Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Those Wacky Atheists


Atheists are an interesting bunch. Some simply encounter religion, and religious faith, turn around, walk away, and never look back. They look upon the faithful with puzzlement, like, who needs all that? And, why make life more complicated than it already is? As far as they are concerned, life as they know it – the observable, the here and now – is sufficient. Not only that, but it's either self-explanatory or in no need of explanation. In that sense, atheists are the ultimate existentialists; “we're here because we're here”, and no need to wonder why or search for explanations. They look out across the Universe and see only randomness and chaos; there is no higher order. Life only has the purpose that each individual assigns to it, and no more. And as for human “destiny” -- such is the stuff of fantasy and wishful thinking. They see the solution of the search for meaning (assuming that such a search is even necessary) as residing within the individual, or with the social group, but not with any external, unseen source.

And as for ethics (or what some of us prefer to call “morality”), well, that's just a matter of common sense, and the Golden Rule, and not hurting others, and so on. I mean, everyone knows right from wrong – or ought to, right? Isn't it obvious? Don't we always know “evil” when we see it, much less experience it? Who needs this elaborate superstructure – some “sky god” telling us (either directly or through people who fancy themselves holy men) what we should do on a day-to-day basis, when anyone with a grain of sense can figure it out? Not only that, but we have the greatest tool with which mankind is endowed, namely “reason”, which typically translates to “science”, which translates to “overt and observable” as opposed to “superstition”, which is a denial of objective cause and effect in favor of unseen forces.

Atheists of this sort will treat the faithful (of any faith more or less equally) with indulgence... perhaps even charity. They will be tolerant, if not understanding. Sympathetic, even. But they will not be overtly hostile, because, after all, even if religion and faith are a kind of delusion, can you really blame someone for being mentally ill? Or if not mentally ill, then at least burdened with some psychological remnant of more primitive times? Education will eventually overcome all of this, but in the meantime the most important thing is to see to it that no one who is hobbled by faith or religion acquires any significant political power, because not only would that be a stroke against reason, but it would be unfair to non-believers.  (And if this sounds like a big piece of the liberal political agenda, that's because it is.)

This is what I call “benign” or “silent atheism” -- silent because its adherents generally mind their own business and expect others to mind theirs. It's a live-and-let-live attitude, and frankly I prefer it to religious fanaticism of the violent sort. Not that I don't worry about atheists – because what if they're wrong? (See Pascal's Wager) And yes, they constitute a challenge that won't go away – a challenge to the faithful to defend not only their own faith but faith in general, and religion – not as some sort of mutation in the human genome, but as something every bit as natural as any other human trait – not only natural, but necessary.

But I'm only talking about some atheists here. There is another type, and I call them militant atheists. They are the ones who don't simply turn and walk away, but stay around to attack, and harangue, and “debunk”. And this, curiously enough, if their favorite time of year – the time leading up to Easter. Because this is the time they can bring out the same arguments they use every year – the arguments against Christ, against Christianity, and against religion in general. It's often disguised in language such as “the search for the real Jesus”, but it's debunking all the same. The mainstream news magazines are especially adept at this; it just wouldn't be Easter without Time and Newsweek publishing their annual debunking cover stories. (And by the way, who even reads those sorry rags any more? I can't even find them in my doctor's waiting room.)

Lent... Holy Week... Easter... this is when the gloves come off and the battle is joined. And you'll notice that they don't respond in a similar manner to Jewish or Moslem holidays; for some reason they don't see those as much of a threat. But Good Friday in particular, when Christ said “It is finished”, drives them into paroxysms of rage and – dare I say it? -- hate. (I've always observed that one sees a lot more really bad and aggressive driving from Good Friday through Easter – maybe my imagination but I don't think so.  I noticed the bad driving first, then made the connection.) Basically, Easter is to nonbelievers what garlic and mirrors (and the crucifix) are to vampires.

It's not unlike the situation with the pope and the Catholic Church. On any given day, you can hear or read some secularist asserting that the Church is hopelessly out of date... it's run by a bunch of silly old white guys (most of whom are perverts)... it's racist, sexist, homophobic (ironically)... and we should just ignore it and get on with our lives. And then the next day they get all fired up and say the same thing all over again, and so on. This is not “ignoring” the Church, folks! For a straw man, it must pack quite a punch. And as for the pope – why, he's as out of touch as a human being can possibly be... the head of a dying (at long last) institution... and so we should ignore him too. This is why the media pounce on everything he says and treat everything he does as news. The media, and their secularist/materialist audience, are obsessed with the pope (whoever he happens to be at the time) and with the Church. They hate it, they can't stand it, but they won't leave it alone. It's a thorn in their side, and always has to be dealt with somehow.

In an even broader sense, we are supposedly living in a post-Christian society, yet the media keep obsessing about Christianity and its “corrosive” effect on politics, economics, foreign affairs, etc. In this, of course, they are no more capable of seeing the divisions within Christianity than most Americans are of seeing the divisions within Islam. To them, Christianity is a monolith (even though Catholicism is the worst kind), and, again, it must be stopped, even though it is hopelessly out of date, irrelevant, blah blah. To them, Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, are not only mentally ill, but downright dangerous. And what's worse, they might succeed in infecting still another generation with superstitious gobbledygook. So Job One is keeping them out of the schools (mission accomplished!), after which comes isolating them into media enclaves (“Christian radio” and “Christian TV” and “Christian publishing”), marginalizing them politically, declaring them persona non grata in the halls of academe and in “respectable journals”, and so on.

Now that the secularists have completed their long march through the institutions, all that remains is to police up the battlefield – round up a few stragglers – and consolidate power. This is why secularization always has a “ratchet effect” -- each victory is locked into place and there is no going back. If this were an unconscious, random process it might be otherwise, but it is anything but. Not only is it a program, but it has become a government program, especially since the 1960s, but with precursors going back much further. (I can still remember my 5th grade teacher (in public school) – a Catholic, no less, who would openly talk about God in class. Can you imagine? She would be out on her ear these days, and the teachers' unions wouldn't rush to her defense either.) (And yes, we had a Christmas pageant, with the Holy Family, shepherds, and wise men, and the Jewish kids took part. Ah yes, such simple, na├»ve times, compared to the PC paranoia, hypersensitivity, and overall chaos of the present day.)

So the militant atheists, as I call them, are perpetually tearing their hair and declaring war on a nonexistent god, and on those who worship this nonexistent god. They write one book after another, and go on TV and the Internet, to further their campaign against – nothing, basically. They spout all sorts of blasphemies and criticisms against this god who does not exist. You've heard and read them more than once, I'm sure. And the fact that so many of the more prominent militant atheists of our time are British, with those highbrow (or at least middlebrow) accents – well! If that doesn't win you over, what will? They sit there all nice and smug and well-fed in their tweed jackets and, basically, call you a pathetic idiot (if you're a person of faith – any faith). And what do they have faith in? Nothing, basically. But if they did it would be “reason” -- that marvelous floating amorphous cure-all that would solve every problem and meet every human need if only the peasantry would yield to their superiors. (This has been tried at least once, at the time of the French Revolution, which is honored to this day as the high water mark of secular “reason”. And let's not get too hung up on the Reign of Terror, the guillotine, and the fact that, after killing the king, they wound up with an emperor not long afterward.)

This is what I find most puzzling, I suppose, about atheists – of either type. They really are completely satisfied with the world as it is – at least in the metaphysical sense. No sense talking about the “argument from design” (or its scientific cousin, Intelligent Design) as evidence for a creator – they have Evolution, and randomness, and bubble universes on their side. And if religion is so “unnatural”, why does virtually every human group, both historically and in the present day, show a religious impulse and spiritual yearnings? Well, that's a mutation, you see – an unfortunate bump in the road on the way to perfect reason and enlightenment. But if there is no God, how can you have morality? Ah, but we have “ethics”, and common sense, and – again – reason, which cureth all ills. 

And the amazing thing (to either side) is that people can live their entire lives with a given world view; there is never a point at which they fall on their knees blinded by the light (of faith, or of reason). (Or, best of all, by a combination of the two, as perfected by Thomas Aquinas.)  So there is no arguing – nor should there be. People of faith should be “reasoned” in their faith just as nonbelievers have faith in “reason”. You really can sit down over coffee and talk about these things; no weapons of mass destruction required. But to gain converts (in either direction)? Good luck with that. We are talking about drastically different world views here – different figure, different ground. Different metaphysics, different epistemology. And yet, is it not the same world that is before all of our eyes? This in itself is a mystery. But let the conversation continue (off school property, of course).

Friday, March 20, 2015

One Man, One Vote -- No, Really


The latest pronouncement from The Anointed One – who must still be punch-drunk from the beating he got from Bibi – has to do with voting. As in, voting in elections, by citizens. He seems to be advocating obligatory voting, which would put it in the same category as filing one's income tax return (or actually more so, since not everyone has to file). His reasoning (so-called)? It would get rid of the “corrosive influence of money in U.S. elections” (quote from the AP article). Really? Well, let's see – what exactly does “money” do to elections, anyway? It buys advertising, I guess – and how can that be bad? Well, it can be bad if one side has more money than the other, which means that the richer side can buy more ads, and thus influence more people's decisions as to (1) whether to vote, and (2) whom to vote for. Or, another way of putting it is that people with bad ideas, but more money, will inevitably win out over people with good ideas but less money. As if increasing the absolute amount of exposure to bad ideas somehow enhances their acceptability (which, I guess, is true if we're talking about The Big Lie and other, smaller lies).

You know, frankly, I've never been convinced that advertising plays all that decisive a role in elections. People vote a certain way because their parents did... or because they feel that everyone else in their racial/ethnic/economic/gender group is voting a certain way... or because of what they read, hear, or see in the actual news, as opposed to in campaign ads. They “vote their pocketbook” above everything else, but can also be influenced by ideas (if simplistically presented), ideals, and, yes, guilt. Not to mention, of course, candidates' personalities and personal traits and habits – and here, I suppose, information (including libel and slander) could be relevant.

I'm not saying that propaganda doesn't have an effect, only that it has to compete with any number of other factors – personal, political, sociological, etc. A member of a hard-core constituency could hear 3 or 4 hours per day of ads for the other side, and it wouldn't change his or her mind. And “independents” are more likely to see the big picture rather than falling for ham-handed political ads. And in the case of incumbents, memory is always a useful tool – especially memory of what they promised the last time around, versus what they actually delivered.

Plus, Obama seems to be implying that “money” is always on the side of the eeeevil Republicans. Not true! The Democrats have become the party of both the poor and the rich. Wall Street and the “banksters” cynically donate money to each party in about equal amounts, for obvious reasons. So the money argument is bogus – not entirely but nearly so.

What else could he mean, then? “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.” OK, that's a bit closer to the truth. If it's really true that non-voters tend to be “younger, lower-income and... immigrants or minorities” (AP quote) then it's a blatant attempt to further expand the Democrat power base by getting all of its constituents to the polls. And this is the angle that the conservative commentariat (AKA talk radio) has focused on. Well... it may be true, but Obama should be careful what he wishes for. A lot of “minorities” are very traditional in their thinking and may turn out to be more in tune with the Republicans (as in the case of the Cuban exiles in Florida). And as for the young? Are they really enchanted with the likes of Hillary Clinton? I'd be surprised if that were the case. She doesn't talk their language any more than the Republicans do – less, in some cases, if we're talking about some of the more young and dynamic Republicans, not to mention the libertarians. Plus, she looks like the meanest teacher they ever had in public school.

Another cautionary note (for liberals) is what I call the “disgust factor”. More and more people are staying away from the polls simply because they see nothing to choose from among the candidates, who they consider to be rogues, schemers, and fools. No argument there! But if they were forced to vote, are there any guarantees as to whom they would vote for? If forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, which typical Democratic or Republican candidate would come out ahead? The liberals, in all of their delusions, always feel that they are born to rule simply because of their enlightened attitudes and humanism... but it's clear that the citizenry do not always agree. And this is particularly true with regard to foreign policy, where the tendency of red-blooded Americans is to vote for the guy who will teach those rag-heads a damn good lesson rather than “negotiate” or “dialog”.

But having said all of that, I prefer to, as usual, dig a bit deeper. My first thought when I read the headline “mandatory voting” was those old pictures and newsreels of the Supreme Soviet in the grand old USSR days. Row upon row of stone-faced delegates would raise their hands in unison when asked to vote on the latest scheme proposed by the strong man – be it Stalin or Khrushchev or any of those other guys. And it was always unanimous! Never was heard a dissenting word. The perfect model of a socialist Utopia, where everyone thinks exactly alike because all have achieved ultimate wisdom through the remaking of human nature by the state, using all the tools at its disposal (including eliminating troublemakers). Is this not the dream of every socialist? And is it not, therefore, the dream of any liberal... any Democrat... any president named Obama? Of course it is. He wakes up every morning from this dream of perfect unanimity, only to find himself, once again, bogged down in that most feared of all things – actual democracy, with all of its aggravations, headaches, and discontents. But he has hope! Yes – hope and change. (It's alive!) If only he could convince Congress – or himself, by means of executive order – to compel everyone to troop off to the polls on every Election Day, like the gray masses in “Metropolis”, and vote – and vote for him! -- then life would be good, at long last.

It all sounds so good – so idealistic. (I can visualize the posters now, done up in the best totalitarian style, with muscular men and fecund women all straining toward a monumental building in Art Deco style with a sign reading “VOTE HERE (or else)”.) But it would also mean the end of democracy – and I mean the absolute end, game over. Why? Well, for one thing, the “right to vote” also implies the right not to vote. You can't have one without the other. If voting becomes an obligation, it's no longer a right. Imagine anyone talking about the “right” to pay one's income tax. (Cue laugh track on maximum volume.) Also, any country where the populace is trooped off to vote under the watchful eye of the police (well, how else would you do it?) is rightfully considered a tyranny, and the voting a mere sham – an exercise of egotism on the part of the ruling elite, who will do as they please no matter who votes or how they vote. We laugh at the farcical “elections” in places like North Korea; we'd be better off biting our tongues.

Another way of saying this is that when everyone votes, nobody votes. I mean, they may go to the polls and cast their ballots, but it's pathetic, since the candidates have been chosen by the Regime and, at least half the time, the outcome is already determined. Muhammad Ali had his “bum of the month club”, and we have the “face in a suit of the year/2 years/4 years club”. The Regime pops these people out like McDonald's pops out Big Macs – but they are all serving the same master, and nothing the hapless populace does or doesn't do, including voting, makes the slightest difference. This is already the case, at least on the national level, but at least one can protest the fact by not voting. If we are all forced to vote, then we are all forced to indicate, by that act, that democracy is still alive and well, even though we know better.  We have then become, like the citizens of any totalitarian state, the greatest of liars -- to each other, but mostly to ourselves.

So what I'm saying is that mandatory voting, if it ever becomes law, will be the official death knell of democracy. And yes, it's paradoxical, but in that it does not differ from so many other phenomena in our time. The more we talk about rights, the more of them we lose – and whatever “right” is the leading topic of conversation on any given day is the one most recently lost. Yes, voting is pathetic... an empty exercise... but it's still one of the few symbolic acts we have left to salvage our self-respect. If they make it obligatory, they will take even that away.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Red Letter Day


The Republican senators' letter to Iran is a curious document – not only because of the circumstances involved but because of all the delusional and wishful thinking it contains. If it was supposed to be a civics lesson for the mullahs, it has failed in that mission. Consider, first, the letter as composed:


An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.  Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution — the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices — which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress.

First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote.  A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate (which, because of procedural rules, effectively means a three-fifths vote in the Senate).  Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics.

For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.


The following version (which I urged the worthy senators to use, but to no avail) would have been more accurate, and more edifying not only to the leaders of Iran but to the American public:

An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our formerly constitutional system.  Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution — the power to make binding international agreements and the different character of federal offices — which you might want to consider for your own amusement as negotiations progress.

First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them. This quaint notion predates the point at which the presidency became, for all intents and purposes, a dictatorship. Not that Congress doesn't still ratify treaties; it's just that it makes no difference what Congress does, since the administration will conduct foreign affairs as it pleases anyway. 
 
In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote. Again, this is strictly a formality designed to provide some semblance of purpose to an otherwise impotent and obsolete body. The president can come to any agreements, both overt and covert, with any government at any time, and the same applies to breaking agreements. The Senate's role varies along a continuum from mute passivity to helpless rage. 
 
A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate (which, because of procedural rules, effectively means a three-fifths vote in the Senate).  Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement – which, under our current system, has exactly the same weight as anything approved by Congress, especially since it can be backed up by the military, which is under the sole command of the president.

Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics.

For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms, and in fact many of them have what amounts to a lifetime appointment, not to be terminated for any cause, including senility and insanity. As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. There is no way to get rid of us, since all election laws overwhelmingly favor incumbents, which is not surprising since it was incumbents who wrote and passed those laws. 
 
What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. This will, of course, have no bearing on how the president sees any such agreement, nor on how it is interpreted or enforced.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could attempt to modify the terms of the agreement at any time. The success of any such attempt will, of course, be entirely contingent on the whims of whoever is president.

We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our formerly constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress.

For further reading, please refer to the extensive writings of President Obama, formerly a professor of Constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

We Are Not Worthy


Yesterday, March 3, 2015 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the President of the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. The United States was at peace with that nation and....

OK, OK, enough with the FDR imitation already. And I'm not sure that 3/3/15 will live in infamy; there are so many other dates clamoring for that distinction in our times. But it was certainly a milestone of sorts. It did not represent a sea change in our relationship with Israel; what it did represent, however, was Israel's – or at least its prime minister's – overt and unambiguous declaration that they are in charge of our foreign policy, no matter what any silly-ass president or his pathetic acolytes in Congress might think. Netanyahu not only called Obama out, but he told it like it is, and demanded that Congress fall into line and agree with him – which they did, by the way, in a show of obsequiousness that set a new high (or low). Not that there's anything new about this either, since that was accomplished decades ago, but on this occasion the prime minister openly acknowledged the facts of the matter and pretty much dared anybody to object.

And of course there will be a reconciliation, and an “all is forgiven” golden glow will descend on the whole affair, and history will be rewritten to show “no daylight” between us and Israel. So in that sense it doesn't matter... but the fact will remain. Bibi has bearded the lion (so to speak) in his den, and there will be no backing off from that – no spin, no “clarification”. The prime minister chose his words with exquisite care; there was nothing offhand or spontaneous about them. He made his position plain, he made it plain that it was Israel's position, and he made it plain that he didn't much care what Obama or his stooges think, because, quite frankly, they don't count. (The truth is, even Congress doesn't count – but the exercise was valuable as an affirmation of Israel's power base. The standing ovations tell you all you need to know about that.)

Well, Obama is a lame duck – a lot lamer than he was on Monday! -- but so what? He's been insulted by Netanyahu before, and undoubtedly will be again. And he doesn't dare return blow for blow; he is as helpless as a Supreme Court justice sitting like a bump on a log while the president gives a State of the Union address brimming with insults directed at the Court (which is why some of the justices have decided to boycott said annual exercise until further notice). Maybe now he knows how it feels.

So nothing will change. We will continue to pour resources into the Middle East in endless wars, unto and beyond bankruptcy. We will continue to incur the wrath of the Islamic world, and the derision of most of the rest. We will continue to “stand with Israel” in splendid isolation. And yet... one can't help but think that a milestone has been passed. Gone are the days of subtlety and subversion; from here on it's in-your-face, mano a mano. But at the same time, it's refreshing; everything is right out in the open, and we can now decide if this is what we want, or if we would prefer something else (not that what “we” decide will make much difference). The main point is that from here on out no one can claim ignorance, and no one can feign shock the next time Israel abuses its infinite privileges with the U.S., its leadership, its military, and it's citizens.

It would be tempting to dwell just on the more amusing and ironic aspects of all of this; they certainly made my day. (Feinstein and Pelosi both having hissy fits? Please.) But those aren't the sorts of things that usually echo down through history. What does do this is major world events and political forces – and yet we all too rarely get to see them in plain sight; these events are as rare as total eclipses. For this alone we should thank the prime minister; he has shown us... well, not necessarily the truth about Iran and its perceived threats, but the truth about our relationship with our “eternal ally”. That, and at least one truth about our political leadership – that they are infantile, and as mindless as a gang of yobs at a soccer game.