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Friday, June 24, 2016

ISIS Redefined

Leading Republicans criticize the President because he will not describe acts of terrorism committed by Muslims as “Radical Islamic Terrorism”.  The President insists that using the term “Radical Islam” does not actually affect how the war on terror is waged and in fact, impugns the religion of Islam and the vast majority of peace loving Muslims who practice their faith.

Ironically each side is both right and wrong.  The President's description of terrorists as violent extremists is broad and nonspecific.  The description is meaningless and creates a see no Islam evil mindset.  Witness the initial transcripts of the shooter’s calls to 911 released by the Justice Department.  The terrorist’s remarks on allegiance to ISIS were redacted and the transcript was scrubbed of Allah, substituting God in its place. 

Unwillingness to attribute terrorism to Islam does have consequences.  Designed to prevent prejudice against decent Muslims, dancing around an unpleasant reality creates the impression that criticizing Muslims is wrong.  Hence a witness does not report suspicious behavior of the San Bernardino shooters out of fear that she will be labelled an Islamaphobe.  This same mindset was behind the categorization of the Fort Hood shootings as workplace violence instead of Islamic terrorism, thereby denying soldiers wounded in the attack of additional benefits.

The Republicans make a different mistake.  Their use of the phrase “Radical Islamic Terrorism” misidentifies the religious ideology of the terrorist and that phrase does indeed impugn all of Islam.  The phrase implies that the terrorists practice an extreme form of modern day Islam.  As David Brooks states, “people don’t start out practicing Islam and then turn into terrorists because they become more faithful”.  Modern Islam is a vastly different version of the religion of ISIS.  The theological roots are the same, but the religious ideology and practices have little overlap.

ISIS adheres to medieval Islam practiced 1300 years ago by the first two Caliphs of Islam.   ISIS rejects all subsequent innovations and modernizations to the religion as a corruption of Islam.  Among numerous barbarities, medieval religious practices allow terrorizing infidels into submission using beheadings, crucifixions, rape and enslavement.   

The great attraction to ISIS flows from its perceived religious legitimacy, the establishment of the caliphate.  Unlike other terrorists groups where recruits pledge loyalty to a cause, ISIS recruits undergo conversion and pledge their lives to the Caliph, the representative of Allah on earth.

Religious conversion is powerful stuff.  It provides deep meaning and purpose and is rapturous to the disaffected, alienated, or marginalized.  It is not economic justice that drives these recruits to ISIS but the search for meaning, purpose, and positive identity. Similarly, religious conversion explains why recruits who show no history of violence are able to commit the most heinous acts.  They are acting for the glory of Allah to purify the world of subhumans in accordance with the Prophet Mohammad.

The phrase “Medieval Islam” clarifies for the average Joe how a religion of peace creates monsters.  Medieval Islam has parallels to Medieval Christianity where non-believers were tortured and burned at the stake during the Inquisition.  It is a small step from there to accept that modern Islam is as peace loving as modern Christianity.

Sharing the same terminology to describe and understand terrorists can promote meaningful policy dialogue between Republicans and Democrats.  Take the refugee issue as an example.  Muslim countries that practice medieval Sharia law reflect social and cultural values that are unamerican.  This recognition changes the dialogue on refugee immigration from issues of prejudice to issues of enculturation.  How do we (and can we) select refugees that will accommodate to and accept a very different culture and, if so, how to assist refugees in the assimilation process?  Here, American Muslims can play a pivotal role in guiding these policies.   

Words reflect perceived reality and influence actions.   Without a common perspective on reality, dialogue is fruitless. We end up talking at or past each other rather than to each other.  Goodness knows we've done enough of that already.   


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Transgender Bathroom Battle: Causes and Cures

The North Carolina bathroom law requiring people to use public restrooms based on their gender at birth is part of the ongoing cultural clash between the secular left and the religious right.  Responding to the current North Carolina law, President Obama issued national guidelines requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms associated with their gender identity. 

The battle lines are drawn.  For President Obama and other transgender advocates, transgender bathroom choice is a civil rights issue comparable to the civil rights laws ending discrimination against racial minorities.  Conservative religious groups recoil from this topsy turvy new world of gender identity.  Gender is not a state of mind that can change on a whim.  It is a biological fact.  Bionically, men and women are created for companionship and to procreate and populate the world.  And from the fig leaf forward modesty between the sexes is a hallmark of the religious.  For them, separate bathrooms for the sexes makes obvious common sense and is in keeping with the natural order of the world.  

In reality, transgenderism is biologically based.  The biology of gender development involves chromosomes, hormones and brain structure.  Almost always, sex chromosomes and sex hormones work in concert so that our brain and our sexual characteristics match. For a small minority, significantly less than 1%, sex chromosomes and hormones interplay differently such that a male fetus develops with a female brain and a female fetus develops with a male brain.  Hence a transgender is born.

The use of gender language often confuses rather than clarifies the bathroom debate.  It can muddy the distinctions between biology, sexual preference, and sexual expression when talking about masculinity and femininity.  To the uninitiated, encountering gender language is a plunge down the rabbit hole.  You are not born male or female.  Instead you are assigned a gender at birth, as if your sexual designation is a choice comparable to how you are named.  Instead of the two sexes there are close to sixty genders and counting proclaimed by Facebook users.  They range from gender queer (someone who identifies with multiple genders), to gender fluid (someone who fluctuates between being male and female), to everything else in between.   These gender terms are completely subjective.  All it seems to take these days to establish an entirely new gender category is for someone to think one up.

Ironically, transgenderism suffers from being included in gender speak which implies that gender is a choice, sometimes a whimsical choice, rather than a biological imperative.  The intense and lifelong feeling of being trapped in the wrong body is a very real biological condition that often causes years of suffering.  Understandably there is pushback from the transgender community to the North Carolina law as they know that theirs is not a whimsical choice but a real condition.

It is tempting to consider disparate treatment of transgender citizens as a civil rights issue in the same way blacks were treated disparately by establishing separate bathrooms for whites and blacks.  But the transgender controversy is not about separate sets of bathrooms; rather it is about bathroom labelling.  The President’s effort to stretch civil rights discrimination around bathroom labelling leads to surprising consequences.

Discrimination occurs when decisions are based on a trait without a compelling or inherent justification.   For example, an employment decision not to hire based on gender identity absent another compelling basis is discriminatory.  The solution requires the employer to hire the individual.  Why then isn’t requiring bathroom choice based on gender identity a solution to gender discrimination?  Substitute the word race for gender identity in the last sentence – requiring bathroom choice based on race – and the gender identity solution now seems problematic.

Consider also the consequences of school bathroom choice based on gender identity.  Not only would boys who identify as girls rightfully use the girls’ restrooms but heterosexual boys would also have that right.  The only difference between these two anatomical boys is their gender identity and, according to transgender advocates, Title IX bars discrimination on the basis of gender identity which then logically encompasses heterosexual boys who self-identify as boys.  Ironically, the way to ensure that bathrooms do not discriminate against gender identity is to have two separate but equal bathrooms based on biological sex.

Still, male and female bathrooms remain problematic.  Transgender men and women often hesitate to enter bathrooms they identify with because of the very real threat of violence and or verbal abuse.  Without separate male and female bathrooms, traditionalists worry about their privacy being violated, and about the potential for sexual predators taking advantage of gender identity laws.  With documented cases of sexual deviants masquerading as transgender men entering bathrooms and locker rooms, this worry is not an excuse for discrimination but a concern based in fact.

Perhaps there is another way.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a template for addressing these bathroom dilemmas, particularly the ADA concepts of major life functions, legitimate conditions, and reasonable accommodations.  Although established for the workplace, the conceptual framework of the ADA could be applied to any environment to address the needs of those with special requirements, along with a blueprint for addressing these special needs.  Under ADA guidelines, going to the bathroom is a major life function that qualifies for a reasonable accommodation to those with a legitimate condition effecting bathroom use. These accommodations are then created through discussion between the stakeholders.  Reasonable accommodations take into account the health and safety of everyone and the feasibility of making such accommodations, including any undue hardships such as available resources and organizational size.

Using the ADA approach legitimizes special needs and provides a dignified method to broach a delicate subject.  This measured, systematic, collaborative approach holds out hope for avoiding the divisive and contentious environment evident in imposing a one size fits all solution based on a questionable civil rights violation. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In Defense of Religion

Like most of the world, Secularism is rising in America, while religious participation is sharply declining.  As more and more scientific principles explain what was once attributed to a creator, belief in God logically erodes.  It’s all too easy to see religion as merely quaint biblical myths and stories, comforting and palliative to believers, but dangerous when religious ideas are brought into the public square.  Or so the argument goes.  But there is another view.
For centuries, Judaeo Christian principles organized Western Civilization.  The old and new testaments served as blueprints for establishing social values and civic responsibilities, allowing for peaceful coexistence within stable, just societies.  The wisdom found in the bible served society well for two thousand years.
Clearly the idea of ethical monotheism was a great leap forward in mankind’s thinking—it replaced the self-centered animistic view of multiple totem gods with a universal God that required people to think beyond themselves.  The ideas of universality and of a non-corporeal being reflected abstract thinking that became essential for scientific reasoning.  Indeed, modern scientists, like Einstein, used God as a metaphorical guide when contemplating the principles of the universe.
Science and religion cover non overlapping spheres of human existence.  Science covers the physical sphere, and religion covers the social sphere, giving us rules for social conduct and ethics.  But science and religion intersect when explaining the creation of the universe.  The scientific view is that the universe was created from the inflation of a single infinitesimally small point containing all of the elements of the universe.  For our universe to coalesce and form, gravity and other forces needed to be so precise that it could not happen by chance … which sounds like the work of a creator. 
Scientists address the implication of a non-physical explanation for the creation of the universe with the multiverse theory.  In this theory universes are constantly being formed, indeed an infinite number of formations.  With an infinite number of formations our universe could happen by chance.  Importantly, however, there is no proof for the multiverse theory.  Like the religious view it remains an article of faith.
As America secularizes, the consequences to society are not favorable but predictable.  The concepts of sacred and profane are lost in a secular society as these concepts are embedded in religious beliefs.  Simply put, sacred thoughts and actions bring people closer to God; profane behavior does exactly the opposite.   
Without the restraint of the sacred, people can gravitate towards the profane of self-indulgence and self-gratification.   The trend towards the profane is evident – a coarsening of dialogue, immodesty, drug addiction and crime, alienation, and a breakdown of the nuclear family.  The profane has even entered the campaign for the highest office in the land in the form of Donald Trump. 
But what about the evil committed in the name of Christianity -- the medieval murders by Crusaders and the torture during the Inquisition?  This happened a long time ago, prior to the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  Obviously, Judaeo Christian leaders no longer advocate murder or torture.  True, some religious practitioners do not live up to religious teachings and act immorally or engage in cover-ups of evil deeds to protect religious institutions.   Yet there is an absolute standard to judge actions, and when evil is spotlighted and forced out of the shadows no religious figure is immune from religious condemnation.
For the non-religious, an absolute standard is replaced by an individual standard derived from reason and feeling.  The consequences of actions taken by countries and people un-moored from Judaeo Christian morality are devastating.   Many modern godless societies murdered and tortured millions upon millions of people – The Soviet Union, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and North Korea to name some.  In this country, atheists used reason to advocate for eugenics and forced sterilization of undesirables.
Yet religion remains a question mark for many because of religiously conservative stances on a number of contentious social issues.  In my next blog I will explore some of these hot button issues.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Real Income Gap

The Panama Papers are making waves-- detailing the extensive use of shell corporations and secret offshore accounts as tax havens for the wealthy. We’ve long suspected that the rich made their own rules, but now there is positive proof that hiding money and shirking taxes is widespread. All it takes is a shady lawyer to look the other way when creating a faux corporation in the name of a pet, or some other bogus entity, and a willing financial institution to open an account in the name of Fido.

The left and right look at this story with different eyes. The left sees another example of greedy, wealthy tax evaders manipulating the system to their own advantage. The right sees excessive taxation forcing people to find creative ways to reduce their tax burden. Whether this story is an indictment of the rich or of the tax system itself misses the most important element of the story, an idea that strikes at the heart of a democratic society.

Many of the wealthy hiding their financial assets are political leaders and government officials. These leaders are not just corrupt despots and dictators from the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Swept up in the scandal are democratically elected leaders. David Cameron, the Prime Minister of England, and Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland, are connected with the scandal, and we can be sure that they are not alone.

These are democratically elected leaders avoiding paying taxes on their amassed wealth, but we need to wonder how they amassed such wealth in the first place? Politicians serve the people; they earn relatively modest salaries of politicians, yet they retired as multimillionaires. In an indirect way this is the question Bernie Sanders asks Hillary Clinton when he questions the enormous speaking fees she garners for talks given to financial institutions.

Virtually all career politicians become multimillionaires over the course of their careers. Yet every political cycle they talk of their humble roots. They mingle with the public, attend fairs, eat at diners, ride subways, and shop at supermarkets. This is a far cry from their actual lives, lives of power and prestige, with endless access to information and connections, which is the foundation for influence and wealth building. Politicians live lives of privilege where rules that govern the rest of the country do not always apply to them.

Several years back “60 Minutes” did a piece on members of congress engaging in insider trading for profit. Insider trading is the buying and selling of stocks by corporate insiders who have non-public information that could affect the price of a stock. It is an illegal practice for which Martha Stewart went to jail. Yet congressman conveniently wrote themselves exemption rules under the guise that they have no corporate responsibilities. As they saw it, it’s perfectly legal for a congressman sitting on a healthcare committee to buy stock in a pharmaceutical company with the knowledge that Medicare was about to approve reimbursement for a drug made by that pharmaceutical company.

The most egregious example covered in the “60 Minutes” piece was that of a Congressman sitting on the House Financial Services Committee. In the days leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008 he was briefed by the Treasury Secretary and The Federal Reserve Chairman about the impending financial crisis. Literally the next day this Congressman bought stock options that would increase in value if stock prices went down. While, presumably, this Congressman was working to avert a financial crisis, he was privately betting on the economy cratering. He profited while ordinary Americans were losing their shirts.

No wonder the elected class is so despised and that this is the year of the outsider in politics. A tipping point has been reached, the middle class is fed up with politicians, immune from the anxieties of ordinary citizens, overlooking the needs of the ordinary citizen except during an election cycle when much is promised and little is delivered.  Bernie Sanders highlights the growing income gap between the rich and the middle class and speaks of a rigged economy that only benefits the wealthy. His target is billionaires and large corporations. Instead his target should be the crony politicians who write legislation for their own benefit and the benefit of large corporations that they have cozy relationships with. The economic system of free market capitalism is not broken. It is our political system that is broken.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Donald Trump: The FDR For The Blue Collar Worker

Whether by design or happenstance, Donald Trump’s risen as the new spokesman for the concerns of America’s long struggling, white middle class. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Trump's bigoted rhetoric is solely tied to white blue collar's attraction to Trump, either because they themselves are racist, or because increased racial diversity threatens whites who are no longer the racial majority in America. Racists groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazis do indeed show up at Trump rallies, but they represent the fringe elements of society. Trump’s appeal to blue collar whites is far more nuanced than that.

White blue collar workers are angry; they see themselves as a marginalized group. The invisible class that political leaders ignored and let down. Until recently, political conversations centered on the issues facing the poor and minority groups, but offered little or nothing to address the challenges confronting working class whites who face significant economic hardships that are exacerbated by American factories closing and relocating overseas. Those managing to remain employed struggle to survive on wages that do not keep up with inflation due to long term trends of globalization and technological advances. For them the American dream has died. They see fewer opportunities for themselves and even fewer on the horizon for their children.

Socially they feel abandoned too. As America grows more secular, their religious and cultural views on gay marriage, abortion, and promiscuity are out of step. The shift in these values has happened so quickly that it’s created cognitive dissonance. The core values of a decent, moral society of the recent past are now seen as prejudiced, uncaring, quaint or even despicable.

When this group is referenced by mainstream political leaders it can be with an element of contempt. When President Obama says that an anxious lower-middle class is clinging to their guns and religion, he’s putting them down. Just as Mitt Romney is when he implies that the bottom 47% of the socioeconomic class are parasites on society.

These may not be meant as put downs, but the reality is that historically neither party has addressed the economic anxieties of the white middle class. Democrats focused on minority rights and income inequality, even though for most working Americans, their day to day concerns are about achieving a decent living and lifestyle for their families. Republicans focused on cultural and national security issues, on reforming taxes and business regulations, rather than on the dwindling standard of living for so many Americans. They see themselves as the forgotten Americans, and they are cynical about either political party ever doing anything to address their needs and anxieties.

Into this cauldron of uncertainty and betrayal, enters Donald Trump. Despite his enormous wealth (and maybe because of it), he emotionally connects with blue collar workers. It doesn’t matter that Trump came from an upper class family as his wealth was earned though real estate development and construction, both seen as honest ways to earn a living. Trump’s wealth is not a barrier to connection; rather, it’s an asset, proof that with hard work, anything can be accomplished. It helps too that Trump speaks like a blue collar worker-- unpolished, plain speaking, pugnacious, insulting, and totally unapologetic. The middle class are not invisible to him, in his heart he’s one of them, and they can be darn sure he’ll address and solve their economic concerns.

Trump brilliantly addresses the concerns of blue collar America by expressing their views in their language. He talks about incompetent politicians allowing China, Japan, and Mexico to steal jobs from America. He talks about deporting illegal immigrants because they take jobs meant for true Americans. He talks about finding ways to help them make more money, just like he did for his own family. It doesn’t matter that Trump doesn’t share their religious values, that some of his antics are outlandish and embarrassing, or even that he lies, because they know he will do right by them. Trump hears them and he will not let them be marginalized. They will have a powerful ally in Washington, finally a President who understands their concerns, and who will fight for their needs. In an odd way, Trump’s replicating what FDR accomplished – a politician of great wealth that’s connecting to the little guy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Donald Trump The Wizard Of Ozz

What to make of Donald Trump. Against all odds he is now the prohibitive favorite to capture the Republican nomination for President of the United States. The party of Lincoln and Reagan is about to nominate a crude, authoritarian, narcissistic blowhard whose claim on the presidency is that he is a “successful businessman”. Conventional political strategy is to attack him for not being a true Republican; for lacking the temperament, judgment, and core principles to be President; and for not having detailed policy proposals to address the issues facing America. This logical approach to criticizing Trump is spectacularly unsuccessful as his political strength is growing rather than diminishing.

Instead of a logical approach to undermining Trump, what is needed is a psycho-logical approach. Politics has a logic of its own that is based on meeting the psychological needs of people. To paraphrase Jonah Goldberg, when Trump says 2 + 2 = 5 he is considered an idiot by conventional standards. In politics, however, if a million people believe 2 + 2 = 5 they are not a million idiots but a “constituency” and as the constituency expands it becomes a “movement”, and the person proposing 2 + 2 = 5 is the opposite of an idiot. He is a savior.

Trump's core constituency are white blue collar workers most affected by the decades long trends of globalization and technological advances. Manufacturing shifts to countries with lower labor costs puts downward pressure on wages and technological advances replaces blue collar workers with machines. Blue collar workers no longer believe in the American dream and are considerably anxious about their economic future – particularly blue collar workers with no other job skills and too old for retraining.

Enter Donald Trump who promises to bring back jobs from China, Japan, and Mexico; eliminate illegal immigrants that are usurping jobs from Americans; and create a booming economy where wages grow and the American Dream is restored. This is catnip to his constituency and is taken as gospel because of Trump's track record of amassing a multi-billion fortune as a businessman.

Attacks on the feasibility of Trumps immigration or economic plans or his off the wall comments that range from childish to dangerous and bigoted do not persuade his core constituency. Not because they are stupid or ill informed, but because they have great faith in the Trump persona honed over many years as a TV reality host – the plain spoken, take no prisoners, feisty, and successful businessman.

Constituents re-construe criticisms of Trump through the lens of his persona. His outrageous comments and personal attacks evidences his unvarnished truthfulness. Details on his economic plans are unnecessary as his phenomenal success as a businessman demonstrates his economic acumen.

Tuesday night's primary result showed Trump expanding his constituency beyond blue collar workers. Exit polls indicated that Trump was overwhelmingly favored by voters who expressed anger or frustration with current politicians. The anti-establishment sentiment incorporates a wide swath of Republican voters. He won most states in the Super Tuesday primaries from the north to the south, from Massachusetts to Alabama. He solidified an ideologically diverse coalition of working and middle class families behind his clarion call that politicians have failed and only he can turn America around.

His followers see Trump as a fighter who speaks their language and has their back. He is the one that can make Washington work again. Never mind that Trump hints at using strong-arm tactics when he is opposed. His voters just want the proverbial trains to run on time again.

This will continue until the Trump persona is pierced, the curtain is pulled back, and he is revealed as just another Wizard of Oz. This requires questioning his business success and net worth, his concern for the vulnerable, and the consequences of having a strongman President. There is plenty of video of ordinary people affected by Trump's business scams and failings; of his roughshoding veterans and homeowners to further his business interests; of his threats to use law suits or the institutions of government to shut down freedom of speech; of his refusal to disclose prior tax returns because they reveal business reversals, lack of charitable contributions, and a considerably smaller net worth than his boastful claims.

It may be too late for saturation ads with these videos to turn the tide. The die may be cast, but the consequences of a Trump candidacy are too painful to contemplate. Truly a miracle is needed. I am going to pray for one.