Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beliefs (Or, the Ghost of Christmas Present)

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, in my last post, I talked more specifically about my Christian beliefs than is my blogging habit. I doubt I'll do it more often; I don't think that you should believe something just because I do, and so I try to write from the assumption that you don't. But I did mention my own beliefs, and it's Christmas, so let me come clean a bit, because it's an important holiday for me, and because it's such a bitter season:

I believe in the basic dignity of human being. I believe that other people's suffering is real, and deserves our attention. I believe that everyone deserves protection from hunger, illness, and the killing December cold.

To make it more doctrinally specific, I was raised to believe that everyone is Jesus, and should be treated accordingly. Throw a homeless person off a steam grate, throw Jesus off that steam grate. Give a homeless man a blanket, give Jesus a blanket. The Gospels are very specific about this point; these are Jesus's explicit instructions to his followers.

This is a belief: it is not testable. It cannot be confirmed or debunked. It is a basic set of assumptions about the world. And it should not be vulgarized into a belief that all people are nice, or friendly and kind. That is obviously not true. But Christianity does not teach me that my fellow human beings deserve food, shelter, medicine and human comfort as a reward for good behavior. It teaches me that they deserve those things, period. The question isn't whether that homeless man is personally virtuous, any more than the question was whether the Prodigal Son was personally virtuous. The point is that he might starve or freeze in the streets. How could there be any other questions?

But I freely admit that this is simply my belief. "Everyone must be treated as if they were Jesus," is not the kind of thing you can prove. It is my starting place for every question of public policy, but I understand that not everyone else starts there, or even accepts my proposition. That's okay.

But while I'm willing to accept that my beliefs are just beliefs, I insist that other people's beliefs, whether religious or secular, be treated in the same way. There are many popular beliefs in our country that have nothing to do with reality, and obviously contradict it, but masquerade as "realism." They are not. I refuse to give them that undeserved credit, or to accept the human suffering inflicted because of them.

The belief that the free market always provides the best possible result is only a belief. It purports not to be a religious belief, because if it were actually a religion it would be mocked and reviled almost as widely as it deserves. But it does posit an implacable omnipotent god who demands sacrifices. Indeed, some its loudest proponents are publicly calling for "sacrifice," by which they mean increased human suffering by the poor. This is how the worst of religions operate. And the "free market knows best" belief has no grounding in reality.

My belief cannot be proved or disproved. The beliefs that excuse the abuse of America's poor not only cannot be proved; they persist in the face of contradictory evidence that should be obvious to every rational adult.

The idea that the poor in America are poor primarily (or, to certain narrow-minded fanatics, solely) because of their own behavior is merely a belief. It is a fairy tale that people tell themselves to reconcile themselves to the unnecessary ugliness of our world. Believing that the distribution of wealth in our scoiety is primarily correlated with merit, effort, or "hard work" requires more than an act of faith. It requires strenuous acts of self-delusion. The belief that the poor are poor because they don't work hard enough, or because they lack "character," demands that the believer work hard every day to avoid obvious facts about how the world operates. That is not realism. That is a bedtime story for mean-spirited children.

There is absolutely no reason to condone human misery out of deference to anyone's belief in the Free Market Fairy. Nor should the believers who demand such misery and sacrifice be accorded any respect. The notion that such believers somehow have the moral authority to declare someone else unworthy of food, shelter, or basic dignity is also just a belief, irrational and ugly. No one has such authority, and anyone who claims to do so should be taken seriously. Such beliefs are the rankest of superstitions: justifying real suffering in the name of imaginary entities, even when the evidence of our daily life demonstrates that those entities are not real.

If you start with a belief in Jesus, our world appears much as it is: manifestly flawed and full of flagrant injustice. From the viewpoint of the Wall Street Journal and the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs and CNBC, it looks like the best of the possible worlds. All I can say in response is: Pollyannas. Why not throw in Santa Claus, too?

My beliefs cannot be proved, but they could never be as silly as the primitive superstitions and delusions that govern the minds of the great and powerful. And my beliefs, whatever their source, attempt to move the world toward kindness and mercy. That's all I can say on my own account this December.

Merry Christmas, all. And let's try to keep it through the coming year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The War on Christian Virtues

cross-posted at Dagblog

Apparently, the dreaded "War on Christmas" now extends to having to work between the Christmas and New Year's holidays, at least if the taxpayers pay your salary and your job title is "Senator." According to Senator Jon Kyl, having work the week after the Christmas holiday would be "disrespectful" to Christians. Senator Jim DeMint called working the week before Christmas "sacrilegious." That's right. Sacrilegious. Just like keeping stores open for shopping on December 23.

Kyl and DeMint will obviously say anything for momentary partisan advantage. And just about everything worth saying about the right wing's bogus "War on Christmas" cries has already been said better by my co-blogger Mike Wolraich (who uses the nom de blog Genghis) in his new book Blowing Smoke (a wonderful holiday present, if you're still shopping). I can't possibly add to Mike's explanation of how dishonest and hysterical the complaints about the "War on Christmas" are. So let me add one thing:

As someone who tries to be a good Christian myself, I find the complaints about the "War on Christmas" absolutely grotesque. I really have tried to see it from the perspective of the people who complain, but try as I might, I just can't make it square with any of the virtues Jesus taught.

There are Christians being persecuted for their faith today. None of them live in America. Right now, there are people worshiping secretly in China, and in other places, and living in genuine fear of the authorities. Anyone who wants to defend Christians from persecution should think about the best ways to help those faithfal and beleaguered people. But calling yourself a victim because not all of the signs in the mall say "Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" is a terrible, terrible disrespect to all of the people who have actually suffered for their faith, and to those who continue suffering.

Christians have been stoned to death, thrown to vicious animals, tied to anchors and drowned. They have been burnt alive by other Christians. And yes, some of the earliest Christians have been crucified. St. Peter was allegedly crucified upside down, by Romans with an even nastier sense of humor than usual. And today around the globe, there are still a handful of priests who must hide their priesthoods from their governments. Being asked to put up your annual Nativity diorama in the churchyard instead of the public park does not make you one of those people. In fact, complaining about things like that is a sign of just how little you have ever been asked.

God asks everyone for different things. Some people are asked to stand up for their faith in the face of terrible danger and hardship, and become an example of persevering faith. And those people are justifiably honored by the rest of us. But if you are not called to be a martyr, you can not make yourself one. It is deeply wrong to try. Some people are asked to suffer; others are asked to be grateful. And making a display of how terribly you're "suffering" (in a country where being a Christian is as easy as any country has ever made it) is monstrous ingratitude. Last weekend I went to listen to Handel's Messiah (great concert, full house). The next morning I went up and went to church, a big unmistakably Christian building on a busy street. I did not have to hide my beliefs. I did not have to be quiet about them. Everywhere I go, I am publicly reminded of the upcoming religious holiday. And next week I, like every other American Christian, will get that holiday off work. There is no war on Christmas. There is only an attack on the Christian virtue of thankfulness.

Being a little grateful is not hard, and we have been given so much.

Other Christian virtues are under attack in the "War on Christmas": kindness, generosity, toleration. Is it so terribly wrong to occasionally vary a Christmas greeting, so that our fellow Americans who follow different religions are made to feel welcome? Is it wrong to be neighborly or kind? I can't believe that. It's such a small gesture, during a time when our religious voices are even louder and more dominant than usual. It can't be too much; it's hard really to call it enough. And I can't believe that it's right to be intemperate and angry with people who have the good manners (or who are moved by kindness) to use a holiday greeting meant to include all of their neighbors. To indulge in anger for its own sake, and worse still to indulge your anger on people who are actually practicing very basic virtues, seems to me very, very far from what is expected of us.

I know there are some Christians who feel their duty is to attempt to bring everyone they can to believe specifically in Jesus, and who feel that anything that limits their explicit religious testimony interferes with that mission. But I would suggest that no one is going to be converted to Christianity by the sight of Christians being hostile, self-pitying, and uncharitable. That's the surest way to drive people away from Christianity. The louder you are about your Christianity, and the more you urge it upon others, the more important it is to be a good example of Christian virtues. That's true this Christmas, and next, and all the year round.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dear Barack

cross-posted at Dagblog

Dear Mr. President-

I'm a big fan of pragmatism. And I've been a big fan of yours, defending you in the intramural arguments of Left Blogistan. I'm not even especially angry about this particular compromise with the Republicans, which was better than I'd feared it would be. But apparently you're angry. Your press conference yesterday made that very clear. And instead of being angry at the conservatives who've hobbled you, you're angry at the liberals and progressives who've phone banked for you, knocked on doors for you, and written you campaign checks. And that's not okay. So let me break some hard news to you:

You are not a pragmatist.

Don't kid yourself. If you want to put results ahead of abstract principle, that's great. I'm all for it. And most of your critics on the left would be pleased with that. We're not angry because you don't quote Howard Zinn enough. We're angry because you do not get results.

Pragmatism is about facing reality and dealing with it. Ten percent unemployment is a reality, and it needs to be dealt with. (I know, it's "only" 9.8%, up from "only" 9.6%, and next it will officially be 9.92% and then 9.9871% and then 9.999661%. Save it. Everyone who buys groceries understands what $2.98 on a price tag means.) Your economic strategy, trusting the big-money players to fix the economy from the top down, has been a colossal bust. The massive corporations you counted on to get things moving are enjoying record profits while letting the rest of the economy go to hell. This is reality. You have to deal with it.

I know, I know, you have to deal with the reality of what's practical in Washington, given the Senate rules and the Republican opposition and Ben Nelson's mood swings. You think of yourself as a pragmatist because you're dealing with the way the game is played. You're wrong. Dealing with the "realities" inside a Beltway that refuses to cope with what's actually happening to our country doesn't make you a realist, or even a political realist. Didn't that midterm election get through to you? You can't win by the old Beltway rules. You shouldn't play by them. You had a tax proposal that the voters like, and the Republicans had one the voters don't like. But they could defeat your plan in the Senate with only 36 votes. The game in Washington no longer reflects what the voters want or what our national economic crisis requires. If you play the game by the existing rules, you will not be able to fix the real problems. If you are not able to fix the real problems, you will be punished, no matter how principled your efforts were. You need to change the game.

I know this is not the presidency you wanted. Radical change was never on your agenda. But the Presidency of the United States has never been the job that the President wanted it to be. It has always been the job that history demands at that moment. John F. Kennedy had no intention of taking on civil rights, let alone becoming a civil rights president. Abraham Lincoln did not want to be a war president, let alone a civil-war president. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be a limited-government constitutionalist, until Napoleon offered him a very large piece of real estate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was talking like a traditional laissez-faire capitalist in 1928; it took the Depression to turn him into someone else, and World War II to transform his presidency yet again. You will not be measured by the success of the agenda that you originally planned. That agenda is already out of date. You will be measured by your response to a changing world.

For you, that means taking on a major structural overhaul of our economy and a structural transformation of our politics. If that sounds like idealistic hype, it usually would be. The things that you need to do now would be folly in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. A surgeon who operates on patients who could be treated with aspirin commits malpractice. But so does the surgeon who prescribes aspirin to a patient who needs a triple bypass. Necessity is the heart of pragmatism, and you can not call yourself a pragmatist if you do less than is necessary.

I know you don't view yourself as the messianic figure that some voters wanted and needed you to be. I know that image strikes you as a fantasy. But the voters really wanted and needed that savior figure. They had reasons for voting for him. Those reasons aren't fantasies, but responses to the hard realities around us. We're not talking about the voters' psychological needs. We're talking about their everyday practical material needs. I know you are not that guy. I know you don't really want to be that guy, or feel equipped to be him. But the country voted for that guy because the country needs him. If it hadn't been you, it would have been somebody else. But our country really does need that guy, and you're all we've got.

Wake up, Barack. Reality is calling.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Understanding Obama via WikiLeaks

cross-posted at Dagblog

The latest Wikileaks document dump, filled mostly with low-grade diplomatic communications, does lay bare one thing that should have been painfully obvious all along: President Obama's Iran strategy.

Here's part of the New York Times write-up:

... the cables ... show how President George W. Bush, hamstrung by the complexities of Iraq and suspicions that he might attack Iran, struggled to put together even modest sanctions.

They also offer new insights into how President Obama, determined to merge his promise of “engagement” with his vow to raise the pressure on the Iranians, assembled a coalition that agreed to impose an array of sanctions considerably harsher than any before attempted.

When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran .... the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.

In other words, the Obama Administration has been approaching the Iran problem the way a sane person applying common sense would do: using every available tool, offering friendship for cooperation and punishments for backsliding, and trying to manage the public relations so that Iranian intransigence looks like what it is. In the old days, Republicans called this "speaking softly and carrying a big stick." It's a pretty good approach.

By contrast, the old George W. Bush approach to diplomacy was "shout a lot and break your stick in half to show them how tough you are." This is an optimal strategy for getting beaten up and thrown out of bars. It puts bluster ahead of getting things done, so much so that it undermines the blusterer's power. Note that Bush the Younger couldn't get much happening in the way of sanctions, but Obama could.

If you don't trust the Times reporters, here's an excerpt from a raw document, as a US Treasury official briefs the EU on the new Administration's Iran strategy (April 8, 2009):

To be sure, "engagement" would be an important aspect
of a comprehensive strategy to dissuade Iran from acquiring
nuclear weapons. However, "engagement" alone is unlikely to
succeed. Diplomacy's best chance of success requires all
elements combining pressure and incentives to work
simultaneously, not sequentially.

If that doesn't spell it out for you, here it is: Obama makes gestures of friendship and engagement toward Iran because that is part of the game. Meanwhile, he puts pressure on them from every direction he can in order to force them into accepting his "friendship" on his terms. If you still do not understand how this works, please rent The Godfather. Don Corleone knows how to make friends.

Why does Obama not say, "I am reaching out my hand to Iran as part of a larger strategy to wrestle them into a half nelson?" Because if he admits that the gesture is a pretense, the pretense doesn't work. This, too, should be obvious.

While we're on the topic of the obvious, the document dump reveals Defense Secretary Gates's common sense prediction about how a unilateral attack on Iran's weapons facilities would work:

any strike “would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.”

See how that goes? Short-term win, long-term and permanent fail, with Iran ending up nuclear and hostile for at least a generation. As strategies go ... well, actually that isn't even a strategy. Obama has a plan to squeeze the Iranians to delay and derail their nuclear ambitions, while trying to build bridges to the Iranian people for the future. The American right wants to just attack Iran instead, which won't actually stop their nuclear program but will turn them into implacable nuclear-armed enemies by 2016 or so, in time for a possible Republican President to discover there's nothing left to do about Iran. It's genius.

Now, all of the above should have been obvious to everyone capable of reading a newspaper. But the American right has been dead-set on misunderstanding Obama. Here's a representative selection from September, 2009. The blogger is Scott Johnson of Powerline:

If any sentient person had serious doubt, last week's news that Iran has a covert uranium enrichment facility under construction at a military base outside Qom should serve to clarify Iran's intent to obtain nuclear weapons. News that Obama had been briefed on the existence of this facility during the transition makes it difficult to understand what Obama has said and done about Iran since then. [Emphasis mine] His statements and actions need to be reconsidered in light of the state of his knowledge. In the spirit of inquiry I offer the following premises and tentative theses:

1. In statements going back to the primary campaign, Obama repeatedly referred to Iran's prospective acquisition of nuclear weapons as unacceptable and stated that no option to prevent it should be taken off the table. Yet Obama accepts the legitimacy of Iran's nuclear program and will do nothing to retard it.

2. Obama has known about the second Iranian enrichment facility since the transition.

3. Obama has repeatedly demonstrated an eagerness to avoid confrontation with the Iranian regime -- to the point of fawning over the regime. He prides himself on accepting the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. [Emphasis mine]

4. Obama made nuclear disarmament the theme of his speech before the UN Security Council last week and secured the passage of a related resolution. Although Obama called for "full compliance with Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea," he emphasized that the resolution (which named no country) was "not about singling out individual nations."

It goes on for another eight theses, by which point Johnson has persuaded himself that Obama's goal is to pressure Israel into disarming. That's ludicrous, but it is also one of the tamer responses to Obama's Iran policy from the right blogosphere. When Obama claims that a UN resolution manifestly aimed at Iran and North Korea isn't aimed at them, Johnson is dumb enough to take that denial literally. (Luckily, the Iranian and North Korean regimes are not. Those bastards know perfectly well that the President of the United States is not their friend.) Johnson can't even recognize an indirect and understated threat as a threat, let alone understand why such threats might be more effective than loud obvious ones. When Obama speaks softly, Johnson decides that he isn't carrying a stick.

Like all neocons, Johnson prefers what I like to call the Gangster Rap School of Diplomacy: shouting a lot about how tough you are in the most public forum possible, and making threats without worrying about how to back them up. This is what the American right now understands as "toughness." They couldn't be more wrong.