Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Reading

Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder, Except… Valerie Tarico in AlterNet on the violence inherent in religion.

The year 2015 has opened to slaughter in the name of gods.  In Paris, two Islamist brothers executed Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “in defense of the Prophet,” while an associate killed shoppers in a kosher grocery.  In Nigeria, Islamist members of Boko Haram massacred a town to cries of Allahu Akbar—Allah is the greatest!  Simultaneously, the United Nations released a report detailing the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Central African Republic by Christian militias, sometimes reciting Bible verses. On a more civilized note, Saudi Arabia began inflicting 1000 lashes on a jailed blasphemous blogger—to be doled out over 20 weeks so that he may survive to the end. In media outlets around the world, fierce debate has erupted over who or what is responsible.  Is monotheism inherently violent? Is religion an excuse or cover for other kinds of conflict? Are Western colonialism and warmongering in the root of the problem?  Do blasphemers make themselves targets? Is the very concept of blasphemy a form of coercion or violence that demands resistance?  Is killing in the name of gods a distortion of religion? Alternately, is it the real thing?

Each of these questions is best answered “yes, and” rather than “yes/no.”

With the possible exception of Buddhism, the world’s most powerful religions give wildly contradictory messages about violence.  The Christian Bible is full of exhortations to kindness, compassion, humility, mercy and justice.  It is also full of exhortations to stoning, burning, slavery, torture, and slaughter.  If the Bible were law, most people you know would qualify for the death penalty. The same can be said of the Quran.  The same can be said of the Torah. Believers who claim that Islam or Christianity or Judaism is a religion of peace are speaking a half-truth—and a naive falsehood.

The human inclination toward peacemaking or violence exists on a continuum. Happy, healthy people who are inherently inclined toward peacemaking focus on sacred texts and spiritual practices that encourage peace.  Those who are bitter, angry, fearful or prone to self-righteousness are attracted to texts that sanction violence and teachers who encourage the same. People along the middle of this continuum can be drawn in either direction by charismatic religious leaders who selectively focus on one or the other.

Each person’s individual violence risk is shaped by a host of factors: genetics, early learning, health, culture, social networks, life circumstances, and acute triggers. To blame any act of violence on religion alone is as silly as blaming an act of violence on guns or alcohol. But to deny that religion plays a role is as silly as denying that alcohol and guns play a role.  It is to pretend that religions are inert, that our deepest values and beliefs about reality and morality have no impact on our behavior.

From a psychological standpoint, religions often put a god’s name on impulses that have subconscious, pre-verbal roots. They elicit peak experiences like mystic euphoria, dominance, submission, love and joy. They claim credit for the moral emotions  (e.g. shame, guilt, disgust and empathy) that incline us toward fair play and altruism, and they direct these emotions toward specific persons or activities. In a similar way, religions elicit and channel protective reactions like anger and fear, the emotions most likely to underlie violence.

The Odds of Marriage Equality — Garrett Epps in The Atlantic on the Supreme Court’s capacity to surprise.

I have many vices. I have been known to wager a dollar on those poker-hand coffee cups, and to go all in with deuces in the pocket. But I also once drew five aces and still lost; since then, prediction is not one of my bad habits. I’m not going to predict, then, what the Supreme Court will do with the same-sex marriage cases now that it has put them on this year’s docket. But if I were a bookie, I’d make marriage equality an odds-on favorite. It has been less than two years since Windsor v. United States, but it seems like a decade. Court after court has struck down bans on same-sex marriage; the “traditional marriage” camp has begun to seem like the enemy in Sun Tzu’s Art of War—exhausted, bewildered, devoid of hope or spirit. Take the decision under review in today’s grant of cert. The Sixth Circuit upheld the ban. But Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s opinion might generously be called listless. A famously bright and resourceful conservative was unable to muster a single serious argument why marriage equality was actually a bad thing; he was reduced to feebly protesting that it would be better for gay people themselves if they were to gain their rights through politics rather than law.

There’s not much there from which to fashion a last-ditch defense of  “one man, one woman.” Prodded by the federal courts, the nation has already decided. For the Court to affirm Sutton’s opinion would seem almost akin to reversing Brown v. Board of Education.

But even if Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote seems foreordained, he must choose between the rights of gays and lesbians—an issue on which he has fashioned a historic legacy—and the prerogatives of the states, about whose “dignity” and honor he has often rhapsodized. He might be tempted to split the baby by holding for the states on the “celebration” issue but for the challengers on “recognition.” (The Court’s grant of review was careful to split the two questions.) That is, he might say, a state could refuse to perform marriages itself, but could not refuse those legally married out of state the benefits of marriage under state law.

But the temptation will be fleeting because that dog won’t hunt. In Kennedy’s Windsor opinion, he wrote that the federal government’s refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages “humiliated” not only gay couples but their children. The children of couples who seek legal marriage in-state would be no less humiliated by their parents’ inability to marry than those of couples who married out of state. Once the issue becomes “the children,” we have probably entered the endgame.

That’s still not a prediction. This Court has shown a tremendous capacity to surprise. But if anybody wants to put down money on the states in the new case of Obergefell v. Hodges, please look me up. I will be the guy with the coffee cup and the careful poker face.

A President and a King — Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker on how Barack Obama wrestles with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

…Yet six years in the White House have vastly complicated Obama’s relationship to King. They are two of the three African-Americans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. (The first, Ralph Bunche, was awarded the prize in 1950, for negotiating a truce between Jews and Arabs in 1949.) When King accepted his award, in 1964, he began his speech by questioning his worthiness as a recipient, since the movement he led had not yet achieved interracial peace:

I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.

Obama opened his acceptance speech, in 2009, on a similarly self-effacing note, stating that he had barely begun his Presidency and his achievements were few. But then he departed from King’s reasoning. There is such a thing as just war, he said, under circumstances in which force is used in self-defense, is proportional to the threat, and, “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” He continued:

I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.

A moral crusader and a Commander-in-Chief grapple with different prerogatives. King was never tasked with national defense; Obama’s election was contingent on a belief that he could keep Americans safe. Some observers nevertheless find it difficult to square elements of Obama’s foreign policy—drone warfare and its civilian casualties—not only with King’s concept of civilization but with the President’s own criteria for just warfare. Cornel West railed against the decision to use King’s Bible at Obama’s second swearing-in. “The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King,” he said, “becomes a moment in political calculation.” Still, the King who denounced the triple evils of militarism, racism, and materialism would likely hail next week’s address, in which the President is expected to touch upon normalizing relations with Cuba, immigration reform, and providing free education for students at community colleges—along with the Administration’s efforts to prevent voter suppression, the cause that animated the Selma campaign, fifty years ago.

Beneath all this lies the irony that, nearly six years after the Cairo speech, Obama is less able to deploy the moral capital of civil rights, at least in the Middle East, not only because he is now established as the face of American authority but also because many of the battles that King fought have still not been resolved. Racism remains an Achilles’ heel. The protests in Ferguson, New York, and beyond were watched by a global audience, and, as during the Cold War, America’s domestic troubles become fodder for a morally compromised foreign power to deflect attention from its own failings. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to highlight the seeming contradiction that such actions were taking place under a black President. He tweeted, “Racial discrimination’s still a dilemma in US. Still ppl are unsecure for having dark skins. The way police treat them confirms it.” In spite of Obama’s debt to the civil-rights movement, the ideal of American exceptionalism is only as valid as the standing of people who have just as often been seen as exceptions to America.

Doonesbury — Hear that?