Gridlock

It is common knowledge that the Republicans in the Senate have vowed not to allow President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court ever see the light of day. It is also common knowledge that those same Republicans are deep into the pocket of the NRA and recently voted as a group not to pass any laws restricting the use of AK-15s and other weapons of mass destruction. They have bought into the dream of the gun manufacturers, who support the NRA, that every man, woman, and child in this country should be armed against….every other man, woman, and child.

Furthermore, it is widely known that the core of the Republicans in Congress met soon after Barack Obama’s election and vowed not to pass on any legislation the man favored, to adopt what has been called a “scorched-earth” policy of no compromise. But, as has recently been pointed out, this policy goes back further than Obama and those who chalk it up to the determination of a group of racists not to cooperate with a black president may have to rethink their position. It appears it is not racism; it is simply twisted political thinking. As a recent article points out:

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.
This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP’s midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it.

What this means is that the commonsense notion that politics is all about compromise, reaching the decision that works best for everyone — even though it may not be the decision that each individual wants — has been displaced in our era by a group of small-minded men and women whose only goal is to oppose the opposition, to see to it that their party is strengthened and the opposition party rendered weak and helpless. The central notion of the “Common Good” that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, has been preempted in our era by “what’s good for the party is good for me.” The idea is that the political party that one belongs to demands complete loyalty because it is that party — and the money that goes into that party’s coffers — that will determine whether or not I keep my high-paying job. And please note: this is not about party loyalty. It’s about self-interest.

If the Supreme Court must limp along with only eight members for a while, or if more and more people must be killed by weapons designed for modern warfare (and not for killing deer) so be it. What matters now is ME. If I am an elected official my only goal is to remain in office and do whatever it takes to remain there. What is good for my constituency matters not a whit. What matters is what is good for me and for my ability to remain in public office.

The two main players in this sick drama are, of course, the PACs and the lack of term limits in public office. The entire situation could be remedied if the Congress were to address these two issues. But they will not because those two factors are what keep them in office. And professional politicians, which is what we are surrounded by today, know what side their bread is buttered on — if they know nothing else.

Advertisements

Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

The Magic of Nine

Dante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Dante
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The folks back in the Dark Ages were filled with wonder by the number nine. Dante’s Divine Comedy is full of references to the magic of this number which added to the mystery of their lives. After all, nine is the square of three which represents the Holy Trinity for Christians. Dante’s Inferno has nine circles, and Purgatory has seven stages representing the seven deadly sins, plus the ante-purgatory (which has three stages!) and the entrance to Paradise — which adds up to nine!  There were also nine celestial spheres in Dante’s Paradise, where “we shall witness what we hold in faith, not told by reason but self-evident; as men perceive an axiom here on earth.” All of this was based on the Ptolemaic system taken together with Church dogma which the Schoolmen, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, espoused. None of this could simply be a coincidence, especially the mysterious nature of the number nine. Think about it:

Multiply 9 by any number and the integers in the product add up to nine. Moreover, multiply any number whatever whose integers add up to nine and the product’s integers add up to nine. Thus, 9 x 8 = 72, and 7+2 = 9. Again, 54 x 356 = 19224. Add those integers and you come back to nine (5+4 added together gives us 9, 1+9+2+2+4 =18, 1+8 = 9). If you take any examples at random, it works out the same. Multiply any number by nine or any product of nine and you always come back to nine!

Further, consider this:

1×9=09

2×9=18

3×9=27

4×9=36

5×9=45

6×9=54

7×9=63

8×9=72

9×9=81

and so forth. Now if you look at the numbers in the left column they take us 1 through 9, going down. But note the numbers in the product: in the tens place we have 0 through 8 going down — and it would continue if we had the space. Moreover, in the far right-hand column the numbers go in reverse from 9 to 1, going down.  And, of course, the integers in the product always add up to nine. The symmetry is marvellous! No wonder the folks back then thought nine was a special number with mystical powers. Fun stuff! Too bad we have lost our sense of mystery. Think how much richer our world would be!

Creationism As Science?

In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, think science and technology are the same thing.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism incompatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible.  Of course if there were conflicts Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But in any case it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.

Pat Robertson Of All People!

An interesting Yahoo News article recently surfaced that cries out for comment. It begins as follows:

It’s no surprise that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio took heat for an interview he gave to GQ magazine this month: Departing from scientific consensus, the rising Republican star refused to state whether the Earth is billions of years old or a few thousand, as many fundamentalist Christians believe.

What no one expected was the rebuke from televangelist and longtime Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson, dismissing theories of a “young Earth.”

“If you fight science, you are going to lose your children,” Robertson said last week during an appearance on the Christian Broadcast Network, the television empire he founded three decades ago

Robertson has shown considerable political savvy in taking this stand, though it puts him at risk of expulsion from the Society of the Spiritually Smug — of which he is a founding  member. He dares to swim against the tide of group prejudice built on the blind conviction that any science is hogwash that embraces such disturbing notions as evolution, the ridiculous notion that the earth is billions of years old, and denies that dinosaurs and humans walked the face of this earth together. Robertson is showing a side of himself we never thought we would see. Huzzah!

The interesting thing about this declaration coming from such an unlikely source is that it doesn’t appear to be based on the conviction that science might actually be correct in its claims about the age of the earth and other disturbing facts that are dismissed as mere opinions by the spiritually certain. I recall with fondness Penny’s boyfriend Zack in “The Big Bang Theory” telling the science geeks that the thing he liked about science is that “there is no one right answer.” Now that’s the sort of thing we might expect Pat Robertson to say.

In any event, Robertson hasn’t swung the full weight of his great stature behind science in making this astonishing statement: he is merely calculating that if the Republicans are going to stay married to the religious Right (which is always RIGHT, of course) then they are going to have to bring the young voters back into the fold, as it were. And those younger voters are apparently not buying into the load of anti-scientific malarkey that is being fed to them by the right hand of the righteous. And this despite the fact that “creationism” is being taught in many schools along with evolution (if the latter is taught at all) and there really are biology teachers out there in our high schools who think the dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together a few thousand years ago.

I must say I don’t give the young that much credit, knowing what I do about what passes for science in so many of our schools. But if it brings Robertson out from under his rock and causes him to declare that religion must stop fighting science (which St. Thomas Aquinas said centuries ago) then it’s fine with me. Let’s hear it for Pat Robertson!

Frames of Reference

And now for something completely different! I have always been intrigued by the way we look at the world as contrasted with, say, the people of Western Europe during the Middle Ages — from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. until the Renaissance in the 16th century. The most obvious difference comes in our way of looking at death. We don’t even like to think about it and I dare say if I had put the word in the title of this blog no one would have read it. As it is, I may have lost readers by mentioning it now! But hear me out.

We fear death and regard it as a “tragedy.” This is especially so when we hear of the death of a child. Much of this comes from the fact that we live so much longer than those in the Middle Ages who were lucky to see their 30th birthday. They saw death as a release from this life of pain and fear — which it was for most of them. Think about it: no way to alleviate pain, not even a toothache. Tooth decay was common and teeth recovered from the period show signs of rotting teeth that would send any of us to our knees in agony. It must have been a fairly common companion during those days when the only cure was to pull the tooth — without a sedative. There weren’t even any aspirin! And pain was accompanied by disease and almost constant fear of spirits who were everywhere and were as real as the person closest to them. They coped with the help of generous amounts of beer — an average of a pint a day for each man, woman, and child.

But the main reason we differ in our way of looking at death is that we really don’t believe in the immortality of the soul. When I say “we” I mean the vast majority of us. Even the most devout among us don’t believe in it the way the typical Medieval mind believed in it. They believed in it the way we believe in the reality of the computer screen before our very eyes. There was simply no doubt: when a person died he or she would go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. The latter was a place souls went to continue to do penance until they were pure enough to ascend into heaven. An innocent soul would be rewarded and an evil person would be punished for eternity. There was no doubt whatever. How comforting!

Think of the “Faust” legend. It dates from the sixteenth century, which was toward the end of the Medieval period. We first hear about it from a collection of letters presumably written by a Doctor Johann Faustus in Germany, who was a real person who had remarkable magical powers and who allegedly made a “deal” with the devil that allowed him success in this world at the price of his immortal soul. The fact that this legend became popular suggests that toward the end of the Medieval period people were increasingly attracted to the idea of success in this life and less concerned about punishment in the next. But the conviction remained none the less that there was another life after this one. No doubt about it. Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, wrote the “Pardoner’s Tale” about a cleric who made his living by selling indulgences, or “pardons” that would shorten a person’s time in Purgatory for a fee — though originally the idea was that one could earn indulgences only by doing penance. It was quicker and easier as people began to accumulate some extra cash to simply buy indulgences and there were those who made a very good living from selling them. Dante’s Hell is full of these types. And bear in mind that Dante’s Divine Comedy was generally regarded as late as the fourteenth century as a faithful depiction of the afterlife consistent with the science of the time (Ptolemy) and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas that was even more certain than science.

In any event, the reality of another life after this one made it possible for the Medieval mind to escape the fear and trepidation that was a part of this life for the peace of mind that came from assurance of a reward for their good behavior. They did not regard death as a “tragedy” but as a release from a life of pain and suffering to one of bliss and comfort. Our preoccupation with the here and now has cost us that assurance and may well be the root cause of the anxiety that many cultural historians insist predominates in our age. Perhaps this helps us to understand why so many of us are fearful.