No Doubt

Yesterday’s post dealt with the issue of arrogance, and the difference between religious faithwhich requires a certain suspension of doubt–and the sort of unquestioning certainty that leads to all manner of horrific acts in the name of religion.

Which leads us to a consideration of Dick Cheney.

Not that Cheney’s views appear to be founded in religion; from all appearances, the only person he worships–or respects– is the man he sees in the mirror (and I rather suspect that the man in that mirror is not the one most of us see).

Ever since the Senate released its report on torture, Cheney has been everywhere, defending the indefensible. It’s important to note that, while he has characterized the report as “crap,” he has not suggested that its descriptions of “enhanced interrogation” are inaccurate. He has not denied that 26 innocent people were falsely arrested. He has not denied that one of those innocent people died.

Instead, Cheney defends it all. He has expressed absolutely no remorse for any of it–not even the death of the innocent man. He insists he would “do it again.” Against the evidence of experienced interrogators, he insists that the tactics worked. Against the testimony of men who were themselves tortured, this man who never wore his country’s uniform insists he knows best how to conduct warfare. Against the consensus of the world community, he justifies the use of tactics America has historically condemned.

Because he’s right, and the rest of the world is wrong.

Cheney is a stark reminder of what evil really is–not a Satanic figure intentionally setting out to do harm, but power allied with un-self-aware moral arrogance.



Arrogant Virtue

Andrew Sullivan recently shared the following quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s postwar book, The Irony of History.

“We … as all ‘God-fearing’ men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. …There is…the necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities…

.. if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Among other things, the excerpt reminded me of Learned Hand’s famous observation that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit that’s not too certain it’s right.”

In God and Country, I noted that America remains deeply divided between contemporary descendants of the early Puritans, on the one hand, and those I call Modernists, whose worldviews are rooted in the Enlightenment, on the other. Puritans define liberty as freedom to do the “right” thing, the thing that God wants. And what God wants (as Niebuhr noted) is–coincidentally–exactly what those self-same “God-fearing men” want.

Puritans believe that government has an obligation to enforce “God’s commands,” which they alone understand.

The American legal structure, however, is not a product of the Puritans who came to these shores for the “liberty” to worship the “right” God and the “liberty” to punish or expel those who differed. Established some 150 years after the Puritans first landed, our government began with a very different definition of liberty: freedom to live your own life as you see fit, free of government interference, so long as you don’t thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. Consistent with these caveats, the Bill of Rights ultimately boils down to “live and let live.”

These very different worldviews divide us still.

In the kneejerk reactions to LGBT progress—especially the rush to legislate “religious liberty” exemptions from civil rights laws—we see the Puritans, furiously fighting back against modern life.

In Michigan, a bill recently passed by their House of Representatives would “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” by allowing or disallowing “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

In other words, if you are a pharmacist who doesn’t want to fill prescriptions for birth control or antiretrovirals, if you own a bakery and don’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, or if you are an EMT reluctant to treat gay patients, you can cite your “sincerely held religious belief” (no matter how idiosyncratic) to justify noncompliance with legal and/or professional obligations.

I think these laws are what Nieburh meant by “blindness induced by hatred and vainglory.”

The zealots who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center were undoubtedly motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs. The homegrown terrorists who gun down abortion doctors are motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs.

In a society where my (arrogantly held) sincere belief is different from your (equally arrogant) equally “sincere” belief, government cannot and should not privilege either of us.

Speaking of Sexism..

Yesterday, I took Senator Lindsay Graham to task for his sexist response to a speech by Elizabeth Warren. Whether you agree with her positions or not, Sen. Warren is indisputably one of the most thoughtful and informed members of Congress.

But then there are people like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. If those are the sorts of women with whom Senator Graham regularly interacts and upon whom he bases his judgments, perhaps I was too hard on him.

Let me share a portion of Bachmann’s  “farewell” speech (a farewell for which all sentient beings are profoundly grateful).

“And as I look about this chamber, we are ringed with the silhouettes of lawgivers throughout history,”

“And yet only one lawgiver has the distinction of not having a silhouette, but having the full face be revealed by the artist. That lawgiver is Moses. Moses is directly above the double doors that lead into the centermost part of this chamber, and in the face of Moses, his eyes look straight upon not only our nation’s motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ but Moses’ face looks full on into the face of the Speaker of the House. Daily, the Speaker of the House as he stands up in his authority and in his podium recognizes that he is a man under authority, just as Moses was a man under authority.”

“Because you see, Mr. Speaker, Moses is given for the full honor of the greatest lawgiver in this chamber, because he was chosen by the God that we trust to be entrusted with the basis of all law. The ‘basis of all law’ as was written by Blackstone, the famous English jurist, was the Ten Commandments, that were given by none other than the God we trust on Mount Sinai,”

“We know those laws, those laws are the fundamental laws of mankind, and here in the United States, the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses is the very foundation of the law that has given happiness and the rise of the greatest prosperity that any nation has known before.”

“Mr. Speaker, it could be no coincidence that this nation, knowing and enjoying the heights of such great happiness and such great prosperity, that it could be built upon that foundation of the Ten Commandments and of the law given by the God in whom we trust.”

Bachmann never did understand the difference between the Bill of Rights and (her version of) the Ten Commandments. Science and medicine–not to mention logic– likewise eluded her.

Defeating sexism clearly requires more than the elevation of more women into positions of authority. It isn’t a numbers game; quality counts. That said, no one suggests that Louie Gohmert is a representative example of all men….

No, We Aren’t There Yet

It has been abundantly clear for a long time now (and painfully obvious since Barack Obama’s election) that we still have a huge racism problem in this country. My friends in the LGBT community can attest that–despite enormous progress on gay rights–they still face plenty of homophobia. What has been less remarked–but is no less true–is that we women haven’t exactly “overcome,” either.

Juanita Jean–proprietor of the World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Shop–got right to the point, after Senator Lindsay Graham dismissed Elizabeth Warren’s objections to the omnibus funding bill by saying

“You’re tired, you’re frustrated, you’re upset about a provision in the bill you don’t like…..”

You’re tired and upset? Oh yeah, that’s the only reason we women fight for anything – we’re tired and upset. The only thing he forgot is that it must be that time of the month.

Oh, but he wasn’t finished.

“If you follow the lead of the senator of Massachusetts and bring this bill down … people are not going to believe you are mature enough to run the place,” Graham said on the Senate floor. “Don’t follow her lead. She’s the problem.”

The only thing absent from this offensively patronizing putdown is any response to her substantive arguments. Because, evidently, when a “girl” has objections to the content of a piece of legislation, the only rebuttal needed is a none-too-subtle reminder of her gender.

If Warren’s objections were wrongheaded, if there were sound responses available to those objections, surely a critique that included those responses would have been appropriate.

Evidently, however, arguments made by women don’t merit serious consideration. After all, how could we girls match the great job that’s being done by all those straight white men?

Pigs Get Fed, Hogs Get Slaughtered

A recent opinion column on Talking Points Memo began

On Tuesday, CNBC asked, if housing is getting more affordable, “why aren’t Millennials buying?” A piece in USA Today last month called us “skittish from the recession”—Hmm, wonder why?—and Bloomberg Businessweek thinks we’re just discerning shoppers. The most egregious of the what’s-up-with-Millennials articles, however, is still a 2012 piece for The Atlantic that called Millennials “The Cheapest Generation.” It expended more than 2,000 words to explain “why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.”

“The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things,” it reads. “Since the end of World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the world’s largest economy and propelled our most impressive recoveries. Millennials may have lost interest in both.”

No one, the writer noted, mentioned student debt.

I’ve made this point many times, and I will not belabor it here and now. (Okay, maybe a little.) But the fact remains that the American economy depends upon consumption. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about a consumer economy–there are cultural consequences that are anything but pretty–but at this point in this country, those concerns are beside the point.

Anything that reduces people’s ability to buy what American businesses are selling hurts the economy, and that hurts everyone–be they “makers” or “takers,” Captains of Industry or proprietors of the local Subway.

When the great majority of Americans lack buying power–when large numbers of the working poor have no disposable income, when hundreds of thousands of college graduates (and dropouts) have little or nothing left after making the payments on their student loans–economic growth comes to a screeching halt.

The oligarchs who oppose efforts to raise the minimum wage, the lackeys they’ve installed in elective office who are eviscerating unions under the rubric of “right to work,” and the retail and fast-food operators who are expanding their bottom lines by paying their employees less than a living wage, among others, could learn a lot from Henry Ford. Ford was, from all accounts, a thoroughly unpleasant person, but he understood a key fact that escapes too many of today’s poobahs: his profits–the success of his business– depended upon workers who were paid enough to afford his cars.

He understood something that is becoming clearer every day: pigs may get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.