Another Black Eye

I have held forth about the inexcusable situation in Guantanamo Bay where forty presumed terrorists are still being held in prison without a trial, so I will not return to that theme. But I must note that for a country that aspires to be “Great,” the incarceration without a fair trial of men who may or may not be guilty of crimes against the United States is in opposition to all the basic rules of a civilized country, much less a great one.

In any event, of late we are witnessing another black eye for this country in its treatment of the hordes of people from Central America who are fleeing dictators and gangs, murder, rape, and mayhem to find a better life in the United States and are being treated like criminals, including the use of tear-gas and pepper spray on children and women. But the recent notice in a Yahoo News item is disturbing on an even deeper level:

A migrant mom was impaled in front of her children over the weekend while attempting to climb a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said.

The 26-year-old Guatemalan native was trying to scale a fence near the San Ysidro Port of Entry, a crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, on Friday when she fell and impaled herself on pieces of rebar, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials.

We pride ourselves on being a nation that defends the moral high ground which, we like to think, is ignored by other nations in the world. Yet we read about the treatment of people, including women and children, in a manner that would embarrass even the nastiest among us — if they bothered to give it a thought. The “migrant caravan” of an estimated 5000 souls heading toward what those who comprise it hope to be the safety and protection of a great nation is considered by some, including our feckless leader, as an attack on this nation. In fact, it is simply a desperate attempt by people who hope to breathe the air of freedom.

Make no mistake, I am entirely in favor of “Making America Great Again.” I even agree that we can embrace the notion of “greatness,” and even identify it when we see it. I assume the America we want to return to is the America after the Second World War when actions like the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the devastation resulting from the dropping of thousands of bombs on both military and civilian targets. That was a plan that must make us all proud: an effort to help rebuild a world that had been shattered by unprecedented violence.

Yet, in the name of “Greatness” we now see about us efforts to exclude and reject those who differ from us, those would make us uncomfortable. Even those we disagree with. And we treat women and children like cattle. Whether or not we embrace Christian virtues, and there are many who insist the nation was founded on those virtues, what we are seeing is the exact opposite of the virtues preached in the New Testament — which is a gospel of love, not hate.

One need not be a Christian, however, (and very few are) to see the inhumanity of the steps this nation is currently taking toward “Greatness”; to realize that we may be leaving greatness behind us as we head instead in the opposite direction entirely. Where is the moral high ground that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about?

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This Time With Feeling!

I am reblogging a post I wrote several years ago that still retains its relevancy — I hope. In our day the mantra seems to be “Do what feels right!” This contrasts sharply with the Victorian Age (which has always fascinated me) when the mantra was “Do your duty!” We talk so much about rights and ignore the correlative issue of responsibilities, it does seem we have lost sight of the moral high ground. Many deny there is such a thing. In any event, my point here is that the notion that we should go with our feelings and ignore altogether the tougher task of trying to determine with careful thought what is the right thing to do is a mistake. I have made a few minor revisions and clarifications.

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape long showing him beating his wife in an elevator before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL engages in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more credible because he showed more feeling. Say what?? Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. They are, after all, what brought about Ray Rice’s attack on his wife in that elevator. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can — at times crawling and at other times blindfolded? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts; we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Quick! Get a close-up!! Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpas thrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain control; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like remorse, sympathy, and compassion; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today. The charioteer is asleep at the reins — or watching his iPhone.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. But reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the dark morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious global problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions or “alternative facts”) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth — as we can see if we pay attention to what is going on around us these days

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully considered program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

Still Waiting

One of Barack Obama’s pledges when he first ran for the presidency, you may recall, was to close down Guantanamo Bay prison where a large number of political prisoners were being held after the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Many of these men were later found to be innocent and released and others who might have been involved in the attacks but were no longer deemed a threat to the nation were released or sent to other countries who were willing to take a chance on their innocence. But in the interim they were held without the benefit of a trial and subjected to inhumane treatment, even torture, according to reports that leaked out later on. And 112 of them remain in prison at Guantanamo Bay to this day. Obama was on the moral high ground when he pledged to close down that place.

But his first attempt during his first term was met with screams of execration from frightened citizens and especially the Republicans in Congress who had pledged to fight Obama every step of the way during his presidency and were certainly not going to stand by idly while he transferred terrorists to this country where they might commit unknown atrocities because of their proximity to old ladies with gray hair and innocent children. Emotions ran high and the president backed down, sad to say. Well, as he approaches the end of his tenure as president, apparently he is now ready to give it another try. In the wake of rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline recently he announced his determination once again to fulfill his campaign promise to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us, in part:

The new closure proposal, drafted by Obama’s top counterterror advisor, Lisa Monaco, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter would lift congressional restrictions on transferring detainees to the United States.

Inmates who cannot be released or transferred abroad would be housed at a US facility like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or the Navy Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

But that plan looks increasingly unlikely to pass muster in the Republican controlled Congress, raising the prospect of executive action, which would ignite a political firestorm.

In 2009 Obama issued an executive order to close the camp, prompting a furious Congress to pass rules that made the transfer of detainees to US soil all but impossible.

The White House has long said those rules are unconstitutional as they impinge on executive power. But it has tried to have them overturned rather than engage in a damaging political fight.

He has apparently decided to evoke executive privilege once again and risk the political firestorm that is sure to follow because he wants his legacy to read that he is a man of his word. Or so the story goes. He has certainly shown courage and deserves our applause in refusing to buckle down to the crazies in Congress on the Keystone Pipeline. I choose to believe he is thinking of his legacy and sincerely hope he gives Congress the finger once again before fading into the sunset. Heaven knows he hasn’t shown much moral courage to this point in his presidency.

But the fact remains that there are still 112 men incarcerated in that prison who have been there, subjected to inhumane treatment for nearly fourteen years and they have never even been tried. And this in a country whose legal system prides itself on the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. It remains a fact that even if these men are transferred to prisons in this country they will remain men who are incarcerated without the benefit of that trial.

There is a political issue here, to be sure, but there is also the larger moral issue. Transferring the prisoners will raise hell in Congress and across the nation by people who are afraid of their own shadow and think every person with dark skin is a terrorist. But continuing to hold them without trial, wherever they are held, does not solve the moral issue, even though closing down Guantanamo prison might seem to have done so. It’s a good first step. But it is only a first step — if we are to pride ourselves on doing the right thing.

Do Cheaters Win?

When I coached the women’s tennis team at our university back in the Dark Ages we were initially associated with the A.I.A.W., which was an athletics association organized specifically for women in the early days of Title Nine. The organization made the huge mistake of taking the N.C.A.A. to court on the grounds that they were a monopoly and were in violation of anti-trust laws. The N.C.A.A., which even at that time was very powerful, won the case easily and the A.I.A.W. faded into the night. Our conference was faced with the option of joining the N.A.I.A. or the N.C.A.A. and I was delighted when the Conference decided to join the former. It allowed a great deal of local autonomy and there was very little politicking involved. For example, when we won our district Championship we automatically went to the National Tournament. In the N.C.A.A.  a committee votes on who gets to go to their national tournaments, though they pay the expenses, whereas the N.A.I.A. does not.

The Conference was dominated in most sports by the University of Minnesota at Duluth and when their softball team won their district championship one year it cost the university a small fortune to send the team to Florida for the National Tournament. The President of the university decided that this was enough of that sort of foolishness and he threw his weight around to persuade the other presidents to leave the N.A.I.A. and join the N.C.A.A. At that point I retired from coaching women’s tennis, thankfully. I was delighted that I would not have to deal with the N.C.A.A. which had a rule-book as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory and was an organization that was run out of a central office that allowed little or no local autonomy and politics were the order of the day.

Since that time I have had an opportunity to take closer look at the N.C.A.A. and especially its control over the large semi-professional (let’s admit it) sports programs at the Division I level. I have written about it and will not repeat here what I have already said. But I noted recently that Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference expressed his dismay over the alleged fact that the N.C.A.A. was lax in its enforcement of its own rules. He indicated that a high percentage of the universities involved in football and basketball at the Division I level were in violation of the rules and yet the N.C.A.A. was doing nothing about it. Bowlsby also claimed that their infraction committee hadn’t even met for nearly a year — even though it is generally known that there are violators of the innumerable rules governing fair play in all sports at the collegiate level. Furthermore, many of these violators were heading up very successful and lucrative programs, prompting Bowlsby to remark that “cheating pays” at the highest levels of college sports. Needless to say, a number of football coaches expressed well-rehearsed outrage at those comments.

Sociologists love to point out that the problems at the collegiate level merely reflect the problems of society at large. If this is so (and I don’t claim to be a sociologist) then there are a lot of cheaters out there who are very successful in spite of (because of?) the fact that they are breaking the rules knowingly. As some wag once said: “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” This is nonsense, of course, but I do believe that this attitude is widely shared and that the colleges and universities are merely in step with some of the most successful people in this society. As a culture we have lost sight of the moral high ground that Martin Luther King spoke about so eloquently and have convinced ourselves that since everyone does the wrong thing that it therefore isn’t wrong. When Nixon was caught in the Watergate scandal, for example, it was said by many outspoken commentators that this wasn’t such a bad thing because all politicians do that sort of thing. If everyone does it, it can’t be wrong. This is what logicians call the fallacy of ad populum, or the appeal to what is generally done. It saves us having to think about things and, of course, is a handy excuse if we do get caught.

But one would hope that the universities and colleges would hold themselves to a higher standard than politicians and other low-lifes, and if, in fact, cheating in college sports is widespread it should be thoroughly investigated and the culprits publicly shamed. The Commissioner I referred to above suggested that outside agencies, even the Federal Government, should get involved. I would hope the Federal Government has more important fish to fry, but the suggestion of an outside agency is not a bad one. If the N.C.A.A. cannot police its own rules, then someone else should do it. Or the N.C.A.A. should be disbanded altogether, which may not be such a bad idea. If the N.C.A.A. won’t even enforce its own rules, it seems to have outgrown its usefulness and appears to be motivated by greed, pure and simple. There is a hellova lot of money involved in collegiate sports these days — and that may be the root of the entire problem, come to think of it.

Survival Mentality

“The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping place ever proposed by one man to another.”

William James

It has become a commonplace to remark about the preoccupation with self that defines our current culture. We know all about the “me generation” and have come to learn that Gen-X, in whom we placed so much hope for the future, is even more preoccupied with themselves than their parents. Christopher Lasch, whom I have referenced in previous blogs, is one of the few thinkers to attempt to understand why this has come about. And he is one of the best minds I have encountered to think with about our cultural condition. He likens our present outlook on our world to that of a POW, especially the inmates of Auschwitz, during the Second World War. As Lasch notes regarding our current malaise, in his remarkable book The Minimal Self:

“People have lost confidence in the future. Faced with an escalating arms race, an increase in crime and terrorism, environmental deterioration, and the prospect of long-term economic decline, they have begun to prepare for the worst, sometimes by building fallout shelters and laying in provisions, more commonly by executing a kind of emotional retreat from the long-term commitments that presuppose a stable, secure, and orderly world. . . . Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live only one day at a time — these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in a  more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a far-flung system of total control.”

According to Lasch, this has given rise to a siege mentality as we embrace a survival ethic — not unlike those in the camps such as Auschwitz who struggled to remain human while they gradually retreated within themselves.

“In fact, the siege mentality is much stronger in those who know Auschwitz only at second-hand than in those who lived through it. It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow-victims — they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. [In contrast, we exhibit]  a diminished capacity to imagine a moral order transcending [our own experience], which alone can give meaning [to our lives].”

This is heavy stuff, indeed. As the quote from William James at the top of this page suggests, mere survival for its own sake is hardly a lofty human ideal. What truly matters is what survives — what sort of person or culture. It’s about character and moral fiber, not about breathing in and out for as long as possible. We don’t talk much about character any more, and at present it is certainly the case that the moral high ground seems to have flattened after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr leaving the landscape rather barren, which is something to be deeply regretted. And there are many signs around us that point to our ignorance of the past and loss of hope in the future in our preoccupation with our own present experience. As the ads tell us, “Do It Now!”  This attests to the very malaise Lasch describes; his analysis seems to me to be quite plausible.

But he does not despair. He does not see the various movements to save the planet, stop the nuclear arms race, show concern about our shared world, together with the “growing criticism of consumerism and high technology, criticism of the ‘masculine’ psychology of conquest and competition” as complete answers, but they do “hold out the best hope for the future.” Though Lasch would not have us abandon hope for radical changes in the political landscape, at present politics does not seem to provide a way out, given the stranglehold those “profoundly undemocratic” corporations have on the political process. None the less, there are things each one of us can do within the limits of our own capacities to mitigate corporate greed and the destruction of the planet, while we seek to restore the moral high ground, reaching out to others and turning our attention toward a world filled with beauty and finding joy in the things and people that surround us — and certainly not abandoning hope in the future altogether. This would allow us to avoid the “survival mentality” of which Lasch speaks and which threatens to suffocate the human spirit.

Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”

Bold Move

In a recent interview Barack Obama came out openly in defense of same-sex marriage. From one point of view this is a no-brainer because there can be no moral reason why two people should not get married when they love one another. In addition, from a political perspective there is every reason why the marriage should be recognized, since failure to do so denies the parties the rights of citizenship that other married couples enjoy. Those who are in a tizzy about the destruction of the “sanctity” of marriage are sublimating a homophobia they are reluctant to confront. Heaven knows the world can use more love and less hate. None the less, while Obama knows how to play the political game he also knows that an election is looming on the horizon. Thus, for him to take a stand on an issue such as this is indeed a bold move. Following the interview, he sent around an email explaining his views:

What I’ve come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens.

Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently.

So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.

For a man who has been reluctant to take a positive stand on any issue for fear of offending someone, who has been far too conciliatory during his first years as President, this move raises some interesting questions. The man is a masterful politician, if nothing else. Though he was careful to point out that this is a states’ rights issue, one must wonder why he has chosen to be forthcoming on gay marriage at this time, a few months before a major election. The issue is sure to polarize voters and it could well cost him votes. But it could also bring back many of the younger voters he has assuredly lost as a result of his disappointing failure to deliver on promises to close down Guantanamo and bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Eventually, of course, the troops did come home from Iraq, but many of them were reassigned to an expanded war in Afghanistan and the trade-off was a disappointment to many.)  In addition, there has been little in the way of an economic recovery and there are still a great many people out of work. Finally, Obama has been far too friendly with the corporations and weak on the environment to please many of the bright-eyed hopefuls who saw his presidency as a sure sign of better things to come. He has to do something to bring back many of those voters. I suspect this declaration is a calculated risk.

More power to him. Regardless of his motivations, and they are clearly political, it is refreshing to see the man take a stand on a highly controversial issue, indeed, a moral issue, and declare himself boldly in favor of gay marriage. And this in a political climate where successful politicians are masters of the artful dodge, the old soft-shoe. I would love to think it is a sign of things to come and that a second term would see him take more stands on moral high ground when he no longer has to worry about his reelection. This is certainly what people expected from him in the first place.