Friday, March 28, 2008

The Theory of Limits Helps Explain Why Some ‘Get’ Jeremiah Wright, and Many Don’t

In earlier postings I have argued that Pope Benedict XVI (formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, theologian, cardinal and Catholicism’s grand inquisitor) could benefit from understanding Alfred North Whitehead’s theory of limits.

The theory observes that because reality and language are always in flux, assertions can be true only within strict limits, and that when those limits are forgotten, an assertion begins to do the work of a falsehood. Occasions when Benedict has taken questionable positions, communicated poorly or offended people from various religions are generally ones where he forgot those limits.

But the theory of limits also applies to politics. Politicians, commentators and the American public have reacted in various ways to inflammatory comments by Jeremiah Wright, who retired earlier this year after 35 years as pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, which has been Barack Obama’s church for the last 20 years. The theory of limits can help explain why Wright phrased some statements the way he did—and why Obama should not have waited to find them inappropriate until people, mostly not in the black community, began to take offense.

If one takes time to examine Wright’s disputed claims and appreciate the context in which he made them, it is possible to identify even in the most outrageous ones a core of truth. Apart from that effort, many may react with hostility to snippets of his sermons, but they will not be hearing what Wright tried to say.

Two things are important about the context of Wright’s remarks: the mostly black congregations he was addressing expected him to reflect on their experience, past and present, and to do so in a prophetic style of preaching that black preachers have used for centuries.

Clarence Page has observed, Wright was successful at both, transforming a congregation of 80 members in 1972 to a membership of 8,000 today. But another reason Wright succeeded, Page says, was that he could also pray before a racially mixed group, “Oh, God, we come from many different places and different races, but we are of one race, the human race.” So Wright could condemn the United States for its failings—not only because our failings have afflicted blacks, but because they have denied God’s love for the human race as a whole.

With this context in mind, it is possible to construe some of Wright’s more incendiary rhetoric as true, provided the limits of that truth are specified. Let’s look at a few examples.

Wright charged that the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to kill black people. So far, no one has proved that is literally true. But it wasn’t that long ago that ACT UP and other gay-activist organizations were saying exactly the same thing about American gay men, the original U.S. victims of the disease. How the virus jumped from monkey populations to African humans has never been satisfactorily explained. For the gay activists, and for black activists before and since, that has left the door open for the suspicion that the jump was someone’s plot, or at least an experiment gone awry.

Given Americans’ historical oppression of gay people and blacks, sinister motives to kill off some of either population are not inconceivable. And as
Kathleen Parker has noted, blacks in particular have special reason to fear they will not receive the best medical care: “After all, the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis study, in which about 400 black men with syphilis were left untreated and uninformed as part of an experiment, was conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service.”

Whether or not these fears are ever proved to be justified, there is a core of truth in Wright’s jeremiad: the Centers for Disease Control says HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for blacks in the United States. On the face of it, U.S. governments have not stopped the disease from spreading exponentially in the black community. Gays made the same charge against Ronald Reagan about their AIDS deaths. George W. Bush, to his credit, has given some priority to fighting AIDS in Africa. But Wright is right that the United States has not done enough to keep AIDS from killing American blacks.

Wright has also said that the United States bears some responsibility for the attacks of 9/11. Of course, conservative preachers said the same thing, before the ashes of the World Trade Center towers had even settled. The difference was that they were blaming homosexuals and others who do not buy right-wing morals, while Wright attacked the foreign policy of the United States. What’s sauce for the goose, as they say…

As CNN forecast, Barack Obama said in an interview today that if his pastor had not retired first earlier this year, and acknowledged that some of his comments deeply offended people, he would have left Trinity UCC. But the same article quotes another Wright sermon in which he deplored Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, especially by forcibly taking their land for right-wing Jewish settlements. There is also a core of truth in that observation. Sure, Wright could have been more nuanced, by also recognizing that the Jews have a right to defend themselves from Palestinian terrorists. But wasn’t Wright’s point that tactics like the settlement program are not a legitimate means of defense?

And then there was perhaps Wright's most played You Tube moment, when he yells “God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human!” Some find the phrasing indelicate, but it would be really hard to prove that the United States has not so treated some of its citizens some of the time. The phrasing is loose enough that it allows any number of mistreated groups the hear Wright as speaking up for them. To substitute a blessing for the curse, the course is obvious: stop trampling on Americans’ human rights.

Of course, the theory of limits also applies to Wright, and to Obama. Wright could have clarified long ago that his claims work only within limits, and that if those limits are forgotten, some of his words truly are abominable. And, as Parker says, Obama could have contributed more to healing our racial divide if he had said much earlier, before others began objecting, that Wright’s language reflects some legitimate African-American grievances—but that fanning the flames of those grievances is not the most direct route to racial harmony. In other words, Obama should have seen it coming and given his latest Big Speech proactively, rather than defensively.

Clarence Page finds it ironic that Obama may find himself “trapped in the racial divide that many still hope he is uniquely qualified to heal.” Part of the irony is that Obama got involved with Wright in the first place to learn more about the American black experience. Says Page:

“The irony for Obama, who grew up a biracial kid in Hawaii, Indonesia and rural Kansas, is that he met Wright while working as a community organizer and trying to get a better handle on black American culture in the 1980s. Now pundits ask whether Obama, who has won more white than black votes numerically, is ‘too black’ to win many more white votes.”

Time will tell if Obama can eventually capitalize on this experience. But if he is to do so, it can only be by putting Wright’s claims within valid limits and explaining why they are false if those limits are ignored.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Chutzpah to Claptrap: Unable to Rouse a Majority, Conservatives Still Crave Power!

As a movement only infrequently able to get a majority to salute it, U.S. conservatism has always had to rely on more than a little chutzpah to gain ground. Lacking any lasting clout of their own, they nonetheless have shown a talent for pitting other minorities against one another, so that every so often the radical right can fancy itself as the minority in charge.

And the Bozell family in particular—L. Brent, Jr. and the III—has shown that even very traditionalist Catholics can be adept at chutzpah. It has taken them far in their efforts to rule American politics and the U.S. Catholic church.

But in his latest broadside against the American public, L. Brent Bozell III descends from chutzpah to pure claptrap.

Born in 1955, Bozell III says he has “been in the trenches fighting for an alphabet soup of conservative causes for 30 years” and has “raised hundreds of millions of dollars for it.” He leads numerous right-wing groups: founder and president of the Media Research Center, the Conservative Communications Center and the Cybercast News Service; founder of the Culture and Media Institute; founder and now an advisor of the Parents Television Council; board member of the American Conservative Union and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

So certainly Bozell III has earned the right to take credit for any accomplishments the movement would like to claim.

Yet rather than acknowledge that their multi-decade effort to capture the Republican Party has in fact achieved several conservative priorities, Bozell castigates Republicans for not doing enough for the conservative cause: “For 20 years, the moderate establishment of the Republican Party has told conservatives to sit down, shut up and do as we’re told… This is a movement fed up with betrayals…”

Surely this will come as news to George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, who spent the bulk of their adult political lives trying to make their conservative base happy. Evidently, nothing will satisfy them—save perhaps establishing a theocracy with Bozell at the helm.

For six years of W’s presidency Karl Rove pandered to them. They got their way on invading Iraq; filling Supreme Court vacancies with conservative judicial activists; stifling the Bill of Rights; cracking the wall of separation between church and state; enacting tax cuts for the wealthy that made the national deficit explode exponentially; not enforcing laws passed to regulate the loan industry, thereby weakening the dollar and creating what may be our longest recession in decades; preventing federal agencies from having sufficient staffing and resources to cope with natural disasters, police imports from China, safeguard the nation’s food supply or prevent highway bridges from decaying and falling down; blocking life-saving stem-cell research; paying only for sex education and birth control programs that relied naively on abstinence alone; preventing gay people from being treated equally under the law; obstructing comprehensive immigration reform.

The list could go on and on. But it’s long enough to say that most of what is wrong with the United States today is the direct result of adopting conservative policies.

Rather than pretend they got nothing that they wanted, conservatives need to face the fact that much of their program has been adopted—and for the most part, it has utterly failed.

And they also need to realize that the public agrees. The conservatives were unable to field a candidate who could sustain majorities in enough primaries to beat John McCain. McCain won because even though he favors some conservative positions (e.g., the surge in Iraq, making the Bush tax cuts permanent), he is not perceived as wedded to every doctrinaire conservative policy that has gotten us where we are today.

So the Republicans may not be able to count on votes from Bozell and company. But so what? Do they plan to vote for a Democrat? Unlikely. Do they plan to promote as a third-party candidate some conservative who has already failed to convince voters in the primaries? They might do that, but all it would do is assure the election of a Democratic president. Does that do their cause any good?

What they might do instead is recognize that the United States remains a democracy and that not enough voters believe them anymore. The conservatives’ policies were a disaster. We have had enough. Either propose alternatives that acknowledge that and make sense, or get out of the way.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Eve of U.S. Visit, Pope’s Mind Is Made Up: And No One Will Confuse Him with Facts

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Washington D.C. and New York City in mid-April. An article in the March 21st edition of the National Catholic Reporter says it would be helpful if Benedict could take a crash course on how to speak to Americans before he arrives. But writer David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, thinks the chances are slim.

He notes a famous effort 20 years ago, when John Paul II was visiting the U.S. and a popular Catholic priest tried politely to get him to listen to U.S. Catholics. John Paul sat patiently while the talk was interrupted 13 times by sustained applause, but he seemed to actually hear very little. There are no plans for Benedict to receive such input. Gibson’s article explains why. Here’s the second half of it.

Benedict is a paradox in that he relishes the clash of ideas -- he has been at the center of every significant church controversy in the last generation -- yet dislikes personal confrontation. Part of that can be traced to Benedict’s dual vocations as a churchman and an academic theologian who prefers the pulpit and lectern to noisy debate. He is an intellectual whose talks are informed by intensive study and conversations with other bishops; indeed, he is most at ease among fellow clerics, and as pope he often meets with Italian priests for conversations that are expansive and enlightening.

But these exchanges are not terribly challenging, nor does his network go far beyond the clerical ranks or conservative circles. And they are hardly in tune with an American culture that was born in rebellion, fed by competition, traumatized by civil war and energized by civil rights. Today’s culture, left and right, is a product of the 1960s just as today’s Catholic church -- left and right -- is a product of the Second Vatican Council. In America, as in the church, honest conversation and the free expression of ideas and, yes, emotions, messy as they are, remain central to our pilgrimage. And for a church racked by scandal and frustrated by institutional stonewalling, open communication is more important than ever. In fact, it could be argued that the lack of discourse has left the church polarized and enervated by a diminished civility. Catholic culture has assumed the worst aspects of American culture because the church could not accommodate the best of America’s traditions. No matter the venue, a straitened view of public discourse that lectures from on high can only be answered by shouts from below.

It should, and could, work the other way around, with the church as a model. In one of the most memorable yet rarely cited episodes in American church history, John Paul engaged in a “structured” dialogue with a representative of the nation’s priests during a 1987 visit to the United States. It was a particularly difficult era between Rome and America, and Fr. Frank McNulty, a widely respected priest from New Jersey, was delegated to address the pope. His talk was a model of sincere, measured, yet frank talk about the problems facing the priesthood and the church in the United States, and the need for reforms that would include a discussion of neuralgic topics such as mandatory celibacy.

“If priests could open up their hearts and tell you of their priesthood,” McNulty told John Paul, “they could not do so without some controversial questions surfacing. In our country there is an attitude toward questions; it comes from our heritage, those historical events which help make us the way we are. We treasure freedom -- freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression. Questions brought our nation into being. In such settings people do not run from questions about what they believe and how they live out those beliefs. Priests know well that there are no easy answers but want to face the questions with honesty.”

“Your Holiness,” he concluded, “our prayer is that today’s words will be the deepening of an honest, ongoing, heart-to-heart dialogue.” McNulty was interrupted 13 times by thunderous applause. John Paul responded by reasserting traditional teachings, and he added an enigmatic remark: “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” Whatever that meant, the plea for dialogue was a non-starter, and the problems McNulty spoke of have only worsened.

When I called McNulty recently to reminisce about that talk, he told me that the New Jersey parish where he helps out on Sundays arranged to show a video of his exchange with the pope on the 20th anniversary of the event. The church hall was packed, and when the video ended, the gathering gave McNulty a standing ovation. People were shocked to see such an exchange, and some asked for the tape so they could show their children, who would be even more surprised. “It was a fascinating experience,” McNulty said. “It just shows that such a thing is still very much needed.”

Don’t expect a repeat during Benedict’s visit. The job of a pope, like any bishop, is to teach, to sanctify and to govern. Benedict enjoys the first two, but (like John Paul) he has never billed himself as an administrator. He prefers to leave the grunt work to his bishops, but they could certainly use the visit as a steppingstone to broader conversations. The venues and models already exist, in forums that grew out of the sexual abuse crisis, like the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management or university-based initiatives like Boston College’s “Church in the 21st Century” program. There is also the more venerable -- and viable -- Common Ground Initiative, an effort to address what Fr. Donald Cozzens aptly calls the “sacred silence” of denial in the church.

Then there was the 2002 meeting in Dallas, when in the white heat of scandal, the bishops invited lay leaders, abuse victims and outside experts to speak to the hierarchy. That was historic, but it was dialogue at the point of a gun (and without the voice of a single priest) and never repeated. Sadly, it seems to take an acute crisis to create a small opening, and that is quickly filled with anger that has been pent up for too long. To do something similar under less trying circumstances, and on a regular basis, would be true to Benedict’s personal, pastoral core, and to the rule of the pope’s namesake, St. Benedict of Nursia, who said the entire community should be called together to discuss anything of importance, because the youngest often display the greater wisdom.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Legalizing and Regulating Brothels Works Much Better Than Criminalizing Prostitution

In the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, a plea to legalize prositution struck me as so tired and predictable that I almost didn't read it. But Patty Kelly, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, recently took a year to spend days and nights in a legal Mexican brothel, observing and interviewing the prostitutes, their clients and the government bureaucrats who ran the place. She makes a persuasive argument that legalizing prostitution and regulating it works much better than criminalizing it and prosecuting the participants.

As for Spitzer, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) is still in the business of fighting for the rights of sex workers. Maybe they could use an experience legal counsel! Kelly's op-ed piece follows.

Eliot Spitzer paid a woman for sex. And got caught. Depending on whose statistics you choose to believe, more than one in every 10 American adult males have paid for sex at some point. What's more, in 2005, about 84,000 people were arrested on prostitution-related offenses.

In other words, it's not terribly uncommon. It's a part of our culture, and it's not going away any time soon. Perhaps Spitzer's resignation will help convince Americans that it is finally time to decriminalize prostitution across the country.

Recently, I spent a year working at a legal, state-regulated brothel in Mexico, a nation in which commercial sex is common, visible and, in one-third of the states, legal. I was not working as a prostitute but as an anthropologist, to study and analyze the place of commercial sex in the modern world. I spent my days and nights in close contact with the women who sold sexual services, with their clients and with government bureaucrats who ran the brothel.

Here's what I learned: Most of the workers made some rational choice to be there, sometimes after a divorce, a breakup or an economic crisis, acute or chronic. Of the 140 women who worked at the Galactic Zone, as the brothel was called, only five had a pimp (and in each of those cases, they insisted the man was their boyfriend).

The women made their own hours, set their own rates and decided for themselves what sex acts they would perform. Some were happy with the job. (As Gabriela once told me: "You should have seen me before I started working here. I was so depressed.") Others would have preferred to be doing other work, although the employment available to these women in Mexico (servants, factory workers) pays far less for longer hours.

At the Galactic Zone, good-looking clients were appreciated and sometimes resulted in boyfriends; the cheap, miserly and miserable ones were avoided, if possible.

To be sure, the brothel had its dangers: Sexually transmitted diseases and violence were occasionally a part of the picture. But overall, it was safer than the streets, in part because of police protection and condom distribution by government authorities.

Legalizing and regulating prostitution has its own problems — it stigmatizes sex workers (mostly by requiring them to register with the authorities), subjects them to mandatory medical testing that is not always effective and gives clients and workers a false sense of security (with respect to sexual health and otherwise).

But criminalization is worse. Sweden's 1998 criminalization of commercial sex — a measure titled "The Protection of Women" — appears not to protect them at all. A 2004 report by the Swedish Ministry of Justice and the police found that after it went into effect, prostitution, of course, continued. Meanwhile, prices for sexual services dropped, clients were fewer but more often violent, more wanted to pay for sex and not use a condom — and sex workers had less time to assess the mental state of their clients because of the fear of getting caught.

New Zealand's 2003 Prostitution Reform Act is perhaps the most progressive response to the complex issue of prostitution. The act not only decriminalizes the practice but seeks to "safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation, promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers, is conducive to public health, (and) prohibits the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age."

Furthermore, clients, sex workers and brothel owners bear equal responsibility for minimizing the risks of STD transmission. In 2005, a client was convicted of violating the act by slipping his condom off during sex.

And this brings me to the clients. I have met hundreds of men who have paid for sex. Some seek any kind of sex; others want certain kinds of sex; a few look for comfort and conversation.

Saying that all sex workers are victims and all clients are demons is the easy way out. Perhaps it's time to face this like adults (or at least like Mexico) — with a little less moralizing and a good deal more honesty.

As for Spitzer, if he had walked into the Galactic Zone, my questions would have been these: Was he respectful? Was he safe? Did he pay well? If the answer to all three was yes, then, well, I voted for him once, and I would vote for him again.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Small Change: Why Not Abolish Coins That Cost More to Make Than They're Worth?

There's nothing like two weeks in Austria and England to make an American accutely aware of how much U.S. currency has diminished in relation to the euro and the pound. The euro currently costs over $1.50 and the pound over $2.00. It is especially remarkable that the U.K., deeply involved with us in Afghanistan as well as the debacle in Iraq, has managed to do so much better economically than the United States. Evidently foreign policy is not the only area in which the Bush administration lacks skill.

So it caught my eye when The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that, due to the increasing price of metals, pennies and nickles now cost the U.S. Treasury double their face value to make. The price of copper quadrupled over the last five years, while the price of nickle and zinc tripled. The U.S. Mint lost $99 million on penny and nickle production in fiscal 2007.

And the U.S. Mint's response? "Save taxpayers $100 million a year" by replacing the copper, nickle and zinc in the coins with cheapter metals. Is this the best idea the Treasury can muster?

If the government really wants to save taxpayers money--not to mention, improve the convenience of cash transactions--it really should consider abolishing these coins altogether. And for good measure, why not get rid of the dime and the half-dollar as well? If we must split dollars for old times sake, we could still retain the quarter and round all cash totals to the nearest one. But hasn't the time long since passed when pennies, nickles, dimes and half-dollars add any value to our economic lives?

While we're on the subject, it wouldn't hurt for the European Community to do the same. The annoyance and uselessness of such small change is the same there. In fact, the European countries compound the problem. The euro, in addition to 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 euro-cent coins, is also available in 1 and 2 euro coins. The pound, in addition to 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 25 and 50-pence coins, is also available in 1, 2 and 5 pound coins. So much coinage is cumbersome, costly and a really unproductive use of the earth's metals.

The Tribune reported that a House subcommittee had a hearing March 11th about the Mint's proposal. Time challenges and the mechanics of dealing with vending machines were discussed. Only one member was brave enough to suggest abolishing the penny entirely. Another predicted "some good amendments coming for this." One can hope.