Netanyahu, Boehner and Dissing Obama – Again

The merits of American negotiations with Iran over its nuclear policy can be debated on their merits. But the more captivating story is the politics in which the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address both chambers of Congress without informing the president.

Beyond threatening the solid bi-partisanship of American support for Israel, this unseemly move recapitulates a contemptuous attitude Republicans have acted out against Obama since his first days in office. Though it forever hovers beneath the surface and seldom is explicitly spoken, that contempt is fueled by an animus that strives to negate the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency for racist motives.

The current invitation that bypasses the president repeats the trope that Obama is at best a half-president, a phantom-president because in one way or another he is really “not one of us.”

True, Congress has a Constitutional role in framing foreign policy. But keeping Obama, the chief executive, who by his office is more immediately positioned to execute foreign policy, in the dark, and thereby attempting to undermine his  policy through an end run around him, is profoundly disrespectful, to say the least. Obama having to again defend his negotiating strategy with Iran in the face of Nentanyahu’s visit, is humiliating.

Several Democrats will boycott Netanyahu’s speech. And reflecting my analysis, so will members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Add to the racist-based snub is the canard that Obama’s foreign policy shies away from deploying America’s military might; that he has diminished American power and leadership in the world.

Such critics, including Netanyahu, need to tell us what the alternative is. It certainly will not be a military assault on Iran. It will neither destroy its nuclear capabilities, while further inflaming the Muslim world beyond imaginable proportions.


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A Response to David Brooks on Secularism

To the Editor of the New York Times:

David Brooks’ critique of the weaknesses of  secularism as a world-view is strangely myopic. In highlighting the burdens of a secular life-style, while valorizng the strengths of the traditional faiths with their structures and meanings bestowed on believers as ready made, Brooks overlooks the authoritarianism that goes with the religious territory. An appeal of secularism is that it enhances personal agency and entourages people, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it to reject “second hand” religion. Rather than a burden, this commitment inspires secularists to an active and creative engagement with life and experience. It is invigorating rather than enervating.

Brooks depicts secularism as lacking in moral motivation. Not true. My own variant of belief, which is vested in the 140 year-old Ethical Culture Movement, inspires a deep social commitment to enhancing the dignity and well being of others. The impulse toward compassion and justice through service and activism in creating a more humane world are powerful motivations that do not require the received structures of traditional religion.

Finally, Brooks identifies secularism with an arid rationalism, noting that our emotions extend far more broadly than our reason. Here I agree. But a more affirming secular view broadens into a humanism that embraces the human condition in its deeper, wider and more complex manifestations. Brooks predicts that in the future, secularism will become “more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.” For many of us, the future has already arrived.

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Racism Endures

The refusal to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing (one wants to say murder) of Eric Garner is shocking, egregious, even incomprehensible. Even more so than the grand jury verdict in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, the failure by the Staten Island grand jury in the Garner case defies commonsense. Here we have a video of the killing for all the world to see. The conclusion that no crime was committed thrusts us into an Alice-in-Wonderland reality. How are we to explain this discontinuity?

Since the proceedings of the grand jury are opaque, we can only fall back on conjectures that are contextual. Here are a few:

The legacy of enduring racism. In 2010, New Yorker writer, David Remnick, authored a magisterial biography of Barack Obama, entitled The Bridge. The title suggested that the ascension of the first African-American to the presidency served symbolically as a bridge from the Civil Rights era to a new age of engagement that would bridge the differences among the races. Remnick’s presumptions seem to have been tragically premature. The failure of the grand juries in the Garner and Brown cases, and the ceaseless litany of killings of black men by white police, seem not so much as throwbacks to an earlier era but a continuation of those institutionalized injustices into our own. We would like to believe that American society was turning a corner with regard to race, but lamentably racism endures. Recent events are both the symbols and substance of that.

But in another sense they are merely the tip of the iceberg. The phenomenal incarceration rate of black men, overly zealous prosecution of African-American men, disparate sentences for whites and blacks committing the same crime, the presumptions that police have of guilt based on skin color (think racial profiling), all speak to the racist character of the criminal justice system. The lack of equal justice has pervaded and continues to pervade the system as it does American society. The Garner and Brown grand jury findings are not exceptions. They are apiece with it.

But there are causes more distinctive to our times that, in my view, inform recent events and build upon the legacy of racism.

The militarization of the police. Since 9/11 the tenor of American society, politics and policy has changed. National sensibilities have been heightened in the face of terrorism. The changed direction of our foreign policy has been most evident. We have created a department of Homeland Security that we buttress with massive resources. But the terrorist threat which looks outward also has an inward gaze. A preoccupation with the foreign terrorism has shaded into a generalized fear of the “terrorist” within our midst. It is the response of a frightened public. Most obvious is the suspicion of the Muslim community. But my presumption is that the mandate “to keep us safe” has spread out to inform official attitudes, especially police relations, with regard to people of color.

Terrorism has transformed police in image and practice increasingly into occupying armies and the public it is sworn to serve into a potential threat and enemy. The Pentagon has given its massive arsenal of surplus ordnance and vehicles to local police departments, transforming local communities into potential war zones. Weaponry more appropriate to combat areas and now used to patrol neighborhoods render a militarized demeanor to the police who should be integrated into the communities they work for. Police too often look the part and enact the role of swat teams engaging in overkill, when lesser approaches would be more appropriate. All this generates an “us and them” mentality between the police and the people they are mandated to professionally protect and serve. Minorities are in the front lines of this militarization.

The polarization of class structure. Our politics has become more polarized and shrill. The need for detailed analysis and nuanced understanding is replaced by sound bites and reduction into sloganeering. But hand-in-hand with a nasty political environment we have the increased division of American society by class. All wealth is funneled upward to the wealthiest. And the poor grow poorer. The increase in poverty (one in seven Americans now lives below the poverty level) has been accompanied by the stagnation in upward mobility. In other words, if you are born into poverty, the chances now are that you will never climb out of it. This trend affects racial minorities more than others. While many blacks have moved into the middle class since the great Society programs of the 1960s, many have remained “truly disadvantaged” as the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson long ago noted.

Here’s my point: It is emotionally difficult to kill another human being. In order to do so, one has to mentally dehumanize the other, and convince oneself that they are worthy of their fate. In other words, one has to construe his victim as “the other.” It is my contention that the class divisions in American society between those in the middle class (but anxious about falling out of it) and those entrenched in poverty have permitted the latter to be viewed increasingly as “the other,” that is, not one of us. They are increasingly foreign, alien. While in many positive ways the younger generations, under the mantra of tolerance, have broken down racial barriers, the reality of entrenched class divisions have thickened those barriers for others. The poor of the inner cities, especially minorities, given the history of racism, are increasingly viewed as not like us. We become detached from their humanity. Their lives are less valued. When circumstances conspire, as they do in police confrontations, killing them becomes easier.

Unprofessional police. I have been watching the news in the aftermath of the grand jury verdict in the Eric Garner case. I am upset but not surprised by what I hear. Every pundit representing the police, without exception, strains to justify the killing of this unarmed man, choked to death for selling a few cigarettes. The prevailing reality was that Eric Garner was not violent, had his hands raised, and was unarmed and not threatening. Yes, he may have been “resisting arrest” (does one really have to be arrested for selling cigarettes, wouldn’t a ticket and a fine do better?) But I asked myself, since when is selling cigarettes, even illegally, a capital offense? Wasn’t there a better way for the police to handle this?

I have no doubt that policing is a difficult and often dangerous job. But I am also struck (even from my own minor encounters with the police) at how postured, how officious, how pompously authoritarian, how scripted, they are in deploying their professional responsibilities. Police seldom seem to be able to step out of their authoritarian roles. Display of power, not effective and respectful engagement is the medium of discourse.

Yes, it is hard. But the essence of being a professional is one’s capacity to be flexible, to assess each situation separately, and act accordingly. Yet, the unbending inability of the police to let go of their authoritarian posture at all costs, I contend, is inherently disrespectful and therefore generates resentment and contempt from the public with whom they interact. They are supposed to be public servants after all.

It is inescapable that in the case of Eric Garner the police could have and should have acted differently. That the grand jury did not reach that conclusion raises deep rooted questions about the kind of society we are. It settles nothing.

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Human Rights and the Heavy Lifting of Social Justice

When Jimmy Carter proclaimed in his inauguration speech that human rights would be the centerpiece of American foreign policy, few of his fellow citizens had any idea of what he was talking about. Yet open your newspaper on any day and you will find that articles referencing human rights are inescapable. Human rights are everywhere.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed 66 years ago this December 10th. But until the mid-1970s, human rights had remained a kind of political backwater. Since that time, in great measure because of the prestige that president Carter brought to it, the human rights idea has exploded onto the world scene to become one of the most often-invoked and potent political instruments of our time. In fact, since the demise of socialism, human rights has become the prevailing tool by which oppressed people around the globe use to protest their oppression in the service of leveraging greater justice. Whether we are discussing the subordination of women in the developing world or at the hands of fundamentalist religions, the international sex trade, female genital mutilation, the torture of detainees at Guantanamo or as standard operating procedure in over 140 countries, or the persecution of minorities on every continent, we are embedding ourselves in the world of human rights.

But the human rights idea has expanded in the past seven decades to encompass more than what we understand to be the suppression of people’s political rights. From its beginnings, and especially more recently, human rights has strongly embraced fundamental economic entitlements. So it is now understood that if people are deprived of an education, find themselves homeless or do not have access to medical care, their human rights are being violated. Poverty is a human rights abuse. Years ago, to say that one had access to clean drinking water as a matter of human rights, such a claim would be summarily dismissed. Today not so. The right to a healthful, sustainable environment is very much part of the human rights program.

The human rights regime, as it is called, lays out a growing roster of rights that individuals hold and which their governments are duty-bound to recognize and fulfill. A right is not merely a request, not solely an aspiration, not merely a nice gesture deserving of a glancing nod. A right is a hard claim that demands a positive response from those upon whom it is made; in the case of human rights, one’s government. Most of these rights are encoded in international treaties and are, therefore, components of international law.

In reality, human rights are often invoked and very often violated. In other words, governments all too frequently fail to honor their international commitments by the abusing their citizens and others under their jurisdiction. The horrors that we see unfolding in Syria at the moment and elsewhere in the Middle East, the five million victims of war in Congo, including at least 100,000 women who have been raped, the conscription of child soldiers, the plight of 20 million refugees, and the persistence of hunger and destitution all speak to the often blatant disregard of human life and human dignity that seem to make a mockery of the human rights project.

So when we take a sober look at the persistence of cruelty around the globe, we can ask the question, in the 66 years since Eleanor Roosevelt helped to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has the human rights program made any difference?

The answer is “Yes it has.” Every nation in the world has given formal recognition to the observance of human rights as a standard for its conduct. Which means that exposure of violations of human rights engenders shame and requires a response to those violations. This capacity to “name and shame” has leveraged lifesaving changes. On the level of the individual, countless numbers of people have been freed from wrongful imprisonment, spared torture and execution and have been supported in the right practice their beliefs and express their opinions because of pressure brought to bear in the name of human rights.

But on the sweeping level of mass changes, the human rights movement has focused the conversation, set the norms and framed the agenda of humankind as a whole. Working through the United Nations and other organizations, we are making real strides in reducing poverty, eradicating diseases, and fostering economic development in places in which it appeared that only destitution lay in the future. And given the horrors of the past century, there are assertive efforts to recognize the warning signs that can metastasize into genocide and develop strategies to intervene to prevent it, and thereby offset the slaughter of multitudes human beings, and other mass atrocities. There is a growing international consensus that without the realization of human rights, political and economic, the world can have neither justice nor peace.

Among the most compelling aspect of the human rights movement is that its most essential work is done primarily by volunteers. It is estimated that today there are more than 20,000 non-governmental organizations dedicated to promoting human rights. To work in the human rights field is put oneself squarely before the darkest underside of human behavior. But at the same time it also inspires hope in the human future.

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Charlie Hebdo: Principles on Violence and the Limits of Speech

1. Violence and murder are never acceptable responses to offensive or insulting speech.

2. The right to free speech, short of threats, incitement to violence, the creation of immediate panic bereft of space to rationally reflect on the speech (the “fire in the crowded theater prohibition) and slander, is a fundamental right deserving of the highest priority.

3. Possessing a legal right in and of itself does not dictate the active employment of that right. Its employment is contextual depending on the purposes and the effect the speech is intended to generate. Its use is prudential.

4. Religion in the legal sense can claim no special immunity from criticism or being the object of satire. Having said that, however, we can see religiously held values as we do matters of conscience. We initially hold prior respect for beliefs based on conscience even when we are totally in disagreement with the content of the conscientiously held belief. Civility demands that we give initial — but by no means final respect — to the religious views of others. Respectful tolerance is a good, but there is also a category of false tolerance. When religious beliefs manifest themselves as racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, (as opposed to merely irrational) they lose all claims to immunity. And certainly when religion moves beyond the private sphere and becomes an actor in the public arena. Admittedly this assertion requires judgment and a commitment to a hierarchy of values. It is anti-relativist and claims that certain values are better than others. If differences can be adjudicated through dialogue, so much the better. If not, a pluralistic world dictates that we need settle for a clash of values. In some circumstances a grudging acceptance of live and let live may be the best we can hope for.
5. Speech takes place within scenarios in which differentials of power of are keenly felt, often rooted in painful experiences, and provides the context in which speech needs to be exercised with prudence, if civility is to be maintained. Offensive speech may be in the vanguard of the maintainance of the freedom of speech for all, and serve as the basis of a free society, but its exercise must be subject to time and place considerations. This is not an argument for preemptive hate speech laws, which carry with them problems of their own.

6. To be offended is not the worst thing in the world. A civil society is predicated on people being socialized to internalize offensive speech or respond to it in productive ways, or at least in not socially harmful ways. Giving governments power to control speech is far worse than living in a world in which offense is inevitable.


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A Wider, Deeper Humanism

Today’s news is unsettling. Since September 2011 terrorism doesn’t seem so far away from us, even if it is taking place on the other side of the world. For those who are attuned to international events, the upheavals reported daily are captivating, and not in ways that put us at ease.
Extremism is a defining element of this violence and it is diametrically opposed to what we believe in. It is inimical to us. So, for my next address I want to stand away from world events and return us to affirming own values and what we stand for. I want to look again at humanism, which is world-view and a sensibility where we locate Ethical Culture. I want take this look through a supportive but somewhat critical eye.
In my view, the concept of humanism has two employments, one relatively new, the other, ancient in its origins. Let’s call them “Humanism Type I” and “Humanism Type II.” When Ethical Culture defines itself as a humanistic movement, it usually has Humanism Type I in mind. I will make a case for Humanism Type II.
The humanism of Ethical Culture (Type I) as mentioned, is of relatively recent vintage, no more than 150 years old. Though it is related to its much earlier precursors (almost all ideas come from a lineage of antecedents) we can trace its origins to developments in science and liberal religion in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. On the scientific side, the discoveries of the Enlightenment, culminating in the monumental work of Isaac Newtown, gave rise to the idea of a mechanistic, clockwork universe, described by unwavering deterministic laws. It was a reality in which there was diminishing room for a God of miracles, a God who is a person, cares about us and intervenes in history. Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, pushed God further into the corners. Here was an elaborate, elegant theory that accounted for the evolution of species — including our own — by processes totally within the natural domain, absent any agent from outside, namely God. The human being was no longer the product, indeed the highest achievement, of divine creation. Like the antelope, tulip or dung beetle, the human being, Darwin proclaimed, was completely natural and a product of natural forces. Soon after Darwin’s compelling treatise, the term “agnosticism” was born.
On the religion side, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism (which can trace its core presumptions to the German idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant) spoke to the romantic notion that we can intuitively know ideas, the great abstractions, such as Justice, Truth and Beauty. Emerson’s colleague in the Transcendentalist movement, Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, carried these ideas forward and formulated something he called “the Absolute Religion.” It was a religion of pure ideas and their adoration. It was a religion clearly detached from Christianity or any of the historical religions and it served as an inspiration for progressive activism. Parker’s influence was folded back into Unitarianism and around the turn of the twentieth century “humanism” became the rallying principle in the sermons of several prominent Unitarian ministers.
Humanism reached an important benchmark in 1933 when several humanists got together and published A Humanist Manifesto, a list of fifteen principles which affirmed the natural origins of humanity, the importance of self-reliance of the human beings and made a nod toward economic egalitarianism. (Interestingly, Felix Adler, who died the year the Manifesto was created opposed humanism and prohibited his fellow leaders from signing the document. For Adler, the idealist, ethics could not come from natural sources, as the Manifesto and humanism suggest). In 1966, the leaders of the Ethical Culture movement published a statement identifying Ethical Culture as a humanist movement.
The declaration of humanist principles put forward in the Manifesto has shaped the contemporary humanist movement and has been the foundation of humanist institutions and organizations. In the past ten years, there has been a flourishing of such humanist institutions that exist to affirm and promote a cluster of principles, some militantly so. Among these are framing humanism in opposition to God belief and religion. Indeed, some of the new groups are explicitly atheistic. Other central principles include secularism, rationalism, naturalism and strong affirmation of science. Such is the outlook of Humanism Type I, and the values it proffers are values I share. But this take on humanism I have come to affirm is not sufficient.
There is a second way in which to interpret humanism, which in my view is wider and partakes of a subtlety whose meaning is not exhausted by principles, but is more sensitive to what we might refer to as the spirit of humanism. This is Humanism Type II. It is not so much a set of doctrines but a world-view, a sensibility about humanity and the human experience which found a place in the West in ancient Greece and Rome, in the East in Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist values, and was vividly expressed in the European Renaissance. Humane, humanities, human, humanitarianism are all related concepts.
This humanism is expressed in the cultivation of what we intuit is essentially human. It is found in literature, art, music, the creative act and those endeavors which cannot be quantified or measured. Its starting point is not God or science, but human experience. In this sense, there is no contradiction in recognizing and appreciating a Christian humanism or a Jewish humanism.
In our time, humanism is vitally necessary. It stands up against the machine and the hegemony of our technocratic culture. The electronic media which have been woven into the fabric of our lives are indisputably marvelous tools of great efficacy. But the accumulation and accessibility of facts does not equate to wisdom, quantity, so humanism senses, is not to be valued over quality, and the latest thought is not necessarily the best. The hard work of learning, patience, substance and erudition and interpretation is still required of us if we are to retain our humanity in the ways that ultimately matter most. Such humanism proclaims the irreducibility of the human to metrics, to merely scientific explanation, to an object to be engineered. It resides where the expressive, creative radiations that we send forth toward others meet. It recognizes that the human being is more than the sum of her or his parts; that within the human lies an ineffable reality worthy of our compassion, respect, cultivation and reverence.

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Arizona’s Bad Bill and the Religious Take Over of Public Space


Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona,  by vetoing a bill allowing a religious exemption to merchants to provide services that would violate their religious convictions, has restored a moment of sanity into a dangerous strategy orchestrated primarily with those opposed to gay rights, including gay marriage. No doubt, economic pressures and threats of boycotts from outside Arizona, played a role in swaying the governor’s mind. But this is only a momentary relief in what is a very dangerous initiative to exploit religious freedom where it does not belong.

When it comes to the freedom the United States more than any country on the globe bends over backwards to ensure that religious conscience is respected. Indeed, behaviors that would be illegal if undertaken on the basis of secular rationales enjoy a religious exemption if enacted for religious reasons. I am thinking of laws that, for example, permit Amish children to end their education at 14, and allow practitioners of Santeria to engage in animal sacrifice. Some of these carve outs are pernicious, such as giving a pass to parents who reject medical intervention for their children on religious grounds (think Christian Science) even if it leads to chronic impairment or death of the children so neglected. Opting out of vaccinating their children is a related example with highly destructive individual and public consequences. Some progressives may see specific religious exceptions as positive. I am thinking here of military conscientious objection. Others may be relatively harmless.

But the employment of religious motives to deny services in the marketplace to members of the public is of a different order. In the first place, it violates the principles that govern public accommodations that was a major political and social victory of the civil rights era. Such values have been ingrained in American life for half a century, and when it comes to race are no longer in debate. The public market is simply subject to different rules, and this is as it should be. Secondly, allowing merchants to provide services to whom they choose based on their individual religious criteria, opens the door wide for social anarchy. And needless to say is a powerful refuge for bigotry.

The United States is a religion-making machine and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of religions in America, each subject to their own personal interpretation. Our commitment to religious freedom requires that the government take a hands-off approach to assessing which beliefs are legitimate (or legitimately religious) or not. And this is as it should be.

Gay marriage is the flash point for the Arizona showdown, though Arizona is not the only state with such laws in the making. In my view it is correct to allow religious officiants to refuse to perform gay marriage if doing so violates their religious doctrine. Religious freedom emphatically requires this lest we have established governmental dominion over religion. I believe few debate this. But the current conflict centers around those entrepreneurs who provide services ancillary to weddings, such as bakers, florists, photographers, perhaps caterers, services that do not have theological content.

As an Ethical Culture leader, a humanist and atheist I have officiated at over 500 weddings. I would suspect, given that wide-ranging experience, there must have been at least few florists or wedding planners, who, if they knew beforehand of my own religious orientation, would have wanted to have no part in the wedding.

For the sake of discussion, enabling such weddings may violate the religious convictions of the merchants. But so may the conscience of a conservative Christian hardware store owner selling a ratchet to a Jew, or a Muslim cab driver providing service to an unescorted woman.

Again, here the rules of the market much hold sway. If a merchant is permitted to serve the public, then he or she cannot discriminate for any reason as to which sector of the public he chooses to service and from which he will withhold his services. In a religious diverse and pluralistic society, public norms, which require accessibility to all must trump private proclivities, religious or otherwise.

Weddings are personal affairs, which raise the issue into higher relief. As implied, the law must require the objecting baker, photographer or florist to provides services, even when doing so violates sincerely held religious convictions (Let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that they are sincere, and not a mask for crude bigotry).

But, in the real world, we can assume that the sensitivity surrounding the wedding event would cause the marrying couple to want to avoid the unpleasantness of having to coerce a reluctant merchant from involvement in what should be a happy affair, if he or she, did not want to do so.

The legal rights of the couple must have the last word. But as in so many areas affecting entrenched differences in human affairs, negotiation and dialogue in practical terms need to be employed to resolve unpleasant disputes.  I know from serving on an ethics committee at a local hospital that the law permits patients on respirators for whom additional care would be futile, to have the respirator turned off, if the patient so wills it. Someone needs to found to turn the switch to allow the patient to die, and this duty usually falls upon nurses. On occasion, the appointed employee refuses on personal religious or principled grounds to what is ordered, though such passive euthanasia in accordance with the law and the will of the patient. In such cases, the response of the hospital is usually not to coerce compliance, but to find another staff member for whom the deed presents no problems.

Though not to excuse bigotry, by analogy, if the marrying couple comes across a service provider who refuses to participate in the spirit of the occasion, in most cases they can usually find one who will.

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