Tag Archives: The power of the moral imagination

HOW POWER WORKS IN THE UNITED STATES AND EGYPT

I don’t have time to elaborate now, but today’s news is full of great examples of how power works.To see how power works in capitalist countries have a look at this: New climate war: Billionaires vs. Big Oil

To see how power works in Egypt — that is, how the Egyptian army runs its country — look at this: Prominent Muslim Brotherhood Leader Is Seized in Egypt

Egypt does not have an army:  Its army has a country:  to see more of how it works, look at this:  Ousted General in Egypt Is Back, as Islamists’ Foe

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?

“ONE DROP OF NEGRO BLOOD”: WHAT IT MEANT AND WHAT IT MEANS

[This is a revised version, 8/8/13]
It took me many years in my teaching to declare to my
students that societies run on myths.  At
this point it seems strange that it took so long for me to come to that. But
now I see it so clearly in so many places, in so many ways.  David Runciman reviewed a book in the London Review of Books that caught my attention. Ira Katznelson, in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our
Time
, explains the strategic partnership that FDR had with southern
Democrats.  Both sides had to compromise
in order to work together even though in fact their agendas were different and
actually contrary in some critical ways. 

What struck me was how racism was such a critical basis of
the agenda of leaders in the South in that relationship.  The whole agenda in the South was to make
sure that the federal government didn’t interfere with what the power elite in
the south were doing in their own states.  States rights was
crucial in their federal discourse because the power elite needed to do what they
wanted locally.  Among themselves in
the South they justified their grip on power by appealing to racial
superiority.  Northern agendas should
never intrude on that myth. 

An example:  In a
debate about anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938 the Senator
from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, said that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the
veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and
strikes palsied his creative faculties.”  With this argument he protected lynching in the South from
federal legislation. 

In some ways not much has changed in the South, we might
say, because politics in the southern states seems still to be aimed at holding
at bay the pressures of outside [Northern] mores. 
The difference is that the Republican Party seems to be a better vehicle today for effecting that agenda than the Democratic Party. 

But of course in lots of ways much has changed.  Senator Bilbo made his statement – it shocks
ours sensibility in these times – in 1938. 
But his world was already ineluctably caught in a world that would
unmask the myth that seemed plausible in his time.  Thirteen years later, doctors in Baltimore
removed some cells from a tumor of an Afro-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was, it turned
out, dying of cancer.  To their surprise the doctors discovered that the cells taken from Mrs. Lacks could be multiplied in the lab.  Cell research became possible on a scale previously inconceivable.  Since that time those cells have been multiplied more times than anyone knows and become the basis for more than 74,000 scientific studies.  One drop of Negro blood has in this case provided
the world – scholars all over the world – with basic insights into “cell
biology, vaccines, and in vitro fertilization and cancer” [NYTimes 8/8/13, p. 1].

Little did the good Senator from Mississippi know. But my point is he wouldn’t care. What he sought to effect was protection of the interests of the power elite of his state [who happened of course to be white and their constituency to be white] justifying that agenda by reference to a myth about race; it paid to promote such a fantasy.  The justifications now are different – the power elite and their constituency in Mississippi are different now — but power seems to work about the same way as before.  Those who have it seek ways to protect it and — as humans need always to justify what they do – they explain the reasons for their behavior and policies in highly moral terms.  The South – and the North, and all human collectives, when they try to represent their collective interests – still speaks in moral terms; and in the case of the South it is still the Bible Belt.

The difference now is what can ring true: cell research, based on blood samples of a human being is taken to be exemplary of the whole “human race”; it is no longer considered to be a sample of a particular “race” [a category that cannot be documented biologically].

But it still raises questions about what is “real.”  Are all those studies based on Mrs Lacks’s cells?  Are they still hers?  Are they “Negro”? Who do they belong to?    

WHEN THE RICH CONTROL NEWS, ADVERTISING, AND CONGRESS

An unknown group is funding an advertising blitz in Missouri to reduce state taxes.  They tried through the Missouri legislature to cut state taxes but the governor vetoed the bill.  Now this group has put images of families and minorities on the screen to push for lower taxes, which they say will create jobs.

Reducing government services, which the reduction of taxes would entail, would put people out of jobs, not create jobs.  If jobs are created in this way they will be jobs working for the rich, in companies that will benefit the well-to-do, not the weakest elements of our society.

What the advertisements don’t tell us is who these people are who insist on reducing taxes — that is, for the well-to-do — and reducing services for the needy.  I would appreciate any guidance on who these people are.

We are getting closer and closer to being a country in which the weak and poor have little or no true voice.  How can this system escape the critique of the great prophet?
“They do not plead the cause of the fatherless,  they do not defend the rights of the poor…. I will certainly cause retribution on such a nation as this!
“… all of them are greedy for dishonest gain.  Prophets and priests alike all of them practice deceit.  They offer only superficial help for the harm my people have suffered.”
“Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands.  Stop killing innocent people in this land.”
Jeremiah  5:28-29; 6:13-14; 7:6

McClatchy: CIA Operative Fabricated Reasons for Kidnapping a Muslim Cleric in Italy

The more we learn about the Kidnapping of the Muslim cleric in Italy the more unsavory it becomes.  Here is what an unappreciated whistle blower from that operation had to say about why it was pulled off:

McClatchy Washington Bureau. Sat, Jul. 27, 2013, last
updated July 29, 2013 06:21:18 AM

U.S. allowed Italian kidnap prosecution to shield
higher-ups, ex-CIA officer says
By Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON —  A
former CIA officer has broken the U.S. silence around the 2003 abduction of a
radical Islamist cleric in Italy, charging that the agency inflated the threat the preacher posed and that the United
States then allowed Italy to prosecute her and other Americans to shield
President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials from responsibility
for approving the operation.
Confirming for the first time that she worked undercover for
the CIA in Milan when the operation took place, Sabrina De Sousa provided new details about the “extraordinary rendition” that led to the
only criminal prosecution stemming from the secret Bush administration
rendition and detention program launched after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks.
The cleric, Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, was snatched from a
Milan street by a team of CIA operatives and flown to Egypt, where he was held for the better part of four years without charges and
allegedly tortured. An Egyptian court in 2007 ruled that his imprisonment was “unfounded” and ordered him released.
Among the allegations made by De Sousa in a series of
interviews with McClatchy:
– The former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli,
whom she called the mastermind of the operation, exaggerated Nasr’s terrorist threat to win approval for the rendition and misled his
superiors that Italian military intelligence had agreed to the operation.
– Senior CIA officials, including then-CIA Director George
Tenet, approved the operation even though Nasr wasn’t wanted in Egypt and wasn’t on the U.S. list of top al Qaida terrorists.
– Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security
adviser, also had concerns about the case, especially what Italy would do if
the CIA were caught, but she eventually agreed to it and recommended
that Bush approve the abduction.

More than 130 people were “rendered” in this way, according
to a February 2013 study by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a U.S.-based group that promotes the rule of law. Many were tortured and
abused, and many, including Nasr, were freed for lack of proof that they were hatching terrorist plots, said Amrit Singh, the study’s
author.
….
“There was concern on the seventh floor about this
operation,” he said, referring to the executive offices at the CIA’s
headquarters in Langley, Va. “But they were reassured” by the Rome station and the
agency’s European directorate that “everything was OK and everyone was on board
in the country in question.”
De Sousa accused Italian leaders of colluding with the
United States to shield Bush, Rice, Tenet and senior CIA aides by declining to
prosecute them or even demanding that Washington publicly admit to
staging the abduction.

De Sousa said
Italy and the United States cooperated in “scape-goating a bunch of people . .
. while the ones who approved this stupid rendition are all free.”
The Senate and House intelligence committees enabled the
coverup, De Sousa added, by failing to treat her as a whistleblower after she
told them of the lack of prosecutable evidence against Nasr and
what she called her own mistreatment by the CIA that compelled her to resign in 2009.
“Despite that, no one’s been held accountable,” she said.

For more go here.

Doomsday Terror in Modern Russia

In the social sciences the emphasis on “science” can conceal the powerful influence that the moral imagination has on human life and social affairs.  That moral concerns animate a lot of our thoughts and worries seems to me generally unappreciated.

An example:  The worry among some Russias about the rapidly coming “end of the world.”  They seem to feel that the Mayan calendar, which marks the end of an era, predicts the end of the world; somehow the Mayans knew something that modern humanity has missed.  This in a country having a high degree of education.  RT reports that “Survival kits and trips to hell” are being sold in Russia in anticipation that something dreadful will happen on December 21, 2012.

In the Siberian city of Tomsk such items for “meeting the end of the world” include ID cards, notepads, canned fish, a bottle of vodka, rope, a piece of soap, among other items. The packages are said to be popular among customers, more than 1,000 kits have been already sold, the company says. 

Ukrainian entrepreneurs also offer a version of a doomsday kit. Just like Tomsk package, the Ukrainian one also includes alcohol: champagne for ladies and vodka for gentlemen. The rest of the kit consist of jack-knife, two-minute noodles, shampoo, soap, rope, matches and condoms. 

One Ukrainian enterprise is selling tours to heaven and hell for December 21 promising full return of money in case of “not getting to heaven or hell.” A trip to heaven would cost about $15, while trip to the underworld is more expensive at around $18. The agency explains difference in price by saying that Hell should be more fun.

I wouldn’t bet on that outfit being around on December 22.

The threat of super-rich self-interests

Apparently it was Karl Rove who said to the donors who supported the Romney campaign with huge blocks of cash, “without us, the race would not have been as close as it was.”  The “us” in that statement was the small number of superrich donors who forked over megabucks to defeat Obama.  While Obama’s donors were by comparison fairly modest, which is to say that the support for him came from a broad range of individuals, those for Romney, on the contrary, came in large part from a few superrich individuals, that is, from the upper 1%, even the upper .01%.  AlexanderAbad-Santos on Atlantic Wire has reported on the top donors to both sides.

The top donors for Romney were among the richest individuals in the world.  A Romney win would have been disastrous for the 99% of our country because as the new President he would have been indebted to a small number of individuals.  The presidency would be an instrument of the interests and outlooks of a tiny fraction of the population.  The United States of America would be a Banana Republic.  

And this could happen for little cost to those who are truly super-rich.  According to Abad-Santos the amounts given to Romney’s campaign by the largest donors were tiny fractions of their total worth: 
  • Sheldon Adelson, Owner of Las Vegas Sands, gave a mere .04% of his total wealth (i.e., between 70 and 100 million dollars);
  • Harold “The Ice Man” Simmons, owner of Contran Corp, a Dallas-based waste/chemical management company gave a mere .3 to .5% of his total wealth (30 to 50 million dollars);
  • The Koch Brothers – well, they could have given as much a $95 million but no one knows that actual total.  Most of it is hidden; Open Secrets say they can identify $36,637,591 given to conservative, essentially libertarian causes. 
The top donor to Obama, Jeffrey Katzenberg, gave peanuts by comparison: $2.566 million.
Why would Romney’s supporters give such huge sums?   According to Abad-Santos none of them claimed to have done so in the interest of the country, that is, for anyone else than themselves.  Adelson claimed he did so because he “liked to win,” and he was piqued by a comment of Obama that Wall Streeters shouldn’t be taking free trips to Vegas on taxpayer’s money.  Simons said he gave such amounts because Karl Rove recommended it, and anyway he thinks Obama is a socialist.  The Koch brothers are known to be libertarians; they seem to be major factors in the right-ward bolt of the Republican Party in the last few years.  According to Carter Eskew of the Washington Post, “they are giving to support what they see as being in their business or personal financial interest: lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government” (quoted by Abad-Santos).     
So, to state the obvious:  a President Romney would have owed his soul to a few donors who for little cost to themselves had gained a strangle-hold on the most powerful office in the world.  The rest of the country could have been disenfranchised.  
And would the great donors care?  They have given little sign that they care much about the rest.  Would they even notice the privations of  ordinary people?  Not so far.  
For these men the proportional cost of their investment in Romney was minimal, although for Romney they would have been critical to his success.  He would never be unaware of where the big contributions came from, even though they can legally be hidden from the rest of the country.  In the last election Romney knew very well who gave large sums – a fair number of them showed up for his “victory party” in Boston.  If he had been elected he would have made sure they got their due. 
Our country has been spared a great transformative catastrophe.   But what about the next time?  Does anyone doubt that it will happen again? 

Some related sources on this topic: 

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/11/which-billionaires-got-their-moneys-worth-election/58786/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanmac/2012/11/07/california-billionaires-win-state-initiative-to-raise-taxes-on-themselves/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rose-ann-demoro/whats-at-stake-when-billi_b_1980688.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanmac/2012/11/06/billionaires-take-to-social-media-soapboxes-on-election-day/

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/us/politics/little-to-show-for-cash-flood-by-big-donors.html?_r=0