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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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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