Musings on Politics & Policy

An attempt to take an open minded view of current topics,
strip away excess detail and arguments,
and get at underlying issues —

Thursday, December 30, 2004


We have become a divisive nation. Our politics have become an arena of negative campaigns, slanted or untruthful descriptions of opponents, and cheap one liners. Opposing sides are often unable or unwilling to openly and intelligently discuss alternative points of view. The victims are the voters, who end up misinformed, their votes based on half truths sold to them by the highest bidders.

One of the last lessons Jesus taught was humility. Before his last Passover meal, he removed his cloak that designated him as a teacher, took up a basin and towel, and washed the feet of his disciples.

Today, there are too many who think they are so right that anything they do to further their cause is also right. Their feelings of superiority are a form of hubris that almost invariably leads to some form of downfall or tragedy. The partisan effort to impeach President Clinton led to the downfall of leading Republicans when the hypocrisy of their criticisms was revealed. Most recently, Bernard Kerik backed out as nominee for Homeland Security secretary when it was discovered that he had not applied the same laws to himself that he would be required to enforce [Newsday].

A good scientist must also be a professional skeptic. Scientific knowledge is a structure built of theories based on evidence. In principle, any theory can be overturned by further evidence and observation. Einstein's Theory of Relativity was deemed "proven" in 1919 when British astronomers observed starlight being bent around the sun during a solar eclipse as the theory predicted. This year, 2004, further "proof" was accumulated with the observation, by the Gravity Probe B satellite, of gravity distortion around the spinning earth, also predicted by the theory. The pursuit of science is a constant balance of triumphs and doubt, and the best science requires a mind that is always open to alternatives.

In religious life, in civic life, and in scientific pursuit — respect for others, humility, and open mindedness are virtues. Failure to keep these in mind leads to hubris and eventual downfall, whether it is a loss of faith when one is found to be lying, a loss of office or power when one is found to be hypocritical, or a loss of national position in the world when we as a nation are found to repeatedly disrespect and misunderstand other cultures and religions. If we are to successfully strive for a better future, we must change the culture of hubris that pervades our nation.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Religious Tolerance

It is one thing to teach that by accepting and following Jesus you will find your way to heaven. It is quite another to teach that all those who do not will burn in hell. The first encourages you to accept the love and understanding of Jesus and to reflect it through yourself. The second turns away from these teachings, claims ownership of the sole revealed truth, and speaks with intolerance against other religions and people. Since there have been many schisms of the Christian Church over differences in beliefs, and there are now many different Churches claiming to have the truth, this very intolerance brings into question whether any one of them have the sole revealed truth. Conflicts over religious beliefs have persisted over millennia.

While one might get into arguments concerning ex cathedra proclamations and what constitutes the body of the Church in Catholicism, it was nevertheless in the name of church doctrine that Galileo was persecuted for claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and it was in the name of church doctrine that Giordano Bruno was put in chains and later burned alive for refusing to abjure many heresies, among them that the stars are suns [Timothy Ferris, 1988, Coming of Age in the Milky Way]. Today we would question none of these so-called heresies; and, in fact, Pope John Paul II has essentially apologized, saying it was a mistake to have persecuted Galileo. ["...the theologians who judged Galileo were unable to see that the Bible does not make claims about the physical world as such. As a result they were mistaken in transposing 'into the realm of the doctrine of the faith a question that in fact pertained to scientific investigation' (John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 3 November 1992, pp. 1-2)" {quoted from a discourse on Science and Faith by Cardinal Poupard in 1995.} ]

It is part of the lore of our nation that the original European settlers came here to exercise religious freedom and to escape religious persecution. When our nation was founded, the separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Bill of Rights to ensure the exercise of religious freedom. And yet, today, we are once again struggling with issues of the separation of Church and State and issues of religious tolerance. While President Bush, in his bid for re-election, became a focal point in this debate, it is really deeper and more insidious. We have state boards of education proclaiming that we should not be teaching evolution in the biology classroom and dictating changes in science textbooks based on religious beliefs. And yet Evolution by Natural Selection is as much a fundamental part of all biology as Newton's Laws of Gravitation are a fundamental part of physics. Technical arguments over things like punctuated equilibria in evolution no more deny Darwin's theories than do arguments over relativity and quantum mechanics deny Newton's theories. They continue to be called theories because science is a fundamentally skeptical endeavor requiring that language.

Science cannot (and should not pretend to be able to) prove the existence or the non-existence of God. Neither should articles of faith in any religion be used to dictate science. Intolerance among religions has been the source of much pain and suffering in the world. Religious Intolerance imposed on science and education in this country could lead to a new generation that is inadequately prepared to face the world of the future. We risk our scientific supremacy in the world by allowing the separation of church and state to be broken down and by allowing articles of religious faith to dictate how we teach science. We risk everything by allowing religious intolerance and misunderstandings to drive conflicts both within our nation and around the world.


Wednesday, December 08, 2004

One With the Earth

A depth of feeling about the land and the environment around us comes from immersion. In the so called modern world, people have become too isolated from the natural environment. Many have become immersed in cultural or technological phenomena and relate to those rather than to the natural phenomena of the world. Sara Stein has documented this in her books beginning with "Noah's Garden" [1993] and culminating in "Noah's Children" [2001]. Those who have a deep feeling for the natural world were most likely exposed to it with positive interactions in their early years. They may have also been immersed at a later age or studied it in school. What a person sees is shaped by what they understand and believe. When a Republican Congressman refers to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge as "barren wasteland", it says more about the inner workings of that Congressman's mind than it does about ANWR. The same is true when President Bush denies global climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence and world opinion.

Humans can accomplish much through technology. They cannot disconnect themselves from the natural world. Human populations have grown exponentially for a long time, and their impact on the world has been magnified by technology. Repeatedly, people have thought that some aspect of the natural world is too immense to be over exploited or damaged. Repeatedly, they have over exploited and damaged. Then they deny it, they reject the evidence of science and their senses, because they have little experience appreciating and understanding the natural world.

One who understands sees much just looking out into their own backyard. Seeing the southern bird that once never came this far north, they see climate change. Seeing fewer migratory warblers than in decades past, they see tropical habitat loss. Seeing fewer butterflies than in decades past, they see widespread over use of pesticides. Seeing invasive introduced plants, they recognize a threat to nearby natural environments. On the positive side, one who understands can see a transition in plant species along a hike and recognize a glacial erratic that has changed the underlying soil chemistry and increased local plant diversity. Seeing a tall tree they see the equally large inverted tree of the underground root system and the cycling of nutrients from the soil to the tree to the leaves and back to the soil. They see leaf litter, brush piles and stone walls as locally increased habitat diversity for small animals and native insects. They see themselves connected to and dependent upon the natural world and they take joy and appreciation in it.

The Native Americans had an appreciation of the earth that most of us have lost. The "centuries-old Haudenosaunee philosophy that all major decisions of a nation must be based on how those decisions will affect at least the next seven generations" grew from "centuries, if not millennia, of wisdom about the earth, about the fruits of the earth, and about human settlement over time in any particular part of the earth" [the Next Seven Generations]. We shun this wisdom at our own peril.

Regaining this knowledge and feeling requires some immersion. There is no simple recipe, but there are many ways to begin. Turn off the television and go for a hike. Look closely at the things around you. Try to see all the differences you can between two plants. Take a course in plant identification. Read "A Sand County Almanac" [1949] by Aldo Leopold. Talk to others about nature. There is no particular path or destination, only a journey that stretches generations into the future.


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Countering Machiavelli

Is it naive to believe in the importance of understanding and caring for others? Are there those who will simply smile upon it as wrong headed and then go about achieving power through cynical means? Is it necessary that they should succeed and those who are thus labeled "naive" should fail? Have Jesus and Mohammed failed because their followers have caused so much anguish in their names? Are those who believe as Machiavelli did reachable? Or are there differences that are true and deep and unbridgeable?

Let me tell a true story of a missionary who was once traveling deep inside a far land. He had been there many years, learned the language and the ways of this land, and done much that was good. One day he was captured by bandits. They were arguing what to do with him when their leader came down the road. He stopped them and said, "You must set this man free. Once I was alone and injured, and he stopped and treated my wounds. He saved my life, and we owe him his." Now these were bandits and robbers waylaying travelers. Little else is known about them. While doing good guarantees nothing, it improves one's odds. People around the world have beliefs that include concepts like Karma. They also have sayings like, "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword."

The United States is in a somewhat unique state. We have become, at this moment in time, the single super power in the world. No other country has the capability to project such awesome force around the globe. However, even with the current disparity in power, we are far from omnipotent and we are not invincible. Unlike the overlord in Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End", we lose battles, we fail, our young people die. If we use our force needlessly or wantonly, and do not take the time to understand others and care for others, then we invite them to hate us, and we are responsible for the consequences.

The challenge is how to get from here to there. If there are those who believe in the Machiavellian approach, and in authoritarianism and militarism, and they have gained the upper hand both in terms of power and mindshare among the people, then others must speak out and be the voice for true moral strength. If the Machiavellian leaders pander to specific groups and divide the nation, then others must find the high ground and speak to the universal moral values that unite the diverse religions and cultures around us. One has to believe that truth and reason, spoken with courage, can bring the people of America around.


Monday, December 06, 2004

Understanding Others

Understanding others is an age old issue. It is far too easy to become closed in with one's own thoughts and beliefs and to listen only to those who agree, and it is often difficult to understand those who are different or have had different experiences. However, any true leader should recognize the issue and make the effort. Bush's strength in speaking for his beliefs is also his weakness. He divides because he does not acknowledge or accept the legitimacy of alternative beliefs. How many different religions are there in the United States? How many non-religions? What then, other than short term political expediency, is gained by endorsing one set of beliefs above all the others? While his attitude is notable with respect to religion, it appears throughout his secular agenda as well, in his inability to relate to or compromise with those who have different points of view on environmental issues, tax policies, and the war on terrorism for example.

We should expect more from our leaders, but the difficulty of understanding others is highlighted by its repeated mention throughout history by prophets, philosophers and writers. This very difficulty is reason for acknowledgment and emphasis, because failure to understand others or to be open to understanding others is a significant source of major conflicts.

And yet, saying "understanding others" simply does not convey it. This is inherent in the nature of the problem. How a person sees the world is shaped by that person's belief system. This applies to religion. It applies to science. It applies to culture. In the most systematic sense, Thomas Kuhn [The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962] defined a paradigm shift as when one scientific theory is replaced by another, and documented how scientists see the world differently before and after. Understanding someone who is different might be likened to experiencing a paradigm shift. This is embodied in the admonition not to judge another until you have walked a mile in their shoes — clearly a metaphorical statement for stepping into and experiencing someone else's life.

It is neither possible nor necessary to understand everyone, but spanning that gulf just a few times lends an appreciation that the gulf exists and lends legitimacy to differences. That experience and appreciation in itself can facilitate a more general understanding of others. In Matthew 7:6 [King James Version], Jesus says, "neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again to rend you." Some might take this literally and read it as justifying the exclusivity of their own "revealed truths," an interpretation that would seem to stray from the usual nature of Jesus' teachings. However, I heard a street preacher who interpreted that verse as follows: "what you perceive to be pearls may not be what another person needs or wants." In particular, if a person is poor and homeless, then their needs are best met by food and shelter. If you deny their needs, and focus instead on your own, then you aren't likely to connect with them and may indeed alienate them. We may be doing this on a world wide scale, and this may say something about why so many people in the world today "hate America," even aside from any effects of the current war on terrorism.

One could write a book on this topic. It has been done. For here, further examples will be relegated to the comments section.