Friday, June 28, 2013


SCOTUS has now spoken and done so inconsistently; undermining and upholding civil rights in the same week.  On one hand, the Roberts Court essentially neutered the Voting Rights Act that has provided protection for minorities from discrimination at the polls.  In the same vein, it insured an uncertain future for Affirmative Action; a program aimed a leveling the playing field for all Americans.  And then, the same Court struck down The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that discriminated against married Gay and Lesbian citizens by denying them the same federal rights and benefits accorded to their heterosexual counterparts.  Then in ruling the plaintiffs had no standing, it effectively confirmed the Appeals Court overturning California's Proposition 8.  It was a week that provided opportunities to both cry and cheer.

In its decision on the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Roberts (joined in his opinion by four conservative colleagues) contended that times and conditions had changed.  And so they have.  An African American sits in the White House and more people of color hold public offices and vote than was the case when it was first enacted or renewed.  The bottom line is that Roberts and company doesn’t think southern states should be singled out any more, that voter suppression is a thing of the past.  I invite him to visit North Carolina where I live and where a newly empowered Republican super majority in the legislature and a newly elected governor are seeking to undue years of progress.  And yes, now that the Court has spoken, a voter ID law like the one to be implemented in Texas (another southern state) is at the top of their agenda.  Add this week's ruling to Citizens United and its fair to say the Roberts Court has had a profound impact on the electoral process, one that has especially impacted negatively on the disenfranchised, exactly those who need and deserve to be heard most.

In terms of our society, the DOMA decision may turn out to be the most important of the week.  In it the Court effectively put its stamp of authenticity on same-sex marriages, performed in twelve states.  By equalizing benefits it equalized the marriages.  But the decision is far more than symbolic.  It will have a meaningful economic impact on couples who will now be able to file joint tax returns, be treated equally on inheritance taxes (the issue that was brought to the Court) and benefit from a host of programs available to other married couples.  Working out the mechanics of implementation will be challenging and that in itself may be one of the ruling's dividends.  As the federal government reconfigures its eligibility lists and programs, it is likely to run up against conflicting state laws.  Litigation is bound to follow and may ultimately lead to the Court facing the inherent Constitutional question of equal rights.

And that of course brings me to the Court's punt; it's non-decision in the Proposition 8 case.  Many of us had hoped that this case, argued by a non-partisan dream team of advocates, might settle the matter of marriage equality.  If DOMA is unconstitutional, shouldn't state laws like North Carolina's marriage amendment, be as well?   But the Court wasn't ready and perhaps we should have known it.  Most significantly, it turns out, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn't ready.  The tipoff came just a month ago when the most senior liberal Justice spoke at Chicago University's Law School.  Ginsburg, who had been a strong and unwavering proponent and supporter of abortion rights, is having second thoughts about the marquee Roe decision.  She hasn't changed her pro-choice views but seems to think Roe was a tactical mistake.  With hindsight, the Justice suggests that the Court's legalizing abortion across the country in 1973 was premature and in fact stopped a legalization momentum that was building among the states.  In effect, cutting off the process before the country as a whole was ready, set off a backlash of ugly divisiveness that remains to this day.

Here is how Meredith Heagney reported her talk on the Law School's website:

"My criticism of Roe is that it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change,” Ginsburg said. She would’ve preferred that abortion rights be secured more gradually, in a process that included state legislatures and the courts, she added. Ginsburg also was troubled that the focus on Roe was on a right to privacy, rather than women’s rights.

Roe isn’t really about the woman’s choice, is it?” Ginsburg said. “It’s about the doctor’s freedom to practice…it wasn’t woman-centered, it was physician-centered.”

Whether Ginsburg is right in her analysis can be debated.  The countless women whose lives were impacted, and in some cases saved, by Roe might rightly disagree.  But it seems clear that Ginsburg's reasoning — her tactical reasoning, I'd argue — drove her to supporting a punt on Prop 8.  By ruling the plaintiffs had no standing, the Court effectively sustained the ruling made at a local level.  California will soon become the 13th state to provide for marriage equality and as many as twelve other states are expected to follow in the coming months.

Marriage equality is in our future and we are fast moving toward it.  It's pretty well agreed that the Court, to bring along the inevitable holdouts, will ultimately have to take the decisive vote they avoided this week.  One would hope that would happen sooner rather than later.  But what I was thinking about this week was more than the issues at hand.  While there were some surprise alliances, especially on the California case, we see a Court that, like the Congress and the country, is deeply divided, ideologically and politically.  In past Courts who appointed a Justice didn't seem to matter as much as how that jurist developed once exposed to decision making.  Justices appointed by conservative presidents might emerge a moderate or even liberal and ones appointed by liberal chief executives might turn in another direction.  That time, it would seem, is gone.

What is the Roberts Court?  Well it is one whose majority was appointed by Republican presidents and who hold fast to a shared conservative ideology.  This Court tends to be pro-business rather than pro-labor, it seems to want to put an end to any special treatment for minorities, and it likes to cede more power to the states and less to Washington.   While the current majority likes to criticize previous Courts, especially the Warren Court, as being activist, this group is clearly more than holding its own in that regard.  As Adam Liptak reminds us in his Times analysis of the Roberts Court, the Chief is only 58 and could be in place for decades to come.  That's true — and disturbing if you believe in term limits, which I do — but the makeup of federal courts is in the hands of the president and senate.  A number of the justices are advanced in age and what happens in the next decade, will determine if the Roberts Court of today will be the Roberts Court of tomorrow.  A swing of just one vote can make the difference.

In that regard, from where I sit, nothing can be more important in the years ahead than insuring a Democrat succeeds President Obama.  But first things first, a president needs a like-minded senate majority to move forward and confirm his appointments. The redistricting of the past years has stacked the deck against Democrats in the House, a place where all politics is absolutely local.  But statewide elections are not as impacted by narrow and often oddly drawn lines.  When it comes to both 2014 and 2016 I'd suggest that two words be kept top of mind at all times are: Supreme Court.  Adam Liptak says Roberts takes a long calculating view and is deft at moving the Court to the right.  But ultimately numbers do count and who serves as  president will have more to say about numbers than the Chief.  Tomorrow's Roberts Court could look and act very differently than today's.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Obama, Snowden and the Press

I have long been, and continue to be, a strong supporter of Barack Obama.  Evidence of that can be found in my posts going back to early 2007, my contributions to his two campaigns and a my share of door knocking here in this now almost completely "red" state.  Like many others, I was thrilled by yesterdays announcement that he would employ executive powers to move aggressively forward on climate change.  It is in that context that I find myself both mystified and troubled by the Administration's record on matters of privacy, its aggressive pursuit of whistle blowers and its often-hostile relations with the press.  All of that is evident in the Snowden Affair.

During the 2008 campaign the press often referred to the candidate as "no drama Obama", a branding attributed to Air Force General Tony McPeak.  Unlike many contenders for the highest office in the land, this man was cool and controlled.  If there were tensions within, they were subdued by a leader who literally didn't tolerate what had become a norm in the Clinton and then the McCain campaigns.  Whether or not the no drama moniker fits, my own sense is that Obama is at the core an extremely private person.  That explains his still small circle of advisors, his lack of interest in "schmoozing" with Hill folk and a reluctance to engage often in one-on-ones with the press.  Aside from several first term appearances on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft, it was only last week (almost five years in) that he agreed to an extended sit down with Charlie Rose.

And it is Obama's own premium on privacy that makes his stance on surveillance so very mystifying.  Not merely has the President carried forward a Bush/Cheney initiated program, he has both embraced and, if anything, broadened it.  Doing so has largely inoculated him from criticism on the right, but it has infuriated many of his natural supporters in the middle and left.  Even those who may not find it infuriating, still see it as deeply disheartening, further evidence of the right's huge influence on America's present.  Democrats have long been at a disadvantage on matters of national security and now seem to be performing cartwheels to prove that "it just ain't so".  It's time for them to stop proving themselves.  We want to be judged by the values we protect, not the corners we cut in the name of maintaining security.

If keeping track of what telephone numbers we're dialing is deeply disturbing, equally so is even the slightest intrusion on press freedom.  In his Times piece discussing NBC's David Gregory's controversial questioning of The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, David Carr writes:
"If you add up the pulling of news organization phone records (The Associated Press), the tracking of individual reporters (Fox News), and the effort by the current administration to go after sources (seven instances and counting in which a government official has been criminally charged with leaking classified information to the news media), suggesting that there is a war on the press is less hyperbole than simple math. ... For the time being, it is us (the press) versus them (federal officials)..."
The issue here is not whether the press and government at times (or often) find themselves adversaries — that's what a free press is all about — but if the government is using its muscle to prevent reporters from doing their job.  There is much to criticize about today's media, many reasons for us to have lost confidence in them as independent observers.  That said, we all have a big stake in protecting their integrity, something that impacts directly and deeply on our own.  This includes their right and need to protect sources. 

If mystified by Obama's stand on privacy, I'm totally at sea about the current travels of Edward Snowden.  In my first post on this subject, I called him a hero.  His decision to leak information about how our government is intruding itself on our privacy in the name of national security is potentially a catalyst a long overdue national discussion.  In the face of others silence, that was heroic.  My fear now is that Snowden's behavior since this story broke may be undermining the very discussion that I had expected would ensue and that President Obama has endorsed.  The behavior of the messenger (the hero) may well get in the way.

Clearly Snowden has the right to protect himself from prosecution.  The usual course for doing so is to engage legal counsel.  Given his many supporters, getting a first class lawyer and the necessary funding for a defense would hardly seem a problem.  But Snowden, unlike other whistle blowers, chose to leave the country.  That's understandable.  That he chose China and now Russia as havens, albeit temporary, is to say the least curious.  Leaving aside, that these were our primary adversaries during the Cold War, neither country can be described as a protector of either citizen privacy or of a free press.  If American can be faulted in this regard, these countries are monsters in comparison.  Dick Cheney's suggestion that Snowden might be a spy may read ludicrous, but connecting those dots would make for an easy and credible spy novel.  We know little about the former CIA employee, but his travel itinerary certainly isn't enhancing his credibility.

None of us have any control over Mr. Snowden or know what his next steps will be.  The secrets he laid bare are claimed to have done "irreversible and significant damage" to the nation.  Maybe so, but at this point we don't know that to be the case.  The idea that our adversaries don't know that technology is being employed as a surveillance tool is hard to believe.  We have no control over the whistle blower or over what the government will say to defend its program or do to prosecute him.  What we can control, or at least influence, is the critical conversation about privacy and the limits of government intrusion.  We can't allow Snowden's odyssey to distract us.  That will be hard at a time when we as Americans seem to prefer drama to substance.  If the press really wants to protect their own independence and freedom, here's a chance for them to show it by keeping their eye and ours on the ball.  This time around they clearly have a vested and immediate interest in substance, in adopting the no drama ways of the President whom they and we have been calling to task.

Comments on the Supreme Court's three momentous decisions will follow soon.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Because we can.

In the midst of the 2012 campaign Mitt Romney was having a car elevator installed in his California beachfront house.  Four years earlier, John Edwards held himself out as the voice of the poor while building North Carolina's most expensive private residence.  Neither candidate seems to have understood the message they were conveying about themselves or how out of touch they were with the vast majority of American voters, regardless of party.  Mitt Romney and John Edwards are both (though not equally) wealthy.  Politicians are not known for speaking with unfettered candor and with good reason.  Remember what trouble Mitt brought upon himself with his 47% remark.  Let's assume for a moment that they saw us like Romney saw his peers in Boca Raton and we asked them why they were lavishing themselves with such excess?  "We're doing it", they might answer (and accurately so), "because we can".

These one-percenters may seem remote from us and their "because we can" response especially so — but not so fast.  In truth, there is much that happens today in what both our government and we do that derives from "because we can".  Perhaps we don't own over-the-top (much less multiple) dwellings but technology, for example, has freed us up to do many things that would have unthinkable in an earlier time.  In many cases, and regardless of age or circumstance, we do them just because we can.  Surveillance and spying is nothing new but technology has changed the ball game dramatically and, with the recent focus on what the government is doing, we fear that they are being far more invasive than necessary, just because they can. 

You may agree or not with my assessment of Edward Snowden as more hero than traitor.  The government has charged him with violating the Espionage Act for exposing the PRISM program.  He's on the move as I write this and who knows how that will play out, or how we'll feel the more we know about him.  What concerns me now is not so much Snowden but — and on this we can probably agree — that we finally engage in a serious public conversation about the degree to which our privacy should be invaded to maintain our security.  Among other issues we need to sort out is what safety risks we are willing to endure in the name of preserving our privacy (assuming that's possible in the digital age).  We should understand that even if we are willing to give up a considerable degree of privacy there is no guarantee that bad things won't happen.  No security program is fail-safe.  We are told than many plots were prevented by PRISM, but the Boston bombing did happen on the program's watch.  Its alleged perpetrators somehow evaded this intrusive surveillance.

What I'm suggesting in this post is a much broader conversation, one that drills down way beyond matters of national security into our personal lives.   It's hard to walk a street today or to be in an enclosed place whether our home, a grocery store or a museum without seeing someone, often many someone’s, tapping away on their smart phones either texting or searching the web.  The Internet has made it possible to do considerable research without ever setting foot in a library.   Books can be ordered, or increasingly downloaded, without visiting a bricks and mortar bookseller.  I so rarely write them that when a leasing company wanted me to provide a canceled check to verify a request to join their automatic payment program there was none to provide.  By the way, the bank no longer returns any cancelled checks, so even the two or three I write annually is of no use in that regard.  Countless people now have Facebook pages where they can share a running narrative of their every movement or thought.  Through Twitter accounts they can engage in endless "conversation" and share their opinions on any subject of their choosing. You will likely have hundreds of examples like these, things you or others do because we can.

This blog is posted on the Internet.  Anyone, in most parts of the world, can access it at will.  It is a public expression and, like many other bloggers, I am voicing opinions, some of them controversial.  I try very hard not to misstate facts and to attribute quotes properly, often backing them up with reference links.  But I could do the opposite.  I am free to write at will and to express whatever thoughts I may have — free to do so because I can.  The question I always ask myself, and why more of my blogs are stillborn in my computer than uploaded, is if I should?  In my case, that's often because of a personally set discipline to write only when I (hopefully) have something to add to the conversation.  But the point is, "if I should", is always top of mind.

Most of us, myself included, are not always or consistently asking that question.  Some of us don't ask it at all.  We've become accustomed to doing a cursory search for say a lighting fixture on Google and suddenly finding ads for such fixtures on a sidebar at Huff Post.  It's accepted that a similar search on Amazon is likely to be followed by "targeted" emails in our inbox.  We just accept this as the way of our world.  We accept and largely ignore this "way" rather than thinking of it in terms of privacy invaded.  Searching on line, we accept, is different than browsing unnoticed at Home Deport, Macy's or Barnes & Noble.  Know your customer, a long established maxim of good retailing, has come to mean something very different, a customized service follow-up, yes, but a far more invasive one.

So when the government invades our privacy it is one that has already been compromised, a self-inflicted compromise at that.  GPS tells us where to go, but it also lets others know where we are.  Just watch an episode of NCIS or CSI and you'll know exactly what I mean.  This is not to suggest that we throw our mobile phones into the recycling bin, but that we recognize and more importantly remain constantly aware of their privacy robbing attributes.  Just because we can doesn't always mean we should.  Needless to say, this is far easier said than done.  Beyond all else, we are not fully in control, not by a long shot.

Understanding that, we must also recognize that what's required of us is not only restraining ourselves from thoughtlessly doing what we can, but also considering what constraints should be imposed on others.  Others doesn't only mean the government about which such a fuss is now rightly being made, but the many eyes and ears the step across our personal line every day.  It's good that Amazon remembers what vitamin tablets I use and what water filter is required in my refrigerator, but should it have the right to turn my every search into a sales pitch?  The answer may be that I don't care or that these reminders may be useful enough in the aggregate that I am willing to ignore the useless and not consider it overly invasive.  Should we ask the government to intervene and compel them to give us a choice or should we ask them to do so or to stop, hoping that other voices will add weight to our request?  Personally I prefer the second option because bringing the government in here has potentially unintended consequences.

Arresting the government's intrusion into our privacy is of course something else entirely.  Absent political/citizen action and legislative restraint, the NSA is unlikely to alter its surveillance programs.  In this case, the government is the vendor and we are the customers/stakeholders.  We haven't the power to get them to change their approach without getting others to join in.  PRISM is a call for public discussion and hopefully for mitigating action.

In the end, disciplining ourselves with regard to "just because I can" requires a different and more aware mindset.  It demands that we ask, "do I really want to do or say that" and, more to the point, in that particular medium.   How much do I want to share on Facebook and what pictures do I want to send out from my iPhone (or at times even take)?  In our time there is so much that we can just do and every reason to embrace the empowerment of that ability.  But it seems to me it's time to build the "should we" question into our everyday lives.  For sure some people have imposed a should on their young children, but in the long run imposing one upon ourselves will prove far more important and necessary.
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Traitor or Hero?

Hero: no contest.  That's what I think of Edward Snowden joined by 31% of respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos poll compared with the 23% who consider him a traitor.  The poll used "patriot", but as you will see, I prefer hero.  Interestingly, Snowden himself says, "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American". 

There are moments when someone has to step forward with the courage to question what our government is doing — doing in our name.  Barack Obama wouldn't be in the White House were it not for courageous women and men who challenged the accepted way of doing things and that included established government policy.  Perhaps those responsible for our nation's security don't see, or have lost sight of, the disconnect between their approach to protecting us and the values they are charged to protect.  This is not to suggest that they mean to undermine our democracy or that they are dishonorable.  Rather I see them as captives of the "war on terror" mentality put in place by our collective over reaction, especially after 9/11.  In my last post I suggested that, as a result, Osama lives.  The light that Edward Snowden has shown on how we are being monitored suggests not only that he lives but also that in some measure he lives victorious.  We can't be happy about it.

The same Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 46% (the largest grouping) didn't know if Snowden is a traitor or patriot.  My guess is that some, likely many, among them were unaware of who he is or what he has admitted to having done.  It's just another example of our limited national attention span and perhaps more limited, sometimes non-existent, interest span. If you want to know how deep this apparent lack of interest is just consider a the Huffington Post report, that "only 47 US Senators bothered to attend a closed-door briefing on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs" held in the aftermath of the disclosures. Are we to assume that they didn't want to know, or perhaps didn't want to take responsibility?   You make that call.

According to a Times story, Snowden has some questions of his own.  “Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types", he wrote.  "Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”  Snowden isn't necessarily a hero because he leaked information about the NSA's surveillance activities but because of the questions he asks and how his actions may have forced us to ask them as well.  Snowden did exactly what whistle blowers are supposed to do.  He has forced us to think about and hopefully to engage in a conversation about the "sea change" that we have all known to be in place and have de-facto accepted.  President Obama told Charlie Rose that he welcomes such a discussion.  Whether one will really take place, and more importantly if it will be substantive, is yet to be seen.   I have my doubts.

The more likely scenario is that the Snowden story will be played for all its political and media worth and then will slip away in the face of the next "compelling" story.   Do many Americans even remember — if they ever knew — what was contained Bradley Manning's information dump on Wikileaks?  Bradley who?  Right.  Manning is currently being tried by the military and may well spend much of his life in prison, in part I'd think because his disclosures were literally a dump of documents rather than Snowden's seemingly more carefully self-vetted disclosures.  Also the Wikileaks were as much about who said what, when and to whom as putting the light on policies that directly impacted on us all. 

Snowden's material was classified, but any careful reading of legislation that can be found on the Internet coupled with a sense of what technology can do puts it into the category of "nothing new".  As Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker put it, "These were scoops of a high order. Yet they were more in the nature of confirmations than of revelations."  Moreover, there are serious questions about whether these materials, specifically the existence of these programs, merit being "classified".  Indeed, the President has ordered a review of what should and should not be given that designation.  It is also fair to ask how secure our classified information is when 1.4 Million individuals have the same top security clearance given to Edward Snowden.  That's really playing things close to the vest, isn't it?

One of the most vexing questions raised by the Snowden disclosure surrounds President Obama's continuation in whole or in part of programs that have their origin in the Bush-Cheney years.  Eagar to weigh in on the situation, Cheney flew to New York from Montana to tell Fox News that Snowden is a criminal and a traitor.  He also said Obama has no credibility in part because of Benghazi.  Wasn't this one of the duo that ignored intelligence that predicted 9/11 and who later spread unsubstantiated information portrayed as absolute fact in the run up to Iraq?  Cheney also suggested that Snowden might be a Chinese spy.  That too is unsubstantiated if not absurd but hey, strengthened by a new heart, the man remains true to himself.  Obama in his Rose interview said he would not comment on (or obviously characterize) Snowden who is the subject of a Justice Department investigation.  There is a difference between these two men.

I join with many others in being deeply disappointed by Obama's continuing these and other programs and in his inability thus far to close Guantanamo.  He has made a vigorous defense of the surveillance program and stressed its limitations and compliance with both the law and its intent.  Hopefully those statements will be fully vetted and the implications of the program seriously discussed.  Hopefully, because as already indicated, I'm not holding my breath.  Without letting Obama off the hook, I do think that we should consider what put him in this situation, why he hasn't closed down these programs.

It takes considerable time to build a house or an office tower.  It takes, sometimes only seconds, to destroy one.  Consider flattening of neighborhood by the 2013 Oklahoma tornado or the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001.  Not so with government programs.  Yes it may take some time to put the legislation in place (less so to sign executive orders) but once enacted these programs are, if not indestructible, certainly very hard to set aside.  The good news is that for all the talk about the Affordable Care Act, undoing it will be very difficult if not impossible.  This resistance to overturn what is in place explains a lot about Obama's continuing the surveillance program.  And he is not the first president to carry forward what a predecessor left behind and what one would have though he might abandon. This resistance to change is built into government and to some degree gives us the very continuity that we all want, that we demand.   In fact, we can't function without it. 

Every morning presidents are given a national security briefing, prepared of course by the security community.  It's filled, one must assume, with a lot of scary stuff, the things that are going or could go wrong.  Consider if you were exposed to that every day and know that your decisions have a direct impact on the country's safety.  Consider the implied risks. Eisenhower was concerned about the Military-Industrial Complex, which incidentally is still very much in place, thank you, more than 50 years on.  Today we have the Security-Contractor Complex.  Snowden worked for a contractor not for the government and many of those 1.2 million with clearance work for private companies who have an economic stake in keeping these programs in place, just as do aerospace companies who want us to maintain our air fleet.  I don't have to paint that picture for you.

Democratic presidents, most especially those who are assumed to lean ideologically left, carry a special credibility burden.  The Right has been successful in painting them as weak on defense and national security for decades.  It took a Nixon to open relations with China; Johnson could never have pulled that off.  Obama is caught in circumstances he didn't create.  Again, it doesn't mean we should give him a pass, but he does deserve our acknowledgment of his reality.  Let's also not forget that we play a role here, that we get the government we put in place or allow to be put in place (too many of us don't vote).

As to our hero, Edward Snowden, we still know very little about him.  In the first days some press reports stressed that he was a high school dropout both to diminish him and to raise questions about how he could have gotten so far.  That's ironic coming from the same people who just weeks ago reported than another even younger high school drop out David Karp had sold the company he founded to Yahoo for $1.2 Billion.  Many of the creators of todays leading tech companies are dropouts.  What should get our attention is not that he is a dropout but that Snowden, like Manning, is young.  You may equate that with being immature, but I think it more accurately reflects a new generation that, with more information at their disposal, sees the disconnect between the simplistic picture often painted of our democracy, the flag waving, and reality.  They see it, and for all of our benefit, they aren't going to take it any more.  That makes Snowden a hero, whatever the disposition of a case that is likely to be brought against him will be.  We owe him our thanks.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Osama lives.

Osama bin Laden was killed two years ago, but he lives on in having a profound impact on our lives.  It's no accident that Osama focused on the World Trade Center (twice) and seemingly only secondarily on the Pentagon and (assumably) the Capital.  The Twin Towers lay at the epicenter of the money machine that fuels our and other economies.  Its destruction, he was confident, would have a devastating and far-reaching effect.  It did.  Al Qaeda’s leader may have hung out (we thought) in rustic caves, but he clearly had a deep and sophisticated understanding of how the world functions and, most important, of the American psyche.  He assuredly knew of our tendency to overreact to dramatic events, hyped by a compliant press and ginned up opportunistically by people in power.  George W. Bush was in command on 9/11, a time when his leadership was in question.  He badly needed and got a boost.  It's hard to know what another president, including Barak Obama, might have done in the same circumstance.

Osama wanted to change the very nature of America, a society that he saw as overly powerful, self-satisfied, complacent and ungodly — perhaps mostly ungodly.  His success, particularly in laying low the West's most emblematic city proved that his kind of war-waging had legs.   It had legs and, because it had no locatable fixed center or national vulnerability, it was extremely difficult to combat.  America, and for that matter any other nation, had experience fighting organized State armies in hot and cold wars.  It had none with the kind of forces under bin Laden's command.  Moreover, its two most recent wars — Korea and Viet Nam — had proved both wildly unpopular and unwinnable.  Americans elected Eisenhower in 1952 on the promise of exiting Korea and Nixon sixteen years later in the hopes (unrealistic) of quickly ending Viet Nam, the most hated war in modern US history.

Bin Laden was right about overreaction.  Afghanistan, Iraq and perhaps even more so the Patriot Act were all facilitated by post 9/11 hysteria.  I will return to that legislation.  Given his prime target, it's clear that Osama wanted to disrupt our, and probably Western, economies.  An added bonus for him of course would be the possible impact on his nemesis, the Saudi monarchy, which might sustain losses and be weakened by any downturn.  Whether he knew that Bush would actually invade Afghanistan — Clinton had limited retaliation to selective bombing — is unclear.  It probably would be far fetched to think he expected that we would quickly turn our attention to and expend huge resources against Iraq, which had no skin in the 9/11 game.  Whatever his calculation, he was right in thinking a direct hit on our financial center would have negative (direct or indirect) economic consequences.  That America would devote so much treasure and sacrifice, so many lives, must have given him more pleasure than he could ever have anticipated.

On the other hand, if he was looking at Korea and most especially Viet Nam as examples of how our national will would collapse in the face of inevitable protests, he was dead wrong.  Despite the unpopularity of the Iraq conflict in particular, there were no comparable challenges in Washington or on the streets of our cities.  And, despite tepid support, we have stayed the course (misguided or not) in Afghanistan longer than in any other war.  Our national inertia is a mystery, but maybe not completely.  Looking back at the tumultuous 1960s, many Americans now regret one of the terrible unintended consequences of protest.  It wasn't enough to vent our frustration on the leaders who got us into that quagmire, we ended up disrespecting the troops who followed them, this despite most of them having been drafted into service.  Viet Nam Vets came home to an ungrateful nation, many of them effectually cast into a dustbin of neglect.  It took a long time for the military and its top brass to get over the defeat of Viet Nam.  So, too, did we endure a long national depression, compounded by guilt for our misguided poor treatment of the warriors.  What bin Laden didn't know is that we had learned a bitter lesson and are unlikely to ever again diss those who stood in harms way.  Quite the contrary, we admire our troops and the military is one of the few institutions that have our trust.  Guilt is a powerful thing.

That brings me back to the Patriot Act, perhaps more damaging to our society and way of life than the economic or human losses that followed 9/11.   In some ways the America will never be the same phenomenon begins with Osama's audacious attack.  Beyond the shock that our mainland, always considered invulnerable, was successfully violated, the idea that it was done by stateless terrorists threw us off balance.  It instilled in us a national unease, one that was recently reinforced by the Boston bombing carried out by individuals in broad daylight with a heavy police presence in place.  We were, the government told us, in a Global War on Terrorism.  Since the weapons used in destroying the Twin Towers and damaging the Pentagon were commercial aircraft, the way in which we approach air travel was immediately changed.  To put is simply, travel is not what it used to be and perhaps never will be.  Osama lives. 

To be sure, while many of us travel by air many of us don't.  On the other hand try to visit a museum in New York or Washington, be sure that you will have to go through security.  If you're carrying a bag, in the case of women that means virtually everyone, expect it to be inspected.  And speaking of New York, most large office buildings require ID before stepping on to an elevator.  Osama lives. 

But these inconveniences are minor compared to what the Patriot Act, passed in a moment of national hysteria, wrought.  The Act gave the government a wide range of powers, ones that could turn the ordinary citizen into a criminal with little or no rights in an instant.  And it allowed a broad array of surveillance, albeit authorized and monitored by a (secret) court.  After Patriot, any idea of privacy was nothing more than a naive elusion.  Osama lives.

Part of that illusion was broken wide open by the revelation that the government was monitoring each and every one of our telephone calls, even if we accept that this did not include (without specific court approval) listing to the conversations.  The idea that big brother was aware that my son called me today or that I called my sister last week seemed, and is, a gross invasion of assumed privacy.  It's not necessary to draw out these examples; you get the point.  Nor am I telling you something you don't already know or have thought about.  The broader question here, and the immediate reason for all the fuss, is whether we in fact did know or could have known that such a program was, or was likely to be, in place.  Perhaps equally important is whether we wanted to know.

Apparently member of Congress in both houses were informed of this program and given access to fairly broad information about its nature and scope.  Leaders and one would assume members of the Intelligence committees certainly knew what has been going on, or have no excuse for not knowing.  It appears that many rank and file members had access but didn't bother to make use of it.  In a sense one could say they were derelict in duty, but the truth probably is that they really didn't want to know.  The Patriot Act was not merely passed by our elected officials but it was renewed.  In each case, while the bills were certainly pushed by conservatives, all members knowing the national mood and fears, had to think hard about their individual votes.  Let's be honest, our opinions and any lack of real protest, made them do it.  We too are culpable.  Osama lives.

We need to be honest in admitting that fighting an asymmetric "war" with stateless and often individual adversaries requires navigating in still somewhat uncharted or at least uncomfortable waters.  When you are unsure, it's not unexpected to throw out a wide net, a net that is likely to ensnare as many or more innocents than guilty.  It's a fact that we Americans have a very low tolerance for the kind of thing that happened in Boston.  As a one-off, we may show some resilience, but not if it were to happen more frequently.  Remember bombings of this kind are the every day in the Near East, something that surely none of us would want here.  So what is being done under the Patriot Act reflects what perhaps most of us want.  No violence, regardless of the cost.  That desire of course conflicts with what we have always seen as our national character.  And it is our national character that is currently being threatened — we seemingly have lost our bearings.  Osama lives.

America is not the same since 9/11 and the Snowden leaks are not so much a revelation of what we already knew or should have assumed, as they are a wakeup call.  Our character is changing and we have had no serious discussion about what that means, how far we want to go and what price we are willing to pay.  The digital age has facilitated actions that security people could only have dreamed of in years past.  We embrace what it has done for us, but often without much thought.  It's all happening so fast, and we have yet to adjust, to know that along with everything else our age of innocence is long gone.  Special forces killed Osama bin Laden, only we can prevent him from living on.  It's time we took on that task.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Against Atheism

Considering that 20% of Americans have left religion behind, it may be surprising that only 2.4% of Americans identify as atheists.  This low reported number might be attributable in part to the powerful cultural forces that impact on our lives and the perceived correctness of our opinions.  Ours is a country where God is regularly invoked even in largely secular contexts.  Atheism, characterized as such or not, seems somehow disloyal.  So I have taken  responses to pollsters' "God question" with a grain of salt, seen them as suspect. 

How entrenched the assumption that God exists and plays a role in events, especially those branded Acts of God, can be seen in an exchange between CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Rebecca Vitsmun, a victim of the devastating Oklahoma tornado.  Jessica Ravitz reprises it in her recent CNN Belief Blog:
“I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?” he (Blitzer) asked.
“Yeah,” she mumbled, smiling and looking down.
“Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?” he continued.
“I, I, I,” the 30-year-old stay-at-home mom stammered before adding, “I’m actually an atheist.”
Notice that Ms. Vitsmun's first and reflexive response is "Yeah" and that the second, declaring she is an atheist, was so unusual as to go immediately viral.

While unsuccessively trying to reach Vitsmun, Ravitz writes that her friend Waylon Flinn "...shed some light on who she is.  She and her husband, who Flinn said is also an atheist, aren’t the sorts who advertise their beliefs or throw them in people’s faces.  When she agreed to go on camera, it wasn’t for that platform; she didn’t even see the Lord question coming." 

The Vitsmun's don't talk much about or flaunt, their atheism.  I'd guess they aren't active in any organized atheist group.  In fact, what stands out here is that Rebecca volunteered anything about her beliefs.  In a moment of refreshing candor, she effectively challenged conventional wisdom — God's involvement in the tornado and intervening on her (or anyone else's) behalf.  Few people are willing to acknowledge that, especially in such a public way.  That's too bad because very many of us, even among those religiously identified, don't believe God has anything to do with disasters or much else that comes our way, nor do we necessarily believe there is a God.  Some atheists, declared or not, may wish there was such a being and even reflexively pay it lip service (including in responding to pollsters), but God plays absolutely no part in their lives or daily thinking.

Of course, billions of the world's people identify with a religion largely premised on God and participate in some or many of its rites.  Relative to that, organized atheism, to the degree that it exists, is a total bust even among professed atheists.  Why is that so?  Let's start with the fact that many of our most visible public atheists are, or are seen, as provocateurs, often-angry provocateurs at that.  They write books, pen articles, occasionally are heard on PBS and give talks or engage in public debate.  Their books, in part because they are (often purposefully) provocative, sell — sometimes are best sellers.  We may respect their intellect, agree with their bottom line conclusions but they aren't necessarily our natural role models.  We don't share their anger or necessarily their often-dismissive animus toward religion.  So, to some degree, the lack of a robust atheist movement — followers generally in the hundreds, even thousands, but not millions — may not reflect an ideological problem but a messenger problem.

This may be a factor but a much more profound and fundamental is that most of us, whether in managing our lives or say casting our votes, find it very hard to rally around a negative.  Belief in a god — for God — is a positive and thus compelling, disbelief — against God — not so much.  A god-belief fosters and promotes some degree of action.  Gods demand attention, often lots of it, we think.  Because God is seen as somehow connected with putting our world, not to mention us, in place, we are moved to express our appreciation, to give thanks.  Moreover, gods are seen to have transcendent powers so we ask for their intervention or at the least seek their guidance and strength.  God is there to protect, to invoke and to rally around, a flag to salute.  Customs to observe and milestones to celebrate formalize and regularize the relationship.  They serve to build community.  In theory at least, God provides us with answers, even to the seemingly unanswerable questions.  Above all, God testifies to the idea that there is something beyond ourselves and by implication perhaps there is more to us, an enduring/eternal more.  You may place little value on any of these; see them as wishful thinking.  Perhaps, but atheism offers none of them.

As suggested in my book Transcenders and in these posts, trying to prove the unprovable — namely that God exists or doesn't — is a hopeless exercise.  For the vast majority of the religious a belief in God is all that is required and, most especially, wanted.  God is a given.  Some theologians may spend time trying to prove God's existence, but that kind of thing doesn't play or compute at the ground level.  When Rebecca Vitsmun's fellow disaster victims and people like them thank God for saving them or their families or say that what hit them was "God's will and way", they are expressing a heartfelt belief that invites no further documentation.  Their church, synagogue or mosque will reinforce their faith; their clergy will dutifully confirm that God is with them in their hour of need, that those who have perished are now protected under the divine wing.

Most of those who believe there is no such thing as God don't spend much if any of their time testing or trying to prove their belief.  So Rebecca likely looks at the tornado that hit her home and community scientifically — the result of a collision of incompatible moist and dry with hot and cool weather systems.  She is no less devastated by the tornado, no less grateful that her family escaped with their lives.  She was saved by her own instincts and the smarts that drove her to take her baby and run for their lives; not being in its path saved her husband.  Their home was destroyed not because it was God's will but that it couldn't take the action she did and, unlike her husband, it was in the tornado's path.

Like the Vitsmun's, I'm an atheist.  I don't believe in the existence of a god but admit that my belief, however real and relevant it may be to my life, is no less or more an unsubstantiated belief than those who believe in God.  Of course, as with theists, there are many consequence that follow from my belief.  There was no Creator involved bringing about either our universe or us.  There is no one to thank, to blame or from whom to seek intervention.  The only reason that we're here is that our parents had sex at the right moment for conception, the only reason we do whatever we do is because we made a decision to act or had to respond to circumstance.  This life is all we have, and when it ends it's over — no soul or eternity.  Needless to say, there is much more that follows and impacts on our lives from being atheists.  Atheism is not one of them.

That brings be to another reason that atheism (as a movement) is a bust relative to religion.  Many of those who have left religion behind, have also abandoned the idea that beliefs have to be embodied in an organization.  They have rejected the institution of "church" and the notion that they need some sort of group guidance on how to live their lives.  For sure mysteries abound in our world, but we look to science for answers/solutions whether it be on matters of the weather that caught the Vitsmun's in a tornado or cures for cancer and AIDS.  As to matters of behavior and morality or insights into what makes us tick, philosophers, psychologists and novelists, among others, serve us well.  What does atheism bring to the table that we don't already have, and have in abundance?  Nothing really.

In fact, if atheism makes any claim on being able to guide us, let's say on matters of morality, then it claims a credential that is no more valid or viable than that of religion.  This is not to put down religion or to discount its meaning/relevance to the vast majority of our fellow humans, but to say that atheism adds no value to the atheist, nothing she doesn't have or can't acquire on her own.  Secular humanists have organized themselves around faux churches, offering tepid copies of religious programming but without God.  Perhaps some people need that or have succumbed to a societal message of "organize" because "that's the way we do things around here".  Perhaps they want/need a sense of likeminded community, what my friend Doug Smith calls "thick-we's".  For me, being an atheist is enough especially when such great life-teaching resources are at hand and always accessible.  Atheism isn't needed and doesn't cut it.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.