Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Where Are Veterans at Our Elite Colleges?

The New York Times - Frank Bruni
Where Are Veterans at Our Elite Colleges?

At a special presidential forum on Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will appear back-to-back, take questions from military veterans and ...

Harvard is a prime example of an elite college that has had an anti-military bias. This is part of a great cultural divide in our country. What much of the rest of the country sees is not an elite college, but “elitism” and a failure of our institutions.

He began collecting data, and for several years now, on Veterans Day, he has published an accounting of how many veterans, among a population of more than two million eligible for federal higher-education benefits, wind up at America’s most elite colleges. It appears on the website Inside Higher Ed, and this is from the first paragraph of his November 2015 tally: “Yale, four; Harvard, unknown; Princeton, one; Williams, one.” Harvard didn’t grant his request for information, he said.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Equality as an Affirmation of our Common Humanity

www.thefarcenter.com - The Far Center: Equality as an Affirmation of Our Common Humanity

Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or any subject, always has a “central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea" in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men. --- Abraham Lincoln 1856

The Declaration of Independence was written in the manner of Euclidean geometry. It begins with the “self-evident truth” and moral assertion that "all men are created equal" and that put everything that followed, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in a moral context. Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln and the great reformers such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr all considered equality to be the primary moral concept of United States constitutional democracy.

After the tragedy of two World Wars the preamble to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights also begins, “Whereas the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...”

It is the moral concept of an inherent universal equality that makes the accommodation of diversity and a wide variety of attributes possible. Yet, in the past 40 years our government, the media, and the academics have been promoting liberty as our primary value with very rarely any mention of equality.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why Ideas and Values are important now

“The adaptations needed for living in a pluralistic global community without coercion or alienation or self-destruction will have to be cultural.”

We now live in a pluralistic global community that has access to or potential access to weapons of mass destruction. Ever since WW II there has been a concern that our technological advances may exceed the ability of our adaptive biological and cultural moral capacities to control that technology. In evolutionary theory, this possibility of humanity’s self destruction is called the “nuclear trap.” For more than 30 years the United States and the Soviet Union had military defense policies based on the threat of mutual assured destruction. Response times to a nuclear threat are measured in minutes. Coercive power thus reaches a level of absurdity in which it cannot be used without not only self-destruction, but the destruction of most of the foundations of life on earth. Today we are faced with more than the traditional conflicting super powers and ideologies. We also have a megalomaniac tyrant in North Korea who threatens the use of nuclear weapons, a sectarian Iranian government with an apocalyptic eschatology that both supports terrorism and is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and cults of radical Islamic terrorists who have the objective of destroying Western civilization. Probably the greatest issue of our times is the need to create a more stable world order. It is harder for the United States to be a leader in creating a more stable and less violent world order when there is a viable option of a life sentence without parole and we still choose to continue capital punishment executions.

Abolishing the death penalty would be a step forward in helping us to both understand and to convey that equality, understood as a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity, is the primary moral concept of United States constitutional democracy.

The adaptations needed for living in a pluralistic global community without coercion or alienation or self-destruction will have to be cultural. We have the historical cultural resources which transcend a narrow tribalism to include also universal values and affirm a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity. Yet in the current context of such atrocities as beheadings, burning or drowning of men in cages, the abduction of young girls into sexual slavery, ethnic cleansing, and the genocide of minority groups in the Middle East, we are failing to adequately defend and promote those values in what is very much a battle of ideas. There are several cultural trends which have contributed to this failure:

  1. Legal positivism, for example, has been the prevailing legal philosophy in our law schools for several decades. It is the position of legal positivism that there are no universal laws or for that matter any universal morality. Legal positivism contends that from a historical and global perspective, laws and morality are only relative. There are no universal values such as human rights. Legal positivism is thus disarmed in the current battle of ideas. If everything is relative, then there is no foundation for criticizing or opposing the atrocities of the 20th Century or today. Most of our leaders have been trained in law school. Legal positivism, however, is only descriptive and not prescriptive. I am a physician and from a physician’s perspective, medical ethics are based on a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity. If there is to be generational survival and well-being, then there is the need for moral constraint. In this context the natural law perspectives in political philosophy and jurisprudence, whether they be secular as in Roman Law which was based on reason, or religious as in Judeo-Christian history, can be seen as an adaptation to reality. There is huge advantage to cooperation. It is what has made humanity successful. Cooperation requires community. To live in a community requires some moral constraint.
  2. An academic culture of “blame America first”. This is a residual from the 60’s and the protests against the Vietnam War which has persisted as a matter of affirmation in our universities. As just one example, I have given papers at many international conferences and I am embarrassed to say that the most anti-American presentations are given by American professors.
  3. An emphasis on diversity rather than what we share in common. Our common values have been undermined in part by a postmodern individualism in which, in the words of Woody Allen, “the artist creates his own moral universe.” What we share in common has also, however, been obscured by an emphasis on a politics of group identity and diversity. It also could have been pointed out in the discussions about American exceptionalism that from a historical point of view America was exceptional in that the free and equal individual became the basis of our communal solidarity rather than any particular type of nationalism based on ethnicity, language, or religion.
  4. An Orwellian political parsing and spin on language. As George Orwell observed, totalitarian regimes often distort and invert the truth by corrupting the meaning of words and language. For example, totalitarian communist regimes have, at least in theory, advocated equality as the common ownership of the means of production, but have actually denied political equality as well as the moral agency of other people. In academics there has also been a trend of deconstructing language such that one can say that an explanation depends upon “What the meaning of is, is.” Our current president cannot bring himself to even use the words radical Islamic terrorism even when ISIL describes itself as a fundamentalist Islamic group that uses terror. A major conflict in international affairs, however, has been between moderate Muslims and radical Muslims, with the radical Muslims being defined as those who are willing to commit atrocities based on religion, including the killing of moderate Muslims, as a means to their ends. The American public is capable of making this distinction and not to make this distinction in realistic terms attempts to ignore the problem of a radical Islamic ideology.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty as a Matter of Foreign Policy

The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty as a Matter of Foreign Policy

The most powerful psychological tool of tyrannical governments is the use of executions. In 2015, the five countries with the most capital punishment executions worldwide were China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. This is the type of company that we continue to keep. These other countries are quick to point to the use of the death penalty in the United States to justify their use of coercive power and the death penalty. This is just one of the reasons why we should consider abolishing the death penalty as a matter of foreign policy.

Another reason is that Ideas and values still play a very important part in both domestic and foreign affairs. Abolishing the death penalty would help us to better understand and convey that the primary moral concept of our government is equality, understood as a respect for personal dignity and our common humanity. This moral foundation should be a centerpiece of our foreign policy. Abolishing the death penalty would put us in a better position to understand and convey our values and to confront violence and global terrorism in a battle of ideas.

Some misperceptions about the death penalty

-- Cost
-- Deterrence
-- Closure

An arbitrary judicial system which sometimes gets it wrong
There has been one death row exoneration for every eleven executions.

Eighteen states and Washington D.C. have now abolished the death penalty. Internationally 136 out of 195 countries have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice. A country cannot belong to the European Union if it allows the death penalty. Circumstances change and public opinion is beginning to change. The Democratic platform for the current 2016 presidential election includes a plank for abolishing the death penalty. There have also been some misperceptions about the death penalty related to the issues of cost, deterrence, closure, and the confidence placed in our legal system.

The first misperception is that it is more expensive to sentence someone to life imprisonment without parole compared to giving the death penalty. A death penalty case with all of its delays and appeals, however, is more expensive and often much more expensive.

An Urban Institute study found the cost of a death penalty trial to be $1.9 million more than a trial not involving the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that, in Texas, "a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years."

The second apparent misperception is that the death penalty is a significant deterrent. Studies on this have differed or been ambiguous. In general, however, there is not a higher rate of murder in those states and countries that don’t have the death penalty.

When signing the bill that abolished the death penalty in the State of Illinois, Governor Quinn wrote, “I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder” Life imprisonment without parole is a reasonable and effective alternative for keeping our communities safe.

Concerning a third misperception related to closure, Governor Quinn wrote, “To those who say that we must maintain a death penalty for the sake of the victims’ families, I say that it is impossible not to feel the pain of loss that all these families share or to understand the desire for retribution that many may hold. But, as I heard from family members who lost loved ones to murder, maintaining a flawed death penalty system will not bring back their loved ones, will not help them to heal and will not bring closure to their pain. Nothing can do that. We must instead devote our resources toward the prevention of crime and the needs of victims’ families, rather than spending more money to preserve a flawed system.” Furthermore some consideration should be given to the lawyers, prosecutors, judges and juries who become involved in a death penalty conviction and those who are responsible for carrying it out. Many of those who of necessity become involved may have religious or other reservations,

The medical profession, for example, with its primary moral concept of a respect for human dignity and the admonition to “do no harm,” has opposed physician participation in executions in its ethical code. Furthermore, killing someone in a “humane” way has proven to be difficult. The electric chair was abandoned in Florida after an execution was botched and the prisoner’s head burst into six inch flames. There have been difficulties with the IV administration of drugs and with both the kind and the availability of the drugs. Those physicians who do become involved in the process in some states are often provided confidentiality. Participation in the conviction and execution of a person in a death penalty case can be a source of significant conflict for some rather than closure.

A fourth concern is a misplaced perception that our legal system always gets it right. Between 1976 and 2016 the number of Death Row exonerations nationally was 156. Governor Quinn also wrote. “...I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011 primarily as a result of a series of revelations that 20 people since 1977 in their state had been sent to Death Row who were later exonerated. In the period from 1976 to 2016 there was one Death Row prisoner in the United States who was exonerated for about every nine Death Row prisoners who were executed. Mistakes are inevitable and an execution is irreversible.

Abolishing the death penalty would also be a step forward in addressing some of the trust issues between our minority communities and the justice system. There are thus many reasons why the death penalty in the United States should be reconsidered and abolished. What isn’t discussed much is why the death penalty in the United States should be abolished as a matter of foreign policy.