Category Archives: Moral Humility

Statistics of the War in Afghanistan

 

Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But there are also some statistics that are pretty darn telling.

Here are some interesting statistics about the war as of mid-April 2021.

The American war in Afghanistan cost a lot of treasure. At least a trillion and maybe more, but when it gets to figures like that my eyes glaze over anyway. Whether it was one trillion or two or three who really cares. But importantly, lives.  The war lasted 20 years. The longest war in US history.  And we must remember the US has been in a lot of wars.

2,442 US troops died in the war.  3,800 American private security forces died. I found it interesting that more private American soldiers died than regular military.  It “paid off” for Americans to outsource the war as much as possible. After all who feels sorry for private security forces?

20,666 Americans were injured in the war. Much of the suffering of war is caused by injury. People came back from the war with all kinds of injuries including, of course, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even though no one in the west really pays attention to this, but 47,245 Afghans died in the war. This is really the most important number though people in the west pay so little attention to it. This of course followed the 10-year war with Russia.  The people have Afghanistan have suffered enormously. That much is clear from the numbers.

 

That is a lot of suffering.

Now for the question:  What was worth so much suffering?

 

Afghanistan: One of the Dumb Wars

 

I know some people can’t stand Bill Maher.  He is a comedian and often doesn’t allow his guests to speak. He likes to hear himself speak. Too much. But he does have some fascinating guests and interesting conversations. Recently, he had one with Craig Whitlock about the war in Afghanistan—a genuine debacle.

The war in Afghanistan originally had some semblance of a rationale. Not much but some. George W. Bush launched that war in response to the attack on the US on September 11, 2001. He like so many others thought Afghanistan was harbouring the terrorists who launched the attack on America at the Twin Towers on 9/11 and other American targets.

The US spent over $2 trillion on this war? What did it get out of it? Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan not Afghanistan.

Craig Whitlock was interviewed by Bill Maher on his TV show. He was the author of a book called The Afghanistan Papers.  He pointed out how the Taliban within about a week of taking over are banning music again. Women have been told to go home. As Maher said, “The Taliban have said the women will have all their rights within the limits of Islam–which is a great way of saying none.”  Maher says he is always surprised at how little liberals in America don’t care how women are treated in so many countries around the world. “We got into the mindset that Bin Laden is in Afghanistan so we gotta go there and stay there until we can say it will never happen again and which of course means we will be there forever.”

70% of the people in the country were not alive during the reign of the Taliban.  Do they know what they are getting in for?

One of the surprising and sad things about the war in Afghanistan is how similar it was to the War in Vietnam. As Maher said,  “It’s like we just did this shit and then we did it again,” One generation forgets what the last one did. In America they should start teaching history in school, that might help.

Whitlock’s book has a theory of the war that is like what happened in Vietnam. The leaders were optimistic in public and pessimistic (realistic) in private. They didn’t tell the truth to the American public–again. That is exactly what the American military and political leaders did throughout the War in Vietnam and then repeated it in the War in Afghanistan.

According to Whitlock this is what they did right from the start of the war. Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary of Defense  mocked journalists who asked if this would be another Vietnam. 6 months into the war he sent a memo to his military chiefs saying if we don’t get a plan to stabilize Afghanistan our troops will get stuck there forever. He ends the memo like this with one word: “Help!” Sounds a lot like Vietnam doesn’t it.

Should he not have considered this before he committed the troops to the invasion? According to Whitlock this went on for years. In public the leaders said things are getting better, we’re making progress, we’re turning the corner. In private diplomatic cables and memos they admitted things are a mess in Afghanistan–which is exactly what they were. The same thing happened in Vietnam. “They knew that gradually things are slipping out of their grasp and it’s becoming unwinnable.”

Maher was very upset with President Barack Obama.  Obama said he was not against all wars. Some are justified. I would add–not many. Obama said, but I am against dumb wars. That was smart! We all should be. Too many are not. After Maher heard Obama say that  he said, ‘that’s my guy.’ Yet Maher also asked, “How could a guy that was that bright do what we were trying to do? Surge? Take over the country? Flood it with money and that would change things around, when really it was doing just the opposite?”

When Obama ran for office he said Iraq was the dumb war. That was true. It was dumb. Even dumber than the ear in Afghanistan, but that does not diminish the fact that the Afghan war also stupid. The Americans soon forgot their goal which was to get bin Laden and somehow switched to nation building. Obama said Afghanistan was the just cause. And that made some sense, because bin Laden launched his attack or at least trained soldiers in Afghanistan. It was originally a war of self defense. That was why Canada and other NATO countries joined in as they felt they had to do under the NATO Treaty. Canada under Chretien wisely declined to participate in the second Iraq war. The first Iraq war, again, made some sense.

Why did the war not end when bin Laden was killed?  Instead the Americans allowed the war to morph into this idea that they would build the democratic nation of Afghanistan. As Maher said, “It morphed into nation building. It morphed into this ridiculous idea, as in Vietnam, that we could change hearts and minds when by the things we were doing there, you only lose hearts and minds.”

As Whitlock said,

“Each president–Bush, Obama, and Trump–said we are not nation building in Afghanistan., even though at that very moment that is exactly what we were doing. The United States spent more than $100 billion nation building in Afghanistan. That’s more than we spent in Europe on the Marshall Plan after World War II and now it’s all gone up in smoke.”

That was dumb and many lives were lost on its account.

Time for some humility

 

I seem to have been on a bit of a high horse lately. I have an excuse. A poor one. I was set off by the anti-vaxxers in Steinbach. None of them showed any humility, but that is hardly an excuse for me to do the same. A good friend told me  how often I had used the word “idiot” lately to describe those who don’t agree with me. It wasn’t pretty.

 

Then on the way home yesterday day I drove by a church that had a sign out front of the church that read: “Imagine how much you could do today with some humility and listening.”  Wise words from a local church. Those words stung. It was time for me to take note.

 

Name calling is rarely useful. My excuse (again a poor one) was that I was not trying to convince those who disagreed with me, but rather trying to persuade others that we had been too kind and gentle with anti-vaxxers. It was time to give them a shorter leash, I thought.

 

A cousin of mine—a wise cousin—reminded me recently we had to be kind in this time of pandemic. I agree entirely with her. We always have to be kind. I don’t think I was kind. Kindness is important. Rudeness is bad and counterproductive.

I am not renouncing my positions on vaccines and the anti-vaxxers. I continue to believe that they are profoundly mistaken and they need to be called out for their opposition.

I also think we have to make judgments. We must make clear where we stand. This is, I believe, is one of those times, but we can make judgments with kindness. Kindness is always important. So is humility. It’s time for some humility. It is time for all of us to do better. Especially me.

Not as Smart as Horses?

 

I have been criticized by some for my use of intemperate words such as “idiots.” They say this doesn’t help to have respectful dialogue.  They are no doubt right. But sometimes it is hard to do the right thing.

Yet, we must face the problem of vaccine resistance firmly and up front. We can’t pussy foot around the issue either. Frankly, we are facing a serious health pandemic that is driven now by some very poor choices—namely the decision not to take vaccines that are obviously helping and beneficial. Such choices are unwise. I would say they are largely ignorant choices though some people cannot take vaccines for good reasons. We must accommodate them.

The evidence now based on actual experience and not just scientific studies is very clear. As Canada’s Chief Public Health officer said, speaking of the Covid-19 approved vaccines: “unvaccinated people are 12 times more likely to be infected and 36 times more likely to be hospitalized if they get infected.” Is that not enough evidence? What more does anyone need?

Surely now, one would think, people would be flocking to take the vaccines?  If one thought that, one would have thought wrong. Again, as I have been saying, it shows that anti-vaccine beliefs are as unshakable as religious beliefs.

Even though new scientific evidence, shows that

“New Modelling released by Tam Friday showed if the current rate of transmission of Covid-19 remains the same, Canada would see more than 15,000 new cases Canada was seeing on average at the height of the third wave, through so far hospitalizations are not rising as quickly as they did in spring’.

 

That tempering of bad news of course is because of the effectiveness of the vaccines. We would be doing much worse if it were not for the vaccines. It could also be much better if more people took the vaccines.

People who don’t believe in the vaccines are stubborn—as stubborn as horses. Are they smarter than horses?

So, what have people who don’t believe in science taken instead of the scientifically approved vaccines that have been shown safe and effective by the actual experience of more than a billion people?  The answer is astoundingly unbelievable—a medicine used to kill parasites in horses! Ivermectin. No science fiction writer could a have invented something so insane. Does this not qualify as stupid?

As reported originally in the Washington Post,

“Doctors and public health officials say they have spent the pandemic fighting rampant misinformation on top of a deadly virus, but the ivermectin craze is one of their strangest battles yet. Promoted by conservative talk show hosts, politicians and even some physicians as an effective treatment for COVID-19, the medication has soared in popularity this year despite having no proven anti-viral benefits — and also some clear harms when abused. Prescriptions of the anti-parasitic medication, used to treat river blindness and intestinal roundworms in people, have spiked during the pandemic and especially this summer, jumping from an average of 3,600 weekly prescriptions in the year before the pandemic, to more than 88,000 in one week in August, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

 

Who would take anti-worming medication approve for livestock instead of vaccines approved for people? Is it not fair to say ignorant people?

The Washington Post article reported the Food and Drug Administration was reported as saying:

“Health departments are warning of spikes in ivermectin poisoning and hospitalizations as people snap up feed store products meant for large animals. “You are not a horse,” the Food and Drug Administration felt compelled to declare last month. “You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”

Can you imagine, some of the people were surprised that they got sick from taking the medication designed for horses and cows?

Is language that these people that are making choices that are “ignorant” or even “stupid” too strong?  I believe in humility and kindness, I really do, but sometimes it is difficult.

The Plague: A Little Hero

 

 

The first book I have selected as a classic to be re-read is one I read a lifetime ago. Perhaps 45 years ago. I noticed the price tag on the back. I paid 85 cents for this book and have kept it for about 50 years. Not bad. It is high time to return to it.

The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is of course a highly appropriate choice as I and so many others are at this time basically in quarantine facing a plague of COVID-19 that is spreading around the world filling people with dread.

In the novel Camus tells the story of Oran, a city in Algeria, and its people, as they suffer through an epidemic—a plague. Like us they were quarantined in their town amid fear and trembling. Now that many of us have been sequestered in various ways already, for many of us, for more than a month with no end in sight. So we know how the people of Oran felt. We feel like that now.

On one level the novel is a book about that plague and how the people of the town are afflicted by it, resist it, and help each other through it. That really is enough, but there is more to it than this. Much more. It is a novel of ideas. Many ideas. Too many to cover in a short review. I will confine myself to just a couple in this review.

Some critics have suggested that the plague of the novel is a symbol of Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and the French resistance to it. I have no doubt it is that, but that is not all. It is a symbol of all totalitarian regimes and those who revolt against them around the world. In fact it is a symbol of all oppression and the people who fight it.

Camus was famous for saying he believed in limits. Oppression had to be resisted with limits. He was opposed to politics without limits such a totalitarian dreams which he firmly believed led to the gallows or the guillotine. As a result, he said the hero of the resistance was not the great revolutionary.

Camus basic belief is it was best to be modest and humble. He was deeply suspicious after the rise of totalitarianism in Europe after World War I. He thought it was grand designs that led to totalitarianism or murder. Like Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.” If you are about to bring about heaven on earth, as Marxists believed, any actions, no matter how horrendous were justified in the name of that magisterial distant goal.

Camus rejected all that in favour of humility or modesty. He is satisfied if he can accomplish small good. That is good enough. He doesn’t expect to be a Saint. 

In the book Tarrou used to have grand schemes to be saint, but he gave those up.  He has no grand design any more.  He just wants to help without doing anything to assist someone else in being killed.

Tarrou earlier said he was working towards being a saint. That was his goal. He never achieved it. As a result this is what Tarrou said about the plague to his friend Dr. Rieux:

“That, too is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side…each of us has the plague within him: no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”

Later Tarrou says,

“I’ve learnt modesty: All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language…there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side…”

Rieux asked Tarrou if he knew the path to peace? Tarrou replied “the path of sympathy.” Again no grand designs, no plan to save the world, just follow the path of sympathy and use plain clear language to get there.”

The path of sympathy or fellow feeling seems simple. Camus tries to make it so. But he knows it is not always simple. For example, throughout the book Rambert, a newly wed, was trying to get back together with his wife who was stuck on the other side of the wall surrounding the town. He tries a few times and fails. Then near the end, it is arranged. He can escape. But Rambert changes his mind and stays back to help Rieux to help the victims. Did he do the right thing?

Rambert says no, “For nothing in the world is it worth turning back on what one loves yet that is what I’m doing—though why I don’t know.” To this Rieux responds, ‘a man can’t cure and know at the same. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”

Dr. Rieux and Paneloux, the Catholic Priest have a discussion on similar lines:

Paneloux say to Rieux, “Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” It is the typical religious response but Rieux does not buy it. He replies, “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux then thinks Rieux wants grace. Rieux does not accept this either. He wants a simpler more clear answer. “We’re working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters.” Paneloux jumps on this and claims, “Yes, Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.” Dr. Rieux won’t have that either. He says,

“Salvation’s much to big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health and for me his health comes first.”

Later Rieux adds this: “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.”

Rieux did not want to be a saint. He believed,

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Camus always fears the logical murderer that he found in his book The Rebel. That is the person who comes up with a big plan and then kills to bring it about. That is what the totalitarians did  in Russia and Germany.  Rieux looked for no grand designs for they could lead to such colossal murders as in the camps of the totalitarians. He wanted more modest goals. He believed the hero was the man with humility.

The man the narrator in the novel looked to as an example or ideal was called Grand. But he was not grand. He was modest. He was “a little hero.” And to Camus that was always the best kind. The Saint with grandiose goals often led to mass slaughter.

Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said ‘Yes” without a moments hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. All he asked was to be allotted light duties…When Rieux thanked him with some warmth for his contribution Grand seemed surprised. ‘Why, that’s not difficult. Plague is here, and we’ve got make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were as simple!’

In Camus’ world as in Rieux’s world, the humble man of virtue is the hero not the one who creates the grand designs to save the world. As the narrator said of Grand, “a hero…this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth it’s due.” We don’t need heroes or saints when we have people like Grand.

2 Popes

 

 

This is a movie about something that could never happen in American politics–2 leaders with deep disagreements finding something elusive–common ground.

In 2005 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and was summoned to Vatican City in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II so that the new Pope could be selected. The process of picking a new Pope is arcane.  The people have no say. The decision is made by a group of old men, Cardinals of the Catholic Church. No women vote nor ordinary people. One would think such a system could never work. What could be more undemocratic than that? Yet the Roman Catholic Church has survived for 2 thousand years. Any institution that can last that long deserves some respect. In any event, the Cardinals selected German Cardinal Josephy Ratzinger, and he become Pope Benedict. Cardinal Bergoglio, who later became Pope Francis  came second in the vote. The two priests could hardly be more dissimilar.

7 years later Bergoglio has submitted his resignation, but the Vatican has not responded. The resignation cannot be completed unless Pope Benedict approve its. And he hesitates?The Pope and perhaps his biggest critic from inside the Church meet at the Popes grand Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of Popes.

Like American politicians the two churchmen quickly find things to disagree about. But unlike the politicians they debate severely without corrosive rancor. When they are unable to find a way out, they gently agree to disagree.

Bergoglio comments that the churches of Europe are beautiful but empty. Pope Benedict, a traditionalist, opines that “change is compromise.”  It is attitudes like that which make the Church so rigid. How can you improve on perfection? At the end of their first discussion, Pope Benedict says, “I disagree with everything you say.”

Yet, again, unlike so many politicians, they have more respectful discussions. For example, Bergoglio also complains, when seeing refugees on television that we are seeing the “globalization of indifference.” He also says, “Mercy is the dynamite that breaks down walls.”  If only more of our political leaders had such wisdom.

How can you make a good movie out of respectful discussions? It seems impossible, but I would suggest that is what people actually crave and get so rarely. I must admit I found it a great pleasure. I must admit I also enjoyed watching 2 Popes watch a soccer game on television while Pope Benedict drank Fanta.

They even argue about truth. If these were politicians neither would admit any truth in the other’s position.  Pope Francis takes a different approach. He says, “Truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable.”

Eventually despite a deep chasm between these 2 men, common ground is found. Pope Benedict says to  Bergoglio, that although he was waiting for the voice of God, he heard that voice through him. These 2 men may have been selected by a process that makes about as much sense as the election of American Presidents through the Electoral College , but yet they managed to see more than a devil in the other. I wish more of our leaders could do that. I also wish more of us could learn from these 2 elders.

Social Democracy v. Socialism

 

We heard some Conservative Americans on the radio complaining about the rise of socialism. To them “socialism” is a very dirty word. It is about on par with child molester. I really think the issue of socialism will be very important in the next Presidential and Congressional elections.I hope so.  Many Conservatives think the Democrats are handing them the next election because they are going so radical. Is that true?

I know Trump has already been active in referring to the Democrats as leftists, or, even worse, radical socialists. They point in particular to Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and worst of all–the Green New Deal. Talk about a bevy of boogey men. Republicans think they are being handed the next election on a platter. As a result I think it is a good idea for us to be clear about what a socialist is and is not.

What is a socialist?  This is not as clearly defined as one might like. When I went to university we defined a socialist as a person who believed that the means of production should be owned by public. That does not mean there should be no private property, but I still think it goes too far.  I thought the definition had changed since then, but I have not found a better one. According to this definition, a socialist believes the infrastructure of production–such as factories, businesses, and the like should be socially owned, not privately owned.  In this sense of the word I have never been a socialist. Even in the days of my misspent youth.

I have been more attracted to the term “social democrat.” I would say that a social democrat is one who believes that the public should have significant control (not ownership) of the important private property, such as the means of production, but including other things–that can have a substantial impact on society.  Social democrats don’t want to own all these things. But they do want society to have social control exercised in a democratic manner over the vital instruments of social influence. This includes the means of production but many other things as well. “Democratic” means are important to distinguish Social Democrats from Communists. Communists clearly demonstrated how things go awry when democratic means are abandoned. Without democracy the apparatchiks are as bad as the capitalists.That control must be used for significant social goods, such as greater equality (not absolute equality), greater freedom, and greater fraternity. These are really the goals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Some aspects will have to be controlled fairly tightly. Others hardly at all. The amount of control will vary greatly depending on how influential the instruments are and how pernicious their effects.

Social democrats don’t have a strict ideological position on what needs to be socially controlled and what not. As a result social democrats don’t have a principle such as ‘that government is best which governs the least’—the principle of libertarians and neoliberals.  Nor do Social Democrats believe by rote that people should be allowed to do anything provided it does not harm other people–classic liberalism. The people will democratically decide from time to time, how much control to exercise in particular circumstances and this can always be debated freely in each case under consideration. Social Democrats, unlike Socialists, Communists, or neo-conservatives are not governed by rigid ideology but by rational decision making on a case by case basis based on evidence, data, and careful thinking.

Social Democrats will not hesitate to use government as the means to their social democratic ends. Social Democrats do their best to keep out bias in decision-making. Social Democrats don’t have a recipe; they have a technique–i.e. reasoning based on the best evidence, analysis, and logical reasoning. These goals are humble and modest. That is one of the reasons I like them. Those are some of the reasons I call myself a social democrat.

Wade Davis and the Lessons of Anthropology

 

I never studied Anthropology. I wish I had. I think I could have learned a lot.  I think it would encourage humility. I think a study of anthropology would relieve one of a sense of superiority. For example, the feelings of superiority that westerners brought to the “New World” are truly breathtaking.

One person who knows intimately how unfair and how unjustified these feelings of superiority are is Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s premier Anthropologist. In June of, 2015 he delivered the Milton K. Wong lecture at the University of British Columbia. The name of the lecture was “Catalogues of Culture.” Part of his talk was aired on CBC radio’s Ideas, my favorite radio show on my favorite radio station. It aired September 22, 2015. It was fantastic.

Davis was an anthropologist, ethno botanist, and an author of 17 books, one of which I have read, The Wayfarers. He talked of being an anthropologist who tried to discover as much of the diversity of human culture as possible. In doing that he came to realize the immense loss that we would experience if we permitted the continued obliteration of cultures around the world. For centuries we in the west have been doing exactly that out of a horribly misguided sense of our superiority that has no justification at all when the evidence is examined and myths scrutinized.

A basic question that Davis asked was ‘what kind of world do we want to live in’?  Do we want to live in a world of monochromatic monotony or polychromatic diversity?  The answer was obvious. Who would choose differently?  That was why Davis had so much respect for a wide variety of cultures. We have a lot to learn from them, but learning is difficult if our minds are chained by prejudice and self-serving misguided beliefs in our own cultural superiority.

As Davis pointed out, one of the great benefits of travel is to live among those people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel  truth in the path in the wind, feel it in the stones polished by rain, and the taste of the bitter leaves of plants. He said he was comforted by the knowledge that the Shamans of the Amazon still journey beyond the Milky Way, that to the people of the high Arctic the myths of the elders still resonate with meaning, and that in the Himalaya the priests still pursue the breath of the Dharma.

According to Davis, a key insight of modern anthropology is that the world in which each of us was born is just one model of reality and there are many such realities. As Davis said, “the social central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”

Anthropologists study people around the world. And there is an incredible variety of people around the world. Davis realized what many anthropologists have learned, that “all these peoples teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the world. This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.” That is the same insight that travelers around the world have come to realize; tourists seldom understand that.  It is for that reason that Paul Theroux was right when he said, “Travellers don’ t know where they are going, tourists don’t know where they have been.”

Our world in which we were born is just the result of a particular set of adaptive responses that our cultural lineage made however successfully many generations ago. Any claims we might want to assert to cultural supremacy are but “worthless foam from the mouth” to borrow the words of Bob Dylan. If we forget that we we lose the world.

Whether it is a voodoo acolyte in Haiti, a yak herder in Nepal, or an eagle hunter in Central Pakistan, or a thunder hoof shaman of Mongolia, all of these people teach us that there are other waysof thinking other ways of being, other ways of orienting yourselves culturally, in social, spiritual, ecological space. That is an idea that if you think about it can fill you only with hope.

From this insight made Davis concluded, “together the myriad of cultures of the world make up a web of social life that envelopes the planet and is as important to the well-being of the planet as the biological web of life that you know so well as the biosphere.” He called this the ethnosphere. He believed it was just as important as the biosphere.

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

Whisper words of Wisdom

I am still struggling with the concept of moral humility–an elusive but important goal.

A good friend of mine, much smarter than me, told me that he does not feel he can do more than ask gentle questions. He is very effective at avoiding excessive arrogance. He practices moral humility. I aim to move in that direction.

That does not mean I should be silent. I think that if we see someone acting badly, particularly if that person is in power, we should speak. We should do that respectfully, but we may and should do that. I am trying to teach myself to criticize gently, without pontificating. That is not easy.

Today I learned something valuable for a fellow walker in our walking club.  He is a strong Christian—even an evangelical Christian I would guess—and said he had learned something valuable recently.  He said when talking to someone he never tried to convert the other person. Rather, he said,  “I ask questions,” he said, “all I want to do is leave a stone in the other person’s shoe”.

I know that I have been pontificating too much. For example, I have been very critical of capitalism.  I have never denied that capitalism has done a lot of good. It has pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty into poverty. That is a momentous achievement. We need to do even better, but that is not nothing. It is a lot. I doubt that I have converted anyone.

Yet that does not mean we must give capitalism a free pass. We cannot allow capitalists free rein to destroy life on the planet as sometimes they seem bent on doing. We must criticize, but do so with humility always remembering that we mightbe wrong. Recall the uncertainty principle. Act as if we might be wrong.

As the Beatles said, “Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.”