our society.

The verdict of this particular trial is irrelevant.  In fact, if Zimmerman had been found guilty it would be easy for people to praise the justice system and believe that punishing this “bad guy” shows that we’re past racism and those who are not are penalized if they act on their biases.  That is not the case.

We live in a society based on white privilege.   It’s not always through conscious acts of racism; often it’s an embedded structural aspect of the economy.   That feeds bigotry.  Rather than looking at how opportunities and constraints are structured into the fabric of society people say “if they made different choices they’d be successful, they must be lazy/dumb/inferior.”  The winners of the game always take credit for winning, even if the game was stacked in their favor.

Just as a black man has a very different reality than a white man, even if all other things are equal, the same is true for men and women.   That hit me years ago when I was working on my dissertation and would walk home from the University of Minnesota Poli-Sci computer lab at 10:00 at night.  It wasn’t the safest walk for me either – once crossing a bridge near the Metrodome a guy I was jogging up to spun around and pulled a switch blade on me.  Turns out he was scared – he thought the footsteps coming fast were a threat.   We both laughed.

But for women the idea of such a walk after dark would be a much different risk, as would going into the parking ramp late at night alone.   Whether it is blatant bigotry (“Women can’t do thinking work like men can,”), overt sexism (“I won’t hire a woman for this job because she’ll just get pregnant and quit or want leave”), or actual danger from rape (with the women often being blamed for the violent acts of men), women continually experience a different reality than men.   White men like me often don’t perceive it because we are myopic – we know the world as we experience it, we assume others experience it the same way.

That often leads to a weird form of privileged victim mentality.   I remember once when a colleague found out that a woman got a job he had made the short list for, he said “she got it because she was a woman.”   I interjected that every man who was in the running for that job might make that same claim but can’t all be right, and he just grunted.  Easier to feel slighted.

Yet at top levels of business, government and most of society it’s still a white male dominated world.   White men like myself don’t notice the privilege because we think it natural.   We think everyone gets treated like us, or if they don’t, they must be getting special advantages.  We ignore the fact that inequality between black and white has been growing dramatically since the 1980s.  Or worse we may feel its deserved.

It also comes through in obnoxious behavior.   When President Obama points out the reality of racism in modern America in a speech praised for its timeliness and vision, spoiled white privileged rich folk like James Wood lets forth a twitter diatribe, comparing the fact he has to pay more taxes (poor James!) to the plight of black folk like Trayvon Martin.   Others accuse Obama of “playing the race card” just by pointing out that race matters.   No says the privileged elite, don’t mention that, we prefer our privilege to remain unmentioned and hopefully unnoticed!

Probably not so much a racist as someone who doesn't want to be reminded of his privileged position in society as a white male

Probably not so much a racist as someone who doesn’t want to be reminded of his privileged position in society as a white male

I doubt he’s an overt racist.   Like so many of us white males, we’re so used to privilege that we don’t like being reminded that we benefit from it.   But the truth is that reality is different for women than men, and for whites than blacks.  That difference is rooted in real social conditions, not just psychological predispositions.

I have no doubt things are better in 2013 than they were in 1963, and that things will continue to improve.   The same is true for many groups marginalized or suffering bigotry.   After all, is there much difference between Nazi anti-Semites who attacked Jews and supposed Christian Conservatives who attack gay rights?   Consider the rants by some baseball fans about Marc Anthony – a New York born American citizen – singing the national anthem at the all star game.   Sounds like what some Germans might have said if a Jew had sung at the 1936 Berlin Olympics!

Cases like the Zimmerman case shouldn’t have us fixating on one person, nor is it really primarily a sign of a broken justice system.  It’s a sign of a culture that is still profoundly racist in its social structures, even if people consciously deny that racial component.  We’ve come a long way towards equality on so many dimensions in the last fifty years.  Americans can be proud of what we’ve accomplished, with the advance of gay rights being the latest victory for freedom.


The Zimmerman case and the reality of embedded white male privilege simply reminds us that we still have a long way to go – and the hardest part is to change how we think, not just the laws.


Arm Chair Jurors

If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit

The nation is engrossed by the 1995 OJ Simpson trial

I started teaching at UMF in the Fall of 1995, and one memory from my first year was letting my class talk me into going to the student center to watch the October verdict of the OJ Simpson trial.    When the “not guilty” verdict was announced, the student snack bar erupted.   Some students showed raw anger, enraged by what they saw as an unfair verdict.   A few were crying.   Most were shaking their head, looking disgusted.  A smaller number cheered.    I was bemused – there are murders and trials every day, it’s a bit bizarre that people would emotionally invest in one celebrity judicial process.

I have no clue if OJ Simpson killed anyone.   Clearly the media portrayed it in a way that caused most people to think he did, and if I had to bet I’d say I suspect he actually was the murderer.   He did lose a civil case, after all.   But the burden of proof is lower for a civil case; it’s not supposed to be easy to convict someone of murder.    As the old saying goes, better that 10 guilty escape punishment than one innocent suffer.

But I don’t know.  I didn’t have access to all the documents, deliberations and information the Jury had.  I didn’t have to determine if there was enough doubt to spare him from severe punishment.   In short, I don’t want to be an arm chair juror.   We have a process in the US that plays itself out, I respect that process.

It could be that the process is flawed – the wealthy can hire the best lawyers.  Simpson could get guys like Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey, while the poor may get a half hearted effort from a court appointed attorney.   But if that’s the case, then fix the process, don’t question the results of a given trial.   So to me, Simpson is not guilty – that was the result of our judicial process.

Fast forward to 2013 and the trial of George Zimmerman:


Zimmerman was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a case that made the national headlines as a supposed race based murder.   As with the Simpson trial nearly two decades ago, there is no way I can know whether or not a guilty plea would have been proper.  I am far less informed than the jurors.   Even people who have followed this case lack detailed knowledge.

So then, as now, I choose to simply accept that the jury of Zimmerman’s peers looked at the evidence and concluded there was not enough to convict him of a crime.  We have a nation of laws, and trial by jury is a foundation of our legal system.    That doesn’t mean we should not look for flaws and try to legally address them.  But it does mean that regardless of our personal interpretation of the media coverage of an event, we don’t know.

As arm chair jurors people can insist “he was guilty,” just like arm chair quarterbacks can yell “you should have passed the ball” when the quarterback runs.  Ultimately, though, I’d rather have trial by jury with legal protections than to have guilt determined by public opinion.   George Zimmerman, like O J Simpson, was acquitted of a crime by a jury of his peers.  I respect that result.



Our Angels Outnumber our Demons


Trust drives this world.

Think of it, you’re on a crowded expressway with numerous other cars darting between lanes at over 60 miles per hour.  You’re trusting that none of these drivers decides “ah, screw this” and spin out to cause a massive wreck.  If you cross a crowded street you trust that the cars will stop to let you cross.   When you’re at a major event with masses of people you trust that no one is going to try to turn that into an opportunity for mass murder and carnage.

Alas, sometimes that trust is broken.

It’s easy to lose oneself in the sorrow of the Boston bombings, especially the plight of eight year old Martin Richard, who was killed by the explosion as he was there to see his dad cross the finish line in the Boston Marathon.    The pictures are horrific – blood, lost limbs, people in agony, not believing how events are unfurling.   A day that is joyous – Marathon day, with a Red Sox game in the morning and a Bruins game at night – turns tragic.

Eight year old Martin Richard was one of the fatalities

Eight year old Martin Richard was one of the fatalities

Yet the news isn’t all bad.   In a tragedy the ability of humans to reach out to each other, help and often act heroically comes into focus, such as these inspiring images from Boston.    How people empathize, cry and feel a bond with the victims speaks to a core aspect of human nature:  we are connected.   We feel that connection.   Some people find themselves almost unable to function due to the pain caused by the suffering of others.   Some reach out to their loved ones, embracing the reality that they are healthy and together now, regardless of what the future may bring.

Think for a moment – what if it were reversed?  What if all those heroes and average folk who strive to help after an event were all willing to kill and destroy for the sake of some abstract cause?   What if all those who feel viscerally for the victims and are saddened by the events were supportive of murder and terror?    What kind of world would we have?

It’s natural to grieve for humanity at such a time.   The senseless violence, the ability of people to turn off their humanity and kill for some ideology or cause – what a sad world!   To that I say – not so fast!

If people were truly prone to senseless violence, this would happen all the time.   Crowds in sporting events, parade routes, marathons like this are common throughout the country.   Security is never adequate to prevent a determined attack.  It will happen when people are truly motivated to kill.   Yet it is rare.

Former Patriot Joe Andruzzi pitches in to help rescue the victims

Former Patriot Joe Andruzzi pitches in to help rescue the victims

Instead of grieving for humanity or donning a pessimistic view of the world, the fact that such an event stands out as an exception to the norm should cause us to recognize the deep bonds of social trust and connectivity that define our world.   The deaths are tragic – but how many of the 30,000 plus killed each year in traffic accidents are also children?  The fact that this kind of event is so rare says something powerful about the essential goodness of humanity.

Moreover, the way people come together, comfort, help and console shows that our angels far outnumber our demons.  Boston hospitals are turning away blood donors because so many volunteered.    So yes, grieve for the victims, let tears flow for the family that lost their son Martin, feel the sadness of Bostonians grappling with what this means for the city, but don’t become cynical.    Don’t cancel travel out of fear, don’t think that evil is common.   We notice the terror act, we should also notice how often we come together peacefully.

As we grieve for the victims we should celebrate our angels, whether first responders, people who care for and comfort the victims, blood donors and simply those of us who feel from a distance.   Our angels are everywhere, in broad daylight.  Our demons are few and hide in the shadows.    They do not define us.


Sex and Love


I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy.  Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.

One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people.  It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas.   It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices.    It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse.   That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.

In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection.   The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification.   Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves.     Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.

Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual.   If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.

This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values.   The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view.    Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive.   If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.

Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends.   People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering.   If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters.  Collect sexual encounters and material objects.   What else is there to life?

Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation.   But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed.   Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy.  Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill  needs that cannot be met.   Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.

The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality.   And that leads me to the other article.

Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):

• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm

This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.”   They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values.   The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.

I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t.    I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it.   The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed.   Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.

To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality.    Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways.   The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear.   Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.

Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible.   Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning.   And everything is better with meaning.