The Need for Dignity

A Syrian village is bombed and people flee becoming refugees. A young black man is shot and killed, in effect summarily executed, for a minor infraction by a cop in an American street. A child starves to death because his family is too poor to provide the sustenance to keep her alive. These tragedies describe real scenarios of people on the brink between life and death. They also describe situations in which not only the life of the victims is snuffed out but in which their personhood is diminished, their dignity impugned.
But one doesn’t have to invoke such extreme cases to identify an assault on human dignity. The child who is bullied by her peers, the minority member who is the object of humiliating prejudice, the financially struggling parent who has to decide between filling a medical prescription or feeding his children, all experience the inner anguish which accompanies the assault on their dignity.
But what is dignity? The word is often invoked, but its significance isn’t immediately clear. I can think of three different meanings given to the term.
Dignity is an ancient concept that has, in fact, changed its meaning through time. In ancient Rome, for example, dignitas had a specific significance. The orator Cicero often uses the term to denote the authority and honor due to a person of high social status. But beyond that, dignitas is a distinctive capacity of human beings in the order of nature that differentiates us from animals. It is vested in our ability to think, learn and be cultivated. But again, dignity was a status concept accompanying character development that marked off aristocrats from the masses, or human beings from other living things.
When we get to the eighteenth century, dignity assumes a different meaning, which becomes identified wholly with morality and becomes the possession of all people regardless of their social standing. By far the greatest expositor of this view of dignity was the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose contribution to ethics cannot be overstated.
In briefest terms, Kant sees something distinctive in ethical behavior which endows human beings with a value that nothing else in the universe possesses and renders human beings absolutely worthy. In his major treatise on ethics, Kant declares that we use and exploit all things as a means to satisfy our needs and wants. But there is one thing and one thing only that we may not use exclusively as a means, but must treat as an end-in-itself. And that one “thing” is the humanity that resides in all people; others as well as ourselves. As a means, all things have a price or a value, which is relative to the interests of the one who is doing the evaluating. But there is, again, one thing and one thing only that does not have a price. It is priceless. It is outside of the market and is beyond value. Its “value” is absolute. And that entity, again, is the humanity that is resident in each of us. Kant contrasts value with “worth”, or, to get to our point, “dignity.” In briefest terms, in each of us there resides an invisible, transcendent, quality – in a word, dignity -Kant tells us, that is absolute and demands as a duty to be respected.
At a deeper level, Kant proclaims that dignity emerges from our moral capacities. And here he becomes complex. As mentioned, Kant sees something distinctive in ethical behavior, which as noted is tagged to our capacity as free agents. As biological beings our impulses may drive us to want to steal that piece of fruit when we are hungry, but we are free to say to ourselves “to steal is ethically wrong and I will not do it.” Kant interprets this moral freedom as ultimately lodged in our capacity to reason, which he sees as independent from our drives, instincts and impulses as biological beings. It is this reason and freedom as the bases for the capacity for ethical choice that renders human beings ends-in-themselves, distinct from everything else, and ensures that we are possessed of humanity and dignity.
This is quite a lot. But in so putting forth his moral philosophy, Kant became the most influential defender of the concept of dignity, which has been invaluable to the history of ethical and political theory. By ways of examples, Felix Adler based Ethical Culture on Kant’s ethics, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which launched the modern human rights movement, cites the central value of dignity seven times, with no doubt the ghost of Immanuel Kant looking over the shoulders of its drafters.
There is third meaning attributed to dignity, and it is an aesthetic one. We might say that a person “comports herself with dignity,” or “he acted with dignity.” In this sense, what the word entails, I believe, is a disposition of what we might call “grace under pressure.” When the person is challenged, and perhaps challenged severely, he or she did not fall apart but was self-possessed and in control of his or her emotions.
Asserting dignity requires that we dispose and act toward others in specific ways. While doing so has always been required to sustain a civilized life, we can all summon reasons as to why our times call evoke a need to for its realization.

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Demogoguery and the Culture Wars


I can’t watch it anymore.       The verbal blood fest which is the Republican campaign for the presidential nomination I find nauseating. The name-calling, demagoguery, scapegoating and the shameless xenophobia mark a new low in modern electoral politics. It is more fitted for the junior high school playground than a race that should evince the best in statesmanship, civic-mindedness, and thoughtful policy positions. It’s sickening and dangerous. The 24/7 news cycle gives it a sizzle that its content does not deserve. One can only imagine what it augurs for the future of our nation. I grasp for some consolation in the thought that the Roman Empire survived for centuries with crazy emperors at the top in great measure because at lower levels it was sustained by a solid and well-functioning civil service. But admittedly this is small consolation.

How did we get to this point? How did an appeal to intelligence come to be replaced by pandering to anti-intellectualism, base emotions and demagoguery? There are many explanations which in complex ways feed into the disintegration of political discourse we currently witness.

Let’s start with the Republican Party. A place to look is with the so-called southern strategy, which began with Goldwater campaign in 1964 and was refined by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. The strategy was designed to flip the South for the Republican Party, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War. The Civil Rights Movement was the catalyst, and by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon Johnson himself noted that South would thereafter be lost to the Democrats. The strategy stoked the racial fears and prejudices of white southerners with appeals to “states’ rights” and “law and order,” coded terms pointing to the growing encroachment of blacks into white society. With the Southern strategy politics turned from articulating principled positions to manipulating emotions and pandering to base fears. This approach was reinforced by Ronald Reagan who campaigned defending states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from the place where three civil rights workers had been slain. Again, it was an appeal to race, with states’ rights as a stand in for the way things were before integration. And who can forget the campaign of George H. W. Bush and the infamous Willie Horton ad? It was around this time that the moniker “pointy-headed liberal” came into vogue, thus transforming an honored-concept descriptive of Jefferson or FDR into an identity that was virtually un-American. Add to this the maligning of “East Coast intellectuals” and with it the disparaging of education and intelligence. The stage was set for campaigning not based on policy debate but on whom you want to have a beer with. A candidate’s appeal is no longer based on his intelligence, his or her grasp of difficult issues or even experience, but on whether he or she projects a strong personality and can verbally subdue adversaries or those holding contrary views. We were well on our way to a politics based on anathematizing the other, a politics that appealed to emotions above principles, policies and reasoned judgement.

Playing the race card fomented a political culture marked by stark divisions, polarities, and flaming passions which have characterized the American culture wars. It has pitted liberals vs. conservatives, divided not only over matter of race, but of religion as well. Whatever the culture wars may be, they have not created an environment that honors nuance, intellectual sophistication or a spirit of compromise. Rather, the political soil is rich in anti-intellectualism and small-mindedness.

Much of the culture wars have centered on issues such as prayer in the schools, abortion, sexual mores, including gay rights, the role of and status of women, with conservatives claiming the mantle of piety, while denigrating the putative licentiousness of liberals. Much of the attack on the right has come from politicized evangelicals who re-entered the political arena in the late 70s, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The re-emergence of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the political arena, which has occasioned a tectonic shift of American politics far to the right, was ignited when the federal government deprived white, segregated, private academies of their tax-exempt status, ironically under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, himself a born-again Christian. These academies grew up in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision which mandated the integration of public schools. Thus we witness the unholy bond of racism and religion. And evangelical religion is based on faith and not on evidence or reason. Its triumphant hold on politics is apiece with our political descent into anti-intellectualism. It also equates one’s religious identity, and his or her putative piety, with one’s Americanism, despite the Constitutional ban on a religious test for public office.

And so we have the culture wars, which deflate political discourse to matters of identity and which sow the seeds of division resisting mediation by reasoned argument. Most distressing –and dangerous-is that facts have little to do with political allegiance for wide swaths of the American public. Our political discourse has become unhinged from reality.

My point is that the culture wars of the past 35 years, among other dynamics, have created the conditions which have allowed for and propelled the emergence of demagoguery in the highest echelons of American politics.  Question we are compelled to ask is, where can we look for hope? What must we do to restore sanity, civility and intelligence to our politics?


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Defying Refugee Rejection

Demagoguery and xenophobia in high places are reaching a feverish pitch not witnessed in America since the McCarthy era. What we are experiencing in this election cycle is the politics of fear, which employs scapegoating in order to garner popular support for those seeking to be the leader of the free world. It is morally repugnant and politically very dangerous. In a time of stagnant economy and international terrorism, immigrants and refugees have become the prime targets. Singled out among the latter are those fleeing the extraordinarily brutal civil war in Syria.


This conflict, which has created a hell on earth, has displaced one half of the country’s population, four million of whom have fled their borders, escaping bombings, gassing, torture and persecution. Most of the violence has been generated by the government of Bashar Assad. The surrounding countries of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon have taken in millions of these refugees. As untold thousands flee for their lives to Europe, with conspicuous numbers dying along the way, Germany has pledged to resettle a million Syrians. The United States, which has taken in fewer than 2,000, has committed itself to accept 10,000 endangered Syrians, a paltry number given the humanitarian need and the vaunted narrative of the United States as a haven for the persecuted. “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”


It was discovered that in the recent assault on Paris by ISIS operatives, one was an asylum seeker from Syria. This single incident has been the occasion for those who would be president to attack the administration’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrians, and motivated some to call for the complete barring of Muslims from the country, singling out those fleeing the Syria, in particular. My own governor, Christopher Christie, in order to boost his failing campaign for the Republican nomination, declared that he would not have any Syrians resettled in New Jersey (conveniently forgetting that refugee resettlement is a responsibility of the federal government and not the states.) To inflate his bravado and clarify his position, Christie stated that we should go as far as to bar “orphans under five years old” from entering the United States.


In defiance of this edict calumniating those who are arguably the planet’s most dispossessed, and in greatest need of a safe haven, the Bergen Society held a party!


This party had roots reaching back eleven years when the Society spearheaded a movement to provide a comprehensive range of humanitarian services for political asylum seekers in our area. The Northern New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition is now compromised of eight local congregations and a human rights organization giving support to asylum seekers in nearby detention centers. As it turns out, two of our current clients are Syrian families.


One – a husband, wife and four children – has been in our program for four years. The other client is a Syrian businessman whose had to leave behind his wife and three children as he fled for his life. His family received derivative asylum, and three months ago, after much anxiety, they arrived in the United States, and the war-torn family was reunited. A member of our board found a benefactor who is paying the first four months rent for the family in Montclair, New Jersey. In short, as our governor was exploiting the fear of Syrians to boost his sagging campaign, we were settling a Syrian family in the Garden State.


To drive the point home, on January 16th, the Bergen Society hosted a potluck dinner with our two Syrian families as the guests of honor. Also present were the Coalition’s two other clients: a young man from Eritrea, and our newest client, a young man from Yemen. To our surprise, more than 80 people showed up at the dinner with prepared food in hand. No doubt, the large turnout resulted from a desire to express solidarity with those who are most imperiled. It was a simple, but, in a sense, profound, and certainly very timely, act of moral witness of which we can all be proud.

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Malignant Individualism

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
–W.B. Yeats

Twenty-five years ago, I read “Achieving Our Country,” a delightful book by the late American philosopher, Richard Rorty. It was a paean to American progressivism in the spirit of Walt Whitman and John Dewey. In his book Rorty made an observation that did nothing less than change my mind. He noted that America’s cultural left with its penchant for political correctness had “reduced sadism” in American life. It seemed true. Though we had far to go, America was really trying hard to put the criminal legacy of racism behind us. It became unacceptable to ridicule fat people and circus freak shows were long a thing of the past. We had turned a corner and Americans were becoming nicer. It was an optimistic thought I allowed myself to indulge.

I believed it then. I don’t believe it now. Racism is alive and well and very raw. I think not only of the spate of African-American men and children killed by white police officers, but of racial epithets uttered with abandon and entitlement. I think of a Congress with its cadre of extremists that will block any initiative of Barack Obama simply because it has originated with him. Though it seems too crude to enter into our political discourse, I can’t help but think that too many Americans, including members of Congress, simply cannot abide and accept the fact that the most powerful man in America, America’s face to the world is that of a black man.

I think of the anti-immigrant vitriol issuing forth from the land of immigrants. I ponder the moral implications of one percent of the population owning more than 40 percent of its wealth, perhaps feeling entitled to it and a smug sense that their obscene riches are somehow well deserved. And this while the middle class erodes in quiet desperation and the poor have become totally invisible.

Consider privatization. Privatizing education. Private prisons. The proposal to turn social security and Medicare into vouchers to be used on the private market. Think of gated communities, private country clubs and private luxury boxes at sports stadiums so that the wealthy can have nothing to do with the rest of us, holed up in their own separate worlds.
What all these phenomena, and many more characteristic of modern society have in common at their base is a philosophy of radical individualism that has become legitimated and reinforced by a fashionable libertarian ideology.

I need to be clear. I am a strong, and when need be, militant, advocate of individualism. The individual is the locus of subjective experience. It is the repository of our freedom and our rights. Individualism is the matrix that spawns a great deal of creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness. Without high regard for the individual we forfeit any civilization worth having. The individual is the fount of our dignity, and, as Ethical Culture teaches, the source of our uniqueness as human beings.

But the individual is half of our humanity. The other half is our communalism. It is recognition that we are social beings, deeply nested in human community. The larger human context comprised of other people is the source of our values and our strength. It is through culture which we inherit that we mold our individual selves. We are dependent on others for our language, our intellectual heritage, our folkways, virtually all that we are. We come from others and we share with others a common destiny. It is as if our individual selves are the tip of the iceberg. Our social selves are what lie beneath, mostly hidden, but far more massive, more substantive.

It is this endowment, this gift, to which we in the current age have grown blind. But receiving a gift also, in my view, implies responsibility, a duty to others, to society, so that we may give back in the order in which we have received.
It is this sense of social connection and the social obligations incumbent on it that have been forgotten, derided and often disdained in our time. Dedication to the common good, an exalted concept, speaks now with a very weak voice, if at all. Unbridled, often haughty individualism holds sway.

The bigot shouting racist epithets does not sense his common bond with those he holds in contempt. The champion of privatization, who heralds the virtues of free market capitalism and its ethos of privatization, does not see or care to see that capitalism kills around the fringes – and those fringes have grown very large indeed. The libertarian ideologue in his righteousness is blinded to feelings of compassion.

We live in a time in which American society, indeed the international community, feels as if it is being torn apart and inching closer to a Hobbesian world of “each against all.” Yeat’s response to such an era at an earlier time was to foresee a religious deus ex machina, a Second Coming. I, the humanist, choose to work for a world in which we sense the human dimension threading through us all, uniting us as sisters and brothers committed to a world which strives for the common good.

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Netanyahu, Congress, Optics

The optics were extraordinary. A national leader taking the podium before a joint session  of Congress; the power center of the world packed from wall to wall, the security tight. The event mirrored a state of the union address, but the man at the center was not the president of the United States. The president was somewhere else. The man taking his place, as if to dethrone him, was a foreign leader, in this case Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The audience was rapt; the standing ovations continued without let up. For the duration of the speech, it was if Netanyahu, not Obama, were America’s leader.

But Netanyahu was not here to stand with the president. He was hear to conspire with his political enemies. Once again, Obama has been marginalized and diminished by Republicans who have done whatever they can to weaken, obstruct and disrespect the man and with it the office. This time they did it by doing an end run around the president and inviting a foreign leader with whom the president disagrees and without notifying him. No doubt the fears Israel harbors with regard to the Iranian nuclear program are very real. But protocol, respect and courtesy dictate that Netanyahu go to Congress through the president and not around him, and that Congress behave reciprocally.

As for substance, the critics are right. The abandonment of this deal, assuming it is consummated, leaves us with nothing but sanctions. But in a fractured world, where national interests have the last say, maintaining sanctions is like sitting in a leaky boat. They will inevitably erode in time, and Iran will free to build its nuclear bombs unimpeded.

Yes, the stakes are very large. But even if Congress chooses take its leadership from a foreign head of state and not its own, one fears that Mr. Netanyahu and the US Congress will get what they asked for but not what they want.

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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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