Dec 26: A country’s social health is tied to economic equality
Dec 19th, 2009 by Sam

Segment 1

The Importance of Economic Equality:

What if there was a way to raise a population’s life expectancy and reduce its rates of crime, suicide, teenage pregnancy and mental illness, among other social problems? British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett believe they have found one. In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, published in the U.S. on Dec. 22, they present data suggesting that almost every indicator of social health in wealthy societies is related to its level of economic equality. (See the data here). Comparing statistics between developed economies and within the U.S., Wilkinson and Pickett argue GDP and overall wealth matter little to wealthy societies. Rather, it is the gap between the rich and poor that is telling. They spoke to TIME about what they believe are revolutionary findings.

Segment 2

Tom Clark; Director, Center for Naturalism

Explains what Naturalists celebrate during the holiday season, where they find meaning in life, and how they answer questions of ultimate concern.

Some of my best friends are apes
Jul 8th, 2008 by Sam

Should humans extend ‘human rights’ to (other) apes? Other in parentheses because, after all, we are apes too.

That’s the question they are debating right now in Spain – whether to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives – the great apes – which includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

So, what would it mean?

  • It would become illegal to kill an ape, except in self-defense.
  • Torture and imprisonment would become strictly forbidden. This includes medical experiments, and circuses and films.
  • Apes in zoos would not be released, but would be treated better.

What does it not mean?

  • Apes do not get to drive cars, bear arms, and so on. Their status would be similar to children.

Do you agree? I have to say, I find this compelling. I know that bonobos, orangutans, and chimps can communicate with words – perhaps not spoken, but they understand. They all understand the concept of ‘the self.’ I hate the idea of medical/science testing on apes. I don’t believe in a soul, so I reject the notion that humans are superior in any metaphysical sense.

Yet, many humans aren’t afforded the same rights that Spain is now granting to nonhumans. The notion that we are going to so much trouble for these creatures when we have so far to go with humans does make me uncomfortable. I remember when I first learned that Africans felt that many Europeans and European Americans cared more about the animals in Africa than the people.

And as the article points out… what is Spain going to do about bullfighting?

Moral failure on our watch
May 21st, 2008 by Sam

As a child of German heritage growing up in the United States, the most significant moral question for me was, had I been an adult in Germany under Hitler, would I have had the courage to hide Jews in my attic?  Clearly, most Germans simply went on with their lives, ignoring signs of the horror going on in their country.  While there were a few brave souls, the majority of people just shut their eyes, even if they didn’t agree with what they may have suspected was going on, because they feared becoming a target.

Also having Norwegian heritage, I wondered if I would have been brave enough to defy the Nazis in Norway, helping, for example, to transport Norwegian gold to ships waiting on the coast for safekeeping in U.S.  My family had a children’s book about this effort which actually involved children and mothers putting bricks hiding the gold on their sleds as they moved the gold, brick by brick, from a cave in the mountains to the coast.  How brave of the Norwegians, we thought!  How heroic, especially compared to the Swedes, who capitulated all too swiftly, we thought, smugly.

But now, it is clear that on our watch in this country, torture took place.  And we will have to answer for our lack of moral spine for generations to come.  While it is comforting to know that some law enforcement officials objected to the practices, it is disturbing to know that it took this long for the objections to take place:

“FBI agents assigned to interview key terrorism suspects repeatedly objected to harsh — and possibly illegal — interrogation tactics used by other U.S. officials two years before abuse of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became public in 2004, a Justice Department review found.”  USA Today, May 21
So where did the pressure come from?
“It says the controversial treatment of detainees by the military and U.S. intelligence officers persisted because of a view ‘at a very high level that this was a military situation and the military approach should prevail.’ The CIA has acknowledged using waterboarding.”
Of course, there are those who believe that the torture was not only justified, but strategically important.  They, of course, would likely have believed that to be the case if they were royalists in Europe before the American revolution, or supporters of fascism in Spain, or supporters of apartheid in South Africa.
But, if you believe that torture is wrong both morally and strategically, the moral question remains:  if you saw torture in action, or knew about it, would you have had the moral courage to object?  privately?  in public?
We don’t do stuff like that
Feb 29th, 2008 by Sam

Boy, did that resonate with me when I read those words in the New York Times op-ed by Morris Davis, an Air Force colonel and the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, from 2005 to 2007.

“We don’t do stuff like that.”

Morris Davis was writing about Tom Ahern, an American held hostage by Iran twenty-seven years ago.  The last time that Ahern faced the principal interrogator for the last time, the interrogator said:

“…the abuse Mr. Ahern had suffered was inconsistent with his own personal values and with the values of Islam and, as if to wipe the slate clean, he offered Mr. Ahern a chance to abuse him just as he had abused the hostages. Mr. Ahern looked the interrogator in the eyes and said, ‘We don’t do stuff like that.'”

YES.  That’s MY country.  WE are the good guys!  We DONT’T do that.  Which is what gives us the moral authority and relative safety when WE travel around the world – people know that we’re the good guys.

Until recently.  Yuck.

Davis goes to say that now that we’d have to say,

“‘We don’t do stuff like that very often.’ Or, ‘We generally don’t do stuff like that.’  That is a shame. Virtues requiring caveats are not virtues. Saying a man is honest is a compliment. Saying a man is ‘generally’ honest or honest ‘quite often’ means he lies. The mistreatment of detainees, like honesty, is all or nothing: We either do stuff like that or we do not.”

And then he makes the point that,

“It is in our national interest to restore our reputation for the latter.

What a relief to see that it’s a military guy who is saying these words!  Note – it’s not one of the Blackwater mercenaries, which I believe is one of the big differences between the military and the mercenaries – principles vs pay.

So, morally speaking, the use of torture, in-person or out-sourced, was the wrong way to go.

But even practically speaking, the torture they’ve been practicing in Abu Graib or outsourced to Egypt and other locations, has not been worth it. Even if they got some actionable information, they’ve put so many other people at risk by losing the high ground, it’s been a harmful strategy.

Plus the humiliation strategy is just short-sighted.  How long will it take for those people and their families to get over it?  How long would it take for you?

So here’s a military guy, former chief prosecutor, saying that any evidence obtained using torture should be inadmissable.

It was disappointing to learn that McCain caved in on the bill which curtailed the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques (uh, would that be torture?).  McCain says that he thinks waterboarding should be illegal for all, including the CIA.  But he wants to leave open the possibility for the CIA to use other approved techniques that are not enumerated in the Field Service Manual.  Why does the CIA use techniques that military personnel can’t?  It can’t be a training issue?  What is it.

And this brings us back to the election.  I heard on conservative talk radio that they think Democrats are fired-up about this election because of the woman/black thing.  They are missing the point.  Sure, democrats are glad about it.

But what’s got us all fired up is that we sense the possiblility that this shameful period in our history, which happened on our watch, will finally be over.  The redemption of America will begin with this election.

This is not to say that we stop being vigilant.  There are people in the world who want to harm us and yes, of course, we have to defend ourselves, just as we do against our own home-grown criminals.

But the world doesn’t end, and the constitution isn’t suspended, because of crime.

We don’t do stuff like that.

Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice
Feb 14th, 2008 by Sam

Are they kidding?  Yes, as you’ve probably heard, Saudi Arabia does have a Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and what’s more, they banned the sale of red roses AND red gifts, according to the Guardian.

Kind of sounds like the Puritans, doesn’t it?

But there are a few things that are interesting about this…  First, it was reported in a local newspaper as a normal news item.  That just seems odd to me.  Second, people were defying the ban:

“The crackdown has pushed up the price of the flowers on the black market, with some florists making deliveries in the middle of the night, the paper said.

Couples defying the ban placed orders for red roses weeks before the deadline. Some were sending online Valentine’s cards, and others were planning to celebrate the day in neighbouring countries, such as Bahrain, which has a more liberal approach to Islamic law.”

So I checked to see if there was anything about this on  Nothing.

Okay, maybe they don’t think roses on Valentine’s day is a big deal.  And, it shouldn’t be.  So, why go to all the trouble of banning it in the first place?

Seems to be that these religious folks are swimming against the tide – they aren’t going to win this one.  People want to be free to do simple things that the rest of the world takes for granted.

That’s why I’m optimistic about the future.  Al Qaeda can’t win this one.  Not if Saudi’s are going underground to buy roses for their honeys.

And by the way, that’s also why Huckabee and Brownback and even the briefly uber-conservative Romney didn’t do well in the Prez race.  Americans just don’t want a Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice either.

Sherwin Wine – a brief encounter, a lasting impression
Jul 26th, 2007 by Sam

How many times do you have an encounter with someone that, while brief, stays with you and makes your life better?  Sherwin Wine had that effect on me and judging from the reaction to his recent tragic death, he has had that effect on many others.  Loving comments about him and his life abound, like:

“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the death of one of the greatest Humanist leaders of the 20th Century: Sherwin T. Wine, the 2003 American Humanist of the Year.”  Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Greg Epstein, Chaplain

“A titanic voice of reason and humanity has been stilled.  One of the very rare instances whence loss is, perhaps, somewhat mitigated by the legacy…”  People For Change

You can learn more about him and The Society for Humanistic Judaism here.  The New York Times marks his passinghere.

My encounter with Sherwin, yes, I feel I want to call him Sherwin though I barely know the man, was at the Humanist Conference that took place in April 2007 in Cambridge, MA.  Taking place shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, I arranged for Sherwin to be on a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by Todd Feinburg.  Todd’s listening audience is politically and socially conservative, religious, and had been talking about God, blame, and finding comfort in the face of tragedy in the preceding days.  I thought that it would be interesting for them to hear what humanists, naturalists, people who believe in the natural world, had to say.

I had heard Sherwin speak and knew that he would be wonderful, but this short interview, short interview that has now been listened to by so many of his loving friends since his passing, is an inspiring, touching, challenging statement about finding comfort while looking at life as it is, without rose-colored glasses.

Sherwin was on the show for only about 15 minutes.  However his comments inspired a passionate discussion for the next two full hours which can be heard here and here.  This is remarkable, since radio shows generally switch to new topics each hour.  Truly there is a hunger for, as Sherwin called them, ‘issues of ultimate concern.’

K-StayingSane.jpgWhen the interview was over, he immediately turned his attention to a colleague and friend who was going through severe medical difficulties and pain while eating lunch, attending to me, then going back to the conference proceedings.  In the midst of it all, you got the feeling that Sherwin connected with people in meaningful ways both one-to-one and when speaking with a broader audience.

In his book, “Staying Sane in a Crazy World: A Guide to Rational Living,” Sherwin addresses issues of ultimate concern.  A review of his book says it this way:

“‘Life is unfair. It often does not give us what we want. More often it does not give us what we deserve. There is too much death, betrayal and frustration. There is not enough love, happiness and hope. It is quite clear that the universe does not conform to the human moral agenda.

“‘A just universe is also a meaningful universe. It is also a sane universe. An unjust world is a meaningless world. It is also a crazy world. Staying sane in a crazy world is not easy. It requires a special kind of human ingenuity and determination.’

“Sherwin Wine explores what it means to cope successfully with an unfair world. The first step is to dismiss illusions that hide the reality we must face. Being rational and realistic is not a cold response to life. It is tied to the passion for personal strength and dignity.

“Wine develops the ten steps to sanity. These steps are answers to certain fundamental questions of life. What is happiness? What do I need to do to be happy? How do my fear, anger, love and guilt fit into my search for personal dignity? What does it mean to be ethical in a world that is less than ethical? How can I find the strength I need to cope with the problems of my life?

Staying Sane in a Crazy World is a fresh and somewhat outrageous new approach to the search for meaning in life. In an age when it is fashionable to give people answers that they want to hear but cannot use, Wine provides less fashionable — but more effective — answers to the fundamental issues of the human condition.”

Finally, I’d like to share another quote of Sherwin that I am glad to have found and anticipate coming back to:

“There are two visions of America. One precedes our founding fathers and finds its roots in the harshness of our puritan past. It is very suspicious of freedom, uncomfortable with diversity, hostile to science, unfriendly to reason, contemptuous of personal autonomy. It sees America as a religious nation. It views patriotism as allegiance to God. It secretly adores coercion and conformity. Despite our constitution, despite the legacy of the Enlightenment, it appeals to millions of Americans and threatens our freedom.

The other vision finds its roots in the spirit of our founding revolution and in the leaders of this nation who embraced the age of reason. It loves freedom, encourages diversity, embraces science and affirms the dignity and rights of every individual. It sees America as a moral nation, neither completely religious nor completely secular. It defines patriotism as love of country and of the people who make it strong. It defends all citizens against unjust coercion and irrational conformity.

This second vision is our vision. It is the vision of a free society. We must be bold enough to proclaim it and strong enough to defend it against all its enemies.”  Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Wisdom Quotes

Even though I only briefly met him, I feel both lucky and cheated.  Lucky that my life has been enriched by him.  Cheated that this person, this ‘self’, this unique individual is gone, that I will not have another chance to speak with him.  Sherwin had said he would be on my radio show.  Now, this can’t happen.

Nevertheless, he does live on in us naturalistically – his ideas, part of what was in his brain, are now in our brains, for our enrichment, for our enjoyment.  Which we will now pass on.

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