Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Moral Equivalence Rearing Its Ugly Head

Salon's Michael Schulson has conducted an interview of Karen Armstrong, whom he says has "studied English at Oxford, spent seven years as a Catholic nun and then, after leaving the convent, took a brief detour toward hard-line atheism."    Having written histories of Buddhism, of Islam, and of God, she has "emerged as one of the most popular- and prolific- writers on religion."

Armstrong also, Schulson notes, has written a history of myth, evidently something which she is intimately familiar with. She was asked "When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like 'Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas' — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?" Armstrong replied

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.

This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.

Well,  that's something of a leap, going from "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas" to the Holocaust and suggesting Auschwitz and Treblinka are in our future. In merely six sentences, Armstrong implies a) that Harris and Maher are pseudo-Nazis, for they've engaged in "the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe;" and b) that "being "guilty of great wrongs" while proud of "our fairness and our toleration" is similar to a concentration camp existing near a university.

More significantly, however, Armstrong commits what is gradually becoming a common analogy, attributing what the speaker believes are bigoted remarks or actions (whatever they may be) to racism. While she knows not to use the "r" word, she argues that the sentiments of Bill Maher and Sam Harris  are akin to  those  which "led to the  concentration camps in Europe" and are "the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and '40s in Europe."

This would be less loathsome were it accurate. But it is not.  Someone needs to remind Armstrong that Adolph Hitler's views were grounded in what he assumed was race; not nurture, but nature. Researchers at the Simon Wiesenthal Center once explained

It is evident from Mein Kampf and Hitler's speeches that he viewed racial conflict as the determining factor in all of human history. "The racial question gives the key not only to world history, but to all human culture." Race was not simply a political issue to be used to curry the favor of the masses, but the "granite foundation" of Hitler's ideology.

Hitler's racial ideology stemmed from what he called "the basic principle of the blood." This meant that the blood of every person and every race contained the soul of a person and likewise the soul of his race, the Volk. Hitler believed that the Aryan race, to which all "true" Germans belonged, was the race whose blood (soul) was of the highest degree. God Himself had, in fact, created the Aryans as the most perfect men, both physically and spiritually.

Since the blood (soul) of the Aryans contained specific spiritual energies, the "cultural energies" or "racial primal elements," as Hitler often called them, the Aryans supplied the culture that creates the beauty and dignity of higher humanity. In other words, all that man calls higher culture was ultimately the product of the spiritual and creative energies that exist in the blood of the Aryans.

To be sure, the problem lies not only with Armstrong but instead pops up with increasing regularity. During his famous argument with Maher and Harris several weeks ago on HBO's Real Time, actor Ben Affleck termed his combatants' remarks "gross and racist. It’s like saying, Oh you shifty Jew." Neither Maher nor Harris, as the video below will remind us, said anything about race, referring only to differences in religion and culture. Armstrong's mistake, however, is more alarming and arguably less justified, inasmuch as she is not a thespian but someone who has written extensively on the religion.

Karen Armstrong is, nonetheless, accurate about one important, related, matter.  She contends "We've recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia. That has remained." That's true.  After all,  fear of terrorist who, partly motivated by religious hatred and bigotry, have attacked the World Trade Center (twice) and the USS Cole once, and made a tinderbox out of the Middle East is exactly the same as the Holocaust.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Not To Be Fooled

Since Democrats across the country, identified with the deeply unpopular Barack Obama, went down to defeat on November 4, there has been a lot of hand wringing among the party's pols, activists, and pundits.   It has included a fair amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Some of it is constructive, as from Slate's Jamelle Bouie, who ten days after the election wrote 

Democrats can adopt populist rhetoric, but there’s no guarantee working-class whites will buy it. Indeed, in parts of the country—like the Deep South—it’s a lost cause. The Democratic Party is too associated with blacks and too associated with welfare to win over enough whites to make a difference.

But Bouie does not suggest those white people are irretrievably racist. Instead

Put another way, for a new rhetoric of populism to work—or at least, attract the winnable whites identified by Teixeira and Halpin—it needs to come with a commitment to universal policies that working-class whites like and support. (It’s no coincidence that the most liberal working-class whites belong to private and public sector unions.)

This, he understands, is easier said than done. With no hint of condescension, Bouie notes

But the United States doesn’t have a political party to support that kind of social democracy. Instead, it has the Democratic Party, a collection of disparate interests which—at its best—is nervous about economic liberalism and hesitant to push anything outside the mainstream. And worse, it has a presidential frontrunner who—more than anyone else—is connected to the kinds of elites and the kinds of policies that would push the party away from the muscular liberalism it needs. 

It is a huge mid-range problem that both the establishment and many of the activists of the party are gearing up to nominate the Senator from Goldman Sachs, who is primed to "push the party away from the muscular liberalism it needs."  Assuming she is nominated, a few crumbs, such as the selection of a running mate more sympathetic to the interests of the working- and middle classes, will be thrown to voters who sense that the country is shifting to a servant society in which they are to be the servants (photo below from Rebecca Cook/Reuters).

But there is little hope for reversal of this trend.  The centrists of the party are committed to privatization of some sectors (such as education), the euphemistically-named free trade,deregulation of business, and normalization of illegal immigration- excluding citizenship, without which equal opportunity is a chimera.   In the wake of  the President's decision to protect from deportation 4-5 million illegal immigrants, there has been little heard from Democrats about maintaining and growing the middle class.

That has been a positive development, for any such talk at this time would be disingenuous. But it also highlights the reality that the party, as Bouie understands, has thrown in its lot with expanding the electorate rather than reassuring its traditional voters.  Bouie, as he later explained, believes the political impact of the President's Executive Order will be limited because "the status quo will hold, and both sides will be on the same ground as before.'

Still, most voters aren't suckers and it was once said "if you sit in on a poker game and don't see a sucker, get up. You're the sucker." Those working-class voters eventually will realize they don't see a sucker; unless the Party changes, they will get up.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

You Can't Miss With A Bill Cosby Reference

At the beginning of his closing argument in his immigration speech on Thursday, President Obama rhetorically asked "Or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in? Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too."
Mike Huckabee on his Facebook page was not amused and commented

It is interesting that Obama cites Scripture as the justification for him taking unilateral action on illegal immigrants.

Funny how, for the first six years of his Administration, even the two years when he had unstoppable majorities in both houses, Scripture did not compel immediate action. But two weeks after the final election he'll have to deal with, suddenly, Scripture requires us to do this.

It's similar to the way that his Biblical beliefs led him to oppose same-sex marriage as a candidate for election. Then when he needed big campaign donations from gay liberals for his reelection, the Bible suddenly got rewritten.

I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is President, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby's Wikipedia entry.

This, in turn, did not amuse the blogger I most often quote, who responded

Eternal and unchanging? How about this:

Exodus 22:21
"Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

Exodus 23:9
"Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

Deuteronomy 24:17
Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.

Deuteronomy 24:18
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

Deuteronomy 27:19
"Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"

When quoting Scripture in defense of a political perspective, one needs to be very, very careful. Here, for amusement sake, are a few passages Digby never would cite, all from the English Standard Version:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers,[a] liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound[b] doctrine (1 Timothy 1:8-10)

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another,men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

It would not be sensible to put to death a man who has sex with another man.  Nor, for that matter, is it wise to put a great deal of stock in a biblical verse to support a political position.

And it's not only immigration or homosexuality on which we can quote Scripture, both misleadingly. We go to Genesis 15: 18-21 in which Moses (inspired by God, it is contended) wrote

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, theKadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.  

That's it; problem solved. As the map below indicates, that would be the end of a Palestinian state, at least the Arab Palestinian state to which "Palestinian state" refers, because Israel would include everything within the circled area.  The Israel-Palestine issue is resolved, all with no more thought than is necessary to read Exodus.

That would not be very helpful, fair,or productive.  But it is as much- no, more- relevant to the middle eastern conflict than "do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were a foreigner in Egypt," is to immigration policy.  That, and the related verses, say nothing about jobs, visas, immigration quotas, or sovereign boundaries.

If God gave us the Bible, surely he gave us the capacity to think on our own.  Scripture may inform our values, but it should not bear heavily on the policy decisions of a great republic or its constituent parts. Someone notify Barack Obama.

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