Al Sharpton has come under fire for criticizing Mormonism. He denies he criticized the faith (he says he was misinterpreted), but let’s assume for the moment that he did. His detractors say that because he did this he is a “bigot.” To be specific, they say he is engaging in “religious bigotry.” Right-wing blowhard Glenn Beck has made the biggest deal out Sharpton’s remarks.
But is there such a thing as “religious bigotry”? I’m an atheist. I criticize organized religion, as well as belief in the supernatural. I don’t think it’s merely silly to believe in the supernatural and to engage in religious rituals; I know it is harmful to society. Does this make me a bigot? If this were true, then I would be a bigot for criticizing belief in hobbits and trolls or the Easter bunny. Under such a loose definition, anybody who criticizes belief based on error or faith is guilty of bigotry. This is giving religion a status it doesn’t deserve.
Perhaps it’s even more absurd to accuse a believer of religious bigotry. Sharpton is a Christian. Since when must Christians tolerate the beliefs of Mormons? Christians don’t accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of Jehovah. For them, Mormonism is a false doctrine. It’s a disagreement over dogma, not an exercise in bigotry. Criticizing Christians for such a thing is the same as criticizing Jews for not believing Jesus was the son of Yahweh. Does disbelief in Jesus as God among most Jews make them bigots? Of course not.
As if the attack of Sharpton’s statements for religious bigotry were not enough, there is this: Mormonism is one of the most virulently racist dogmas that has ever existed. We now entered the realm of irony. According to Mormon doctrine, the physical appearance of Africans is the result of God’s curse placed upon Cain for killing Abel. God gave Africans “flat noses” and “black skin,” according to church leaders, as punishment for his sin. The curse runs deep. Blacks are spiritually inferior to whites. For this reason, until recently, blacks have been excluded from the priesthood. What caused the change of heart? The US government threatened to take away the church’s tax free status (which should be removed from all churches anyway) unless it changed its bigoteddoctrine. Sharpton, a black Christian, is a bigot for criticizing Mormonism, an anti-black religion?
Let’s get our concepts straight: One can be bigoted against a racial or ethnic group, but one cannot be bigoted against a religion. Religion is foremost an arbitrary system of ideas with no basis in reason or fact. The claim that a person who criticizes religion is a “bigot” is analogous to the claim that a person who criticizes white supremacy is a bigot. Being anti-religious is analogous to being anti-racist! Moreover, to accept the claim that it is bigotry to oppose a candidate for president because he believes in Mormonism would mean that I cannot publicly oppose a candidate for president because believes in Satanism, lest I be a bigot.
I will criticize any candidate for public office who believes in the supernatural. And because some religions are worse than others, I may actually prefer a candidate whose religious views I judge to be less harmful to society. History records JFK’s candidacy as a great trump of civil rights because the nation looked past his Catholicism. But voting against JFK for his Catholicism is not analogous to voting against a presidential candidate because he is black or because she is a woman. And if one day the Supreme Court is dominated by Catholics, we will be justified in worrying about the fate of Roe v. Wade. For unlike skin color, religion has a substance.
A point of clarification is necessary. If we are defining bigotry in its traditional sense as intolerant and obstinate devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices, then bigotry is not something for which one can be too harshly criticized. Such strident devotion is to be expected in religion. A Pentecostal is going to be intolerant and obstinately devoted to his own opinions and prejudices when it comes to religion. That’s what it means to be a devout Pentecostal. However, I am using bigotry here in the sense of racial bigotry or racism.
I have been discussing the Israel-Palestine question with a group of conservatives today and it is quite interesting to see how misguided conservatives are in their basic understanding of the situation.
But what is truly astonishing is how blind they are to how they themselves would respond to the situation if they were Palestinian. Some people really believe that a people who are made to suffer the way Palestinians are have no right to resist. They seem, moreover, incapable of grasping the essential truth that one of the inevitable consequence of aggression is that some oppressed people will respond to oppressive violence by resort to violence themselves.
Trying to generate sympathy for the Palestinian resistance I asked them, “Have you had your land taken from you, your house bulldozed, your route to a hospital blocked so that your husband died, your ambulances shot at, your sons taken into police custody and tortured, your apartment building bombed into rubble?” Of course they cannot answer this question. They have never had these experiences. They don’t know that the cost of Israel’s occupation of Palestine has been far greater for Palestinians than it has been for Israelis.
Between 9.29.2000 and 10.31.2007, 4345 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers, the vast majority at the hands of security forces. In contrast, 707 Israeli civilians and 317 Israeli security forces have been killed by Palestinians. Of course, Israeli civilians are not legitimate targets of violent resistance. Neither are Palestinian civilians, the number of their dead standing at more than six times the number of Israeli civilian dead. Source: B’Tselem Statistics
Does oppression justify resistance? Of course. It requires it. Does oppression justify terrorism? I imagine from the perspective of some Palestinians living in Gaza it does. Of course, I don’t agree with harming civilians (which the statistics above show that Israel does far more than Palestinians). But you don’t have to agree with the character of a response to understand why that response is occurring.
However, basic sympathy is a concept apparently alien to this group of conservatives. They continually justify Israeli brutality towards Palestinians on the grounds that Palestinians in Gaza lob rockets into Israel. I asked them this simple moral question: “If you believe that Israel is justified in bombing civilian apartment buildings in Gaza in retaliation for rockets being launched into Israel, then why don’t you believe that Palestinians are justified in launching rockets into Israel in retaliation for Israel bombing apartment buildings in Gaza.” I await an answer. But, really, it is a rhetorical question, one that speaks to the reality that violence begets violence, and to the moral truth that it is the occupier that has the burden to stop the vicious cycle.
The question most supporters of Israel should be concerned with is this, “How do Israelis make themselves safe consistent with basic human decency and morality?” (I hope conservatives will at least give lip service to human decency and morality). The answer to that question is clear: follow international law, end the occupation, and recognize a Palestinian state. If Palestinians still routinely lob rockets into Israel after a just settlement, get back to me and I will entertain arguments for why this is still happening.
The Americas weren’t empty when Europeans got here. There were tens of millions of people already living there. So Europeans took their land, reduced their numbers by over 90 percent, and herded the remnants onto reservations. If international law had been in effect back then, then the United States would be an outlaw state. The same dynamic holds for for Palestine and Palestinians, except in this case there is international law. Yet the law has not resulted in the judgment that Israel is an outlaw state.
There are those who still believe that because Israel defeated Arab armies in Palestine that they now rightly claim Palestine. This is an argument in favor of lawlessness. It is illegal under international law to acquire territory by force. Occupation, whether legal or illegal, is temporary and can never lead to sovereignty over the occupied territory. The land belongs to the people living there. Territory by conquest asserts the “principle” of “might makes right,” a thoroughly immoral and lawless standard of right.
However, given the failure of the international community to compel Israel to follow the law, and given the reasons for that failure, it would seem that “might makes right” is the prevailing principle in world affairs today.
Right-wing commentators are claiming that questioning of the nominee for the office of US attorny general on the matter of torture is hypocrisy since they had a chance to define what is torture in the law. The argument is entirely fallacious and a transparent attempt to dismiss criticisms of the administration’s policy of torture with a rhetorical prop.
Demanding an answer to the question is consistent with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. People should read that act. It covers interpretations of the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, as well the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Since the Attorney General interprets and enforces the law, it is crucial to know his position on what constitutes torture according to these laws.
As for the Military Commissions Act of 2006, while this act indeed contravenes human rights standards, it also limits the ability of the president to torture people. However, in his signing statement, Bush said the law doesn’t apply to him. Therefore, since the Attorney General interprets and enforces the law for the president, it is especially crucial to know his position on what constitutes torture.
* * *
A presidential finding, signed in 2002 by President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, approved of waterboarding as a legitimate interrogation technique. In other words, Bush approved of torturing prisoners, a war crime under international law.
US generals designated waterboarding as an illegal practice in Vietnam 40 years ago. The above photograph, taken in 1968, of a US soldier involved in waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner led to that soldier being court martialed. In 1947, the United States sentenced to 15 years hard labor Japanese officer Yukio Asano with war crimes for waterboarding a US civilian. Before that, in 1901, an Army major who used waterboarding against an Philippine insurgent was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Waterboarding dates back to at least the 1500s when it was used during the Italian Inquisition, and even way back then it was considered torture.
Waterboarding is torture. President Bush ordered officials to torture human being. Bush is a war criminal.
Steve T. Suitts, author of the report A New Majority: Low-Income Students in the South’s Public Schools, was quoted in a story in Education Week as saying: “If this new majority of students fail in school an entire state, an entire region, and—sooner or later—an entire nation will fail simply because there will be inadequate human capital to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy.”
The study was published by the Southern Education Foundation, which had a time line on their web page that covers the injustices of American society. However, Suitts use of the term “human capital” shows that at least one of the foundation’s members does not grasp a fundamental reality about American society. Capital is an owned resource that generates income and wealth. It is wealth in the form of money or property used or accumulated in a business by a person (or family) or group of people (corporation). It is material resource that is used or is available for use in the production of wealth. As capital, human resources are considered in terms of capacity to generate income and wealth. Human capital means that humans, either themselves or the results of their efforts, are property that belong to some person or persons.
For example, black slaves were human capital. The slavemaster owned a member of a disadvantaged racialized caste of human beings and used that person as capital to generate income. It was not the ownership of the African person or the person of African descent that generated the income, but ownership of the value created by the slave. Ownership was the form of control used to extract the value. Transfer of value from the person producing it to a person not producing it is exploitation. As a result of exploitation, the slavemaster lived a life of leisure in a mansion while the slave lived a life of toil in a small house. Because of his power and wealth, the slavemaster determined and shaped how life happened for both himself and the slave. Because the slavemaster owned the means of production, the slavemaster controlled society.
Similarly, a worker is human capital. While the capitalist does not formally own the worker, he does own the value created by the worker, a member of a disadvantaged economic class of human beings, and uses that value as capital to generate income. Structural coercion is the form of control used to extract the value—namely, the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a small number of families compelling most persons to sell their labor rather than dedicating most of the value they produce to self and collective improvement. As noted, transfer of value from the person producing it to a person not producing it is exploitation, and as a result of these exploitative relations, the capitalist lives a life of leisure in a mansion while the worker lives a life of toil in a small house. Because of his power and wealth, the capitalist determines and shapes how life happens for both himself and the slave. Because the capitalist owns the means of production, the capitalist controls society.
Returning to what Suitts said, his argument becomes problematic when the reality of capitalism is made explicit. Let’s read the key parts of the quote again: “If this new majority of students fail in school…there will be inadequate human capital to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy.”
Human capital—the working family—is impoverished because of capitalist needs. Capitalists have, along with several other tactices, destroyed the labor movement in the United States to reduce wages and salaries in order to increase the surplus value produced by labor with the intent to convert that value into profit in the market to generate income for their life of leisure and privilege. Intensifying labor exploitation (whether through intensifying effort, mechanization and automation, rationalization, or globalization) is the fundamental imperative of capitalist relations.
In the current period, is not very important from the capitalist standpoint that children from low income families have a real education for the simple fact that low income children will grow up to do jobs that don’t require a real education. Indeed, a real education is detrimental to the interests of the capitalist class; for, if you teach children to be creative and to think critically, more than a handful of them may come to the realization that capitalism is an exploitative system that should be replaced with real democracy—a government and an economy in which working families are in charge. Capitalists don’t want a “well-informed democracy.” They want a docile and subservient workforce educated just well enough to read instruction manuals and perform relatively simple calculations. The want a workforce just curious enough to turn on the television and watch corporate propaganda disguised as objective information.
So while I applaud any efforts to make real education a reality in this country, failure to understand the fundamental reality of capitalism leads to an effort that cannot substantially move the people forward in such a cause. Using the term “human capital” tells us right away that there is a failure to understand the fundamental reality of capitalism: a system of exploitation in which human beings are compelled to rent themselves to wealthy families who determine and shape how people live their lives.
The bottomline is that either a subset of persons in a society rules society or all the people in society rule society. Democracy is where the people rule themselves. Under capitalism, most people are ruled by a few people. Democracy is therefore not possible under capitalism. Ultimately, in order to make society work for working families, working families must be put in charge of ordering society. The people have to replace unelected rulers (capitalists) with democratically-elected leaders and direct democratic participation in a system that elminates the wall of separation between the polity and the economy. Democracy cannot exist without some form of socialism, and this requires a socialist revolution. We need a socialist movement.
Mike S. Adams, a conservative criminologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, illustrates how intelligent people are often not logical. The premise of his recent article undermines the author’s argument. If people generally don’t understand their motives, and if the author did not understand his motive all those years that he was an atheist, then it is likely the author does not understand his motive now that he has returned to Christianity.
Given his explanations, which uses cognitive dissonance theory, both imagined motives (that is, for leaving and returning) are problematic. People don’t become atheists because they don’t want to love their enemies. The simply continue hating their enemies and being Christians. It’s called hypocrisy and—apologies to my Christian friends—Christians are great at it. (I have always been particularly interested in the cognitive framework of the right-wing conservative Christian, as there is so much hatred in his heart, I often wonder why he is even a Christian.)
Cognitive dissonance can be resolved by reason and fact. The rational person needs proof to believe in the existence of things. This proof can be either logical or empirical. When confronted with his own faith-belief, the rational person experiences cognitive dissonance, namely, “I am supposed to believe in God with no logical or empirical proof, but because the rational person demands reason and fact to belief something, I have a choice to make: either I will be a theist and rely on faith belief or I will be an atheist and rely on reason.”
Either choice resolves the conflict (although they are not created equal, as reason is demonstrable in proof, whereas faith is not). In the first, the person has decided to give up rationalism. In the second, the person has decided to give up religion. Of course, most people compartmentalize, which is to say that they make a distinction between rational belief and faith belief, convince themselves that these are not in contradiction, and continue on their way. While this distinction is irrational—a truth usually not understood by the person—it allows the individual to carry on with life. Unfortunately, this irrationalism leads at the same time to a life of irrational belief and action.
Finally, to clarify what cognitive dissonance is, I will use a contemporary example. Republicans are confronted with the fact that the President of the United States has ordered the torture of human beings. Because torture is a bad thing and Republicans don’t want to be seen as supportive of bad things, they deny that what Bush has ordered is tortured. Bush helps them out by redefining what torture is. Because what he is doing is called something else, Republicans can support the torturer and claim not to support torture.
The Environmental Program of the United Nations has released its 550-page report, Global Environment Outlook (or GEO-4). The UN report warns that climate change, diminishing water supplies, and species extinction, among many other threats, will irreversibly alter life on Earth.
We’re in trouble, folks, and, unfortunately, as executive director of the program Achim Steiner notes, most nations had failed to “recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet.” Steiner went right to the source of the problem: overshoot and collapse. The capitalist treadmill of production, its imperative to expand the depletion of resources continually for the sake of profit, is a recipe for disaster. “That equation cannot hold for much longer,” Steiner said. “Indeed, in parts of the world it is no longer holding.”
Of course, the global warming denial lunatics are out in force denying the soundness of the science in the report. So I think it is helpful to point out that this report is five years in coming and is the work of nearly four hundred scientists. They took their sweet time in producing a very carefully researched report (it’s been a long twenty years since the last one).
The facts are dramatic and incontrovertable. Just take a look at one fact, first reported in June by the World Health Organization: thirteen million human beings die annually as a result of dirty water, polluted air, and poor working conditions. The UN report found that if the trends identified by WHO continue, almost two billion people will suffer from fresh water shortages.
Nobel Prize-winning DNA scientist, the man who (along with with Francis Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins) won the prize in 1962 for his description of the double helix structure of DNA, and chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Dr. James Watson, said recently in an interview with the London Times that, while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Watson wants to deny he meant what he said, and he apologized for saying it, but he has long been a believer in the hereditary theory of intelligence and tests purported to detect such intelligence find that people of African decent are as a group less intelligent than those of European decent.
Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement: “The comments, which were attributed to Dr. James Watson earlier this week in the London Times, are wrong, from every point of view – not the least of which is that they are completely inconsistent with the body of research literature in this area.” This is true. There is no scientific basis for there being races of human beings. Moreover – and I’m not sure Serhouni meant this but – there is no scientific basis for claiming that mental testing measures hereditary intelligence (see Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man). Noting what appears as the underlying agenda, Elias said, “Scientific prestige is never a substitute for knowledge. As scientists, we are outraged and saddened when science is used to perpetuate prejudice.”
The Science Museum of London canceled a speech Dr. Watson was to have given there today, saying that Dr. Watson’s assertions on race and intelligence are “beyond the point of acceptable debate.” Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, said it was “tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonor on the profession.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory suspended Watson from the laboratory, where he was president for 35 years and remained (until yesterday) chancellor. They rebuked him and said that they do not do research there that has any bearing on what Watson argued. However, there appears to be a political motive for the laboratory moving so quickly on this matter: the eugenics archive
Dani Klein, Campus Director of the pro-Israel activism group Stand With Us, said in protest of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University, “Free speech is one thing. Honoring a modern day Hitler is another.” Now in what manner can the Iranian president be compared to Hitler? Is Iran invading other countries? Is Iran pursuing an expansionist policy? Is Iran dividing people based on ethnicity and relegating despised minorities to ghettos? Does Iran have a vast military apparatus capable of taking over the Middle East? Is Iran engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing? (The only country in the Middle East that approximates this description is Israel.)
Of course, Klein is taking his cue from those around him. Earlier in the day, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Gillerman, likened the Iranian president to Hitler and said that allowing Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero would be like allowing a Nazi leader to visit the site. “We are reminded of a similar situation in 1933, when then Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler hosted a reception for the Nazi ambassador,” Gillerman said. “We ask Columbia and President Bollinger not to dignify Ahmadinejad, do not honor him, and do not emulate President Butler from 1933.”
In response to Gillerman’s claims, the university’s dean, John Coatsworth, said that he would have extended an invitation to Hitler himself had such an appearance been feasible. “If Hitler were at the League of Nations or some meeting in New York, if Hitler were in the United States, and wanted a platform from which to speak… if he were willing to engage in debate and discussion, to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him.” In an era where free speech is rapidly eroding, Columbia still gets it.
It’s long been clear that Abraham Foxman of the ADL has no concept of free speech, and his comments on the Ahmadinejad-Columbia matter provide yet another example of the dim-witted mentality that makes it so hard for the man to see why comparing right-wing Zionists to fascists isn’t such a leap. “It is inappropriate and a perversion of the concept of freedom of speech,” Foxman said of Columbia’s decision. “Columbia University has no moral imperative, no legal imperative, no social imperative to give Ahmadinejad a platform, which he would not give them in Tehran. Why give him the credibility and the respectability of a major institution of higher learning? What message does that send to the students? This is not what the First Amendment is all about.”
Foxman’s argument is this? Because Iran doesn’t allow voices critical of Iran and its allies to be heard in Iranian forums, then the US shouldn’t allow Iranian voices to be heard in American forums. But isn’t that the problem with Iran? Isn’t the argument that Iran is not like the West because it doesn’t have the liberal democratic traditions we enjoy here in the United States. So instead of showing the world why we are more free by allowing a politician we disagree with to speak on one of our college campuses, we are supposed to instead be like Iran and suppress speech with which some members of our society disagree? Make you wonder if Foxman’s mouth and ears are operated by the same brain.
What in blue blazes are police officers doing hanging out in men’s bathroom busting gregarious civilians for non-criminal offenses? Isn’t the public better served by having the police fighting crime? It’s not like a man putting his foot in my stall is rape or some other actual violation of my person. I’ve had men make passes at me in bathrooms. Do you know how I respond in such a situation? It’s simple, really. I ignore their gestures, wipe my ass, and move on with on life. No harm no foul. But not Republicans. Not only do they oppose gay marriage, but they also support criminalizing gestures they think gay men use to communicate with one another in public places. Does anybody else out there recognize this as the hallmark of the police state – criminalizing homosexual flirting?
Because you can’t get away from this story, and because I have suspected there’s more to the facts of the case than what I have been hearing, I listened to the actual taped interview between Senator Larry Craig and the arresting officer. Good grief. The whole thing is nonsense, with the most irrational elements thrown in. The officer keeps going on and on about how embarrassing it all is and how disappointed he is in Craig. Who gives a damn what this police officer thinks about Larry Craig? It’s not for a cop in this situation to tell a senator that he’s disappointed in him. This isn’t Romper Room. The officer can be heard crying like Craig is his incorrigible son whom he’s at wit’s end to control. That is embarrassing.
Craig is heard rationally and politely disputing the officer’s account, as well he should (though not politely). The officer sounds like he knows he’s blowing smoke with this arrest (his shaky voice gives him away). But since he’s arresting a man for ambiguous behavior that shouldn’t even be policed in the first place, he’d better have a convincing story to tell. But he doesn’t. The officer says Craig made gestures with his left hand. He knows because he saw the wedding band and he knows what a left hand looks like. But Craig’s left hand was opposite the stall the officer was in. The officer even admits this fact. Does this officer really expect us to believe that Craig is turned all the way around in a bathroom stall to gesture with his left hand – the hand with a wedding ring on it, no less – when he could have simply used his right hand, already in a position close to the officer? Sure the officer knows Craig has a wedding ring on his left hand. That doesn’t mean he saw it in the bathroom stall. The officer asks Craig if he had his wedding band on his right hand at any point during the day. Why ask this? The officer already said he knows what a left hand looks like.
At that point, the officer goes all racist on Craig, saying that he usually deals with people from the wrong side of the tracks, real scumbags who are expected to lie, but that he expects more from Craig. Why, because Craig is a well-off white man? What makes his little lecture all the more disingenuous is that, while most people believe that “all politicians are liars,” this cop expects more from a US senator. Sorry, but that doesn’t pass the smell test.
I completely understand why Craig copped a plea of guilty. The officer keeps telling Craig that if he cops a plea it will all end and that he, the officer, won’t blab it around town; but if Craig decides to fight the charge in court, the officer tells him, then the officer will have to appear and testify about what happened – that is, give the court his story, and we all know that means a public trial and a media circus. So Craig says to himself, “Okay, just sign the papers, pay the fine, and move on with my life.” After all, the man is a US senator with a family and friends. He has a reputation to protect. Does anybody out there really believe that he should see such a thing to trial so that the whole world shares in his embarrassment – over gestures in a public bathroom? And then it gets blabbed all over town.
What we have here is entrapment, in which a cop is waiting around in a men’s bathroom stall to bust people who gesture with their feet and hands (note to self: when next taking a shit in a public restroom be sure to sit frozen like a stature with feet held firmly together and hands buried under armpits); blackmail, in which the cop says either Craig pleads guilty and makes it all go away or he disputes the cop’s story in public over a crime that is not even a real crime while the whole nation watches (which happens anyway); and the state criminalizing homosexual flirting. Imagine a unisex bathroom where a man or a woman flirts with a member of the opposite sex and one of them is a cop who arrests the flirter. Hard to imagine because it wouldn’t happen. Nor should it. Meanwhile, women suffer the real harassment of cat calls and whistling and the state does nothing about that. It’s about homosexuality, not flirting.
We all know I don’t care for Republicans, and the way they are bailing on Craig shows you why I find them such a despicable lot. They believe this cop’s story over their colleague – more importantly believe such charges are legitimate – and then run as fast as they can away from the man they used to call friend. At the same time, they have colleagues they stand behind who have committed actual ethical violations. It makes you wonder why the Democrats haven’t pitched in more here to help out Craig. Surely Democrats don’t approve of police officers arresting men in bathrooms for wandering feet.
Speaking of actual moral offenses, the obvious truth that appears to have eluded everybody now enters the public discourse: How can the Republicans distance themselves from Craig over such a petty thing – really a no thing – when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a president who is guilty of the crimes of kidnapping, lying to Congress and the public, spying on US citizens, torturing prisoners, and waging aggressive war? Playing footsies in a public bathroom is a terrible moral offense, but murdering Iraqi children for oil is noble? Talk about misplaced values. That, brothers and sisters, is the real hypocrisy in this whole affair.
Steven Pearlstein, writing in The Washington Post, argues,
It is more than a bit disingenuous for liberals to push for worthwhile programs like food stamps, housing vouchers, child tax credits and the earned income tax credit – and then to constantly cite official income and poverty statistics that do not include the impact of food stamps, housing vouchers, child tax credits and the earned income tax credit.
Why is that (more than a bit) disingenuous? For any maximally-objective grasp of things, we need to develop an honest empirical profile of the problem without the effects of the solution confounding it. Imagine if a doctor examined a patient whose symptoms were masked by another doctor’s previous intervention. The present doctor would quite likely miss the underlying condition affecting the patient. There is nothing at all disingenuous about wanting to see the patient’s medical records before drawing conclusions about the patient’s case. Indeed, that must be the approach the doctor takes.
This is not to say that having an after-intervention accounting of things isn’t useful. How else would one know if the intervention is working? More importantly, how else would one know if a different and better intervention was needed? As if we are ignorant of such things, Pearlstein believes he has to remind us that there is an after-intervention accounting:
[E]ach spring the Census Bureau gets around to computing an alternative after-tax measure of disposable income that includes these various tax and transfer programs, while also making adjustments in the official poverty line to reflect the economic realities of different household sizes…. In 2005, for example, they dropped the poverty rate from 12.6 percent to 10.3 percent, with the biggest improvement coming in a four-percentage-point reduction in child poverty.
In response to this account, Pearlstein notes the obvious, that “these revisions help put the lie to the right-wing conceit that government tax and transfer policies only make poverty worse.” But then he misses the most important fact – that even after adding in the benefits of government programs, one out of every ten Americans still lives in poverty. Moreover, for minorities that ratio is a lot more dramatic. (Frankly, to have one chronically poor person in the wealthiest nation on earth is a scandal, but more on that in a moment.)
Instead, Pearlstein comments,
Conservatives are left to fall back on the argument that government handouts and social insurance programs, while appearing to lift some out of poverty, have created a permanent underclass by discouraging work and thrift and fostering a culture of dependence.
Don’t expect Pearlstein to go on to blast the classist-racist-sexist “culture of poverty” thesis. Instead, he brings in Charles Karelis’ arguments from his new book The Persistence of Poverty. Karelis is the philosopher at George Washington University who argues that people are poor because they don’t have enough money. Before you scoff at Karelis’ tautology (I had a social problems professor who made the same observation), Pearlstein elaborates Karelis’ argument:
The reason the poor are poor is that they are more likely to not finish school, not work, not save, and get hooked on drugs and alcohol and run afoul of the law. Liberals tend to blame it on history (slavery) or lack of opportunity (poor schools, discrimination), while conservatives blame government (welfare) and personal failings (lack of discipline), but both sides agree that these behaviors are so contrary to self-interest that they must be irrational.
The only historical reason liberals give for poverty is slavery? That will come as a surprise to anybody who reads liberal scholarship on the subject. What about the oft-noted facts of the ghetto and Jim Crow segregation, de facto and de jure forces that have created a system of racial separation that continues to divide blacks and whites not only in housing, but also in occupation, education, and dozens of other things. Discrimination is rooted in the continuing objective system (or structure, if you like) of apartheid. A New Liberal, armed with the weapons of social science, should neither blame poverty only on slavery nor know discrimination only as an interpersonal phenomenon disconnected from an underlying system of racial separation. (As a Marxist, I don’t consider myself a liberal, but one thing clearly separating liberals from conservatives is a superior grasp of the methods and findings of sound social science.)
The conservative argument that poverty results from lack of discipline ignores the reality that our wealthiest citizens are the worst when it comes to discipline. Let us be blunt about the truth here: the wealthiest among us do little or no productive work. They don’t even mow their own lawns. I know they want the rest of us to believe they are the new Apostles of Christ, but in truth, their lives are spent in leisure, where their only concern for time is making sure they meet friends and business associates for golf games or have their weekly pedicure performed by their favorite salon employee. Wealthy parents allow their children free rein over their own lives protected within an exclusive communal cocoon. The male children of wealthy families are especially undisciplined (and frequently obnoxious to boot).
Contrast this existence with the lives of the working poor, who exhibit an extremely disciplined manner in making sure not only that they get to work on time every day and every night at their two or more part-time jobs, but that their children learn to unquestioningly respect authority (training to their children’s detriment, in my opinion, since respect for authority makes it harder to develop the consciousness sufficient for rebellion and revolution, which is sorely needed). Indeed, the strictest disciplinarians in American society are working people, especially the working poor.
Ultimately, then, several assumptions Pearlstein and Karelis operate with are wrong. First, in contrast to the wealthy, the poor do work. They work hard. It is expensive being poor, as Ehrenreich famously observed, and you have to work all the time to be able to support that lifestyle. To say the poor are poor because they don’t work is to exhibit a profound ignorance of the reality of poverty. Second, contrary to assumptions in Karelis’ argument, the poor are no more likely to drink and drug than are the wealthy. The difference is that the wealthy can hide their drinking and drugging within gated communities. And they can afford private treatment when their drinking and drugging get out of hand. Third, running afoul of the law has more to do with who breaks the law than it does about the essence of the behaviors to which the law is applied. The wealthy commit all manner of illegal, immoral, unethical, and socially dangerous acts, yet they are relatively immune from the sanctions that control or should control these acts. There’s a reason why our prisons are overflowing with poor people and not rich people, and it has very little to do with actual criminality. Fourth, if not working, drinking and drugging, and breaking the law cause poverty, then the wealthiest among us would be the poorest among us. Obviously that is an absurdity, hence the absurdity of Karelis’ argument.
There is an important and relevant truth in all this: wealth is passed on, either directly in inheritance or indirectly through the good fortune of being a child born to well-off parents. Indeed, this is the justification for passing wealth along! But the same is true for the poor – only here, the disadvantages accumulate. Since, there’s no such thing as parental selection, it ridiculous to blame the poor for poverty (something akin to blaming a corpse for murder). The structure of American society is such that it accumulates advantages at one end while accumulating disadvantages at the other. That is the fundamental character and operation of social class under capitalism. Without massive government intervention (such as we see in Scandinavia counties) or a socialist revolution (which is long overdue), nothing can be done about this.
Oblivious to the facts of the matter, Pearlstein opines,
After all, the reason we study, work, save and generally behave ourselves is that these behaviors allow us to earn more money, and more money will improve our lives. And, by logic, that must be particularly true of the poor, for whom each extra dollar to be earned or saved for a rainy day is surely more valuable than it is for, say, Bill Gates.
Yet, Pearlstein seems to understand something. After noting that the extension of logic in the previous paragraph is problematic, he writes,
On the other hand, maybe the point at which people are most willing to work hard, save and play by the rules isn’t when they are very poor, or very rich, but in the neighborhoods on either side of the point you might call economic sufficiency – a motivational sweet spot that, in statistical terms, might be defined as between 50 percent ($24,000) and 200 percent ($96,000) of median household income. And if that is so, then maybe the best way to break the cycle of poverty is to raise the hopes and expectations of the poor by putting them closer to the goal line.
Now, if he could only connect this observation to the reality he misses about the dynamic of capitalism, then he would understand that poverty can only be eliminated by getting rid of the wealthy (and I don’t mean persons but the station), since it is the lazy existence of the rich that forces so many millions of hard-working people into the hellish existence of poverty (where they are not only the victims of discrimination, but also of prejudice and shame, as well). Because a few have so much, the many have very little. Thus the conclusion Pearlstein reaches, that there is “a solid economic argument to replace the old moral ones for spending more money on programs like food stamps, subsidized child care and the earned income tax credit,” falls far short of a real and permanent solution. (Of course, generous social welfare programs are the least we can do as a civilized society.)
While liberals are mostly correct but insufficiently radical in all this, conservatives are completely wrong. As Pearlstein himself puts it, “after a decade of welfare reform, budget cuts and calls for individual responsibility, poverty is still very much with us.” The conservative solution to poverty is either to blame the poor for their situation – blame the corpse for murder – or to simply remind us that Jesus told us, “The poor will always be among us.” Just as they put the market beyond politics, they locate the source of poverty in theology, all of it out of the hands of “the haves.” How convenient.
Conservatives believe that poverty is explained by personal inadequacies, such as stupidity, bad values, and laziness. They believe that relief should be a gift of charity and that there should be conditions upon receiving it, such as performing menial labor. Aid should only be temporary, they say, and seeking it should carry stigma. Poor people should find public assistance an unpleasant experience so that receiving welfare is itself a deterrence to seeking it. Aid given to poor people should be minimal; the poor would prefer to receive generous aid rather than work so any assistance should always be much less than what they could get if they worked for the lowest possible wage. Fear of hunger and discomfort must exist to compel the poor to work. Individuals make their own decisions and society should not protect persons from the negative consequences of their actions.
Such beliefs are bizarre in light of the way the world actually works. At the individual level, poverty is almost always caused by factors beyond an individual’s control. This is because, at the structural level, poverty is the result of social stratification. Any society that is divided by class is necessarily a society in which the social product is unequally distributed; otherwise, there would be no social classes, there would be no inequality, there would be no poverty. In class systems, some get more for doing less, while others get less for doing more. This is the source of wealth and poverty in society. While some poor people may find their way out of poverty, there will always be poor people in a class society. Since you cannot blame the poor persons for the structure of the societal order, seeing how they haven’t the poor to determine that order, the conservative argument is irrational.
But it’s more than irrational. It’s hateful. Loving and compassionate human beings care about their brothers and sisters. Persons with a normal moral capacity believe that the poor are entitled to aid, since it is not their fault that they are poor. Ethical persons don’t blame victims. If all persons were free to produce for themselves, they would be no need for aid at all. Having people perform menial tasks with no productive or creative value is degrading; as a rule, human beings should never be forced to routinely perform work they do not find fulfilling. Because human beings realize themselves through productive work, most individuals prefer rewarding creative endeavor over receiving aid. The problem is that not everybody is allowed to pursue creative endeavors sufficient for the production of an adequate social provision for themselves. This is because there are some who get a lot for doing very little. They are called capitalists.