Britexit and Bigotry

The recent vote by the British people to withdraw from the European Union is making the headlines and has the international community abuzz. The “experts” pretty much agree that the major factor behind the vote is the increasing fear of foreign people coming into Britain. Isolationism by any other name is bigotry.

Bigotry, like the fear that fuels it, stems from ignorance and there are a number of causal factors that seem to be operating not only in Great Britain but in the United States as well — who, it is said, has just passed the mantle of the stupidest people on earth to the British. I have commented in numerous posts about the possible causes of this ignorance, to wit, the shift in news reporting toward entertainment and the deterioration of the school system. Interestingly enough the latter has been noted in Britain as well in the United States where both countries, in hot pursuit of “vocational education,” have fallen behind other “developed” nations in the intellectual skills of those who graduate from their schools.

F.D.R. famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is a wise and even a profound comment and was timely indeed. But it suggests what is impossible, namely that we can simply switch off fear like we would a light switch. Fear is a powerful emotion and it is fostered at this time by the entertainment industry and the schools — the former for sensationalizing every item of “news” and the latter from failing to make their students more aware and critical of what is going on around them.

But then, the schools have been forced to fill the vacuum resulting from the breakdown of families and the lack of any significant social role played by the Church. The schools, as a result, have for some time now been asked to raise our children while at the same time they are supposed to educate them. Both of these jobs are impossible — as Freud once suggested — but we demand it of our teachers none the less (while we pay them less than a living wage).

In a word, the only way to root out bigotry is through education, the acquisition of information (not misinformation) and the honing of critical thinking skills. Unless we as a nation determine that this is of major importance and begin to shift some of the billions of dollars now spent on “defense” into education and, at the same time, demand of the news media that they report facts and not more misinformation, that they not feed the fires of fear, we can expect to go the way of Great Britain.

Clearly, as shown by the success of a bigot like Donald Trump,  a responsive chord has been struck in the hearts (not the minds) of a great many Americans to build a wall and keep “foreigners” and “immigrants” out of this country. The very success of Donald Trump, as I have noted in the past, is testimony to the fact that our education system is failing and our entertainment industry has taken over the news media. We are flooded with misinformation half-truths, blatant falsehoods, and myths all disguised as the truth. And growing numbers of people don’t know how to sift through the trash and pick out what is worth knowing.

The result of all this is the fear that is almost palpable in this country and which was most evident in Britain in the recent vote. We fear that which we do not know. If we hear a noise in the other room and we know it isn’t the cat who is sleeping quietly beside us; we are afraid because we don’t know what is making the noise. Ignorance is at the core of fear.

Unless we address the root cause of this fear it makes no sense to talk about “having no fear.” We must gain control of our own minds and understand that those who differ from us do not really differ so much. We are all human and we are all in this together. Bigotry has no place at the table — except in the home of people like Donald Trump who simply don’t know any better.

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Human Error

A recent story on YahooNews raises once again the question of the supposed justification for capital punishment. The story begins as follows;

He was the spitting image of the killer, had the same first name and was near the scene of the crime at the fateful hour: Carlos DeLuna paid the ultimate price and was executed in place of someone else in Texas in 1989, a report out Tuesday found.

We are one of the few so-called civilized nations that still executes people for major crimes. In fact, we are one of only five “developed” countries that still retains the death penalty. To join the European Union, countries are required to prohibit the practice of state executions.  So the question remains, how can we continue to execute people when other civilized nations refuse to do so? How can we continue to do so, especially, when the decision rests on undeniable human fallibility? I have a good friend who was an eye-witness to a bank robbery and who positively identified a “plant” in a lineup — a man who was hired by the police to fill in the lineup. She was positive she would recognize the man, but apparently the trauma of facing a loaded gun made her testimony worthless. Yet she was a key witness to the crime. And many a guilty verdict rests on “eye witnesses.”

There’s no certainly in the affairs of human beings. Surely, we have learned that by this time. We simply cannot know much of anything for sure, and even under the best of circumstances our eyes and ears can fail us. And so can our judgment, where prejudice and perspective enter invariably in to color the images and sounds we are sure we have a firm hold on. Human beings are fallible: that’s the only certainty. And after a trial in which 12 good men and women listen to witnesses and hear endless reams of testimony and are under pressure to render a unanimous verdict, there’s every reason to believe that a mistake may have been made — as it was in the above case. But once the defendant has been found guilty and executed it’s a bit late to discover a crucial blunder. How on earth does one compensate the survivors for such a mistake? It cannot be done. And how does one live with that fact if he or she happened to sit on the jury?

One argument in favor of capital punishment rests on the spurious grounds that it costs more to keep the prisoner alive at the State’s expense. So do we really value money more than human life — even the “pro-lifers” among us? But there’s also the argument that the survivors need “closure,” they need to know that the man who committed a terrible crime has been punished with finality. In fact, many psychologists have argued that it is harder on the criminal to endure a life in prison than to be executed. So those who want vengeance should settle for life in prison if that’s what they are after. But, there are those who insist that “life” in prison is a misnomer, since parole is always a possibility and the alleged murderer will be once again out on the streets. True, but on balance not decisive when one considers the possibility that he may not have been guilty in the first place. Finally, of course, there’s always Orin Hatch’s wonderful double-talk: Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life. That is, the sanctity of the victim’s life, not that of the supposed criminal whose life apparently doesn’t count. But none of these arguments holds water, because they all skirt the fundamental issue of human error. This is at the center of the controversy, and the possibility of error results in cases like the one quoted at the outset of this discussion. And it is decisive.

Those who cry out for retribution fail to consider the key fact that it is precisely because the accused man presumably snuffed out another life, which we find deplorable, that we now want to end his, which we find perfectly acceptable. Orin Hatch has no problem with this. But no matter how respectable we try to make it appear, it is the law of the jungle; not the law of civilized society.