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Experiments in Teaching, Learning, Understanding

Update: Trump Rises to History’s 3rd Worst POTUS

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Fair is fair.  After 2 years in office, Donald Trump has risen from worst to third-worst President in U.S. history, this in the estimation of 157 participating presidential scholars surveyed .[i]  This is an uptick from another organization’s first-year polling of 170 historians, which ranked Trump dead last. [ii]   Thus, I am obliged to update a previous post entitled “Worst.President.Ever.”  [iii]

The more recent and slightly less damning (Siena) poll is probably more realistic, giving Trump credit for not yet bungling the country into civil war (as James Buchanan did [iv]) or enacting a racist reversal of civil rights gains, and barely surviving conviction in the Senate after impeachment in the House (Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln).  In Siena’s poll, Trump does rank dead last in several sub-categories including integrity, intelligence, and overall ability but—like his impulse toward obstruction of justice (Mueller Report [v])—his worst directives have so far been thwarted by his own staff.  Of course, all staff who showed such patriotic integrity have already been ushered out of the Administration, leaving behind an incredibly vacuous and sycophantic crew.  Trump may be as inept as Buchanan and as unpopular as Andrew Johnson, but his efforts have not yet led to civil war or Jim Crow, so “third-worst” seems a fair enough presidential ranking.    If we’re all lucky, he may even someday leapfrog Warren Harding and William Harrison.

As for impeachment, meh.  The Johnson and Clinton impeachments illustrate the unlikelihood of achieving supermajorities in both House and Senate sufficient to forcibly remove a president from office.  And does anyone but the Evangelical Christian fringe want Mike Pence as president?  Impeachment in Trump’s case seems an unhelpful sideshow.  I would only favor the first step (House investigation in preparation for a vote that may never come) if Congress finds no other way to obtain documents required for legitimate oversight of a bizarre and corrupt executive branch.

Similarly, in the matter of the 25thAmendment [vi], it strikes me as premature to rescind my previous views and give Trump a clean bill of mental health, but there is enough ambiguity to suspend all hope that the current crew who surround Trump have either the wit to recognize mental impairment or the courage to name it as such.  Only time and perhaps an eventual autopsy will till us whether Trump’s erratic behaviors and tone-deaf narcissism are the result of creeping dementia, or instead track to other disorders.  Even Trump’s loyal political base tends to acknowledge “he has a certain wrongness about him,” [vii]but supporters are remarkably forgiving of his shortcomings.  There would be a certain sweetness and nobility in that level of forgiveness, were it not so entwined with the hypocrisy of embracing vulgar policies.

FOOTNOTES:


[i]https://scri.siena.edu/us-presidents-study-historical-rankings/

[ii]https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/19/opinion/how-does-trump-stack-up-against-the-best-and-worst-presidents.html

[iii]https://schmaltalk.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/worst-president-ever/

[iv]https://www.history.com/news/why-is-james-buchanan-considered-one-of-americas-worst-presidents

[v]https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/politics/read-the-mueller-report/?utm_term=.759f44505dea

[vi]https://schmaltalk.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/pity-trump-invoke-25th-amendment/

[vii]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWxrt3bEnBs  (this is the scene from Northern Exposure involving a cow-fling, with preternatural reference to Donald Trump)

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Written by aschmalj

April 22, 2019 at 12:20 PM

What is Quaker? Faith, Practice, Community, and Egalitarian Governance

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To be Quaker is to become convinced of the rightness for oneself  [i] of a particular way of seeing, thinking, and understanding, and then to endeavor to live internally and relationally in harmony with those received truths. Collectively, these are called Faith and Practice.[ii]  Underlying “the way” are theologies or philosophies that vary among individual Quakers and between branches,[iii] but they converge on a spiritual egalitarianism among all persons, and a direct (i.e. mystical) access to the source of all peace, love, and understanding,[iv] Who [v]  may go by many names including God. Originally Christocentric and still almost conventionally so among the majority of Quakers worldwide, inward faith among “liberal” and other Quakers may be partially informed or grounded in panentheism, the God of Einstein and Spinoza (pantheism), Buddhist tenets, non-theism, rational agnosticism, stoicism, or elsewhere. Typically, there is little or no emphasis on sin or salvation as these are commonly understood. Fixed beliefs including creeds are anathema, as Truth is considered to be in a state of continuing revelation; consequently, invariant (or frozen-in-time) interpretations of holy texts or unconditional deference to persons of authority can rightly be viewed as unhelpful idolatry. Outward sacraments (including baptism) are considered harmless “notions” that are nonessential and not practiced at all among Liberal Friends.  If this sounds anarchic, it is not.  Coherence is guided by queries and advices, not dogma, guilt, or fear. A peculiar Quaker jargon (patois) is useful in emphasizing how Quaker understandings may differ from the commonplace, but can also make things seem either quaint or even more mysterious than they actually are. [vi]

Practice—the inward and outward way of living—is inseparable from Faith. Each informs and inspires the other, and each is strengthened in community. Named principles (testimonies) shared and celebrated by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) include integrity, simplicity, nonviolence, active peacemaking, equality, and stewardship. Silence and deep listening—listening for the “still small voice[vii] of God and listening to one another—are highly valued; many communities meet primarily in silence, punctuated by unprogrammed vocal ministry.  In such Meetings, there is no single priest or pastor, and no paid clergy, Friends having eliminated not the priesthood but the laity.

While the theology of Quakers is outside the mainstream, it is not altogether unique: most of its threads are found in other religions, many of them older than Quakerdom’s origins in the 1660’s. But from this theology Quakers derived a model of organization and self-governance that is an exceptional departure from the familiar domination schemes of hierarchy or voting.  Quakers invest the time and care to labor toward a sense of the group—beyond consensus and typically finding unity—with individuals offering their views via plain speech and integrity, yet listening deeply and subordinating their egos to a greater wisdom. “Right action” is prioritized over speed and expediency. [viii]

In a given community, “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business” (a.k.a. Business Meeting) is traditionally held monthly, and the community itself is known as a Monthly Meeting. Representatives from a dozen or so Monthly Meetings may gather Quarterly, and each of several multistate groupings of 50-100 Meetings gather annually in open sessions (for example Baltimore Yearly Meeting or Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) to sustain relationships and consider shared issues and programs.  Additional networks of national and international Quaker organizations tether Friends in activism, lobbying, and service.  However, decisionmaking authority and assets (including properties) remain the purview of Monthly Meetings except where intentionally ceded.

Who then can identify as Quaker? Some Friends assert a necessity to hold membership in an established Monthly Meeting. [ix] Others feel just as strongly that identity is existential, a recognition and declaration of True Self in the context of Faith, Practice, and Community.  Either way, newcomers are welcomed and embraced, as even the most established Quaker communities know new “seekers” to radiate the joy of finding their true home, and to provide the community with new talents and perspectives.[x]

Take note that, despite rhyming, Quakers and Shakers have very different origins and theologies:  Quakers are neither celibate nor known as great furniture makers. Nevertheless, a favorite song among Quakers is the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”.

Quakerism is simple.  And complex.  The essentials revolve around faith, practice, community, and egalitarian governance.


FOOTNOTES:

[i] Paradoxically, community is essential but cannot thrive unless each individual knows themselves to be in a best-fit situation for personal spiritual growth.  Personal responsibility for one’s own faith and practice is at once liberating and challenging; it is not for everyone, not the “easiest” path, and this is reflected in Quakerism’s relatively static membership numbers. “Defined rules of belief” and a promised route to personal salvation are far more popular, and not offered by most Quaker communities. There does exist an evangelical branch of Quakers, but recruitment and “conversion” of others is not a historical priority for Quakers.

[ii] Faith and Practice  is also the name given to a published set of guidelines and resources formulated by each Yearly Meeting (a territorial grouping of communities), revised every couple decades for purposes of harmonizing the agreed-upon commonalities between the participating communities.  Most of these are available online.

[iii] see http://www.quakerinfo.org/quakerism/branches/today

[iv] “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” is a 1974 song written by English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe and subsequently covered by many.  I like the Keb’ Mo’ version (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6Eje4poJ1U)

[v] The rare E.E. Cummings devotee will recognize the personal pronoun “Who” as an intended reference to God, lifted from E.E. Cumming’s essays:  “… mysteries alone are significant … love is the mystery-of-mysteries who creates them all” in i: six nonlectures

[vi] Quakers speak of “the Light,” once took care to use “Thee” and “Thou” in speech, “affirm” rather than “swear” to be truthful, are “convinced” rather than “converted,” etc.

[vii] From 1 Kings 19:12, also translated as “a delicate whispering voice”; this is how God spoke to Elija.  Quakers find it an apt description of what may be discovered by deep listening. Are Quakers prone to auditory hallucinations?  Rarely.  How does the still small voice differ from imagination?  In Scene 1 of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan(https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/shaw/george_bernard/saint-joan/complete.html), the following exchange occurs:

Joan.  “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.”

Robert. “They come from your imagination.”

Joan. “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.”

[viii] In my view, the practices of corporate discernment are the most important legacy and example the Quakers have provided. The general concept of seeking unity is not unique, as it was embedded in many indigenous cultures and is arguably the way in which many families decide things as simple as where to go on vacation.  But Quakers have provided a framework that succeeds in the modern era, so long as participants care more about the community and the rightness of discernment than they care about “winning.”  I recoil and rebel in the secular world when some egoist declares “let’s call the question,” insisting that—right or wrong—a vote and majoritarian dominance on a divisive question is better than delay.  The flaws of hierarchical decisionmaking are too many and too obvious to recount (see Trump).

[ix] Traditional importance of defined membership was rooted in expediencies that were more important in past centuries.  For example, in the earliest years, self-proclaimed Friends could potentially overreach (in heresy or violence) and bring the King’s army (or other government) down on all, so a way was needed to disavow such persons as non-members.  In the U.S., it was easier (as recently as the Vietnam conflict) to assert pacifist status (re the Selective Service draft) if one were a longtime member of a Quaker community, with paperwork to show it.  For the “institution,” there remain several legalistic reasons to have a defined membership cohort, but they have little if anything to do with colloquial self-identification of one’s faith and practice.

[x] If anyone visits a Quaker meeting and finds it to be insular, inhospitable, and resistant to the possible change wrought by new members or attenders, such a meeting should be considered an outlier, and seekers should look for a healthier nearby meeting.

Written by aschmalj

February 11, 2019 at 4:56 PM

Reparations and the Wealth Tax

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Almost all of today’s political conservatives, and a high proportion of self-described moderates, recoil (hair-on-fire) at the concept of reparations—the idea of offering amends, atonement, expiation for past wrongs (injustices).  Moreover, many liberals (including me, some 25 years ago) balked at the seeming unfeasibility (in terms of either logistics or justice) of somehow identifying and reimbursing individuals for the whole of American society’s historical abuses.  The philosophical differences between conservative and liberal views lie mostly in the former’s casual denial that present beneficiaries of historical wrongs bear any responsibility, saying in one form or another:  “What’s past is past: I didn’t enslave anyone; I didn’t steal anyone’s land; I didn’t oppress; and my ancestors’ sins do not convey to me. I earned what I have, and nobody deserves a handout.”  The conservative view is of course self-serving poppycock and—because so many conservatives profess religiosity—it is also hypocritical. Contrariwise, the failure of liberals is not so much in their obliviousness as in their lack of imagination.

Enter tax policy and economic policy.  I have written previously on the wealth gap, the undeniable observation that the rich in America are inexorably getting richer, their wealth consolidated in dimensions not seen since 1929. [i]  The wealthy respond that this is happenstance, is the result of their hard work, and is healthy for the nation’s economy.  They decry “redistribution of wealth” as an un-American heresy, a moral outrage. They bellow (with surprising if unmerited success) that intergenerational passage of wealth is a fundamental human right (“mine!”) and that estate taxes are therefore immoral. Incredibly, a high proportion of the poor and under-educated embrace the plutocratic economic mythology.

With a wave of new Democrats (consisting mostly of left-leaning newcomers younger, more liberal, and more diverse than the standard patriarchy) having scored a landslide win in the 2018 House elections, and the 2020 elections not far over the horizon, I am pleased to see the tax battle joined; yet I am simultaneously disappointed in the progressive/liberal politicians’ oratorical stumblings, their seeming incapacity to talk about the philosophical and moral (and yes, religious) dimensions of tax policy. Some have talked of rollbacks of the tax gifts given recently to the wealthy, i.e. the Republican initiatives to lower top marginal rates, minimize taxation on dividends and capital gains, and eliminate estate taxes.  This is encouraging, but I am especially pleased to see a wealth tax put on the table by Elizabeth Warren [ii], and now discussed (pro and con) in op-eds (and TV, ugh) by other legitimate economists who know and analyze real data.[iii]  I would love to see Congressional hearings (alas, this could only happen in the House) on the feasibility and consequences of taxing not only income but also hoarded, self-perpetuating wealth (roughly synonymous with net worth). Warren[iv]correctly points out that states, counties, and municipalities already impose a wealth tax on the hoi polloi in the form of property taxes.  She makes a good case that such a federal tax—directed entirely at the ultrarich—is as feasible to administer as any of our other taxes.  To be clear, such a federal wealth tax (starting at accumulated wealth of more that $50M) is not “confiscatory” (a favorite conservative term), but is proposed at 2-3%, a rate lower than such wealth grows on its own accord (e.g., in very conservative investments). And while such a tax only affects the wealthiest 0.1% of taxpayers, the wealth hoarded by those 75,000 affected households is so vast that such a tax is estimated to raise an additional $2.75 trillion in ten years.  That is real money, with negligible negative effect on either the economy or the comfort of the ultrarich.

I began and will end with a riff on reparations.  Additional revenue from a new wealth tax has no bearing on the long arc of social justice if the proceeds are used to reduce income taxes on the rich, to fund the military-industrial complex, or even to pay down the national debt (this debt having resulted from an indirect subsidy to the wealthy, who got us into this in the first place [v]).  I expect there would be little lasting benefit from trying to identify and make one-time payment to the descendants of those enslaved, oppressed in a racist society, or robbed of their birthright by Euro-American invaders and broken treaties.  However, if the proceeds are used for education (from pre-K to graduate school), child care, housing subsidies for the poor, guaranteed health care for all, and other initiatives that rebalance privilege and opportunity in America, then—and only then—will the generationally privileged wealthy begin to atone for their complicity in sustaining a culture of unjust disparity.  I’m content to call this reparations, but since that word is incendiary in some quarters and easily misunderstood by the gullible consumers of propaganda, let’s just pick a synonym: right action; social justice; fairness; promotion of the general well-being.

Game on.  The present course is unsustainable.


FOOTNOTES:

[i]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/03/06/this-viral-video-is-right-we-need-to-worry-about-wealth-inequality

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM

[ii]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/24/us/politics/wealth-tax-democrats.html

[iii]https://equitablegrowth.org/wealth-taxation-an-introduction-to-net-worth-taxes-and-how-one-might-work-in-the-u-s/

[iv]To be clear, Warren is among those I like on economic policy; but I like her as a senator.  I’m skeptical she’s the best liberal candidate for President: she’s a bit strident, easy to caricature, and has fumbled her response to Trump’s racist attacks against her.

[v]If liberals can fairly be accused of a “tax and spend” philosophy, conservatives have shamelessly embraced a “borrow and spend” practice. The real tax burden on the wealthy (as a percentage of income or net worth) remains lower than for the middle class, while it is the wealthy who benefit disproportionately from the comforts and security purchased by tax revenue.  Moreover, the cynical underlying philosophy (witness Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan) is to drive up the national debt so as to “starve the beast”, the beast of what they call entitlements.  (see previous blog on this ploy)

Written by aschmalj

February 4, 2019 at 10:14 AM

Whitewash: MLK and the Complicity of (Us) Liberals in Racial Divide

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On this Monday holiday in celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, writer Jeanne Theoharis—a political scientist and author of many books and articles on the civil rights movement—paraphrases MLK to assert the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice,” was more of an impediment than “the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.”[i]On one hand, I am sympathetic to Theoharis’ larger thesis that racism is alive and well in America, and that political “moderates” including northern Liberals (a category in which I am binned) are a large part of the problem.  I choose the word “whitewash” to emphasize the irony of how White America cherry-picks the historical narrative of the black person’s experience in America, including a full array of amnesia, revisionism, and delusion about the words and work of MLK.  On the other hand, at least in this Op-Ed piece, I find Theoharis inartful and unhelpful in substituting her own words, “more of an impediment.”

MLK, in both speech and writing, was intellectually powerful, precise, and nuanced.  No matter who paraphrases or excerpts him, something is usually lost.  Here is the more extended quote from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:[ii]

            I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

             Theoharis and I surely agree on many things, and I do not discount the fact her views are rooted in both experience and study in ways mine are not.  Perhaps we agree on this:  as candidates now declare themselves one by one to be candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, please spare me the Democratic Moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.  Hillary Clinton was one such “moderate,” which is why I never voted for her in a primary election.  However, (and here I part with the ill-chosen words but probably not the sentiment of Theoharis), I never saw Clinton as “more of an impediment” to justice and right action than Trump. This next time around, candidates genuinely willing to stand with Martin Luther King will be labeled as radicals, thus there will be efforts to sideline them as unelectable.  We’ll see what happens, but my path will be to vote in the primaries for the candidate I reckon would also have earned MLK’s vote, noting that King was not fixated on issues of race but on larger matters of economic and social justice that included racism.  In the general election, though, I may be obliged to vote again for the whitewashing moderate in preference to the Klanner.  I am not inclined to the nihilistic path of intentionally making things worse in hope that enlightenment will rise in the populace, ultimately making things better.  That experiment is already underway, and I don’t see that it’s working out.

FOOTNOTES:

[i]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/20/opinion/martin-luther-king-new-york.html

[ii]https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Written by aschmalj

January 21, 2019 at 3:34 PM

POTUS and the Loopholes of Democracy

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As if this is read by a single Trump supporter, let me first stipulate that every president in US history has attempted and often succeeded in working around constraints nominally imposed by Congress and Constitution.  Sometimes the POTUS’s motivation was a political philosophy his party had pressed for decades, only to be defeated by such things as the 60-vote threshold to end filibusters in the Senate.  With rare exception (I can’t think of one), POTUS could rationalize a controversial action (which his opponents would portray as unconstitutional, illegal, or undemocratic) as being popular (in polling), compassionate, and/or legitimately important for national security.

Now we have Trump, a man without shame or moral compass, a man born to great wealth and never (yet) held accountable for anything, a narcissistic “businessman” who acts as if decency, democratic norms, and integrity are for chumps (losers).  For all my differences with past presidents (not just Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush41, and Bush43, but also Obama and Clinton … I give Carter a pass as the unluckiest president of my lifetime), Trump is uniquely vile.

Trump has only a few talents, and one of them is in being a master of loopholes.  He loves his pardon-power, something framers neglected to restrain under the expectation that an abusive president would be muted in other ways.  He loves that there is no legal requirement for him to disclose his financial conflicts of interest, though lawsuits on the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution are winding through the courts.  He loves being Commander in Chief, overriding 70 years of foreign policy and all credible experts’ best advices on the basis of his own ill-informed instincts.  He loves that none of his thousands of documented public lies are criminal.  He loves that the longstanding “code of conduct” for politicians and presidents has no legal force.  He loves that he can craft executive orders that substitute for laws already on the books, orders that are only sometimes restrained by judicial orders. He loves the possibility of packing the courts so that none of his whimsical orders will be successfully challenged.  Today he loves that Congress (in the 70’s) made the mistake of allowing presidents to declare a “state of emergency” without requiring any factual basis, or any oversight by Congress (Why-the-hell would Congress have done this? They probably were trying to correct for budgetary and other legal straitjackets imposed by Congress itself, rules that would actually jeopardize the nimble response of the nation in the face of a real crisis.) Supporters and haters of Trump alike might agree that neither the framers of the Constitution nor 230 years of Congresses anticipated the election of a person like Trump, nor that the Congress would have so thoroughly stripped itself of its own powers. The loopholes in our democracy have been laid open, exposed.  An ignorant and narcissistic person can be elected president, then do real damage.

Mind you, I’m not a big fan of the US version of democracy in the first place.  It brought us slavery, genocide of indigenous peoples, paternalistic disenfranchisement of inferiors and undesirables (including women), plutocracy, and highly limited choices in who represents “the people” in state and federal power. Put xenophobia, racism, religious zealotry, or greed to a vote (as has often been the case), and they all win (usually … a wall would lose).  Democracy—when mismanaged, and uncorrected by the judiciary to protect minority rights—is just another domination system.  (Quakers are undemocratic in the most divine and egalitarian of ways, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The US democracy has loopholes that open the door to tyranny, and if Trump is a student of almost nothing else, he is a student of loopholes.  But at the end of the day, I remain optimistic.  There is something in the American spirit that won’t stand for this.  And having worked shoulder-to-shoulder with US service men and women for 21 years, I don’t think even the majority of them will follow orders they know to be plain wrong, “legal” or not.

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, in 1945, wondered how the German people could be so “stupid” (stupefied?) as to follow Hitler and the ideas of the Reich.  For all our shortcomings, and with due respect for the goodness and intellect of the German people (from whom most of my ancestors come), we can imagine the average German citizen of 1939 and know “we’re not that guy.”  Neither, of course, are the German people of 2019.

Written by aschmalj

January 8, 2019 at 2:41 PM

Ensoulment, Abortion, and Execution

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This is a difficult subject, but I am led to go there.  My basic discernment is this:  The internal US political/social disagreements about abortion will not be resolved anytime soon, and when resolved, consensus will come gradually and incompletely.  The root cause for profound gridlock is that the fundamental dispute is about the nature and timing of a theological abstraction called ensoulment.  The longer version of this prophetic assertion follows below, along with some sidebar discussion of the parallel issues of capital punishment and even warmaking, both of which also touch on ensoulment.  There can be a very thin line between going to the heart of a matter on one hand, and oversimplifying on the other.  I venture a try, based upon my decades of listening to both sides of the religious and civic arguments about these topics.

If many of the conflicts in U.S. politics rise from willful blindness about testable and verifiable truths (e.g., anthropogenic climate change), other disputes are ultimately in the realm of metaphysics.  Abortion is one such issue:  What is a soul, and when is it imparted to a human organism?  Who is entitled to extinguish a life before its soul has traversed the journey it would otherwise complete?  Is possession of a soul a uniquely human trait, how and when does it enter the biological being, and what is its relationship to a larger Divine order?  What is its relationship to civil law in the U.S.?

Outside our intuitions and culturally acquired beliefs, there is no verifiable (i.e., scientific) evidence the soul exists at all, nor can there be incontrovertible evidence of its nonexistence (because soul  invokes the supernatural or ineffable).  In common language and popular Belief, the soul is some non-material essence of our individual selves, which comes from who-knows-where and goes who-knows-where when the physical body dies.  It is Spirit.  It is a gift from God, or a creation of God, or a part of a universal Oneness that is God.  The soul, eternal or not, is a construct of our language, a hypothesis that remains beyond verification by any scientific method.  Actually, it is less hypothesis than it is Faith or Belief. [i] And it is great fodder for poets (Carl Sandburg:  Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.)

Enter abortion.  Among the many US persons (the supermajority, I expect) who presuppose “soul” is a real[ii]thing, there are many religious doctrines and cultural assumptions, but no agreement upon when ensoulment occurs. Does the soul arrive somewhere before conception, in the predestination of “God’s mind”?  At conception (egg fertilization, implanted or not)? At first heartbeat?  At the “quickening” in the womb?  At “viability” of the fetus? (this is a moving target, due to medical advances)  At first breath?  Later, at some arbitrary threshold of sentience?  When does the soul depart the body, and what happens to it upon its departure?

These questions, in turn, lie at the root of the civic disagreements about abortion, and less obviously in the politics of capital punishment.  With the U.S. Supreme Court soon to move even further into the camp of right-wing zealots[iii], a woman’s right to make medical decisions about her own body is the most contentious of the many citizens’ rights[iv]that are at increasing risk.

Of the deeply felt issues openly discussed in today’s America, it is hard to find one more divisive, and more subject to single-issue voting, than abortion.  In the portion of the electorate that calls itself Pro-Life, it is fundamentally a religious issue, and even more fundamentally it is about ensoulment.  In the Pro-Choice electorate, it is a civil issue that revolves around a woman’s right to make her own medical and life-altering decisions about her own body, with Roe v. Wadedecided on “privacy” grounds, referencing the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.[v]  Only a very small fraction of Americans admit to being actively pro-abortion under any circumstance, even as the majority opposes a return to criminalizing abortion.  For almost all the Pro-Choice crowd, abortion is a deeply personal choice of last resort, thus their mantra of striving to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.”

Division.  In a 2012 Gallup poll, 21% of Pro-Life voters and 15% of Pro-Choice voters said they would only vote for a candidate who shared their own views on abortion.   For an additional 49% (Pro-Life) or 43% (Pro-Choice), abortion was one of several major voting issues.  Passions are fierce, and politicians exploit the divisions accordingly.

My claim to the centrality of ensoulment is not to dismiss the many feelings and rational thoughts that arise absent any conscious consideration of ensoulment: many people genuinely grieve abortions of fetuses unknown to them, no less than they grieve the deaths of beloved pets, the slaughter of food animals, “kill shelters,” accidental roadkills, etc. We are an empathetic species, and abortion is at best poignant, at worst gruesome.  Aside from emotional pleas, proxy quasi-intellectual arguments are staged about whether a fertilized egg, embryo, or early fetus is human, or can feel pain.  To clear the fog, let us stipulate for purposes of scientific and philosophical consistency that of course the aforementioned biological entities are human in composition, and at an early stage of development they do respond to stimuli, painful or not.  We can also acknowledge that the fundamentals of the human neural system are initiated in utero, and that the fetus begins, early in pregnancy, to assume physical form (fingers, heartbeat) forecasting the imago(adult) stage of the human butterfly it will become.  Can we also stipulate that even a newborn baby—as adorable as it is to most of us, and as much potential as it holds—is not as well developed cognitively as the animals we slaughter for food, casually exterminate as collateral damage of our human dominion, hunt for sport, hold hostage as pets, and regretfully euthanize “as necessary”?  Feelings and values are important (and are rarely changed by argument), but have proven unhelpful in guiding us through the complex legal tangles. Contrariwise, the rationalist perspectives are superficially prominent but unimportant insofar as they could be resolved by reasoned conversation, agreements upon language, and scientific observation.  The most important issue, the one never discussed in the body politic because it is theological and unresolveable, is ensoulment.

For the Pro-Life crowd, the soul is an inviolate and Divine essence of Personhood, and arrives in humans very early in fetal development.  The Catholic Church denotes ensoulment as occurring at the moment of conception, or perhaps earlier—in the Divine Planning stage (consistent with the church’s opposition to birth control).  Other Christian denominations may equate ensoulment with “quickening” in the womb, based upon concrete readings of their holy texts.  Still other religious sects place the soul in a context of reincarnation and spiritual recycling.  You might expect, then, that views on abortion would align precisely with people’s religious affiliations; indeed this is a bias and a trend, but far from absolute.  Consider the figures from a 2014 Pew poll [vi]:  “only” 87% of atheists and agnostics think abortion should be legal, but so do 48% of self-described Catholics, and 20-46% of Evangelicals. The polling is consistent with voting patterns in other polls, and consistent with the Republican Party’s embrace of the Pro-Life agenda[vii], but it is decidedly grayscale, not black-and-white.

Ultimately, views on abortion are personal and intimate.  In my experience, many respond in the manner of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind:  “I can’t think about this right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”  Others avoid the social land-mine of engaging in an abortion discussion unless views are already known to agree with one’s own.  Although it’s not the point here, I have discerned a personal view compatible with my own religion, a view that will sway nobody but might help a few to articulate their own similar views.[viii]

So, what about capital punishment? Pope Francis has recently joined my camp (not vice versa, since I discerned this more than two decades ago) in asserting that execution of imprisoned persons—no matter their crime—is wrong, unnecessary, and unjustifiable on any theological grounds. This too boils down to a matter of ensoulment, the pro-execution view covered-over with Medieval notions of justice (retribution, vengeance), outdated options on how to protect society from violent sociopaths, and a bias toward dehumanizing those most lacking in privilege (for reasons of poverty, mental health challenges, and too often skin tone or ethnicity). [ix]I emphatically do not grant the State my proxy to execute anyone when imprisonment is an option.  While it is uncontestable that executions of “innocents” have been documented many times, guilt is not the only issue. For example, while many celebrated, I was sickened by the US-backed execution (lynching) of Saddam Hussein. Whether or not there is a soul, the State has no business interrupting any imprisoned person’s possibility of repentance, enlightenment, and atonement.  As for the civil and secular arguments against capital punishment, these alone are more than sufficient to stop this barbaric practice in a country that imagines itself to be “civilized”.[x]

And what of war?  As with capital punishment, the issue is sometimes a matter of dehumanizing violence, but other times a result of “moral violence,”[xi].  That is, instead of regarding the enemy as sub-human (and lacking a soul), one can be equally inspired to kill through an exaggerated sense of one’s moral superiority to “the other” (i.e., the enemy is characterized as having a corrupted soul that “deserves”[xii]to be extinguished).  Religions (of many kinds, on all sides) contribute mightily to war by absolving combatants of the sin[xiii]of murder, offering consolation that the immortal souls of those “on our side” will not be held accountable in a hypothetical final judgement.

I have no easy prescription for “curing” our politics of passionately held and divisive views that sometimes lead to violence, except that I am a big proponent of truth, evidence, and reason. Where reason comes up short, as it does with abortion, I would prefer we at least acknowledge we’re dealing mostly with Belief, both in the realm of ensoulment and in other interpretations (exegeses) of holy texts.[xiv]  Cognitive firewalls are robust:  Pro-Lifers are largely impervious to the heartfelt stories of women who choose abortion; Pro-Choicers often empathize with the emotional dilemma of choosing abortion, but are rarely convinced the choice is inherently wrong for everyone, and therefore should be outlawed.  The divided views may not disappear altogether in coming centuries, since views that entangle culture and religion are remarkably persistent, and the evolution of thought is anything but synchronized on a global scale.  Perhaps the combination of medical science and universal women’s access to reproductive choice will move the needle by making unwanted pregnancies so rare as to be a marginalized issue.  In a distant future, some other impassioned divide will surely have taken center stage.


FOOTNOTES:

[i]Ensoulment turns out to be a philosophically fraught and historically complex religious issue.  See for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensoulment

[ii]A child’s query on the meaning of reality is captured in the title of “Real like Daisies or Real Like I Love You: Essays in Radical Quakerism”, David Boulton, Dale Historical Monographs, pages 89 -101.  Also see WHAT IS REAL?  The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physicsby Adam Becker

[iii]I think it no exaggeration to call the rightmost justices zealots.  Under the pretense of “textualism” or “original intent,” these men cleave to their archaic religious and cultural beliefs, and invent arguments accordingly in an effort to justify a litany of 5-4 decisions grounded in religion and privilege.  They do the work of like-minded politicians, themselves almost entirely male, white, elderly, religiously conservative, and born to privilege.

[iv]An embedded assertion by right-wing zealots is that “activist judges” have invented civil rights (watch them put the phrase in written or air-quotes, “civil rights”) and that “liberal judges” have thereby contradicted the Tenth Amendment (which leaves things not explicitly found in the Constitution, like abortion, to the states or the people).  These self-proclaimed “conservatives” take the historical side of Jim Crow, along with the nation’s history of capricious suppression and mistreatment of minorities by popular will and popular vote.  Then, ironically, they decide that corporations have the enumerated rights of persons (see more robust examples of “conservative” hypocrisy in my other posts).

[v]https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/landmark-cases-roe-v-wade

[vi]http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/22/american-religious-groups-vary-widely-in-their-views-of-abortion/

[vii]To set the political stage, consider this recent excerpt from David Brooks (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/opinion/abortion-democrats-compromise.html):

“The pro-life movement grew on the right and withered on the left. Republicans introduced an anti-abortion plank into their platform in 1976. A new electoral coalition was born.

      The G.O.P. became an alliance between its traditional pro-business wing and its burgeoning pro-life wing. Millions of Americans became single-issue voters. They consider the killing of the unborn the great moral issue of our time. Without pro-life voters, Ronald Reagan never would have been elected. Without single-issue voters who wanted pro-life judges, there would never have been a President Donald Trump.”

[viii]  I am pleased for the decision in the first months of pregnancy—however difficult and fraught—to lie entirely with the woman who is pregnant, except perhaps in extraordinary circumstances where a disputant has such love for the “future perfect” of the fetus that he/she agrees to (and is deemed qualified, never via rape or incest) legally adopt the newborn and accept all responsibility for same.  In later months of pregnancy, I incline toward some surmountable hurdles that balance the mother’s health, the forecast suffering of all concerned, sound medical judgements, and the nearly universal revulsion at terminating a possibly viable birth. I’m in that camp that would prefer abortion to be safe, legal, and rare.  In the particular matter of ensoulment, I reckon all things “of God” revolve around love; so, while a human creature may be incapable of (agape) love until well postpartum, the love need not be bidirectional for ensoulment to occur.  That is, a mother—who loves the growing “somebody” inside herself—imparts to that somebody a soul. Whether anybody else (even the biological father) can similarly imbue a fetus with soul is perhaps possible, but extraordinary:  i.e., will that person be risking their own life to give birth, and committing to the responsibility that falls to a loving biological mother? Politicians and churchgoers who profess love for the innocent unborn child are, in my view, “clanging cymbals” (1 Corinthians 13) who ironically promote policies to abandon mother and child.

[ix]Dehumanization is a much-celebrated bug in our human programming.  For an overview and embedded additional readings, see:  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/the-root-of-all-cruelty

[x]See links athttps://www.amnestyusa.org/issues/death-penalty/death-penalty-facts/

[xi]See for example Dehumanization increases instrumental violence, but not moral violence (Tage S. Rai, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Jesse Graham) in

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/07/18/1705238114

[xii]When one stops to think of it, “deserve” is a highly fraught word and concept in American English.  It has a Calvinist or Puritanical edge, a hint of Divine rather than human judgement about “worthiness.”  Moreover, “deserve” is a word used to justify moral violence, as detailed in footnote #9.  I try not to use the word, except ironically.

[xiii]Sin is an interesting concept for another day. The predominant Christian understanding of sin (very different from my own understanding) is a childlike notion that has been used as a sledgehammer to instill fear and self-loathing; it is probably a leading cause of shrinking occupancy of the pews.  So, I tend to avoid the word, but occasionally use it either ironically or among Friends who understand my meaning.

[xiv]On the matter of understanding Scripture, a foundational writing from the first generation of Friends (Margaret Fell quoting George Fox) is this:  “The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord.”  And [Fox] said, “Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”  And I do find it supremely ironic that many of the same people who want to impose their religious beliefs about abortion upon everybody else are exactly the same people who are scared witless that sharia law will creep into our civil law.

Written by aschmalj

October 8, 2018 at 10:55 AM

White Male Privilege: the Friend Speaks my Mind

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Quaker faith and practice is rich with quaint and sometimes archaic idioms[i], one of which—“the Friend speaks my mind”—is meant to briefly affirm something said well by another, and thereby reduce ego-driven repetitiveness, for example in meetings for worship or business.

So it is that Paul Krugman, in a New York Times opinion piece[ii], laid out most of my views on the pending Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States.  The final paragraph suffices:  So what we got last week was a view into the soul of Trumpism. It’s not about “populism” — it would be hard to find a judge as anti-worker as Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, it’s about the rage of white men, upper class as well as working class, who perceive a threat to their privileged position. And that rage may destroy America as we know it.

I’m more optimistic than Krugman about the consequences of Kavanaugh’s intemperate rant (in Senate hearing) about liberals, conspiracies, and the irrelevance of his past behaviors (as long as they didn’t undermine his academic credentials).  While this is a power play in American politics, it is also an awakening, a rite of passage that will likely precede something better.

As noted previously, I would be far more generous in my interpretation of and response to Kavanaugh’s past behaviors if he were a bit repentant, and made a case for having learned something (e.g., about privilege, compassion, and peer pressure) from his experiences. Instead, what we learned was that Kavanaugh remains the same spoiled and entitled brat who submitted ugly, juvenile inside jokes for publication in his high school yearbook.  How can I be optimistic?  It is my experience—and one of my guiding philosophies—that when demons [iii]are confronted and named (even laughed at, as with late-night comedians), they lose their power.  If Kavanaugh is a tragic figure, he is also pathetic, identifying this “shaming” experience as the worst experience of his life (get some perspective on suffering, Brett!).  Instead of destroying America, Kavanaugh has shone another bright light on what Krugman rightly calls “The Angry White Male Caucus”. (The Friend speaks my mind.)[iv]


FOOTNOTES:

[i]A nice (if partial) collection of Quaker jargon is at https://www.fairfieldfriends.org/Documents/Quaker%20Jargon%20Buster.pdf

[ii]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/01/opinion/kavanaugh-white-male-privilege.html

[iii]When I refer to demon, it almost always refers the daemonic, the psychological context of which I discovered long ago in Rollo May’s writings.  From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daimonic):  Rollo May writes that the daimonic is “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person… The daimonic can be either creative or destructive, but it is normally both… The daimonic is obviously not an entity but refers to a fundamental, archetypal function of human experience — an existential reality”.  The daimonic is seen as an essentially undifferentiated, impersonal, primal force of nature which arises from the ground of being rather than the self as such.

[iv]To add a brief autobiographical note, I too (like Kavanaugh, but poor) grew up as a beneficiary of white male privilege, I in a 1950’s-’60’s culture of toxic masculinity, in which I too “succeeded” (academically, athletically) and was then oblivious to my privilege. One difference is that something inside me kept me from the extremes of bad behavior with which Kavanaugh is accused (perhaps those of us who grew up in small towns were held more accountable, but that didn’t keep a handful of my then-peers from behaving as badly as the charges against Kavanaugh).  Other differences are that my life experiences and fundamental inclinations led me to outgrow the toxicity of the Angry White Male Caucus.  My “inclinations” are presumably a combination of nature and nurture:  my mother was a conformist and Reagan Republican, and my father a Roosevelt Democrat (“if the Republicans had been in charge, we still wouldn’t have electricity on the farm”), but both were openly contemptuous of abuses of authority and privilege.  This, and their treasuring of education, were among the privileges of an otherwise (only seemingly) underprivileged Nebraska farm boy.

Written by aschmalj

October 2, 2018 at 11:33 AM