Archive for category Rights

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!


Human Rights

American Journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by ISIS extremists.

American Journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by ISIS extremists – an affront to almost every understanding of ‘human rights’ in existence.

We talk about human rights as being extremely important.  People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights.   Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties.   We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.

But what are human rights?   How are they determined?  Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc.  In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live.  They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter.  Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.

Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics.  Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human.  To be human, one must be alive.  To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself.  That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live.   This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.

Lockean liberalism has dominated western thought on rights

Lockean liberalism has dominated western thought on rights

That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property.  Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property.  As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get.  Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition.  So clearly there is no objective need for private property.

More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature.  In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions.  Nothing more.  Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights.  But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected.  We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”

In nature we have no inherent rights - we're just tiger food!

In nature we have no inherent rights – we’re just tiger food!

Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions.  Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights.   The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context.    This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)

If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian.   This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear.  We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.


So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms.  However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society.  And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.

So maybe the key is to look into our hearts.  What makes us cringe?  What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive?   What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives?   Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions.   This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment.   Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.

The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable.   That’s a start.  As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.

Governments are the number one violator of human rights world wide - making it hard to build an enforcable system.

Governments are the number one violator of human rights world wide – making it hard to build an enforcable system.

The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor.   We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights.  From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.

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A Victory for Freedom and Equality

In 2012 freedom and equality took a leap forward

While courts and state legislatures have legalized same sex marriage in the past, whenever the issue came before the people in a referendum it failed — 32 times in all.   Here in Maine the legislature approved same sex marriage in 2009, only to have it overturned by a people’s veto that November by a margin of 53 to 47.   At that time I wrote that same sex marriage had been “postponed.”   Social conservatives complained that the courts and legislatures were responding to special interests while the people clearly opposed giving marriage rights to gays.

On November 6, 2012 the tide turned.

In Maine, Maryland and Washington State voters approved legalizing same sex marriage by votes of 53-47 in Maine and 52-48 in both Maryland and Washington.   An effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage failed in Minnesota 48-51.   Beyond that Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin to the US Senate.   She will be the first openly gay Senator.  It does not appear that her sexuality was an issue in the contest.

To be sure, in much of the country approval of gay marriage would have no chance.    However the writing is on the wall – it’s only a matter of time until gay marriage is as controversial as interracial marriage.    It’s a true sign that tolerance is on the rise in America; one of the last groups to suffer legal and accepted bigotry and discrimination are finally being recognized as equal.

Thinking back, it’s amazing how different things are now than from when I was in college.  The first time I recall encountering someone who I knew was gay was in German class in high school.   He was obviously a character (his name was Randy, I can’t recall his last name) and he had spent time in Germany.   He helped me ask a girl to the prom by distracting the girl’s twin sister.  The girl turned me down and Randy seemed genuinely disappointed.  Although he never openly said he was gay, we’d chat all the time in German class and I was pretty sure he was “one of those.”

Any doubts I had about his sexuality were put aside the next year when Walter Cronkite reported that my old high school had made the national news by having a gay couple attend prom.   I quickly recognized that it was Randy from my German class and while a lot of people were appalled (they needed police protection due to threats), I thought it was a cool way for Sioux Falls Lincoln to make the news.   Would a gay couple going to a high school dance get reported on the national media these days (I mean, that was Walter Cronkite!)?

When the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared same sex marriage legal in 2003, many people were shocked.   Social conservatives were convinced that there would be mass outrage.   In an on line discussion board one argued that if this wasn’t stopped there would be a Constitutional Amendment within a year to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.   He couldn’t comprehend that “normal” folk would stand for such a thing.

With over half of marriages ending in divorce marriage has already been redefined!

Yet slowly other courts and some state legislatures followed suit.   Still it remained an issue that couldn’t win a public referendum.   Even with polls showing a radical increase in acceptance of gay marriage to well over 50%, opposition played on fears and got people to the polls to stymie efforts to either pass gay marriage rights, or at times to overturn those passed by the legislature.

In 2012 that changed.    A look at demographics suggest the change will continue.    In Maryland, exit polls showed 70% of people under age 29 supported gay marriage.   For age 30 to 44 it was 60%.   People over 45 narrowly opposed it, and those over 65 voted against it by two to one.  Simply, opposition to gay marriage is doomed to die out.    Today’s youth don’t view homosexuality the same way as their elders.

Shows like “The New Normal” help people see gays as normal, not strange or weird.

It will take awhile for this to spread throughout the US.   After all, in parts of the deep south interracial marriage is still seen as something unnatural and unholy.   Once whites and blacks could marry, they argued, it wouldn’t be long until people started marrying animals.   But people with signs yelling “perversion, bestiality, and sodomy” at gays get rolling eyes from youth and are seen as the functional equivalent of knights of the Ku Klux Klan – a sad group of bigots who fear people who are different than themselves.

Those who once saw this as a threat to societal norms are slowly realizing that allowing gays to marry expands family values and reasserts the importance of a committed relationship.   The youth of today, connected via social media and the internet, already are comfortable with difference.   The idea that a couple can not marry because of their sexuality is seen as being as irrational as not allowing marriage between red heads and blonds.

Marriage as an institution has constantly been redefined through the millennia.  There is no age old standard definition; the idea that it is primarily about love is relatively recent.   Marriage is a social construct, defined to reflect the customs and norms of the culture in which it is found.   Expanding marriage rights to gays shows that our culture is becoming more tolerant and acceptant of difference.

There is still a long way to go, but the elections of 2012 mark an important step on the road to increased liberty and tolerance.   That is worth celebrating.   That this happens the same year an African American gets re-elected President in a contest against a Mormon in which neither race nor religion are prominent issues is something we can be proud of!


The Politics of Gay Marriage

An historic moment

The last decade has seen support for gay rights and same sex marriage increase dramatically.    With the President coming out in favor of same sex marriage (though recognizing that states makes laws on marriage) the debate has shifted.   Before the onus was on proponents of same sex marriage to prove why it was desirable.   Now opponents have to demonstrate what is gained by denying homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals.   The culture is shifting, and there is no turning back.

But was this a good move for President Obama now, in 2012?   Many people claim he was pushed into it by Vice President Biden’s comments saying he was “comfortable” with gay marriage when he appeared on “Meet the Press.”

Some in the GOP are claiming that Obama did this for political gain along — pandering to win votes or gain money.   That is an amazing claim.  If true, that would be a huge victory for those who support gay marriage.   Once poison, apparently now it is a popular thing to do!    Alas, I don’t think the GOP is sincere in those claims.   More likely it’s designed to convince their base that Obama is pandering to a mass army of gays and their fellow travelers, and thus they must support Romney and give to the Republicans to counter that.

Others like Rush Limbaugh claim that Obama is engaged in a “war on marriage,” and appeals to those who think that the culture shift we’re experiencing is the loss of core American values and ideals.   These people are shocked and scared of what’s been happening, ranging from the election of someone like Obama, who seems to them “un” or “anti-” American, to the acceptance of homosexuality as normal.

Within Democratic circles the reaction is mixed.   Almost everyone thinks Obama did the right thing morally, but was it the right thing politically?   I think it is, and will be seen as a very positive aspect of Obama’s legacy.

Barack Obama is 51 years old.  People of his generation (which is also mine) grew up at a time when gays were only starting to be open and argue for equal rights.    The idea of same sex marriage was theoretical only, raised by libertarians and other radicals.   In practice over 90% would have opposed it.  OK, maybe it’s wrong to mistreat gays, we should tolerate them…but marriage?  Guffaw!  Civil unions?   Not possible.

Even if Obama didn’t have that view point, his “evolution” reflects a journey many of his generation are taking.    The push for accepting gay marriage comes from the youth — young people overwhelmingly favor it, often young conservatives think it odd to oppose what seems like an obvious expansion of liberty.    They’ve grown up in a culture where the message has been the importance of equality and acceptance of alternative lifestyles.

To older folk, there is fear that this somehow harms the culture, that it goes too far in changing how we look at sex and marriage.   Civil unions maintain a distinction, many believe they’d be a better choice.   The rapidity of cultural change — around 2003 or 2004 it reached a tipping point — has taken the older generations by surprise.    It’s forced them to reconsider.    People around Obama’s age used to think support for civil unions was a bold move.   Now it’s seen as not only inadequate but often the choice of conservatives.

When President Obama was born to a black man and white woman his parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal in 23 states.    Over 90% of the country opposed interracial marriage, it was seen as perverse, against God’s will, and abnormal.  In 1967 the Supreme Court overruled those prohibitions and now the child of such an “unholy” union is President.

Mississippi Republicans won’t support same sex marriage – but they’re still not on board with interracial marriage!

While this will garner energy among Obama’s base and may help influence people on the fence to support same sex marriage, it could damage his quest for re-election.  States like North Carolina, once within reach, may sip away.   However, it’s not 2000 any more, or even 2008.   The culture is changing.   The deep south won’t be on board but Obama won’t win there anyway.   And given high divorce rates and the ease in which people drop their ’till death do us part’ partners when the excitement declines and tough times start, same sex marriage is arguably not the most dangerous threat to “traditional” marriage.

Marriage is a social construct.   It reflects cultural views of the times.   It was very different in Biblical times than it is now (there are lots of things floating around the internet about what ‘traditional’ marriage used to be – some of it very bizarre).  Mitt Romney’s great great grandfather could have 12 wives.   In much of the world polygamy is the norm, in the Islamic world its four wives.

President Obama’s parents – a rarity in 1961

At one point marriage in the US was for a lifetime, with divorce exceedingly rare and looked down upon.   As bigotry against gays declines and homosexuality is increasingly accepted as “normal,” it is inevitable that the institution of marriage will change as well.   President Obama’s ‘evolution’ on the issue symbolizes the path of the nation on this question.   Moreover, who he is — the son of parents whose marriage was similarly rejected as perverse a half century ago — is a poignant reminder that he is on the right side of history.


Nonsense on Stilts!

British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had himself mummified when he died.

Jeremy Bentham, the rationalist British utilitarian philosopher, scoffed at the notion of natural rights.   “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense on stilts.”

He has a point.   People like to posit “ought” statements as having some kind of ontological status beyond that which ones’ own biases and beliefs provide.   To say “you shouldn’t kill because I think killing is bad and a lot of others agree with me and will punish you” is less persuasive than “you shouldn’t kill because nature (or God) says its wrong.”

Nature says no such thing.  Nature does not care a wit if you kill, steal, lie, cheat, or jump to your death from a high cliff.  Humans are born into the world with one “natural right” only: you are free to do whatever you want to do, limited only by your capacity to act (abilities and constraints) and the consequences of your action.   Everything else is fine with nature.

Rights like “life, liberty and property” are things we humans construct for various reasons.   For John Locke it was to give the rising middle class a way to challenge the aristocracy and set limits on government.   For libertarians it’s a convenient way to rationalize views on politics skeptical of government.    But make no mistake – those rights don’t exist in nature.

They can’t.  They are based on human concepts and definitions, all of which are constrained by context and linguistic sloppiness.   Context means simply that the same ‘concept’ has different meanings depending on what the situation is.   One might posit a nice rational focused definition of theft: taking from someone something that belongs to that other person.   But whether you’re stealing from a man who otherwise doesn’t have enough to feed his family or taking food from a rich Nazi to save a Jews’ life changes the essential nature of the act.

This leads to the first “bullshit” aspect of claims of natural rights – the idea one can define a right abstractly and ignore how context shifts the essential meaning of and nature of any act.

Now, I don’t swear much – either in print or in speech – so let me define bullshit here.   Bullshit is an absurd and arbitrary claim that rests on fancy sounding rationalizations and justifications put forth sometimes with righteous indignation.   You can usually tell “bullshit” arguments by how they are defended.   For instance, deny natural rights and many will respond in an appeal to emotion, or appeal to public opinion:  “Oh, really, you say you don’t have a natural right to your property — if someone comes and tries to take it, will you just say ‘oh, I have no right, so you can take it.”

Such an illogical argument is absurd on its face — just because a right isn’t natural doesn’t mean I won’t assert my own claims and defend them.   I just don’t appeal to some kind of mystical natural justification.   I won’t defend my property because of some natural right, I’ll defend it because I’m not going to let people take my stuff!   I don’t need any fancy justification for that.   Moreover, saying there is no natural right to “life” does not mean one thinks murder is OK.   It just means we see those “rights” as humanly constructed, and often for good reason.   The ‘argumentum ad populum” bit seems persausive because that’s the reason we constructed those rights — most of us think they should exist.   Whether nature provides them is irrelevant.

The most common bullshit way to try to argue against context is the use of a vague definitional justifier.   “You shouldn’t take life unjustly.”   ‘Unjustly’ is a magic word here, meaning ‘anything contextual that I arbitrarily define as just killing can be dismissed.”   Unjustly can be defined by other similar abstract efforts to delimit a term, creating confusing complexity that hides the underlying bullshit upon which such an argument stands.     Words like ‘valid, just, legitimate, etc.’ are like big neon signs saying “bullshit alert!”   It’s all fancy ways people try to make it sound like their opinions represent not just their own particular take on reality, but some deeper truth that they have uncovered thanks to their superior intellect and moral integrity.

This is not to say that John Locke is completely wrong (though his view on epistemology has also been brushed aside into the ash heep of history).   Rather, he just had too much residual scholasticism in his way of thinking.   Instead of debating how many crystal spheres make up the heavens, now there is an effort to trace human rights – or ‘ought’ statements – to the nature of reality — or for Locke the nature of British reality in the 1600s.

The point is not that the rights posited as natural are to be ignored or thrown out — on the contrary, I believe most of them should be put forth as rights to be defended and protected at all costs!   Not because we have discovered them in nature but because as thinking humans we have decided we believe putting forth those rights is good for society and reflects what we value.    And if lots of other people value them, then all the better.    They don’t need to be from nature, being from humans is good enough.

The problem with the “from nature” argument is that people with different views try to use that as a way to dismiss all other perspectives and rationalize not doing the hard work of actually making arguments and defending their beliefs.   “It’s nature, yada yada yada,” hands over the ears.

The other problem is that we shouldn’t see it as a cheapening of rights to take credit for them as human constructs.  Heck, we’ve constructed all sorts of things, nature didn’t give me this computer or a Boeing 747.   We built them, using the raw materials of nature.   Using the raw materials of human existence in a social context we’ve constructed systems of rights. Let’s be proud of them as our creation, not some kind of gift from nature!    This also makes it easier to deal with context, we’re not trying to impose as perfectly as possible an abstract rational dogmatic ideology — we’re deciding how we want our world to operate.   We can choose the terms, limits and contextual impact.

Those who point to nature as the source often claim they support liberty, but what can be more limiting of human freedom than to say we’re not free to construct our own systems of rights?    Why should I slavishly devote myself to some set of rights “from nature” rather than use my imagination to develop what I think should be considered rights, and then work with others to persuade them and actualize those rights?   The only reason anybody would want to limit that freedom is authoritarian- they want to impose their view of rights on everyone.   The imposition may be intellectual rather than political, but such dogmatism is inherently anti-intellectual.

So do we have rights to life, liberty, property and a host of other human rights that most of us view fundamental?   To the extent we’ve built political systems to protect these rights we have them; to the extent we believe those rights should exist we are free to act politically to build them!


London Burning

We live in an era of immense prosperity and security.   We can travel freely on foot or in a vehicle without worrying that we’ll be mugged or forced off the road by a gang of thieves.   Women can be out and about in most places without fearing assault, even children are generally safe – for all the fear of molesters and predators, it’s very rare that a child missing for awhile in Walmart or on the street isn’t returned safely without incident.

We don’t notice how secure our lives are because we worry about what could go wrong.   People do get mugged, even in nice neighborhoods.   Children are molested, women are raped, and people get carjacked.   Terrorists fly planes into buildings.   Yet if you look at all of this, especially with a dose of common sense (avoid obviously dangerous situations) the probability that we are going to suffer any of these is tremendously low.   People react in fear when seven people get sick from bad peanut butter — in a country of over 300 million.    From Japan to Europe to the US, we have more prosperity than anytime in history — and thus more security.

How thick is the veneer of civilization?   How deep does our 98% voluntary compliance with the rules and norms governing society penetrate?   Those with a really positive view on human nature tend to believe that people are good and naturally cooperate.   That describes the case in small close knit societies, but large mass social organizations (cities, states, etc.) security seems to require prosperity.   It’s too easy to rationalize looting, violence and theft if you can get away with it and be relatively invisible.

Consider what’s happening in Somalia, Uganda, and the Sudan.   Even small tribal communities with deep cultural bonds can fall into a spiral of violence when conditions go bad.   Darfur started with a drought.   Once violence and instability begin, they feed on themselves and grow.   At that point raw force is necessary to impose stability.  That requires a denial of basic freedoms and a powerful authority — what Thomas Hobbes would call a leviathan.

Hobbes would know.   He was born April 5, 1588, in a time of fear.   Less than two months after his birth the Spanish Armada took off towards England.  When baby Thomas was five months old people feared the Spaniards would decimate the British navy.   That didn’t happen — Britain’s defense became the stuff of legend — but it symbolized the world Thomas was born into.  On the continent the bloody “thirty years war” would start when he was just 30 years old; for most of his life Europe was mired in war, disorder and disease.  When the British civil war broke out when he was 54 years old he had seen enough to write The Leviathan, published in 1651 when Hobbes was 63.   In a world defined by war, fear and rebellion, the only way to maintain stability and protect civilization, he argued, was through a powerful authoritative state with a monopoly on force.

Hobbes is often used as a foil for those who value individual liberty over the state (he is also used to provide the name for a comic strip tiger).    And indeed, given the prosperity and stability of the last sixty years, we in the industrialized West cna be forgiven for thinking that security and voluntary compliance with social rules is the norm.   A powerful state scares us, leads us to protest, and is seen as a danger by people on both the left and right.

The reality is that human nature is capable of a variety of behaviors.  Given the right conditions we can be peaceful, cooperative and act out of both self- and other-interest.   Given other conditions we can be rivals who nonetheless maintain a sense of ‘fair play’ as we compete.    Under certain conditions something can also trigger a descent into barbarism, including the riots that have gone on for five days in London.

We seem to expect barbarism from places like Rwanda or Somalia.   Perhaps its a twinge of racism, perhaps its a kind of cultural chauvinism.   When it hits closer to home, as in London, it becomes far more worrisome — it reminds us that all of what we see abroad can happen in the industrialized West.    We are not immune from violence, we haven’t transcended the negative aspects of human nature.

We can debate the resilience of social stability.   Just as we may have too benign a view of human nature due to the times in which we live, Hobbes’ view erred on the negative side due to the times in which he lived.   Clearly even in impoverished regions communities often operate very well, with individual self-interest sacrificed for the greater good.   One of the challenges of western civilization is that due to individuation we now have placed a premium on self-interest.    For the first time, a successful civilization has been built around the idea of individual freedom and putting loyalty to self often above duty to society.   This is a noble experiment that relies on a fragile balance.

When there is no sense of social solidarity, it’s easy to “defect,” to break from the rules and expectations and try to benefit yourself — or give into emotional passion.  In such a case, two things keep order — a viable threat of force, or prosperity.   If the system creates prosperity and opportunity people realize that it’s in their interest to maintain it.   Instead of anger at “the man” or government, they are angered when people threaten unrest — if the comfortable way of life is threatened.

We are now facing an economic crisis as severe as that in the 30s.   That crisis crushed the veneer of civilization so that one of the most cultured and stable cultures engaged in war and mass atrocities.   Are the London riots a wake up call — a reminder that if we can’t solve our economic problems the whole core of a civilization we’ve come to take for granted is under threat?   Could this symbolize the possibility of the unthinkable — a breakdown in western civilization?   Is our greatest foe not Islamic extremism or communism, but our own greed and short sightedness?

The riots in London and a few years ago in Paris may be anomalies — outbursts of emotion and anger that dissipate when finished.   It does finally seem calmer in London, Manchester, Liverpool and a number of smaller cities to which the violence had spread.   Or it could be a warning of what might be to come if we can’t come together and repair the world economy.  Unlike Paris in 2008, these riots spread to other cities and were not the doings of a local ghettoized population.   We don’t need to agree with Thomas Hobbes to take the warning seriously.


Lieberman’s Dangerous Initiative

Senator Joe Lieberman is going to introduce legislation to the Senate that would strip Americans of their citizenship if they enter into the service of terrorist groups hostile to the US.   It’s not clear how this would work; apparently the suspect would have to be caught overseas and clearly be associated with a terrorist network.

What Lieberman is essentially arguing for is the ability to presume guilt in certain cases and, based on that presumption, strip an American of  his or her citizenship.   Then the suspect does not have the rights an American would to a fair and speedy trial, with the chance to face the accuser, and could presumably be kept captive and interrogated for as long as the terror threat from that or perhaps other terrorist organizations continue.

This is a classic case of fear driving policy in a way that could set a precedent that might undercut the very essence of our democratic Republic.    Now, those supporting this bill would point out that it really is an extension of an existing act which strips citizenship from Americans who serve in hostile armed forces.   A Japanese-American who leaves to fight for Japan in 1941 would, if captured as a POW, be treated like any other POW, and no longer considered a US citizen.

While it seems slight to expand “hostile armed forces of another state” to “terror organizations hostile to the US,” there is one enormous difference.  International politics and international law is centered around states.   When someone enters the military of another state, that is a clear act which, if done voluntarily, explicitly connects that person to their “new” state.

Terror organizations are different.   First, it’s not always clear if people are working with such an organization or understand the nature of that connection.   Let’s assume, however, that most of the time they do.   Most of the time if someone goes and trains with the Taliban of Pakistan, they know they are part of a movement hostile to the US.   How is that really different from joining the German military in 1942?

The first difference seems trivial, but is significant.   A person stripped of his or her citizenship in this way is rendered stateless.  The terror organization may be located in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, but unless the person has dual citizenship, there is no reason for the state in which the terror organization operates to extend any kind of citizenship.   This creates a situation that explicitly goes against international law.   While some in the US don’t think that’s important, the ramifications of breaking basic norms of international law can be serious.

More importantly, while I’m sure proponents of the law can point to cases where it is just as clear to us now as the Japanese American’s decision to join the Japanese army would have been in 1941, one can imagine more tenuous claims.   Let’s say an anti-war activist organization uncovers information about how the US is damaging civilians in Afghanistan.  He could  be arrested, and the military could choose to claim he was working as a terrorist, strip his citizenship, and deny him the ability to get the full story out.  This is not likely to happen, but it is easy to imagine an innocent US citizen being rail roaded and destroyed.

Or, let’s say there is a rise in anti-government terror, with groups internationally working to try to fight against their governments or the UN.   One could imagine a government deciding to silence an effective critic by tying him or her to such an organization if he or she attended a conference overseas that turned out to have participants from or ties with an organization labeled by the US as a terrorist group.  No matter how weak the US case would be, once citizenship is stripped, the rights of the defendant become much harder to protect.  Arguably they could get their day in court, but the path there would be time consuming and uncertain.

And even if neither the Bush nor Obama Administrations would abuse the power so blatantly, what happens if there is further economic decline, oil crises or global instability?  How easy might it be for governments to declare organizations to be terrorist and then use that to silence or eliminate critics?   With foreign armies you have a clear demarcation — the person has to join the military of another state.    Again, joining the military of a hostile state is an objectively clear act which the US cannot re-define.  However, if the government can simply define organizations as terrorist, and then be able to strip citizenship on the assertion someone is associated with them, the chance for abuse of power grows tremendously.

A final objection is that such a law shows disrespect and antipathy for the US justice system.  Is our legal system so flawed that simply granting rights to accused terrorists destroys our ability to get at the truth and punish those who violate the law of the land?  If so, fix our legal system, don’t diminish the Constitution or the rights of individuals.    We should be proud of our system of justice and the high priority we give individual rights.  To scrap those out of fear when things are uncertain is a very dangerous precedent, and one which shows little faith in how the United States operates as a country.

There are very few people who would legitimately be subject to this law, not that many Americans join terror organizations overseas.   Those who do certainly can be handled without creating this potential abuse of power by future governments.    The most dangerous laws are those past in haste, out of fear, in response to an emotional event.   Senator Lieberman’s proposal endangers the very principles he claims he wants to protect, and should be rejected completely and absolutely.