Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

As far as men of letters go, the world lost a giant today. Hitchens was one of the most erudite and outspoken public intellectuals of this generation. He was an equal-opportunity offender and whether it was debating the compatibility of Islam and Western Civilization, or the merits of belief in God, Hitchens never held back from an argument.

As a vocal and assertive voice in the modern Atheist tradition, Hitchens asserted that,

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery, beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely; we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness, and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

I must admit, however, that thinkers in this tradition, including Hitchens and Dawkins, have always struck me as a bit too unaccommodating in their atheism. One of their main intellectual faults is the failure to take into account the fact that spirituality is not always a matter of choice, but also a part of our human hard wiring. As one friend put it,

“Some people experience things that other people can’t imagine exist. Sometimes these things are spiritual, and expand a person’s concept of existence. But such experiences can only be experienced, they cannot be explained or imposed on another person.”

Atheists, like all of us, live in an ideologically pluralistic society and must incorporate phenomenon of personal religious experience into a coherent philosophy. Upon the death of such an influential thinker, and with the future of this movement in mind, I’d like to propose the possibility of  an “Atheism 2.0.”

Let’s start by acknowledging the problems with religion. For religion to fulfill it’s purpose–establishing social harmony through proscribing a set of ethics, a moral order,  and a system of punishment and reward–it has to be able to answer certain questions adequately: what are our origins? What is the nature of reality? What is the  moral way to handle the conflict between differing ethical outlooks? In these areas I agree that, given  modern understandings of the universe and our origins, the established view of the “one God as creator and ultimate judge” has  eased to provide many people with satisfactory answers. Seeming trite, simplistic and downright archaic, many people simply do not find lasting meaning in such a metaphysical outlook.

However, religious belief must also be acknowledged as an evolutionary heirloom that has served certain human psychological needs for millennia–the need for order, meaning, punishment and reward, etc. Religion is something we have created, but that doesn’t make it untrue or illusory. Rather, let us re-envision it as, most importantly, a chronicle of the human experience of the past 5,000 years. Certainly, there are things to be gained from such a repository of knowledge and thought. And certainly, we can come to a more harmonious balance between doubt and faith given the fact that we can escape neither.

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After the Tucson Shooting: An Interview with Sarah Palin

My latest cartoon is an attempt to tell Sarah Palin all the things I’ve been thinking since the Tucson Shootings.

Yes, our polarized media obsessively apportions blame to each opposing side, and yes, many astute observers have rightly pointed out that this picture is more complicated than that of an ideologically driven psychopath carrying out a political assassination.

As Charles M. Blow of the New York Times writes, “The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.”

But, to Mr. Blow, I would retort, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

The fact of the matter is that human psychology monstrously complex. While it seems for now that ideology and/or partisan vitriol was not the primary motivating factor behind Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, we cannot be sure what effect a public discourse rife with fear-mongering and violent rhetoric might have on a conspiratorial and paranoid mind.

And our political discourse is certainly rife with violent rhetoric—from Glenn Beck’s incessant end-of-times ramblings, to the ludicrous chicken-little-esque “death panel” scare, to Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies“, to all the ways in which guns and politics are poisonously intertwined in our politics, to of course, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs (list shortened for lack of infinite space).

None of this is meant to diminish the guilt that lies squarely on the shoulders of Jared Lee Loughner. Sarah Palin is right to point out, a la Ronald Reagan, that “we must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. ” But guilt and responsibility are not always equivalent.

Sarah Palin and the voices that have contributed to our explosive political discourse are not guilty of perpetrating the Tucson murders, but their contribution does carry with it a certain level of responsibility.

In content, implication and reception, we are responsible for what we say. Words are powerful, and have effects that reach far beyond their original conception. In mature public discussion, our opinion makers should ask themselves, “based on my position of power, what part might I have played in this event?” “Have I contributed to the atmosphere of fear and violence which may have influenced this troubled mind?”

As Jeffrey Winbush astutely writes,

“where does Palin take responsibility for the gun sights trained on the districts of Democratic representatives, including that of Giffords? Where was Palin’s concession that perhaps “Don’t retreat — reload!” might not have been the best way to get her point across?…Palin uses loaded words and images and then tries to act surprised when they blow up. No, she didn’t pull the trigger in Arizona, and I wasn’t expecting her to issue a half-assed apology, but she could have expressed a little less of the “Why is everybody picking on me?” whine and a lot more of the “Let’s set aside our differences and come together as Americans to help the victims and start the healing.” She could have done that, but she decided to stick to her guns. As usual, it’s all about Sarah.”

If Mrs, Palin and other opinion makers mentioned in this article had a smidgen of self-awareness, they would realize that what is being asked of them is not an admission of guilt—this is not an issue of hard forensic evidence vs. groundless speculation. What is being asked of them is merely a bit of humility, introspection and the integrity attendant a developed sense of personal responsibility.

Israel’s “Permit Regime”: A Kafka-esque Nightmare?

Thomas Hobbes described life in the State of Nature—the hypothetical condition of humanity before the formation of the state—as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Without political authority and “subjection to Lawes,” humanity would be in a “dissolute condition” with nothing to “tye their hands from rapine, and revenge.”

While Hobbes viewed even the most coercive political authority as preferable to civil unrest, perhaps he couldn’t have imagined a political society in which certain groups are subject to laws so arbitrary, and conditions of fulfillment so difficult to follow, that life reverts yet again to a kind of State of Nature—a State in which life is “labyrinthine, complex, and burdensome.”

And yet this is precisely how Israel’s High Court of Justice has described the Israeli Military’s recent “permit regime” policy in the West Bank; A set of laws more reminiscent of a Kafka-esque nightmare than sound public policy.

Here is Nasrat Dakwar of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel describing the “permit regime”:

“These areas have been declared closed military zones to Palestinians only. The movement, entry and exit of Palestinians within this area and outside it, is subject to a new legal regime: the permit regime. This area is cut off, de jure and de facto, from the rest of the West Bank. Only Palestinians who are able to prove that they are permanent residents of the closed area are allowed to stay there. Other Palestinians must prove a practical need in order to gain a permit to enter this territory (through long and exhausting bureaucratic procedures, and even so they are not always granted). Palestinians are not permitted to move to live in these areas. On the other hand, Israeli and even tourists are entitled and able to enter those areas in an unrestricted fashion, and are even allowed move their places of residence there. Following the completion of the barrier, the permit regime will apply to an area encompassing 325,000 dunams of land (5.9% of the West Bank), and 238,000 Palestinians will be trapped in enclaves created by the barrier.”

 

“The permit regime has turned the lives of Palestinians living near the separation barrier, particularly those who make a living from farming, into a bureaucratic nightmare, and severely infringes their rights to live in their own homes, to enjoy basic services such as education, health and sanitation services; it also violates the right to pursue a livelihood of those Palestinians who live on the other side of the separation barrier.”

While I recognize Israel’s right to exist, and it’s corollary—its right to engage in self-defense both militarily and in terms of policy, the laws of the “permit regime” cross the lines of prudence and acceptability.

Governments do not create laws so absurd based on sheer stupidity and oversight. Rather, I believe that the laws associated with the “permit regime” are designed to make life so difficult for Palestinians living in the “seam zone”, that they will simply leave. Such a situation will conveniently spare the Israeli government of having to deal with a refugee population in geographical limbo—a convenience much to the benefit of the Settler movement, no doubt.

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Also check out the cartoon I made for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s latest “Campaign a Day” initiative, calling attention to Israel’s “permit regime” (click image to enlarge).

Thought of the Day: Personal Responsibility

Personal Responsibility. For American Conservatism, this ideological dictum is the fount from which all legitimate government action doth spring and the virtue that informs their conception of the relationship between Individual and State.

“Look not to the government/society/the collective to solve your problems” declares Personal Responsibility; “Be not a victim of your circumstance”; “Reject the determinism that places you as a mere prop in your own life”; “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take control of your own ship with the sweat of your brow and the brawn of your back”

For American Conservatism, the notion of personal responsibility serves as the justification for limited government and the minimal role it should serve for the individual and society. Without getting too far into the debate about the merits and limitations of this virtue let us agree that in some measure, it is absolutely crucial to the idea of democracy and the goal of self-government.

So what does the notion of personal responsibility mean for a public official in today’s political landscape? Given the urgency of the recession, the monumental fiscal deficit, the grim projected future of entitlements, national industry and infrastructure, and given the lack of a clear majority in congress, personal responsibility for a legislator and agenda-setter today means addressing the current political situation earnestly and realistically, or, in other words, compromise.

Discussing the disconnect that has emerged between his Administration’s policies and the way they were communicated to the American people, Obama said at his post-mortem press conference, “we were so busy and so focused” that we forgot “leadership isn’t just legislation,” It’s also “a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together. And setting a tone. And making an argument that people can understand…I think that we haven’t always been successful at that,” Obama added, saying that he takes “personal responsibility” for this disconnect.

One might even say, of this particular statement, that Obama takes too much responsibility, failing to acknowledge the Right Wing campaign of fear and misinformation that informed the entire healthcare debate.

Recognizing that the governing calculus has changed, Obama signaled his willingness to compromise with the incoming Republican majority on issues such as earmarks, infrastructure and even certain provisions in the Healthcare Bill and the Bush Tax Cuts. But while such conciliatory overtures infuriate the Left, they demonstrate a commitment to the virtue of personal responsibility in today’s political reality.

So what about the Republicans? Those for whom personal responsibility is a self-professed guiding principle? A bright and shining example of failure to practice what one preaches, is House Majority Whip Eric Cantor.

In an interview with Chris Wallace, Cantor indicated that he’s interested in bipartisan compromise—in theory:

“Listen, are we willing to work with him?…First and foremost, we’re not going to be willing to work with him on the expansive liberal agenda he’s been about, but if he is serious about working with us on things like earmarks, for instance — which he said he would work with me on that — I’m absolutely hopeful we can do that. I hope he calls Harry Reid the first thing to get the Senate to go along with the House position.”

But when prodded about specifics, Cantor’s true idea of compromise became clear—either total agreement with the Republicans, or  government shutdown

Remember, president Obama and  the Democrats have already indicated their willingness to make painful compromises on the Bush Tax Cuts; middle-class tax cuts would be extended permanently, while the ones for the families making more than $250,000 would be extended temporarily. In the interests of implementing realistic solutions to this country’s problems and  avoiding partisan gridlock, is Rep. Cantor and the Republican Party willing to compromise on their positions? Absolutely not.

“No, I am not for decoupling the rates, because all that says to people looking to go back in and put capital to work and invest to create jobs is you’re going to get taxed on any return you can expect. I am not for raising taxes in a recession, especially when it comes to job-creators we need so desperately to create jobs again…at this point, I really want to see that we can come together and agree upon the notion that Washington doesn’t need more revenues right now. And to sit here and say we’re just going to go about half way, or we’re going to send a signal that it’s going to be uncertain for job-creators and investors to put capital to work, that’s exactly what we don’t need right now.”

What a nice idea of compromise…let’s everyone agree with ME! Oh, and I forgot, if you fail to do so, all of the consequences will be your fault:

“I would say…it’s as much as [Obama’s] responsibility,” said Cantor in response to a question from Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace about who will be to blame for a government shutdown or a default on the debt. “In fact, he is the one who sets the agenda as the chief executive and as the president of this country.”

Given the Republican majority in the house, it’s safe to say that the Republicans have officially claimed a position of responsibility for governance. But this kind of all-or-nothing position is anything but responsible. In fact, it’s an attitude better fit to a spoiled child throwing a tantrum.

Mr. Cantor, the real loser in your refusal to take responsibility for your and your party’s actions will be American Democracy, for the mechanism by which personal responsibility works is acknowledging that one must suffer the consequences of one’s actions—this is what makes one responsible. But if you flatly reject that your actions are your own, and the consequences are not yours to bear, then you can continue to live in your dream world. Unfortunately, it will be anything but a dream for the rest of us.

Enough Already! I “Get” the Tea Party—I Just Don’t Agree With Them!

The Left supposedly “doesn’t understand” the Tea Party, claims Peter Berkowitz of the Wall Street Journal. But this is patently false. What Berkowitz diagnoses as lack of understanding is rather a simple case of lack of agreement. Thus, in an attempt to show how a “leftist” can both “get” the Tea Party and legitimately disagree with it, here are a few thoughts:

If the Tea Party could be described so simply as voters who “want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives” then I would be a Teabagger. But this seemingly pure and innocuous ideological statement is not a complete picture of the Tea Party’s public persona. Firstly there’s the issue of ideological consistency, for which the Tea Party does not get high marks, and then there’s the added socially conservative, nationalistic aspect of the Tea Party which is completely incongruous with the fiscally conservative, libertarian side of the movement.

About the ideological consistency, It’s important to recognize that two-thirds of our federal budget is spent on entitlements; if the Tea Party is against ballooning federal deficits and runaway spending, do they plan to trim these programs? According to A recent New York Times/CBS poll “91% of Tea Partiers want a smaller government with fewer services.  Despite this hostility to big government, 62% of Tea Partiers believe that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are worth the cost”.

As I said in an earlier post, the Tea Party has some ‘splainin’ to do; where were they when George W. Bush passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan and launched two massively expensive, unfunded wars? Yes there may have been anger and grassroots stirrings, as some Tea Party pundits have claimed, but only in the last two years has the Tea Party become a prominent force in American politics.

Furthermore, if the Tea Party is truly committed to “block[ing] the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives,” where were they when W passed the USA Patriot Act or initiated a covert operation of warrantless wiretapping of US citizens? These are actual, bon-a-fide infringements of our civil liberties, but instead, the Tea Party decries government death panels and Bolshevik revolutions at the prospect of healthcare reform. Or What about Arizona’s new border security law, in which state law enforcement officials are required to check legal residence status upon circumstantial suspicion—this isn’t an egregious “expansion of the state in the citizen’s lives?”

The list of inconsistencies is virtually endless—prominent members of the Tea Party, such as Sarah Palin continually stress the idea that “real” America is the every-day people you find in small towns, with conservative, common sense values—not the fat cat Wall Street bankers or the big city Liberal Elites. But how is it possible that the Tea Party can paint itself as a populist, everyday, working man’s grassroots movement while at the same time opposing Wall Street reform, which attempts to establish some of the strongest consumer protections since the 1930’s and which curbs the reckless activity of the very fat cats they vilify? The same is the case for health-care reform. They don’t want Uncle Sam in the examining room, preferring instead that insurance companies tell your doctor what services you are and aren’t allowed.

The ideological rigidity of the Tea Party is so intense that any government service or exercise of power, no matter how basic or necessary seems to be in question. Everything is a “government takeover” despite ample evidence that US Auto makers are mostly solvent again and the Federal Govenrnment is planning to sell off it’s majority position in the near future. Despite the fact that most economists agree that the economic situation would have been far more dire without the stimulus, and that the “$700 billion lifeline to banks, insurance and auto companies — will expire after Sunday at a fraction of that cost, and could conceivably earn taxpayers a profit.” The stimulus may end up costing more money that the war in Iraq (which is itself debatable), but we cannot ignore that one was conducted under false pretenses and misinformation and cost thousands of lives despite no hard evidence of a direct threat, while the other represented a clear and present danger to the US and global economy. Isn’t one a slightly more worthwhile expenditure than the other?

But the Tea Party wants to get rid of even some of the most basic government functions despite the fact that they were enacted after a bitter history of abuse and exploitation which called for a federal response. Do they forget that the EPA was created in response to rising concerns over environmental protection and conservation? Do they forget that the minimum wage was first proposed as a way to control the proliferation of sweat shops in manufacturing industries? It seems that the Tea Party has a romantic view of history and a mind state that is far removed from the abuses of the past. Do we like having weekends? Do we like not having toxic waste dumped into our rivers? Then maybe the Tea Party ought to recognize that there is a balance between government overreach and basic government functions.

But all of these inconsistencies pale in comparison the most bewildering aspect of the Tea Party. If the Tea Party is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism, where does the socially conservative, tribalist, and xenophobic tendency come from? For a party that seems to emphasize individual freedom so greatly, why the general opposition to gay rights? Why such hatred toward illegal immigrants, Muslims, non-integrated residents who don’t speak English (disagree? Just watch some of this year’s GOP campaign ads)? Why the insistence that America needs to reassert it’s foundations as a Christian nation? Such corporatist, socially divisive, “real” America vs. everyone else, traditional values vs. godless secularism are exactly the kind of stances we find in the ugliest movements of history, be they the Italian Fascists or Al Qaeda, and it’s certainly not appropriate for a pluralist, democratic society.

The Ground Zero “Mosque,” Double Standards and the Limits of Strict Constitutionalism

The Ground Zero mosque controversy has highlighted a fundamental question relating to the nature and shortcomings of our constitutional system–is that which is constitutional always ethical as well?

Consider the following remarks made by opponents of the Cordoba Center project during the talking-head torrent following Obama’s remarks:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “what I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Or these comments from Republican strategist Ed Rollins on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” , “Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York.”

Or finally, the ever eloquent Sarah Palin, who put it succinctly, “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?”

They have the right, but do they have the should? Whether you’re stewing in outrage over the Supreme court decision Citizens United vs. FEC or simply watching a popcorn lawyer flick, we’ve all experienced the aggravating reality when that which is sanctioned as legal or constitutional often seems immoral or just plain wrong.

And as the bard says, herein lies the rub inherent in our constitutional system; We only have two possible options from which to choose in solving a social dilemma–legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional. What is lost in this kind of legal structure is the human element; the ability to solve our differences by listening to each others’ stories, pains and experiences and coming to a mutually agreeable common ground.

The kind of listening Rep. King speaks of when he says, in spite of the legality of the Cordoba Center, we “should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people” is exactly the kind of listening that is made impossible when one side of the argument is deemed unconstitutional, for is there anything more invalidating and disqualifying to one’s entire belief structure than the label “unconstitutional”? What dignity is left to salvage when ones opinions are so thoroughly judged as ill-fitting to society. Unconstitutionality, it seems, is the modern form of exile.

Thus, the opponents of the Cordoba Center have made a valid point, and one which deserves the respect of audience. The right of Muslims to build a community center and place of worship two blocks from Ground Zero is unquestionable, but before we rush off into framing the issue as one of right and constitutionality, why don’t we slow down and listen to the concerns of the community first. After all, if the Center’s stated aim is to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths within the pluralist American society, how can we hope to achieve this aim if our starting point is one of mutual antagonism rather than mutual empathy?

…But there’s still something about this issue that sticks in my proverbial craw– something a bit sketchy and cynical about Conservatives like King, Cornyn and Palin making the argument for empathy over constitutionality in this particular instance. Conservatives have opportunistically applied this standard of judgment at a time when it best supports their ideological position.

Consider Rep. Kings statements once again:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Now let’s give it a little makeover:

“All Americans have…the right to right to bear arms and they have the right utilize their second amendment liberties if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Where is the Conservative sense of empathetic listening above strict constitutionality when it comes to the cries of victims and families of gun violence? Why is it more permissible to “refudiate” Muslim’s first amendment rights when it comes to the wishes of the victims of Islamic extremism than to abridge second amendment rights in light of those who have fallen by the gun?

Obviously there’s an absurdity here; we can’t disregard the Constitution in favor of bowing to popular opinion without ceasing to be a liberal society of law and order, checks and balances. But we also can’t have a coherent political discourse if our parties are allowed to choose an ethical standard du jour.

The goal of a Constitutional system should be to incorporate within a strict legal framework, a social generosity that, as Romand Coles writes, “elaborates itself…in dialogues torn between different sensibilities and visions of the future; a generosity torn between, on the one hand, the pursuit of what appear to be among the best political directions, principles and practices that have been illuminated thus far…and, on the other…the radical need to listen attentively to the voices and visions that come from places it cannot or has not yet illuminated.”

Such an incorporation might allow our society to find more inclusive ways to solve trenchant social dilemmas; it might indeed allow us to “listen to the deep wounds and anguish” of “so many good people” without necessarily having to appeal to antagonistic legalities. But if all this is just a possibility, one thing is for certain–such a potential will never come to fruition if we use the ethical standard of empathetic listening not for the sake of community strengthening, but for the sake of blind political opportunism.