1 January 2008

Do you think America is more moral today than 50 years ago?

A few months back, I engaged in an email debate with a friend over the question of whether or not America is less moral today than say 30 or 50 years ago. My friend believes, that it’s not even close, that our culture was way moral 30-50 years ago than it is today’s Post-Christian culture — and it’s due to his view that Christianity was much more mainstream in America back then. At the top of his bullet list is obviously, sexual immorality, permissiveness of homosexual lifestyles, filth and obscenity on television, etc.…

While I acknowledge that in some respects, it is true that the times are less moral, that on the whole, the present age is no less moral than previous times. In countering his assessment, I offered up the following points…

  • …end of segregation and diminished racism. Racism still exists, but it’s far less prevalent, and among younger Americans, much less in effect. I predict that each successive generation will witness a lower percentage of those guilty of this sin.

  • …attitudes toward women — even in the recent past, women were seen as subservient to men, denied career and educational opportunities based simply on their sex. Even the vernacular of the day illustrated this truth — women were referred to as “broads” or “dames”.

  • …things that were hidden then are much more open today. Immorality existed to an equal or greater degree but in an era with no cell phones, 2 or 3 television channels, and a handful of radio broadcasts, the gap between cover and transparency was vast. Today, with the proliferation of the internet, cable, satellite, and ubiquity of cell phones means a lot more laundry is aired out in public.

  • …less acts of violence committed by man against his fellow man.

Our email exchange brought to mind this wonderful essay by Steven Pinker, A History of Violence.

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.

The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it’s an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it’s the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

I realize that the focus of this essay was on one aspect of morality, and it was a global outlook, not national. And Pinker cites a number of varied theories on why this reduction of cruelty and violence has occurred, with a caveat that it’s by no means certain to endure. But it’s notable as our perspective on these matters can be so distorted. Consider how increased television news coverage of violent crimes, even while such crime incidents are in decline, are perceived to be more problematic by viewers.

It must be said that the concept of a Post-Christian world that is more moral than the Christian culture of a previous age is troubling to a Christian. But that depends on what the definition of a Christian is — is it applicable to those that call themselves Christian, but who often act in ways contrary to Christ? What of those who don’t flaunt their Christianity but yet do the stuff Jesus did? And what about those who don’t even claim Christ as their savior, yet spend their lives conducting the great commission he instructed his followers to carry out?

On another issue, a litmus test for many conservative Christian voters, legality of abortion offers another puzzle. The less reverent European culture, where abortion is legal and contraception widely available, has an abortion rate half of the rate of the more religious United States.

The wealth of information that comes out of the study provides some striking lessons, the researchers said. In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

What say you?

28 October 2006

The Original October Surprise

Former AP and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry with a series adapted from his recent book Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.
To the shock of the Task Force, the six-page Russian report stated, as fact, that Casey, Bush, CIA officials and other Republicans had met secretly with Iranian officials in Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign.

The Russians depicted the hostage negotiations that year as a two-way competition between the Carter White House and the Reagan-Bush campaign to outbid one another for Iran's cooperation on the hostages.

The Russians asserted that the Reagan-Bush team indeed had disrupted Carter's hostage negotiations, the exact opposite of the Task Force's conclusion.

11 March 2006

No lie can live forever

Some interesting parallels between the Warren Commission's coverup of the truth about the John F. Kennedy assassination and recent undergoings with the present day George W. Bush administration.

That the CIA at its highest levels exacted its revenge on President Kennedy has been an open secret since 1963. A Gallup poll on the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 2003 found that twice as many people believed that the CIA was implicated in the assassination as there were who accepted the official fiction that Oswald had acted alone.

In 1963, people were already worried abut the CIA's extraordinary use of its powers. In the “New York Times,” Arthur Krock wrote in October 1963 that if ever there would be a coup in the United States, it “would come from the CIA and not the Pentagon.” The CIA, Krock wrote, was a “malignancy” on the body politic. It is difficult to imagine such words being printed in the “Times” today, so profoundly has our freedom of the press eroded since the time of the Kennedy assassination.

After the death of President Kennedy, ex-President Harry S. Truman, under whose watch the CIA was created in 1947, wrote on the front page of the “Washington Post,” that the CIA had been running a “shadow government,” becoming “operational.” Brazenly, Allen Dulles at one point even told a reporter to think of the CIA as “the State Department for unfriendly countries.” The CIA's policy-making also involved interference in the electoral process in Italy and France, funneling money to certain political parties - in Italy it was the Christian Democrats whom the CIA funded in an effort to prevent a coalition of socialists and Communists from taking power. The assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro was connected to that CIA campaign.

At the time of the assassination, Charles de Gaulle remarked that John F. Kennedy, whom he admired, had died as a result of an intra-government conflict, a situation not uncommon in many countries. The documentation available since the passage of the JFK Act in 1992 overwhelmingly supports de Gaulle's view.

The rubber-stamping of the Warren Report by the press in 1964 seems to mark the moment when the mainstream press became “embedded” in official versions of events. Traces of that process have surfaced. In April 1967 the CIA issued a memo (available at the National Archives) instructing friendly reporters on how to reply to challenges to the Warren Report, recommendations that have resurfaced in the past few years in a renewed set of attacks on Jim Garrison, a decade after his death.

So it should come as no surprise that the “New York Times” for a year covered up the National Security Agency domestic surveillance of citizens with rubber-stamped search warrants issued under a “Foreign Intelligence Services Act” (FISA) run by the Pentagon, or with no warrants at all. Only when their own reporter was about to publish a book detailing the evidence did the “Times” run that story. It should be horrifying that the Congressional debate about the Patriot Act has not been over whether there should be such a government capability, but how long it should be extended.

13 February 2006

A lightbulb manufactured in 1901 burns bright to this day


16 January 2006

Love and justice, not aggression and exploitation, hold the real hope for a peaceful and prosperous future

Professor Juan Cole applies Martin Luther King's Beyond Vietnam speech to the current quagmire in Iraq.
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just…

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]

Of course, the national news media shun the words of Martin Luther King in the period of 1965 to 1968, those years preceding his tragic assassination.

21 October 2005

Conservative folklore

Here is a conversation similar to those I've been engaged in over the past years, on the subject of FDR and the Great Depression.
Can't remember now whether it was in high school or sometime in my first couple years of college when I first heard the argument that the New Deal didn't end the Depression.

It was a long time ago, whenever it was, but that first time I heard it was far from the last. It was dismaying then that so many years after FDR there were people who could seriously argue the point and it's even more dismaying now that they're still arguing the point.

But then there are people who still argue that slavery wasn't so bad.

And anyway the South wasn't fighting to protect slavery, it was fighting for States' Rights.

Which rights?

Well, um, the right to permit slavery...

The the New Deal didn't work argument went---goes---Since at some unspecificed point a few years into FDR's first or second term the United States hadn't returned to the level of prosperity it supposedly enjoyed in 1928, nothing Roosevelt did had any real effect.

This comes out of an idea that has been a fundamental of conservative thought forever: Since there is no heaven on earth and no human endeavor is perfect and therefore Utopia is impossible, we might as well not bother trying to solve any problems, particularly if trying means having to spend my tax dollars.

At any rate, whenever I'd make the case that the point from which to begin measuring Roosevelt's success or failure should be 1931 or so, and if you do that you see that things are an awful lot better, on the whole, by 1938.

Yes, would come the insistent rebuttal, but he didn't end the Depression.

The problem I had and anyone with a real knowledge of history has with this argument is that it's true. Roosevelt didn't end the Depression. We don't believe that he did. He saved us from the worst of it, turned the economy around, and set us on a road that led to the great prosperity and stability of the 1950s. It took years for the country to recover. But what you're faced with here is the grade school text book version of history---the Happy Days Are Here Again three paragraph summation of the 1930s and 40s. Roosevelt ended the Depression and won World War II.

If the New Deal didn't end the Depression, what did?

Always, always, the person I was arguing with came back with: World War II.

World War II?

World War II.

Not the New Deal?


So all the massive government spending programs and job programs didn't work?


But World War II did?



By revitalizing American industries and putting everybody back to work!

Uh huh. And what was it, specifically, that revitalized those industries?

Orders for guns and planes and tanks and battleships, of course. There was a war on, duh!

I see. And who was the main customer for all the guns and planes and tanks and battleships?

Um, the Government.

And where did all those people go to work?

Um, the military.

Which means who paid their salaries?

The Government.

So massive Goverment spending and job programs didn't work but then a massive government spending and jobs program did?

Well, yeah. But it was different!

How so?

It just was!

Give me one way.

Well, we needed all that stuff during the war.

The guns and tanks and planes and battleships?


And we didn't need the roads and the schools and new post offices and dams and electrification programs?

Sputter. Sputter.

Here I would helpfully provide my opponent with the point that the good thing about planes, tanks, and battleships is that they get shot down, blown up, and sunk and have to be constantly replaced. You build a school and 30, 40, and even 50 years can by before you have to build another one.

In 1933, when Roosevelt took office, unemployment was at 25%. By 1941, the start of Roosevelt's third term, it shrunk to under 10%. Employment increased from 38 million in 1932, to 44 million in 1936, and in 1941 rose to over 50 million. While not all of FDR's New Deal initiatives were successful, his administration ushered in an era where the size of the middle class mushroomed, and an America where most all willing to work could provide for a family on one income.

Sadly, many blindly swallow the conservative revisionist reassessments, that go completely against the truth of the empirical economic numbers.

14 September 2005

A storm created by a conservative ideology that, consciously or not, leads to contempt and indifference toward those not seen as society’s winners

What Katrina Tells Us About Mr. Bush's Philosophy of Government — an excellent article by Leonard Steinhorn.
Years from now, historians will likely see the Bush administration's initially callous and indifferent response to hurricane Katrina as a parable for the type of conservatism this president and his party currently represent.

From the Roosevelt years through the Seventies, we defined the American Dream as a good job, a piece of the rock, and the ability to take care of one's family. Those who lived paycheck to paycheck earned our respect, because hard work and determination were deemed virtuous. These were the people who built America.

Today, however, the conservative movement has redefined success and worth in America. Because some of us succeed, conservatives say, there must be something flawed in those who don't. The American Dream has been redefined as striking it rich, and falling short just isn't good enough.

It’s a worldview coded into the Bush and Reagan tax cuts, which showered money on the super wealthy under the assumption that these are the real people who know how to build America. Those with money, in other words, contribute more to our nation’s health than those who merely work. They have wisdom and virtue.

Compassionate conservatism at its finest. Or perhaps it's just that Bush surrounds himself with so many yes-men, that it has a paralyzing effect.