Category: Board Commentary

Politics and Our ‘Devil-in-Chief’

By Harlan Garbell

A key principle of humanism is rejection of the belief that a supernatural force or being is responsible for what happens on Earth (or anywhere in the universe for that matter). When it comes to politics, however, I’m not so sure anymore. Let me explain.

Humanists would generally agree there is no such thing as the devil. However, if there is anything we have learned during the last election cycle, it’s that politics in America is no longer just about which major political candidate espouses the better policies. No, the larger issue is which of them is the “devil.” That is, the unfavored candidate is no longer a human being advancing a certain program but an “evil spirit…having power to inflict bodily disease and with spiritual corruption.” 

OK, time for me to confess. This is the way I look at Donald Trump. Want more proof for my position? Another definition of “devil” is “an atrociously wicked, cruel, or ill-tempered person.” As a lawyer would say, “I rest my case.”

I can spend hours of your time arguing that Trump, along with Vice President Pence, meet that definition by showing how their policies would “afflict bodily disease” on millions of people through their misguided and mean-spirited health and environmental initiatives. I can spend more time arguing that a “devilish” conspiracy of right-wing billionaire networks is corrupting the American political system by systematically denying people the elemental right to vote.

In the opposite camp, Trump supporters have been conditioned over many years to view both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as devils incarnate. Media outlets such as Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Breitbart rarely miss a day to report on how these Democrats have undermined middle-American (read “Christian”) values by supporting immigrants, atheists, homosexuals, and other assorted miscreants.

This is no accident. Because Trump was such a demonstrably flawed Republican candidate, it was imperative to portray Clinton and Obama as a criminal (“Crooked Hillary”) or a secret Muslim. Even though neither currently holds any public office, millions of people are still bombarded daily with stories about their alleged misdeeds.

At its core, religious fundamentalism involves the daily battle of good versus evil. Whether humanists understand it or not, religion creates powerful emotions that drive people’s behavior. To this day, believers of many faiths will even inflict physical harm on themselves to demonstrate the power of their faith. For example, Christians crawl (or walk on their knees) to shrines, or Muslims self-flagellate during religious festivals. Of course, we enlightened, progressive, humanists would never do that—would we?

I, and many of my humanist friends, are going through significant (perhaps self-inflicted) anguish regarding the current occupant of the White House. We often feel powerful emotions as his daily “evil” unfolds daily before our eyes. Many of us watch MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow every night in hopes that the power of her clever arguments will expose Trump completely and forever as the devil that he is so he can be excised from the body politic. In short, politics may be providing me emotionally with a fundamental religious experience even though I fancy myself a sophisticated urban dweller who sometimes scoffs at the profound need for religion in the billions of believers around the planet.

So, what is the lesson here? Clearly I need to do a better job in understanding my emotions as we navigate these turbulent times. Yes, these are trying circumstances but so were the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the war in Iraq. History will no doubt move on pursuant to the medieval adage “this too shall pass.” Keeping things in perspective is vital. I also need to better exercise my critical thinking skills to ascertain the facts of any current political issue and not just lazily agree to the arguments put forth by my favorite liberal online or TV “priests.”

Thanks, readers, for allowing me to work through these feelings by writing this column. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to watch Bill Moyers on PBS and I just heard Hillary will be on Rachel’s show later. But wait! Isn’t Bernie debating that sinister looking Texas senator on CNN at nine?

Harlan Garbell is vice president of Humanists of Minnesota.

Observations of an Occasional Traveler

By Audrey Kingstrom

Recently I traveled abroad for the first time in my life. My trip to Germany and Amsterdam with my husband as companion was wonderful! I can now better understand why so many are smitten by the lure of travel. While it is cliché to repeat what is often said about Europe – “everything is so old” and “it has so much history” – one is struck by those impressions wherever you go. What a fortuitous coincidence then that on this trip I decided to bring along the book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. While I got only part-way through the book, it nonetheless provided a helpful historical lens through which to do my sightseeing and to ruminate on my observations.

How novel and enchanting to see such old towns and cities, tour castles and cathedrals, walk cobblestone streets, and encounter vestiges of an older civilization almost everywhere. But especially fascinating was to see old Germany juxtaposed with the new and contemplate the changes over time. Upscale multi-unit housing was being built in small quaint towns just a stone’s throw away from the mostly intact city walls of the 13th century. Larger cities were donning new construction in the shadow of cathedrals and legendary city centers. The historic epicenter of trade on the Baltic coast turned resort district in the last century was clearly experiencing yet another building renaissance for the growing year-round residential, vacation, and tourist markets. And when traveling by car, traffic was frequently delayed by seemingly ubiquitous road construction to accommodate a more prosperous and mobile population.

All this activity was met with consternation by our host, my husband’s aunt who lives in a hamlet in the Rhineland and served as our guide while we were in Germany. She expressed many of the concerns often recounted in the media by some of her compatriots: the excessive influx of immigrants, the generous perks given to foreigners, the seeming disregard of regular Germans by the government, dubious construction projects surely to benefit only the wealthy, and ever-rising housing costs. On a lovely boat ride down the Rhine, a conversation with two vacationing social workers—one from Germany and another from the Netherlands—confirmed that the recent rapid influx of immigrants was indeed challenging for both those newly arrived and the populace at large.

But to me, albeit a tourist, Germany and Amsterdam were nothing short of fabulous. The projected dire effects of the influx of immigrants in Europe, particularly in Germany, were not evident. We witnessed lots of new construction and thriving cities and towns—filled mostly with people who looked like us. Street life was vibrant, sidewalk cafes were busy even in September, train stations were bustling with people from all walks of life, and the trains were comfortable and fast. Roads were typically congested while countless people rode bicycles. In many ways Europe was familiar and easy to navigate, being much like the U.S., but in other ways so much better—especially the more compact livable cities with an environmentally conscious transportation system that crisscrossed the continent. The only downside for me was all the smokers. But I digress.

So many people ride bikes in Germany, but Amsterdam must be the biking mecca of the world. There are more bikes than cars, and locals ride them to get to work, do errands, and go out socially—in rain or shine. My husband and I were cautioned by our Airbnb host about using the bikes he made available to us. Tourists often get in bike accidents because they don’t understand the bike culture in Amsterdam or how to traverse the city streets. One need not fear cars so much as be alert to the plethora of bikers, pedestrians, trams, and buses. We did venture out on bikes one day across the city and into the countryside. It was a great adventure as we got to see and experience so much of the city and surrounding area up close.

While my reporting is anecdotal the facts bear me out: Germany is doing well and Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed the immigration influx of 2015 quite adeptly. Amsterdam is in fine shape as well. Instead of being a liability, immigration is seen by many to be essential to Europe’s future vitality. The fertility rate among native-born Europeans has plummeted so much so that immigrants from outside Europe will be necessary to keep the economy going strong. As Frankopan’s New History of the World attests, migration and intercultural exchange have always been indispensable to the renewal and growth of societies.

But across Europe the fear-mongers are at work—just as in America. During the recent federal electoral campaign in Germany, the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), displayed a poster with a pregnant woman and the message “We can make our own Germans” for an anti-immigrant and anti-abortion sentiment rolled into one. The AfD did indeed gain ground in the election—coming in third and winning seats in the parliament. The story is much the same in other European countries where nationalistic and backward-looking political parties are also growing in strength.

Germany and Amsterdam are dynamic, multifaceted places more accurately understood in historical context provided by The Silk Roads. Fifteen hundred years ago Europe was a mere geographical backwater that only came into its own through extensive trade with more advanced civilizations from the Middle East and Asia. It may be surprising news to some, but essentially Islam and other foreign encounters helped bring Europe out of its dark ages. Just understanding the fluidity of religious practices and cultural mores that transpired over the course of generations could help loosen our rigid geographic and ethnic constructs of today. Clearly the world is not a static place; the spheres of influence and power turn through time. One lesson of history should be that we need not fear others so much as engage with them for mutual benefit.

I won’t carry on about the Frankopan book. You can read it yourself if you are so inclined. But let me just say: Without historical perspective we get stuck in our own time and way of thinking. We fail to recognize all the forces that brought us to any particular point in time and are reluctant to admit that our current position is transitory.

It is often said that traveling is a good education and helps open minds. Indeed, it may. And for most people traveling is fun and exciting. But I maintain that studying history is a more thorough and effective way to open one’s mind. Traveling may expand our purview and provide a “teaser” about a new or different culture, but the essential component to knowing a place and understanding the world is through the study of history. So don’t just plan your next jaunt. Crack open a history book for an even greater adventure.

Audrey Kingstrom is president of Humanists of Minnesota.

Humanist Worldview Could Provide Moral Leadership That Trump Lacks

By Audrey Kingstrom, President

I surely thought this summer’s political drama would end in early August with Congress in recess and the president on vacation. The White House had been in huge disarray most of the summer with its inability to deliver on President Trump’s many campaign promises or present a coherent message to friends and foes abroad. But Trump just kept the drama going well into the August recess. He made an already tragic situation worse with his injudicious response after a woman was killed at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virg. Trump’s presidency was brought to a new low with his most chilling failure to date—his inability to provide moral leadership to a nation in need.

Most Americans, however, weren’t expecting much out of him in that regard. Unmistakably, Trump wasn’t elected for his upstanding moral character. But how about past presidents? If they all had had to endure the same no-holds-barred scrutiny that today’s leaders must, surely many more wouldn’t look so good either. To further skew any comparisons one might make, our history books present a pretty sanitized picture of past leaders —at least those typically found in our elementary and secondary schools—so few citizens have a very accurate perception of them. Nonetheless, Trump probably holds the dubious distinction of flaunting his colorful oversized ego and plying his many indiscretions in ways that are unmatched by previous leaders.

Let’s be clear about what we should expect from our political leaders and presidents. Certainly not moral perfection or perhaps not even to be a moral exemplar. Americans have only elected ever-such-mortal men with nary a saint among them. (Humanists would argue that no such creature exists anyway!)  Of course, character still matters, but even when the moral failings of our leaders are not evident at the time they serve the nation, usually their misdeeds both private and public are revealed later—much to our dismay. How, then, can we expect and demand moral leadership from these all-too-mortal beings?

How can we not? Leadership by definition includes a moral component. The ability to discern the right course—or at least the better course—in a given situation is essential to good leadership.  Like any leader, a president is entrusted to rise above his or her own frailties and partialities to draw on the best available knowledge in history, science, human relations, philosophy, and ethics to make good judgments in challenging times and circumstances.  Relying on natural instincts or popular sentiment are not good enough; that’s the know-how of one or rule of the mob. We know from experience that human beings are capable of much better —that is, of a well-reasoned approach to moral leadership.

That kind of moral leadership requires a good grasp of world history, a keen understanding of an unsettled present, and an apt vision for an emerging more just future. Many of our past presidents, despite their many flaws, have risen to the occasion to move us toward a more inclusive and egalitarian nation. Trump, however, is backward-looking and exhibits none of the attributes needed for moral leadership. He can’t distinguish between past accomplished visionaries who deserve our recognition and those infamous wannabe heroes who stood on the wrong side of history. He can’t differentiate between contemporary activists who champion the nation’s best values and the reactionary hooligans who glorify the failings of the past.  Absolutely defend everyone’s right to be heard, but leaders cannot remain morally neutral.  Good leadership employs the moral compass of history, reason, and inclusion and commends all who do likewise.

Humanism as a worldview serves as that kind of moral compass. It doesn’t offer perfection through its method or in its results. As a life stance, it doesn’t turn its adherents into saints. But it functions as a very useful and time-tested guide—to lead us toward a better life for all.  Humanism by definition is inclusive and egalitarian. That’s not necessarily easy to practice given the many differences across our species, but it is an aspiration and guide. Each of us is a work in progress. We strive to transcend ourselves, to understand others, to recognize another’s need, and work toward shared goals. Such endeavors require mutual engagement and collective deliberation—not self-aggrandizement and insularity.

Democratic ideals are intertwined with this humanist worldview. Our nation sorely needs leaders who can provide that kind of moral leadership. But when the leadership at the top fails, others can and must step up. The good news is that people around the country are doing just that.  Leaders in business and philanthropy. Everyday citizens, volunteer activists and professional organizers. None are perfect or pure. But that’s not a realistic standard. Each of us must step up and do what we can to make the world a better place for all—not just for oneself.  My future (and good fortune) is tied up with your future (and good fortune)—and everyone else’s.  Paul Wellstone, that icon of moral leadership, said it most simply: we all do better when we all do better.

Responding to Injustice

By Audrey Kingstrom

I am having difficulty envisioning how we move forward as a society after the contentious acquittal of Officer Yanez for the Philando Castile shooting. No matter what one thinks of the verdict, there was never going to be a good end to that ill-fated encounter last summer.  Yet there was a temporary suspension of judgement and short-lived respite from outrage while a police officer was brought to trial.  And a modicum of satisfaction in the broader community that our system of justice played out as it was designed to do. But that is no consolation to the family and friends of Castile or the many other black and brown Americans who face prejudice, bias and fear as a regular part of their lives. And it is little consolation to humanists who long for a more just world where a Black life matters as much as anyone else’s life.

Humanists understand that we live in an arbitrary and flawed world.  There is no cosmic scale of justice embedded in the structure of the universe. The only form of justice that exists is the one we ourselves construct.  While our sense of fairness is driven by our own subjective experiences and collective history, as a species we have tried to objectively codify some guidelines with varying degrees of success down through the centuries.  Admittedly, all attempts at establishing “justice” have been far from perfect—both in design or implementation.

Currently our criminal justice system is primarily based on notions of punishment, retribution and the dubious hypothesis of deterrence.  While the goal of rehabilitation has had some influence in recent times, retribution remains the central focus of our justice system. But in any case, our justice system remains unsatisfying because it can’t right wrongs committed or alter mistakes made. It can’t change circumstances or transform people. It can’t heal broken relationships or rebuild trust.

And given our historical legacy of the enslavement and discrimination of African Americans and the near annihilation and subjugation of Native Americans, our system of justice has remained inadequate to the task of building a just and egalitarian society. The imbalance of power in social relations, the obstinacy of racism, and disagreement over what even constitutes an offense against the state, all complicate our criminal justice system. How do we move forward then in times like these?

The concept of “justice” itself seems elusive – especially in a police shooting of an innocent man.  So many people are unsatisfied by the outcome of the Yanez trial because given the harm done to Philando Castile and his family, justice seems not to have been fairly or proportionally rendered. What do we want to happen in such tragic circumstances?  What kind of outcome are we looking for? As legal scholar Mike Materni and others have suggested, we might look to the notion of “injustice” –wrongs suffered, losses incurred and suffering endured–as a better reference point from which to formulate our aspirations.  Justice is not best construed as some idealized state but as a process by which reparation, restitution and compensation for wrongs committed and harm done are undertaken by the relevant parties. That is very different from simply exacting punishment or retribution.

One of the many take-aways from the Yanez-Castile tragedy is the need to rethink our conception of justice.   And the need to augment our criminal justice system with the practice of restorative justice—an approach that focuses on the harm done to victims.  Small and sporadic efforts have been undertaken in recent years but these are not enough. Our entire system needs to embrace the work of reparations for persistent maltreatments, healing of damaged relationships, bridging differences and building trust—not just in civil cases, but in criminal cases and especially those that involve our law enforcement personnel.  Of course, that’s a tall order for our society, but it’s time we acknowledge the inadequacies of our current legal system to establish a more just society. We’ve got to do better.

The Only Wall We Need

By Audrey Kingstrom

The “wall of separation” between church and state grew out of the First Amendment – as most any student of American history knows. But like so many other constitutional issues, the anti-establishment clause remains open to interpretation even today.  While the meaning of “religious liberty” itself seems to be more fraught than ever, I am particularly concerned that religion has a way of encroaching on the public square – permeating that wall – because so many Americans believe that a god or higher power is necessary to ensure morality – the very morality upon which our civic life is built.

But given our history, it’s really no wonder. Many of the early European colonists who settled in North America came here explicitly to practice their own religion without persecution. The Founding Fathers could not – nor did they attempt to – take away anyone’s brand of religion. The framers wisely devised a church/state separation that kept state-sanctioned religion out of the constitution yet provided for individual religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. It was a monumental feat for its time.

But few of the Founding Fathers – let alone ordinary citizens of the new republic – were ready to disavow religion’s moral authority.  Thomas Jefferson was the most notable outlier in that regard.  Not only had he edited the Gospels to exclude all supernatural references and is credited with coining the phrase “wall of separation,” Jefferson is also quoted as saying, “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

On the other hand, in his Farewell Address of 1794, George Washington warned: “[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

While the Founders were successful in designing our government not to be the repository of religious authority, the locus of moral authority remained unsettled in our country.  Hence throughout much of our history, Bible reading was part of the moral and character education of students in our public schools – and in some regions – well into the 20th century.  Without a state religion, the culturally dominant religion came to be used in the public arena as the source of moral authority and provided the competitive advantage in culture wars and public policy debates.  Our history is replete with social movements – antislavery, women’s mpioned and contested.

Even with so many competing religious values at work in our society, religion remains widely accepted as the wellspring and the warden of all morality.  It makes no sense, but so many people and politicians still draw on some religious precept or another to bring gravitas to important events and decisions.  Our politicians look to religious leaders for blessing and they frame their policies according to the religious values of their most ardent supporters.  And they often invoke a higher power to guide their deliberations – just as many of them do on the National Day of Prayer in May.

As a humanist and proponent of secular government, I would argue that we not only need to protect the church/state wall of separation, but we must also strengthen it.  Humanists in particular – but most secularists, freethinkers and atheists as well – believe that we ourselves possess the moral agency needed to govern our civic lives.  The democracy envisioned by our Founding Fathers is based on that same understanding of human moral agency.

Now in our own time, we must be diligent in getting that message across – that the moral authority of our government – our civil, secular government – resides with us, the people.  It’s a kind of humanity-based moral authority that exists when everyone counts, when everyone’s voice is heard and respected, and when everyone uses informed reason and verifiable evidence as the common currency of our shared civic lives. We as human beings have the capacity, and we as citizens have the responsibility, to determine public policy and establish the rule of law based on this moral authority – a moral authority that arises out of our mutual deliberation and our inter-dependent lives.

This is democracy at its best and that is what we celebrate on the Day of Reason – the first Thursday of May. This year, May 4,  secular people took a stand at the Minnesota state capitol and many others around the country to counter the National Day of Prayer which is held the same day.

Supreme Court Heterodoxy

The Supreme Court confirmation process for Neil Gorsuch is currently underway. As an engaged citizen, I have listened with great interest to much of the Senate hearings.  As a former civics teacher, I shudder to think what little understanding of judicial philosophy, the role of the Supreme Court and our history as a nation is brought to bear on these hearings.  While we learn of Gorsuch’s many stellar attributes as a jurist and his likeable personality as a public figure, given his heterodox judicial philosophy, he may well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Since his confirmation is all but assured, believe me, I hope I am wrong about Gorsuch.  However, one does not need to be a scholar to be troubled by the judicial philosophy he espouses—that of “originalism.”  It is a philosophy that has gained traction in the past three decades as a backlash to the successful use of constitutional law to advance civil and human rights in the early to mid-20th century.  At which point conservative scholars got themselves funded and organized to promulgate the idea that ascertaining the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers was the best way to reign in the increasingly progressive trajectory of history.  Any change from the “original intent” of the Constitution should only be made by an amendment.

That philosophy is contrary to long-established jurisprudence and certainly my education as a civics teacher in the 1980s.  Most mainstream constitutional scholars taught that we are governed by a “living constitution” – a document intentionally written rather sparingly and mostly in generalities to be able to adapt to changing times. Even now the Supreme Court’s current webpage states: “. . . constitutional interpretation and application were made necessary by the very nature of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers had wisely worded that document in rather general terms leaving it open to future elaboration to meet changing conditions.”  

Historically the role of the Supreme Court has been as the final arbiter in interpreting the Constitution when conflicting views remain intransigent.  That ever-growing body of constitutional law has become part of this “living document” by which we are governed; still written most often by wise but fallible men—along with the Founding Fathers.  A foundational governing document to be sure, but always a work-in-progress.  Ever-changing through the amendment process and judicial review.

But today’s conservatives who espouse “original intent” seem to view the Founding Fathers as some kind of holy men—whose words and intent are immutable law.  Excuse me, but these men did not think of themselves that way—and if any of them succumbed to that view, one of their ever-so-mortal peers would put them in their place.  Today’s political conservatives are looking for “Truth” with a capital “T” and they mistakenly try to imbue the Constitution with a transcendent and absolute quality.

For the record, the Constitution was extremely controversial at its inception.  It was a second attempt at a governing document for the newly formed United States after the first one failed—the Articles of Confederation.  It was conceived in conflict and established through unseemly compromises; e.g. the continuation of slavery and women’s subjugation.  It was a pragmatic document; circumscribed by its time–both innovative and restrained. But what has made it resilient has been its ability to adapt to the emerging complexity of contemporary society and respond to new generations of Americans by incorporating ever-evolving inclusive democratic ideals and governmental protections.

Present day jurists who espouse “originalism” misrepresent their philosophy as value-neutral—when in fact it is no more value-neutral than “living document” proponents.  The Founding Fathers were mortal men shaped by their 18th century worldviews—not demi-gods of democracy or liberty.  They encapsulated no singular “intent.”  They were not of one mind.  They compromised to come up with a workable document that ever-so-tenuously held the country together in those early days. Through the last two centuries, the Constitution has been stretched and flexed by the American experience to give shape and relative cohesion to the country we know today.

Consider, for example, how women today would be regarded by the “original intent” of the Constitution.  Be given equal rights?  Hardly.  Nowhere in the Constitution are women expressly accorded such rights.  While the 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote, it is only through historical jurisprudence—the living constitution–that women have any expectation of equal rights.  Feminists and other progressives have lobbied for decades for an equal rights amendment to explicitly ensure those rights.  Yet conservative “originalists” have insisted that such an amendment is unnecessary while any coherent application of their “original intent” philosophy would deny women equal standing. Are “originalists” hypocritical, inconsistent or perhaps just unabashed modern-day chauvinists?

Constitutional “originalists” cherry-pick judicial “truths” like religious fundamentalists cherry-pick biblical wisdom.  Who knows how Gorsuch will come down on any particular controversial issue.  Maybe he won’t be as bad as some fear; his cherry-picking may be actually—judicious. Or, maybe he will live up to all the expectations of the political right.  But whatever happens, beware of any judicial arguments based on “originalism.”  We seek jurists who are adept at meshing the highest ideals of the entire American experiment with real-life circumstances. Not those who employ pie-in-the-sky “truths” conjured out of a mythical past.  We can’t begin to settle our differences if we don’t have an honest assessment of our history, our governing documents and a judicial philosophy that’s based in the real world.