Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

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Why The Fuss?

As pretty much everyone knows by now — even our good friend Lisa in far-off Ecuador — growing numbers of NFL players are refusing stand for the national anthem before football games and this has caused a great uproar. The roar was barely heard until the President stuck his oar into the mess and decided to stir it up. Most recently he has threatened to eliminate all tax breaks for the NFL to hurt the owners where they live and force them to insist that their players behave themselves. This has brought about a quantum leap in protest, much of it directed to the President’s insensitive manner of addressing the issue.

In all this confusion the central issue has somehow been lost. The President himself fails to make the distinction, as I mentioned in a previous post, between protesting the flag and protesting racial injustice. The latter is the real issue here and it has become lost in the emotional reaction of a great many people, including refusal to attend or watch games and even the burning of team jerseys, to what they regard as “unpatriotic” behavior.

The obvious question is why the hell do we insist on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem at sporting events? But I shall ignore it to focus instead on the reason there is protest, a protest that started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in a pre-season football game over a year ago. Kaepernick has apparently been ostracized from professional football as a result and, in any event, is currently unemployed. But his protest started the ball rolling and it got a huge push from the President’s mindless threats to the players and owners.

We need to bear in mind the sort of prejudice the Blacks face every day. Think of the Jim Crow laws in the South that would disenfranchise them from the body politic; the existence of the KKK and white supremacists and their loud support of our sitting President who is himself a Racist (with a capital “R”); the  looks these folks get every day and, if the have the courage to marry or even date a white woman or a white man, the thinly veiled hatred they see all around them, especially in the South. And, of course, there is the seemingly random shooting of unarmed Black men by anxious policemen that seems to have become a growing problem in our Inner-Cities.

When I was in high school in Baltimore many years ago I worked in a grocery store after school each day with two Black men who drove the delivery trucks. We had a number of interesting talks and for the first time in my life I began to see the world a bit through their eyes. They would tell me, calmly, about the glares, the derision, and the contempt they experienced every day, and I recall one of the men saying in a plaintive voice how he just wished he could take his family out to a meal in a nice restaurant, so many of which had “No Colored” signs in their windows — even in the mid-1950s.

This was Baltimore, folks. Not the deep South. Maryland was neutral during the Civil War even though their sympathies were for the most part with the South — after all there was a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore prior to his assuming office which ended with him entering Washington in disguise and protected by Pinkerton men. It became a standing joke, but it was no joke. In any event, Baltimore was a Southern City and even in the 1950s there was wide-spread prejudice against folks of color. When school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 there was considerable unrest and protest by groups of white people in the streets of Baltimore which reflected a deep prejudice that had been agitating just below the surface.

There is no way I can fully understand what it is like to be a Black person. But I can imagine, and I can sympathize. The current protest is over injustice and whether or not we agree with the methods that have been chosen to make that protest we need to keep our eye on the central issue. And we might want to recall that it is a peaceful protest and that this country was founded on protest and a concern for justice. There may have been a better way to draw attention to the problem, but at the very least the manner chosen seems to have brought about a discussion that was simply not taking place. And steps are being taken, small ones, but steps in the right direction. There is now dialogue occurring in many cities across this land to erase the tension between the police and the folks they are sworn to protect and serve, and in general to see what can be done to make things better for those who have to carry the burden of prejudice with them throughout their lives.

Eventually the dust will settle and folks will start going back to NFL games — after all they crave diversion! But one must hope that the steps this protest have initiated will get longer and stronger and the injustice that is being protested will be at least somewhat abated. It may never be totally eliminated (Lincoln thought it would not),  but we need to live together and America, we are told, stands on the principle of fairness to ALL.

News That Sells

I found the following remarks in an article about how we should take reports about the latest polling results with a grain of salt. I have always done so, but it was most interesting to read what the writer said about news reporting generally:

Our research suggests yet another reason not to overreact to news stories about the newest poll: Media outlets tend to cover the surveys with the most “newsworthy” results, which can distort the picture of where the race stands.

Why? Consider the incentives of the news business. News outlets cover polls because they fit the very definition of newsworthiness. They’re new, timely, often generate conflict and allow political reporters to appear objective by simply telling readers and viewers what the public thinks. Horse-race stories are also popular.

Given that readers are drawn to drama and uncertainty, polls that offer intrigue or new developments — such as a close race or signs that one candidate is surging — are more likely to be deemed newsworthy. In particular, polls with unusual results may be more likely to make the news.

Note, please, the “incentives” of the news business. To begin with, news is regarded as a business, not a public service. This is, of corse, true. The hooker is that as a business news sources must worry about who pays the piper. That is to say, news reporting should be about what we need to know to be an informed citizenry; rather, it’s about what sells newspapers or air time. “Newsworthiness” is nothing more or less than what sells.

But I was struck by the notion that reporters should “appear to be objective,” as though objectivity should not be their highest goal. Clearly, it is impossible to be completely objective — how could one be objective about a person such as Donald Trump, for example? One either hates or (apparently) loves the man. But the idea that a reporter, like an historian, should be objective should be the first order of business. I recall a friend once saying that he wished someone would write an objective history of the Civil War — from the Southern point of view! As I say, it can’t be done. None the less, it should always be the goal of any historian or reporter. But this writer says it is enough to “appear” to be objective. The polls do this by giving us numbers. But the selection of those polls can be very subjective and it appears as though that choice is based on what strikes the reporter as sensational (“drama and uncertainty”).

It’s a good idea to take what we hear and read with a grain of salt generally. It pays to be suspicious and question all sources of information. We cannot always do this, but it, too, is a goal we should all seek to achieve. This is the point of thinking critically — not to reject, but to accept on reasonable grounds, which requires that we have a good idea off what constitute reasonable grounds. This is especially difficult in an age like ours in which the reports we read and see on television are selected for all the wrong reasons.

I have noted in past blogs that reporting has become an arm of the entertainment industry. But it is interesting to have reinforcement of that idea by someone who seems to accept as a given the fact that reporting is all about getting through to an audience rather than about telling the world what is going on and letting the world decide what they want to read, see, or hear. Apparently TV is the worst culprit in this decline of reporting as news provider and this is because TV is a cut-throat business and as we all know business is what our world is all about these days: it’s all about the bottom line.

A Conversation Overheard

“Hey, Fred! You coming to the party Thursday night? It’s going to be seriously fine!!”

“Nah. I’ve got a Mid-term coming on Friday and a paper due at the end of next week. I’ve got to hit the books.”

“Dude, you gotta be shittin’ me! It’s Thursday, man! It’s party night. Tell your Prof your Grandma died and get her to let you take a make-up. Then, after we’ve sobered up we can catch the game on Saturday!”

“Yeah. Great. But even if that worked, I’ve still got that paper for Professor Erickson.”

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s for history and it’s on Reconstruction after the Civil War.”

“Well, what you do is Google the topic and there are hundreds of essays online on that topic. Cut and paste a few of them and stick in some misspelled words. She’ll never know the difference. C’mon, man. LET’S PARTY!! This party is going to be fantastic! Jack has a couple of kegs and some of the girls from Tri-Delt will be there!”

“I really can’t, much as I’d like to. I really don’t think my Prof will let me take a make-up.”

“Who is your Prof again”?

“Professor Erickson.” She’s supposed to be tough.”

“Bull! I checked her out on “ratemyprofessor.com” last semester to see whether or not I wanted to take her class and she’s a pussycat. She will let you take the test any time you want!”

“If that’s so, why didn’t you take her class this semester?”

“Because there were two other profs who are supposed to be even easier. This stuff is gravy. You can cruise the internet and you won’t have to sweat out your four years. I got an A+ from Professor Stewart in Sociology and I never even opened a book.”

“An A+?? There’s no such grade! You gotta be kidding me!”

“I know! Just like I said: this stuff is easy! Now work on your sob story and plan to be there tomorrow night! We’re going to have a blast!”

 

Needless to say, I made this up. And for all my shortcomings as a fiction-writer, this is no fiction. It’s common at so many of our colleges that are taking huge amounts of money from parents and students to defraud our young, telling them they are getting an education while all the time they are simply running in place.

Let’s hope our hero doesn’t go to the party. But here’s betting he does.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln’s Hope

Perhaps the most famous speech Abraham Lincoln ever penned was the Gettysburg Address which only took a few minutes to deliver but which encapsulated the whole of what Lincoln believed the Civil War was all about. We have all heard it numerous times and as school children many of us had to memorize it. But I wonder how many people have read it slowly and pondered what Lincoln is really saying? Let’s consider the ending of the brief address where Lincoln notes that

“. . .It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Beautiful words. Pure poetry, like so many of Lincoln’s speeches. But, more to the point, it embraced the core of what Lincoln was convinced the war was being fought to protect — to wit, popular government, government of, by, and for the people. Not only is this conviction repeated twice in this brief Address, it permeated Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence throughout his presidency from the time he was elected until his terrible end. He was very much aware that he was himself  “of the people.”  During his presidency he awoke one morning and laughed (as he was often inclined to do) at a thought he had during the night. He had been called “common” in one of the many newspapers he read and he awoke with the perfect rejoinder: “Well I guess I am common, but God must love the common people because he made so many of us.” That was Lincoln. Each week, on Tuesdays, he opened the White House doors and stood for hours shaking hands with the “common people” to remind himself who he was and where he came from. A poor man with little education who worked by the sweat of his brow until he could raise himself by his own bootstraps to join a law firm and begin to practice law before entering politics.

When the war broke out, even before Lincoln had a chance to make the White House his home, he knew the war had to be fought to preserve the Union. As the months went by it became clear that it was really about slavery and the freedom of four million people who were being bought and sold in this country and denied their fundamental humanity. He became increasingly sympathetic with the slaves’ plight and stressed that their rights had also been guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence which loudly declared, in Jefferson’s words, that “all men are created equal.”  And all must share the burden of self-government. He knew full well that America was the world’s first and most fragile experiment in popular government, built from the ground up, an experiment that would determine whether or not humans could govern themselves. This was what the war was all about in Lincoln’s mind. This was what his presidency was all about. This is what 630,000 men died to guarantee, as Lincoln saw it.

In light of these reflections on the thoughts of perhaps the greatest president this country has ever had — and assuredly one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time, the man Ulysses S. Grant called “the greatest man I ever knew”– it is deeply disturbing to acknowledge that today this grand experiment in popular government appears to be on the brink of failure. The “people” are now far removed from the seat of power and seem unconcerned; they care not that they have little or nothing to say about the machinations of an inept group of men and women in the Congress who are, for the most part, placed in office by wealthy special interests determined to see that their own private agendas are realized. Lincoln’s hope of a government of, by, and for the people — people like those who tramped all over Mary’s beautiful carpets in their muddy shoes at the Lincolns’ open houses — has become a government run by the corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals who give no thought whatever to the common people who are central to what this country is all about and worry only about their profits.

To be sure, something has gone terribly wrong. Dare we hope that at some point the people will realize what has been taken away from them and will rise up and take it back? Or have they been successfully benumbed by the entertainment industry to the point where they know all about, say, “deflate-gate” but nothing whatever about Watergate? To be sure, there are scattered pockets of concerned citizens and  a few voices in the Congress that speak for what truly matters. Let us hope they are heard by increasing numbers of people and that what they have to say somehow brings this country back to what our forefathers intended this country to be — a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.

Right Or Wrong?

One of my favorite episodes of the excellent British detective series “Foyle’s War,” which takes place during World War II, involves the master detective in a moral  dilemma. He has caught the man who murdered a German woman, the wife of a wealthy English landowner. The evidence is overwhelming, but the problem is that the murderer is a naval officer who is working with the British navy to crack German codes. He is one of the few men in the country who has the background to make it possible for his country to achieve this, and if he does he will save countless British lives. He puts it squarely to Foyle who is faced with the moral dilemma: arrest the man for murder (of a woman who was, after all, German), or let him go to continue to work on the codes that may save lives. He arrests the man. It’s who Foyle is: he is convinced that even in wartime it is only the law that separates us from barbarians such as the Nazis they are fighting and he has sworn to uphold the law.

This is a most interesting moral dilemma and it gives rise to the question: Did Foyle do the right thing or did he not? Whatever we decide in this case, we cannot determine that he BOTH did the right thing AND he did the wrong thing. It’s either/or. Ultimately, all moral dilemmas are of the same type: it’s not possible for there to be an answer that is both right and wrong at the same time and the same respect — any more than it is possible for my computer to be both a computer and a telephone at the same time and the same respect.

The problem is that in our age a great many people deny that moral issues are like computers and telephones. The common view is that ethics is all a matter of opinion and when it comes to opinions you have yours and I have mine. This is, of course, true, but irrelevant. Our opinions are simply the starting point, not the end, of discussion.  Someone who has never watched a tennis match may have an opinion about who will win the match they are now watching. But that opinion doesn’t count for much, because the person knows nothing about tennis. In the case before us we may have our opinions, but the answer — somewhere out there — is that Foyle either did the right thing to arrest the murderer or he did not.

In a seemingly unrelated topic, Abraham Lincoln wrote what has come to be called a “Meditation” during the Civil War that was only recently published. He was wrestling with the question why God was permitting the war to happen. Ultimately, he was wrestling with the question of free will versus determinism. Regarding the war, which was not going well and eventually cost America 630,000 lives, Lincoln muses thusly:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.. . .”

Lincoln picked up the same theme in his Second Inaugural — regarded by many (and himself) as the  best speech he ever wrote. And this suggests that he was still wrestling with the dilemma at the end of the war. And well he should. But he knew one thing: either the North or the South was right in fighting the war, they could not both be right. They might both have been wrong, as Lincoln suggests, but they cannot both be right. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. But it is a fact that we may not be able to make out clearly, groping as we do through a thick mist of bias and confusion with our limited perspective, prejudices, and meager intelligence. From God’s perspective, there is one right and one wrong and perhaps only He knows which is which. So as we struggle to determine which side was in the right we may never see the answer clearly, but we can be certain, as Lincoln was, that one side or the other is right — they cannot both be right. Lincoln expresses this difficulty at the end of his famous Cooper Union Address when he famously says, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (Italics added).

This is the nature of ethical argument. It parallels arguments that require evidence and careful thought which we might come upon in history (what would have happened if Chamberlain had not been so conciliatory toward Hitler?) or even in the hard sciences (does light consist of waves or particles?). But above all else, ethics is not simply a matter of opinion. Again, Foyle was either right to have arrested the murderer or he was wrong. He cannot be both. Ironically, it is precisely this fact that makes dialogue possible in ethics and takes us beyond the shallow realm of gut feelings and hunches.

How Dumb Is That?

When the thirteen colonies were writing their constitutions during the American Revolution, the assumption was that the states could rely on the “public virtue” of its citizens, and the primary concern of the framers of those constitutions was the abuse of power by the executive in each state. Some of the states even refused to give the top executive (who was variously named) any power at all — and all of the states wanted the person in charge either to limit his term in office or to be reelected annually to keep him in check.

By 1787 it was becoming clear to men like James Madison that self-interest was trumping public virtue and the sense of unity that had made a coherent whole out of thirteen disparate colonies during the Revolution was disappearing. The main problem was not abuse of power by the executive in the states, but the unwillingness of the states to take their commitment to the nation as a whole seriously. The states were starting to go their separate directions and it was becoming difficult for the make-shift Congress to regulate commerce and conduct business with foreign powers. As things stood, the Congress had to rely on the cooperation of thirteen states that wanted to focus almost exclusively on problems near at hand. Something had to be done. After several years and the remarkable effort of Madison working with the support of Thomas Jefferson across the pond and John Jay and James Monroe at home, the result was the Federal Constitution. How on earth they were able to get the separate states to agree to a Constitution that would create a federal power greater than the power the separate states would retain is truly extraordinary.

When the Southern states later started to break off from the Union, Abraham Lincoln drew on the ideas of Madison in his attempts to preserve the Union against the separatism that was growing in strength. The Civil War, as we know, was not fought over slavery but over the preservation of a union of states that would otherwise be powerless in a world where bellicose nations threatened on every side. The idea of a separate Confederation of Southern states was no more practical in the nineteenth century than it had been in the eighteenth. A nation divided could not stand, as Lincoln was fond of pointing out. And we now pledge allegiance regularly to “one nation indivisible.”

In this light the current move by at least 20 of these United States to secede from the Union following the reelection of Barack Obama is not only historically blind, it is positively stupid. We know the movement is an exercise in futility on its face and will go nowhere. The President shouldn’t even have to waste his time responding to these fools. But the fact that nearly all of the states that are currently circulating petitions to allow them to secede from the Union are conservative states — the ones in red on the political maps we have become so tired of seeing — is in itself something to note. These states are at the top of the list of those that actually receive more federal monies each year in aid and subsidies than they pay out in taxes. They complain that the Federal Government is a burden and yet they could not survive without it — or the citizens who are busily signing their names to these ridiculous petitions could not.

It is one of the strange phenomena that have bubbled to the surface in recent years that those who complain about the Federal Government’s interference with their “freedoms” are the ones who shout loudest to get the attention of that same government to bail them out or come to their aid in times of trouble. In this case the states that pay the most in Federal taxes and receive the least Federal assistance on a yearly basis are the ones that voted to reelect the current President and give him another four years to help get the country back on its feet. Now there’s irony for you!

The High Court

In its recent decision not to allow Arizona’s stiff immigration laws (with one exception) Justice Scalia wrote a “scathing” dissent that chastises the President and the Federal government for repeated failure to deport illegal aliens — despite the fact that more “illegals” have been deported under this Administration than any previous Administration. But what truly boggles the mind in Scalia’s dissent is the fact that he seems to want to fight the Civil War all over again. Note these comments:

Arizona’s entire immigration law should be upheld, Scalia wrote, because it is “entitled” to make its own immigration policy. At one point, he cites the fact that before the Civil War, Southern states could exclude free blacks from their borders to support the idea that states should be able to set their own immigration policies.

Scalia dismisses with a wave of his hand the government’s position that immigration is a federal matter since we need to be on friendly relations with our neighbors to the North and South and individual states could stir up a hornet’s nest. But that is the heart of the government’s position and it is the reason the Court decided to throw its weight behind the government — for the most part. But Scalia insists that the states themselves should determine what the immigration laws are to be — a view that echoes the thinking of the most devout of the Southerners in the mid-nineteenth century (if not today).

Scalia’s entire dissenting opinion sounds like paranoia: fear of illegals and the “evil” (his word) they do by taking jobs from the citizens of Arizona. But the notion that an appeal should be made to the rights of the states prior to the Civil War pushes his reasoning beyond the bounds of intelligibility and makes one wonder about the soundness of his mind. This Court as a group leaves so much to be desired, but one always hopes that the members will exhibit some glimmer of good sense every now and again.

One might argue that in overthrowing the laws of Arizona the Court has in fact shown good sense. The problem is they have allowed the “papers please” law that allows Arizona police to detain suspected “illegals” with “reasonable cause.” What this means, of course, is that it gives the police almost unlimited power under the law and it will almost assuredly promote racial profiling — though the police have been cautioned not to fall into that trap. Come on! Get serious: give the average policeman the right to stop and search anyone who strikes him or her as “suspicious” — and detain them for an undisclosed amount of time — and you are inviting abuse of power.

The real fear here is fear itself (with apologies to F.D.R.). The country seems to be in a paranoid state fueled by constant rhetoric about the “war on terror” and the blatant jingoism that surrounds public celebrations such as “fly overs” and flag waiving at sporting events; this atmosphere now allows the country to exhibit its full force with impunity: the end justifies the means. If we ever could, we can no longer claim the moral high ground, as Martin Luther King would have it. We can now kill suspected terrorists abroad with drones; after ten years we still have nearly 200 untried prisoners detained at Guantanamo (including children, apparently); and we can now legally detain for an unspecified time suspected “illegals” at home. I hesitate to use the word but we seem to be inching closer and closer to Fascism, though most people don’t seem to much care.

U.S.A. Then and Now

I have referred in a previous blog to Henry Adams’ extraordinary autobiography and I will do so again at some length below. I was struck by a fairly long quotation by John Bright, one of the very few Englishmen who supported the Union during the early years of the Civil War in America. For the most part, the English (to Adams’ great surprise) sided with the Confederacy. They were sympathetic with the presumed aristocracy they saw in the South, depended on the tobacco and cotton from Southern plantations, and were very much afraid that if America remained united it would dwarf their own power on the world stage. Adams came to see this only too clearly as he lent what support he could to his father’s attempts to keep England neutral during the war.

John Bright addressed a Trades Union meeting which Henry Adams was asked to sit in on. He heard Bright address the gathered throng, making the case for the preservation of the Union. These were his words, as recalled by Adams:

“Privilege thinks it has a great interest in the American contest, and every morning with blatant voice, it comes into our streets and curses the American republic. Privilege has beheld an afflicting spectacle for many years past. It has beheld thirty million of men happy and prosperous, without emperors — without kings (cheers), — without the surroundings of a court (renewed cheers), — without nobles, except such as are made by eminence in intellect and virtue, — without State bishops and State priests, those vendors of the love that works salvation (cheers), — without great armies and great navies, — without a great debt and great taxes, — and Privilege has shuddered at what might happen to old Europe if this great experiment should succeed.”

The great experiment did succeed, of course, and the American union held together to become every bit as powerful as the English “Privilege” feared it would. In fact, America came to England’s rescue at least twice after settling its own civil war. But some rather distressing cracks began soon to appear in the magnificent edifice that Bright created before the eyes and ears of those attending the Trades Union meeting. The America he described began to succumb to the weaknesses that seem to follow upon the heels of great power and wealth. The “happy and prosperous” millions” gradually became the 99% who are chronically disenfranchised and have little to say about the way their country is managed. The “nobles” that were displaced by “eminence of intellect and virtue” have themselves been displaced by the corporate moguls who call the shots and want things to go their way.  And they have brought with them “great debts and great taxes,” though they would have us believe that it is the politicians who are to blame. And our standing army and navy are among the largest in the world.

Adams himself later saw the beginning of this process of degradation. While in Washington in 1869 he saw the Grant Administration begin to tear away the facade and reveal the ugliness within. As he says in his autobiography, “The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth century fabric of moral principles. Politicians had tacitly given it up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal.” The new political world Adams hoped to help bring about after the civil war was beginning to fall apart already. And the problem ultimately lay in the greed that was taking over Washington, as evidenced by such scandals as the “Gold Conspiracy” — Jay Gould’s attempts to corner gold in 1869, apparently with assurances from the White House, the Treasury, or both.

In a word, the America we know and love today is a pale shadow of the nation that Adams felt so close to while in England and which John Bright described to the members of the Trades Union. That America born in 1789 and seemingly created anew in the crucible of a civil war that cost so many thousands of American lives was already beginning to show signs of weakness in its basic structure. Though he saw these signs, not even Henry Adams, with his penetrating vision and brilliant intellect, could have seen how radically the future would alter the nation that Bright described to members of the Trades Union. It is impossible to consider the contrast between America then and now and not to conclude that the change has not been for the better and that it has been brought about, for the most part, as a result of our love of the dollar and our insistence upon sacrificing “virtue” to profit.

Christmas Lessons From Iraq

It was never clear why the U.S. decided to invade Iraq — with the support of a coalition of friendly allies to convince the world that this was a group effort. The reported reason was to find “weapons of mass destruction” that Saddam Hussein was said to have hidden somewhere in a back bedroom. But the United Nations couldn’t find them and it was beginning to look like there weren’t any when suddenly George W. Bush decided to go it alone — or almost alone. The conservative thinker George Will insisted at the outset that if the weapons weren’t found this invasion could not be morally justified. As it turns out, of course, there weren’t any and Will was right: there can be no moral justification for our invasion of Iraq.

To make matters worse, the invasion which was supposed to last a few months lasted nine years, cost the lives of nearly 4500 American soldiers, and displaced countless thousands of Iraqi citizens from their homes, including an estimated 600,000 of the 1 million Christians who claimed Iraq as their home. Most of these never came back. And in the midst of the carnage small voices could be heard that this was an absurd venture that would rekindle a civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis who have been at each others’ throats for countless generations.

Barack Obama captured the Presidency in this country on the wave of considerable opposition to the war in Iraq and with the promise that he would end it and bring the troops home. At last, it seems, he has done that — at least our involvement in that war. But the war goes on, which is to say, the war between the Shiites and the Sunnis, as recent events have shown rather graphically. On Thursday (December 22nd), fourteen bombings were recorded around the major city of Baghdad which killed 69 people and injured 176 others — at last count. These bombings have been credited to fanatics on both sides of what is clearly a centuries-old religious conflict that we stepped right in the middle of when we invaded the country nine years ago.

Whether we liked it or not, Saddam Hussein was keeping the warring factions at bay in Iraq during his reign of terror. At one time he was even an ally of the United States. We may not approve of his way of doing things, which is not that uncommon in that part of the world, but we certainly had no compelling, moral reason to invade his country and bring him to his knees. I must confess, I joined with others in expressing my delight and relief at the time when I heard the world was rid of him. But he wasn’t the reason we went into that country in the first place, and ridding the world of one more tyrant is not our job, nor is it worth the cost in dollars and human life. The end does not justify the means.

We really must reflect on the deeper meaning of these events. Something of value should come from events that cost thousands of lives and countless millions of dollars otherwise wasted on a war that couldn’t be won and we had no business being a part of to begin with. And the deeper meaning is one that comes from what Christmas is really all about: if we cannot learn to love one another, we must learn at least to live with one another. That means tolerating differences and allowing for the fact that we may not be in the best position to decide for other people what is good for them.

Does this mean “it’s all relative” and we are not to be “judgmental”? Not in the least. As moral agents ourselves, we cannot help but judge others, as I have said in previous blogs. We do it all the time — when we pick our friends, for example. But it is one thing to say “Saddam Hussein was an evil man,” and quite another to launch a coalition attack on the man and his people. One can exercise reasonable judgment and still be tolerant of others. And that tolerance becomes a moral imperative when it helps us to avoid harming others, especially the innocent.