Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: The constitutional issues

Many people wrongly assume that you cannot mention religion and god in the public schools. They speak of “god being driven out of the schools.” This is not correct. After all god and religion are necessary in order to understand much of US and world history and government and literature, to mention a few subjects. But the constitutional questions about what kinds of mention of god and religion are allowed and what are not are a little tricky and I want to briefly discuss them here. (The usual disclaimer: I am not even a lawyer, let alone an expert on constitutional law, so what follows is a lay person’s understanding of the issues.)

The relevant part of the US constitution is the first amendment that goes as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The US constitution is admirably terse in its wording but this means that the US Supreme Court has to interpret its meaning, and over the years there have been some landmark decisions that have formed the basis for subsequent rulings.

The key portion of the first amendment as it pertains to the religion in schools issue is the so called ‘establishment clause’ that the amendment starts with, that says ” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The key interpretation of this clause was provided in 1947 by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. Board of Education (330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) where he wrote:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or what ever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State.” (my italics)

But how do you judge whether this Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ has been breached? This was further clarified in 1971 in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971)), the result of which has been the adoption of the ‘Lemon’ test to see if any government action has violated these sections of the first amendment. For legislation to pass the constitutional requirements of the establishment clause, the “Lemon’ test says the legislation must meet three criteria:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;

Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

So the judge in the Dover, PA case will have to rule whether allowing IDC ideas to be advocated by the school board passes all three items in the Lemon test.

The Lemon test explains why it is permissible to bring in god and religion into history and literature courses, because if taught correctly, it can meet those criteria. But in the IDC case, the only “secular legislative purpose” that I can see seems to be to show students a specific alternative to natural selection. I do not find that convincing since it is by now apparent to everyone that the alternative selected by them is based on a specific religious belief and that they see undermining natural selection as a necessary step towards adoption of their religious belief.

Furthermore, if the judge determines that IDC is a religious belief, then it would be hard to pass the third test.

In an previous posting, I discussed the legal history of the “religion in schools” issue, and especially the important role that the 1987 Louisiana case played in determining the current IDC strategy. In its 1987 decision against the teaching of creation science in Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that it did so because the legislation “lacks a clear secular purpose” and went on to add that “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching.” The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests. This is why the IDC people are trying to avoid at all costs being tarred with “creationist” label. It is the kiss of death.

It is hard to see how the judge in the Dover case can avoid coming to a similar conclusion with IDC, despite the strenuous efforts of IDC strategists to hide its creation science roots.

For these reasons, I expect the judge to rule against the (former) Dover school board. But as I said, I am not an expert on constitutional law, so don’t bet the farm on this prediction.

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: IDC as comparative religion?

Now that there is a new school board elected in Dover, there is an interesting wrinkle to this story.

The new school board ran on a platform that did not call for the complete elimination of IDC from the schools. They said that it should be taught, except not in science classes. They said that it should be taught as part of an elective comparative religion class, so that students who want to learn about it could do so.

This seems like a reasonable policy. After all, although the winners of the election obtained a clean sweep of all the contested seats on the school board, they were careful to point out that it could not be really be considered an overwhelming mandate since the margins separating the winners and losers was very small. This was a refreshing piece of political honesty, unlike the case of President Bush claiming in 2004 that he had a mandate to make huge changes after winning just slightly more than 50% of the vote.
It is clear that the school board winners are mindful of the fact that there are a lot of IDC supporters in their community (possibly even among their own ranks) and it made sense to provide some accommodation to those people.

As far as I can tell, there are no constitutional problems with teaching comparative religion in schools and including IDC ideas in such a course. But by advocating what they may have seen as a gracious compromise, the new school board may have unwittingly created a major headache for IDC supporters. (Or maybe they did this wittingly, I don’t know.)

If I were an IDC advocate, here is the dilemma I face with this offer to teach IDC in a comparative religion class. If I allow IDC ideas to be taught in such a class, would it not be a tacit admission that IDC is, in fact, a religion? If so, wouldn’t it undermine the carefully constructed story that IDC is not a religious belief, and cause problems in Kansas and elsewhere? Remember that the goal of the IDC people is to include IDC ideas nationwide in science classes as a means of undermining the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Having it taught in a religion class would not only not advance this goal, it would set it back.

On the other hand, on what grounds can I (still playing the role of IDC advocate) challenge the inclusion of IDC in a comparative religion class? There don’t seem to be any constitutional concerns (to be discussed in a later posting), so I would not seem to have a legal case. I would have to argue that since IDC is not a religion, teaching it in comparative religion is going outside the curriculum of a religious studies course.

But that will be a hard sell. The curricula in social studies and the humanities do not have the paradigmatic structure of the sciences where there is a fairly clear consensus on what does and does not belong in science classes, especially in K-12 classes. The former curricula are much more flexible and so it will be hard to argue for the exclusion of IDC ideas from a comparative religion class. After all, the winks and nudges that IDC advocates gave their supporters to indicate that even though they did not say ‘god’ they really were meaning god, will now come back to haunt them, because by now everyone knows that the words ‘intelligent designer’ is code for god.

Take Pat Robertson (please!), who can always be counted upon to say the wrong and idiotic thing. He is upset with the citizens of Dover for the way they voted and since he has god’s unlisted number, he knows for a fact that god is ticked off as well. He said: “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.” (See here for the video. It always amazes me that Pat Robertson can say the most absurd things but as long as he maintains an even tone of voice and smiles as he speaks, the media don’t treat him as a certifiable wacko. Watching the video it is hard to escape the sense that Robertson is hoping for some disaster to strike Dover in order to make the people there see the error of their ways.)

So Pat Robertson is convinced and openly saying that the intelligent designer is god. Since Robertson is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, it is a safe bet that if he has figured out that the intelligent designer is god, then so has pretty much anybody with a pulse. And, most importantly, this will not have escaped the notice of federal judges who have to rule on the constitutionality of including IDC in science classes.

The IDC strategy of trying to conceal the religious basis of their theory by using neutral language, while using nudges and winks to their religious supporters to signal their covert agenda, was always heading for this kind of collision. Covert strategies work only when they are not widely publicized. Now that IDC has become high profile, its religious foundations have become clear to everyone and trying to hide it becomes obviously and embarrassingly disingenuous. Paradoxically, becoming well known might turn out to be the undoing of IDC.

IDC’s grass-roots supporters in Dover, who may not be fully tuned to the grand IDC wedge strategy, might take offence if the IDC top brass try to argue that if IDC is not allowed in science classes, then it should not be allowed anywhere else in the curriculum. After all, all other disciplines (science included) would be delighted if other disciplines included their subject in their teaching plans. My feeling is that the grass roots supporters of IDC in Dover want it taught somewhere in their schools and if they can’t get it in the science classes, they would settle for it in other classes, even if it torpedoes the case that IDC is not religious. Most people care a lot more about local issues than grand strategies.

It will be interesting to see how the strategists at IDC headquarters deal with this problem.

POST SCRIPT: US admits use of white phosphorus weapons in Fallujah

In a previous post, I discussed the allegations of the use by US forces of the lethal chemical white phosphorus in the attack on Fallujah in November 2004. The BBC now confirms that story saying “The US has now admitted using white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah last year, after earlier denying it.”

It is interesting that the foreign press is giving much more play to this story than the US print media. Members of the British parliament are calling for an inquiry and even the Iraqi government has ordered an inquiry in response to the anger that has been generated by these reports. (I don’t watch TV news so don’t know if it received much coverage in that medium.) In the Plain Dealer it was a one paragraph story in the “Nation” news summary column on the back page of the front section, easily missed by the casual reader.

This lack of coverage in the US of things like this explains why people here keep being baffled by the depth of hostility that some Iraqis exhibit towards the US presence. When the next atrocity occurs against US troops or contractors or even some hapless journalist or civilian who happens to be the victim of a reprisal, people will wonder what caused such behavior and ask bewilderedly “Why do they hate us? Aren’t we trying to help them?”

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial

It is time to take stock of what is going on in the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) front in the wake of the events of the past week and to see what it might all mean. The federal trial about whether the Dover school board’s policy on IDC was constitutional ended on Friday, November 4. The judge has said that he will deliver his ruling before January. The lawsuit was triggered when the school board had ordered that at the beginning of ninth grade science classes, a statement would be made to students questioning Darwinian evolution and telling students to read a book called Of Pandas and People, many copies of which had been provided to the school. (I will discuss the legal issues involved in this case in a future posting.)
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Why defending habeus corpus is essential

On November 9, the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Tony Blair’s attempt to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 90 days, although they were willing to make the limit 28 days. It was Blair’s first defeat and shows how nervous the British MPs are about diluting the protections of habeus corpus.

For those of you not aware of the origins of habeus corpus, it was a law passed by the British parliament in 1679, under pressure from the public, to limit the indefinite detention of people by the King’s officials. Habeus corpus is a writ “ordering that a prisoner be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not he is being imprisoned lawfully.” It was designed as a countermeasure to the tyranny of despots.

As Paul Craig Roberts (former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan administration) points out: “Habeas corpus is essential to political opposition and the rise and maintenance of democracy. Without habeas corpus, a government can simply detain its opponents. Nothing is more conducive to one party rule than the suspension of habeas corpus.”

And yet, he points out, on November 10, the very next day after that British vote, the US Senate voted 49 to 42 to add an amendment to a defense bill that will overturn the US Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling that permits Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detentions. The defense bill itself comes up for a vote soon.

Says Roberts:

According to the Washington Post (Nov. 11), there are 750 detainees at Guantanamo. These people have been held for 3 or 4 years. If the Bush administration had any evidence against them, it would be a simple matter to file charges.

But the Bush administration does not have any evidence against them. Most of the detainees are innocent travelers and Arab businessmen who [were] captured by warlords and armed gangs and sold to the Americans who offered payments for “terrorists.”

The reason so many of them have been tortured is that the Bush administration has no evidence against them and is relying on pain and the hopelessness of indefinite detention to induce self-incrimination. The Bush administration is desperate to produce some “terrorists.”

Roberts then asks: “What has become of the American people that they permit the despicable practices of tyrants to be practiced in their name?”

Good question. In most countries that have habeus corpus protections, they can still be suspended in times of national emergency. But are we in a state of emergency now? Hardly, despite the present administration’s attempts to keep everyone in a state of permanent panic and fear using anything at hand such as color-coded alerts and bird flu alarms. But panic and fear needs to be created so that people will acquiesce in the gutting of their fundamental rights and liberties.

When you lose habeus corpus, you have become, in effect, a police state where people can be deprived of their liberty without recourse to the law. Most people do not pay much attention to it because they feel that, as law abiding citizens minding their own business, they have no fear of arbitrary arrest and detention. It is tempting to think that only the guilty need fear such treatment and that the rest of us are immune and that therefore we can ignore this loss.

But this gives too much credit to the accuracy and efficiency of the law enforcement authorities. Those bodies can make mistakes and names and data can get mixed up, resulting in completely innocent people being suddenly sucked into places completely alien to them, where the normal rules of society that we count on to protect us no longer apply. In addition, all that your personal enemies have to do is to whisper to the authorities that you are a threat and there is nothing to prevent you from being hauled away in the middle of the night and never being heard from again. It is a great way to get the state involved in settling private grievances and vendettas, as people living in police states have found out. Once the authorities have arrested someone without any basis, even if they discover their error, there is a temptation to keep holding them in isolation because once innocent people are released they can embarrass the authorities about the facts of their false arrest and detention.

Take, for example, this article in yesterday’s Washington Post by P. Sabin Willett, a lawyer who represents Guantanamo detainees on a pro-bono basis, as he pondered the US Senate vote to remove the habeus corpus protections:

I wished the senators could meet my client Adel.

Adel is innocent. I don’t mean he claims to be. I mean the military says so. It held a secret tribunal and ruled that he is not al Qaeda, not Taliban, not a terrorist. The whole thing was a mistake: The Pentagon paid $5,000 to a bounty hunter, and it got taken.

The military people reached this conclusion, and they wrote it down on a memo, and then they classified the memo and Adel went from the hearing room back to his prison cell. He is a prisoner today, eight months later. And these facts would still be a secret but for one thing: habeas corpus.

Only habeas corpus got Adel a chance to tell a federal judge what had happened. Only habeas corpus revealed that it wasn’t just Adel who was innocent — it was Abu Bakker and Ahmet and Ayoub and Zakerjain and Sadiq — all Guantanamo “terrorists” whom the military has found innocent…

Adel lives in a small fenced compound 8,000 miles from his home and family…He has no visitors save his lawyers. He has no news in his native language, Uighur. He cannot speak to his wife, his children, his parents. When I first met him on July 15, in a grim place they call Camp Echo, his leg was chained to the floor. I brought photographs of his children to another visit, but I had to take them away again. They were “contraband,” and he was forbidden to receive them from me…

Mistakes are made: There will always be Adels. That’s where courts come in. They are slow, but they are not beholden to the defense secretary, and in the end they get it right. They know the good guys from the bad guys. Take away the courts and everyone’s a bad guy.

The secretary of defense chained Adel, took him to Cuba, imprisoned him and sends teams of lawyers to fight any effort to get his case heard. Now the Senate has voted to lock down his only hope, the courts, and to throw away the key forever.

Adel’s case ilustrates why habeus corpus matters. As long as it is there, people cannot just ‘disappear.’ It is the one provision in the law on which all the other freedoms rest. The knowledge that we have the right to be speedily brought before a magistrate, to be seen in public, to be told of the charges against us, and to tell our side of the story to someone who is not our captor, provides us with at least some safeguard against arbitrary arrest and torture. And this is why governments always try to take habeus corpus away, so that they are free to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

The right of habeus corpus should be guarded zealously. We should be really concerned that no less a body than the US Senate is willing to give it away so freely.

POST SCRIPT: Stupid or Lying?

Once again, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow asks the important questions.

How war brutalizes all of us – 3: The horror of Fallujah

A video has emerged of the battle of Fallujah, initiated just after the US elections in 2004, showing the destruction that was wreaked there. This documentary, which lasts about 30 minutes, is in English and was produced by a major Italian broadcasting network called RAI. It interviews former US soldiers who had been involved in the battle, journalists, people in and from Fallujah, and a British parliamentarian who quit in disgust at the British government’s complicity in the Iraq war.
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How war brutalizes all of us – 2

In July 1983, during the week of mob rule in Sri Lanka triggered by the killing of 13 government soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas, a large number of Tamil prisoners in one of the government jails were brutally murdered by their fellow inmates in ways that are too gruesome and harrowing to describe here. Since the Tamil prisoners were suspected of being separatist rebels, they had been held in a separate section of the prison from the Sinhala prisoners who had murdered them, so the question naturally arose as to how these this atrocity could have been committed.

The ‘official’ story put out by the government was that the Sinhala prisoners had overcome their guards, taken their keys, released themselves, obtained various weapons, gained access to the Tamil prisoners, murdered them, and then returned to their own cells voluntarily.

This story was so preposterous that no thinking person would give it any credence. It was obvious that there had to be collusion between the prison authorities and the Sinhala prisoners to kill the Tamil prisoners as an act of revenge for the killing of the Sinhala soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas.
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How war brutalizes all of us

In April 1971, there was an attempt to violently overthrow the elected government of Sri Lanka. The attempt was planned in secret by disaffected group of young people called the JVP who organized a militia and launched a surprise attack. The government was initially taken off balance but recovered and managed to crush the uprising using considerable force and brutality. This resulted in the rebel movement going underground, and for the next two decades the JVP carried out further surprise isolated attacks that resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people, including many prominent politicians.

The government responded to this steady stream of violence by giving its security forces considerable freedom to deal with suspected rebels. A college friend of mine told me of his experience when he went to a remote area to visit a high school friend of his who had enrolled in the police force after he left high school. While chatting with his friend in the police station, a person was brought in who was suspected of being with the insurgency. To my friend’s horror, his former classmate casually broke off their friendly conversation and started assaulting the prisoner, both to try and get information from him and to deter him from any future action that he might be contemplating. The question of establishing guilt in a court of law did not come up. After the assault was over, my friend’s classmate came back and resumed the conversation, almost as if nothing had happened. My friend was shocked at the abrupt switches in behavior.

I mention this story to illustrate a point that I think many of us miss, that wars degrade all of us. At some level of our consciousness we know that in the process of creating an army, we are essentially training people to become cold-blooded killers who can and will unquestioningly shoot and bomb people who may be just like them, but just happen to be citizens of another country or fighting on the other side. The only way that you can get people to overcome their natural abhorrence at taking some one else’s life is to both dehumanize them and to get them to view the enemy as less than human. The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, which deals entirely with the training that new Marine recruits get, shows how the military carries out this process of taking ordinary young people and making them into people who can be ordered to kill another human being. I am told that the recently released Jarhead tells a similar story.

But this process of dehumanization does not stop with just the soldiers or just with the battlefield. Once people are taught to tolerate this way of thinking, it inevitably spreads. It is almost impossible to contain the ruthless mentality that is desired for the battlefield to just that venue. The abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib (warning: disturbing images) and Guantanamo and Afghanistan are the inevitable consequence of creating this mindset.

There are reports that some soldiers abused prisoners as ‘sport.’ Other reports say that soldiers used photographs they took of dead and abused and mutilated Iraqis in exchange for free membership in porn sites.

The killing and torture of people in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are just the latest examples of something that happens with all occupying soldiers in all wars at all times.

Ordinary people are, of course, shocked by these revelations, as they should be. It is never pleasant to think that people just like us can be guilty of such unspeakable acts. My friend had that same reaction when he witnessed his classmate’s treatment of the prisoner. How could someone who had the same background as him, who just a few minutes before had been chatting about mutual friends, suddenly become transformed and treat another human being so badly, and be so seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had just violated all norms of justice or even just plain civilized behavior?

We try to deal with this disconnect by viewing such acts as aberrations, to blame it on a few ‘bad apples,’ and console ourselves that most people do not behave this way. And in a purely numerical sense, we are probably right. The actual number of people who actually carry out acts of such brutality as have been revealed so far may not be large. If it were, we would have the equivalent of mass murder.

But we must not forget that such acts can only occur because the ethos in which these people act tolerates, if not condones or even encourages, such behavior. When you train people to kill without thinking, put them in a hostile environment where they feel under threat, give them powerful weaponry, give them unquestioned power over those under their control, and breed in them a sense that they have immunity for their actions, then it is only a matter of time before some do the kinds of things we find abhorrent. I am not sure that any of us would act much differently if we had undergone the same training and been placed under the same circumstances, so we should not be quick to judge the soldiers who do these things as somehow innately evil people, different from us. What we have to do is prevent the circumstances that encourage the baser elements of our natures to surface and allow such acts to be even contemplated. (In response to yesterday’s posting, commenter Joshua links to several experiments that study what regular people can be induced to do to other people under particular conditions. Two of the more famous cases, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are particularly disturbing.)

This brutalizing effect of war does not end even when the war ends. The mentality bred by such training cannot be simply turned on and off like a switch. Upon their return, it infects soldiers’ personal relationships as well.

By most measurements, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence in the military than in the civilian world. The most recent figures, from surveys conducted by the Department of Defense, suggest that domestic violence occurs twice as frequently in the military as among civilians. But activists and social workers believe that the rate is much higher. “Those numbers are soft,” says Hansen. “Essentially, that figure comes from a reanalysis of a reanalysis of a comparative analysis from a study which goes back to the early ’90s.”
Hansen believes the true figure is closer to five times that of the general population. Those who dispute her estimate say that the statistics should be adjusted to account for the disproportionate percentage of soldiers whose demographic profile — mostly young men, often with relatively low educational attainment, from unstable, low-income families – pegs them as most likely to have a problem with domestic violence in the civilian population (or at least most likely to be reported for it). They argue that domestic violence is no more prevalent in the military than it is in a civilian population of comparable demographics.

Many soldiers will resist the temptation to personally indulge in such kinds of abuse but that effort often exhausts their own energies and they have little stomach left to actively oppose the few who take advantage of their power to abuse others. But we, collectively, also bear responsibility for creating the kinds of conditions that enable these things to occur.

It may be possible that if there are strong countervailing pressures from the top that enforce tight discipline and control and accountability, that some of the worst excesses can be avoided, But what the events at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan show is that the top echelons of the administration, rather than maintaining such strict policies, deliberately cultivated a sense of ambivalence as to whether the Geneva conventions even applied to the prisoners or whether torture was permissible. Seeming to condone torture under these conditions was like lighting a fuse. The only question that remained was when the explosion would occur not if. And the government’s desperate battle to keep further information of abuse from being released is an indication that their casual attitude towards the treatment of prisoners has resulted in much more widespread abuse than has been suspected, making it harder for them to sustain the self-excusing ‘few bad apples’ attitude.

Currently the President and Vice President are lobbying furiously to block the full adoption of anti-torture legislation contemplated by Congress, further sending the message that they are not unequivocally opposed to prisoner abuse. Larry Johnson, formerly of the CIA and the Department of State’s Office of Counter Terrorism argues why this is a really bad idea.

In the next posting, we will look at the brutalizing effects of war on the general public.

POST SCRIPT: Blair rebuffed on terror suspect detentions

British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a defeat in his attempt to pass legislation to hold terror suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Parliament gave him an upper limit of 28 days. Meanwhile, in the US, the administration can simply, without judicial oversight, designate anyone (even you or me) as an ‘enemy combatant’ and that person can be held indefinitely at an unknown location and with no access to anyone to ensure that they are treated humanely.

Taking advantage of people’s poverty

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and this person offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear of it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.
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Against tipping

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don’t routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one’s life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.
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Loyalty Oaths

In the recently released film Good Night, and Good Luck there is one scene where a pair of worried news reporters are discussing the fact that they have been asked to sign a loyalty oath. This was something that was instituted during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Joe McCarthy. The reporters said that if they did not sign, they would lose their jobs. Even Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, two people who challenged McCarthy, had signed the pledges.

That scene brought back bitter memories of the time that I had to sign a loyalty oath or lose my job. It was one of the things in my life that I most regret having had to do.

The year was 1983. Sri Lanka had had a long history of ethnic tension between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamil community to which I belonged. In July of that year, a small group of Tamil guerillas, determined to seek a separate state, attacked a military convoy and killed thirteen troops. In the days that followed, Sinhala mobs went on a rampage, killing Tamil people and setting fire to their homes. The government and the security forces stood by for days, either doing nothing or providing tacit support to the mobs, leading to speculation that the government itself had organized and initiated the mob rampages as part of a political strategy, to serve as a warning to the Tamil separatist movement that their actions would have negative consequences for other Tamils. It seemed as if the government was essentially trying to blackmail the guerillas into ceasing military action, using the Tamil population as hostages.

My wife and I and our three month old daughter, and my mother and sisters and their families, had to go into hiding for about some days in the homes of courageous Sinhala friends of ours, who knew full well that they risked having the mobs attack them too if they were discovered to be harboring Tamils. We returned to our homes after nearly a week of chaos, when the government finally gave the order for the police and army to take back control of the streets from the mobs. Fortunately, our homes had escaped the mobs’ attention, making us luckier than most.

I was furious that the government had not carried out its most basic duty, which was to protect the lives of its citizens. But that was not the end of it. To make matters worse, the government then declared that the way to counter the Tamil separatist movement was for everyone to sign an oath that they would not advocate the creation of a separate state.

This is typical of the way that governments everywhere tend to handle unrest and dissent. Instead of looking at the causes of the unrest, they declare that it is the very act of dissent that is causing the problem. This is much easier to do than to examine and rectify the root causes. This is why governments constantly seek to stifle speech and intimidate opponents and why advocates of civil liberties have to be constantly on guard against curbs on speech. This kind of government strategy rarely works but that does not stop them from trying. The Sri Lankan government’s action in 1983, far from stopping the separatist movement, seemed to only serve to increase its vigor with the result that the strength of the guerilla group increased over two decades until it effectively fought the government army to a draw. There is currently a tenuous ceasefire, with the separatists controlling a significant part of the territory that they consider to be their own homeland.

But back in 1983 I was furious that I was being asked to sign this pledge, essentially a loyalty oath to a unitary state. My opposition was not because I had any separatist sympathies. I had opposed a separate state then and still prefer to avoid it now if at all possible. But the very fact that I was being forced to swear what was effectively an oath of allegiance to government policies made me angry. If anything, being coerced into signing made me more sympathetic to the separatist movement, not less.

But I had no choice. All universities in Sri Lanka are run by the government. If I did not sign, I would be fired and would not be able to get other jobs. We were not independently wealthy people. We had only our jobs to support us, and a newborn baby to take care of. So I signed. I have never forgotten that feeling of anger and resentment when I signed that worthless document.

Some might argue (and do) that if you agree with the substance of an oath, then what is the harm in signing? In this view, only those who object to the ideas being sworn to have reason to protest. Hence they view such oaths are a way of flushing out dissenters or forcing them to shut up, and this type of thinking was common during the McCarthy era as well. But this is wrong. The principle that is being upheld by those who object to such oaths is that they change things in an important way. The presumption then becomes that if you don’t sign, you have something to hide.

The fifth amendment to the US constitution says that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” I think it is an excellent sentiment but I would like to generalize and expand it even more to everyday life with a “none of your business” or a “right to be left alone” attitude which says that no private citizen should be forced by anyone else to express an opinion on any issue.

My view is that private people have the right to believe whatever they like and have the right to not voice their views on any topic, without any inferences being drawn from their silence. To require such people to say oaths is something that has to be reserved for very special situations, like in court trial, where lying can have serious consequences for the rights of others. There also may be situations like joining a society or club, where one is required to make some kind of symbolic affirmation of the goals of the organization. But these are different from government inspired loyalty oaths.

I oppose all symbolic acts of loyalty when they are coerced, either explicitly or implicitly, like standing for the national anthem, saluting the flag, saying the pledge of allegiance, and so forth. These things should be done only by those who genuinely want to, and no aspersions should be cast on those who decide not to. Forced acts of loyalty are as worthless and demeaning to all concerned as forced acts of religious piety.