Friday, July 31, 2009

Seduced by the Dark Side?

Someone who has commented on some of my blogs also posted a note on Facebook lamenting that I have been seduced by the "dark side". This is because I posted information about the Citizen's Continental Congress, which is to be a peaceful and legal response to the encroachments on the Constitution and upon our natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Part of the problem is that I posted a slide show (also posted below). It is what it is, but it not the slide show that I thought it was. That one was the one that Bob Shulz showed on his 50-State tour last winter and spring, a slide show that educated attendees about the 14 years of petitioning for Redress of Grievances that have yielded no response. (As I wrote in an earlier post about this, a petition for redress requires a response, but it does not dictate the terms of the response. The petitioner may not agree with a response, but if he in fact receives one, then the petition has been addressed).

In any case, I thought this new slide show was a souped-up version of Bob's slide show, but it was not. And I did post it without previewing it, something that a responsible blogger should never, ever do. After viewing the slide-show, I wished I had viewed it first. It contains some of the slides from Bob's original power point, but also has a good many others than present some of the subject matter of petitions as unsupported claims but does not explain the petition process and purpose. This is a good object lesson about checking every source, no matter how well known. (I know Bob and he has posted it at the Continental Congress website, but I do not know the Idaho coordinators that put this particular version together).

I am not going to spend a lot of time on all of the claims, but I do want to highlight two of them.

One was that we are living in a Communist country. I do not agree with that. I do believe that President Obama is Marxian in his philosophy, and that he subscribes to something called black liberation theology, which like other forms of liberation theology, draws heavily on Marxist ideology. However, what I see our Republic being transformed into is not communism; rather it looks to me like a corporatist statism, which I would call fascism (with a small 'f' to distinguish it from Mussolini's fascism). This is not something new, for the Republic has been morphing into statism for more than 100 years, how ever the pace picked up during the Bush II administration, and that pace has increased to an all out run since September of past year.

The other issue I want to briefly comment on is the President Obama birth certificate issue. Obama has refused to allow the publication of his original Hawaiian birth certificate, relying instead on an affidavit. This persistent refusal has fueled an internet meme based upon rumors started by some of his Kenyan family members combined with some true and some false statements about how Hawaii handles birth certificates. Currently, what we are given from the administration are statements from those who claim to have seen the original birth certificate. This is hearsay which will not erase reasonable doubt. There are also those who claim that even if Obama was born in Hawaii, he would not be a natural born citizen of the United States. This second claim is certainly false. The first claim is more problematic because reasonable doubt has been planted in the minds of enough people. For example, although I am inclined to believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, I cannot say that I know that for certain. President Obama could and probably should release the original vault birth certificate as this would erase any reasonable doubt in the minds of most citizens.

Of course, there will always be those who will not accept any response except the one that confirms their theories. That's life, as Frank Sinatra would say. However, this does not mean that everyone who is concerned about the issue is a "conspiracy theorist." On the contrary, if the evidence were to show that Obama was not born in the United States, then we would have a serious constitutional crisis on our hands. This is why We the People Foundation brought the matter to the Supreme Court. The foundation, on behalf of the citizens, wanted the question definitively answered. Like all petitions for redress, the people require an answer to their concern. It would best be answered by disclosure of the birth certificate. This is not an unreasonable request. I have had to show my copy of my birth certificate, the one with the Bureau County Clerk's seal on it, in order to enter school, get a driver's license, get a passport, and get married. It is not unreasonable for the president of the United States to show a birth certificate to demonstrate that he is constitutionally fit to serve.

What is even more problematic about this commenter's accusation that I have gone over to the "dark side" is that it betrays a certain belief about the nature of any political controversy. It is the belief that those who do not support his "side" are not just factually but morally wrong. This is the Vision of the Annointed that progressives use persistently to avoid arguments based on fact and reason, in order to smear their opponents as not only wrong, but as stupid, "loony" and unenlightened, and therefore evil. There can be no rational argument between those who hold the Vision of the Annointed and those who are deemed by them to hold the Vision of the Benighted. The reason for this is that the Annointed make no argument, but use innuendo and insinuation against their enemies in place of an argument. This smear tactic is nothing more than the logical fallacy of the Ad Hominem attack, but it is made particularly vicious by the use of catch phrases such as "conspiracy theory" and "tin-foil hat crazy" in order to shut down any discussion about the issue at hand. What is it about the program of the annointed, one must wonder, that would make them so anxious to avoid any reasonable discussion?

From my perspective, therefore, it is irrational to attempt to respond directly to smears such as this. Rather, I have decided to begin to address the ethical basis for my libertarian stance against collectivism and statism. I will do this in a series of forthcoming posts, addressing the ethics of individual rights, and the economic system that makes liberty possible, capitalism.

Have I gone over to the "dark side?" I would note that in the Star Wars series, Luke Skywalker and the Jedi fought on the side of freedom against a statist empire. I would note that it is much "easier" to believe what those in power want you to believe so that they can control you, than it is to take a stand for the Rule of Law and for Liberty.

I would say that on the contrary, my journey has been one of coming into the light of life. I am using the force that is inherent in every person, the knowledge that human life on this earth is good, and that a person must work and choose the good in order to live it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cool Fronts, Monsoon Clouds and Fog


The days are still long and warm, but the sun is rising a little later in the mornings, and the alarm clock is going off during civil twilight, whereas a month ago the sun was already peaking over the horizon. These past few days, there has been a cool breeze morning and evening, jacket weather. The Monsoon has been good to us, bringing rain, clouds and fog to water the late summer blooms.

A heavy cloud lies low over Cedar Crest, and a thinner fog spreads over the mountain valley, and the meadow.

Clouds over the Sandias, but the sun is shining in the Jemez, on the horizon, about 80 miles away.

A bright window in the rain clouds over Teypana. Later that morning we got quite a downpour, all hail the mighty Monsoon!

The fog settles in, cool and wet, over the meadow one morning on our walk at dawn.

On another morning this week, the fog drifted in, curtains of cloud moving across the meadow, made bright by the rising sun.

We do so live in G-d's Country!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Citizen's Continental Congress 2009

The Citizen's Continental Congress movement is underway:

For two weeks in November, delegates representing The People of the fifty states will join together in the tradition of the Founding Fathers and their Continental Congress of 1774. Continental Congress 2009 will convene as a national assembly of We The People and attest to the increasing abuses of our Governing Documents. Together, we will decide what peaceful, legal steps can be taken to bring about compliance with our Freedom documents.
More Information

If you are a patriot, you will want to get involved. I signed up to support the Continental Congress as Bernalillo County coordinator, and I am working to get polling locations and volunteers to man then on the day we elect our representatives. Our New Mexico coordinator, Dave Batcheller, is working to get nominees who are not elected officials but who are good representatives of the people of New Mexico to attend.

Election Day for Delegates is October 10! Go to We the People to help make this historic event happen!

CC2009 is Your Civic Duty

Live Free or Die!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Challenging Assumptions: Am I an Altruist?

This is the fourth post of my dialogue with C. August of Titanic Deck Chairs. In the last post, I discussed his question of whether I am an atheist. My answer in Challenging Assumptions: Am I an Atheist is that I do not identify myself as such, but I know that normative Christians would likely consider my naturalistic concept of G-d atheistic. the first and second posts can be followed by clicking the links.

In the same comment, C. August asks:

"Your definition of "what is the good?" is, as you know, very close to the Objectivist formulation. You said:This, then, is how I determine what is good. That which promotes life and those means by which a person can protect, preserve and enhance his or her life.

To put it bluntly, do you reject the self-sacrifice of altruism? Much like the Founders held a self-interested view implicitly, yet explicitly advocated Christian altruism, it is quite common for people to have mixed premises here. Or is your ethical view as consistently rationally selfish as what your statements seem to suggest?"

This is an interesting question indeed, because of the clear differences between Christian theology, which requires the willing human sacrifice of Jesus as expiation for the sins of humanity, and Judaism which derived from the Israelite religion which had long before rejected human sacrifice, and enshrined it in the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. Some Midrashim suggest that Abraham attempted the sacrifice because the people of the land were sacrificing their first born sons to the fire god, Malach, and Abraham wanted to follow suit. Their explanation is backed up by the fact that Abraham's G-d had to send a messenger to stop Abraham just before he murdered his son. Other Midrashim posit that it was Sarah who put a stop to the murderous deed. All the Midrash fix this story as the point where the Israelites stopped practicing the abomination of human sacrifice. The point is that by the time of the advent of Judaism, there was no human sacrifice, whereas Christianity enshrined this one exception for the purpose of redemption.

Jewish ethics do not require a Jews to give their lives for the sake of another. To illustrate the issue, in the Talmud, the rabbis resort to a lifeboat scenario. Two men are lost in the desert and one has enough water to save his own life or the save the life of the other, but there is not enough water to save both lives. Is he then required to give his water to the other and die? Or to share the water so that both die? The Rabbis say no, that the law allows him to keep his water for himself and save his own life, although they acknowledge the emotionally difficult nature of such a choice.

In Halachah, each life is equally valuable, and no innocent life is no more valuable than another. Thus, for example, a Jew may not deliberately kill another innocent person to save his own life. However, because each person's life is his own greatest value, a Jew may lawfully kill a rodef--a pursuer--who threatens her life. The Rabbinic concept is that of equivalent force, that it is permissible to use an equal amount of force against the rodef as is being threatened. The judgment of the person in harm's way is generally accepted as sufficient to the situation, since the rodef is guilty of the initiation of force. This is why abortion is allowed in certain situations according to Jewish law where it is never allowed in much of Christian tradition. The pregnant woman's assessment of the magnitude of the threat of death or great bodily harm to herself is accepted because she is the innocent person who is at risk.

So this takes care of the life and death issues. Jewish law does not require self-sacrifice unto death, and indeed, in most cases does not permit it.

However, Jewish law does require charitable giving to the poor of the community. To what extent, then is such giving required? The rabbis--contrary to certain Jewish sects--set a maximum of the tithe, or ten percent. The reason for the requirement of tzedakah is to promote a lawful and orderly community in order that no one is reduced begging in the streets nor dying miserably there. It was considered a shonde fur de goyim--a shame in front of the gentiles--for Jews to turn their backs on other Jews. The requirement of tzedakah became especially necessary in Christian Europe, where Jews were isolated in ghettos and were not citizens of places in which they lived. They could expect no help from the outside. Therefore, Jews are still well known for the amount of money they voluntarily give to other Jews in need, whether they are next door or half-way across the world. The reason for the maximum of the tithe is that by Jewish law, there is no virtue in impoverishing oneself and one's family in order to help the poor. If everyone did this, the entire ghetto would languish into poverty. This would be considered altruism by most dictionary definitions, but I do not believe that the Jewish sense of obligation to other Jews is self-sacrificial. Ultimately, it is self-interested. No Jew wanted the Gentile police or army to march into the ghetto because they could could not care for their own. That way would be certain destruction.

There is another piece of Jewish law here, that demonstrates my point. Jews are required to ransom captives--specifically other Jews according to the plain meaning of the law. But in Christian Europe, the nobles of the cities quickly got to the business of enriching themselves by capturing Jews whose business was in the wider world and holding them for exorbitant ransoms, such that paying them continually would impoverish and destroy the entire community. Therefore the medieval rabbis made a tikkun--a precendent--that Jews were not required to destitute themselves to ransom other Jews. Again, such a decision not to ransom would be a difficult one for Jews to make as we regard ourselves as family.

Personally, and in accordance with Jewish sensibilities, I regard my life as equally valuable as that of any other person of goodwill. I do not regard myself as anybody's sacrificial lamb and I do not believe that it is prudent to impoverish myself at the expense of others. I do not believe that it is my duty to live for others, and in fact I tend to believe that those who regard it as virtue to live for others are really out to control them. (You know the line: She lives for others, you can tell which others by their hunted expressions).

Nevertheless, my husband and I do give a reasonable amount of money to charitable causes of our own choice. We do see it as a virtue to build up our community, and we give a significant amount of time volunteering to tutor math and reading, to sit on our water coop board, and other such activities. We live here after all and we want it to be a good place for ourselves and our children to continue to live. And of course we provide significant support to our synagogue and to other Jewish causes that we deem worthy. I think the key here is that these are voluntary choices from which we see benefit to our own lives in one way or another.I believe that those who say that they receive no benefit from their charitable activities are liars or fools.

From the perspective of our evolution, human beings are quite vulnerable alone in the evolutionary environment of adaptation. They had to find ways to cooperate together to survive and to raise children. And when agriculture and cities came to be, that cooperation allowed specialization and the development of marvelous technologies that bettered each individual life. Thus there is a natural pleasure that we derive from working together to accomplish certain of our individual goals. However, to turn that voluntary association for mutual benefit into the idea that one person's life belongs to another (slavery), or that everyone's life belongs to some imaginary whole (such as the state) is a perversion of that natural desire for voluntary cooperation, and is therefore contrary to life and thus, it is evil.
For charity or cooperation to achieve a goal to have any moral meaning requires voluntary choice, just as does trade or any other economic activity.

To sum it all up then, I do not accept the concept of altruism as you define it, that a person is required to sacrifice his own interests to those of others. That is slavery. To accept this, I would then be unable to say that a person's life is his own, and that life is the highest value.

Challenging Assumptions: Am I an Atheist?

This is the third in a series of posts that have resulted from a dialogue with C. August of Titanic Deck Chairs about where I stand with respect to Objectivist ideas. As is the nature of good dialogue, C. August has posed a series of challenging questions that probe my assumptions about human reason, religion, and ethics. The post that inspired this dialogue--for it is not a debate: C. August appears to be interested and curious, rather than missionary--was Rules for Patriots? , the first response from Ragamuffin Studies was Objectivist Questions About Rights and Religion (Part I) and the second is more parsimonously titled Objectivist Questions (Part II) .

In his comment to my response to his question about natural rights, C. August begins by saying:

"Thank you for the very detailed response. It's a lot to go through, with the same amount of specialized (Jewish) language and concepts that non-Objectivists must have to deal with when reading detailed Objectivist philosophical arguments."

Very true, and indeed, my specialized vocabulary is probably harder for a non-Jew to wade through than Objectivist arguments are for a non-Objectivist who has some experience with philosophy. I was not trying to snow you--part of the exercise in writing these responses was to answer your questions and thus engage in dialogue with you, but the other part of my purpose is to clarify my own thinking for me, by putting it into words.

C. August then gets right to the point, which is an Objectivist virtue, and says:

"To put it simply, it sounds to me like you have recast Judaism to emulate Objectivism... or perhaps, recast Objectivism to fit Judaism. I'm not sure which. Maybe you even mean that they are basically the same in your eyes, and no recasting was necessary?"

Hmmm. I would say that I started with Judaism as I understand it, and although my practice of Judaism is rather traditional, my thought is not quite in accordance with traditional Jewish belief; rather the bent of my mind requires me to delve into more abstract Jewish philosophy. Jewish ideas concerning moral philosophy and political philosophy have evolved, perhaps rather steadily with one exception, and that is the punctuated leap from the Israelite sacrificial temple cult to modern Rabbinic Judaism that began with the rabbinic notion of Oral Torah--an interpretive tradition that allowed the Rabbis (capitalization denotes the authoritative Talmudic rabbinic tradition) to reinvent the religion while simultaneously claiming authority from the tradition. As the Engineering Geek would say, "very clever, these Hebes."

This evolution is possible because normative Rabbinic Judaism understands the human mind, and the knowledge gained from examination of nature of which it is part, to be equally definitive with the religious tradition. Thus, a Jew must study both Torah and the sefer ha-olam, the book of the world, to fully know the universe. My thought is in line with Maimonides, who fully stated the rabbinic notion that there can be no contradiction between Divine revelation and the discoveries of the human mind. These discoveries were defined by Maimonides to be science and philosophy, in accordance with Aristotle's definitions. Therefore I am no mystic; however, in accordance with Maimonides and unlike Aristotle, I understand Providence to extend to individuals rather than to some collective notion of humanity.

I am still ignorant on the point of whether the universe is purely external (in accordance with Aristotle) or created out of nothing, which is the normative Jewish view. I tend toward the former, but I have not studied the issue sufficiently to say that I know all of the implications of either claim. Suffice it to say that my understanding of G-d* proceeds from the nature of the physical universe alone. I do not accept the concept of a reality that cannot be defined or measured. I do accept that we have not yet measured or defined all of reality. There is ever more to be discovered!

*It is the Jewish custom not to complete the Name out of respect. Some Jews, myself included, use this custom to denote that our understandings of G-d are incomplete, and differ from the cultural Christian norm.

Am I an atheist? I do not define myself as such, rather I identify myself as a Jew.

However, as I state above, I can find no evidence at all for any supernatural (or supranatural?) realm of existence. Therefore, I understand much of the religious mythic tradition to be metaphor for observations about the world and human nature that our ancestors had insufficient knowledge and/or vocabulary to describe in any other way. And taken as metaphor, the mythic tradition can give us insight into the beginnings of human metacognition about human existence and ethics, but it cannot give us any scientific understanding of the universe.

When I say this, though, I need to make clear that I am not a Progressive. That is, I understand there to be certain moral absolutes derived from human nature that cannot be altered by novel political systems imposed on human societies. Human knowledge, understanding and wisdom with respect to the universe in which we live progresses with time, it evolves. But this progress does not imply that human nature is infinitely plastic. Genetic changes in the human brain that would reorganize the large-scale structure would result in speciation--the arrival of a new species on the human cladogram--rather than in the pefection of Homo sapiens as H. sapiens.

Am I an atheist? No, I am a Jew.
But in line with my Jewish understanding, I understand G-d to be bound by the same Natural Law that binds the universe, and that defines human nature as rational, and establishes moral absolutes derived from reason. Therefore, I see reason as primary and autonomous.
Perhaps the Dutch philosopher Grotius put it better than I just did:

" Even the will of an omnipotent being cannot change the principles of morality or abrogate those fundamental rights that are guarranteed by natural laws. These laws would not change their objective validity even if we should assume--per impossibile-- that there is no God or that he does not care for human affairs." --Hugo Grotius, Introduction to De Jure Belli et Pacis, as cited in Cassirir, E. (1946). The Myth of the State. Yale University Press: New Haven. p. 172.

Am I an atheist? I do not define myself as such, but normative Christians probably would. That is their problem, created by their need to define the concept of God universally and in their own image and likeness. It is the same problem that causes liberal Christianity to do mental gymnastics to simultaneously reject Judaism as an acceptable religion according to Christian scripture and yet claim that somehow Jews share in Christian salvation.

As for me, I am a Jew.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Objectivist Questions (Part II)

Note: This is the second part of two posts. The first part may be found here, and the introductory remarks, at the very least, are well worth reading, as there I explain the cirmcumstances by which these blog entries were conceived, and I stipulate the background that underpins my thinking.

Yesterday, in his response to my response to his question, C. August posed another question, and also began to expound on an idea about the Founders that was quite interesting. I would love to hear more of this thoughts on this, but in the meantime, in this post I will respond to his further query.


"You highlighted as one of the qualities that make us human "the need to know the difference between good and evil, and the need to choose the good in order to choose life." I'm curious how you determine what is the good?

The Objectivist view is succinctly put in
Galt's speech: "All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil." And this of course is based on the metaphysical facts of man's nature as a rational being, and one of volitional consciousness, who must pursue values (the good) to further his life (the ultimate value)."


Firstly, the Objectivist view so beautifully put by Rand in her exposition that you quoted from Atlas Shrugged demonstrates that although she was not raised in a religious home, she nevertheless learned the ultimate Jewish value. Life. Rand clearly retained that Jewish value (among others) when she developed and explained her philosophy, however she did not overtly draw upon Jewish tradition to do so. Rather she built her philosophy on the basis of human nature, specifically in terms of human psychology, by which I mean how a human being thinks and makes choices. Since Rand did that, and did it so well that I have nothing to add to it, I will instead draw upon Jewish tradition and mythos to make the same point.

As a Jew, I also say that the ultimate value is Life. And I would add that I do not mean here an afterlife, but rather this life, embodied on this earth. As far as I know, there is no other, and thus Life must be lived for it's own sake, and not as preparation for death. (This is a major point of departure between Judaism and medieval Christianity). From a Jewish perspective, I come by this value from a Jewish perspective of the first Creation myth in B'reshit (Genesis).

The structure of this story, as written in Hebrew, demonstrates that it was never intended to be taken literally. The structure itself points to the reason that the Priestly author wrote it: it was to contrast the Israelite world-view about the value of life and the earth with that of the surrounding Akkadians. Certain Hebrew words would have recalled to the hearer the older, and very different creation story in the Enuma Elish. That the story has a sophisticated mythic structure is evident from the first Hebrew words "b'reshit bara elohim . . ." which can best be translated as "once, when G-d was about to create . . ." Whereas the Akkadian myth has the world created as a result of a war among the gods, and the earth itself was the shell of the dragon-goddess Tiamat, which points to the idea that embodied being is debased at best, the Priestly story tells of an orderly and lawful creation of the world by the peaceful spoken word. The orderly nature of the earth and all that inhabit it is demonstrated by the order of the days: each of the first three days is paired with the second three, so that light is paired with the sun, the expanse of the sky is paired with the birds of the air, and the separation of the dry land and ocean is paired with the life that lives on each. And each physical act of creation is termed "good." Just in case the hearer had missed the point. In particular, in this story the human being that is created on the sixth day is called "very good." Embodied human life is very good, and belongs to the physical universe.

Human life is very good in Jewish eyes, as it is, and on this earth. I will not expound again in detail on the Jewish understanding of the story of garden, as I have done that in several posts, including a digression in Rules for Patriots? Suffice it to say that there is no concept of Original Sin in Judaism. Human life is good as it is. Right here on this earth. We have no need of heaven(In the morning service, Jews deliberately repudiate the concept of Original Sin by saying: "The soul that you created within me is good . . .". This was necessary to keep that concept firmly out of Jewish thought during our sojourn in Christian Europe).

The mythos behind the rest of that story is that human beings cannot go back to the womb. We cannot forever be children living in the garden, needing to make no effort to live. That would not be Paradise, rather it would become hell. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a metaphor for the human understanding of our own mortality, and the urgency that puts upon our efforts to sustain our lives. As I said above, human beings, alone of all of the mammals, know that they are mortal, and make their living on the earth by use of their minds, and they therefore have the power and responsibility to choose between that which promotes life (good) and that which destroys life (evil). The fruit of the tree, therefore, implies not a fall from grace, but a promotion to conscious being, and it did indeed make humans "like gods" even as the snake (the ancient symbol of wisdom) promised that it would. Wisdom and knowledge come with a price; that price is the need to exert effort to comprehend, to learn, and finally, the knowledge that life is finite and therefore, that the time of a human life is precious and irreplacible to its owner.

From this story we can then infer these values: Life is good, death is evil. Knowledge is life promoting, willful ignorance promotes death and is thus evil. Humans must work to promote their own lives and those of their offspring, and they must make choices and take action to do so. It is therefore evil to take away a person's ability to freely act upon their own knowledge and make their own choices. Thus freedom is good, and slavery is evil. Since "by the sweat of your brow you must earn your bread", a human being has the need of property: the fruit tree and the wheat field. Thus property is good, but theft is evil.

The ability and necessity to choose is a result of consciousness. It is a quality that is ascribed only to G-d and to human beings, and this is why there is story in Midrash that depicts angels as being jealous of the human condition. However, sin (in Hebrew, aiming badly) is the result of making the wrong choices or, and more importantly, the deliberate refusal to consciously choose. This is so because that refusal will inevitably result in death and destruction.

This tale is told again as exposition, where in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we read:

"I have set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse*; Choose life, that you and your children may live!"
* The parallel structure of Hebrew poetry pairs thusly: life = a blessing, death = a curse. This is not a magical incantation, it is poetry.

This, then, is how I determine what is good. That which promotes life and those means by which a person can protect, preserve and enhance his or her life.

Objectivist Questions About Rights and Religion (Part I)

Every now and then, I get comments that contain some very thoughtful questions from a reader. These are questions that require a lot of thought and writing, and sometimes they even cause me to revise my own thinking. Such challenging questions are a pleasure to answer for several reasons. One is that I truly enjoy metacognition which is the process of thinking about my own thinking. Another is that I get the sense that I have found a kindred spirit, someone who really understands where my thinking is going, and does so even before I get there.

In the Buddhist tradition there is a saying: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
This post is one of those metacognitive exercises based on two questions posed by C. August, an Objectivist. His blog is Titanic Deck Chairs and he also blogs at The Rule of Reason. I read it at least once a week, as it is usually part of the Objectivist Round-up. He began his first question with a compliment about my blog:

"I stop by your blog once in awhile, often when RationalJenn links to it, and am always struck by your eloquence, the depth of your thought and how you dig into ideas and explore them, and, inevitably for me, the contradictions between your ideas as espoused in this post, and what I presume to be your faith."

Now, a compliment from an Objectivist, especially about one's thinking, is never idle and never intended to flatter. I am therefore honored by the compliment. The last clause above then gets straight to the point and prefaces C. August's first question. However, before I attempt to answer it, I wish to clarify the position from which I answer.

I am not a philosopher. Although I have had some formal training in philosophy (six credit hours at the undergraduate level and three at the graduate level) and in logic (three credit hours), my primary approach to the world is as a scientist. This is a very important distinction because philosophers tend to build their arguments from axioms, from which they develop premises, and they make make inferences, but the result is a grand system of thought. A scientist on the other hand, tends to muck about in the physical universe, asking questions which are answered by way of the scientific method. Scientists develop hypotheses from observations of the actual workings of reality and then test those hypotheses and we require measurable results. Whereas a philosopher must probe the nature of reality, scientists begin with the assumption that reality is real. It is the philosophers of science that get down to the business of probing into how scientists think about their science. Most working scientists operate within the dominant paradigm of their disciplines, busy with the job of testing those ideas against the workings of the physical world. Science limits itself to probing questions about the physical world that can be answered by measurement and observation of its workings. In the world of modern philosophy, science is a red-headed step-child, divorced from its philosophical underpinning because most academic philosophers hold theories of knowledge that start with the idea that reality is not what it appears to be. Science cannot function with integrity within such a context.*

*IMHO as a scientist, this is the main problem with the pseudoscientific claims and extra-scientific claims being used for political purposes these days.

I make the above point to stress that although I may use philosophical terms in my response, I use them with the understanding of an interested layman and not as an academic philosopher. I am much more comfortable using the terminology of science and I use such terminology as a professional and academic in my fields. These caveats are further complicated by the fact that C. August's question delves into my adherence to the religion of Judaism, and although I am a well-educated Jew, and in a very important sense Judaism is my life's work, I am neither a professional Jew nor do I have a formal academic degree related to it.


". . . [Y]ou refer to the natural rights of man, upon which most of your arguments in the post lie. What, ultimately, do you think is the source of those rights?
To frame the question, assuming it's one of the two, do you subscribe to the Lockean notion of rights from god? Or Rand's idea of rights as derived from the metaphysical nature of man as a rational animal, and the requirements of a being who lives by the free reason of his own mind?"


Note: I attempted a response in the comments to my post Rules for Patriots? It was not very considered nor was it clear. This question really required more thought and careful writing.

C. August, in the clarification of your question your assumptions are spot on. My ideas about the Rights of Man as I describe them must come from either Locke or Rand. And, as you doubtless noted, I quoted Rand twice in the course of the post. With respect to my intellectual history, my thinking about such natural rights comes primarily from Locke, whom I studied in high school (I was classically educated) as part of American History. I studied his ideas with respect to natural rights in more depth in college as well, during classes in philosophy, anthropology, and history. So Locke is one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.

I first read Ayn Rand's fiction works in high school as well, not as part of any assignment, but because someone handed me Atlas Shrugged, and later I went out and purchased Anthem, The Fountainhead, and We the Living. I read them primarily for the story, and I most appreciated Atlas Shrugged. Although I enjoyed reading the others, it was this one that really got me thinking. I think Atlas was the first contemporary novel that I ever read that struck me as a novel about ideas rather than just as a story. Later I read Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, but I never did read any of her other fiction. (In the past year I had to purchase new copies of both Atlas and Capitalism, as the old ones were old and well-used paperbacks).

Given all of this, then, my understanding of the Rights of Man (natural rights), is founded on the Enlightenment ideas of Locke. But Rand's thinking completes Locke and Jefferson and builds on them and clarifies the true nature of the human being's niche on earth as a being capable of rational thought. I consider this idea to be Rand's unique contribution to the concept of natural rights. (I may be wrong here, as I am not well versed in modern philosophy).

Further, I think Jefferson's use of the term Creator is really a metaphor to describe something that he had not fully delineated in his own mind. I think he understood that natural rights are inherent to the human being (thus the adjective 'natural') because of his nature as a thinking organism who must knowingly choose between good and evil, and that the fact that rights are inherent means that they cannot be removed by fiat or by vote. By ascribing the origin of the Rights of Man to the Creator, I think both Locke and Jefferson thought they were placing natural rights beyond the reach of kings and governments. Further, I strongly argue that both Locke and Jefferson, each in his own way, had a more sophisticated concept of the Christian deity than do most American Christians today. Such is the abyssimal state of American education.


Basically, I'm curious how you square -- assuming you do -- faith in god with a this-worldly view of the rational, egoistic life of man that is seemingly implicit in your arguments (much like it was in the Founders' arguments).


C. August, I believe that here your question rests on the assumption that my "faith" requires an intellectual belief (Is this an oxymoron?) system and that it is related to some "other-worldly" realm. In short, you begin with an understanding of religion and of the Eternal that is influenced almost exclusively by Christianity, a creedal, universalistic religion that requires intellectual assent and which has a very narrowly defined theology and which was spread throughout the West by force. Although certainly the Israelite religion did engage in conquest, Judaism never had that kind of power.

However, I suscribe to Judaism, which is really a world-view that originated as a set of tribal traditions handed down orally prior to being written. Whereas Christianity relies on doctrine and intellectual assent for membership, Judaism is primarily passed down from generation to generation as a set of memes. Whereas Christianity requires conversion, Judaism allows adoption.

In essence, the answer to your question is that Judaism requires no other world and thus need not be squared with the world we know; it was intended to situate Jews in the world they inhabit. Judaism is about living in this world as Jews, and Jews see themselves as both of this world and in it. When Jews have isolated themselves, it is for protection from those who have risen to destroy us.

Judaism is a set of traditions based on a rather sophisticated (for its time of origin) concept of law, which came from the Israelite religion but was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism two millenia ago. That transformation was in itself a remarkable achievement that was intended to preserve the values and ideas of a people going into permanent exile; an achievement that worked. But in that exile, something else occured as well, and Jews took part in the Great Conversation of the West (a classical metaphor), and Judaism proved to be durable, holding firmly to certain basic ideas, and yet evolving to become modern.

More to the point of your question, Judaism is not creedal and has no prescribed concept of the Deity. For the ancient Israelites, G-d was assumed to be, and attributes were assigned according to what Israel experienced as G-d*. Thus the G-d of Israel become associated with Law, with freedom, and by the time of the prophets, with individual responsibility. First and foremost in Judaism is the concept of the Covenant between G-d and Israel, in which Israel stands as eternal (it appears) witness to the lawfulness of Creation. The Covenant itself spells out a very particular set of behaviors and consequences that cannot reasonably be taken literally by a modern person. However, the overall point of the story is that actions have consequences and that G-d cannot mitigate them.

*Thus the famous (and usually badly translated) exchange between G-d and Moses in Shemot (Exodus). According to the story, Moses basically says: The people are never going to believe that the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wants them to go free from slavery. They're gonna to want you to introduce yourself by name. (e.g. Who the heck are you? Joe Shmoe?) And the famous answer is: "Eyeh asher eyeh" which can roughly be translated as "I am what I shall be." I tend to think this answer, a play on the Hebrew verb hey-yud-hey (to be) means roughly: Wait and see what I do, then you'll know who I am. Other Jews may disagree. That's the fun of Midrash.

This is all a very long way to get around to your final point, which I translate to mean "How the heck can a rational, egoistic modern woman believe all that Mickey Mouse Crap?"
You said it more elegantly and politely than that, but that's how a Jew might very well put it to another Jew.

My answer: I have never felt obligated to take it all literally. I interpret the tradition, just as our teachers and our teachers' teachers did before me. I intrepret the tradition to derive the purpose and meaning of my Jewish identity within the context of the Jewish community, right here in Albuquerque, NM. And I interpret the mythos of Hebrew scripture from what I know about human beings, and what I know about the world, all within the normative understanding of Judaism as it has evolved to this point. None of what I do with the tradition, and my more personal and private understandings of G-d, are at odds with my scientific understanding of the world, nor do they require me to divorce myself from rational thought and discourse.

Ultimately, in my understanding, G-d is a metaphor for the fullness of life, for wholeness, and for human freedom and dignity. G-d is not some alien entity that resides outside the universe, but rather, is some part of who we are as human beings. G-d is that part of us that strives continually to reach beyond our present selves, that longing to reach a potential that is not yet. (I am what I will be). Or perhaps, to paraphrase Nachman of Bratislava, G-d is those "better angels of our nature" that whisper to us continually, "Grow! Grow!"

Well, C. August, I am going to stop here. I will respond to your second question, the one in your second comment, the one that asks "what is good", later. It's time to eat and the dogs want my company on a happy exploration of the meadow.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rules for Patriots?

"What is the rationality of those who expect to trick
people into freedom, cheat them into justice, fool
them into progress, con them into preserving their
rights, and while indoctrinating them with statism,
put one over on them and let them wake up in a perfect
capitalist society one morning? --Ayn Rand*
*Rand, Ayn (1967). Conservatism: An Obituary. In Ayn Rand (Ed.), Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (Centennial Edition). New York: Signet Books, p. 216.

I'm not a conservative. There are conservatives who have lately tried to convince me that this is what I am, and 'liberals' who have ended friendships with me because that is what they think I am. But I am not a conservative. And, like many libertarian thinkers, doubtless, I will have to write the obligatory essay entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." Someday. Until then I will refer you to those self-same essays by F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and David Boaz. You can find the rest through those intellectual giants upon whose shoulders I stand.

In the meantime, take my word for it. I am not a conservative.

In the patriot communities that I have been frequenting lately, however, I run into a lot of conservatives, blue-dog Democrats, and Republicans who have found that their party left them just as the Democrats left my libertarian-minded parents back in 1968. I have also run into a lot of Constitutionalists--but they have known for a long while that the major parties are unprincipled. Many of the newly awakened, on the other hand, are not sure of that yet.

Many of these people are just waking up to the fact that in the past 10 years the pace of the US move into democratic socialism, majority mob rule, and a weird liberal fascist statism has increased from a walk to an outright run. They have been living their lives, as good liberty-minded people tend to do, and they find themselves surprised by the tactics of the Progressives (dressed as Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, as well as Wilson Democrats), who have been working toward this time for nigh unto a hundred years. (See American Progressivism: A Reader by R.J. Pestritto for background).

As these good folks rub the sleep out their eyes, and stretch, they pick up bits of the Progressive agenda in a variety of places, and sooner or later they hear about Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, a Marxist from Chicago. And they notice that Alinsky's tactics (taught to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among others), have been achieving results. Thus it is that I have heard it suggested in two different forums that the patriot community should re-write Rules for Radicals, calling it Rules for Conservatives or Rules for Patriots. Hey, it works!

This is a very bad idea.
The moral core of the organizing principles in Rules for Radicals is relativism, and Alinsky's overt statement is that the ends justify whatever means are necessary to achieve the desired goal. This is moral utilitarianism, in which the moral worth of an action is weighed according to its outcome. In general, although certain of Alinsky's tactics are good for organizing any group to do anything, his philosophy is based on lies and deceit. His object is to win at all costs, and thus his heroes are Machiavelli and Lucifer.

I have the 1971 copy of Rules. I don't remember how I came by it--but I read it for a political science class at Illiniois in 1980 (taught by an avowed Marxist in love beads, tie-dye and sandals, no socks or coat in the midst of a record breaking cold Illiniois winter. His name was Joel K. His outfit made me think that Marxism was not only dead since Stalin, but also hopelessly impractical). In the preface of the 1971 edition, I read:

"Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history . . . the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer." -- Saul Alinsky*
Alinsky, Saul. (1971). Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Random House.

I remember thinking about what this implied. Although I am a Jew, and I do not believe in the Christian Satan--human beings are well able able to choose between good and evil for themselves-- but I do understand that Alinsky is here implying that winning the kingdom is to be done by appealing to the least honorable of human desires, that of gain through trickery and deceit. In Milton, Lucifer tricks Adam and Eve by implying that knowledge of good and evil leads to life eternal without the necessity of work and struggle. That should they eat the fruit of the tree of such knowledge, they will be as gods, who have no need to earn their living, but can remain perpetual children in Paradise, their living provided to them for free.
Digression: In the Jewish Midrash, knowledge of good and evil is a metaphor for growing up and becoming creative and productive human beings in the image of G-d, who clearly engaged in creative work. Thus Chavah is not vilified as Eve was by the Church. Earning one's living is considered honorable, and work is as important as rest. Thus Jews do not consider money, the symbol of productive work, as evil--it is a tool that can be used for good or evil as a person chooses.

In the part of his book on the ethics of Marxist revolution, Alinsky clearly lays out his relativism and utilitarianism. All of it adds up to the idea that the ends justifies the means in one way or another. In particular, his ethics state that the morality of an action is directly related to whether the act takes place in a situation of victory or defeat, that it is relative to whomever is judging it, and that a radical should do whatever is deemed necessary and make moral arguments for it later.

Thus could Stalin starve millions off their land and make the argument that good came out of it.

This man, a Marxist with very questionable ethics and no objective principles, is not a good model for Patriots who are working to restore the Constitution of the United States. Our founding principles are based on the concept that the very nature of the human being requires liberty, and that all human beings are endowed with unalienable rights not subject to the whims of a king or the mad desires of the mob. Liberty requires that individuals make choices based on objective principles, and that they respect the rights of others. Certainly, Lucifer can trick a man or a woman into slavery, appealing to unrealistic desires that violate the Laws of Thermodynamics. But Franklin and Jefferson could not trick a people into Liberty. And neither can we restore the Republic through lies and deceit.

To quote Rand again:
"The world crisis today is a moral crisis--and nothing less than a moral revolution can resolve it: a moral revolution to sanction and complete the political achievement of the American Revolution . . .[The Patriot] must fight for capitalism, not as a "practical" issue, not as an economic issue, but with the most righteous pride, as a moral issue. That is what capitalism deserves, and nothing less will save it." Ibid. p. 225, (originally in Rand's For the New Intellectual).

Fortunately, we do not need to model ourselves after Lucifer the Deceiver Saul Alinsky.

We have those honest and forthright heroes, the original Radicals for Liberty, our Founders. Their methods of organizing the Revolution are as useful today as they were in 1775. We can use Committees of Correspondence, but our technology is the keyboard and the internet instead of the quill pen and pony post. Our Committees of Safety can prepare our communities for the crisis by riding into town in an F-150 instead of a horse and wagon. Our Continental Congress will meet by electric light instead of candlelight, and can deliberate in the comfort provided by modern HVAC systems. These are cosmetic differences.

But the methods are the same. The Committees of Correspondence will provide people with information, not Alinsky's glittering generalities. The Committees of Safety will provide our communities with real strategies to be self-reliant, not to surrender their liberties for Alinsky's imagined security. The Continental Congress will deliberate the civil disobedience of citizens, not Alinsky's desired surrender of slaves.

We do not need Alinsky, nor should we desire to emulate his empty rhetoric. We have Jefferson and Franklin, Adams and Patrick Henry.
May they inspire us to the righteousness and liberty!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Tale of a Burned Out Clutch

On Thursday I was driving up to Santa Fe to teach a full day set of IRD reading classes at Santa Fe High. I had three scheduled classes, all two hours long: Level 1 (entering first graders), Level 2 (entering second graders) and Level 3 (entering 3rd graders). I left the house early, at about 6:40 AM, and I was planning on arriving in Santa at 8 AM, in time to get a cup of Joe at the Daily Grind before arriving at the High School.

As long-time Ragamuffin readers will know, I drive up the "back" side of the mountains, through the Ortiz and the Galisteo basin to arrive in Santa Fe, via New Mexico Highway 14 and Cerillos Road. (See Driving North on the Turquoise Trail, Wednesday Afternoon Drive, and Afternoon Drives to Santa Fe).

I drove the Focus through silent Golden and up around El Corazon del Ortiz, and down through Madrid, where a few hippy residents, some cowboys, and a couple of guys who look like honest-to-goodness '49er miners were waiting for the Coffee shop to open. (Same crowd every Thursday AM. It must be a regular meet-up in Madrid). I drove through the canyons near Cerillos, where a cement truck turned in front of me. This meant some fancy clutch work as wound up out of the Galisteo basin and through San Marcos. Just at the Lone Butte Trading post, the road makes a gentle grade up, and I once again downshifted, because the cement truck slowed down to 25. But the clutch popped into neutral and would not go into gear at all. I quickly turned on the emergency blinkers and drifted off onto the grass shoulder. Several times I started the car and it would go forward slowly (in neutral!), but would die when I tried to clutch and shift into gear. The clutch was definitely burned. (At 120,000 miles, the car still runs so well that I forget that it is now officially "old."). Damn!

Since I knew I was going nowhere anytime soon, I got out and checked my cell phone status. No service. But if I walked just 10 feet up the hill at the corner of NM 14 and Santa Fe Country Road 44, I could dial out. The first call was to AAA. I told the nice lady there that my clutch went out 10 miles south of Santa Fe at the intersection of NM 14 and SF County 44. It would be 45 minutes for the tow, she said. Double Damn. There was no way I would make my first class. Second call, to my IRD supervisor in Novato, CA. She told me that they would start calling parents, I should focus on taking car of the car. "And be safe! Stay away from the roadside!" she ordered. I had to laugh. I think she thought I was on a California Freeway at rush hour. The San Marcos, NM rush hour meant maybe 20 cars in an hour. Three state cops passed by. Not one stopped. Good thing I was just barely out of the cell phone black out area. Three of four calls were to the Engineering Geek--who was not answering his cell, office or the Solar Tower.

A call came in from A-One Towing. "I think AAA dispact in Arizona made a mistake," their dispatcher said. "We're in Tucumcari. Where are you?"
"Crazy!" I said. Tucumcari is several hours east of Edgewood on I-40, near the Texas border.
A few minutes later, AAA called. They had dispatched another tow truck, they said. ETA 9 AM.
Ten minutes, and it was getting hot, as the sun climbed towards 9 AM in the cloudless, flawlessly, impossibly blue New Mexico sky. I put on my Indiana straw hat.

Another call. This time it was Little John's Towing. "I can't seem to find you on Shenandoah Road," he said. (Santa Fe County 44 is also called Shenandoah Trail). "Where are you?" I asked. South of Moriarity on Shenandoah," Little John answered. He mentioned some road number in Torrance County. That's more than an hour south of where I was. I told him my state and county road coordinates. "Is that north of Cerillos?" asked Little John.
Sigh. "Yes."
Little John tows for AAA in the East Mountains. He doesn't go north of Cerillos.
"I'll call AAA and get you somebody out of Santa Fe," he said.
Thanks. If AAA dispatch can read a map.

Soon after I hung up the Engineering Geek called. Only my phone didn't actually ring. I just got a chirp that meant I had a missed call. This happened for five more calls from AAA, from IRD, and from the EG. When I finally connected with the EG, I told him what was going on. We agreed to have the car towed to Edgewood's Rich Ford, where Les, our mechanic, works. Les told the EG to have the towing done by Little John. But by then, apparently, AAA had finally got it right and called Extreme Towing out of Santa Fe. At just past 9:30, he arrived.
Soon, after a stop at Lone Butte Trading Post, he for jerky, me for the bathroom, and we were on our way.

On the way to Edgewood, he regaled me with stories about the crazy culture of Santa Fe, where you can't get good help, they don't speak English at Wal-Mart, and where aging hippies call the police to report mice acting funny in Hyde Park. This last one was courtesy of his wife, a Santa Fe Police dispatcher. The hippy waited with the mouse, and called back after an hour when no cop showed. He called again later to complain that the policeman was inhumane because he lifted the mouse by the tail when putting it in the cage. Apparently, aging hippies do not know that you kill the mouse to find out whether it is carrying Hanta Virus or Yersinius pestis (that's Bubonic Plague, which is endemic in the central mountains of New Mexico.)

Finally arriving at the Edgewood Ford, I spend a profitably fun afternoon test driving a Focus and a Fusion, the last of what is lent to us. We considered buying the Fusion today, but decided to wait a month.

Storm warning! Gotta go. The lightning is very close!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ragamuffin Reading: The New Library is . . . Comfortable


I was going to call this post 'the new library is finished.' But then I realized that I added five new books to it just this week. Libraries are never finished!

It may not look like it, but these books are in order on the shelves now--These shelves contain world history, American history, Judaic studies, world religions, field guides, and science.

The quilt (left) is 24 years old this summer. My coworkers at "The Children's Meeting Place" made it for me just before I stopped working to give birth to the Chem Geek Princess. The center panel has her ultra-sound picture, back when she was "Junior" (as in a Junior Lotaburger. I was addicted to the Green Chile Junior Lotaburger while pregnant).

These shelves are also in order: general psychology, politics, practical arts and how-to, writing and language, biography, and fiction. (Teaching, schooling, ASD, and gifted kids, are all in my office. Astronomy, Math and Woodworking will go in the Engineering Geek's office).

In honor of making the library a cool and comfortable place to read, and to assert the never-finished dogma of libraries, I ordered some new books this week: Bastiat's That Which is Seen & That Which is Unseen and his The Law, as well as Murray Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty. The Amazon reviews for Rothbard's book promised that reading it will make me an anarcho-capitalist.

I also ordered Henry Hazlitt's classic Economics in One Lesson, and at Borders I picked up The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right and Threats to Our Liberties by David Boaz. He is a fellow at CATO.

This July the heat is bothering me more than last year--ah, the joys of RA--and the library-guest room is the coolest room in the house.

Although she has been subdued this morning after the strange and abberation of a fight with Lily last night, Shayna wagged her tail in the cool of the library this morning.

I hope the calm of the library will be a place for them to rest while I read through the heat of the remaining summer afternoons!

Summer afternoons, cozy winter evenings, happy spring and fall mornings--these are all times to curl up in platform rocker and read. As Jefferson said:

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree." -- Notes on Va., 1782.

If I am not out and about, you'll find me in the comfortable but unfinished library, improving my mind!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Lieu of A Post . . .

I was going to write a post about civil disobedience, but the barometer dropped like a lead weight, a storm blew over, and the dogs got into a fight and made a big mess. I guess you could say we had some very uncivil disobedience in my bedroom.

So instead, I'd like to share with you a post from The Libertarian Enterprise, about the Honduran Constitutional Crisis. The author, Russell D. Longcore says:

"If the Legislative and Judicial branches of the US government had one-tenth of the courage and moral conviction of the Honduran government, they would do what the Hondurans did.
It is an embarrassment that a small, poor nation like Honduras proves the rule of law, while the American president...supposedly a Constitutional authority and former constitutional law teacher...ignores our own constitution in a naked power grab."

The article is called Honduras Coup d'Etat: Was It Right or Wrong?

Another article in this weeks issue that I found very thought provoking was L. Niel Smith's Blast from the Past, a transcript of his speech from the Arizona LP convention, April 19, 1997. I mean, he talked about science fiction, so I knew it would be good. I'll give you sneak peek at the end, but you ought to read the whole thing.

"Ayn Rand was well known for her negative opinion of Libertarians and the Libertarian Party. Part of it was merely an understandable (if not entirely forgivable) conflict of time and place. Rand was the greatest philosopher, advocate of reason, and champion of liberty of her time. She was also a little old immigrant lady, not unlike my wife's Bohemian grandmother, who couldn't accept the logical conclusion—anarchism, as Roy Childs pointedly informed her—that her philosophy of uncompromising individualism inevitably leads to, who didn't like men to wear long hair and beards (I'm sure earrings would have blown her mind completely) and who was disgusted by certain expressions of uncompromising individualism such as homosexuality and recreational drug use.

On the other hand, Rand tried to warn us that America wasn't ready for a Libertarian Party. In essence, she said you have to change society first, and that the political payoff—provided you do things right—comes later."

The article is called You Can't Fight a Culture War If You Ain't Got Any Culture. It's a long but worthy read.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Pursuit of Religious Happiness

Some blog posts that I write get many comments right away.
Some never get any comments at all.
And then there are those that get belated comments. Such it has been with my post from last July, Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness.

This blog entry received three separate comments from one Miriam, who seems to want to convert me to Christianity. Sorry, Miriam, but my heart belongs to Torah.
Being one of the token Jews of the Homeschool Blogosphere has its little ironies. During Hannukah, I received a gift and an earnest letter from a Mormon reader of my blog, who wants to convert me to Mormonism. Very kindly meant, I am sure, but this is also not a likely prospect. As Rabbi Joe Black said at the Boychick's Bar Mitzvah, " . . . for 4,000 years our people have lived by [Torah] and too often, they have died for it." I, as an American, have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to be free of religious coercion, and frankly, I am glad I do not have to die for Torah. I would so much rather live by it. I like being Jewish. It is part of my personal pursuit of happiness.

But I digress. The real meat of Miriam's argument was that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that this religious expression was intended to be Protestant Christianity. Now, I cannot argue that the founders were not Christian. They were. But what I can and do argue, quite passionately, is that many of them were also aware of the dire nature of the Christian brutality against other Christians that ocurred in Europe, and that they were not eager to replicate it here. Consider, as just one of many examples, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. (Son of Liberty Paul Revere was the descendent of a survivor of that terrible event).

More to the point, the founders were also steeped in the Enlightenment philosophy that came from England and Scotland, which emphasized the rights of man, and also took a rather dour view of the human capacity for self-righteous violence. The Glorious Revolution in England had come on the heels of the English Civil Wars, which were as nasty a religious conflict as had been the murdering of religious dissidents by Bloody Mary. These Enlightenment values with respect to the freedom of the human mind and conscience were expressed by Thomas Jefferson thusly:

"Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time . . ." --Thomas Jefferson, Preamble to the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, 1785 (Emphasis added).

We can see from the emphasized portions the Enlightenment influence on Jefferson's thought: that the Creator has made the mind to be free, and that no coercion can effect holiness, and that reason is the ultimate guide of the human conscience. The influence of the experience of religious coercion in Europe can be seen from Jefferson's comments about the uninspired and fallible nature of the men who would coerce the faith of others.

And of course, there were great differences among the colonies themselves with respect to religion. There was Puritan New England, Quaker Pennsylvania, the small "c" catholics (Church of England and Church of Scotland) of Virginia and the Carolinas, the Dutch Protestants of New York, and the Roman Catholics of Maryland. Some of the Colonies had established religions, but others, such as Rhode Island, were established on the principle of the right to freedom from religious coercion.

All of these realities undoubtedly influenced the non-establishment clause of Amendment I of the United States Constitution. But the overall Enlightenment philosophy of the Rights of Man is the overarching justification for the rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence and ennumerated in the Bill of Rights. These rights are individual rights based on the nature of the human being who requires Liberty in order to live. This is what is meant by "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . ." These Enlightenment values are further revealed in Jefferson's writing:

" . . .that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right;

"that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty . . ." Ibid.

The establishment of a Constitutional guarrantee of individual rights for the first time in human history recognized individual human beings to be free and independent masters of their own lives, and subject only to their own conscience with respect to religious opinion and belief. This is what is so revolutionary about the American Republic. We do not owe our allegiance to Kings or Princes, nor Popes or Bishops, but to the Constitution and the Republic that it created. The government exists to protect our rights, we do not exist to serve the government.

What is most interesting to me about Miriam's argument, and indeed the arguments of most dominionist Christians, when they insist that this is a Christian nation, is that they always assert some collective right of "society" to govern what they consider to be the sinful behavior of fellow citizens. Thus Miriam argues:

" . . .Take for example homosexuality, where I personally believe that this behavior does in fact violate the rights of others (especially when viewing its effects on society as a whole), many people in today’s culture would disagree vehemently, claiming the behavior is harmless to others." (Comment on Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness, linked above).

This argument is premised on the idea that society as a whole has certain rights that supercede the rights of the individual. What rights those are she left unstated, because, in fact society is not an entity in itself, and has no rights. All rights are held by individuals.
Miriam, as an individual, has every right to snub homosexuals, refuse them entry to her church, hate them in her heart, and refuse to socialize with them. The values by which she enacts such behaviors are between her and her own sovereign conscience. But Miriam has no right to initiate force against them in the name of any god or government. She and her coreligionists may not deprive them of their lives, liberty, or property.

Part of Miriam's confusion about the individual nature of rights may come from the recent movement to assign rights to groups: gay rights, women's rights, animal rights, and so on. Miriam would be correct if she stated that such attribution of group rights violates her own individual rights. For example, gays have no right to get the government to force a photographer to take pictures of a gay wedding (to cite one notorious New Mexican violation of the Constitution) by threatening to remove her business license. That would be a violation of both her liberty and property. But gays do have every right to snub her, refuse her entry into their churches, and hate her in their hearts. They also have the sovereign right of conscience.

Finally, I also disagree with Miriam's assertion that the rights declared in the Declaration of Independence are based on what she calls "Judeo-Christian" values. Perhaps, because I am a Jew, I am far more aware of differences between the universalistic values of Christianity and the more particularistic Jewish legal tradition. For example, Judaism does not assert any obligation of non-Jews to obey Halachah (Jewish law). Christianity, with its doctrine of universal salvation, on the other hand, requires all human beings to recognize the deity status of Jesus or be consigned to death and hell. Jewish moral values only require right action, whereas in Christianity, there is a great emphasis on right belief. Judaism does not claim moral dominion over all human beings. Christianity's adherents often claim that they invented morality.

Both Judaism and Christianity subscribe to certain more universal human moral standards (you shall not steal, you shall not murder). These universal moral standards are also the basis for the concept of the Rights of Man, which were developed in Western culture. And although both Judaism and Christianity have greatly influence Western ideas, the set of Western values itself, including the concept of natural rights, is not purely derived from religious thought. And these values predate fundmentalist Christianity by more than 20 centuries.

The United States has NO established religion. As the first amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Enough said!