Funny Pages

I was recently looking on the net at the various comics I enjoy reading each day when I came upon one that was trending toward political commentary. As the trend became obvious to the reader the final square of the comic was totally black. The next day the entire comic consisted of four black squares with a message in a small box in the center telling us that the Federal Bureau of Media Content had determined that the content of the comic was “inappropriate” and would therefore not be shown. My heart skipped a beat as I went to other comic pages to see if censorship was now the order of the day; but it was not. I realized that the artist was making a comment about the possibilities facing us all of a repressive government deciding for us what we can and cannot read or hear. The following day the comic strip focused on an innocuous “knock-knock” joke that was, we are told, approved by the Bureau.

Needless to say, this was disquieting since I, like all of us I suppose, simply take for granted that we can say, read, write, and think as we wish. It is other societies that must worry about censorship and the closing of lines of communication among dissidents. But then I reflect on the distinct possibility that this could very well happen in this country in spite of the First Amendment. Machiavelli taught us those lessons years ago.

I then realized that my own urge to write about the things that matter to me together with my ability to read others who agree or disagree with me have to say is something I simply take for granted. But I should not. We live at a time when those in power have the ability — and the desire I daresay — to shut down lines of communication and silence all opposition to the doctrines they regard as appropriate, to wit, those doctrines that support their political agendas and help them maintain control over the minds of the citizens of this country —  increasing numbers of whom are becoming docile and are apparently willing to go along with the political forces at work wherever those forces may happen to lead.

At the same time, I realize that I must guard against paranoia. My example was merely one comic strip which was making a bold statement. I must beware the tendency to leap to the nearest conclusion and suppose that censorship is waiting in the wings to be ushered forth on the stage of my realities.  In saying this I recall the sage comment: “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” It is wise to be cautious but it also behooves us all to keep our sense of balance (and our sense of humor) while we count our blessings that we live in a country that allows dissent and encourages disagreement with one another and with those in power. So far.

Advertisements

Beyond The Protest

As we all know, Colin Kaepernick has drawn the ire of thousands of people around the country for having the audacity to kneel during the National Anthem before football games because of what he sees as social injustice in this country. Lately, we are told, he has even received death threats, as have others who have followed his example; this underlines the fact that most people are more upset about the protest itself than they are about the injustices that the protest is designed to call to our attention.

That there are serious issues between the black communities and the police forces of many cities is beyond question. Recently a black man in Charlotte was shot because his car broke down and the police who arrived on the scene thought he had a gun (doesn’t everyone these days??). Countless other examples could be pointed out, including the recent shooting in Tulsa. And this suspicion and fear between the people and those paid to protect them is the root of the problem that Kaepernick’s protest is supposed to highlight.

It does appear, fortunately, that finally there is some movement beyond the protest itself to bring the two parties together for dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding. Clearly, there are two sides to this issue, as there are to any complex problem. And the only way the problem will be solved, if indeed it can be solved, is if the parties who fear one another come together to present each other with their legitimate (or illegitimate) complaints  — Donald Trump’s mindless stop-and-frisk suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding.

As has been well said, we do not need fences to keep us apart; we need bridges to bring us together. Above all else, we need to bring the fear out into the open and try to understand the grounds for it and determine whether or not there is a way to uproot it and replace it with trust. This will not happen unless the two sides, in this case, come together and talk.

I never thought much of Kaepernick’s gesture in itself. It is disrespectful of our flag and this is insulting to a great many people. But as a symbol I thought it praiseworthy. If, as appears to be the case, it has made real dialogue possible then we could defend the protest not only on the grounds of the First Amendment, but also on the grounds that it has opened lines of communication that appeared to have been blocked by unreasonable fear and distrust. There would, then, be two reasons to applaud Kaepernick’s actions — as well as that of the other athletes who have had the courage to demonstrate with him.

Too often in the past athletes have refused to get involved in social issues when they are in an excellent position to speak out and act with courage. I will not attempt to speculate about the motives that have kept people like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods silent in the past, but it is good to see that others are willing to stand up (or kneel down) in the face of serious social issues that affect us all. And Jordan is finally putting his money where his mouth should have been all this time.

The heart and soul of moral responsibility is that those who are in a position to effect change act and not remain silent. Kaepernick has shown great courage in taking this step. Let us hope this leads to real solutions and that those who would pillory the man turn their attention away from the protest itself and reflect on the actions that have brought that protest about.

Free Speech?

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the government may not establish any laws that “impede the free exercise of religion or abridging freedom of speech,” among other things. The F.B.I.’s recent attempts to force Apple to open private documents on the grounds that there might be information there that threatens the United States centers around the question of how much power the U.S. government actually has, given the wording of the First Amendment and our presumed right to privacy. Leaving aside for the moment the question of privacy, clearly the so-called “right” of free speech is guaranteed by the First  Amendment, despite the fact that it speaks against the government’s misuse of its power, and not about the ordinary citizen at all. But the question has been raised repeatedly as to just what that “right” guarantees. The famous clounter-example is the alleged right to shout out “fire” in a crowded theater, and that has been something of a paradigm: the right to free speech does not extend so far as to endanger others. That would appear to be common sense.

The Supreme Court has dealt with numerous cases of alleged violations of the First Amendment on the part of the government, going back as far as 1919 when Eugene V. Deb’s outspoken opposition to the war led him to face 10 years in prison. Furthermore, as the following case will illustrate, in 1969 the Court ruled against the right to free speech when it is designed to incite a riot — which would be a corollary to the so-called right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. I quote the always reliable Wikipedia at this point:

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court held that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is directed to inciting, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action. [Italics added].

Now, given the undeniable fact that the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the highest office in this land has said things that led inexorably (some would say) to violence — in the case of an alarming increase in the burning of Muslim Mosques in this country since the speeches began and the recent violence at his rallies where protesters have been struck and thrown to the ground by “security” personnel or by irate supporters of the candidate — one might ask whether this man’s outspoken bigotry and hate-and-fear-mongering ought to be allowed by law. It is apparently not speech protected by the First Amendment since it leads, apparently, to violence. Indeed, it would appear to be a clear case of speech “inciting, and likely to incite, imminent lawless action.”

It is interesting that this man’s crude and abominable behavior should raise such a question. If he were not running for the highest office in the country it would be a small item, hardly worth mentioning (though still interesting none the less). But given the circumstances, it strikes me that his behavior is not only lawless, but ought to disqualify him from the high office he seeks where he would be sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States — a document about which he seems to be entirely ignorant, and which he flagrantly abuses.

Do Corporations Have Rights?

There is no mention of corporations in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. But as early as 1819 in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward the Supreme Court suggested that corporations were entitled to make and enforce contracts, thus implying early on that they should be treated as persons with rights protected by the Constitution. By 1886 it was simply assumed “without argument” that corporations are persons. The absurdity of this interpretation became glaring clear not long ago when the Supreme Court decided in the “Citizen’s United” case that spending limits should not be placed on corporations under protection of the First Amendment. That is, corporations should be allowed to spend as much on political campaigns as they see fit on the grounds that, as persons, they had a right to freedom of speech. Yes, that’s right, corporations are not only persons, they are entitled to give politicians as much money as they want under the aegis of freedom of speech.

None of these court decisions considered the rather basic fact that if corporations have rights they must also have responsibilities. While fines are levied against corporations in some cases for the atrocities they commit they can be “held responsible” for those acts, but this can hardly be called “having responsibilities.” The only responsibilities corporations acknowledge are to their stockholders and these, too, can hardly be called “responsibilities,” since it is simply what corporations are supposed to do — namely, maximize profits. There is very little, if any, talk about responsibilities to “stakeholders” in corporate inner circles — or about moral or ethical responsibilities, either. Further, it’s never clear just who the corporations are. Are they the CEOs or the boards that govern them? Or are they the stockholders? Or are they the engineer who turns the handle that releases poisonous gas and kills 2500 people? The question threatens to become positively metaphysical. But assigning corporations rights without acknowledging their responsibilities makes no sense whatever. Rights without responsibilities can apply only to children and the mentally challenged, otherwise the notion is absurd on its face. (I hesitate to discuss the question whether corporations can be said to be mentally challenged.)

I have always thought that the concept of balance of powers under the Constitution is one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It arose, of course, in a French mind in the person of Montesquieu in the seventeenth century who saw this balance as necessary for the protection of individuals in a political group. Kings are not to be trusted. Presidents are not to be trusted. Those in power in general are not to be trusted. But if we balance the power among the executive, legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person. That’s the idea.

The United States Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it worked its way down through John Locke, Thomas Jefferson,  and James Madison. And it is an inspired notion: a court that would be above political influence since members are not elected but appointed for life. And, indeed, some of the decisions of the court over the years have been brilliant. But the decision in January of 2010 to grant corporations the status of persons with rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid, if not absurd — as noted above. And it certainly does not appear to have been apolitical. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.

In any event, the concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and previously used by the Founders to apply to citizens with both rights and responsibilities. As Kant examined the notion, it was held that persons were “ends in themselves,” and never a means to an end. In other words it is morally wrong to use others for one’s own purposes: Kant stressed responsibilities, or duties, over rights. It is precisely because we can recognize our duties to other persons (who are also ends in themselves) that we have rights. Responsibilities are primary; rights are derivative. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves”; they are simply a means to an end, namely, profit. Further, as mentioned, they have no responsibilities. The appropriation of a moral concept for legal purposes by the Court in 1819 and applied to an entity that was not even human was inappropriate; extending the notion further as the court did recently borders on the bizarre.

The absurdity of this decision can be seen by considering what other rights are guaranteed to persons under the First Amendment, namely, the right to practice religion as one sees fit, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to vote and to run for national office. Is the Court now saying that a corporation can run for President if it is thirty-five years old? Nonsense! But just as it would be absurd to think about corporations assembling, practicing religion, running for public office, or voting, it is also absurd to think that “they” have the right to free speech — assuming that this is what giving stacks of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court and it deserves to be overthrown by a Constitutional amendment, and a movement to do so is afoot. That movement, however, seems sluggish at best — a reflection, perhaps, of the population’s general indifference to political issues and the unwillingness of those in power to bite the hand that feeds them.

Nixonesque?

The HuffPost story begins as follows:

The Obama administration woke up on Tuesday to another morning of scorching criticism about the Justice Department’s decision to secretly obtain months of Associated Press phone records.

The DOJ tracked the incoming and outgoing calls on more than 20 AP phone lines, as well as the home, office and cell phone lines for six individual journalists involved in writing a national security-related story about Yemen that the Obama administration did not want them to write.

While many of us who supported this president are dismayed by this story and its ramifications — given its open attack on the first amendment — there are those who will insist that the president is in no way connected with this sort of suppression. How could he be? He’s a liberal democrat, after all, and Democrats are champions of a free press. But the story goes on to point out that

[Buzzfeed editor Ben] Smith wrote that the nuclear nature of the probe could, in part, be traced back to Obama, who has made it a policy to aggressively go after leaks in a fashion not seen in any of his predecessors. Though the White House said it had nothing to do with the probe and referred reporters to the Justice Department, Smith wrote that it was not hard to see Obama’s hand in some way: Elements of this approach, Obama’s friends and foes agree, come from the top. Obama is personally obsessed with leaks, to the extent that his second chief of staff, Bill Daley, took as one of his central mandates a major and ill-fated plumbing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder, who pressed the leak policy, is a trusted Obama insider.

This obsession with leaks and attempts to suppress the news is disquieting indeed. I must admit I found Obama’s first term as president unsettling, given his urge to make everyone happy and reach compromises that violated fundamental principles he embraced during his campaign. But I figured that when he gets a second term and doesn’t have to run again he will come out strong on the principles one identifies with liberal thinkers and politicians who aren’t simply holding a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. But there he is with his finger up — and it appears to be his middle one and it is pointed at us!  The man doesn’t seem to know what a principle is and he is acting very much like a paranoid Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, saying one thing while he does another. Shades of Watergate and the invasion of Iraq clouded in lies in the name of “freedom.”

It was terribly disappointing, for example, to see that even though 91% of the people in this country wanted some sort of background checks on gun sales the man couldn’t wheedle the Senate into a vote to support gun control. Is he really that clueless, not to mention inept? He seems to be sleeping with corporations like Monsanto who are determined to ignore ethics completely in the name of higher profits. Moreover, he promised to close Guantanamo where prisoners at this writing are still on a hunger strike to draw attention to their inhumane plight. And while the drone attacks started under Bush, they have escalated under Obama to an alarming extent — and he refuses to “come clean” and appear before committees to explain what he is up to. His tendency toward secrecy and his inclination to resort of prevarication when confronted smacks of the very thing we all hoped we were getting way from with this president who promised to be open and honest. He does, indeed, appear to be a Republican in Democratic clothing, fearful of “the enemy” and devoted to increasing corporate profits. It’s one thing to be a closet Republican with his hand in corporate pockets (there are a number of them in Congress), but it is quite another to pretend that he is anything but. It’s the duplicity coupled with the growing lack of trust that causes the greatest concern. Just who is this man?

Parental Rights Once More

My good friend Dana Yost made a lengthy comment on my recent blog regarding the rights of parents to choose prayer over medical treatment for their children. I admitted at the outset of that blog that this is a perplexing issue and the “conclusion” at the end of the blog Dana refers to is really a question. I tend to go back and forth on this issue, but I do want to defend my original position a bit further, if I can. I will begin with Dana’s comment, which will make this blog a bit long:

Hugh, you are right in that there are some delicate First Amendment rights to consider here. But I disagree with your final conclusion that the state should not step in, or charge the parents. Depriving the child of medical care — no matter how much the parents believe in the power of prayer — is equivalent to child abuse, to locking a kid in a basement, etc. In this day and age when the effects of medical care are widely known and easily accessible, the crime would probably be negligent homicide. The parents have the right to practice their religion and refuse medical care for themselves, but do they really have that right to lead their child to death through their religious practices? I don’t think so — at some point, if one person’s religious beliefs intrude on the health or safety of another (even their own child), it is no longer a matter of protecting the parents’ First Amendment rights (as essential as they may be), but saving the life of another human. If someone were to practice a form of religion that called for child sacrifice — something Incan or Mayan or even like Jonestown, say — we surely would not permit them to burn their kid on a pyre or drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

The state has a deep obligation to look out for any child’s welfare, and there is much precedence to permit it. There are policies, positions in place within the legal system that do this, even when a child has both parents. Guardians ad litem can be assigned by a judge to represent the kid in court during custody proceedings, during cases where parents are accused of crimes, etc. Social services obviously has many methods of interceding on a child’s behalf when the kid’s health, education, etc., are being affected.

The parents should not lose their First Amendment rights to practice their religion. But they should lose their rights to be parents. They can continue to practice their religion in prison, but their kids should be allowed to at least live long enough to reach that “age of reason” so they can decide for themselves if they want to follow their parents’ religion. This kid never had the chance. That is most definitely a crime.

There are multiple issues here, including the First Amendment rights of the parents. The precedents don’t affect the argument, because the initial case may have been flawed and subsequent cases based on that decision may simply perpetuate the mistake. Dana facetiously (I think) draws the analogy of “child sacrifice” as a religious right and I thought I had dealt with that in the original blog. Clear cases of child abuse do constitute grounds for state involvement in removing a child from the parents’ care. However, this does raise the second critical issue: paternalism. At what point does the state have a right to step in and take a child from his parents for the child’s own good?  It is a very tough call. I have admitted the case of blatant child abuse, where the child is kept in a basement (Dana’s example). But the issue of paternalism rests on the legitimate concern of the illicit extension of state power. As Mill pointed out — and we have seen countless times –the political state has a natural (unnatural?) tendency to extend its power, especially when citizens are the least bit unwary. There are cases of child-welfare personnel threatening to remove children from their parents because their children have falsely accused them of child abuse. So even those cases must be carefully scrutinized. At the very least the burden of proof is always on the state to prove abuse on the part of parents. And if we really care about the children, what about the possible trauma to those seven kids who were taken from the “unfit” parents mentioned in the original blog and who will now be placed in a foster home? The article suggests that the family is — or was — very close. We must not let our emotions run away with us. But I want to remain focused on the matter of paternalism on the part of the civil state.

Given the tendency of the state to extend its power, we need to be clear that there are lines beyond which that power should not cross. And I suggest that parental control of children is one such area — with the obvious exceptions mentioned above. As Mill noted, we need to err on the side of the individual in all cases since their power over the state is minimal. I would argue, for example, that the state ought never to interfere in such personal matters as requiring motorcycle helmets and seat belts — if people are stupid enough to go without protection they hurt only themselves. It’s the price we pay for freedom. It is a mistake to think that whenever an individual might get hurt the state ought to intervene and protect that individual even against himself. That is the paradigm case of paternalism. And a parents’ duties to the children are not something the political body can define; they are for the individuals themselves and their churches (in this case) to decide. If those individuals choose to do stupid things, even if those stupid things affect their children’s health and well-being, and, especially as in this case, those actions are based on convictions that are deeply and sincerely held, then the state must back off and allow terrible things to happen. After all, the New Testament is full of examples of faith-healing: can anyone presume to know for certain that prayer cannot be effective? On the contrary. And isn’t it the case that a great many terrible things have happened in hospitals and doctors’ offices — presumably by mistake?

I do not think this is as simple a case as many seem to assume and I may change my view tomorrow. My goal here is to play the gadfly.  But I confess that while I think the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens from powers over which they have little or no control — such as the attacks on the environment by wealthy corporations — I cannot see that the state has any right to protect us from ourselves or to protect children from their parents (except in extreme cases of proven abuse, as noted). As a general rule I have less confidence in representatives of the state doing the right thing by children than I do the parents of children they love. In the end, I do worry about the abuse of state power and the right to genuine religious freedom — even if I do not approve of what is done in the name of that religion.

Parental Rights and Duties

This is a puzzler. The story begins as follows:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A couple serving probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor could face new charges now that another son has died.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith healing. They lost their 8-month-old son, Brandon, last week after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that a decision on charges will be made after they get the results of an autopsy.

John Locke was the champion of liberal thought who almost single-handedly formed the warp and woof of Madison and Jefferson’s thinking about the place of government in the lives of its citizens. It is generally known that they followed Locke in thinking that that government is best that governs least. I do not follow them in this libertarian thinking, because things have become so complicated these days and we have learned that when government doesn’t step in — as in the case of large corporations that would pollute the air and water — the citizens are the ones who suffer. In fact, citizens have little recourse as individuals in attempting to take on large, wealthy corporations that are impacting their lives in so many ways.

But at the same time, I do agree with Locke who also noted that parents are responsible for their children until they reach “the age of reason,” as Locke put it. That was never defined, but I assume he meant the age when they can take responsibility for their own lives. We have decided it is 18 or 21 — depending on what sort of responsibility we are talking about. But while the age is somewhat arbitrary the principle is clear: parents are responsible for their children until we can presume the children themselves can act responsibly. The parents in this case are devout Christians who distrust medical science and seem convinced that prayer is sufficient to heal their sick children. I don’t happen to agree with them, and there are many arguments against this strict position.

But I must admit I have a problem with officials of the state of Pennsylvania stepping in and telling these people they cannot raise their children as they see fit. This is a classic case of paternalism and the man who argued most persuasively against that position was John Stuart Mill in the late nineteenth century. He was developing ideas he found in Locke, ideas that focus on the unwarranted spread of civil influence into the private lives of individuals who ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes. Mill was convinced that the only time the state had a right to interfere in the lives of the citizens is when they pose a real and present threat to one another: when it steps in to prevent harm to a citizen.

In the case of young children who are the responsibility of their parents, it seems to me that the state has firm grounds for stepping in between parents and children if, and only if, the parents are clearly threatening the lives of the children — when they physically abuse them, for example. The case of parents who refuse medical attention because they believe in the efficacy of prayer assuredly does not come under this rubric. Failure to seek medical attention for their sick children seems to me to be one of the things best left to their judgment, whether or not we agree with that judgment. In this case it is not only paternalistic it is a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees religious freedom. Whether we like it or not (and I confess I do not like it) these parents are guaranteed the right to raise their children in accordance with their deeply held religious convictions. The couple has seven children who are now in foster care and have been described as “distraught” over the death of their child; nonetheless, prosecutors seek to have the couple jailed since they are regarded as a “threat to their children.” What possible grounds could the state of Pennsylvania have for either taking the children from their parents of prosecuting the parents as criminals?

Corporate Rights?

There is no mention of corporations in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. But as early as 1819 in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward the Supreme Court suggested that corporations were entitled to make and enforce contracts, thus implying early on that they should be treated as persons with rights protected by the Constitution. By 1886 it was simply assumed “without argument” that corporations are persons. The absurdity of this interpretation became glaring clear recently when the Supreme Court decided in its wisdom that spending limits should not be placed on corporations under protection of the First Amendment. That is, corporations should be allowed to spend as much on political campaigns as they see fit on the grounds of freedom of speech. Yes, that’s right, corporations are not only persons, they are entitled to give politicians as much money as they want under the aegis of freedom of speech.

I have always thought that the balance of powers under the Constitution is one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It arose, of course, in a French mind in the person of Montesquieu in the seventeenth century who saw this balance as necessary for the protection of individuals in a political group. Kings are not to be trusted. Presidents are not to be trusted. But if we balance their power with that of legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person.

The Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it trickled down through John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. And it is an inspired notion: a court that would be above political influence since members are not elected but appointed for life. And, indeed, some of the decisions of the court over the years have been brilliant. But the decision in January of 2010 to grant corporations rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.

The concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and used by the Founders to apply to citizens with rights and responsibilities. As Kant examined the notion, it was held that persons were “ends in themselves,” and never a means to an end. In other words it is morally wrong to use others for one’s own purposes. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves,” and are putatively a means to an end, namely, profit. The appropriation of a moral concept for legal purposes by the Court in 1819 and applied to an entity that was not even human was inappropriate, but its use in 2010 is nonsensical.

The absurdity of this decision can be seen by considering what other rights are guaranteed to persons under the First Amendment, namely, the right to practice religion as one sees fit, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to vote and to run for national office. Is the Court now saying that a corporation can run for President if it is thirty-five years old? Nonsense! But just as it would be absurd to think about corporations assembling, practicing religion, running for public office, or voting, it is also absurd to think that “they” have the right to free speech — assuming that this is what giving tons of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court.