You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘political philosophy’ category.

Tim Bartik, who I wish lived near Palo Alto instead of in Michigan so he could be there tomorrow night, has been contributing really interesting and careful comments on The Dispossessed at the UUCPA blog, and his last one, written on February 24, was so helpful in clarifying my own thoughts that I want to post my response here as well.

Forgive the length of this response, but you’ve helped me understand a real key to this novel. I’ve been thinking about your previous comment, which made me realize for the first time the connection between The Dispossessed and Le Guin’s essay (which I cannot recommend highly enough) “The Stalin in the Soul,”  and how I would concisely sum up my scattered thoughts, and before I got back to the internet you did it:

“as long as he or she can find an audience that is willing to pay for that art”

That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s why our freedom isn’t free. Not only because many great artists never make their art, or many people never get to see it or hear it, because they are busy working in an office or factory; but because many potentially great artists censor themselves for the market. They make what will sell instead of what their art calls them to make. That is an outcome of our economic system. It might be a price worth paying, in the last analysis, but we mustn’t treat it lightly.

Le Guin’s essay describes two novels: a great one that is written and never published in the author’s native land, because it is repressive and censors him in life and death; another great one that is never published in the author’s native land because he never writes it, being too busy writing what will sell to ever get around to his true art. The first author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, and the second is anyone in the US, including herself. As she says, we’re free “not only to write fuck and shit, and to spell America with a k,” but “to write what we please,” and yet we often don’t. She’s a little hard on her imaginary author, making him concerned with riches and fame. Most artists surrender their freedom just to eat and pay the rent, so their selling out is more understandable.

You are right that Bedap is right–Shevek doesn’t accept it in chapter 6 but he comes to–but I think you are describing the repression on Anarres slightly inaccurately. The bureaucrats can assign Tirin to the Asylum, but they can’t send him there. There are no laws, no police; he can refuse to go. But he goes, under the pressure of his community. The distinction is key, because we also pride ourselves on the fact that no one is going to throw us in jail for expressing ourselves. But do we do it?

If we don’t–and most so-called artists don’t, most of the time–then what is keeping us from doing it? A kind of unfreedom. And if we say, “Well, we’re free really, as long as we find someone to pay us,” we’re being like the Anarresti who “keep their initiative tucked away safe” (chapter 10). We’re refusing our own freedom. And then how free are we? Less free, in a sense, than Zamyatin, who wrote his book at least, even under Stalin.

I’m not saying there’s a better alternative to what we’ve got. I’m not sure whether there is, though I hope so. What I’m saying is that we tend to hide behind our democracy, assuring ourselves that we’re all free, and not acknowledging the walls that our economic system puts up. For every artist I know, I know five other people who would create art if only they didn’t have to earn a living. And don’t ask me how many “artists” I know whose great novels never get out of their heads because they are too busy producing what their publisher tells them can earn them the next advance. I’m sure it’s a lot. Most of them. And let’s not even get started on physics. You create it for the military, or for sale, or you fit it into the ever-narrower realm of “pure research” enabled by the ever-poorer universities. For that matter, I know many ministers who are not pursuing the community ministry they are called to, which would be tremendously beneficial, because they don’t know any way to get paid for their ministry except by congregations.

Last night, when I heard UKLG speak at Berkeley, her interlocutor asked her about her passion for Virgil, since she has such leftist-anarchist politics and he’s a poet of empire. She said she’d thought of lefty excuses for him, which got a laugh, and then she said seriously, “He had to be. If you don’t have copyright, you need a patron, and his patron was the emperor.” Art has to be paid for. (Copyright is just a part of it, something she’s concerned with at the moment since it’s under assault.) One thing she fantasized in The Dispossessed was a society in which artists are supported the same way as anyone else: the only justification they need present for their receiving food and housing and medical care and time is that they are doing the work they need to do, and that they join in the tenthday rotation and do some kleggich like everyone. They don’t need to find a patron; they don’t need to sell their art. They just need to create it. And then, because she is an honest thinker, she identifies what might not work about this: even Odonians start to ask, implicitly about the art, the compositions, the physics maybe, “What is it good for?” (“music isn’t useful,” Bedap points out)–which makes them no different than Dearri, the stupid businessman at Vea’s party. If it doesn’t further their narrow ideas of Odonianism, so they block it. They miss the true Odonianism, of course, which is based on the conviction that if each person follows their calling the society will thrive.

She is very subtle in how she talks about what undermines a revolution. This novel is not Animal Farm. People aren’t shot or driven out of the community by force. Tirin is not SENT to the Asylum; no one can send anyone anywhere, on Anarres. His Stalin is in his soul. But social pressure is often enough to drive someone mad and punish him for his madness. So what’s our equivalent? What imprisons us, who are so free? Isn’t the purpose of Le Guin’s novel to get us to ask that? And she suggests one answer: part of it, a big, big part of it, is money.

Again, disabling comments here so as to consolidate them at the UUCPA blog.  “The Stalin in the Soul” is a very short essay collected in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night and also in a collection called The Future Now.

Advertisements

Two more questions in advance of my class on The Dispossessed next week.

(1) As a teenager on Anarres, Shevek sees a film about Urras, the home planet that’s a lot like ours–multiple countries, all with governments, some of which are capitalist and some communist. The film juxtaposes a famine in the country of Thu where the bodies of starved children are being burned with the wealth and plenty only 700 km away in the nation of A-Io, noting that these exist “side by side” (pp 33-34 in the Avon paperback edition). Do you think  this is a fair criticism? Can it be applied to our world? How would you defend us, or would you make the same criticism?

(2) If you suddenly discovered that Anarres existed and you could move there, would you trade the benefits of living in a society like ours for those of that society? For example, would you give up the various things you own, and the possibility of owning more, in exchange for life in a society where you have almost no private possessions and “no one eats while another starves”?

Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog, and I’ve disabled comments here so that all comments are in one place; please make them over there.

I’m facilitating an Adult Religious Education session on the novel The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin, on February 28. I know some people will come who haven’t read it, but you’ll get a lot more out of the class if you have, so you might want to get a hold of the book now.

As promised, I’m posting questions about it ahead of time. This first one is more along the lines of a thought experiment and can be carried out whether you’ve read the book or not.

As you go through your day, wonder what it would be like if no one in our society had money or private property–if everything belonged to everyone. (On Anarres, one of the novel’s invented worlds, if you want a new shirt, you walk into a clothing depository and pick one up.)

For example, if you go to a restaurant tonight: If this were Anarres, what would happen when you walked into a restaurant? Who is cooking, how does the food get there? Would there be a restaurant? Etc. This is repeatable wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

How does it feel to imagine this different economy? Freeing, frightening, fragile . . . ?

By the way, Ursula LeGuin will be speaking in Berkeley on Tuesday, February 26. I’ll be there.

Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog. I am closing comments here* so that responses are gathered in one place–click on over to the UUCPA blog to add your comments.

*Except Stacy’s. That got through before I remembered to close comments. 🙂

Dear Senator Graham,

Your comment on CNN about the need to amend the Constitution in order for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry suggests that it has been a while since you read that document. I would specifically like to direct your attention to the Ninth Amendment, which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Slavery may have required the passage of the 13th Amendment in order to be abolished (although President Lincoln did take it on himself to proclaim the slaves in the Confederacy free, without an act of Congress, much less a Constitutional amendment). However, if that was the case, it was because the rights of enslaved people were specifically denied in the Constitution until that point.

The Constitution does not state that anyone has a right to marry. It says nothing about marriage whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has affirmed 14 times that the freedom to marry is indeed a fundamental right, an affirmation with which I trust you agree, as you are not arguing that men and women may not marry each other. As a fundamental right, marriage can be limited only when there is a compelling state interest; for example, the state’s interest in protecting children means that children cannot marry nor be compelled to marry.

Men and women have been marrying each other in this country for over 200 years without the Constitution saying a word about their right to do so. The reason is obvious: the Ninth Amendment. So I would like a clearer explanation from you of why two women or two men cannot marry until they get a special mention in the Constitution.

Perhaps the issue is not that you are unaware of the Ninth Amendment, but that you are simply seeking to raise the bar for a right that displeases you, now that courts, legislatures, governors, and public referenda in many states have affirmed it.

Sincerely,

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Even Michele Bachmann underestimated the jingoism of the American right this week, as she came under fire for exercising her option to have Swiss citizenship. Mark Krikorian, who directs an anti-immigration group, wrote in National Review Online: “Dual citizenship isn’t simply a matter of convenience, a way to make travel easier or a sentimental tie to the Auld Sod. It’s a formal declaration of divided allegiance, civic bigamy, if you will.” Reading that, I had one of those moments when another person’s worldview flashed in front of my eyes and I realized how differently we see things.  “Allegiance” is just not a word I apply to my relationship with my country, certainly not undivided allegiance.

That allegiance (which is to say, that loyalty, devotion, and fidelity, to use the words that appear in Merriam-Webster’s definition)–that commitment–is shared with the commitment I make to all living things; to humanity as a whole; to the truth, as best as I can perceive it; and to the aims of liberty and justice for all, which is the only phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance that ever moved me. Maybe I am not using the word “country” the same way Krikorian, or the State Department, uses it. The government? The people? The land?

I guess Krikorian’s view is not new to me. A good friend of mine took the attitude that when one’s country is at war, it is irresponsible to do anything but support that war. I was bewildered, but could at least see that he was setting aside a special case. Not all that special, since the US is almost always at war, but still, there was a theoretical space for peacetime dissent there. He is no longer alive, so I can only wonder what he would have made of the idea that being a citizen of two countries at peace with each other is inherently disloyal.

Divided allegiances do mean one may have to make a choice. In fact, if you look at it as broadly as Bachmann’s compatriots on the right are doing, one faces these choices constantly. When my country disregards the well-being of living things, for example, by insisting upon its “right” to pour a dangerous amount of carbon into the atmosphere we all share, do I go with my country or the biosphere? Easy: the biosphere. If my country required me to kill someone I didn’t think had done anyone any harm, would I go with my country or my religious convictions? Easy to say, hard perhaps to carry out: my religion.

I’m not sure what Krikorian imagines a dually-faithful person does at such moments–throw bombs? Being that his country has chosen a Democrat as its leader, he, also, must find that his country does something every day that appalls his principles. What does he do at such times? He’s a columnist and heads a think tank, so I assume he does what a lot of us do: he protests and he argues. What I don’t see is how either of these things threaten the United States. It’s an axiom of my understanding of democracy that they strengthen it. Maybe that is why I tend to think of my relationship with my country not in terms of allegiance, which seems to smother disagreement, but in terms of affection, hope, and responsibility.

Ah, the UU blogosphere’s a-popping with things I want to respond to at length, too much length for a comments box. Actually, one I want to respond to is a recent post by James Ishmael Ford, whose Monkey Mind blog doesn’t have comments boxes. I’ll get to that one next. Right now I’m meditating on my Palo Alto colleague Dan Harper’s post “Liberty and democracy in liberal religion.” It touches on a topic I think about a lot: the balance (or, equally, the tension) between individual liberty and the demands of community. My candidating sermon for the first church that called me, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rutland, Vermont, was about this challenge, titled with the words of the Vermont state motto: “Freedom and Unity.”

Dan writes, and I hope he won’t sic Righthaven on me,

[T]he major attraction to Unitarian Universalists for many people in our congregations is that no one can tell them what to believe or do, and this too is enshrined in the bylaws of the UUA, in the claim to a free and responsible search for truth, which is often restated in colloquial terms as “no one can tell me what to believe.” This last attitude is in close emotional alignment with the attitude that the government shouldn’t tell individuals what to what to do with their property.

In close alignment with it, but not at all the same thing. After all, I accept limits on what individuals can do with their property, while insisting on radical liberty to decide what I will believe (I’m pretty sure Dan does too). They are, however, two things we conflate often, and at our peril.

Dan thinks that many of the people who identify as UU theologically but don’t join a UU congregation–there are, by some counts, twice as many of them as actual members of our congregations–stay away because they “find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation.” I think this is probably true. Those who do not wish to submit in any way to the strictures of community–I’m thinking of extreme libertarians–will not want to join a congregation, even if they identify themselves as theologically UU.

But I see the congregation as a workshop, as rehearsal space, as practice fields, as a laboratory for the larger democracy, and so I’m focused more on the people who do come to our congregations, and yet who expect that they can pretty much have things the way they want them in that micro-society because of that “free and responsible search” stuff, and of course, that “inherent worth and dignity” stuff. I’m not sure if they are wrongly extrapolating from our freedom of theological belief. It is just as likely that the reason they aren’t very clear on the costs and benefits of different kinds of freedom is that the larger culture has so much trouble accepting a concept such as “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” We certainly don’t get “Your right to pour poison onto ‘your’ land ends where ‘your’ land includes an aquifer that lies under others’ land,” or our environmental laws would be very different. We are a much more civil-libertarian than communitarian society.

The distinction between things that are truly no one else’s business and things that do affect others substantially enough for them to deserve a say (namely, via government) is an essential one to make no matter what kind of society one lives in. It’s one with which our democracy, the democracy of the United States, still struggles. After all, it is not easy to agree on the answers to questions such as “Is whom one marries entirely a private choice, or do others get to restrict it?” “Is whether to carry a pregnancy to term entirely a private choice, or do others get to weigh in?” or even “Do I get to say anything I want to at Annual Meeting, or is some of what’s on my mind so destructive that I should bite my tongue?” That’s why we keep debating them. I don’t think we will ever resolve these questions once and for all, but if we accepted that they are not simple, but arise out of the tension between important values, we could approach them with a lot more clarity. Helping people to do that is very much in the job description of pastors, religious educators, and congregations.

Have we UUs given more attention to democratic structures than to theological liberty? I don’t think so. In any case, we definitely haven’t given them enough attention to make up for the confusion that reigns in a nation that is supposedly democratic but in which the prevailing definition of liberty is still license. No wonder people come into our churches saying “I can believe anything I want here!” and thinking it means “I can do anything I want here.” What are we here for if not to help them sort out the difference?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is grappling with standing, an unsexy but important question in the Proposition 8 federal case.  Namely:  the plaintiffs–couples who want to marry and are denied access to marriage–have standing to bring their complaint to the federal courts.  But who has standing to defend Proposition 8?  One county tried to claim it, and the judges threw that part out.

When they heard the case several weeks ago, the judges asked many interesting questions, and some challenging ones, about the question of standing.  One judge was quite sharp in asking whether the governor (then Arnold Schwarzenegger) and attorney general (then Jerry Brown) had effectively vetoed a law by refusing to defend it in court.  I thought that was going a little far, but it did get at a good point:  if the government of the state won’t defend a law when it is challenged, is that government doing right by the legislators, and by the will of the people?

Years ago, when I was living in Vermont, and the state Supreme Court was tackling the question of whether the state’s equal protection clause mandated marriage equality, I bought a raffle ticket from my county Democratic Party and won a lunch with the state’s attorney general.  I knew he was named in the lawsuit, and asked him about the fight.  He said frankly that it was one of those cases where plenty of people in his office agreed with the challenge to the law.  (He didn’t say his own opinion, and I neither thought it was appropriate to ask him, nor would reveal it here if he had.  He paid for the lunch.)  But, he said, part of the job description of the state’s attorney general is to represent the state in any lawsuits against it, and since Vermont was the party named in the suit, their role was to take its side.

In that regard, he and his staff were like the defense attorney in a criminal case (this is my extrapolation–he knew the difference between civil and criminal law).  Defendants must have representation; their lawyers must do their best to get them acquitted; our justice system depends on it.  Switching back to the realm of civil laws and state governments, Vermont had duly passed various laws and it was the attorney general’s job to defend them.  If he didn’t, then the people who passed the laws (the legislators) and the people whom they represented (the citizens) were being shortchanged.  I don’t know if this is legally compelling, but I find it morally so.

So I ought to look askance at Schwarzenegger and Brown’s refusal to defend Prop 8.  I do think it might have been bad strategically, but I don’t think it was morally wrong.  Instead, it illuminates one of the major problems with our crazy ballot proposition system:  the people, voting on a ballot measure, are a fourth branch of government that has not been fit into the system of checks and balances.

Remember checks and balances?  You learned about them in civics, or maybe it was called social studies.  We have three branches of government, with different roles, and they check each other.  The executive has to abide by the laws set by the legislature.  The legislature can’t create any laws that violate the constitution, as interpreted by the judiciary.  The judiciary is chosen by the executive, with confirmation by the legislature.  Et cetera.  Now California has created a fourth branch, but where are the checks and balances?

Plenty of people argued that the state Supreme Court didn’t have the right to cancel out the people’s vote by ruling unconstitutional laws that excluded same-sex couples from marriage. Well, they’re idiots.  Of course it did.  Ruling on the constitutionality of a law is not only the judiciary’s right, it’s its obligation, and furthermore, in doing so, it is doing its part to uphold the will of the people as well–the will of the people as enshrined in the constitution. 

The people then did the only thing they could do to remedy such an injustice, if they thought letting same-sex couples marry is an injustice, which for some reason they did:  amend the constitution, in this case via a ballot proposition.  Game over.  The state Supreme Court might like the amendment or it might not, but there it is, a part of the constitution:  marriage is only allowed between one man and one woman.  (Of course, this new line contradicts other parts of the constitution, but I won’t even go into that.  Nor will I rant about the stupidity of having a constitution be so easily amended–at least not today.)

But here’s the rub.  I’ve read many ballot propositions, and some of them build in an immunity to checks and balances.  Their text says that if they’re passed, no legislature can overturn them, or only a supermajority can do so.  This is absurd.  Any act of the legislature can be reversed by a subsequent act of the legislature.  They don’t get to say “. . . and neener neener, if you don’t like this, future legislators, too bad.”

Yet that’s what these ballot propositions say:  that a direct vote by the people supersedes a vote by the people’s representatives.  This just does not work, unless it is part of a carefully calibrated system of checks and balances, such as applies to the other three branches of government.

So if “the people” lack standing, well, we asked for it.  If legislation passed by direct vote isn’t subject to the checks of the other branches of government, then it’s a bit much to ask another branch to defend it.

It used to be that in order to be granted conscientious objector status, you had to claim religious grounds; I believe you also had to be a member of a “peace church” such as the Quakers or Mennonites. In either case, this was overturned in 1965, in United States v. Seeger, which ruled that one could seek CO status based on any religious belief, defined as “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God” of other people.

And one can claim CO status even though the religion one belongs to is not uniformly pacifist. For example, you can currently say you are a conscientious objector because you are a Christian and wish to follow Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek. The fact that there are other Christians who do not interpret that passage as requiring pacifism doesn’t automatically invalidate your conviction, in the eyes of the committees empowered to make these decisions. I have written letters of support for members of my church, explaining carefully that their pacifism is grounded in their Unitarian Universalism even though being a Unitarian Universalist does not require one to be a pacifist. (That non-creedal church thing always needs explaining.)

Hell, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos could testify for the wiggle room even within Quakerism, since our only Quaker president was Richard Nixon. But I digress.

Now the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, on whose Planning Committee the Starr King School for the Ministry serves, proposes a further expansion of the grounds for conscientious objection. To my mind it is similarly reasonable to US v Seeger, though difficult to administer (as are people’s current claims of religious objection to war): instead of requiring all would-be COs to be pacifists, it would allow someone to object to participation in a particular, or particular kind of, war.

For example, one might be allowed to take a Just War stance, such as the Roman Catholic Church propounds. This makes a lot of sense. Why tell Just War advocates, “Nope, it’s all or nothing”? “Fight in all wars or none”?

Many applicants for CO status in recent years have objected to fighting in Iraq but not Afghanistan. Their applications have been automatically rejected; this proposal would change that. It would enable the enlistment of potential soldiers who right now do not enlist because they don’t want to be compelled to fight in a war that is unjust by their ethics.

Furthermore, it reflects the kind of distinction most people make. Some of us are opposed to violence of all kinds; many more support its use, reluctantly, in certain circumstances. There are plenty of us who would risk our lives, even threaten another’s, in order to save the women of a village from mass rape, but would neither kill nor die to save the profits of the United Fruit Company.

The proposal got attention from the New York Times‘s At War column today. My first impression, sadly, is that comments on the New York Times website aren’t that much more intelligent than the ones on your average Yahoo story. There are quite a few comments along the lines of “if they’re too scared” (one person says “too delicate”) “to be soldiers, they shouldn’t sign up.” More thoughtful are the reminders that we don’t have a draft and so anyone who wishes not to volunteer need not, but they don’t address the fact that some would-be soldiers may be needlessly excluded from serving.

I don’t wish to enroll lots more people in the armed forces, but I do like a public policy that encourages nuanced moral reasoning.

Humorous Pictures

We were talking about our late cat Chewie, a real fighter in his youth. He got pretty torn up sometimes–a chunk out of one ear, all the fur on his tail stripped off one time–but at some point he aged out of it. Instead of getting killed by whichever ascendant young tom bested him, he must have opted out. Cats do this. You can watch them fight; they seldom fight to the death or to dangerous injury (although bites can turn septic). Instead, they size each other up and after some hissing, growling, and possibly a tussle, one backs down. Rather than get killed, or pull its gang into it to start a war, it crouches down a little (“See! I’m smaller than you! I’m not going to take you on!”), slinks away, and settles down to lick its literal and figurative wounds.

We humans have some ways of ritualizing our dominance struggles–Go Giants!–but we still have a lot to learn from “the lower animals” like the cat on the right about how to extract ourselves from a fight before we, and a lot of other people, get killed.

The tragedy in the Mediterranean is too new for all the facts to be in, much less sifted, but for just a moment, I’m going to stomp where angels fear to tread, because Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu pushed one of the buttons that activates my Barely-Dormant Political Philosopher.  That button was “self-defense,” which is how he described the Israeli soldiers’ use of lethal force against a flotilla earlier today.

It is a perversion of the term “self-defense” when soldiers attack civilians in a place the civilians have a right to assemble  (i.e., international waters) and, upon the civilians’ fighting back, claim “self-defense” as a valid reason to shoot to kill.  Basic ethics of war mean that it is sometimes a soldier’s duty to risk their own death rather than engage in too great a degree of violence against noncombatants.  Was this too great a degree?  Were the civilians actually within their rights, or had they threatened Israel with imminent violence, which would change the moral equation?  A lot of information still needs to be filled in, but it remains the case that you can’t just use “self-defense” as a moral justification every time it’s a fact that a soldier was under threat of harm.  Otherwise you end up justifying any number of abuses.

That’s my two cents of political philosophy.  My two cents of plain old politics is that people who wish to get to the truth of the matter and de-escalate, rather than intensify, the conflict,  should refrain from using inflammatory terms like “massacre.”  That would be directed at you, truthout.org, who could be more helpful than President Abbas if you wanted to.  (And sure, fewer people than that were killed at the Boston Massacre, and probably with greater justification–but we and the British have long since buried the hatchet about that, eh?  Perhaps they can forgive us a bit of grandstanding 240 years after the incident.)

This kind of entry is going to be more fun in a couple of months when I open up comments.

Enter your e-mail address to receive e-mail notifications of new posts on Sermons in Stones

Follow me on Twitter

Links I like

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: