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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Guns And Abortions - Two Peas In A Moral Pod

I must confess, the idea of having a gun at home for protection frightens me.   I am far more concerned about the consequences of an accidental discharge than I am of the consequences of having an intruder in my house.   I believe that hurting someone through an accidental discharge is a more likely scenario than the intruder scenario. I also am very squeamish at the thought of hunting.  I do not understand the emotional satisfaction of the hunting experience, and hunting for sport is dead wrong and immoral to me.  

Modern guns are rapid fire, accurate, and so powerful -  capable of mass killing in a short period of time.  So if it were up to me, only law enforcement would be able to legally own weapons.

ON the other hand, my brother is a gun advocate. A retired military man, he is very comfortable around guns, but is also extremely mindful of the safe handling and use of weapons.  My brother owns multiple guns as he keeps a gun in each room of his house so he's ready everywhere in case of a home invasion. My brother also appreciates the craftsmanship of his weapons.  He can talk at length to me about the balance, precision, beauty,and mechanical advances of guns.  He cleans and oils his weapons and takes pleasure in how they look after maintenance.  For my brother, his guns are admired tools in the same way that a carpenter admires and cares for his tools.   For me, a gun is a lump of steel that can have deadly and immoral consequences

The issue of abortion breaks along similar lines.  Pro life advocates find abortion immoral and abhorrent.   Pro choice advocates perceive abortion as a tool used for the constitutionally protected privacy rights of women.   An abortion doctor can talk in a matter of fact, or even an admiring way, about the procedural details of an abortion from a clinical, instrumental, perspective.  The undercover tapes of the Planned Parenthood doctors talking in this detached and sometimes approving manner about manipulating forceps on a living being disgusts and shocks pro life advocates.

Each side believes that legislation which creates obstacles to access is designed to whittle and ultimately eliminate their constitutionally protected rights.  Gun advocates believe that additional gun control laws will lead to a nationally registry of weapons, and then confiscation by the Federal Government.  Pro choice advocates perceive laws adding further requirements to perform abortions are
designed to reduce and ultimately eliminate abortion in this country 

Each side presents statistics and polls buttressing their point of view.  The reality is that data is not persuasive when addressing moral beliefs.  Social, moral issues will continue to polarize until a consensus on these issues is achieved.

Both of these issues are highly politicized.  Republicans and Democrats, at the national level, do so to fire up their respective bases and to create wedge issues for political advantage.  In a pure world, Democrats and Republicans would allow these issues to play out at the state level, a proven, effective manner of coming to a consensus on social issues.  A consensus on gay marriage was achieved that way.   Prior to the supreme court protecting  gay marriage as a constitutional right, 37 states had already legalized gay marriage. 

Of course I would be naive to think that we will live in a world where politicians act solely for the greater good.  In the mean time, how about each side appreciating that their issue is a kindred spirit to the other side's issue when thinking about and discussing guns and abortion.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Donald Trump - Rebel With A Cause

The big story in American politics is the meteoric rise of Donald Trump as a serious political candidate.  His mix of reality television shamelessness, nationalistic messaging, and narcissistic boastfulness would normally doom a candidate.  Not Trump. The more outrageous he becomes, the more his popularity grows.   

Trump defies ideological pigeonholing because he lacks coherent messaging that reflects conservative or liberal principles.  He's his own man, a populist, and like populists before him--George Wallace, William Jennings Bryan, and Ross Perot--Trump's rise is occurring during a time of great social and economic unrest. 

What distinguishes Donald Trump from other populists is his unabashed crassness.  The social trends allowing for such a boorish candidate to emerge as a front runner in America today is the result of a paradigm shift in Western culture that began in the 20th century. Before then, a belief in Christianity and a universal God organized society, providing a moral and social code to live by and a bulwark against tragic events that defied human explanation.  

As time passed, huge advances in mankind's scientific understanding of the world began to undermine the belief in God because so many things could now be explained without reference to God.  Doubts about God's existence accelerated when people began questioning how a personal and loving God could allow the massive carnage of two world wars. Beginning in Europe, where the two wars were fought, then moving to the United States, Western society secularized. 

As the Judaeo-Christian doctrines holding America together waned, the beliefs that held American society together lost their influence. Conspicuous consumption replaced thrift and decorum. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers replaced clergy as spiritual life counselors. Politeness and civility as a means of regulating social interaction eroded. Self help books emphasized self-improvement rather than character development, self esteem rather than self-control. Painting no longer focused on the richness of humanity--of people living in humanity with nature and one another --  filled with human portraits portraying rich interior lives.  Modern art freed itself from the world of humanity, eventually even freeing itself from visual reality.  In books and film the anti-hero was born, whose obligation was more to himself than his fellow man.   

Donald Trump is the extreme embodiment of these changing cultural trends. Trump defines himself by the wealth he has amassed. He evaluates people by their ability to dominate rather than by their character. Character means very little to Trump, which is why he can without moral qualms, be honored by Vladimir Putin's flattery and praise Putin as a respected leader. Trump's entire world is divided into winners and losers rather than decent and indecent. Since character doesn't matter, winning takes on a Machiavellian tone where lying, cheating, and manipulating are perfectly acceptable strategies to succeed. 

Donald Trump's over the top rhetoric falls outside the acceptable bounds of political leaders' discourse.  Sadly, he is within the bounds of what Americans perceive politicians to actually be like. Most Americans view politicians as part of the cultural trend of mainstream society, untrustworthy and mostly out for themselves. 

Trump is seen as refreshing and candid because he is willing to voice what people believe other politicians are thinking but are too afraid to actually say. Trump's grittiness and politically incorrect rhetoric make him the ideal candidate for our times, the quintessential anti-hero.  The outsider who upends the rules and creates a new order. The traditional noble, heroic politician, sacrificing for the good of many, seems boring and out of step in today's world. Trump the anti-hero fascinates and excites, bringing his followers closer to him because his flaws and realness are on display.      

Like all good populists, Trump's rhetoric addresses people's worst fears, in this case economic uncertainty and the very real threat of terrorism. Relying on his image as a winner and his anti-hero status, Trump assures voters that he has all the answers for our nation's economic woes, the grit and toughness to deal with ISIS, the guts and wiliness to take on the likes of Vladimir Putin.

A key to understanding Trump's appeal is his campaign slogan, he'll make America great again. This phrase is a vague enough commitment that Republicans can project their own wishes for themselves and America onto the phrase, the same way Democrats did with Barack Obama's campaign slogan of hope and change.   

The majority of Trump supporters are older, working class Republicans, and for them making America great again represents a by gone era when the values that  made America economically strong and morally great were dominant features of society.  These traditional American values are etched on our coinage --  Liberty, In God we Trust, and E Pluribus Unum,          

Today our nation's working class continues to be pounded by economic and social trends beyond their control.  Globalization and technological advances have lowered their wages and reduced the numbers of jobs available to them. Secularism supplanted a faith based society, individual freedoms deteriorated with the growth of government, and cultural diversity replaced the melting pot. 

These marginalized Americans see Donald Trump as a successful business man with the skills necessary to grow our economy, and as a hard nosed negotiator that will bring back manufacturing jobs to the homeland from nations like China.  His followers also believe Trump's tough stance on deporting illegal immigrants and building the border wall, will reverse the trend towards cultural diversity.  No doubt his base will remain loyal because he brings solutions to their existential crisis. Whether Trump can expand beyond this base of supporters and secure the nomination is an open question. If history is a guide, populists rarely do. But the anti-hero populist has no historical precedent, so he may well beat the odds    

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Historical Context To The Rise Of ISIS

Imagine being Catholic and Vatican City is conquered and the Pope deposed. Imagine the despair, anguish, and disbelief of such a horrific event.  A similar scenario happened to the Jews several thousand years ago when Jerusalem was destroyed, the holy temple razed, and all Jews expelled from Israel.  The destruction of the holy temple was particularly unnerving because it was the site where God resided.  Jews wondered whether their God was not all powerful or worse not real?  This was unthinkable.  To resolve the cognitive dissonance and make sense of what happened, they concluded that God was punishing them for not following His ways and a period of self examination followed.  Jews experienced pain and loathing and complete impotence for the suffering they wrought upon themselves.  Homeless, the Jewish people wandered through through many European countries experiencing outer rejection and hostility from European natives and inner shame.  This journey lasted several thousand years until Israel was reestablished.  Once home their psyche changed and they vowed never again would others control their fate.

Muslims, particularly Sunnis, are undergoing a similar journey today which began with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, and the subsequent end of the caliphate in 1924.  The Ottoman empire was conquered by Britain and France and divided between them without regard to the religious and ethnic makeup of the lands.  Sunni Muslims were a minority in Iraq and Iran and a majority without power in Syria and Egypt.

In WWI the Ottoman army was almost entirely Turkish.  Turkish nationalism precluded Arabs from serving in the military.  Hoping to fracture the Ottoman Empire, the British offered Arabs their own Arab Kingdom in exchange for revolting against the Turks.  Unbeknownst to the Arabs, Britain and France had a secret post war agreement that they would divide the Arab lands between them.  British representative, T.E. Lawrence encouraged a group of Arabs who were Sunni Muslims from the Western Arabian Peninsula to side with the British and revolt against their brothers in Islam. The Arab revolt allowed the British to easily conquer Iraq, Palestine, and Syria from the Ottoman Empire. For the first time since 1187 the holy city of Jerusalem was under the control of Christian Europe.  At the end of WWI the Western European powers per their wartime agreement kept the conquered lands for themselves rather than create an Arab Kingdom.  This betrayal, the loss of Jerusalem, and the end of the caliphate reverberated throughout the Muslim community, particularly elements of Sunni Muslims,and ignited the path towards Islamic terrorism that is the scourge of the 21st century.

Sayid Qutb, an Egyptian religious scholar and devout Sunni Muslim martyr is considered the ideological father of Al Qaeda as his writings and lectures greatly influenced Ayman-Al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden. Qutb encouraged takfir, the religiously sanctioned killing of apostates.  According to Qutb's takfir, Muslims not adhering to the true Islamic faith, Sunni Muslim, were to be killed.  This idea and others were incorporated into the Muslim Brotherhood and followed by its leader Ayman-Al-Zawahiri.  The goal of the Muslim Brotherhood was provincial, the overthrow of the secular President of Egypt and the installation of the Qur'an as the state religion.  The Muslim Brotherhood's mottoes were:  the Qur'an is the constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our way, death for the sake of Allah is our wish.

Ayman-Al-Zawahiri later merged the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda founded by Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden was a wealthy Saudi appalled that the Western apostate, the United States had military bases on the soil of Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca the holiest city in Islam. Bin Laden agreed with the Muslim Brotherhood mottoes but also believed in the implementing the goals internationally, particularly against the United States, the great defiler of the holy lands and of Islamic teachings and practices.

In 2014 ISIS broke from Al Qaeda and adopted a version of the the Wahhabi doctrines that are practiced in Saudi Arabia.  ISIS primary goal was the re-establishment of the caliphate which they did by conquering large parts of Iraq and Syria.  ISIS now overshadows Al Qeada as the dominant terrorist group, doubling its size since its inception in 2014 and receiving pledges of allegiance from Al Qaeda affiliates in other parts of the world.  

Isis is now more dangerous, brutal, and robus than Al Qaeda.  ISIS practices a medieval form of Islam embodied by Wahhabi doctrines which aim to return to the practices of the first two Caliphs of Islam and rejects all subsequent innovations to the religion as a corruption of Islam.  .  In accordance with Wahhabi practices ISIS terrorizes infidels into submission using beheadings, crucifixions, rape, and enslavement.  This is akin to the medeival form of Christianity in which Christian crusaders, Christian inquisitions, and Christian pogroms led to multiple massacres and tortures of Jews based on a New Testament reference to Jews acknowledging blood on their hands for the crucifixion of Christ.

ISIS is more dangerous, brutal and robust than Al Qaeda.  ISIS practices a medieval form of Islam embodied by Wahhabi doctrines which aim to return to the practices of the first two Caliphs of Islam.  Like these first Caliphs ISIS terrorizes infidels into submission using beheadings, crucifixions, rape, and enslavement.  This is akin to the medieval form of 
Christianity in which Christian crusades and Christian Inquisitions led to multiple massacres of Jews based on a New Testament reference to Jews acknowledging blood on their hands for the crucifixion of Christ.

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

Religious conversion is powerful, powerful stuff.  It provides deep meaning and purpose and is rapturous to the disaffected, alienated, or marginalized.  On top of that, ISIS re-establishment of the caliphate, the Suni Muslim homelang, lifts the deep shame that Suni Muslims feel, in the same way it did for Jews when Israel was re-established.  This explains why ISIS recruits cross socioeconomic boundaries.  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 Mohamed.

Religious conversion can happen very, very quickly.  Muslims versed in the teachings and practices of the Qur'an do not need a full religious conversion but merely an acceptance of the ISIS Caliph as their true religious leader.  So there is urgency in having plans to adequately protect the homeland and to eliminate ISIS from the face of the earth. Examining current plans in the light of the historical context of the rise of ISIS is the subject of the next blog.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Terrorism

Americans are divided about so many things nowadays, including the uprise in random shootings and violence throughout our communities which is igniting both sides of the gun control debate.  One can hardly miss the fiery rhetoric and calls to actions, yet even in this volatile atmosphere, the threat and reality of terrorism does not strictly cleave along partisan lines.  As the recent congressional vote on Syrian refugees illustrated, Republicans and Democrats have found kindred spirits within each party, but there is a real divide on what to do about terrorism that needs context for true understanding and bipartisan solutions. 

Contrasting the national experiences of our nation, a settled nation, with that of Israel, a conquered nation, helps explain the two mindsets of terrorism now seen in this country.  The profound historical experiences of America and Israel has shaped the national mindset and psyche of the people in these two nations.  For our country the psyche is of American exceptionalism.  Americans see our country as a beacon of freedom and the most powerful country in the world that uses its economic and military power for good.  When Israelis are asked to describe their national psyche, they often use the Hebrew word sabra.  Sabra is a tenacious thorny and prickly desert plant with a thick skin that conceals a softer sweeter interior.

American history, from 1776 through the end of the 20th century is one of a settled country.  From thirteen states we expanded westward settling the land until our expanse reached from coast to coast.  With vast oceans separating us from Europe and Asia, with a friendly country to the north and underdeveloped countries to the south we had little concern about being conquered.  We have only been invaded twice, with the only serious threat to our sovereignty happening early in our history during the war of 1812.  Free from fears of invasion we  established the most open, free, and prosperous society on the planet.  We welcomed immigrants and refugees from all over the global, to share in our bounty.  With hard work anyone from any nation, no matter their circumstances, could achieve the American dream.   

Contrast the American experience with that of Israel, where the reality of being conquered has been a constant threat haunting Israelis since the birth of their nation.  In Israel, the threat of terrorism and annihilation makes security take precedence.  Immigration and citizenship is denied to those from countries deemed enemies of the state.  Israel has walled itself off from it's neighbors, and multiple roadblocks screen those entering the country.  Armed guards are stationed at public places and people are searched before entering such spaces.  Restrictions are even placed on the freedom of the press, so that office holders are safe, and state secrets protected.  The restrictions would be unthinkable in our country.  

But should they all be?  Certainly the 9/11 attack on American was psychically searing and cognitively dissonant, but should it change the way our nation looks at security?   That's the question that divides us.  Most Americans never imagined that the most powerful nation in the world, located so far from the upheaval in Europe and the Middle East, would ever be attacked.  Initially united in the path forward, as time passed, perspectives bifurcated into the settled country mindset that we should not let our fears and prejudices undermine our long held and cherished values, and the conquered country mindset that saw Israel as the canary in the coal mine requiring that security be given a higher priority.  The terrifying rise of ISIS and the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino has only accelerated and intensified this debate.  Should we hold strong to our American ideals or add more security measures and become more like Israel?  The two views came head to head during the Syrian refugee debate.  Both sides were emotionally moved  by the photo of the body of the Syrian child that washed onto the beach and the videos of desperate refugees marching miles with tiny children, exhausted, desperate, with seemingly nowhere to turn.  Those with the settled country mindset argued that denying entrance to refugees went against American values and who we are as a people.  Photos of the statue of liberty crying flooded the internet, petitions were signed, and lines drawn in the sand.  However, as terror continues to rise around the world, many Americans have adopted a conquered country mindset. Worried about security--flaws in vetting the immigrants, along with the very real threat of homegrown radicalization, they are willing to curtail some individual liberties to protect the homeland and their families.  These two mindsets break on all the other  issues related to terrorism: NSA bulk data collection, Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, border control, prosecuting terrorists within the criminal justice system, etc,

The debate between these two mindsets is important but is spoiled by the rancorous and vitriolic accusations hurled by each side.  Just as one side needs to stop accusing  the other side of being uncaring and un-American, the other side must stop calling other Americans naive or unable to acknowledge evil.   If each side recognized the historical precedents for the other sides' passionately held views then perhaps each side would listen and debate the issues in a constructive fashion towards reaching a consensus on the way forward.  First, though, we must determine the nature and the degree of threat radical Islamic terrorism presents here in America.  As such, a historical perspective on radical terrorism and the rise and meaning of ISIS will be broached in my next blog. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The meaning of words

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Hello everyone who has found their way to this blog.

These days it seems more and more things that were once considered common sense are no longer seen this way.  It's a new world, so I am naming my blog Uncommon Sense, to reflect this change. 

Not too long ago words had objective meaning.  In this new world, words can be far more subjective than they have ever been before.  Take for example, microaggressions, which are mostly subjective, that are now a part of University campus life.  Words have always been powerful weapons, used to heal or hurt, but the use of the term microaggression has taken this to an "Alice In Wonderland" level.  Someone might feel hurt because of the racist or sexist implications of their words, even if that is unintentional.  One recent example is saying that America is a melting pot, commonly considered something positive about our nation, which now takes on negative meanings because use of the term melting pot denies the value of individual races and cultures.  Sadly, if someone fears speaking or sharing ideas because those ideas might unintentionally hurt another, then the exchange of ideas becomes impossible.  Uncommon sense because the exchange of ideas is what higher education is supposed to be all about. 

Tracing how the meaning of words came to depend on subjective reactions to them, as well as how other examples of uncommon sense came into being will be the subject of this blog.  As always I look forward to your reactions and insights.  

Talk to you soon.