Next Monday’s topic will be a welcome breather before we tackle some much darker stuff the next week and in early May. The latter will explore the most urgent and important issue in American public affairs in a generation, IMO: How serious is the Trump Administration’s assault on our country’s democratic institutions and rule of law, and will the Republican Party’s current acquiescence to and collaboration with authoritarianism survive his presidency? Told you we’d need a breather, and thanks to Gale for suggesting this interesting one.
She asks: Does a good life need to have a “purpose?” What does that even mean, for starters? What kind of a purpose can a life be directed towards? Service and altruism? Fighting injustice? Finding love and nurturing close family relationships? Money and material acquisition? Social status and approval? Spreading Gospel’s good word and God’s plan?
How many of us have ever had a single purpose or goal that we used to drive our life choices? Where did we get the notion from? Is being highly purpose-driven a function of personality type or upbringing? Does it come from religious faith or personal philosophy? From our educations and/or personal experiences?
How many people do this sort of thing? We all know of famous people that were driven to have their life turn out a certain way and they succeeded, like Bill Gates, LeBron James, and so on. Are they the exceptions? How do most highly goal-directed people react to disappointment? When should they (and you) give up their dreams? There are many other good questions.
Do we have any answers? I think some of us in CivCon underestimate how good our discussions are in some of our more personal topics. So, I’m looking forward to Monday’s meeting. April 23 is our can democracy survive meeting, so let’s enjoy this one! Here’s a few light reading suggestions this week.
(GALE: Would you like to start us off by describing what you had in mind?)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A happy life needs to pursue meaningful things. Recommended.
- You don’t need purpose to live a happy life. Recommended.
- Yeah you do, says this 21m TED talk lecture by Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life).
- Having a life’s purpose lets you connect with the present moment and dig deeper into yourself.
- Besides, science says it’s good for you. Recommended.
Or: No, science has found being happy and having a meaningful life are different things.
- Does life itself (just being here) have a purpose? Perhaps not.
- “Meaning of Life” long entries at:
NEXT WEEK: Is the rule of law under serious assault in the USA?
That atheists are among the most despised and least trusted Americans is common knowledge. (Some statistics here) Most atheists and some secular people see this as simple bigotry. More generously, it could be viewed as a failure of imagination, an inability to grasp that secular values not revealed to us by a supreme being can be moral and decent too.
But, is it possible that atheists themselves contribute to the intolerant climate by being intolerant themselves? Do prominent “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others speak for all American atheists in their open contempt for religious faith? If not, what do most regular atheists and/or agnostics really think about religion and the (vast majority of) people in the world that practice it?
Perhaps the answer depends in part on what it means to be “intolerant.” How are atheists intolerance – through which words and actions? And, what is its origin nd to whom or what is it directed?
Sounds like good wholesome fun. Here are some discussion questions that might stimulate your thinking and some (highly optional this week) readings. Our religion topics usually attract curious new members. So, let’s make sure to stay Civilized on Monday – as we almost always are.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- “Atheists are intolerant” means…
- How? Contempt, mockery, acting superior, merely disagreeing with and refusing to bow to religion’s superiority?
- Towards what/whom? Of organized religion? The idea of faith itself? Of revealed truth? Miracles? An afterlife? Non-material causes? Fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy? Politicized religion?
- Are atheists really this way? Which ones?
- Why? Do atheists have good reasons to be angry at religion? Are atheists persecuted, persecutors, or both?
- Discuss this comment: “The accusation of the strident atheist is similar to the “angry black man” trope in that it is designed to get people to shut up and disenfranchise people who are saying things that the accuser does not like.”
- Discuss this comment: “If religion is responsible for that which it seems to inspire [evil, violence], one must take the good [it also inspires] with the bad; if it’s just an excuse we lay on top of our actions, then moral indignation at religion’s harms are unfounded.”
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Non-religious and atheist Americans –
- There are 6 kinds of American non-believers, but only 1 kind (15% of total) actively hates religion. Recommended.
- There may be a lot more atheists than commonly thought.
Are atheists intolerant?
- Yes they are. But, atheists are not generally angry people and calling them “religious” or “fundamentalist” is just silly.
- The “New Atheism:” The movement does some good but tends to be intolerant of faith. Likening God to a mythical “flying spaghetti monster” is needlessly insulting to people of faith. Recommended.
- Please. It’s the religious fundamentalists who are the intolerant ones. America’s religious right-wingers bred the New Atheism they loathe.
- Why Americans don’t like atheists. Why the New Atheists hate religion.
NEXT WEEK: Does a good life need to have a purpose?
A technological revolution is coming to…everything, obviously, including warfare. We aren’t talking just about smart bombs and armed drones anymore. The future might bring us automated battles fought by robots with artificial intelligence, swarms of micro-drones that can replicate themselves, self-guided bullets, non-lethal weapons (that can be used on political protestors, BTW), particle beam rifles, gene-spliced bioweapons, and other armaments beyond our imagination.
This stuff is so important that in the next two month we will have three topics related to it. First up on Monday is the basics. We will learn about some of the wilder military technologies that are being developed to the extent we can know about such secret stuff; how their availability and employment could change how we get into/avoid wars, fight them, and finish them; and some of the broad ramifications for national defense, international relations, and our safety.
On May 28 we will consider the future of nuclear deterrence in particular, as suggested by James, focusing on whether nuclear war is going to remain as unthinkable as it is today. Finally, on June 28th we bring it all together and also tackle President Trump’ specialty: Brinksmanship and threatening war as a routine tool of negotiating.
Here are the usual discussion questions and optional readings. The reading focus on future gee-wiz weaponry under development and possible implications for war and peace. As you read, think about our basic topic question: Is war about to become too easy to wage? In my opening remarks I will list some of the technologies and some hopefully useful ways to think about some of these dilemmas.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- History: How has the world dealt with military technological revolutions in the past? E.g., nuclear weapons, chemical/biological, and earlier? Lessons learned?
- Future war: Which technologies are at issue and how could they make wars easier to start and harder to deter and end? Easier/harder for whom – USA/allies, adversary nations, terrorists and criminals)? What will “war” mean in 20-30 years?
- Implications: Tradeoffs (esp. reducing costs of war vs. lowering its threshold). Implications for deterrence and diplomacy? Ethics/morality.
- Uncertainty: What is the danger of us thinking future wars will be easier and being proven wrong, or vice versa?
- Options: What’s best – Develop capability, arms races, arms control, alliances, prepare the public to live with uncertainty?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Key point: Technological advances never made war unthinkable in the past.
New technologies –
- 8 technologies that are already transforming international security. Recommended.
- 9 amazing military technologies of the future (slides). Recommended
- What is DARPA working on nowadays?
- We may soon deploy armed drones domestically – a civil liberties disaster.
War becoming too easy?
- An expert pleads with us to notice how easy war is becoming and how bad that is. Video 50m.
- The ethics of using robots in war: Short version recommended. Long version but strongly against it.
- Could we ever negotiate a cybersecurity treaty?
No, war will never be easy –
- There are no easy wars in our future, and we should never think it will return.
The top advisor Trump just replaced with John Bolton agrees! Either recommended.
- New tech will mean new vulnerabilities, too, especially dependence on computer networks and space-based assets. Recommended.
- Killer robots could end war and usher in permanent peace.
NEXT WEEK: Do atheists tend to be intolerant?
People have been pining for “another Eisenhower” off and on for decades. As with most historical analogies, the desire for another Eisenhower probably says more about the political views of those pining away for him than it does about our current problems and the type of political leadership that could address them.
Wanting an Ike-like president can mean one or more of several different things, I suppose. It can mean a desire to revive an extinct species: Moderate Republicans, along with a leader that can make the GOP accept the Great Society and its extensions the way Eisenhower accepted the New Deal. Or, maybe it reflects a yearning for a return of the bipartisan consensus politics of the 1950s and a politics of decency and civility. Or, maybe some folks just like the idea of a successful military leader who can knock a few heads together in Washington. a.
Obviously, Eisenhower’s presidency and 1950s politics and culture were not as rosy as some folk think they were. The 1950s were before civil rights revolution was completed and before equal rights for women and LGBT folks were even on the table. The Cold War was at its most dangerous heights. Moreover, unless you have a “great man” view of history, it is not very enlightening to compare one president’s managerial and personal style and to another’s.
However, I think it could be useful to examine two things. First, we can explore how the social and political structures of the Eisenhower era shaped political decisions and constrained the choices that could be made.
Yes, President Trump seems to make decisions more based on the last thing he saw on TV and desires for vengeance against enemies (real and imagined) than on the normal factors that shape presidential behavior. Still, no presidency is about one person even if this one thinks it is. Comparing today’s political and social climate to the one that Eisenhower and other political leaders of the era faced might be instructive for today – and tomorrow, assuming someday American politics returns from the ledge it has crawled out on.
Second, we could discuss the whole idea of consensus-based politics. Is bipartisanship and cooperation even possible anymore, or desirable? Our nation’s politics are so polarized, its problems are so daunting, and its international position so rapidly-weakening that perhaps a return to the kind of cautious incrementalism that consensus politics usually requires may not make much sense anymore. In my opening summary on Monday I will explain this POV a bit more and introduce some possible historical parallels that might make the Eisenhower presidency relevant to our current crisis.
We probably should get into foreign policy a fair amount, too. Yesterday, Trump picked uber-hawk John Bolton to be his national security advisor. An Islamophobic fringe figure who has repeatedly called for war with Iran and North Korea will control the flow of foreign policy information to our knowledge-challenged president. I cannot imagine a better time to talk about Eisenhower, a fervent Cold Warrior president that was also known to exercise “strategic restraint” and left office warning about the over-militarization of foreign policy.
This week’s optional readings include backgrounders on Eisenhower’s presidency and some comparisons of Ike to Trump and Obama. WWID: What would Ike do? Let’s figure it out Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
His presidency –
Some specifics –
- His famous farewell address was much more than just a warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Read this short speech.
- Ike quietly defeated his era’s most dangerous demagogue: Joe McCarthy. Recommended.
- Ike’s civil rights record.
- Obama was like Ike; he understood the need for “strategic restraint” and did his best work behind the scenes. Recommended.
- Conservative POVs: Conservatives should like Ike. Also, Trump is no Eisenhower and neither was Obama.
NEXT WEEK: Will technology make war too easy?
We last considered the politics of our immigration debate in 2015. At that time, comprehensive immigration reform still seemed possible, even though the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party had blown up such legislation twice in the last 10 years.
Obama was still president, too. So, the meeting focused on the main bipartisan bargain that had long been in play. Both sides wanted to reform America’s cumbersome legal immigration system and partially reorient it towards admitting higher-skilled labor. For undocumented/illegal immigrants, long story short, Democrats and Republican elites wanted to trade regulation in the UI labor market (green cards for almost UIs currently here coupled with a path to citizenship for some of them) for increased border security and better employer sanctions.
Ahem. Fourteen months into the most anti-immigrant presidency in a hundred years everything has changed. President Trump has attempted to ban immigration from certain Muslim countries and build a border wall. He has unleashed ICE on all undocumented immigrants indiscriminately. He threatens and denounces sanctuary cities and vows to hold DREAMERS hostage to a reduction in legal immigration. He demonizes immigrants as criminals and animals. (Excuse me, some immigrants). Some of these actions have been stopped or stalled by the courts, but others are being implemented and more is surely to come.
It seems like a good time to revisit what the public has a stomach for.
On Monday I will open our meeting with a quick overview of (1) Trump’s actions and proposed actions, (2) how the GOP’s immigration stance is changing under Trump’s control, and (3) whose public opinion could end up mattering the most here (e.g., GOP base vs. its big business wing vs. Democratic voters and independents, etc..) We can then discuss where the country might be heading and why, using the following discussion questions and/or your own.
The background articles go into more detail on all of these matters. Focus on the recommended ones.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What are the main pillars of the Trump Administration’s immigration policy: Laws, executive actions, threats, rhetoric? Where does any litigation stand?
- Where is all of this coming from? Trump and his inner circle? The GOP base? Is the entire GOP and its media machine on-board?
- Democrat: Are they united against all of this? All of it equally?
- Public opinion on legal and illegal immigration. Conserv/GOP vs. liberal/Dem differences? Preference vs. intensity of preference. à Whose opinion matters the most: In between elections vs. during campaigns.
- Will the Democrats be able to either stop some of this agenda or win in 2018 and reverse it?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Trump policies –
- Even without major legislation Trump has made far-reaching changes. Recommended.
- A major purpose: Make immigrants so afraid they will leave and others won’t come.
- UPDATE Sunday: The real purpose is to keep America White; it just is.
Public opinion –
- Americans do not want mass deportations but is okay with increased deportations. Recommended
- How the general public feels about immigration and illegal immigration.
- For GOP voters (only) immigration is our #1 problem.
The GOP’s big shift –
- Trump’s biggest achievement: Cutting legal immigration is back on the table. Recommended. GOP voters and their leaders no longer distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. Recommended.
- Right-wing groups will keep pressuring Trump to do even more.
Another POV –
NEXT WEEK: Do we need another Eisenhower?
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.