Friday, August 7, 2020

Christianity under Attack in America

I recently completed reading Christian America (edited by Dr. Daryl C. Cornett), a collection of four papers, each with comments by the other three authors.  The approach of the papers is historical, and their emphases are the events and influences from the settlement of the colonies through the Constitution to the Civil War.  The papers did relatively little to trace the modern political consequences of any finding whether and in what ways America is or is not a “Christian nation.”


David Barton assumes that the past, an undifferentiated Christianity, is prologue—that what was it still is—but his politics distorts his analysis.  The other authors admit diversity from the start and increasing diversity since.  They agree that almost all early settlers were Christians, but Christians whose views ranged across the broad spectrum of Christian professions of faith, who were occasionally quarrelsome among themselves and contentious with others, and who differed on perspectives on church-state relationships.  Like them, the Founding Fathers shared no undifferentiated Christian faith.  In creating a government, defined and empowered by the Constitution, they relied on Enlightenment thinking and language, without recourse to Christian doctrine of any kind.


America is overwhelmingly Christian in numbers of those who identify themselves as Christians.  The rubric covers Christians belonging to a great diversity of denominations, mostly Protestant, and having varying degrees of commitment; it also covers a growing number of Christians without sectarian affiliation.  (I note a growing number of those born, but not identifying themselves as, Christians.)  In recent decades, the numbers of the church-affiliated have shifted from mainstream denominations—Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, northern Baptists, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ—to evangelical and fundamentalist ones, mainly southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and numerous other, small sects.  The shift reflects a movement from traditional, multi-dimensional approaches to scripture and doctrine toward non-traditional, literal readings of scripture, and simpler statements of doctrine.  Both shifts parallel a third: increasing political and social liberalism in mainstream denominations and increasing political and social conservatism in evangelical and fundamentalist denominations.


The two notable non-Protestant Christian faiths reflect similar developments, but in different ways.  The numbers of Catholics have declined; more liberal Catholics have stayed by dispensing with its teachings or have strayed by becoming Episcopalians or Lutherans, and more conservative Catholics have remained.  As a result, the Church has become more conservative in political and social areas, if not in doctrine or liturgy.  The numbers of Mormons have increased because of missionary work, the appeal of a strict moral code, and conservative tendencies of textual literalism and doctrinal simplicity.


I shall speak of liberal and conservative churches to reflect the dichotomy between mainstream churches, and evangelical, fundamentalist, Catholic, and Mormon churches.


Notwithstanding numbers and diversity, some conservative Christians complain that Christianity is under attack.  The critical question is, what is an attack on Christianity?  I have not seen an answer to this question which does not reflect differences of opinion about political and social issues or the balance of powers between church and state.


The polemical question is, who is attacking Christianity?  The first answer is non-Christians: atheists, Jews, and Muslims.  But these small groups of non-Christians, even if they were attacking Christianity, would have the effect of mice attacking elephants.  From time to time, they prevail with local changes responding to local complaints, and sometimes win lawsuits about, for example, crèches in public places and Christian prayers in public schools or at other school functions.  If conservative Christians think that limits on the use of public spaces and occasions for Christian images or messages are attacks on Christianity, they either adhere to idolatry or are insecure in their faith.


Another answer is the American Civil Liberties Union, a non-denominational organization which promotes rights enumerated in the Constitution and often takes cases on behalf of the aforesaid religious minorities.  Agree or disagree with its views about, say, crèches or prayers, it is not attacking Christianity, but advocating First Amendment rights as it sees them and as, in many cases, courts have also seen them.


A third and more likely answer is other Christians.  This answer means that any attack against Christianity is really yet another in the long history of intra-faith conflicts within Christianity.  Old wars between Catholics and Protestants have become new wars between liberals and conservatives.  Indeed, Christian conservatives accuse Christian liberals of attacking the True Faith, presume to be defending it, and are counter-attacking.  Such is the excuse offered by religious conservatives who are assaulting or subverting religious liberals.  (I note that the liberal denominations are strong in the Northeast and Upper Midwest and that the conservative denominations are strong in the South, the Central Plains, and the Mountain West.)


But the conflict is not religious—that is, doctrinal at all—for the nuances of belief and practice are not contested issues.  No one argues about, among many others, free will or pre-destination, trans- versus con-substantiation, the nuances of the Trinity, the relationship between faith and works, and birth versus believer baptism.  Given the quantities of blood spilt in conflict over such doctrinal issues, mainly to claim victory in controversy and to increase temporal power, a departure from such internecine religious warfare must be for the best.


Of late, the issues have shifted to social and moral ones in the secular domain, with a tenuous religious connection.  Even so, they threaten to embroil everyone in political turmoil and social disorder.  With religious or religious-like fervor, everyone argues about school prayer, evolution, global warming, and social issues, mainly sex-related ones: the definition of life—really, of its beginning—abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and gays and lesbians in the military.  At the same time, everyone agrees to avoid discussing nearly universal, and nearly universally (and hypocritically) deplored, sexual pastimes: adultery and pornography probably because denominational differences do not exist!  Race has probably had its day for debate, though it prompts or energizes a lot of discussion of other topics.  The Christianity of white Protestant conservatives, a demographic cliché of the South, has come to reflect one side of the “culture wars,” not a religion, but a lifestyle with a brand name.  Wearing a necklace or charm bracelet crucifix is not much different from wearing Calvin Klein jeans.


On this matter of lifestyle—that is, the assortment of social issues—the underlying difference between liberal and conservative denominations is their different views of the relationship between church and state, more accurately, between religion and politics.  Liberals, in accord with the Enlightenment outlook of America’s Founding Fathers, accept the pre-eminence of the state as guarantor of the religious freedom of each and all faiths, their followers, and even disbelievers.  Conservatives, in accord with the main theological impulses of the early Puritan and Separatist settlers in New England, wish to subordinate civil government to religious rule, with the state the enforcer of its moral and social as well as its religious prescriptions and prohibitions.


The battle, with each side invoking the Bible, becomes one of books: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution versus the Mayflower Compact and Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”  Religious conservatives, who are, or are allied with, political conservatives—that is, Republicans and Tea Partiers—talk the founding documents but walk the “city on the hill.”  They advocate a Christian theocracy, not a constitutional republic.  They advance moral and social positions on the sectarian authority of a clergy acting in accordance with dogma, not on the secular approach of a Congress elected and legislating under democratic laws.


I once taught American literature from the colonial period through the Civil War.  My students read the Puritan, the Federalist, and the Romantic writers.  The development of the American spirit, from the pinched view of the earlier writers to the expansive view of the later writers I found neatly summarized in a famous phrase from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”  That phrase, redolent with the ethic of Christian sentiment, takes the measure of those who seek to divide and dictate doctrinally, and those who seek to unite, deliberate, and decide democratically.

The Story of Christmas and the Sources of Anti-Semitism

I did not discover the music of Jimi Hendrix until 1990, some 20 years after his death—not the first time I have arrived late to the scene.  I did not discover a heated exchange between fellow Cornellian Ann Coulter and Donny Deutsche on his talk show on October 8, 2007, until more than four years later.  Their mutual recriminations left neither a winner nor a loser; the tie reveals both the sorry state of the relationship between Christians and Jews, and of Christian understanding of Judaism and Jews.  The latter is paradoxical and dismaying since Christianity evolved from Judaism, and Christians and Jews have co-existed for nearly two thousand years.  So, at this time of year, some reflections on this strained relationship and continued misunderstandings, all of which began only a few years after the birth of the Jew Jesus, may not be amiss.


I am not going to referee the exchange between Coulter and Deutsche.  Both give a bad account of themselves.  Deutsche identifies Coulter’s remarks as anti-Semitic, but his response emphasizes his hurt feelings, which cannot address, much less rebut, her views.  Coulter denies his charges, but is oddly incurious and seems indifferent why a Jew finds her remarks anti-Semitic.  Between their inadequate responses, there is little to choose but much to consider.  So I am going to examine the assumptions which underlie such exchanges and make them so often worse than unproductive.


In a post-Holocaustal world in which anti-Semitism is politically incorrect, honest discussion of anti-Semitism is difficult, especially between Christians and Jews.  Most Christians, whether they know it or not, hold, to varying degrees, anti-Semitic beliefs; their religious education in home or church makes their acquisition almost unavoidable.  In this climate of political correctness, anti-Semites are on the defensive; they resist their discovery as anti-Semites or deny their views as anti-Semitic.  Jews are on the offensive; they have the high ground, have ages-old grievances, and, as we shall see, have solid facts and good arguments.  So they are doubly aggrieved both by anti-Semitism and at Christians’ defensive denial.  It is not surprising that Christians and Jews can rarely discuss anti-Semitic Christian beliefs which have rationalized persecutions over centuries and led to the horrors of the Holocaust, without descending to an acrimonious impasse.


I take two beliefs to be anti-Semitic. One, Christianity is superior to Judaism.  Two, because Christians accept Christianity, and Jews accept Judaism, Christians are superior to Jews.  Coulter accepts both beliefs, claims that Christians share them, yet denies that Christians or their beliefs are anti-Semitic.  Her stance is clear and clearly anti-Semitic.  Christians believe that Christianity is perfect because it completes what is incomplete in Judaism, and is thus superior to Judaism.  They believe that “Christians consider themselves perfected Jews” and are thus superior to Jews.  Because Christianity is superior to Judaism, Christians believe themselves superior to Jews.  Christians “just want Jews to be perfected”—to Christians, an expression of their loving desire to remedy the imperfection of Jews, namely, their incomplete faith. 


Coulter’s specific position is that the imperfection of incompleteness in Judaism is its failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament.  Coulter’s central misunderstandings about the relationship between the two faiths are commonplace Christian errors of three different kinds.


First, Christians mistakenly equate the sacred writings of Jews with some of the sacred writings of Christians.  But Holy Scriptures and the Old Testament are not the same texts.  First, Holy Scriptures has a three-fold division of texts: Torah, Prophets, and Writings; the Old Testament has no divisions.  Second, Holy Scriptures has one order of books; the Old Testament has another, which follows the order in Torah, but re-orders and mixes books in Prophets and Writings.


Second, Christians mistakenly assume that the Old Testament anticipates the New Testament—an obviously untenable assumption.  Most, if not all, of the books of Holy Scriptures were written and canonized long before a few, if any, of the books of the New Testament were written or canonized.  Implications follow.  One, Jews did not think, and cannot be imagined as thinking, of their sacred texts as anticipating some yet-unwritten sacred texts building upon them.  Two, Jews have always regarded Holy Scriptures as the complete expression of the essentials of their faith; for them, it requires no sequel or old-new sequence.


Third, Christians mistakenly interpret Holy Scriptures in terms not of Hebraic cultural resources and linguistic meanings, but of Christian meanings, many reflecting Hellenic cultural and linguistic influences.  For instance, Jews interpret “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a law of just compensation; Christians, as a law of revenge.  The critical—I would say “crucial,” but for the pun—example concerns the meaning of “messiah.”  If the word in Holy Scriptures anticipates the word in the New Testament, it must either have the same meaning in both texts or be an extension of the earlier to the later meaning.  But marked differences in meaning deny equivalence or a continuum of meaning.  Whenever Isaiah, by some Christians called the “Fifth Gospel,” refers to a messiah, it refers to an earthly politico-religious leader like David; Hebraic culture contains nothing anticipating an eschatological figure like the risen Christ and thus lacks a launching pad of Hebraic meaning for the requisite linguistic trajectory.  The landing zone is a Christian construction based on Hellenic meaning from Greek death-and-resurrection myth and religion.


Christians further use Holy Scriptures in other ways to serve their purposes.  Even before Christian theologians began transforming Holy Scriptures into the Old Testament, the Gospel writers themselves manipulated the text of Holy Scriptures to serve missionary purposes.  Christians can see the results by comparing the quotations following “you have heard it said” statements in the Gospels with the actual words in Holy Scriptures.  Side-by-side comparisons show distortions of two kinds: kluges, which create a single statement from snippets from different places; and cuts, which omit words giving very different meanings in context.


The question is why all of this work to misrepresent Holy Scriptures.  My answer is a simple one: the earliest Christians were already struggling with the signal fact that most Jews in the Holy Land and many in the Mediterranean diaspora refused to accept the Jew Jesus as the Messiah.  How could Jews refuse to recognize one of their own and fail to follow his teachings and those of his apostles, also Jewish?  How could Christians explain this refusal to gentiles (most of whom would not know Holy Scriptures, recognize its manipulation by Christian missionaries, and probably not care, but many of whom knew or lived near Jews)?  The answer serviceable to Christians then and traditional since has been smears on the character of Jews as “a proud and stiff-necked people,” benighted or recalcitrant, and damned.  Thus have Christians justified their repudiation of Judaism and its supersession by Christianity in the face of the continued allegiance of Jews to Judaism.  This strategy not only has failed, but also has defeated itself because the survival of Jews and Judaism, despite centuries of Christian persuasion and persecution, creates some doubt about the cogency of Christianity, especially given the difficulties of some of its theological doctrines.


So Christians rarely respond with an open-minded consideration of Jewish beliefs and values which have secured this steadfast allegiance of Jews to their faith.  Few Christians can imagine, much less admit, that Jews may have rejected Jesus for their good reasons.  One, Jews valued the emotional comfort and moral guidance of their faith, one complete in itself and satisfying to its believers.  In this respect and in respect of cultural inertia, they are no different from those of other faiths.  Two, and more important, they rejected at least one of Jesus’ central principles because it contradicted a central principle of Judaism.  His “resist not evil” contravenes a primal, paramount Jewish obligation to be righteous and do justly.


Instead, most Christians judge Judaism and Jews by the beliefs of Christianity and Christians—an inherently anti-Semitic approach which corrupts their judgment.  The implicit thinking is that a comparison of religions implies a competition between them, which Christianity by its self-serving judgment and disparagement wins.  (Coulter even speaks of Christianity as a “fast track” to God!)  So they disparage Judaism, demean Jews, and disrespect a faith which has proven its self-sufficiency and a people who have survived despite millennia of Christian abuse.


The question is what purposes anti-Semitism serves.  For a few Christians, by discrediting Judaism or denigrating Jews, anti-Semitism helps protect Christianity as a prestigious brand name, a merit badge of religious attainment or superiority.  For many Christians, it seems a prop of faith made by a favorable comparison.  But the need for a prop implies that Christianity cannot exist independent of, and relies on, Judaism; and the comparison, though made to show Christianity superior to Judaism, cannot show Christianity good in itself.  For most, if not all, Christians, anti-Semitism betrays a lack of confidence because Christianity has failed to convert most of those who should be most convertible, Jews.  Christians see the conversion of a Jew as a triumph of faith, a reassurance that they are right by this success, whether by persuasion or persecution.


Such responses are a great shame.  So much of Christianity satisfies the axiological standards of all religions: the good, the beautiful, and the true.  Yet Christianity corrupts itself by insisting that its truth be true not only morally and religiously, but also historically.  For some Christians, for their faith to comfort them, it must provide them certainty or security.  An example of the former is textual literalism, even in matters of history and science; of the latter, anti-Semitism.  Under such conditions or in such circumstances, some Christians insist that faith—by definition, belief or trust in what is unknowable or open to doubt—be as certain and secure as knowledge.  Those who convince themselves that their faith is a form of such knowledge have done what has been bad and ugly about Christianity in world history.


The difference between Judaism and Christianity on the uses of history in their faiths is instructive.  Jews may be interested in whether historical truth underlies the story of the Exodus, but, if it were shown to be historically untrue, they would continue to celebrate Passover, think Moses a great lawgiver, and cleave to the Ten Commandments.  (They would care less if the story of his birth proved false.)  They would do so because historical facts are less important—indeed, may be unnecessary or even irrelevant—to the truth of the lessons of their laws, which comfort and guide them in their lives.  Jews must have their laws, what they call “mitzvahs,” obligations which are, inextricably and simultaneously, blessings to have and discharge as moral and civilized people.


Christians may be interested in the truth of bodily resurrection, which many, but not all, believe is essential to faith.  For those who believe it essential, the discovery that the Easter story was not true because of an indubitable discovery of Jesus’ remains would bring on a crisis of faith (and probably the same response to disproof of the nativity story).  Better by far to think the Easter story a metaphor of religious transcendence by love over the world’s material and moral temptations to sin.


A minor but modern point illustrating this difference is different responses to the theory of evolution.  For Jews, evolution is no threat to either story of creation in Genesis and a matter inconsequential to faith.  However, for some Christians, it is a threat, is opposed and rejected for that reason, and, for a few, requires a fanatical insistence on the literal historical/scientific truth of creation and, indeed, of every word in the Old Testament and the New Testament.


For me, Christianity’s real creation story begins with the good and beautiful story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the beginning of the life of one of the world’s great moral and religious figures.  He creates another, though not entirely new, set of insights, true about a wise way to act well in this world and thereby to share in some part of God’s salvation with others who also act well in this world.


I return to Jimi Hendrix for words of wisdom appropriate at all times but particularly at Christmas: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”


Merry Christmas.

Say “Yes” to Class Warfare

In modern parlance, the phrase “class warfare” has a Marxist/Leninist origin and nothing but pejorative meanings in contemporary American discussion.  But no one has to be communist or even a socialist to observe a fact as old as human pre-history: some have more and some have less.


Societies establish classes dividing the have-more from the have-less but enable some degree of socio-economic mobility, greater in many European countries than in the United States.  Everywhere, a few doltish, lazy, or unlucky rich people lose what they have and drop down; a few talented, energetic, or lucky poor people get more and move up.  But for the most part, “old money” families are old because they have maintained their wealth for generations.  It remains to be seen whether the families of parvenus can keep their “new money.”


America honors itself an essentially middle-class country.  By population distribution, middle-class people outnumber poor or rich people, and poor people outnumber rich people—a distribution graphed by a lop-sided Bell Curve left-leaning toward the poor.  By wealth distribution, the rich have more than the middle-class, who have more than the poor—a distribution graphed by a lop-sided Bell Curve right-leaning toward the rich.  Over the past 30 years, dramatic increases in the lop-sidedness of both Bell Curves show the growth of economic inequality.  As the middle class becomes poorer, America becomes a two-class society of the rich and the not-rich.


Democrats and Republicans/Tea Partiers divide on their responses to this development.  The divide appears in divergent preferences for progressive or flat, or regressive, tax rates.  Democrats want to help the not-rich; they propose laws to raise revenues by raising progressive taxes and oppose laws for flat, or regressive, taxes—all to alleviate the tax burden on the not-rich.  Republicans/Tea partiers want to promote the rich; they propose laws to reduce spending by reducing revenues and propose laws for flat, or regressive, taxes.  They call progressive taxes the weapons of “class warfare,” a phrase slowly creeping into the Democrats’ political lexicon.


I have no problem with the phrase or the fact of “class warfare” if we understand what the fight is about.  It is not about the fact that those who make more pay more if deductions or loopholes do not distort the tax structure.  But it is about the fact that the meaning of fairness depends on the metric of the burden of taxes on the taxpayer.  Pick tax rates scaled to income (progressive taxation), take one side; pick one tax rate applied to income (flat, or regressive, taxation), take another side.  From the perspective of the preferred tax structure, the other is unfair.


The question is whether both perspectives are equally justified?  Or, in other words, is it fair that some people pay, not less or more than others, but disproportionately less or more.  The answer depends on how different tax regimes operate and affect people.


Progressive tax regimes establish tax brackets and tax rates for those brackets.  Since 1945, we have gradually reduced both the number of brackets and lowered their rates.  The effect has been to increase the tax burden on the non-rich.  Further reductions in brackets and rates make a progressive tax regime like a flat, or regressive, tax regime.  The problem with the latter is that it ignores a well-known economic principle about the value of money; money has not only a face value, but also a context value, and it is the context value which is the metric of tax burden.


The less money you have, the more you value it, and vice versa.  If you have little, you pinch pennies; if you have a lot, you light cigars with $100 bills.  So, at the same tax rate, taxes paid by the not-rich are more valuable than taxes paid by the rich, and the burden on the non-rich is greater than the burden on the rich.  For the not-rich, flat-tax-rate payments may mean having less money for nutritious food; for the rich, flat-tax-rate payments may mean less money for a foreign vacation.  If you prefer a flat-tax rate and dismiss its different effects, your sense of fairness, such as it is, lacks concern for different burdens on different classes, and discloses contempt for the not-rich.


What impresses me about Republicans/Tea Partiers on this issue is their intellectual confusion, moral callousness, and, of course, Christian hypocrisy.  Most of them argue, or sympathize with the argument, that America is a Christian nation.  Yet their real god is not one of love, but one of love of money.  Mammon is their god; their Gospel is greed; and flat-tax rates, their creed.  For the rest of us, the message at this time of year is charity for all; throughout the year, progressive tax rates.  The poor should not inherit the earth, just get a fair share of it.  My text is Matthew:


Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and though shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.  … Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, that for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.  (19: 21, 23-24)

Jesus distinguishes between the rich and the not-rich, and thought that a redistribution of wealth would be good for all.  In our idiom, higher taxes would improve the chances of the rich for an afterlife and the lot of the not-rich in their present life.  The text says “yes” to “class warfare.”  And so say I.

A Veteran Reflects on Boomers and Boomlets

My parents lived through the Great Depression and raised me with attitudes and values which came from living through tough times, weathered or witnessed.  Even as a child to the manor born nearly two years before Pearl Harbor, I felt that no good could come of letting the good times roll.  As a septuagenarian, I have the same feeling, now reinforced by the facts of my lifetime that no good ever did come of the good times.


Two qualifying notes: One, although what follows focuses on individuals and not on institutions, I know full well that it takes both to make the mess in which we are in find ourselves.  But we are the people, and if our institutions disserve us, we have to take personal responsibility that their failures reflect our deficiencies.  Two, when I speak of Boomers and Boomlets, I speak not of an entire age cohort, but of that part of it once mostly white, middle-class, and suburban; now more diverse racially and economically.  Yet I know that many of those whom I omit have succumbed to the pervasive and pernicious socio-cultural influence of suburbanites since the end of WWII.  I generalize in the service of truth as I see it.


My father was too old for the Second World War, so I was not a child of The Greatest Generation.  Lucky me.  Many of that generation were hard workers and great fighters, to whom great tribute is due, and Ted Koppel has capped his career by paying it on our behalf.


But many were lousy parents.  They over-compensated for their deprivations and hardships by indulging themselves when they returned from war.  They left the crowded cities for the sprawling suburbs; weakened the family and social networks which guide and nurture adults and children; in an unprecedented buying spree, bought homes, appliances, and cars; and increasingly, left home for two jobs to pay for them.  TVs instead of tables became the centerpiece of family togetherness, with everyone watching the Box, not conversing with each other.


Self-indulgence became generational.  Thus arose the Boomer Generation, those born after 1945, many of whom grew up believing themselves entitled to whatever they want when they want it, and feel victimized or become resentful if they do not get it.  Self-centered and materialistic, they have lived on credit consumerism without saving and avoided sacrifice by opposing, then eliminating, the draft.  With the economy in its worst condition since the 1930s, they sense that the bill is coming due, but, neither well raised by parents nor well educated by teachers, they have no clue.


Thus raised, thus self-replicating, as many Boomers raised their children—I call them Boomlets—even more self-centered and materialistic, and increasingly clueless about anything resembling the real world.  Instead, they are well versed in “reality shows”—a fitting phrase for the confusion of the real and the illusory.  They are equally steeped in the inanities of Twitter and Facebook, the perfect technologies to divert the idle or mindless into revealing the triviality or vacuity of their lives in trivial or vacuous messages, complete with pictures.  Their idea of getting serious is distilling their political and social wisdom into semi-literate, 140-character, messages of even less value than 30-second sound bites.


Boomers then and Boomlets now are incapable of more, for they can no longer offer a sensible account of any choices affecting their lives.  A recent study found that young adults cannot make a moral argument about what is right or wrong, and, indeed, seem not to understand the concepts of right and wrong.  They deem judgment unfavorably—don’t be so judgmental, they say—as much because they have been taught (judgmentally) that it is wrong as because it is too intellectually and morally demanding.


Boomers and Boomlets received, and want their children to receive, an education reflecting their lifestyle: teachers who cater, or pretend to cater, to individual learning styles and needs; courses which stress self-expression and relevancy; and social promotion, high test scores, and excuses to celebrate a graduation or a diploma.  Long gone are rigorous curriculums of structured sequence of information and skills to be acquired and applied, as the basis for what matters in education: inquiry, critical thinking, and problem solving.  For them, formal education is too stifling and difficult, and jeopardizes self-esteem.  The result is a dark hole of ignorance and ill manners which is sucking almost all politicians into it, in a race to the center of stupidity and boorishness.  Educated, decorous candidates are, by definition, elitists, not ordinary Americans like them.


Boomers and Boomlets have lived in denial of reality, but reality has not lived in denial of them.  The infantilism of frustration at this confrontation shows itself in their temper tantrums: the tempest in the Tea Party, as it were, in the run-up to the 2010 election; and the inchoate gatherings of the Occupy Any-and-Every Place movement now the run-up to the 2012 election.  Indeed, even as they indulged personal pleasures, they abdicated political responsibilities.  Not surprisingly, they are surprised that the vacuum created by their vacuity powerful commercial interests have been happy to fill.  The empty and hateful sloganeering on the Right and Left; the angry and indiscriminate flailing at Big Business or Big Government; the swinging-to and swinging-fro in responses to candidates, one dumber than another—such emotional and erratic behavior reflects those without mental or moral compasses.


The economy has collapsed, probably not soon to recover, because Boomers and Boomlets built it, not on the rock of self-improvement and productivity, but on the sands of indulgence and pleasure.  The mental and moral slovenliness of it all is coming home, not just to haunt us, but also to hurt us.  Paradoxically, as many Boomers and Boomlets are getting dumber, they are getting more resentful of, or cynical about, hard workers, smart thinkers, and those who make sacrifices to serve their community or country.  They sense that they are likely forever on the outside looking in.  They blame everyone else, accuse bankers of ripping them off and elected officials of failing them—right they partly are—scapegoat minorities, and complain that the country is headed in the wrong direction.


Actually, they have headed in the wrong direction, and arrived in a bad place.  Any escape is possible only by the miracle of realizing that they must perform a miracle: unlearn everything which they think they know or want to believe about life.  No more “you deserve a [whatever] today”; more “you want it, you work, earn, and save for it.”  If it is too late for you, then teach your child or grandchild what you have learned at last: the meaning of “no” and the value of “not now.”


I do not believe in miracles.  Boomers and Boomlets will go bust and take everyone else, and the country, along with them.  Everyone else is not only old fogies like me, but also, among others, many in the few remaining factories, many in the few remaining family farms and ranches, and many in the military who seek to improve themselves and serve something other than themselves.


On this day after Veterans Day, this veteran notes that too many Boomers and Boomlets let others take the risks and suffer the consequences, and give them mouth-honor in return, if they return.  But themselves sacrifice for country or serve the community, work hard to grow them well, or get smart to guide them wisely—surely, they think, I suffer from shell-shock.

The State of Israel Is in a Sorry State

Events leading to the creation of the State of Israel were controversial, and its existence since its creation has remained controversial.  Nothing is gained by re-litigating any issue involved; every accusation has a preceding counter-accusation.  Contention may go back to pre-historical times, when Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons lived farther apart in the Middle East than in Europe.  Nevertheless, recent history explains the present impasse created by Europeans and perpetuated by everyone.


Russian pogroms in the decades before and after the turn of the century prompted many Jews to flee to Palestine.  Reacting to this continuation of centuries of persecution, Zionism encouraged European Jews to leave for Palestine.  The migration of Jews to a Muslim-dominated land predictably led to change, contention, and conflict.


Before the First World War, Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire sparsely populated by poor Jews and Muslims living in peace under lax rule.  The influx of European Jews destabilized it, and the Balfour Declaration, promising it as a Jewish homeland, roused Muslim resentment at British control and Jewish ascendency.  In the 30 years between the Balfour Declaration and the U.N. vote creating two states—one Jewish, one Muslim—both groups jockeyed for power.  British vacillation between honoring its commitment and promoting its interests increased frictions between the two groups.  As statehood approached, both sides prepared for war; when statehood arrived, war broke out, Israeli forces prevailed, and Arabs, exiled or self-exiled, became refugees occupying squalid camps in surrounding countries.


In the next 25 years, Israeli forces defeated Arab armies in 1967 and 1973.  In the Six-Day War, Israeli armies conquered and occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Syria’s Golan Heights.  Israel still controls these areas today and continues to expand earlier or build new settlements in all but Gaza.


Sixty years of intermittent conflict and ineffectual peacemaking have achieved permanent impasse.  Most of the pros and cons of the American debate lack redeeming merit.  America’s reflexive support encourages Israel’s intransigence, which is reality-denying and counter-productive.  Christian fundamentalist support of Israel, to promote the in-gathering of Jews, a pre-condition of the Rapture, is anti-Semitic in using Jews for Christian purposes.  The anti-Semitic New Left abhors the state of Israel as a vestige of colonialism and argues its illegality despite its creation by the United Nations.  Indeed, Israel’s continued occupation of conquered areas is imperialistic; worse, it is pointless.  That land, occupied in an era of terrorist attack and rocketry, cannot serve as either a protective barrier or a bargaining chip in negotiations.  Instead, its occupation offers false security and is self-defeating, for it antagonizes Palestinians, prompts attacks, and impedes a resolution of differences.  


The truth of the matter: Israel, intended as a democratic, Jewish state, is an increasingly untenable political entity.  The paramount and persisting fact: its population has faster growing numbers of Muslims than Jews.  A two-state solution cannot save Israel as a democratic, Jewish state from the signal consequence of this internal dynamic—a fact foretelling a majority of Muslim citizens.  Israel’s response is not a strategy with purpose, but a syndrome of fatalism.  By continuing to alternate between shifting policy impulsively and drifting indecisively, Israel exacerbates many problems, ameliorates few of them, and postpones the final reckoning.


Willy-nilly, Israel faces a short-term existential choice—a democratic but not Jewish state or a Jewish but not democratic state—with either choice leading to long-term failure.  If Israel chooses to be democratic but not Jewish, Israeli Muslims would vote for the creation of, or annexation with, a Palestinian state.  The results would be the eradication of Israel, the annexation of its land, and the incorporation of its people into a Palestinian state.


If Israel chooses to be Jewish but not democratic, its options would include the expansion of political or economic restrictions on Israeli Muslims, their expulsion, or their extermination.  Israeli Jews would probably reject these options for moral, legal, or practical reasons.  Otherwise, Israeli and regional Muslims would react overwhelmingly: insurrection or invasion, with international support of either or both.  The inevitable outcomes would be those above, with the possibility of repeating Jewish history: exodus or holocaust.


Either choice leads to an inevitable outcome: the dissolution of the State of Israel.  The inevitability reflects the inherent contradiction that a state can be both religious and democratic.


I suggest a two-step, not a two-state, solution.  Step one: a single-state protectorate of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza under U.N. administration, like the Allied administration of Berlin, but without zones of occupation (Syria recovers the Golan Heights).  Step two: a single state with a constitution consistent with the U.N. charter and guaranteed by the U.N. to ensure democratic rights and representation to all.  A Jewish minority would influence, not dominate, its direction and development.  A Palestinian majority would support such a state and reconcile with Jews, in keeping with the centuries-long history of good relations between Jews and Muslims.


Thursday, August 6, 2020


Beware the transition from the traditional to the new format for Google’s Blogger.


When I unwisely accepted to make the transition (apparently, there is no way back), Google mangled every one of nearly 400 blogs in my two sites.  I have removed the casualties of Google’s brilliant improvement.

Instead of replacing them, I am selecting those which address important topics or currently relevant issues.  I begin with the earliest blogs in 2009 and continue year by year to the present.  Please bear with me.

Privatizing America: Impoverishing Democracy

 The idea of privatization is not a new idea.  Governments at all levels have long turned to the private sector—large corporations, small businesses, and individual entrepreneurs or consultants—to provide supplemental goods or services which, for reasons of efficiency, they do not provide for themselves.


For three decades, the idea of privatization has expanded.  Initially, starting thirty years ago, privatization has sought to reduce government costs by transferring some routine operations to the private sector.  Lately, in the past few years, it has sought to reduce government size by transferring comprehensive functions to the private sector.


Rationalizations of privatization involve one or more of several overlapping factors: waste-fraud-and-abuse, size, power, roles, and responsibilities.  But the rationalizations have changed emphases.  Initially, advocates claimed that government is so bloated that the private sector can do the same jobs as well for less money—to achieve greater efficiency.  Lately, they have also claimed that government is so bloated that the private sector should take over traditional functions—to promote limited government and preserve freedom.


Both of these fundamental ideas of privatization are agenda-driven, advocated invariably by Republicans but advanced in practice by some Democrats as well.  With the shift in emphasis and focus—most controversy targets much of the federal government—, privatization has become a political issue, increasingly implicated, not only in questions about government efficiency, but also by challenges to government authority and functions.


The basic issues, underlying the inevitably interwoven motives of profit and politics, are questions about the philosophy and foundations of the federal government, its purposes, functions, scope of operations, and relationships with other levels of government and the private sector.  Thus, issues of privatization morph into a critical issue of Constitutional interpretation.  The major challenge arises from those who ignore the Preamble and insist on the Tenth Amendment.  They seek radical change, with privatization serving as the instrument to strip the federal government of its ability to serve, in addition to national defense, the many diverse national interests and societal concerns of the country’s citizens.


Positions on regulation indicate these contrasting interests.  The private sector resists many regulations because they not only provide few, small, or no benefits to individual companies or entire industries, but also raise costs and lower profits.  Government requires many regulations because they protect other companies or industries, or promote collective interests benefiting the nation or society, like clear air and water.  Privatization would reduce regulation, with benefits to part or all of the private sector, but with baleful effects on the public and its citizens.


In this political context, privatization of functions serving these interests and concerns is inherently antithetical to democratic government.  Private-sector entities are accountable to limited, largely powerless numbers of equity holders united by their interests in growth or returns.  Government is accountable to all citizens, who have interests other than wealth alone.  Because the relative power of the private sector and government is inversely related, expanding privatization diminishes the consent of the governed and reduces the freedom of citizens to control their lives.  Two areas of contention between government and the private sector are public health and public education.


Arguments for privatizing health care, long provided by a mixture of public and private institutions, are specious.  The first truth is that privatization has had its chance, has failed, and would fail again.  If it had worked, millions of people would have had access to affordable health care and health care insurance, and health care reform would have been unnecessary.  The second truth is that privatization often leads to poorer health care as providers work harder to cut costs and increase profits than provide good care.  Case in point: facilities for the elderly have long been sources of recurrent scandals.  The third truth is that government programs like Medicare and Medicaid, far from causing deterioration in health care or a decline in medical compensation, have had opposite effects.  Overall, the health of program participants has improved, though, in trying to mediate between effectiveness and economy—that is, trying to prevent private-sector waste, fraud, and abuse by doctors and hospitals providing unnecessary services or overcharging for services—the programs have some perverse effects on quality of care.  Moreover, private-sector compensation has not suffered; indeed, the rapid, steady increase in the nation’s health care and health insurance costs suggests that business is good.


Arguments for privatizing education are more insidious.  Like health care, education has been a mixture of public and private institutions.  Earlier, public funds went only to public schools.  Lately, some go to private ones on the ground that they are performing a public function.  The thrust is to privatize education by discrediting and debilitating public education, establishing charter schools, and transferring funds (vouchers) to privately operated schools.  Research using long-term data discredits claims that they do better than public schools.  Worse, private, for-profit, higher-education schools largely funded by government loans to students are providing poor education and strapping students with large debts.  Privatized education is becoming a government-funded fraud.


Weakening public education is bad enough; weakening education itself in a privatized system is worse.  The future of privatized education is a narrowing of education and the increasing fragmentation of America as a coherent society.  If non-public schools become dominant, they or their corporate holders will have power to shape or eliminate educational regulations; and to influence or control curriculum, standards, and testing.  Result: diminishing accountability to the public through its government.


The effect on curriculum will be further debasement.  Today’s jobs-oriented curriculums will become more so, focusing on reading (not writing or literature), mathematics, some science (in some schools replaced by religious “science” like intelligent design), with little or no history or economics (in some schools shaped to the operators’ ideological views).  Result: an education ironically less suitable for jobs and increasing unsuitable to citizenship in a democratic society.  If government privatizes education, it loses its ability to perpetuate itself as a means to serve abiding public interests because private interests will have obscured or obliterated them.


Privatization involves economics and politics, but values one more than another: profits first, patriotism second.  Its thirst for profits is a threat to freedom.




A Personal Note


My experience in the 1980s with the Grace Commission and a Fairfax County, Virginia, Blue Ribbon committee teaches me that the argument for increasing efficiency camouflages the ambition to diminish government authority.  Even at the level of efficiency only, claims of bloat depend, not on findings of major waste, fraud, or abuse, but on begging policy questions; claims of savings from efficiency derive from cuts in goods, services, or their quality. 


In the early 80s, at President Reagan’s request, J. Peter Grace directed an investigation by the Private Sector Survey on Cost Control known as the Grace Commission.  It announced purpose was to identify waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government—the standard GOP triad of its tirades against government—and to make recommendations to reduce or eliminate them.  Committees of businesspeople scrutinized federal operations for efficiencies.  A Democratic Congress ignored the Commission report.  The report died the victim, not of Democratic, but of Republican, politics.  Its real purpose was evident in its recommendations to diminish or dismantle many government programs which were traditional GOP targets.


In the mid 80s, Republicans won control of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and immediately chartered committees of Republican businesspeople to investigate many aspects of county government, again, purportedly, to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.  Although legally public, the committees, in contempt of citizens, tried to operate in secret.  They announced meetings in fine print in out-of-the-way places, held them in corporate offices during working hours, and did not allow for public participation.  In response to widespread outrage or ridicule, the Board rejected all but one of its committee reports.  To the consternation of ideologues, the privatization committee, adopted sensible criteria for deciding the conditions which justified privatization on grounds of efficiency.  According to them, the committee realized that privatization was not a viable candidate for controlling the costs of any county government operation at the time.


For those who may be interested, I report its criteria.  A government decision to privatize an operation for efficiency uses a simple calculation: the total of estimated costs of privatization—continued administration of the operation (contracting, accounting, monitoring, etc.), allocated equipment and facility costs, transfer-of-function costs, and contract costs (business charges for costs and profit)—must be no more than the estimated cost of bloat.  In its deliberations, the committee assumed a rule of thumb to justify privatization: bloat must equal about one-fifth, plus or minus, the budget for the operation.