Creating the conditions for a just society

The previous post that dealt with Dominionist’s negative views towards gays generated an interesting set of comments that frame nicely the kinds of problems we face when we try to arrive at rules for society that we can all live by and perceive as fair. (I will defer the planned posts on the religious opposition to Darwin to address this question first.)

In those comments, Joe’s understanding of Christianity leads him to think of homosexual behavior as sinful although he is not hostile to gays as people, drawing a parallel between the way that we can view alcoholism as bad while not thinking of alcoholics as evil people. Katie’s interpretation of Christianity, on the other hand, leads her to being a passionate supporter of gay rights. Aaron is an atheist, and Christianity-based arguments don’t have much sway with him. And, of course, there is a huge range of beliefs that span these three particular viewpoints. So how does one arrive at public policies that can be accepted as fair by everyone, not just with regard to gay rights, but in all aspects of public life?
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Dominionists and gays

Chris Hedges in his essay on the Dominionist movement in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine recalls something his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, told him twenty five years ago. Dr. Adams, who was eighty years old at that time, told Hedges that eventually he (Hedges) would be fighting “Christian fascists” who, he said “would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Hedges continues: “Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right’s persecution of homosexuals and lesbians. Hitler, he reminded us, promised to restore moral values not long after he took power in 1933, then imposed a ban on all homosexual and lesbian organizations and publications…Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first “deviants” singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next.”

Was Adams being too gloomy? Was his comparison to Hitler overblown? Or was he remarkably prescient? It is hard to say. What is true is that homosexuality, like evolution, is high on the list of those things that are anathema to many religious believers, not just Christians. I have never been able to quite understand why it arouses such strong antipathy.

Take for example, all the referenda that were passed recently opposing same sex marriages. Much of the rhetoric warned that allowing gays to marry would take away from the sanctity of this institution. But we allow practically anyone to marry: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, criminals of any stripe, drug dealers, almost anybody with a pulse can marry with no restrictions whatsoever, and no one argues that this destroys the sanctity of marriage. Divorce is rampant, and yet no one is campaigning to have divorce outlawed in order to save the institution of marriage.

It is true that the Bible speaks out against homosexual behavior, but it also speaks out about a lot of things that do not get anywhere near the attention that homosexuality does. For example, homosexuality is not even one of the prohibitions cited in the Ten Commandments but adultery is. So, if someone is using the Bible as their main argument, surely for them adultery should rank worse than homosexuality and such people should also be campaigning for constitutional amendments against it?

Or is it that uniting against homosexuals is convenient because they are a minority and fairly defenseless politically? Historically, authoritarian movements have been able to unite the majority behind them by exploiting sentiment against small and powerless groups, by defining them as the “evil other.” But for this strategy to work, this “other” has to be fairly small numerically and “different.” It would be hard to mount a winning political campaign based on being against, for example, adultery. But by branding homosexuality as one of the worst forms of sexual “deviancy” it enables those who are not gay to feel very moral and superior, even though they themselves may be guilty of things that are actually harmful to others.

This is why I think that we should defend the right of gays to be treated the same way as anyone else, whether we ourselves are gay or not, or whether we even personally approve of the gay lifestyle or not. Gays are a powerless minority and the rights of powerless political minorities must be defended by all of us if we believe in a pluralistic society. Because in the end, each one of us can all be categorized as a minority is some way, and standing by while the equal rights of others are denied puts us all at risk.

Jews, Israel, and the Rapture

As pointed out earlier, believers in the Rapture are convinced that at the end of the world (which they think is imminent) all those people who are not Christians, or are even just nominal Christians and not the full-throttle version, are going to meet an extraordinarily sticky end, too gruesome for even a Quentin Tarantino or Mel Gibson film. But the role that Jews play in the rapture drama is curious and worth examining.

As Chris Hedges points out in his essay in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the Dominionist belief in the Rapture has a role for Jews that is not very appealing. They believe that “Israel must rule the Biblical land in order for Christ to return, though when he does, all Jews who do not convert to Christianity supposedly will be incinerated as the believers are lifted into heaven.”
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The Book of Revelations and the Rapture.

I am a huge fan of the English comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, especially of his Jeeves and Wooster books. These books are so funny that I have to literally wipe tears from my eyes. (Dave Barry has the same effect on me.) The plots are pretty much the same in all the Jeeves stories but the smoothness of Wodehouse’s writing, his superb comic touch, and his precise choice of words make them a joy to read. Even though I have read all of the Jeeves books many times and know all the plots by heart, I still re-read them periodically. Both Wodehouse and George Orwell had a command of the language that I admire.
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The changing media face of Christianity

I grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that worshipped in the Methodist Church. I was strongly influenced by my family and also by the minister in my church and the chaplain in the private Anglican (aka Episcopalian) school I attended. These priests had such an influence on me that I became quite religious and studied to become a lay minister in the Methodist church, and was ordained soon after I graduated from college.

In that capacity I would be sent to various churches on Sundays to conduct services. As a lay minister, I was authorized to run every aspect of the service except the communion. I was even invited me to go to theological college and become a full minister and I briefly, but seriously, considered the offer. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist and declined.

But after I came to the US (first time as a graduate student to do my PhD in physics, then the second time to work here) my religious devotion waned considerably and I eventually became an atheist.

The story of what prompted that particular personal transition is not relevant here. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Christianity that I see in the US now is quite different from the kind that strongly attracted me as an adolescent and young adult. The priests who taught me were people who focused on the Jesus of the Gospels, and reminded us that belief in God carried with it responsibilities as well, the primary ones being to help bring about a better world, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves. While the idea of eternal salvation was not ignored, what was emphasized was that just professing our belief, and only worrying about the well-being of ourselves, our families, and our immediate community or nation, was not enough. We were supposed to live our beliefs by working for the betterment of everyone. These clergy preached tolerance for those who were different and believed different things, and an inclusiveness that sought to find ways to welcome all people. I was brought up to believe that it was more important to be good and kind than to be devout.

The social justice consequences of religious beliefs were what attracted me to religion then and I still support those religious groups (Christian and other) that seek to build a better world and fight injustices. There is no question that the quest for justice based on religious beliefs can lead people to make immense sacrifices for the collective good. The martyrdom of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Ursuline nuns in El Salvador (who were killed for speaking out against brutal dictatorships that were oppressing the people there) and the humiliations suffered with dignity by civil rights marchers in the US, are inspiring. It is clear that for such people, it was their religious beliefs gave them the courage to do what they did.

But that view of religion as an agent of social justice, although still present in many churches and other groups in the US, is being pushed aside in the public sphere by those who have quite a different view. Think of the people who appear repeatedly on TV as spokespersons for religion. The names that immediately come to my mind are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. The emergent Dominionist group that was highlighted by Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlett in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, is close to them in their view of what Christianity means.

Issues of social justice seem not to be a major concern for members of this Dominionist Christianity. In fact, Hedges points out that “They are picture-perfect members of a new Christian elite, showy, proud of how God has blessed them with material wealth and privilege, and hooked them into the culture of power and celebrity.”

If being materially successful is taken as a sign of God’s blessings, then the corollary is that being poor and deprived must imply that you have somehow found disfavor in the eyes of God. If that is the case, why should one concern oneself excessively with poor people, since their wretched condition must be largely their own fault, due to their own sinfulness or faults of character? This may explain why this form of Christianity is so closely aligned with capitalist ideology and why Pastor Ted Haggard (profiled by Sharlett as the head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and also head of the National Association of Evangelicals which, with over 30 million believers, makes up the nation’s most powerful religious lobbying group) says that they “like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of the free market” (Jeff Sharlett).

This would also explain why such churches like to stay in the suburbs and rural areas and see the cities (especially inner cities) as dens of sin to be avoided because of their “homosexuality, atheistic school teaching and ungodly imagery” and humanism. Also, if you think that material success equates with God’s favor, it makes sense to oppose (or at least not support) social security, social welfare programs, public schooling, and all other programs that have egalitarian goals, since the distribution of society’s material goods is a measure of ones spirituality, and not every one is equally good. So the alignment of these religious groups with political parties that advocate anti-egalitarian policies makes sense.

Needless to say, this particular form of Christianity is not at all appealing to me, and is totally in opposition to the message that was taught by the inclusive and tolerant priests of my youth. But tolerance and inclusivity are out, replaced by Manichaean thinking that sees everything in good-evil/we-they terms.

In a later posting, we will see that there is more to be concerned about than the seeming lack of concern about social justice and the absence of empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.

There is also the knotty problem of how, if you believe in being tolerant and accepting of diverse views and beliefs, you deal with people who not only think that they are right and you are wrong, but that their religious views alone should be given pride of place by the government and used as a basis for state policies.

David Horowitz and the art of the cheap shot

Oddly enough, just after posting two consecutive days on David Horowitz’s cheap shots against academics, yesterday I received the latest (May 6, 2005) issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education which featured a long cover story on him. (For someone who is constantly whining about not getting enough attention from academia, Horowitz seems to be extraordinarily successful in getting publications such as this to cover him and his ideas. See Michael Berube’s blog for a response.)
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The coming religious wars?

I like Harper’s Magazine. Each monthly issue has at least one long article that provides the kind of depth and context to important current issues that are so hard to find in the media, and which makes me glad that I have a subscription.

The May 2005 issue has two articles on the activities of the religious right that are well worth reading. Jeff Sharlett writes about the New Life Church, which he describes as “America’s most powerful megachurch” and has 11,000 members. He points out that slowly, over time, the town of Colorado Springs, where this church is, has become the capital of what he calls ‘Christian conservatives.’

But the more disturbing article is that by Chris Hedges, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning, who writes about attending the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, which was held in Orange County, California which he says “along with Colorado Springs, is a center of the new militant Christianity.” And his essay “Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters” describes some disturbing trends in the way that these groups view the role of Christianity in America and the world.

Hedges traces the evolution of the militant version of Christianity that is becoming the dogma of the many separate groups that are coming together under a common doctrinal framework. He says:

What the disparate sects of this movement, known as Dominionism, share is an obsession with political power. A decades-long refusal to engage in politics at all following the Scopes trial has been replaced by a call for Christian “Dominion” over the nation and, eventually, over the earth itself. Dominionists preach that Jesus has called them to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant Biblicism, an agent of God, and all political and intellectual opponents of America’s Christian leaders are viewed, quite simply, as agents of Satan. Under Christian dominion, America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the Ten Commandments form the basis of our legal system, Creationism and “Christian values” form the basis of our educational system, and the media and the government proclaim the Good News to one and all. Aside from its proselytizing mandate, the federal government will be reduced to the protection of property rights and “homeland security.” Some Dominionists (not all of whom accept the label, at least not publicly) would further require all citizens to pay “tithes” to church organizations empowered by the government to run our social-welfare agencies, and a number of influential figures advocate the death penalty for a host of “moral crimes,” including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft. The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.

I have seen a number of articles recently documenting the seeming rise of this kind of thinking, and it raises the troubling question of how one should respond.

On its surface the movement seems so reactionary, with a Taliban-like fixation with enforcing religious orthodoxy on each and every person, that one is tempted to dismiss it as a group that is unlikely to actually gain governmental power because most people will be alarmed by their extremism.

But both Hedges and Sharlett warn that this may be too sanguine a view. There are indications that such groups already have considerable influence in government (both in the White House and the Congress) and we should not easily assume that they have already peaked in their numbers and will eventually become a fringe movement again.

Such groups represent a real threat to the kind of pluralistic, live-and-let-live democratic ideal that I (at least) subscribe to, where the chief role for the state is to provide the conditions for its citizens that they may have life, liberty, and be able to pursue happiness. In my worldview, as long as people are not harming others, their actions have the presumption of acceptability. I feel that it is none of my (or the government’s) business what people believe or what activities freely consenting adults engage in.

So in one sense, I have no problems with the “Dominionists” (as described by Hedges) believing whatever they want. If their members join up voluntarily and are willing to give tithes to their own religious groups and to refrain from “apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft,” that is ok by me. But the question is what should be done if they seek to attempt to enforce their beliefs on everyone else, by using governmental power.

In future postings, I will explore some of these issues in more detail.

Why David Horowitz attacks academia – part 2

I have been puzzled by the vehemence of Horowitz’s attacks on the academic life. After all, his accusations of faculty laziness are contradicted by actual studies. Jerry A. Jacobs (of the University of Pennsylvania) in his Presidential Address to the Eastern Sociological Society in February 2003 (and published in Sociological Forum, vol. 19, #1, February 2004), points out that college faculty work an average of nearly 55 hours per week. By contrast, professionals in other fields or managers worked nine hours per week less than college professors. His study also found that professors report that they feel constantly under stress of work-related pressures.

Of course each profession has its share of people like Wally (the character in the Dilbert comic strip) who do the minimum amount of work expected of them. I am sure academia has its representatives, though I am hard pressed to think of a single one of my colleagues in my whole academic career who comes anywhere close to the Beetle Bailey-like stereotype that Horowitz alleges is the norm.

I do not expect Horowitz to change his message simply because actual data contradicts him. As Graham Larkin (a professor of Fine Arts at Stanford University) points out in his article David Horowitz’s War on Rational Discourse that appeared in the April 25, 2005 issue of Inside Higher Ed, facts have never been an impediment to his diatribes. Horowitz’s strategy is to simply repeat things over and over again, even if they have been refuted. Since he is extremely well paid by a host of wealthy right-wing foundations that support organizations that provide him with platforms to keep him in the public view, his charges gain publicity well out of proportion to their actual merit or even their truth content.

It is easy to dismiss Horowitz as a crackpot who uses inflammatory rhetoric to get publicity. But somehow that seems insufficient to me. There is a vehemence to his attacks on academics that seem to require explanation beyond simple ignorance or that he is so naïve that he does not actually understand what a university is all about and about the extent of faculty work outside the classroom.

It is Michael Berube who, I think, nails the best possible reason for Horowitz’s bizarre attacks on college faculty. Berube teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State and writes with a style and wit that I can only envy. Check out his blog to see what I mean.

In his essay Why Horowitz Hates Professors, Berube writes:

I think we’re finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I’ll still have a job – whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It’s not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person’s sense of self-respect.

Berube is right. Academics have the freedom, as long as they are not being outright offensive or advocating criminal activity or bringing dishonor to their institutions, to take positions on any subject, generally without fear of retribution from their universities. I can support evolution one day and, if I find some convincing reason to switch my views, I can oppose it the next. I can even switch my views without any reason at all, just for the fun of it, and the only loss I suffer is to my credibility. But people like Horowitz have no such freedom. They have to be very sensitive to what their paymasters want and take exactly that line or they get thrown out on their ear.

Actually, this thesis might explain a lot of the animosity that the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ class have towards academics. All these commentators (and even reporters for the media) have a good sense of what their employers expect from them. It is the very predictability of their stances that gives them access to the media. If they start taking contrary position and become ideologically unpredictable, they risk losing their jobs. The Coulters, Malkins, and Goldbergs of the world cannot (for example) go beyond extremely mild criticisms of Bush or the Iraq war (even if they wanted to) because to do so would be career suicide.

It is true that there exists a doctrinaire left whose people also have similar constraints but those people do not have mainstream access, and most people have never heard of them. Most of the well-known people who are considered left wing by the mainstream media (such as Paul Krugman) are not as constrained in their views, because there is no equivalent to the scale of the right-wing foundations.

But academics (like Krugman) and more recently independent bloggers have no such constraints. It is because of this very lack of ideological oversight that universities can create new knowledge. It enables faculty and students to explore new ideas wherever it might take them. We are hired for our knowledge in physics or history or law, not for our ideological bent. But we also are expected to be public citizens and contribute to society, and this enables us to take stands on issues that may not be directly related to our academic research interests.

So is Horowitz’s crusade driven by faculty envy, as Berube suggests? It makes sense to me. Because even as college professors complain about the amount of work they have to do, I know very few who would switch out of this life and do something else. This is because the faculty life is, in fact, a great life. Horowitz thinks that we enjoy it because we can goof off. But only a person who hates his or her own job will have such a view of what constitutes an ideal working life. An ideal job is when what we do as work is what we would do for pleasure. And that is what draws people to teaching.

Those of us in academia think it is a great life despite the workload because it is rewarding to grapple with ideas, it is stimulating to work with students who look at things in fresh ways, it is gratifying to solve a research problem, it is exhilarating to publish articles and papers and books and feel that one is contributing to the store of the world’s knowledge.

We love our work and cannot imagine doing anything else. And, best of all, we can say what we honestly think about the important issues of the day. This must drive people like Horowitz crazy, and the result is not pretty.

Why David Horowitz attacks academia

Regular readers of this blog know that David Horowitz has been behind efforts to introduce the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, allegedly to “protect” college students from academic bullying by their professors. He has been going around the country, speaking on college campuses and to state legislatures, trying to place limits on what professors can and cannot say. In the process, he has also attacked what he considers the laziness of the academic life.

Horowitz resorts to his usual over-the-top rhetoric. He accuses faculty as follows: “Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid leftist professors securely ensconced in their irrelevant ivory towers” and again “You teach on average two courses and spend six hours a week in class. You work eight months out of the year and have four months paid vacation. And every seven years you get ten months paid vacation.”

Such utterances perpetuate a strong misunderstanding about the nature of a university and of what faculty do. People who say such things see it only as a place where the only worthwhile activities occur in the classroom, and even then, they see the process of teaching very narrowly, as that of transmitting information. Hence they are baffled that college professors seem to spend so little time in the classroom, and see the whole thing as some kind of boondoggle.

People who think like this overlook the fact that faculty are not hired just to transmit knowledge. They are also hired to create new knowledge. Indeed that is one of the key functions of all universities, but especially research universities. This requires faculty to learn, and to keep on learning all their lives, and this requires time more than anything else.

It is for this same reason (that learning takes time) that students can get a degree without spending more that 15 hours or so per week actually in class, along with long summer breaks. This enables them to think and read and discuss ideas. (This is why I am always concerned about those students at Case who have double- and triple-majors and throw in a couple of minors as well. I admire their ambition, energy, and work ethic but am concerned that in the process of accumulating credit hours, they don’t have time to reflect on their learning, to toy with new ideas, and hence are not learning deeply enough.) So the logical end point of Horowitz’s claim should be that college students too are not spending enough time in class and are also “shiftless, lazy good for nothings.”

Universities have been the source of much of the new knowledge that has revolutionized our world. And the reason that they have been able to do so is because its faculty have been given the time to generate new ideas and put them to use. In Bertholt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo Galileo himself complains to his university chancellor that he was teaching so much that he did not have time to learn.

My father worked in a bank all his life. On his desk he had an ‘in’ box and an ‘out’ box. He would pretty much spend each day reading and signing off on papers, transferring them from the in to the out, and then he would go home, his work for the day done. His work was well defined and a ‘hard day’s work’ meant that he had been kept busy all day.

A faculty member’s life does not have that same daily rhythm. Faculty members also have things that they need to do each day (prepare for class, teach, grade papers, attend meetings, write committee reports, talk with students and respond to their emails). But these things come in waves and they have other duties that cannot be done in a nine-to-five time frame (such as write a book or research paper, solve a problem, prepare research proposals, do research). These things are carried around in their minds all the time. The stereotype of the ‘absent-minded professor’ has a kernel of truth but it is not that the professor is actually forgetful. It is that he or she is always thinking about the ideas of their discipline, wrestling with them, sorting them out, and this process is so engrossing that it can often drive other concerns from their minds. When I am working on a book or article, I can assure you that it is almost a full-time, 24/7 preoccupation. I think about it as I am going to sleep and it is the first thing in my mind when I wake up.

The difference is that most academics do not see this as ‘work’, if by that we mean doing something at the expense of something else that we’d rather do. We tend to love our ‘work’. This is what we live for and enjoy.

And perhaps, as we shall see in a later posting, this is what Horowitz really finds offensive about academics.