Sunday, May 15, 2011

America's Exceptional Leadership

America is special. America is called to lead the world in liberty and freedom. America is not just special in the way that each country is special. No, America is even more than that. America is exceptional. America is special in a way that no other country in the world can assert.

From John Kennedy to Barack Obama, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, this belief in American exceptionalism is a central belief of the leaders of both political parties. The belief in American exceptionalism is unchallenged and unopposed in the United States. Disagreement with American exceptionalism is suppressed, mocked, and generally understood to belong only to the political fringes, to be found only on the outside edges of the relevant American political debates.

There is no possible way that I could oppose American exceptionalism. Listen to any politician heap praise upon it: what do you hear? You will hear praise for liberty, praise for freedom and openness, praise for competition and the free market of ideas, praise for pluralism and choice, praise for America's moral leadership, a leadership made possible only by the most free and most democratic society in the world.

American ideas are the best in the world. The American way of life is the best in the world. America is therefore, obviously, the best country in the world. What a disaster, what a tragedy it would be, if the world were not led by its best and strongest nation? The leaders and politicians in America can't stand to imagine that any other nation is superior to America, or that any other nation should lead the world besides America, or that any nation should exercise more influence and power than America.

There is simply no way I could oppose American exceptionalism, as it is depicted by American politicians. If American beliefs are so superior to others, and if America is only acting in the world to defend and spread those beliefs, then it would be foolish for me to oppose America standing up for those beliefs!

All is not what it seems. The theoretical American exceptionalism lavishly praised by politicians is a far different animal than the American exceptionalism actively practiced in reality. The American exceptionalism which now exists is the exceptionalism of economic strength, the exceptionalism of raw power and military might, and the exceptionalism of authority and ideology over law and responsibility. Current American exceptionalism is a creature of fantasy and propaganda.

America is not exceptional because it encourages liberty - it is exceptional because it can deny the liberty of others (imprisoning without trial, torturing, and ordering assassinations of American citizens without due process) and ignore the consequences. America is not exceptional because it encourages openness - it is exceptional because it dismisses and attacks those who disagree with its policy, while criticizing other nations who act in the same ways (mercilessly prosecuting whistleblowers who expose fraud and journalists who expose corruption). America is not exceptional because it encourages competition - America is exceptional because its economic policy is corrupt and narrows the path of prosperity (reducing equality of opportunity by rewarding the rich with tax cuts and slashing social safety nets). America is not exceptional because it encourages democracy - it is exceptional because it has supported dictators (such as Hosni Mubarak) who have suppressed democracy and persecuted those who protest against them.

However, I refuse to abandon American exceptionalism. If America wishes to be a leader in the world, to be a leader of freedom and liberty with a legitimate claim to moral guidance and direction - then Americans must demand that their government adopt and practice a new kind of American exceptionalism. America must not use its force and influence to merely gain power for its own interests, but must instead accomplish the things its politicians so forcefully endorse but do not pursue: greater liberty, greater freedom, greater choice, greater openness, and greater democracy, under the law, with true equality for all people.

America must be exceptional in its compassion, in its empathy, and in its forgiveness. America must be exceptional in its patience, in its purpose, and in its sacrifice. If America is fighting three wars to remain a great nation, let's be entirely sure what kind of greatness is worth the lives of our soldiers and the lives of innocent civilians in the countries where we fight. Isn't it a waste to destroy so many lives if all we are doing will only ensure that America remains a great economic power or a great military power? Isn't it a tragedy that so many lives have ended in the name of naked brute force and the almighty dollar alone?

There is no more exceptional sacrifice for a cause than the relinquishing of a human life. Perhaps Americans should remember that unrelenting fact before demanding further sacrifice of that highest kind for any cause which is less than fully exceptional.

For the good of the world, and for the good of its own people, especially for those sent to fight and die in our conflicts, America must be exceptional in its adherence to law, exceptional in its concern for the well-being of its own people and for the peoples of other nations, and exceptional in its undying commitment to the principles of freedom and liberty which have justified, but do not yet govern, American actions.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Doubt and Atheism as Faith

Comparisons between religion and atheism are typically more a matter of rhetoric than logic and a matter of emotion more than measured analysis. There is not a single assertion about religious or philosophical thought which will not offend someone. While I will do my best in this post to be fair and consistent, I am certain it will inevitably disturb. If that possibility is too much for you, please do not read what follows.

I am continually disappointed that people parade their own knowledge and their own experience as the pinnacle of absolute truth. I am thankfully not alone. There are both religious and non-religious people who agree with me that each person should express his or her own views in humility, taking caution to remember the limited perspective and knowledge of each human being.

People of many creeds and traditions have adopted and cultivated an active sense of doubt. While individuals often disagree on which things they doubt and which things they accept, there is a consensus that each person should doubt all opinions equally and persistently.

Some people who are not religious believe in doubt so strongly that they refuse to claim belief in any faith. Those who would undermine the supremacy of doubt as a value often reply that doubt itself is also a faith, as strong as any religion. This accusation begs the question of what constitutes a faith.

It is difficult to say with any certainty precisely what faith is, which is fitting, given the difficulty in providing any absolute definition of an individual faith, such as Christianity or Islam. I realize it is dangerous to claim that beliefs are a faith before I have discovered what makes something a faith. I must admit I already have assumptions about what makes a belief a faith.

For me, a faith begins as an idea. An idea is some sort of guess about the world, some kind of hunch. A belief is an idea that one accepts strongly, and I view faith as an even stronger form of belief. Doubt is definitely a belief, because it is a pervasive idea with an extremely high number of applications. I disagree, though, that doubt alone is a strong enough belief to be a faith.

When I was in a class called "Contemporary Political Thought" last semester, a friend of mine and I had a very similar argument. He claimed that "if you state that all truth is provisional, you have asserted an absolute truth, so you can't really say that everything is provisional because it self-contradicts". I responded by stating that if the idea that truth is provisional can itself be contradicted by evidence, then it is not an absolute claim. The test of absoluteness is not whether a belief claims that it applies universally, but whether it could be hypothetically overturned by evidence at some point and then no longer apply universally.

I believe that a faith is something that claims to apply universally, but cannot be demonstrated by evidence. A faith is a belief so strong that it cannot be falsified by evidence; it is beyond even contradiction or non-contradiction. No one can challenge it rationally. This distinction is why atheists will turn funny colors and foam at the mouth a little bit if you claim that atheism is a faith. Perhaps a very strong atheism is a faith - I agree that the non-existence of any supernatural or metaphysical presence cannot be falsified by evidence. However, a weaker atheism, which asserts that only as a condition of the lack of evidence for supernatural forces, that one should not accept supernatural forces, does seem entirely different from the concept of a faith, in that its conclusions are not so strong that they could never be challenged by direct evidence.

That so many religious people claim that "people of faith" are every bit as capable of doubt as non-religious people is fine. It's a valid claim. By definition, you can only doubt a belief that is falsifiable. I also believe, however, that it is worthy of debate whether a person should believe in something which no possible evidence can disprove. I do not have any problems with this sort of belief on principle, as long as its practitioners acknowledge that it is a belief beyond the bounds of rationality and non-rationality. When people use their religion to make scientific or historical claims, those claims entirely undermine the concept of faith. A religion underpinned by scientific or historical claims should not be recognized as a faith, but as an ideology.

And in practice, religious ideologies often use their untestable claims to support actions which damage and hurt peoples' lives, because the ideology claims absolute superiority for itself and does not act in humility, and does not recognize its own limited knowledge. Very strong atheism is one of these negative ideologies, and also harms people - I already accept this to be true. When people absolutely believe that religion is a negative force in the world, there is much good and positive benefit that is ignored.

It is important to state, however, that atheism and doubt are not necessarily a faith. If you wish to challenge atheism, please challenge it not with insults, but with a response to its claims. Just as it is not fair to insist that religion should be accepted unless it meets the standards of rationality, it is unfair to insist that atheism is necessarily a faith. By definition, it is true that faith is not necessarily about evidence, and that atheism is not necessarily a faith. When challenging an idea, one must first understand what the idea means, and then challenge the meaning of the idea as it is understood by those who accept it. Only once you have responded to the claims of an idea that it actually makes, should you pretend to have made a serious intellectual challenge!

Is there anything directly wrong with faith? Not necessarily. Sometimes, there are questions people have about meaning, about values, about things outside the boundaries of science, which are almost impossible to answer but demand an answer. Occasionally, there are questions which may never have one right answer that can be rationally confirmed. Perhaps some moral and ethical principles are a faith - but perhaps they are not a faith. Perhaps there is rational evidence available to ground our values and ethics. May we never know for sure? Certainly. That's why I'm not certain.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Is Evolution Consistent with God's Love? (Part One)

Both Christian fundamentalists and ardent atheist popularizers assert that evolution and religious faith are incompatible. Both forces assert that an individual cannot accept a full understanding of the theory of evolution by natural selection and accept the truth of Christianity.

When I was in high school, two friends of mine kept asking me how I reconciled evolution and God. I was a liberal Protestant, and they were vocal atheists. I swore up and down that their critiques unfairly represented my idea of God.

My friends would repeatedly ask me other things such as "how can you be a Christian if the Bible hates gay people?" or "how can you be friends with us if the Bible tells you not to mix with nonbelievers?". I kept telling my friends that the Christianity I affirmed was all about the love of God - with all other principles below it. The love of Jesus came to replace the focus of the Old Testament, which was solely on God's laws, instead of God's love.

I believed that loving people without regard for their sexuality expressed God's love. I believed that befriending people without regard for their religious ideas expressed God's love. I also believed that God used evolution to create the world, which He loves.

I still believe that an intelligent and perceptive reader of the Bible is under no obligation to accept that God could not have created the world through evolution. The stories in Genesis, properly understood, are literary narratives, not literal accounts. The interpretation of the creation stories Genesis has never prevented me from reconciling Christianity and evolution.

What has prevented me from reconciling Christianity and evolution is God's love, the same thing which allowed me to say I believed I could love people without regard for their sexuality or religion. I do believe that the Christian God could have created the world through evolution - I do not believe that a loving God could have. This is the biggest question for me on the subject of evolution and Christianity: is a Christian God, who creates our world through evolution, a loving God?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Racist. Sexist. Homophobes.

I love college. Part of why I love college is because I am fortunate enough to revel in new experiences, to hear new ideas and grasp their implications, and to discuss and expand my ideas with other people who have different backgrounds or values.

I am currently enrolled in a class called "The History of the Modern Conservative Movement". I decided to take this class because it was in my major, and also because I am an avowedly fierce liberal. I wanted to hear the "other team's" take. I wanted to better understand conservatives and their ideas.

My professor, politically speaking, can match my liberal beliefs with his conservative beliefs, blow for blow. He doesn't usually advocate for his beliefs in class, but rather uses the lectures to deliver an understanding of events which the "conservative movement" would espouse.

I am extremely committed to understanding other people's beliefs. How so, you may ask? I agreed to take this class once a week from 8:10 PM to 10:40 PM at night. That's right - PM, not AM. Honestly, it's probably a good thing, because if I was more awake, it would be harder to restrain myself from vehement disagreement (just kidding, just kidding).

Several weeks ago, I was listening to our professor deliver his lecture, when he lamented that conservatives are constantly, unfairly portrayed and vilified by the media and by liberals as "racists, sexists, and homophobes".

Is this an unfair accusation? No, I believe it is an entirely fair charge. I find plenty of evidence to substantiate the accusations.

Please observe the virulent, entirely over-the-top outright hatred for President Obama. The demeaning, racially-charged nicknames. The implied foreignness and otherness expressed in the ridiculous campaign to assert that the President was born in Kenya, not in Hawaii.

Note the ludicrous statement by Senator Jon Kyl (R-what else?, AZ) that women could receive pap smears at Walgreen's, that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion, a blatantly false exaggeration, even if it was "not intended to be a factual statement" - which itself is a ludicrous assertion.

Even worse are the efforts of Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana to end all public funding for Planned Parenthood in his state, an action which displays an outright contempt for women's health.

Bemoan the foul river of accusation and negative portrayal of homosexuals. The statement of a Tea Party leader that a condition for raising the debt ceiling should be the reinstitution of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the removal of woman from the military. Witness the absolutely stubborn and close-minded refusal by many people to recognize that you are a human being with the same fundamental rights, no matter what gender you are or who you love.

That's not all. Let's tackle some other "unfair accusations" conservatives have decried.

My professor also resented that conservatives have been labeled as "reactionaries".

Let's examine the mad-cap rush to screw the poor and the elderly and reward the rich, evidenced not only in the provisions of the Paul Ryan plan, but in Republican economic policy over the last 30 years. See the rampant hypocrisy in the fight over deficits: Republicans insist that the deficit is an immediate and overwhelming problem, but refuse to take any steps to raise revenue. An absolute refusal to raise taxes is as reactionary a stance as any in American politics; if that stance is not reactionary, then the word itself has lost all meaning.

Conservatives will stop being called racists, sexists, homophobes, and reactionaries only when they purge the elements of their coalition that are racist, sexist, homophobic, and reactionary! A mere whitewashing and meaningless rebranding of history (and language itself) may work in some isolated cases, but Americans will ultimately see through the charades, if President Obama and other liberals will quit relenting their positions, commitments, and promises.

I'm not only speaking as a liberal, but also I speak as an American. Our country cannot allow the whitewashing and implicit censorship of our political and historical records. We cannot allow our history to perish from the Earth, or our democracy shall soon follow it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Poem Not Written

The Poem Not Written

I once tried to write a modern poem.

It was well struck –

Plucked like the string of a harp.

Dammit, that's one old object.

If you harp on my diction,

My words will metastasize.

A modern poem should mesmerize -

A quick hit to the gut,

An ephemeral sensation.

Ephemeral sounds old, too:

The humor is there

In the strangeness of our times,

That time’s very passage

Should fall behind the prevailing tides.

My words are lusty, light, and quick -

And it’s the style to speak before I think,

And style must go before I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Prism of all Beauty

I must warn you, that I am not the type for revelations. But who is? Have you ever met someone who’s had a revelation who was the type for it? Or heard of someone? Of course not – revelation in its very nature is entirely unexpected. Archimedes never expected to solve calculus problems in his bathtub, as I am sure his neighbors never rightly expected to see a naked Archimedes running wildly through the streets. And yet, I have had a minor revelation. I was sitting in my bed, thinking about the movie “Up”, and how it hit me so close to home, when I realized something important.

Humor is distance. It is the distance between pain and reconciliation - it is the path a beam of light travels from emptiness to solid form. Humor is a prism – you can see the light running through it and view at first-hand all the colors of human emotion. In that emotional distance, you can see everything: tears and sadness, regret, happiness, betrayal, excitement, anxiety, joy.

Humor is a way to cover up the void, or at least, to cover up what seems to be a void. But the secret to humor is that there really isn’t a void there, after all. I mean, it may seem that way once or twice, or maybe a few times, but when you keep checking, the void disappears. I’ll show you what I mean:

There’s a void, and it could be empty. And you would say, why is the void always empty? And I would say, why does it matter – look how quickly it fills again. The void just fills and refills, the finite running through the infinite, the light running through the prism and allowing its reflections to bounce off of all objects.

Or you would say, why do you suppose there is a void at all? Isn’t there always something filled, so how could it be empty? What kind of a fool would you have to be to believe in an empty space? That’s the joke, really – the joke is that it doesn’t actually matter whether there is an empty space or not. It really doesn’t matter whether there is a void or not, at the end of everything, mostly because it’s always being filled…whether it’s filled with love or compassion or sympathy or understanding or brotherhood…it doesn’t really matter what was there before, but only what is going into it.

And I suppose that’s why I am a humanist. I see light pouring in from all sides – although I must acknowledge I do not know what was here before. For me, it is a mystery – and it is enough to say that there is a void and that it is being filled up, like the beginning of a joke followed by a punchline, or despair followed by consolation. And I see all kinds of beautiful strains of light pouring into the world, beautiful stained glass revelations from every creed and tradition, overflowing with wisdom and compassion.

Before I was here, there was nothing to tell you what I am telling you. Now I am here. That is enough for me. I know my family and friends will ask me, how can you see the light in this world and not acknowledge its beauty? Please believe me, I do. It is beautiful, and ghastly, and haunting.

I can imagine it with some difficulty, as is usually fitting for these sorts of experiences. I begin to imagine that everything which has ever been imagined does not exist. Then it exists, and it is incredible, and stunning - and then I realize, too, that none of it may ever exist again. I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t know where it’s going. All I know is that I am surrounded by this beautiful light and I want to fill this seemingly empty and desolate canvass with all of its gorgeous shades and pastels, to pass something surreal through that great void and create beauty again.