Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Religious Right vs. Religious Left...on NBC

Can you imagine how fun it would be to see these four guys in the same room?

Dr. Jerry Falwell, The Faith and Values Coalition
Dr. Richard Land, President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Comm., Sou. Baptist Conv.
Reverend Al Sharpton, National Action Network
Reverend Jim Wallis, Convener, Call to Renewal, Editor, Sojourners Magazine

In fact, these four men engaged in heated debate last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press"...I couldn't resist watching. Jim Wallis is one of the sanest and most reasonable voices in the politics and religion debate today...but do right-wing leaders really want to quit the great polarizing fights that have fueled their popularity and driven a gigantic wedge through the working-class heart of America? (I also enjoyed many of Sharpton's zingers, although he is apparently less sanguine than Wallis about the possibility of "conciliation" between the Religious Right and the Religious Left...) But perhaps my favorite small moment was when Richard Land briefly chastised his fellow conservative Jerry Falwell for betting with Sharpton over the presidential election outcome. But, on the whole, a very entertaining (if sobering) exchange.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Money won the elections (quelle surprise)

This shouldn't surprise anyone, but check out opensecrets.org's rundown of money spent compared with results in national races this year. In the great majority of cases, the person who spent the most won.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Holiday Book List

With the approaching holiday season and its associated opportunities to purchase gifts for loved ones, I thought it might be nice to post my "citizenship list" of books that I think every American should read. Perhaps at some point in the future, I can post reviews or summaries of some of these books, as well as new ones I come across. What distinguishes these books from many other good ones out there is that each of them is based on solid research that illuminates some particular issue of public importance. In other words, they are books that educate citizens.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

My “Citizenship List”:

Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: Norton, 1999.

Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. America: Who Really Pays the Taxes? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Bollier, David. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Caufield, Catherine. Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations. New York: Holt, 1996.

Cohen, David. Chasing the Red, White, and Blue: A Journey in Tocqueville's Footsteps through Contemporary America. New York: Picador, 2001.

Donahue, Brian. Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Dyer, Joel. Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.

Dyer, Joel. The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Edin, Kathryn, and Laura Lein. Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Metropolitan, 2001.

Estes, Ralph. Tyranny of the Bottom Line: Why Corporations Make Good People Do Bad Things. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996.

Frank, Thomas. One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Frank, Thomas. What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan, 2004.

Greider, William. One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Greider, William. Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Himmelstein, David, Steffie Woolhandler, and Ida Hellander. Bleeding the Patient: The Consequences of Corporate Health Care. Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 2001.

Kahlenberg, Richard D. All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Kahlenberg, Richard D. The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Kuttner, Robert. Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Loeb, Paul Rogat. Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.

Manning, Robert D. Credit Card Nation: The Consequences of America's Addiction to Credit. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Nader, Ralph, and Wesley J. Smith. No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America. New York: Random House, 1996.

Nestle, Marion. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Teixeira, Ruy, and Joel Rogers. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

'Dead check'

A piece in the Village Voice from Evan Wright, the author of the best book I've read about the combat experiences of US troops in Iraq.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Book review: Singer, The President of Good and Evil (2004)

In his book The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush , Peter Singer systematically analyzes President Bush's moral system, assuming from the outset that the president adheres to a coherent moral system, and questioning (a) the strength of the system, and (b) the extent to which he succeeds in adhering to it. His sources are Bush's own words, both in public speeches and as reported in, for example, Bob Woodward's book about the lead-up to the Iraq war. He also looks at the Bush administration's policies and analyzes how consistent or inconsistent they are with his rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Singer concludes in the end that Bush is a "conspicuous failure" because his ethic is "intuitive" rather than systematic, led by his gut rather than by coherent principles. Measured in the context of utilitarian, Christian, and individual rights frameworks, his actions and statements have been wildly inconsistent. In the final chapter, Singer suggests that in terms of moral development, Bush may have reached the level of advanced conventional morality-- the level that psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg says boys generaly reach at the age of thirteen-- without continuing to the level of post-conventional morality. The post-conventional level is the level at which we understand the *reasons* behind the rules, and how to prioritize when rules are in conflict, guided by more complex principles such as the Golden Rule rather than simpler ones like the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not).

Thus, Bush and his cabinet adhere almost fanatically to superficial rules of morality without any concern for more complex judgments, which results in grave moral failures. They insist, for example, that it was "technically accurate" for Bush to say in his State of the Union address, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," because the British had, in fact, reported that-- despite the fact that the CIA had already told the British and the White House that the claim was probably not true [214-5]. So their grasp on the moral high ground rests on the "technical" truth of the statement, regardless of the fact that saying such a thing in a major national address leads the country to believe something that is false, with fatal consequences.

As for the paradox that everyone who meets Bush seems to think he's a fundamentally decent person, while his administration has been one of the most draconian and mendacious in American history, Singer offers this hypothesis/conspiracy theory. Bush is the "gentleman" pawn of his "philosopher" entourage, influential members of which were trained by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. He notes that William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and other important advisers are Straussians, though I'm not sure what that means. Wolfowitz, I know, was actually trained by Strauss as a Ph.D. student at Chicago, but I'm not sure about the others.

Strauss's theory, according to Singer, is that two versions of the truth exist: one for the masses unable to grasp higher knowledge, and one for the philosophers who have the capacity to soar to "the peaks of human excellence" [221]. An example of the former kind of truth: that God will punish evil and reward good. An example of the latter kind of truth: that no God exists, but inculcating belief in God helps maintain social order. The philosopher's role as a leader is to keep the masses in line by using the former kinds of truths, and to keep them from interfering with other philosophers' ascent to said peaks of excellence. He does this by enlisting "gentlemen," who in the words of classicist Miles Burnyeat, "come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it...Such 'gentlemen' are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy." [221-2] Recognize anyone? So Bush, in this reading, is the pawn who professes and promotes a virtue that his puppeteers actually think is meaningless. Anyhow, the Straussians in the administration were instrumental in masterminding the Iraq war, and in fact they were the main players in the Project for a New American Century.

This book will not convince many people who are not already inclined to think badly of Bush. Personally, I admire Peter Singer and I think he is terrific at taking you through moral decision-making in an analytical but accessible way. And I think he's dead on in identifying the logical inconsistencies and weak foundation of Bush's moral reasoning. But I believe that MOST people (including me) don't work from a coherent philosophical framework when they make decisions, and I think that MOST people won't, therefore, be surprised or alarmed that the president doesn't either. So ultimately I think this book, clear and engaging as it is, is hopelessly confined to a small audience of ethics wonks (if there is such a thing) and people addicted to Bush-bashing.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Stages of Grief

Denial: What about all those provisional ballots? Surely, something must have gone wrong in Broward County! I can see the headlines now: “Election Fraud Annuls Results: International monitors investigating.”

Anger: All right, America, you got what you deserve! Obviously you do not pay attention to what is really going on in this country – probably get all your information from talk radio and Fox news! I’m outta here…

Depression: We worked so hard – and what good did it do? It makes no sense to try and bring about positive change – with so many who just don’t care! It’s so depressing – with attacks on both Fallujah and Social Security announced just 2 days after the election.

Acceptance: OK. We know that Kerry was not going to be our Saviour. ( But he was SO “Not Bush”!) So nothing’s changed. There remains a lot of work to do. We have to keep informed, network, unite when necessary to take a stand, and keep working on our own areas, in our own ways to make this American democracy – as Bruce Springsteen put it: the country we carry in our hearts – a reality.
We have to look beyond the daily patter of the mainstream media – all about the red states and the blue states and that the election was decided on moral issues. Hogwash! What is moral about people working hard and being too poor to pay for shelter, food and health care? What is moral about 1448 (so far today) American soldiers dying in Iraq to make the country safe for economic exploitation?
Nor was the election a referendum on gay marriage – as analysis of the results indicates. Bush gained no more points in states with a referendum on gay marriage than he did in other states. Also, as regards to a “mandate” to move toward theocracy, Bush gained more among less religious voters than he did among those who identified themselves as most religious.
The reality is that the election was darned close. And more people passionately cared about the outcome than any time in recent history. And they aren’t all red and blue states, either – they’re purple, (unless you live in Idaho, Utah or Wyoming.) Progressive causes gained ground as a result of the election process and the dialogue about real issues like the widening gap between rich and the poor; lack of health care; and the moves to limit civil rights, damage the environment and basically become an immoral, imperialist power.
This is no time to give up – or even to rest – just time to keep on keeping on.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Post-election demographics

Ruy Teixeira has a series of good posts reviewing the demographics of voters in the 2004 election.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Political maps

Anyone interested in seeing graphic displays of partisanship should take a look at the maps collected in this BOP News post.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Calling people of ordinary conscience

Good grief, America! What is wrong with you? The man racks up debt in your name, gets your children killed and maimed, says he regrets nothing, and you haven’t changed the locks? If I were Dr. Phil, I’d say this is an unhealthy codependency you’ve got going here. Get some backbone and get that man out of your life for good. What’s that? You think you don’t deserve a better president? Girlfriend, we need to get you to a therapist, and fast.

Seriously. I confess I was blindsided. For weeks I’ve been thinking that if the election were clean, Kerry would be our next president. But the election was apparently as clean as it ever is, and Kerry lost. I’m surprised and disappointed.

Still, this may be a blessing in disguise. I think a lot of people were thinking of a Kerry victory as a panacea, as if things would be fine if only we could get Bush out of office. But of course things would not have been fine. Our soldiers would still have been wandering around in the desert, surrounded by unidentified enemies. We would still have a massive deficit and an anemic economy to deal with. The mistrust festering between the midwest and the coasts, between the south and the northeast, between the religious and the secular, would be no less purulent. But if Kerry had won, I think many of the people the Bush administration has switched on to politics (like me) would have switched right off again, feeling that we’d dodged the bullet and the danger was past.

I'm coming to realize what anyone who gets involved realizes eventually: activism is a lifetime charge. Recently I read two books that come to opposite conclusions about the effectiveness of struggle: Orwell’s 1984 and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In 1984, Winston Smith’s effort to resist Big Brother’s authoritarian regime gets him tortured physically and psychologically and eventually executed. It’s a result that’s forecast from the beginning of the book and plays out almost mechanically, shockingly inexorable. Not great beach reading. Similarly, Mandela’s opposition to the apartheid regime got him 27 years in prison, privation and abuse, and alienation from his family. But Mandela never, ever gave up. He managed to fight injustice and indignity throughout his whole life, almost never letting bitterness or rage distract him. He treated everyone around him, including prison guards, as fellow sufferers in an unjust system, and he’s become a symbol of hope and resistance in our time.

The thing I want to emphasize is this: Mandela was not alone. In Pretoria, middle class white women stood in the streets holding protest signs. During the sham Treason Trial of 1956-1961, an Indian woman, Mrs. Thayanagee Pillay, made Mandela a hot lunch every single day. White lawyers defended the Treason Triallists for free and journalists publicized the injustice of the Trial abroad. In Holland, ordinary people descended on grocery stores and slapped stickers on the South African oranges reading, “When you eat this orange you support the killing and oppression of black people.” In America, students held sit-ins at university campuses to persuade their administrations to divest from South African companies. Some of those people did not live to see apartheid end; some of them only lived long enough to see the violence worsen in the 1980s. But even when things seemed to be stagnant, or changing for the worse, those people kept on. They saw what Winston Smith saw—the ostracism, the danger, the seeming futility of their efforts—and they decided that a struggle with no visible result is better than no struggle at all. Resistance itself humanizes.

There are more of us like Mrs. Thayanagee Pillay than like Nelson Mandela, I think. But without that little old lady bringing lunch, without the protestors on the steps of Parliament, without foreign divestment and boycotts, Nelson Mandela would have been Winston Smith. Because of them, instead of ending by accepting tyranny and a bullet in the brain, as Winston does, Nelson ends with the words: “I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

So I guess what I’m saying is: let’s keep walking. This election was not a choice between salvation and damnation. A Kerry win would not have let us off the hook, but a Bush win gives us fewer opportunities to make excuses, to withdraw into our own lives and stop trying to connect with other people and promote change. So get out your posterboard and your markers and get busy. There are lots of little ways to resist and dissent, to stay involved in our communities and try to make life better for people there. And it’s important, because it is only when people of ordinary conscience are active that people of extraordinary conscience can appear.

The day after the day after...

So this is to be our time in the wilderness. What should be the next steps for progressives? This election clearly shows us to be outnumbered by those who actively support the corporate theocracy of the Republicans, and those who support it based on false assumptions of its morality, competence, or economics.

My feelings are a combination of numb resignation ('you'll get what you voted for, America'), and moral outrage. Somehow the people who supported Bush must be awakened to their moral culpability for the continuing war in Iraq, the degradation of the environment, the increasing concentration of wealth and power, the development of the US as the world's largest and most dangerous Third World nation--a theocratic plutocracy set to wage constant war against a world we tower over, yet are convinced is about to destroy us. Kill to protect a culture of life; war against the non-threatening in the interest of our safety; strength through the constant awareness of our insecurity.

This system cannot last, of course. It will destroy itself in time, or be destroyed. But we must help it end sooner rather than later; bring it down by undermining its foundations rather than waiting for it to explode. The lives of too many people depend on us succeeding.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Day After...

Now that election day is here, it's time to start thinking about what comes next for both the Kerry administration and for the progressives who helped elect him. Despite my continuing concerns about domestic social and economic issues, I think that the new president needs to focus most on foreign policy. America must feel safer in the world, lest the militarism currently infecting our politics grows more powerful. In that case, whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power, civil liberties will continue to erode, and only the most hawkish in resume or rhetoric will be able to run for federal office. More on this later, maybe--I'm off now to help get out the vote.