University of Michigan Press Drops Pluto Press Under Pressure from the Israel Lobby

War Hawks and the Ugly American: The Origins of Bush’s Central Asia and Middle East Policy. Pp. 47-66 and Beyond the Texas Oil Patch: The Rise of Anti-Environmentalism. Pp. 163-184 in Bernd Hamm (ed) Devastating Society: The Neo-conservative Assault on Democracy and Justice (London: Pluto Press, 2005). These are two chapters of mind (the latter co-written with Laurel Phoenix) that are now no longer carried by the University of Michigan press.

When controversy flared last summer, the executive board of the University of Michigan Press defended its relationship with Pluto, saying reservations about the content of a single book shouldn’t interfere with an existing business relationship, and that stopping the book’s distribution would be a blow to academic freedom and free speech. The University of Michigan Press does not review content of the books it only distributes. 

But under pressure from Jewish advocates and three regents, the executive board announced in January that it would re-evaluate all of its distribution deals based on newly created internal guidelines. Pluto was the only independent publisher that didn’t measure up. Last month, the university sent a two paragraph letter notifying Pluto executives that the distribution contract would be terminated in six months, effective Dec. 31. A six-month notice is required by the distribution contract. 

“It wasn’t just one book,” said Betsy Kellman, regional director of the Southfield-based Michigan chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, who said Jewish advocates read all of Pluto’s titles. “You can certainly criticize Israel, but when you set them up for a different standard of criticism than any other nation, that’s when we get into trouble,’’ she said. 

Losing the revenues from distributing Pluto books will have an impact on the University of Michigan Press, but it’s too early to be specific, she said. The press received $918,000 in revenues from distributing Pluto Press books in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007. That was 16 percent of the its total revenues that year.

The upshot is that I no longer have chapters published in a university press book.

Jackson: “Barack, He’s Talking Down to Black People”

Jackson said this to CNN, “I was in a conversation with a fellow guest at Fox on Sunday. He asked about Barack’s speeches lately at the black churches. I said it can come off as speaking down to black people. The moral message must be a much broader message. What we need really is racial justice and urban policy and jobs and health care. There is a range of issues on the menu. The appeal in black America is record levels of unemployment, home foreclosure crisis, records of murders, and all kind of reprehensible actions for black America. A million blacks are in jail even as we talk today and 900,000 young black men. So we have some real serious issues, and not just moral issues—structural inequality.”

Jackson hits the nail on the head with respect to the problems facing the black community. The problems are not reprehensible actions of black American but the result of actions against black America, that is, they have an external cause, namely white supremacy. But this then Jackson falls into the Obama trap: “The basic issues he raises about an urban policy and jobs, no one else has addressed, has broad application. The crisis we’ve faced today, besides, you know, behaving better and doing the right thing, is jobs and investors leaving and drugs and guns are coming. The murder rate is up, taxes up, services down, first class jail, second class schools.”

This line about “behaving better and doing the right thing” is troubling in light of how the world works. This is right-wing conservative-behaviorism. The problem is structural inequality. The problem isn’t that some black Americans don’t follow the rules, but that most black American do. Too many black Americans accept the American Dream, and this is part of what keeps black people down. Jackson wants to combine his democratic concern for structural inequality—the soul of the civil rights movement—with Obama’s impulse to blame blacks for their problems (as well as the problems of white America). These cannot be combined for they are in opposition. Telling black men not to kill each other is more than a meaningless demand if one wants to lower the murder rate—it’s a demand that blames black people for high murder rates in their community. Nobody, white or black, should murder one another. That has nothing to do with why murder rates are higher here than there. The reason why crimes of violence (as defined by the FBI) are higher in the ghetto than in the suburbs is because of structural inequality.

Jackson then talks about Obama’s campaign as a “redemptive” moment. This is the second time I have heard him say this. Here, Jackson goes badly off the rails. Barack Obama is black only by dent of his African father, whom he never really knew. Obama doesn’t have an organic connection to black America. Obama has always been connected to the world of white people. This isn’t a redemptive moment for blacks. Obama represents a redemptive moment for whites. If Obama is elected, whites will be able to claim that the nation has been redeemed from the scourge of racism.

Jackson is doing this at a time when black Americans have never needed their leaders to stand up for them more. Black Americans have been swept up in the Obama personality cult, and the leaders who could educate them about what’s truly going on—who can remind them of what the struggle is really all about—are falling in line behind Obama. What Jackson’s off-air comments reveal is that black leaders are talking about this among themselves. Many of them think Obama is an “Uncle Tom,” but they dare not say so publicly. They are selling out black American fearful that they will become irrelevant. They don’t want to look out of touch to the younger generation of blacks. They have bought into the illusion that Obama has a deep hold on Democrats.

In his cowardice, Jackson becomes a tragic character: a man who can’t stand up for those he claims to represent, a man who willingly dwells in the shadow of a man who represents the destruction of everything Jackson has stood for. It means Jackson’s work in the name of civil rights comes to shit. He has become a tool of the establishment. King’s dream dies in the cowardice of those who pledged to continue his work.

Mixing Church and State: Is Obama Un-American?

Obama said yesterday that his life “has been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.”

He then said, “The challenges we face today—war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools—are not simply technical problems in search of a ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness, in the imperfections of man. And so the values we believe in—empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors—these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues [not mosques], but in our policies and in our laws.

Whatever feelings of satisfaction religion has given Barack Obama, it has no official role to play in public policy making—not if the First Amendment means anything. As Obama said in his 2006 speech on religion, “To base one’s life on [the] uncompromising commitments [of religion] may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.” Yet Obama’s advocacy of faith-based government interventions in social problems contradicts his formerly-held principled stance in defense of church-state separation. Obama’s mixing of church and state is no mere pragmatic move to the center (whatever that might mean). Obama’s advocacy of faith-based government-funded programs are tantamount to pushing down the central pillar supporting enlightened civilization.

Obama’s argument about technical and moral problems is deeply misguided. Joblessness and homelessness are indeed moral problems, but their solutions lie not in religion, but in reform and revolution. Joblessness is a consequence of capitalism’s inability to put everybody to work, the result of the pursuit of profit rather than human need. Worse, capitalism is predicated on the exploitation of many families by a few families. A truly moral society would be one in which no person is compelled to rent her body to the minority of families living in unearned opulence. Restricted access to the means of production and sharp constraints on the ability to generate adequate incomes that result from he imperative to generate wealth for those who run the economy make it impossible for everybody to provide for themselves and their families.

It’s not secularism that fails us, but capitalism. Joblessness and homelessness are the inevitable material consequences of the economic system in which we (do not choose to) live. The only capitalist countries that have approached the moral goals of eliminating joblessness and homelessness are those societies that have used government to ameliorate the social harm of capitalism. These societies are the more secular of all societies. These societies have low rates of poverty and do not often make war. Most of their citizens are atheist or agnostic.

The immorality of the present situation of humankind—poverty, war, and insecurity—issues from violations of universal human rights, rights embedded in the objective needs of human beings, not in any religious conception of morality. Joblessness and homelessness have nothing to do with the “imperfections of man,” an oppressive concept embedded in particular mythological conceptions of the world, the chief one being Christianity, in which an invisible being represents all that is good in the universe and human beings, polluted and sinful, are held to fall far short of that godly standard. 

In this mythology, humans are believed to be perfected only after death and then only after submitting their lives to the tyranny of religious doctrine. Failure to submit oneself to the love of the invisible being exposes the person to eternal torture, contradicting the premise of a loving god. Christianity is an essentially authoritarian ideology if conceived of in the manner in which Obama has articulated his faith. Eternal life and redemption require him, Obama says, to place his “trust in Christ.”

Obama concludes that “the values we believe in—empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors—these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues, but in our policies and in our laws.” Here Obama has switched premise and conclusion to mitigate the fear progressives and secularists may experience upon examining his words. 

Putting premise and conclusion in the right order yields, and I paraphrase: “Secular policies and laws cannot alone realize the values we believe in—empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors. Our government must rely on our churches and our synagogues to bring to our citizens the religious understanding necessary to solve our moral problems, and therefore I propose to expand Bush’s faith-based initiative, which will transfer tax payer dollars from the public trust to the bank accounts of religious institutions.”  

This is the real conclusion of Obama’s argument, and this conclusion represents a profoundly un-American stance—if patriotism is to be judged in terms of how committed a person is to the bedrock principles of American civilization as articulated in the US Bill of Right: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” If patriotism is anything, it is this.

The Fetus is a Person. Now What?

So-called “pro-lifers” are so singularly focused on the fetus, they’ve made such a fetish of the thing, that they can’t grasp any argument that does not depend on the status of the fetus. They insist on pushing the line that the status of the fetus, including the zygote and the embryo, is a person and that this alone determines the moral and legal status of abortion. If the fetus is a person, the argument goes, then abortion is murder.

Given this assumption, all of the effort is put into pushing the assertion that “life,” which for pro-lifers means person, “begins at the moment of conception,” which is the joining of egg and sperm to produce a zygote (that’s a fertilized egg, for those of you not studied up on viviparous biology). Once there is a zygote, a person has been conceived, and it is murder to kill persons, ergo abortion is wrong and therefore must be criminalized.

When I stipulate for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person, pro-lifers pretend they didn’t hear the stipulation and keep on with this tedious why-a-fetus-is-a-person argument, as if it were still the crux of the matter. Why don’t they acknowledge the stipulation? Because they don’t know what to do next. They have been trained to believe that the debate over the status of the fetus is all there is to the argument. What remains is merely a matter of writing a criminal statute to protect the lives of the “unborn.”

But the argument isn’t over. I grant that the fetus is a person. I even grant that the zygote and the embryo are persons, too. Don’t waste on me arguments about heartbeats, requisite number of chromosomes, or what doctors tell us about when fetuses feel pain or what they think about. I’m going to argue that all that’s irrelevant: defending a woman’s right to control her reproductive capacity doesn’t depend on the status of the fetus one jot or tittle. The question doesn’t turn on the fetus, but on the right of the woman to have sovereignty over her body. Reproductive freedom is a human right.

First, let’s dispense with this erroneous assumption that killing persons is always murder. While killing a person is a necessary condition for murder, and while murder is a sufficient condition for a person having been killed, killing a person is not a sufficient condition for murder.  Murder is the intentional and unlawful killing of a person by another person. There are lawful reasons to kill persons: self defense, defense of innocents, state execution, and by-the-rules military combat. Furthermore, not all murder is immoral even if illegal. While it was illegal for a slave in the US south to use lethal force against the slave-master in order to free himself from captivity, it was not immoral for the slave to do so; the slave-master had no legitimate reason to keep people as slaves. Persons have the natural right to use up to lethal force to free themselves from unjust captivity. It is important to note that, because of his second-class status, the slave was not at liberty to exercise the rights first-class citizens enjoy. But this doesn’t change his right to act in this way. Rights don’t depend on status.

Most exceptions to murder stem from the fundamental human right of personal sovereignty, which involves, among other things, the person’s right to decide what happens to her or his physical body. To be a sovereign entity means to be free of the coercion or control of others. It means to be able to determine the direction and character of one’s own life. Sovereignty over your physical person is the essence of liberty. 

Here are some examples of the exercise of personal sovereignty: 

  • I can refuse surgery, because I have the final say-so over what happens to my body. You can try to talk me into having the surgery, but you cannot make me undergo a surgical procedure. If I wish to die from my cancer, even if there are effective treatments for it, that is my choice.
  • You are not allowed to take one of my kidneys, even though I only need one to survive, in order to provide a person with two dysfunctional kidney’s with a working one, even though that person will die without it. I have not committed murder by refusing to give up one of my kidneys to save a dying man even though it was my refusal that killed him.
  • Medical experimentation on me without my express and voluntary consent is unethical because such action violates my personal autonomy. That’s what Nuremberg was all about.
  • If you try to take my life or physically harm me in a significant manner without just cause, I can lawfully resist you with lethal force. This is the right of self-defense.
  • I am morally and legally justified in taking the life of my captor when being unlawfully confined because such confinement is not chosen and thus interferes with the principle of personal sovereignty. It is wrong for a person or persons to physically control me in this way without just cause.

These examples are widely agreed upon. The personal sovereignty principle lies at the core of our law and concepts of morality. Very few of those who believe that a woman should not have the option of obtaining an abortion would accept the state telling them what they could do with their bodies.

This is what is at issue with respect to abortion rights, which constitute a subset of the larger right to personal sovereignty I have just sketched. Like everybody else, a woman owns her body. Just like a man, a woman is free to do with it what she will even if it involves the killing of another person under certain circumstances. She can justifiably kill a man who is trying to rape her. She can justifiably kill her captors to escape unjustified captivity. She can justifiably kill a person who is trying to kill her. She can do these things because she has a right to life and liberty. She has a right to her body and can use lethal force to protect that right. No law can properly deprive her of that right. Granting this is to assert women’s equality with men.

If the state criminalizes abortion, it makes doctors who perform abortions, and the women who seek them, criminals. The consequences of the criminal law are designed to instill fear in the would-be perpetrator and thus force the individual to follow the dictates of the law. Laws criminalizing abortion intend, and would have the effect, of forcing women to have children against their will. They frame a system of forced childbearing. It is hard to imagine a more terrible world to live in than a world in which women are forced to have babies. A woman does not control her womb under a criminal abortion regime, but is subject to state control of her body. The criminalization of abortion represents a violation of the woman’s most basic civil and human rights, constituting an immoral regime striking at the very core of the principle of human freedom. Such a society is not a free society, but a tyrannical one.

Judith Jarvis Thomson made an argument in her paper “A Defense of Abortion” that shares points of logic with the argument I am making. She argues from analogy:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Most of us would agree that it is wrong for a person to remain forcibly attached to another person for the purpose of keeping that other person alive. If one day one should find himself attached to another person, Thomson reasons, he should have the right to disconnect that person from his body, and if that person dies, he has not committed murder. On the contrary, any situation that forces a person to remain attached to that person is immoral for it compromises his sovereignty. He did not choose the situation, therefore he does not have accede to it. To be sure, one can imagine a state that forces him to remain attached to another person in order to preserve that life, but this would be a totalitarian society in which personal liberty and basic rights would go unrecognized. Most of you, I hope, agree with this assessment. A few people I have encountered will accept the burden. But the vast majority honestly answer that they would not and do agree that it is terrible burden and injustice.

Criticisms of Thomson’s position were many. It is not the purpose of this essay to review that literature. It will suffice to say that the objections are not compelling. But one objection worth looking at is the argument that this logic could only apply in cases of rape and incest, where the pregnant woman had not consented to the sex act that resulted in conception; where the woman consented to sex, she has consented to pregnancy. This objection doesn’t work. Historically, sex has been a necessary condition for pregnancy (technology has changed this, but that’s beside the point); however, sex has never been a sufficient condition for being pregnant. Sex is a precondition for pregnancy; sex does not signal an intent to be pregnant. Moreover, even if a woman intends to be pregnant, that does not require her to stay pregnant, since part of personal sovereignty is the right to change one’s mind. One does not have to stay in an experiment he volunteered for if he decides he wishes to quite the experiment. To force him to continue is to violate his right to voluntarily consent to the conditions. A free person can quit anytime. 

If I choose to be hooked up to another person in such a fashion, then that is my decision, and the state should allow me to make that choice. If one of my children needs a kidney, and I am a match, then I should be allowed to give my child one of my kidneys. If a woman chooses to have a baby, then that is her decision, as well. Any state that tells a woman that she cannot have a child is tyrannical (consider China’s one-child policy). The state should not force the woman to have a baby any more than the state should force me to remain attached to another person against my will.

While it seems the right thing to do to give my child one of my kidneys, the state does not have the right to take my kidney to save my child’s life. I am not a murderer if I refuse to give up my kidney and my child dies. Likewise, the state does not have the right to require a woman to remain attached to the person inside her womb. The same principle is in operation in all of these examples. Remember, I am not treating the fetus any differently than I am treating legally-recognized persons. I have assumed throughout all this, for the sake of argument, that the fetus is a person. 

If the state can force a woman to remain attached to a person in her womb, then why can’t the state force the woman to remain attached to a person outside her womb? In fact, if the principle is that the state can force the mother to remain attached to a person inside her womb so as to prevent a murder, then the state can and should force any person to remain attached to another person so as to prevent a murder. Your failure to give one of your good kidneys to a person without a kidney causes that person’s death. Are you a murderer? Your failure to give blood led to a blood shortage in which people died. Are you a murderer? A dozen people die everyday from kidney disease. These deaths could be virtually eliminated if people were to donate their kidneys. Have those who have died waiting for a kidney been murdered? 

However, pro-lifers won’t like this argument merely because it exposes their hypocrisy. They don’t want everybody to have to physically sustain the life of those whose lives are not self-sustaining. They would decry as tyranny such a situation. They would condemn it as yet another example of the intrusive liberal state. They only want women to physically sustain the life of those persons living inside their bodies. You don’t see them overly concerned with what happens to children after they are born. You don’t see them calling on extensive government provisions of social welfare in order to lift children out of poverty. If you suggest expanding the welfare state, they will whine about how the government is enslaving them, forcing them to support other people with their hard-earned tax dollars.  

The overall cognitive and moral frame of the most aggressive pro-lifers—conservative and authoritarian—betrays their motives. They want the state to force women to remain attached to the fetus. That’s what all this business is about when it comes to making a distinction between abortion for rape and incest over against “merely” not wanting to be pregnant. The idea is this: the state isn’t forcing women to have babies because women made the choice to have sex in the first place. At the same time the arguer is denying that he is motivated in opposing abortion on the grounds that the woman had sexual intercourse. I have seen this pattern repeated dozens of times in arguments I have had with pro-lifers and in reading comment sections to various blogs over the years. The fetus-is-a-person is a smokescreen for patriarchal oppression.

What pro-lifers want is not a consistent policy requiring each of us to physically sustain the life of other individuals with our physiological systems. What pro-lifers want is the recognition in law that women are second-class citizens, citizens who do not enjoy the same rights as men (men would never allow their bodies to be co-opted in such a fashion).  Just as slaves were not entitled to the natural right of self defense, they want to exempt women from the right to determine what to do with her body. 

Like the prohibition against slaves and those who fought alongside them from using lethal force to liberate themselves from slavery, criminalizing abortion is the exception to the rule of personal sovereignty, one that can exist, from the perspective of the patriarchal chauvinists who advocate it, because women are lessers in a society rightly dominated by men. Having an unwanted pregnancy means that the woman had sex for some other reason than procreation and this behavior must be punished by shackling the woman to the person living in her womb. Their interests lie in making sure the woman has a baby, that she suffers the consequences of sex for pleasure. 

Does this characterization exhaust the thinking and motives of all pro-lifers? No, of course not. People will give you lots of reasons why they believe it is proper for the state to force women to have babies (the same is true for those who support limiting the number of children a woman can have). A lot of people don’t understand the real motive that underpins their rationalization in favor of this or that public policy or moral stance. But I have captured the spirit of those who most vehemently oppose a woman’s right to control her reproductive capacity. The assumptions in their arguments, the tone of their attacks, and their overall belief system give the game away. 

However, in any case, whatever the political persuasion of those advocating state control over the body of women, such advocacy is a call for tyranny. The demand for the state to control the reproduction of women is an authoritarian one, one that is entirely incompatible with the principles of liberty underlying the legal and moral order necessary for a free society. The pro-life position has no reasonable justification for its advocacy for tyranny. They only have slogans.

The Discontented

Socrates was a philosopher of a slave society. His remark, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have,” looks designed to convince the oppressed and the impoverished to be content with what they have so that they do not try to change the social order. 

All slogans that have at their core the claim that people should be content and free in their minds despite being workers and slaves in objective reality are ideological pronouncements the intention of which is to reproduce the system of capitalism and slavery.  But the oppressed and impoverished are discontent not because they suffer from some personality flaw that makes them restless, but because the conditions of existence they experience are such that they properly lead them to discontentment. 

What the responsible and moral person does—that is, the person concerned with social justice—is instruct the oppressed to never been satisfied with the exploitation and oppression of their persons and the persons of their family and comrades and to rebel against those conditions and transform society in order to overcome them.

A List of What Conservatives Believe (according to Glenn Beck)

Glenn Beck is a silly person, so ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on anything he says. However, today he generated a list today of what conservatives believe to which I cannot help but respond. 

A conservative believes that our inalienable rights do not include housing, healthcare or Hummers. Hummers are not necessities. In fact, they are harmful to society. They should be banned. Shelter and medicine are necessities, therefore they are inalienable rights and should be available to all citizens. The rights to food, shelter, medicine, and education flow from the organic rights enumerated in the Declaration of the Independence and the mission of the US government as listed in the Preamble of the US Constitution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A conservative believes that our inalienable rights DO include the pursuit of happiness. That means it is guaranteed to no one. Of course, the government cannot guarantee happiness. But it is required to maintain the conditions under which happiness is possible for every citizen. A right means it’s guaranteed. Therefore, the right to pursue happiness is a guarantee.

A conservative believes that those who pursue happiness and find it have a right to not be penalized for that success. This statement falsely substitutes the word “success” for the word “happiness.” An honest statement would read: “A conservative believes that those who pursue happiness and find it have a right to not be penalized for that happiness.” Who doesn’t agree with that? But what is at issue with the application of the right to pursue happiness is whether one person has the right to pursue happiness at the expense of other persons. The answer to that question is clearly no, since rights apply to everybody. What Beck wants to say is that those members of the social classes that organize the exploitation of the working class should not be taxed. This is indeed what many conservatives believe, and it’s what makes their politics so elitist and despicable.

A conservative believes that there are no protections against the hardship and heartache of failure. We believe that the right to fail is just as important as the chance to succeed and that those who do fail learn essential lessons that will help them the next time around. There is no right to fail in any document underpinning American civilization. Neither is there one found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beck is misusing the language of rights.

A conservative believes in personal responsibility and accepts the consequences for his or her words and actions. Everybody, whether socialist, liberal, or conservative, believes this. This isn’t a conservative belief, but a basic belief humans have held since time immemorial.

A conservative believes that real compassion can’t be found in any government program. If the government feeds a child who will otherwise go hungry, then real compassion is manifest. Beck finds virtue in a little girl’s government failing to look after her. That’s not conservatism. That’s social Darwinism of the rankest sort.

A conservative believes that each of us has a duty to take care of our neighbors. It was private individuals, companies and congregations that sent water, blankets and supplies to New Orleans far before the government ever set foot there. Right, because the government failed to meet it obligations to citizens living in New Orleans. The government represents its citizens. The government is the citizens’ instrument for taking care of the citizenry. Just as the government serves the interests of national security, it serves the interests of domestic security, and nothing is more central to domestic security that addressing catastrophe at home. Therefore, the duty that each of us have to take care of our neighbors—a duty only nihilists refuse to recognize—rightly occurs through the government. 

A conservative believes that family is the cornerstone of our society and that people have a right to manage their family any way they see fit, so long as it’s not criminal. We are far more attuned to our family’s needs than some faceless, soulless government program. This is not a conservative idea. Neither is it a liberal idea that the government should play some role in facilitating the optimal socialization of children. Conservatives are big on intervention of this sort. I call hypocrisy.

A conservative believes that people have a right to worship the God of their understanding. We also believe that people do not have the right to jam their version of God (or no God) down anybody else’s throat. This is a liberal idea.

A conservative believes that people go to the movies to be entertained and to church to be preached to, not the other way around. So what are conservatives going to do about it? Regulate Hollywood and the black church?

A conservative believes that debt creates unhealthy relationships. Everyone, from the government on down, should live within their means and strive for financial independence. Who doesn’t believe this—outside of the bankers who encourage and compel debt?

A conservative believes that a child’s education is the responsibility of the parents, not the government. In other words, conservatives oppose public education. But the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness require an adequate education, and the only way to ensure this to everybody is through public education. So either Beck doesn’t believe in realizing organic rights in this country or he doesn’t understand the implication of his own arguments.

A conservative believes that every human being has a right to life, from conception to death. Or, to put this another way, the conservative believes that the government should have the power to commandeer a woman’s body and force her to bear children. Of course, the conservative also believes in strapping a man to a cross-shaped gurney and pouring poison into his veins until he dies. 

A conservative believes in the smallest government you can get without anarchy. We know our history: The larger a government gets, the harder it will fall. For neither conservatives nor liberals is it ever a question of the size of government, but always what the government does and for whom it does it.

Obama’s Religious Speech

Several days ago, I posted a video with clips of Obama speaking in 2006 on the subject of religion. The clips were from an address in Washington DC called, “Call to Renewal,” delivered on June 28, 2006. While I agree with a lot of things Obama says in this speech (as I asked in the earlier entry, “Where is this Obama?”), it is certain that a great many Americans won’t. Obama said,

Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.

He cited these statistics in the context of arguing why secular Americans should not so easily dismiss religion. But the video shows an attitude that will make many Christians angry, especially the expression on his face when he said that more Americans believe in angels than in evolution. Along with the crowd reaction, it’s clear that Obama mocks this belief (it is a ridiculous belief). Since Obama believes in evolution, his choice of illustration is revealing. He explains the source of religious need, and it’s no different from the remarks he made a private fundraiser that riled so many people, except that here Obama is more explicitly Marxian in his analysis. He says that religion “speaks to a hunger that’s deeper” than “the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches” and that “goes beyond any particular issue or cause.” 

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.

Recently Obama has emphasized growing up in a Christian household with a Christian mother which, he asserts, makes him Christian. But in the 2006 speech he says something very different. “I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were,” he said.

My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I’ve ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

He goes on to tell his own story of conversion, and the story sounds like the depth of his Christianity is rather shallow. This is a different account of his religious upbringing that one gets from his recent pronouncements or especially the flier he distributed throughout Kentucky. Obama says, “I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality.” And this:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

In the eyes of many Christians, the most damning of all things in speech are these words:

Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

The implication is that if people were reading their Bibles they would have less enthusiasm for scripture, since the Bible advocates and indeed requires all manner of immoral behavior (I have documented many more examples on Freedom and Reason). Obama claims the Bible is not inerrant (can anyone vouch for any claim the Bible makes?) and, moreover, belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is a major barrier to the rational practice of democracy – that to base policy on the Bible would be dangerous.

At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

He then gives an intriguing example: the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded. Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion. But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

Since we cannot see or hear God, then it would be dangerous to base our policies on it. That’s perfectly rational. However, this is a rather curious argument in light of another statement he makes in the same speech that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” And “to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Obama frequently contradicts himself in his speeches. This is one of the reason why his speeches aren’t very good.

Ideologically-Convenient Constructions of History: Denying the Racist Character of America.

Comment, January 18, 2020. This essay was penned nearly twelve years ago. While my politics have been for the most part consistent over the years, I have substantially changed my thinking on the question of racism in American history. I used to subscribe to arguments hailing from the critical race theory perspective and from that perspective I produced arguments like the one you will encounter here. I confess that I cringe when I read the stridency in my voice in the final two paragraphs.

I would revise my argument in the following manner: First, the United States no longer represents a system of white supremacy. The system of racial apartheid that privileged whites was dismantled more than fifty years ago. Second, I would explain that the United States was founded in the context of a racially segregated society and that patterns of de facto segregation today are in part a legacy of that initial situation. While racial inequality has not disappeared, racial oppression as a material fact of existence has. This material fact is why blacks continue to trail whites in every significant social category is not evidence for racism. There are a number of arguments that may explain such disparities. One is not defending white supremacy by saying this, and this is the most strident statement in my essay. I embarrass myself when I write, “I know the truth irks folks because it is inconvenient, but if one is rational person, he will prefer truth over ideology.” Yes, this is true, but what I was asserting as truth is ideology and I regret having written these words.

Just encountered a comment that claims that racism doesn’t exist in America today, that black people enjoy racial privilege, because slavery only existed in North America for 88 years. 

How did this individual arrive as such a preposterous claim? By arbitrarily setting the clock at 1776. If the idea was to make some technical point about slavery in the United States of America, the United States of America did not exist in 1776 and would not exist until more than a decade later. But whatever the idea was, it was either a deliberate or ignorant distortion of the history of slavery in North America. What is more, the unspoken premise is false, namely that racism is reducible to slavery.

First, on the question of slavery, owning Africans in North America existed in the colonies of North America at least as far back as the early 1600s. By the time independence was declared in 1776, slavery had been in existence in the colonies for more than 150 years. By the time the United States became an independent country, if we take 1619 Jamestown as the start of slavery in the North American colonies, and set the birth of the United States at 1789, the year the new government was seated, then slavery was in existence for 170 years. Slavery would continue until December 1865. That means that after the founding of the first government and the adoption of 13th amendment to the Constitution, 76 years had passed. That’s a total of 346 years.

Second, chattel slavery is only form of racial oppression and exploitation in existence throughout the history of the United States and the colonies that formed its basis prior to 1789. After emancipation in 1865 (the Emancipation Proclamation did not emancipate the slaves, but only freed those slaves in states in rebellion against the Union), racial violence at the hands of white people saw the mass murder of thousands of blacks—more than five thousands blacks were killed by lynch mobs alone. Throughout the post-emancipation period the criminal justice system was expanded to accommodate the reality of millions of free blacks with the predictable consequence that racial disproportionality in punishment sharply increased. 

Systematic racism followed slavery. In 1896, the US Supreme Court formally sanctioned legal apartheid. In other words, 32 years after slaves were emancipated, the US government established a national system of apartheid, or legal segregation, barring blacks from access to educational, occupational, and political institutions and resources. Blacks and whites were even forbidden to marry one another. This system of legal apartheid lasted well into the 1960s. In many states, blacks and whites couldn’t marry until the US Supreme Court overturned such laws in 1967. After the dismantling of the legal system of apartheid, the physical and cultural system of apartheid remained in place, what we know as de facto segregation, and this system of white supremacy continues to this day.

It is a brutal truth, a rationally undeniable reality, that the United States was founded as a racially-segregated society and that it remains a racially-segregated society to this very day. While the forms of racial oppression have changed—slavery, de jure apartheid, de facto apartheid—racial oppression as a material fact of existence has not disappeared. This material fact is why blacks continue to trail whites in every significant social category.  When one denies this essential truth of our society, whether out of ignorance or malice, one is defending white supremacy. What one is advancing when they deny systematic racism in America is ideology, not the truth about America. I know the truth irks folks because it is inconvenient, but if one is rational person, he will prefer truth over ideology.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas

Karl Marx writes in The German Ideology (1845):

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an “eternal law.”

If now in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas, if we thus ignore the individuals and world conditions which are the source of the ideas, we can say, for instance, that during the time that the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc. were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc. The ruling class itself on the whole imagines this to be so. This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that increasingly abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

This truism must be the starting point for any rational analysis of how beliefs are formed, transmitted, adopted, modified, resisted, and overthrown. Indeed, Marx’s observation supplies us with quick answers to outstanding questions about the way our world works simply by focusing our attention.

Consider, for example, the major media corporations operating in the United States – ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC. Who owns them? Capitalists. Who controls them? Managers working for capitalists. The result of concentration of the means of communication in the hands of a small number of families is that the ideas transmitted by the major media represent the interests of those families via such ideas as “capitalism is the best economic system ever,” “inequality is inevitable and natural and even useful because it motivates people to work hard,” “socialism is inefficient and oppressive,” “anything is possible for an individual living in the United States if he works hard enough and plays by the rules,” and so forth.  

The other dominant institutions are controlled by the same ruling forces. The prevailing ideas presented by the major churches in the United States are supportive of the status quo of patriarchal capitalism. The subordination of women is justified by the dominant religious teachings. Religion also covers attitudes about capitalism. The flock are taught that however inadequate their lives are on Earth, a better life awaits them in an imaginary place called “Heaven”—as long as they perform the rituals and never question the veracity of the myth. Moreover, the inadequacies they suffer in the present are the result of a lack of faith and not following the rules.

The reality is that the problem for most individuals is not that they fail to following the rules, but rather result from the rules themselves, as these rules are established by the elite in order to advance their interests over against the interests of the majority. The real problems for capitalism begin when the majority recognizes that capitalism is the source of its problems.

Obama and Marx On Religion

Many conservatives are comparing Obama’s comments about bitter Pennsylvanian rural and working class voters clinging to guns and religion with a young Karl Marx’s discussion of the logic of criticism, which he sees as having its embryonic form in the criticism of religion (see Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, presented in his “Contribution to the Critique,” published in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in February, 1844. They say that Obama is using Marx’s argument.

Since this is the subject of so much discussion, I thought it would useful to write a blog entry on the matter. First, here is some of what Marx said:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has already lost himself again. But, man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, it enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.You will note, first of all, that Marx is criticizing the conditions of existence, not those affected by these conditions. He does not suggest there is some psychic or emotional defect in persons who are raised to believe in the supernatural. Alienation is not a individual phenomenon, but an objective condition in which individuals collectively exist.

Second, religion is a consequence of historical forces that affect virtually everybody in segmented society, not just for those living in small towns or in some other location. Obama’s own faith in Christianity – assuming he isn’t lying about that, too – is, according to Marx, ultimately the result of the general conditions of the present state of existence human beings experience. Many liberal elites believe in a god or have adopted some form of supernatural belief and spiritual analysis as a consequence of living in a social formation where alienation is fundamental to its character.

Third, this general problem of existence in segmented society is not reducible to economic troubles under capitalism. It is, in capitalist society, the problem of capitalism itself. Under feudalism it was the conditions of feudalism, not, say, a bad harvest. Obama can’t wean small town voters from their belief in god by improving their economic conditions. The way to create the possibility for movement away from belief in the supernatural is to, as Marx would have it, turn the social order upside down. You have to put working people in charge. The more democratic a country – that is, the more control working people enjoy over their lives – the less religions they become over time. It’s not about being bitter over economic troubles but about being alienated from history and the means to make history. It’s about a fundamental level of control over one’s existence.

If we are to believe that the origin of Obama’s argument is Marx’s critique of religion, then we must emphasize that Obama got Marx very wrong. Marx wasn’t talking about small town America. He was talking about the totality of alienated society. Marx wasn’t suggesting that we find some way to make capitalists bring their factories back to small-town Pennsylvania. Marx was talking about overthrowing the conditions of an alienated existence. He was talking about overthrowing capitalism. He was talking about revolutionary socialism.

Finally, the argument Obama did make is wrong. Small Americans do not cling to religion because of poor economic conditions. Obama might have avoided this problem if he had simply asked himself why he believes so strongly in god. After all, he has made his Christianity the centerpiece of his biography.