Saturday, November 24, 2012

When Ego Drives Politics, Can There Be Any Hope?

We can rant all we want about the insufferable and destructive attitude and policies of the Tea Party and its fellow travelers, but truth be told, virtually all politicians are sorely lacking.  

A politician should be first and foremost a public servant ... there should be no greater interest than to serve the interests of his or her constituents and the greater public good.  And where the greater public good conflicts with the interests of constituents, politicians should back the greater public good because the welfare of the nation should always take precedence over the narrow interests of a locality.

Why is it that there are no, or at best a handful, of politicians today, and for that matter in the past, who encompass this ideal?  The short answer is that all politicians, and indeed all people, are driven primarily by their ego ... which is to say the sum of their learned experience that forms how they view themselves and the world around them.  All people and all politicians are programmed by their upbringing and societal environment to look at things a certain way.  They cannot really do otherwise.

And what is the primary lesson that our culture teaches?  Is it that we must work for and if necessary sacrifice for the good of the community, or is it that we should insure first and foremost that #1, ourselves, is taken care of first.  During much of our history there was a balance between these two messages.  But over the past 30-40 years, it has become increasingly the latter.  Everything else is secondary, at best.

When one combines the self-centeredness of politicians with their programmed view of the world, the result is often disaster for the nation they are supposed to be serving.  In the past, while politicians and people have always been driven by ego, most people were exposed to a strong centrist tradition ... for example the news broadcasts of the three networks and most major newspapers ... and that formed the core of their political learned experience.  Thus they were able to see it in their interest to come together, not on all issues but with sufficient frequency, to serve the public good.

But as the power of corporations has increased in politics and as the attitude of the people has become more extreme, especially on the right due to the emergence of right-wing cable news and right-wing radio talk shows, there remains virtually no issue on which the two Parties can come together in the nation’s interest.  The result is the total dysfunction that we’ve been seeing in Congress.  The result is a growing fissure in our society.  The public good and the interests of those most vulnerable suffer.

Our political system is a mess.  The electoral system is a mess.  Our society is a mess.  Is there any hope out of this morass?  There is no hope so long as even well-meaning politicians and people seek to find answers within the system as it exists because within those constraints there can be no real change.  There is no hope without being willing to examine the concepts that lie at the very core of our culture.  For it is these concepts that make people what they are and make our system of government what it is.

What in the world am I talking about, you might ask.  It means going back to basics.  The core moral ethic behind all the world’s great religions is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Yet there are few people, even among those who profess themselves to be ultra-religious, who practice this core ethic.  

Why is that?   The bottom line reason is that most people are insecure, both individually and as groups.  If you are insecure, you only think of yourself, not others.  Yes, many people, groups, and nations may appear to have strong egos and are full of bluster and bravado, but deep within, people whether low or high are insecure.  That’s why those on top are typically so imperious.  It’s a mask.

And why are people so insecure, even those who have “made it” in our society and have so much?  The answer is that most people were not brought up with unconditional love and compassion.  

I know this sounds very new age, but don’t laugh.  We are all cursed with the learned experience that we have to be someone other than we are, we have to be better than we are, in order to be loved and respected.  We learn this in childhood from our parents and later from our peers and the broader culture that bombards us with messages that we need to be or do more.

If on the other hand, we were all brought up with the constancy of unconditional love and compassion ... and mind, this does not mean no criticism; it means that criticism is done with loving kindness; children need direction, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it ... then we would not be insecure as children and we would not grow up to be insecure adults.

This atmosphere of unconditional love and compassion would not be limited to the family, but would extend to all people in the community, in the country, indeed to all mankind because we would be taught that all of humanity is one.  We are all children of the same God (if there is one), we all suffer in the same way, we all are programmed by our learned experiences to act the way we do.  No one is innately bad or evil, but history has shown that it is surprisingly easy to teach people to be bad or evil.  With that knowledge we can have compassion and love for all, even those who seek to harm us.  

This new attitude does not mean that we would not defend ourselves, as a nation or individually.  But with this new attitude we would have a chance to break the cycle of hate with love.   To show those who are insecure that they have nothing to fear from us; that there is no need to be aggressive.  And with time, this new force of love would gain in strength, encompassing ever more people and nations.  Slowly but surely the aggressive traits that we have assumed are part of the human condition would be replaced by a more spiritual perspective based on unconditional love and compassion for ourselves and for all others.

Martin Luther King said, "Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love."  To that I say, "Amen."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Media and the Polarization of America

We have become so accustomed to the extreme polarization of our country that began in earnest during Clinton’s second term and has gone off the deep end during the past few years with the creation and ascendency of the Republican Tea Party movement, that it’s hard to remember that there was a time not that long ago when things were very different.  But they were,

After Lyndon Johnson fought for and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the deep south turned Republican, the red states were (with the exception of the 1964 Goldwater debacle) pretty reliably the deep south, the plains states, the Rocky Mountain states, and the west coast.  The Republicans expanded their take of states in Nixon’s elections, Reagan’s, and Bush I’s.  In 1988 they did lose Washington and Oregon, and in 1992 they lost California, which have since been permanently in the Democratic camp.  But after Clinton, they seem to have permanently gained the lower Midwest (Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana).  Likewise the blue states have been pretty consistent, with the exceptions noted above.

So we have existed for the past 48 years at least with a large number of states reliably red, a large number reliably blue, a few changing from one to the other, and a few being the swing states, which is to say they have no established pattern.  But despite that fact, there were circumstances or candidates ... like Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972, the Iran Hostage crisis in 1980, and Reagan in 1984 that turned the presidential map almost totally blue or totally red.

We were in other words a country with a distinctive political map which nevertheless responded to events or personalities in a way contrary to that pattern.  People were far more flexible.

This flexibility could also be clearly seen in the workings of the party’s representatives in Congress.  Although Republicans and Democrats have always disagreed on many things, acrimony was not common.  More common was a tone of civility and frequently “crossing the aisle” to work together in the country’s best interest.  The vast majority of legislators were centrists, as was the electorate.

So what happened to turn our country from a nation of partisans who nevertheless could be bipartisan in the interest of the country and who could, as lawyers say, “agree to disagree,” to a country where one party ... the Republican ... has become a hotbed of rabid, radical, ideological partisans who will brook no compromise?  The answer I think is to be found in the evolution of media in the United States.

Prior to 1980, people got their news from the three major TV networks, all of which were mainstream and centrist, and newspapers which were for the most part also mainstream and centrist.  Whether it was Huntley-Brinkley or Water Cronkite, these were the men who formed public opinion about current events.  Whether you lived in a major urban area or in an isolated rural one, they were your eyes to the rest of the world.  And the respect with which they were held impacted how people, whether Republican or Democrat, saw the major issues of the day.  Even after 1980 when CNN was founded and programmed news 24 hours a day, the basic pattern of centrist news organizations continued.  The result was that people were in general more centrist in their outlook.

Radio was also pretty much a centrist medium prior to 1987, when the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which had required controversial viewpoints to be balanced by opposing opinion on air.  One year after that, Rush Limbaugh started his nationally syndicated show on ABC.  Many other right-wing personalities followed suit.

Then in 1996 Fox News started its cable broadcast.  Now you had right-wing news interpretation available 24 hours a day.  That together with the large panoply of right-wing radio talk shows available nationally ... they’re called “conservative talk” but they hardly fit the classic definition of “conservative” ... means that Republicans throughout the country, whether living in small rural towns or in urban areas, now can choose to get their news and their opinions from Republican [sic radical] conservatives, rather than from mainstream broadcasters in the mold of Concrete and Huntley-Brinkley or Brokaw.

This shift in the nature or function of media is, I believe, the single most important factor in the rise of extreme partisanship on the right and our nation’s current polarized state, even more than the rise of the Religious Right during this same period.  People who may have had such opinions before didn’t have them validated by national media.  Now they are emboldened and feel they are in the vanguard.  And those who didn’t have such thoughts have now been brainwashed by the constant barrage of right-wing commentary and have become right-wing radicals.

Add another notch to the belt of the deregulators.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We Must Reform Our Election System

We have just witnessed the most obscene election in American history.  Obscene in the sense that $2.6 billion was spent on the presidential race.  Obscene in that the Supreme Court’s decision that money = speech gives new meaning to the phrase, money talks.  Obscene in that the Supreme Court’s decision that corporations are people entitled to their right of free speech meant that corporations as well as individuals could spend unlimited amounts of money in support of their preferred candidate.  

Obscene in that the principle of one man, one vote has been distorted because of the power of a small number of individuals and corporations to greatly impact the outcome due to the influence of their advertising dollars.  Obscene because even in a race with such clear differences between the two candidates and their positions, we have strayed far from the idea that free speech and elections in our democracy is about the contest of ideas.  This was a campaign based on slogans, which are not ideas.  Ideas require understanding, and there was no attempt at any stage of the process to provide voters with an understanding of the competing positions.

If we wish to save our democracy then we need to reform the electoral process.  The underlying principle is simple ... remove the influence of private funds from the election.  The campaigns would be financed by public funds, and outside PACs would be strictly regulated so that no individual or corporation could contribute more than a small amount of money to such efforts.

Such a system would entail a different approach to the campaigns.  No longer would they be premised on huge television ad campaigns with their resulting huge budgets and empty sound bites.  Instead we would have a true contest of ideas.  The candidates would have a certain amount of free air time on the radio and television to present their positions to the American people.  There would continue to be debates, but with a difference.  The moderators would have the authority to challenge the candidates when they provide misleading or factually incorrect answers.

Further, federal elections should be governed by federal, that is to say uniform, rules.  States can make their own rules for state elections, but the rules for elections for federal office should be the same regardless the state ... this includes the form of the ballot and type of voting machines.  Also, redistricting should be done by state nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions following federal guidelines.  Candidates need to be on the same footing everywhere and all citizens must be assured of the uniformity and fairness of the process.

Unfortunately, I can’t imagine such basic reforms ever being enacted by Congress.  The interests arrayed against such reforms are simply too powerful and entrenched.  

But at least such reform needs to become part of the public discussion.  Someone in Congress needs to have the guts make this his or her cause.  And perhaps one day, just as public opinion has evolved on other matters. the public will come to demand such reform and the politicians will have to comply.

Friday, November 2, 2012

How Can Evangelicals Embrace Capitalism and the Republican Party?

Over the past 30-40 years, the Religious Right has gone from total noninvolvement with politics to total involvement to partial domination.  As a general matter, and more specifically in recent years, they have endorsed capitalism and the concept that each person is responsible for himself, they have endorsed a limited role for government, and they have tenaciously fought for the right to life of the unborn and against same-sex marriage or any kind of gay rights that gives homosexuals the approval of society.

As Christians who believe in Jesus, Evangelicals are fond of saying that we need to bring morality back into our government and our private lives, and that we need to bring God back into our government.  But do they practice what they preach?

What is the most central ethic of Christianity, or indeed of all the world’s great religions?  It is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It is, “Love they neighbor as thyself.” It is viewing the community of man as one of shared responsibility.  From the Old Testament’s, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the many affirmative answers to that question in the New Testament such as that we are to “love one another” and that we are to “serve one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and “consider one another,” there is no question that to be Christian is to support the idea of a social contract among the citizens of our country.  

In ancient times it must be said that these sentiments were confined to relationships between those who were believers.  But in more modern times, as the world and its religions (not all) have become more progressive in their thinking, these concepts have been broadened to include a responsibility towards all humanity.  For if man is created in the image of God, then are we not all his children, regardless of our religion or lack thereof?  It is in this light that I will examine the positions taken by Evangelicals on several key contemporary issues.  

First, let’s look at capitalism.  While the commonly used phrase “Godless communism” refers to the fact that Marxist communism denies the existence of God and is, or at least used to be, totally against all religion, is capitalism any less Godless in fact or in practice? While it is true that capitalism is not against religion, history shows that the very premise of the capitalist enterprise is Godless in the sense that it is all about making the most money one can for oneself and ones associates regardless at what cost to others.  This is surely not behavior that Jesus would endorse.

In the first half century of the industrial revolution, unfettered capitalism showed it for what it was ... a rapacious system that would stop at nothing to make money.  Whether it was having no care for their workers’ safety, beating them, producing products that could harm the user, or fowling the air and water, capitalism showed a total disregard for the welfare of both its workers and the broader community.  

It is only the presence of government regulation, which began in the early 20th century and has grown over the years, that has resulted in corporations [capitalists] being able to claim to be responsible members of society.  But they are not reformed.  Even today with all the regulation we have, if there is an area where there is no regulation, or it is hazy, or they dislike it, capitalists will do whatever they can get away with regardless of its impact on the broader society or their workers.  It is simply the nature of the beast.  

Bottom line, capitalism has no soul, and since it has no soul it is Godless.  As such, Evangelicals and other Christians should not embrace it uncritically but insist that if it be allowed to continue that it be strictly regulated in order to insure that workers, users, and the broader community are protected.  The role of government here is critical.

Then there is the issue of public morality.  When this issue is raised by Evangelicals, as in “the culture wars,” this means that they are against any rights for homosexuals and they are against abortion. Before commenting on their stands on these two issues, what is troubling is that Evangelicals do not seem to think that public morality includes the concept of doing to others as you would have them do to you, of loving your neighbor as yourself, of feeling a shared responsibility for the welfare of their fellow Americans, if not for all of humanity.  

This is clearly the position that Jesus would take, but not his most righteous followers today. Their emotional, if not rabid, fight on the issues of homosexuality and abortion seems to have blinded them to the true admonitions of their faith.  And so they have become the front line soldiers of the Right, backing the most radical Tea Party and conservative Republicans ... the new Republican Party ... because they have these two causes in common, even though their partners have no interest and disdain government involvement in the broader social welfare.

As regards their campaign against homosexuality, it is troubling on so many fronts that one hardly knows where to begin.  But perhaps most troubling is their, and others’, misuse of the Bible, much as the Bible was used for years to support slavery, segregation, and the submissive status of women.  

The Old Testament certainly has some bad things to say about “men lying with men as with women.”  But one must put this in context.  

The same sections of the Bible also have equally bad things to say about many other acts. In fact, the Bible terms more than 60 actions an abomination.  Included are:  lying (Proverbs 12:22), eating food that isn’t kosher (Leviticus 11), a proud look (Proverbs 6:16), lying with a menstruating woman (Ezekiel 18:6-13), and what is highly esteemed among men (Luke 16:15).  Likewise, it is not the only sin singled out for death.  The Bible says that anyone who curses his father or mother should be put to death (Leviticus 20:9) and that a man and woman who commit adultery should be put to death (Leviticus 20:10.)  In Exodus 35:2, it says that anyone who works on the Sabbath shall be put to death.  

Clearly, Evangelicals and the Catholic Church are against homosexuality ... plain and simple.  And so they conveniently pick sections of the Bible to use in support of their campaigns, ignoring the fact that no one today, except perhaps the Jewish ultra-orthodox, would call these other acts an abomination and seek to ostracize perpetrators.

The issue of abortion is a far more complex one.  If one truly believes that life, in the legal sense, begins at conception, then one can understand why that person feels that abortion is murder and should not be allowed.  The problem is that while it is a scientific fact that “life” biologically begins at conception, there is a major disagreement as to when a legal status attaches to the fetus ... when the fetus becomes a human life ... resulting in abortion being illegal.  There really is no resolution to this disagreement.

My take on the issue is more sociological.  There are few things worse then a child being born to parents that do not want the child, for whatever reason.  There are few things worse then children being raised in our chaotic foster parent system, since the majority of unwanted children carried to term are not adopted.  

Evangelicals, however, do not deal with this issue.  They speak merely of God’s gift of life.  And so if their will were law, hundreds of thousands of children each year would be sentenced to a living hell while their parents would be dragged down into a variety of wrenching problems.  It’s all fine and well to speak of the responsibility of the mother or parents.  But ultimately, the burden of the Right to Life position would fall most squarely on the children.  And I for one would say that it is better not to be born, than to be born unwanted.  Life is hard enough without that burden.

But the issues of abortion and homosexuality are digressions.  The point is that if one wants a more moral nation, a more moral government, a nation under God, then many aspects of our system need to be changed.  First and foremost would be changing from a capitalist system in which everyone is chiefly out for themselves with no sense of responsibility for their fellow citizen to a system of regulated capitalism and a commonly accepted social contract with government performing its function of leveling the playing field, guaranteeing that all have the opportunity to pursue their “inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  

The Democratic Party, in its own sometimes fumbling way, is trying to reach for that more moral nation.  As such, it deserves the support of all God-believing people and secular humanists alike.