Category Archives: Extremism

Our Boys: Judgement

 

One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team,   was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.

The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally.  They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious.  The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.

As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize  at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged  into war—again.

At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.

Our Boys: the Quest

 

 

I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy  each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.

First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles.  I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a  true series of events in Israel and Palestine  in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.

The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed,  and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.

That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive.  It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted  in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”

The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys.  He  boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”

A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said,  if one side is crazy the other side  must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.”  The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.

An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.

The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence.  As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”

The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.

Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.

Liberalism: A response to Extremism

 

I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:

 

  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.

 

Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51

Slaughter by Divine Right

Things have been getting strange. Nearly every day it seems like the crazies are winning.

For a number of years Myanmar has been wracked by murderous attacks against a Muslim minority group of Rohingya people. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country with a significant Muslim minority. The UN states that the Rohingya people of Myanmar are among the most persecuted people in the world at this time. Myanmar security forces have driven the Rohingya people  off their land, burned down their mosques and committed widespread looting, arson and rape of Rohingya women.

There have been a lot of mass shootings recently involving religious groups from around the world.   We read about a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 where 6 worshippers were shot and killed while 19 more were injured. The lone gunman opened fire just after evening prayers.

In October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg Pennsylvania 11 people were murdered and 6 more injured by a gunman. This was the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history. The massacre was an unprecedented act of violence against American Jews—but it is by no means the first time that anti-Semitism has manifested itself in deadly violence against Jews in the United States.

In March 2019 there were 2 consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch New Zealand during Friday Prayer. The gunman who came all the way from Australia, launched two consecutive attacks that began at one mosque and continued at an Islamic Centre.  This case was also distinguished by the fact that the gunman live-streamed his first attack on Facebook. 50 people were killed and another 50 injured. These were the deadliest mass shootings in the history of New Zealand. The 28 year old gunman was described as a white supremacist and part of the alt-right movement that many Christians in America support. Just before the shooting he played “Serbia Strong” a nationalist song celebrating Radovan Karadžić who was found guilty of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

In April 2019, on Easter Sunday, 3 Christian churches across Sri Lanka and 3 luxury hotels were targeted by  suicide bombers in series of coordinated suicide bombings. Approximately 253 people were killed and another 500 people injured. This attack was believed to be in retaliation to the shootings in New Zealand. This is the fact caught my eye. Sri Lankan government officials said the attacks were carried out by Sri Lankan citizens associated with National Thowheeth Jama’ath a local militant Islamist group with suspected foreign ties. The group was  previously known for attacks against Buddhists. The direct linkage between the two attacks was questioned by some experts. Yet these were clearly coordinated slaughters by a group of extremist Muslims apparently in retaliation for the recent attacks of the mosque in Christchurch New Zealand.

Then a couple of days ago, 6 months to the day after the slaughter at the synagogue in Pittsburg, there was another attack near a synagogue in California  where a man shot 4 people and killing one of them.  The suspect who turned himself in posted an 8-page manifesto online in which he boasted about being from “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jews.  He even said he had taken inspiration from the New Zealand mosque shooter in March of this year.

What do all of these events have in common? Violence? For sure. But violence of a particular sort. Violence in favor of or against a particular religion.  This is deeply disturbing. Have we entered the era of religious world wars?  They are happening everywhere.  What is happening here?

One of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, seemed to understand it best. As he said in his great poem “The Second Coming” which he wrote nearly exactly 100 years ago:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

 

The Second Coming!

Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Although this poem presages a “Second Coming” in the poem it is a nightmare. Just like the Roman World was shocked by the arrival of Christ, Yeats suggests, our world will be shocked and rocked by the new arrival. It will happen he suggest, about 2,000 years after Chris was born. About now in other words. It will be a “rough beast” that slouches toward Bethlehem waiting “to be born.” It will “trouble our sight”.  It will loose another “blood-dimmed tide” and may drown “the ceremony of innocence” once again. As the narrator of the poem seems to fear, it will no doubt wreak havoc and terror.

Is this the terror that is approaching? Is the beast moving its horrifying  “slow thighs?” Things are falling apart and the centre no longer holds. “Mere anarchy” is loosed upon the world. Why “mere” anarchy? The Extremists are taking over. The religious wars are back again. The rest of us are doomed.So it seems.

As I have said elsewhere, when religion leads to hate it is no longer religion. What we have is actually a toxic brew of hate and racism. All of these are inimical to genuine religion, but find fertile ground in the soil of pseudo-religion.

Some people (too many people) seem to believe that they have the divinely granted right to slaughter other people as a result of having been issued a licence to kill by their personal revengeful god. How can this be? Where do we go from here?

BlacKkKlansman

 

 

 

The film BlacKkKlansman written by Spike Lee and others and also directed by Lee, is based on a memoir written by Ron Stallworth in 2014. The film is set in the early 1970s and tells the story of Stallworth who was the first black African-American detective in Colorado Springs. Amazingly Stallworth infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (‘KKK’) by posing as a white supremacist on the telephone. When face-to-face meetings were necessary his colleague at the Police Department, also amazingly, was  a Jew, but nonetheless stepped in to help out posing as Stallworth.  He showed up at meetings in the basement of a KKK member whose wife served cheese and crackers to those planning racially based attacks.

The portrait of the Klan members is not flattering. Their racism seems impossible. How could people have the crazy ideas they had? I kept thinking that Lee ought to have made a film about covert racism instead of the easy target of the KKK. After all there can’t be any racists like that anymore, I thought.  Yet the more I thought about the film the more I realized that is not true.  Many of the Klan members expressed views that seem to have come directly from Trump. They said that they just wanted American First and wanted to make it great again. By which of course they meant they white and non-Jewish.

Stallworth said the US would never elect someone “like Duke”, the leader of the Klan.  We as the audience experienced a hush at this point, knowing how in 2016 they did exactly that. Such racism is alive and “well” in the U.S as it is in Canada. Canada just picks a different target–indigenous people.

I was particularly affected by the racism of the women in the film.  One of the KKK members was affectionately hugging his spouse while she coos about how grateful she is that after all these years they are finally going to “kill some niggers.” She loves her husband for giving her this glorious opportunity. And then there were women watching a racist film at a Klan meeting who responded viscerally to a scene where a black man was lynched by a “brave” mob of whites. Watching it, as we cringed, she yelled, “String em up,” reminding me of how Trump’s female supporters would shout out at Trump rallies at the mention of Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up.”

The film ends with a shock. Lee included actual video footage from the 2017 Unite The Right Rally in Charlottesville where various white supremacists, including David Duke the Klan leader, marched the streets of the city Virginia. The march included self-identified members of the far-right, alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and others. The white supremacist marchers chanted racist and antisemitic slogans, carried semi-automatic rifles (Virginia is an open carry state), Nazi symbols including the swastika, and of course, Confederate flags. Many wore Trump “Make America Great Again” hats.

The footage of the rampage was shocking. It showed men violently attacking counter protesters and a car mowing down pedestrians. About 40 of the counter protesters were injured and 1 was killed. One of them was paralyzed as a result of the attacks.

Not that all the counter protesters were without blemish. Some of them egged on the supremacists. These days it is sadly not uncommon for Leftists to forget that people who disagree with them also have freedom of speech.

After that the film switched to a few of Trump’s reactions to the events. Trump did not clearly criticize the white supremacists, but instead said, “There were good people on both sides.” The two sides were hardly equivalent.

It’s not surprising that after Trump’s comments Duke the KK leader  responded by calling the protests “a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” After Trump’s subsequent tweets Duke thanked Trump for telling the truth and the fact that he “condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Anitfa.” Later when Trump did finally criticize the white supremacists, Duke reminded Trump to  “take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.” Duke knows a racist when he sees one, even if millions of Trump supporters either don’t or don’t care.

I was wrong.  This is  an important movie. Clearly such blatant racism is not a thing of the past. It is the “history of the present” to use an expression by Pankaj Mishra.

The film closed quietly with a simple but dramatic image: the American flag lying upside down, gradually turning from full color to black and white. As seems to be happening so much in America (and Canada too), many people don’t seem to see in colour any more. Everything is black and white. The extremes are winning. I hope I am wrong about that.

Something Nice About Trump

 

As some of my critics have pointed out, I don’t often say something nice about Donald Trump. That is true. Today is an exception.

As everyone knows, the American government has been partially shut down for more than 4 weeks. Not everyone knows this has caused serious problems. It causes serious damage to the American economy as many things can’t be done, that should be done. Even more important, it has caused serious damage to many Americans. About 800,000 American government employees are not being paid. Many of them are still expected to go to work. That is inherently unfair.

I blame both sides. Not just Donald Trump, but certainly including him. Trump has said he won’t approve spending that does not include money for a wall on the southern border. This is an absurd position. It is highly unlikely that a wall will do any good. It is just window dressing for his ego. He is asking for about $5  billion at this time. This is small  beer in terms of American political spending. The Democrats say they were elected on the basis of opposing the wall. But Trump also got elected on the basis of promising a wall. Both sides should get over it.

This stand-off  shows how crazily dysfunctional their system of government is. This keeps happening over and over again, particularly as the chasm between Americans deepens. I damages the American international reputation. Extremism is on the march. This should be resolved. That will required either statesmanship or compromise or both. Since statesmanship is conspicuously absent, that means the parties must compromise. That means both sides have to agree to a settlement that is less than ideal from their perspective. So be it. Politicians willing to compromise in America appear to be a species on the endangers species list.

I listened today to  a small part of an interview with Joseph Stiglitz a respected American economist. I really just heard one small part of his talk. That was enough. He said there were figures out there that indicated that 40% of Americans have less than $400 in their accounts. 25% have less than $1,000 That means such a shutdown has serious consequences for these people. I have heard that Air traffic controllers have been working over time at second jobs with Uber so that they pay their portages. Americans need to be fair to their civil servants (even though many of them don’t respect civil servants). Many other people have lost their jobs because they depend on working with government employees. All of this is a serious drag on the American economy.

Today Donald Trump offered to approve a temporary extension of protection for people facing deportation on the basis that they are undocumented, so that both parties in Congress have more time to come up with a solution for this serious problem, but only if Congress approves a spending bill that includes money for the wall. In the circumstances Trump has made a reasonable offer. This will help thousands of people in America who are anxiously awaiting a return to work so they can feed their families and pay their bills. It will  postpone many deportations for at least 3 years. This is good. Not perfect, but good. Democrats should not let perfection be the enemy of the good. The Democrats should compromise, even though that will be painful for them. It will be good for the country. It will be good for many individuals and families. That is more important. Much more important.

Jonathan Haidt on Moral Humility

I have adopted the notion of moral humility from Jonathan Haidt, one of the speakers at Arizona State University this year as part of their year long series of lectures on free speech. He is  professor of psychology. He had some interesting things to say on a number of topics. One of them was “moral humility.”  He urged all of us to practice more of it.   He contrasted it with extremism.

The classic failure in the 20thcentury to follow modest and humble goals was of course Communism.  They practiced an extreme form of utopianism.   Albert Camus, another of my favorite political thinkers had a similar way of thinking. He opposed thinking without limits. He wanted political leaders to be modest. Humble in other words. The failure to be humble, he thought, is that it leads to an abundance of graves.  That is the problem with utopian zeal or revolutionary terror.

British philosopher John Gray said, “Terror has been used in this way wherever a revolutionary dictatorship has been bent on achieving utopian goals.” Or as he also said, about the Communists, “the scale and intensity of Bolshevik repression, which was the result of attempting to reconstruct society on an unworkable model.” They wanted to create the perfect human—an impossible goal.

Gray finds even more examples of dangerous Utopian thinking. He finds it on the left and he finds it on the right. He finds in religion–in Christianity, and in Islam. He even finds in the Nazis ideology. They wanted to create the pure Aryan race.

Part of the problem with utopian thinking is that it leads to orthodoxy. After all, if you know absolute truth, then there is only one way to the truth and nothing can stand in the way. There is no need to be modest or restrained when you know absolute truth.

The Buffalo Springfield also got it right when they sang:

“A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly saying, ‘hooray for our side’

There is no need to be humble when your team is cheering you on no matter what you say. That is a license to be extreme. You can call Hillary Clinton “Satan.”  You can compare Donald Trump to Hitler. You can suggest that Justin Trudeau is the devil. Then you can desire to burn the others at the stake. And you will feel joy at the prospect. This is about as far from humility as you can get. No matter what you say, your side will applaud. And if you listen only to your side, you will naturally begin to think that you are a genius. You deserve the applause. It’s hard to be humble when your side gives you a standing ovation.

Donald Trump is of course a perfect example of this. Recently he said at a rally in front of his fans, “Some have asked me, “Did you have anything to do with the Korean leaders getting together?”  He shrugged, grinned mischievously and said, “How about everything.”  Not much humility there.  Then his fans chanted repeatedly “Nobel. Nobel. Nobel.” And Trump grinned again, as if that was a reasonable suggestion. When your side is cheering you on, no matter how absurd, you accept the fawning.

What amazes me is Trump’s fans accept his abject lack of humility. He says he is the smartest. It does not matter how dumb he is. They lap it up. America, it seems to me, has given up on humility. I wish they hadn’t. Many of us could use more of it. Including me.

Why are so many children and young people taking guns to school?

 

Chris and I were talking about the latest shooting in the United States on February 14, 2018 in Florida. A young 19 year old former student allegedly walked into his old school, turned on the fire alarm so that students would rush out of building where he was waiting with an AR 15 automatic rifle. At  least 17 students were murdered  and 15 more were injured.

The latest shooting raises many important issues and I want to comment on them later. Today I want to concentrate on one issue? Why are so many young people in America the richest country in the world taking guns to schools to shoot students?

On the 24th of January 2018, I heard on the radio that the United States had experienced its 11th shooting at a school this year. 11 in 24 days! I guess there are just not enough guns in schools yet to deter shooters. In fact, so far in the US there has been a shooting at a school every 60 hours!

This issue is particularly important because of where we are now living for 3 months: Arizona. One of those school shootings occurred here in Arizona. I learned this week that Maricopa County, where we spend a lot of time when we are here, has more guns shops than any county in the United States. A gun shop is a place where guns can be purchased. In fact, Maricopa County has more gun shops than MacDonald’s Restaurants! Added to that,  the United States has more gun shops than there are Starbucks on the planet! So guns are part of the problem and I will discuss that on a later blog.

But what about the uncomfortable fact that so many of these involve school shootings? Yesterday right after we heard about the shooting, we stopped at a pizza restaurant for supper and asked Maya our young waitress who is a high school student what she thought of it. I asked her if she felt safe in school. She said she did. Of course she said, her school had a hired security officer on duty every day. The school in Florida, I was told, also had a security officer. That did not solve the problem. Maya, contrary to arguments of the National Rifle Association, did not think more guns in school were a good idea and would not make her feel more safe. On the contrary, she said, she feared if the security had guns they might be trigger-happy and makes things a lot worse. That was an astute comment. American soldiers for example, are famous for killing their own soldiers or soldiers of their allies in “friendly fire.”  That is because they are trained to be trigger happy.

Chris mentioned something very important. That is the startling extent to which extremism is rampant here. People here can’t talk to people they disagree with politically. Extremism is prevalent everywhere, but in few developed countries if any, more than the United States. Extremism is as American as apple pie. It always has been and as a result perhaps always will be. After all the country was born in an ugly holocaust against the indigenous people and that was quickly followed by centuries of importation of black people from Africa to be enslaved in support of America enterprise. Those were certainly extreme events and as we all know, extremism leads to  extremism.

The Great Divide is not a geological phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon. Liberals/Democrats can’t fathom the idiocy of Conservatives/Republicans. Conservatives and Republicans return the sentiments. They can’t stand each other. The statements about the others are astonishingly  extreme. No the word “extreme” is not extreme enough.

In America, and much of the modern world, but most spectacularly in America, there is a profound gulf between people. Often it seems that opposing sides come from different planets. This became pronounced  during the 2016 American presidential election campaign, in which a blatant extremist—Donald Trump—got elected and half the country loved him and the other half hated him. There was little in between. As Bill Maher said, “each half of society does not want to live with the other half.”

According to a PEW study, “81% of Americans can’t agree with the other side on basic facts.” How is it possible to have rational political debate in such circumstances? And if rational political debate is no longer possible, what is the alternative? Violence is the obvious answer. And America is a very violent society.

In politics people seem to be driven not by support for their own party so much as hatred of the other side. Increasingly they voice that hatred. And guess who is listening? The young people are nourished in that environment of corrosive hatred. Is it surprising that some mentally unbalanced youth resort to violence?

At the Republican National Convention, in 2016 a senior member of Donald Trump’s campaign said that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party presumptive nominee at the time, “should be put in a firing squad and shot.” CBC radio went to Virginia to talk to Trump supporters. They were treated to many extreme statements. One said that “Hillary is a murderer and a liar I can’t even see how she is eligible for President.” One said this about Trump, “Donald Trump may be a loose cannon but perhaps that is what the country needs.” Another said that ‘she is the closest we will get to a civil war if she pushes her agenda. Can things get more extreme than this? Trump himself suggested that American gun supporters should take care of her.

Of course Democrats were no  better. They compared Trump to Hitler. Some called him a fascist. Many have called him a pathological liar.

How much more extreme can things get?

Jonathan Haidt was one of the speakers at the Arizona State University’s year long exploration of truth seeking, politics, and freedom of speech that Chris and I have been following. We missed his talk but caught it on TV. He is a social psychologist and had fascinating things to say about the state of America. He pointed out that “the more angry you are the more pleasing it is to encounter fake news. Even if part of you doubts it is true, it just feels so good.” We want it to be true and desire is always the enemy of truth.

Haidt puts the blame on the strong American tendency to make politics religious. American politics is about the sacred. And this polarizes. This creates “our side” where all good resides, while all the bad resides with “the other side.”

As he said, “when you start to think like this, then anyone who disagrees, anyone who challenges, anyone that leaves your group, they are apostate, they are heretics, they are blasphemers and the most satisfying thing to do with them is not to lecture them, or ground them, or spank them, it is to burn them. It just feels so right to burn them at the stake.” Strong words.

Again is it surprising that the children of the partisans, who see the hatred, reflect that same hatred in their disputes with their “enemies”? People can’t talk with those they disagree with, so unsurprisingly they resort to violence. After all when the other side is evil, a refusal to use violence against them seems like a breach of trust, a sacrilege. Hatred breeds monsters and our children are the first victims. Both the children who became killers and the children who are killed.

Freedom of Thought and Expression: Civic Friendship

This is the third and final part of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George at Arizona State University. They have what they refer to as a civic friendship. That is another important concept. Even though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, making them what someone called “an ideological odd couple,” they are truly friends. That was obvious by watching them talk. Even more importantly that was obvious by watching them listen–to each other. They really did listen. Clearly they respected each other.

To be civic friends you must have something in common. For example, if one of the two is not interested in seeking truth they will not be able to be friends. The friends must find that something in common to become friends. It can be many things. Truth seeking is just one, but it is a good one. It is hard to find for many of us because our differences today run so deep. After all this is the age of extremes as Eric Hobsbawm called it. Since then the chasm between the extremes has only deepened. The challenge is to find that common ground. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the common ground. Other times it is just below the surface.

It is not enough for two sides to share something. That was proved conclusively in the United States before the differences led to Civil War. They shared a lot, but for awhile forgot what they had in common or rather, perhaps, until they were overwhelmed by their differences. In fact it certainly looks like Americans are being tested right now. Can they find their common ground or will they let their differences overwhelm them again?

George said that to be civic friends, or a nation, we must believe in some substantive fundamental civil rights and liberties that cannot be compromised. That does not mean we must agree on everything. We can have substantive differences. We can even have important disagreements on very important matters. But we must recognize that we each of us have some common fundamental rights that all of must respect–like freedom of thought and discussion for example. If we have a shared belief in the freedom to think and discuss then we have a basis for a democratic discussion. Then we will respect each other even if we disagree. To do that, “we must have a fundamental belief in the dialectical process of truth seeking.”

George and West both agreed on one more important thing. That is that there is such thing as truth. Both reject relativism. That does not mean we will agree on what is true. We may have strong disagreements about what is true. We must remember that even if we think we have discovered truth, we could be wrong. Like John Stuart Mill said, you must listen to the other no matter how unlikely it is that you will agree with anything the other has to say. All of our ‘truths’ must be open to revision. We always have to remember that we are not infallible. We might be wrong. This is not relativism. It is just a recognition of our fallibility.

West always brings it back to music. “Artists are the vanguard of the people, and musicians are the vanguard of music,” West said. He said that we have a choice of indescribable pleasures or deep joy. He chooses deep joy. “It is the job of the artist to radically unsettle us.” It is the same of education. As West said, “if you have never felt your fundamental ideas rested on pudding, you never had any real education.” He also said, “There is no rebirth without dying first.

To that George added, “If at any University experience is constant reaffirmation of what you believe, you are not being challenged and you have not had a real educational experience.” Only if you think your beliefs through and reach the same conclusion as before is that acceptable.

George added, “We need open-mindedness because we seek truth and want to be challenged. George’s position is, I believe, like that of John Stuart Mill who said, we should thank everyone who tries to dislodge us from our settled opinions. They are doing us a big favor. If they persuade us to change our minds that is great. We are better off because we discarded an opinion that was not defensible. If they do not persuade us to change our minds, at least they have made us think about our opinions and how they could be defended. We come to understand our opinions better. We are actually in a better position to defend them in such a case. So again we should thank them. We should never try to shout them down or stop them from arguing with us. For our own sake we should let them speak.

According to George, after a history of having our opinions challenged “we become our own best interrogators. We become our own best critics.” That should be the goal. It should become our goal if we love the truth.

West took this opportunity to argue in defense of scepticism. Scepticism is not relativism. Scepticism is critical thinking. That is what we need. We do not need absolute scepticism that believes in nothing. The scepticism he advocated was exemplified by Malcolm X. In other words a scepticism that is suspicious of received opinions from power. Malcolm X was sceptical–for good reason–about American democracy, which all around him claimed to be an absolute good when it was filled with flaws. He pointed out some of its flaws to others, and that made him very unpopular with much of America. So be it. Some people don’t like to hear the truth.

John Dewey argued in against wholesale scepticism, but in favor of retail scepticism. Retail scepticism can lead to truth. That is what we are seeking. Wholesale scepticism hides from the truth. As West said, “We have to be sceptical about scepticism.”

George added to these remarks. He said, what is vital is questioning. We must be ready and willing to question all opinions. “Scepticism can become a dogma,” George said. Scepticism should never become so pervasive that it leads to indifference and despair. Then we lose all ability to act.

Henry David Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes to support the war with Mexico. He called it a land grab. It was colonialism and exploitation at its worst, in his opinion, so he refused to pay and was put in jail for that refusal. Of course, what about the far larger original land grab when Europeans who settled in North America and South America grabbled the hemisphere from the Indigenous people that lived here and in the process caused the death of 95% of the population of the Western Hemisphere? It was the greatest holocaust in history!

West also said we had to leery of micro-suffering. People who take offense at the mere mention of abuse must be challenged. Especially in a University, but not just there, we must be willing to engage in a discussion of all issues, even those that are painful to some people. We must do that with respect and consideration, but we have the right to discuss those issues. No one has the right not to hear offensive things. West said, “As a teacher it is not my responsibility to provide a safe place for learning. In fact, the place of learning should be a place that is unsettling. ” If it is not unsettling it is not doing its job.

As George said, “The point of education is not to show off our learning, or gain prestige, it is to seek the truth. That process should be unsettling even to our most cherished beliefs, even our fundamental beliefs. We must be willing to expose even our religious views to scrutiny. For some of us that will be hard.” West also reminded us, “Education is not indoctrination”.

This puts a heavy responsibility on teachers. They should put forth both sides of a dispute to their students. In fact, teachers should not tilt the scales in favor of their favored views. This means putting forth best arguments for both sides of an argument. This is what Plato did in his dialogues. Try to figure out ‘why do well informed, intelligent people disagree with me?’ We must each do that. We must each be our best interrogators.

George said that he frequently reads Nietzsche because he does not agree with him. He knows that Nietzsche is a brilliant thinker and writer so he wants to contend with the best arguments on all issues. He frequently tests himself to see if he can still contend with Nietzsche. And you have to be honest with yourself if you do this. Otherwise you are just fooling yourself.

George said that each of us needs self-reflection to challenge our most sacred views. We must learn to be our best critics. We should also seek out a good friend to debate issues. This means a friend who is willing to tell us when we are wrong. A deep friendship allows a friend to criticize us. Criticism is always for our own good.

We must expose ourselves to the best counter arguments. This does not show a lack of passion. This allows us to grasp an issue more deeply. And West concluded with this remark, “In the end we talk about living.” Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We want to seek the truth to make our life better. Even if we don’t find the truth, the search for truth improves our life.

A Jazzman in the World of Ideas

 

This is part II of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George that we heard a Arizona State University. Their topic was truth seeking, democracy, and freedom of thought and expression.

Cornel West said that we should revel in our common humanity even when you think the other is wrong. In my opinion that is the beginning and most important part of respectful (and hence useful) dialogue. Name calling and finger wagging are seldom useful.

To be a fundamental searcher for truth, one must begin with piety. By piety he means we should depend on those who came before us. We should learn from their mistakes, and try to gain wisdom from them. “We should try to be truth seekers together.” We should learn from our spiritual, moral and political teachers of excellence who came before us.

West said he came from a long tradition of a great people who had been subjugated for a long time even though his tradition taught love.   Their anthem, West said, was “Lift every voice.” Every jazzman finds his voice. He did not use this expression today, but I have heard West say that he is “A Jazzman in the world of ideas.” This reminds me a bit of my own views: be a meanderer in the world of ideas. There is no straight line to truth. The search for truth moves by twists and turns, steps forward and backward. There is no laid out map. There is no recipe for truth. It would be convenient if there was.

West says that in his classes he tells his students he wants “to teach them to learn to die.” Plato in his dialogues said much the same thing. He said his philosophy was meditation on how to die. Seneca said “he who learns to die learns to give up slavery.” West wants us to “learn how to die, in order to learn how to live.” In the end it is about living.

West wants us to achieve “Deep education, not cheap schooling.” His mentor, Socrates, urged us to respect the other in dialogue. After that empathy is what comes out of his mouth.”

Cornell West also said, “If the kingdom of God is within you, everywhere you go, you will leave a little of heaven behind.” West was blunt about current conditions in America and the west: “We live in a period of spiritual blackout.”

West also commented on the current President of the United States. “Donald Trump has no monopoly on spiritual blackout. Trump also did not cause the spiritual blackout; he is a symptom of it. Donald Trump is as American as cherry pie.” I found this particularly important at this time in America. About 50 million Americans voted for Trump in the last election and he was clearly a racist and a liar, but they voted for him anyway. Donald Trump did not hide anything about himself. He put it out there and millions of people voted for him. Millions liked what they heard. To many of us that is incomprehensible, but not to millions of Americans. Nearly half the American voters voted for Trump. So what Trump is, America is too.

West, like George, and like John Stuart Mill reminded us all said we had to be wary of our own convictions. Convictions can be the enemy of truth. We had to be willing to expose them to criticism and attack. Like Nietzsche said, we must have the courage to attack our convictions. Each of us is only as strong as our critics.

According to West, with spiritual blackout you end up distrusting people. You adopt the morality of much of 19th century capitalism. Do what ever you want; just don’t get caught. This attitude is widespread across the board in all institutions, he said. Not just capitalism. No democracy can survive when this attitude is rampant. In the west, particularly America, this attitude is rampant. That puts democracy in jeopardy.

Both West and George urged us to consider and adopt civic virtues. These result from recognition that all groups of people are precious and human at the deepest level. It is based on the finding of a common humanity in diverse groups. I would say that we discover this by accessing our innate fellow feeling at a deep level. I think West has a deep appreciation of the commons. This is how West and George connect with each other. They embrace their differences and their common humanity. I wish more of us could do that. This is particularly exemplary in this age of extremes, in which it appears most of us can no longer speak softly with others who disagree with us. West and George exemplified what they preached. You could see one listening intently while the other spoke. They did not interrupt each other. They learned from one another.

West is inspired by jazz music in particular and his favorite is John Coltrane. West treats an intellectual discussion as Coltrane and his friends would “a jam session.” He wants to make music by dialogue. That would be a jam session of ideas. West said that Coltrane and his friends would learn not only from each other, but from the dead, when they jammed. They would listen to the playing of the others in the jam session and then show what they had learned from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. The musical ideas would bounce off each other. That is what West wants in intellectual dialogue too. Voices bouncing off each other including voices of the dead like Martin Luther King or William Shakespeare or Friedrich Nietzsche or Jesus Christ. Then we can access something bigger than the parts in the search for truth, whether you are in a jam session or a philosophical discussion.

Even that was not enough, West said. Democracy is exactly this too. Democracy is ideas bouncing off each other when each voice is heard and no voice is shut down. When people respect each other’s voices great things can result. Of course this requires others to want to make music (getting back to the music analogy again). If they are just trying to shut you down you can’t make music. This gets back to freedom of speech.

That does not mean you have the right to say anything at all at any time. You have no right to shout “fire” in a crowded dark theatre. That might cause a stampede and people could get hurt. That does not mean you have the right to defame other people. That causes harm to them. False statements that harm others are not permitted, even though we all want a robust form of freedom of expression. You have no right to walk into a University classroom and call people names, like “the N word,” or other derogatory names. That is not done to engage in free discussion. Such statements are made to end discussion. Therefore they are not permitted. The same goes for hate speech. Hate speech is not made to engage in discussion. If a statement is made for that purpose, I would argue, it is not hate speech. If speech is made to generate hate against others that is not to engage in free thought and discussion either. We do not have the right to make such statements.

West in a very brief comment made a very important point. He said, if you want to make an important argument you have to visit the “chocolate side of town.” You can’t just stay physically and mentally in the comfortable suburbs. You have to visit the ghettos. You have to visit places where poor people hang out; where vulnerable people go. Otherwise your ideas are bound to be inadequate. There is a lot to be learned on the chocolate side of town. For example there is a lot to be learned from jazz, from Black Baptist religion, and from a long tradition of suffering and the enduring of suffering. These were my examples, but I think West would endorse them. We should all learn from that side of town.