CULTURE MAKES SOME UNACCEPTABLE PRACTICES SEEM NATURAL. BUT COULD WHAT IS CONVENTIONAL NOW BRING DOWN CIVILIZATION?

We all tend to reject some practices that were considered conventional in the past.  Would we countenance the way the EuroAmericans treated the Native Americans who hunted down and drove out from their lands the Seminole, the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, the Cherokee?  Would we have participated in the night patrols seeking to recapture runaway slaves in the 1850s? What was practiced in those times was consider conventional and necessary by otherwise god-fearing Americans.

But what is conventional and seemingly fitting to the times need not be wise or fitting for the long term.

Adam Frank, a physicist at the University of Rochester, has written such a nice statement on popular attitudes toward science [NYTimes 8/22/13].  What the article implies but does not state is that the doubt about scientific formulations in our time has potentially tragic — rather, catastrophic — consequences.

Global warming is the most obvious example.  A few days ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established by the United Nations issued a 2,000 page report claiming again that human beings have caused the warming of the globe and that if the trajectory of warming is not interrupted human society will be radically disrupted.  This time they have announced that they hold this position with 95% certainty, a rare degree of agreement among independent scientists.

We live in a time when a confusing mix of politics and religious faith has undermined the authentic attempts of scientists to reach a degree of certainty about what is happening to our world.  So the claims of science about a vitally important condition, the physical object we live on, are openly scorned.

I have friends who want their doctors to be the best trained and the most up to date physicians available but at the same time refuse to accept the results of scientific knowledge in other fields such as biological history and the climatic changes in our time.  In truth the scientific assumptions and methods that enable medical science are the same as those that lead scientists to conclude that the earth is warming.

A fundamental assumption that made “science” as we know it possible was uniformitarianism, the notion that everything works the same everywhere, provided that the conditions be the same.  Such assumptions and others make a science of the natural world possible.  The knowledge tradition we call science is a single fabric of assumptions and approaches.  Science is a way of thought, a way of seeing.

But in a sense it can never be fully right, which makes it possible for “experts for hire” to claim, as some did, that the evidence linking smoking and cancer is uncertain. And some “experts claim that the evidence for global warming is incomplete and can be doubted.  So in the United States — nowhere else, I hear — many people believe that the issue of global warming is highly contested. People seem unaware that those “experts” who contest that claim are funded by the industries whose operations are most at risk if anything is done to reduce the causes of global warming — most notably, of course, the energy industry.

To neglect to act on what is broadly believed among the real experts and accept the claims of those who have funding from the fossil fuel industry, for instance, is folly.  If the true experts are correct the day will come when it will be too late to save the earth from a crisis, when all hope of avoiding calamity will have evaporated.

A personal grief of this for me is that some of my dear friends, who share a belief in God, nevertheless reject the claim that the earth is warming, convinced that they cannot trust science.  Will our generation reproduce the folly of King Canute, who according to legend tried to hold back the tides?  In our case the price of such folly could be the collapse of modern civilization.

NON-VIOLENCE IS ALIVE IN SYRIA, STILL

AlJazeera today has an article about the non-violent movement in Syria — Yes, a non-violent movement.  Who knew?

AlJazeera September 9, 2013  4:30AM ET
The Syrian Non Violence Movement continues, despite being
largely ignored in the conversation about Syria.Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
…. Typically ignored … are the voices of
the non-violent opposition movement that took to the streets to challenge Assad
in March 2011, and which has persisted against great odds.
“No matter how beleaguered it is, civil resistance
continues,” says Mohja Kahf, a Professor of Middle East studies and
literature at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Syrian Non
Violence Movement (SNVM). A network of peaceful groups remains active in
opposition to the regime inside Syria, their activities plotted by SNVM on an interactive map that
can be viewed online.
Although it was the activists in such groups that originally
drove the nationwide uprising against the Assad regime, these days much of
their activity involves triage, mitigating the impact of the civil
war
 and building the capacity for self-governance in towns no longer
under regime control.
[There is] … a flourishing alternative media infrastructure
[in Syria, with] grassroots councils to run local government [that] organize
humanitarian relief in areas vacated by the regime, and projects such as the
Karama Bus — or “bus of dignity” — which travels around Idlib
province offering psycho-social support for internally displaced children.
“For Syrians living in Syria, just surviving and engaging in daily
activities is a form of opposition, a form of activism,” said Salahi.
Many such efforts are funded by the Syrian diaspora. Rafif
Jouejati, a Syrian-American activist organizing solidarity work describes its
results as including schools in Idlib, media centers in Aleppo, relief-distribution
in Homs and a planned water-treatment facility in Deir Ezzor.
And while many Syrians who first engaged in peaceful protest
later turned to arms in the face of the regime’s crackdown, others continue to
do non-violent political work.

Reproducing the blunders of the past

The United State government seems to be cursed with a tendency to blunder over and over again in the Middle East.  At least it seems about to reproduce the blunders of the past — again.  The reason we elect individuals to lead the country is to entrust to them the responsibility of acting in the interest of the whole.  In that capacity they should, on every issue, turn to the individuals that specialize in the issue in question to help decide what is wise.  One of the problems is of course that “experts” seldom agree when it comes to making practical applications on the basis of their abstract knowledge.  Even so, if experts find it difficult to give wise advise it hardly makes sense to entrust crucial and difficult decisions to the American people at large.  That is what the Obama administration has done with respect to the problem of punishing the Assad regime in Syria for gassing its own people.

Of course every major policy decision in a democracy is in some way affected by political considerations.  Politicians, who are supposed to be reasonably intelligent, are nevertheless swayed by their constituencies, so they can entrust specific policy decisions to their respective publics – but to do that is to invite disaster.  We currently have a Congress scattered to their respective home communities and asking their constituencies to decide on how to deal with the difficult and complex question of whether or not to punish Assad’s regime for gassing their own people.

I’m shocked and grieved that the groups I normally identify with, like MoveOn.Org, want to enter the debate, as if they had the understanding to deal with such a complex issue.  But they are not alone.  All kinds of people now are expressing opinions – now that have in the last two weeks paid some attention to what has been going on in the Middle East.  And of course they know what to do; I hear that the vote is against taking action against Assad.  How well does the public know why poison gas was outlawed after World War I?  Why weren’t these weapons used during WWII, even by either side in its greatest extremity?  What prompted the great powers on all sides to refrain from such barbarous instruments of death?  There is a reason those weapons were banned – by essentially universal agreement.

The very idea that such an instrument of mass murder could have been contemplated by any regime is a reflection of how much has been forgotten.  So the American people, who have as a whole little interest in affairs in the Middle East, in fact, have little awareness of what American interests there might be — it goes far beyond the welfare of Israel.  So of course they see no reason why the United States should take any action on Assad’s brutal resort to mass murder.

The pattern, it seems to me, keeps on being reproduced:  Each new event provides another opportunity to display ignorance and arrogance.  It is hard to face situations as they are without seeing them through the lens of the past.

A brief history:
• When Saddam Hussein’s army swept into Kuwait 1991 George Herbert Walker Bush took the wise decision to deploy a military force against Iraq.  He was supported by his Republican colleagues in Congress but most Democrats opposed him.  As it turned out, it was the right thing to do and it was a success; the Democrats looked timid and foolish.
• So when George W. Bush proposed to invade Iraq in 2003 the Democrats, chastened by the blunder in the previous event, provided little opposition.  It was a foolhardy program from the beginning and was in fact based on a lie that the Democrats – and the press — could easily have exposed.  But the Democrats were too cowardly to oppose it.  Now after many lives lost it is clear how unwise it was, and how costly.  The American people seem to have forgotten the lies that made that policy possible; it was a disaster in the end and the general respect the Americans had to that point enjoyed all around the world was lost.  Now no one argues for how wise it was. • The Obama administration is at this time faced with the question of how to respond to the outrageous use of poison gas by the Assad regime.  And our politicians, and the American people, seem to be deciding against taking even the most minimal action against the Assad regime.

I admit that the issue is not simple, but the one conviction I have is that to allow the American people to make the decision, as seems to be what is in process, is to guarantee another disaster.  The right move, whatever it is, should not be submitted to a vote.  The reason we have the electoral process – again — is to entrust to our leaders the task of dealing with difficult decisions as wisely as possible.

Our country is about to blunder in the Middle East — again.  

MORAL SENSIBILITY, NOT RELIGION, IS A FUNDAMENTAL QUALITY OF THE HUMAN BEING

Forgive me for some abstract thoughts on an issue of importance to me:  Ruminating on morals

I need to distinguish between “religion” and a moral sensibility that is more general.  Santayana famously pointed out the problem of using the word “religion” to refer to something shared by all human beings:

“Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular . . . . Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life.”  

The moment we use the word religion to refer to something common to human beings we strip the concept of any significance; in that general sense the concept is vapid, insipid, jejune.  It is not “religion” that inspires, justifies and animates extreme commitments, it is particular religious ideals associated with Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Krishna and heroic figures whose causes seem worth embracing:  Sayyed Qutb, Mother Theresa, etc.

Moral sensibility is, on the contrary, something that we all as human beings share.  We all as human beings share it. We can all be outraged.  Human beings everywhere share, I assume, the sense that some things going on in our world are outrageous and reprehensible.  Assad’s gassing of his own people – 426 children, we hear – was an act so monstrous as to require worldwide opprobrium.  And for some of us the inability of the great powers in the world to punish his regime for gassing his own people – scarcely worse than the thousands of his own citizens he has murdered through more conventional means – is equally scandalous.

Analytically the failure to distinguish between the moral sensibility that we all share as human beings and the specific religious traditions that give specific shape to such feelings had led to such nonsensical notions that religion should be avoided because in the name of religion so many atrocities have been committed.

The moral imagination expresses itself in many more forms than mere “religion”.  It is a powerful device in politics, specifically political rhetoric.  The great speeches of public leaders are great because they put into verbal form the sentiments of many ordinary people.  The great memorials “work” because somehow in their form they express the collective sensibilities of a people:  the Vietnam memorial is still an effective vehicle of collective and individual grief, evident in the number of people who come to that black wall of granite, place their hand on a name and weep.  You don’t have to be religious to share in that experience but you and I are able to recognize the deep feelings that some folks attach to the scratchings on a block of stone.

Deep feeling, expressed in whatever form, is moral in a fundamental sense.  And in that sense words for it are hard to come by.  That people call it “religious” is understandable but it is better referred to as moral imagination.  Bruce Kapferer has stressed that religion and patriotism are fundamentally similar.  Yes, they are alike in their ability to enlist through various forms – flag, statues, songs, gestures, poetry – the moral sensibilities of a people.

Somehow we are born with it, all of us.  And it colors our judgment of each other and even ourselves, at least when we can be honest with the truth.  This is why we all love to be self-righteous: moral outrage is a privilege we all indulge in.  But it is as fundamental as the pre-language qualities we were born with.  Through experience we learn how to give vent to such feelings, those fundamentally moral sentiments that inform and animate our experiences.  We acquire those devices of moral expression as we acquire articulate speech and other conventions of sociality.

Moral imagination:  this is the fundamental animus of human sacrifice and significance.  Can this term in a more exact way capture what it is to be human?