Empathy is all the rage these days, from studying it in academia to explaining its origins in pop science to bemoaning its absence in politics. The Big Questions seem to include what does it mean to be empathetic, how does empathy differ from compassion and generosity, how do we develop empathy as children or adults, and so forth.
And where, oh where does religion fit in with empathy? I thought this seemed like a great question for Civilized Conversation, since we like to tackle topics that most people already have made up their minds about. Religion (especially organized religion) is either tribal and empathy-smothering or the ultimate source of compassion and love. Everybody can cite religious texts, historical examples, and/or personal experience to prove – prove, I tells you – their POV.
What do you think? I’m not sure yet myself. Here are a few optional background readings on empathy and its possible relationship to religiosity. I will start us off with an amateur’s distinction between spirituality, faith, and religion and working definitions of empathy and compassion. We can blow up those definitions right away if you want to.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Religion and empathy:
- The “Golden Rule” (do unto others…) is doctrine in eight major world religions. Recommended.
- Jesus’s Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, etc.
- Buddhism: Compassion is its core.
Religiosity and empathy:
- Religious people are more compassionate than non-believers, but reason is not in conflict with compassion. Recommended.
- But, you do NOT need religion to have empathy.
- In fact, empathy is a personality trait and religiosity doesn’t increase or decrease how much of it you develop. Recommended.
- Religious children are less altruistic.
- Religious doctors show more empathy to their patients.
- Politicians: Is contempt for the poor a religious value – or just bad theology?
Is empathy in general overrated?
- Against empathy. Recommended, but long.
NEXT WEEK: #MeToo – What does sexual harassment mean today?
Obviously, investigations of Trump Administration corruption are still in the early stages and we will be talking about the subject many times in the future. Still, it seems like a good time to gain a little historical perspective on what is occurring.
There have been lots of executive branch scandals in American history, as this list shows. Cabinet secretaries have gone to jail. Supreme Court nominations have been withdrawn. White House aides have been convicted of felonies.
But, far fewer scandals have reached all the way into the oval office and up to the President himself and/or his top-most advisors. The list of relevant ones is even shorter if we narrow things down to malfeasance that led to impeachments and near impeachments plus the specific types of crimes/corruption that Trump has been accused of being a part of: Obstruction of justice and undermining the rule of law; personal and family graft, and collusion with foreign powers to help get elected. I‘m thinking of:
- Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
- Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
- GW Bush’s 2006 firing of seven U.S. attorney’s allegedly for purely political reasons.
- Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal (late 1980s)
- Watergate (Nixon resigned 1974).
- A few others; e.g., allegations that candidate Nixon asked the South Vietnamese government to avoid peace negotiations to boost his election prospects in 1968, and that candidate Reagan interfered in Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. (Neither proven; Reagan’s likely didn’t occur.)
Some of these events bring up the tricky issue of how to define corruption for our purposes. Is “unfitness” corruption? Is corruption just personal graft, obstruction of justice, and/or a sex scandal? The Constitution does not specify that impeachment be only for a criminal act. The Founders meant it to be a political solution to an unfit president. And, what about political acts or policy decisions that we think stem from corrupt motives; e.g., Bush’s deregulation or Obama’s deal with the insurance and hospital lobbies to get Obamacare passed? LBJ’s unseemly legislative arm-twisting?
Since the lines get blurry the more we expand corruption’s meaning I will give a short opening presentation that covers only two things:
- The above bulleted scandals, focusing on their elements that have potential analogs in the Trump era; and
- Some thoughts on the types of lessons we can learn from this history. I’ll focus on how the major actors that are supposed to hold a president accountable in times like these have acted or failed to act (e.g., special prosecutors, Congress, SCOTUS, the press, and public opinion).
That’s a tall order, so I will try to be concise. Most of it will come from memory so it isn’t directly supported by the material in this week’s optional background readings. Instead, the links are bare-bones descriptions of past scandals and summaries of what is known so far about Trump’s possible corruption. I did find a few good commentaries directly on point re what past presidential corruption scandals augur for holding Trump and his people accountable.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Major presidential corruption scandals –
- Clinton impeachment. The outrage of it all.
- Andrew Johnson’s impeachment is described in another link.
- Iran-Contra affair.
- GW Bush’s firing of seven U.S. attorneys.
October Surprises –
Trump: What we know so far –
- Re: Russia. (87 indictments this week alone, so hard to keep current.)
- Re: his profiteering will enduringly corrupt the office of the presidency. Either recommended.
History’s lessons –
- Nixon: Unlike Nixon, Trump probably will not be held accountable. Recommended.
- Clinton: Three lessons from his impeachment. Recommended
- The closest analogy to Trump is to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. See here for more on this. Recommended.
- Impeachment should never be rushed – like it was in 1998.
NEXT WEEK: Does religion promote empathy or diminish it?
Please focus any reading you do on the next post below. However, after rereading that post (written in anger, albeit justified IMO) it is fair to make one more point that does more than blame one small group of people. It takes more than just passionately anti-gun control citizens and politicians to stop all efforts to prevent future horrific mass shootings. It takes a general public that, in between high-profile massacres – places gun safety measures low down on its list of priorities and completely off the list of reasons why they vote how they do.
For more on this point, see here.
The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999. (Some estimates are lower.) About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.
At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:
- Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
- Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
- Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?
Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics. They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control. Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.
Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.
The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –
- Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
- Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
- What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
- At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
- How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.
Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)
A reminder: All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Political system obstacles –
- “Happiness is a worn gun.” Among the fetishists. Harpers 2010, 7pp.
- Americans’ anti-govt gun fantasy. Book excerpt in Slate, 2017, 12pp.
Recommended to read 1 of those 2.
- The NRA is morphing into an even more paranoid and purely-partisan far-right-wing group. Short.
- A list of restrictions on guns Republicans are busily dismantling.
- The real problem: A deep partisan divide on a wide range of intensely-felt cultural issues of which guns may be the worst. A must-read for our discussion.
What (if any) gun control might help?
- None; gun restrictions do not reduce crime. Direct rebuttal here.
- We must:
- Wrong. Only large-scale gun control would do any good, and USA must decide if we want it, says this conservative convert to gun control.
- Key: Keeping guns away from the mentally ill is hard. Recommended NYT.
NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.
Gale, Ken, and DavidG will meet this Thursday 2/15 to pick March – July topics. If you have any ideas, comment here or email/tell DavidG at the next mtg. Thanks to those that volunteered to help select (Linda, James, Sal, others). We will take you up on it next time or two.
This topic is just a way to ask two big questions, I think. They are (1) What motivates America’s interaction with the rest of the world, and (2) how much “good” do we really accomplish and for whom (domestically and abroad)?
Conversations on topics like this often focus on the wars we have fought and their moral justification and successes or failures. CivCon’s discussions of war and peace issues tend to enter around the basic Left v. Right cleavage on the morality of those wars and who they are really fought for. To (some but not all) progressives, the U.S. government has been the bad guy in many times and places, mainly because “we the People” in our foreign policy is really “We, the Corporations” or “We, the neoconservative imperialists.” Many (but not all) conservatives seem to think our country’s moral virtue and exceptionalism are beyond questioning and that our national interests are broad, unchanging, and best advanced through violence and threats of violence. Both sides off and on return to an old American tradition: An almost messianic desire to spread our values, both democratic and capitalist.
Civilized Conversation has managed to broaden this stale debate in the past, IMO. Beyond wars and “other “hard power,” we also have dealt with “soft power” issues like trade policy, non-coercive diplomacy, and immigration.
Now, of course, we have to add two new wrinkles brought to us by the Trump Administration. One is a resurgent patriotism (or belligerent nationalism, depending on your POV) that Trump created and/or rode into the oval office. The other is his sharp retreat from global leadership under his campaign slogan “American First.” (We did meetings on both of these. See below.)
So, my idea was that we could go over different POVs on the (1) intentions and (2) results of the biggest chunks of our recent foreign policy, including but not limited to wars and military coercion. I don’t think people have to know much about foreign affairs for this to be a good meeting. To me our topic is really all about who you think the “We” is in “our” relations with the rest of the world.
NEWBIES: Please note that the readings are optional and some are tagged as being more useful than others. I may start reducing the number of readings since I think they scare away new members. What do the rest of you think?
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
Basic background and related CivCon mtgs –
- ABCs of how US foreign policy gets made. Short.
- 2017 CivCon – What does the USA stand for? Part 1 by DavidG + Part 2 by Ali. Some useful links.
- 2017 CivCon – Has Trump summoned a New American Nationalism?
- 2012 – What is patriotism?
Good guys, bad guys, or neither –
- USA is the good guy when we support a global rule of law.
- …and when we don’t let belief in our own superiority drive what we do. Recommended
- Trump has started a battle for the soul of U.S. foreign policy. Recommended.
- Neither: We should put protecting Americans over reassuring others. Conservative POV (but not neoconservative).
- Video of Obama speech on what USA stands for. (28m).
NEXT WEEK: Would gun control really reduce crime?
We have talked about the Constitution many, many times and in many detailed and abstract ways. We have never asked what should the average citizen know about the Constitution, both in terms of what’s in the document and why it matters.
What they do know is not much. The level of public ignorance of our founding document is astounding. Forget bills of attainder, living constitution versus original meaning, and substantive due process. More than one-third of Americans cannot name a single right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and one in six believe Muslims are not entitled to equal constitutional rights and equal protection!
So, or our purposes assume that the average American is a tabula rasa on this stuff. What are the most critical, basic things about the Constitution that they need to know? Do they need to be familiar with anything other than the bare basics of the Bill of Rights and the basic powers of government? What about the history of how and why the Constitution was written and/or a teeny little bit on how judges and SCOTUS interpret it? What do people probably need to unlearn that is wrong? You get the idea.
Below are some optional readings. They include a quiz for YOU to take on basic Constitutional knowledge; discussions of public ignorance and its importance; and links to some old CivCon meetings. You might want to peruse the two meetings that dealt with progressive versus conservative methods of constitutional interpretation if you are not familiar at all with the subject. The one on the liberal POV had the better links.
Also, at Monday’s meeting I will pick which two volunteers will help me pick our next round of topics (March – June). Send me your topic ideas!
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Related CivCon meetings:
- Liberal and conservative constitutional interpretation. Click.
- Sept. 2015: Is public ignorance of basic civics a big problem?
- Nov 2016: What is “cultural literacy?”
Your knowledge of the Constitution –
- Take this quiz. 10 questions, then a harder 50. How did you do?
- Some things that are NOT in the Constitution (at least explicitly)
- FYI: Full text of The Constitution.
What they teach kids about the Constitution –
- In California: What kids learn, by grade.
- There is a “National Constitution Day” every September 17, by law. School kids must spend an hour on it with. DavidG has been a guest speaker in local high school classes.
- California is trying to promote/recognize constitutional and civic knowledge.
- The Simpsons version of Schoolhouse Rock explains it all.
What the public actually knows –
- Almost nothing. Wow.
- Support for the 1st amendment has been eroding and since Trump is crumbling. Vulnerable due to ignorance?
- Yet, civic ignorance is rational, points out this conservative. And, most voters are not stupid.
NEXT WEEK: US foreign policy – How do we know we are the good guys?