11 November 2008

The Fruits of the (Humanist) Spirit

“Nothing human is alien to me.” - Karl Marx

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

During the summer I visited my parents and noted that a verse from “Galatians” in the Christian bible was stitched on a throw pillow. The phrase in particular was “Through love, serve one another”. On the face of it, it was a sentiment I could identify with -- I am a humanist, after all, and believe in Woodrow Wilson’s statement that ‘there is no higher religion than human service.’ While I am not religious, I believe religions were created by people to serve particular functions, and that one of those functions is to promote values -- and some of those values are bound to be good, just as some of them are bound to be rotten. As such, I like to read religious texts and beat the bad ideas out of them -- adding the good stuff that’s left to my own worldview.

Even so, I normally avoid the New Testament because of the cultural chauvinists who associate themselves with it. By this, I do not mean all Christians -- merely those who raised in a "Christian" culture and are obnoxious about it, even if their own worldviews aren't very "Christian" at all. Despite this, however, there must still be good to be found in the motley collection of books Christians call the "New Testament" -- regardless of the people who claim it inspires them.

When I re-read the “Fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians, I found myself surprised. Stripped of their supernaturalistic elements, these “fruits” have anagrams in my own worldview. As I began compare and contrast these values with my own, I thought I should share them for those who may not be aware.

1. Love:
- Christian: those who are sincere about their religion try to practice agape love, or “God’s love”. These Christians see their god as loving people unconditionally and believe that people ‘filled with the Spirit of god’ should be able to love people unconditionally.
- Humanist: Humanism as a life stance is rooted in both reason and empathy. The American Humanist Association partially defines humanism as “a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.” What is the source of this empathy and compassion? Human beings, as mammals, are naturally given toward forging social ties -- especially with kin. We protect our family, or who we see as our family. The mapping of the human genome has proven that human beings are overwhelmingly more alike than not. Humanists by large see the entire body of humanity as one huge family, six billion strong, and thus feel natural empathy toward any human being in physical or emotional pain -- and experience feelings of kinship with all.

2. Joy:
- Christian: “Joy”, or invincible happiness that is not subject to random happenings, is supposed to be a natural gift from God. To quote a pastor I remember from my teenage years, “Happiness is based on happenings; joy is not.” This joy is typically associated with being saved.
- Humanist: I never fully understood the concept above until early 2006, when I began explore philosophy. I discovered in 2006 a source of inner joy -- or I should say sources. The root, I suppose, is a love for life. I am sometimes intoxicated by how happy I am, bewildered even. I cannot articulate why -- except to say that I have no reason to be otherwise. There is no kind of music that I can’t enjoy to some degree, no moment that I can’t seize and find some satisfaction in. Part of my own source of joy is a kind of stoicism, or realizing that I can’t control everything that happens to me -- and that I’m okay with that. (For more elaboration, I wrote an essay over a year ago entitled “All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality”.)

3. Peace:
- Christian: peace, or spiritual tranquility, is supposed to result from a relationship with God.
- Humanist: I see joy and peace as being part of the same essence. My own peace comes from the Stoic influences on humanism, or at least the influences I see. I believe that emotional maturity begins when someone realizes two things: one, that they cannot control everything; two, that they only thing they can ultimately control is their own self. When I realize that I am the master of my responses to what happens to me, and when I exercise that mastery, I maintain inner peace -- emotional stability.

4. Patience:
- Christian: Patience is fairly self-explanatory. Christian emphasis on patience seems to be on withstanding persecution or opposition.
- Humanist: Humanism is not a prescriptive worldview: there are no Ten Commandments, Four Noble Truths, Five Pillars, or list of “fruits of the Spirit”. The foundation of the worldview or “life stance” of humanism is reason and empathy, both of which come natural to human beings in various degrees and thus are not really prescribed -- just naturally practiced. As such, there’s no direct anagram but one can be derived from both reason and empathy. It is both rational and a practice of empathy to be patient, as it is to endure what one must. On the subject of “what one must”, you can read Stoic influences. I’ve read that Paul of Tarsus -- who wrote Galatians -- was influenced by Stoicism, which would not surprise me. Zeno -- the first Stoic -- preceded Paul by some 350+ years, and the early stoics believed in a universal being. (Stoicism, like all worldviews, is subject to interpretation. Marcus Aurelius, who inspires many of my own ideas, believed in the Roman pantheon -- not a universal spirit.) A quotation from Aurelius that applies toward patience is this: “Men exist for the sake of one another; teach them, then, or bear with them.”

5. Kindness:
- Christian: I’ve never actually heard a commentary on kindness by a pastor, so I have to wing this. I’m going to guess that kindness is “love in action” -- dealing with people justly and with compassion.
- Humanism: Kindness, of course, is central to humanism. I cannot exaggerate the influence that simple kindnesses have had on my own life: acts of kindness by a few people I knew in my youth inspired me to live in a spirit of empathy, which led to something of a rebirth for me. When I deal with people, I try to do in a spirit of loving kindness toward them -- which is not always easy with certain personalities.

6: Goodness:
- Christian: What is goodness? Again, this is something I’ve not heard much of a commentary on. The only universal definition of goodness I can think of -- one that applies to any worldview, from the best to the very worst, is this: how well do you fare when judged by your ideals? In a Christian worldview, a “good” person would be someone who lives in love, with perfect faith in their god, who strives to obey the guidance of their god who is supposed to be the ultimate ideal -- all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, etc.
- Humanist: The universal definition I used was “How well do you fare when judged by your ideals?” A humanist worldview, founded on reason and empathy, would define a good person as someone who lived in love and who strives to find truth with and live using reason.

7. Faithfulness:
- Christian: Interpretations vary. A faithful person is someone who keeps the faith, which is important in Christianity. It can also mean that someone who is faithful can be relied upon.
- Humanist: “Faith” has no real counterpart in humanism, it being a rational worldview that eschews emotional appeals that have no grounding in reason. Humanism is an optimistic worldview, however, and so it may be said that some humanists are faithfully hopeful.

8. Gentleness/Meekness:
- Christian: I’ve heard varying interpretations for this. One I’ve heard (and don’t particularly find helpful) is that meekness means to be humble and live subject to guidance from the pastor and God. This particular interpretation came from an authoritarian pastor, which will come as no great surprise. Another interpretation -- one that is basic and seems to be more helpful -- that being “gentle” is a combination of being both loving and peaceful -- to be motivated to help and so control one’s passions to further that end, without allowing strong emotions to endanger that goal.

- Humanist: When “winging” it and contemplating on the definition in the Christian section, I tend to rely on my own thoughts and then interpret them based on what I know of Christian doctrine. My own view, then, is my own thoughts without the Christian swing to it. I believe in dealing with people with a gentle and considerate manner. There are times when no amount of consideration on your part is going to help matters, but I find it’s a good idea to stick to ideals even in those cases just for the practice.

9. Self-Control
- Christian: Christian beliefs hold that humanity is basically corrupt and tempted constantly by carnal nature and the Devil to sin against God. Christians are to practice self control and abstain from worldly pleasures - -sex, alcohol, strong expressions of emotion (the use of strong language), etc. In a broader, more philosophical sense, this can be seen as evidence of stoicism.
- Humanist: Humanists believe that people contain within them the rational ability to abstain from doing evil -- to restrain our primitive, animal passions and treat one another civilly. My own worldview is both humanist and Stoic, and I am quite keen on self-control. I control my thoughts, and spent much time in consideration while trying to figure out a good way to respond to issues of life. I believe self control is crucial to peace of mind.

My rediscovery of the “Fruits of the Spirit” tells me that Christian philosophy and humanist philosophy need not be considered foes. Both philosophies, I believe, come from the same spirit -- the human spirit -- and thus are more alike than they are different. The problem is that the Christian religion often gets in the way of Christian philosophy.

03 November 2008

The Fate of Democracy in the US II: A Solution?

In my last article I identified what I think are two problems with the American political system:
  1. Political power, ideally in the hands of the voting public, is not and cannot be realized by that public because of a lack of actual information. Actual power is instead in the hands of those who control the information the public receives through advertisements and special-interest pamphlets.
  2. Actual power in the hands of the politicians is not often used for the common good. Politicians are beholden to campaign contributors and to the whims of the voting public -- uninformed, fickle, and often irrational. They cannot promote unpopular legislation for fear of losing their jobs, and they often make bad decisions purely to maintain their office.
I believe money is the root of the problem -- and so my solution is to remove it from the political equation as much as possible. End campaigning -- period. Advertising has no place in politics. There should be no television ads, no radio spots, no promotional political material from any special interest group, no pulpit commentary -- nothing. If money can influence a medium, the medium is unsuitable for the democratic process. In one fell swoop, we remove the main cause of political corruption: money. People can no longer be motivated by attack ads: their fears cannot be preyed upon. The politicians and interest groups will have no medium through which to lie. Because they no longer have to spend so much time cajoling the public, they can do their jobs. Because they no longer have to compromise their integrity to raise money, they can do their jobs more effectively. Democracy can become a public affair -- not a privatized, money-driven affair.

How are voters to make informed decisions in this new system? I propose a new way to manage and distribute information -- a rationalization of the democratic process. People who want to run for any given office must submit an election dossier -- a summary of their relevant qualifications, their stances on the issues, an explanation of why they think a given issue is important, and so on -- to a new "Voter Information Office". This office, before which all are equal, adds a summary of that person's voting record (if they have held office before) to the dossier, and all dossiers are made available online a year before the election. In this way, politicians stand on their own records and their own opinions -- not compromised by or to party interests, money, or lies. The dossiers can also be augmented by information from independent fact-checking institutions. A year should allow plenty of time for the voters to access and analyze all relevant information to make their decision. If necessary, we can have a two-day holiday season before the election day for voters to make last-minute decisions.

We can supplement this with televised town-hall meetings, although this could be ungainly if there are a large number of people running for the same office. Small local elections like mayor, city council member, and school board member can have actual town-hall meetings taking place in auditoriums and so forth. Positions for larger cities, state offices, and national offices would have to have televised forums in which the candidates debate. This would be very ungainly and hard to work out, not to mention the risk of giving charismatic people an upper hand. This is not a necessary part of my proposal, nor is it even a part I particularly like: it's a supplement, and that's all. It would only give the people an idea of who they were voting for, as well as given the candidates an opportunity to explain their stances more.

What about referendums? That is where televised forums become a necessity, I think. Whoever proposes a referendum can use the opportunity to explain why s/he believes the voters should vote "Yes" on it, and an opposition speaker will explain why the voters should vote "No". They can debate, then -- these two people or teams of people. These forums would be promoted, then televised or aired on radio stations. Television and radio stations could be compensated for the airtime or simply be made to do it as civic duty. I think the smaller, more financially unstable stations could be compensated, while the larger ones can just be told to do it or face losing their license.

The above is my major idea, but I do have three lesser ones. The first is to rationalize the election process by thinning out unnecessary elections. Do we really need to elect coroners and county sheriffs? Shouldn't those be experience-based, appointed positions? There are far too many positions to vote for, in my opinion. We should allow the voters to focus on the important ones -- city, state, and national positions -- not petty stuff like county coroner.

The second is to create better voters. Suffrage should not be universally granted: it should be earned. We do not allow people to drive unless they've proven they are familiar with the laws that apply to them on the road and have proven that they are familiar with the handling of a vehicle via a road test. The same should be true of voters. Beginning at age sixteen, anyone can qualify to become a voter providing they pass a series of tests on their national and state constitutions. "Current Events" classes should be added to our curriculum. People should know the law of the land. I live in a state with a spectacularly dismal constitution, and believe that if more people were familiar with it, we would be able to gain widespread support to reform it.

The third is to create better politicians by emphasizing education and public administration. I believe presidents should be well-informed of matters of history, science, economics, sociology, and geography -- for starters. Governors should know about science, economics, and geography. Mayors should know about economics, urban geography, and the importance of urban planning. School board presidents should be familiar with the importance of the scientific method, the importance of history, and the importance of education in general. I read recently that there is a university project just beginning: its intention is to be a university focused on education relating to public administrators. This pleased me because it's an idea I've held for quite some time now.

There is another idea, not my own, that says people should be able to propose legislation directly. This is called the National Initiative for Democracy, and it is something I am looking into.

That concludes my thoughts on how to make democracy better in this country*. I think reforming the process is a must: we live in a very different country from the one our forefathers conceived, and we need a system that takes the effect of money-culture and the mass media into effect. While the rationalization of democracy that I propose above will not be perfect, I believe it's a big step in the right direction.

* Of course, if we taught our children to be rational, we wouldn't need all of this -- but then where would businesses, corrupt religious figures (like Jimmy Swaggart) and so forth be? Life just wouldn't be fun without ghost stories, Santa Clause, horoscopes, and dare I say organized religions.

These two essays have been my attempt to articulate the problems of the current US political system and what I think we can do to change it. Neither my analysis of the problem nor my solution to it are necessarily perfect -- perfection is impossible. I think my analysis is fairly spot-on, but I'm not so sure about my major idea, that of removing money from the political equation and replacing it with a rational information management system.

The Fate of Democracy in the US I: The Problem

I have grown increasingly concerned about the status of 'democracy' in the United States. There are two major problems that I can see:

(1) Political power, ideally in the hands of the voting public, is not realized owing to insufficient access to information. The majority of the voting public consists of fully-employed adults who spend forty to sixty hours a week working and commuting. In addition, they must tend to family affairs -- bill-paying, school functions, house maintenance, automobile maintenance, time with children, shopping for groceries, etc. -- and to their own personal needs for rest and relaxation. This leaves them with precious little time with which to access and analyze information. Voters are expected to vote for presidents, vice presidents, senators, representatives, judges, tax commissioners, school board members, clerks, coroners -- the list goes on. They are also expected to vote on a long list of referendums, most of which they've never heard of until the ballot is in their hands. Because they have no time, they are forced to depend on other sources to retrieve and analyze information for them -- namely, television advertisements and "information" distributed by special interests groups like PETA and "traditional values" lobbyists.

Television advertisements are a poor way indeed to distribute information. Our society's problems are complicated. They demand and deserve thoughtful analysis and commentary. Voting records serve more consideration than "Representative Schmuck: Conservative, Christian Values" Or "Representative Joe Schmuck: are his LIBERAL values yours?" Television advertisements are short and sensation -- and yet even if people don't believe them, they are still influenced by them. People readily believe what they want to hear, and there's a killing to be made by capitalizing on that. I find it obscene that the voting public is informed by television -- a medium completely dominated by money, where "truth" is just a facade with no substance. Political advertising, like all advertising, is organized lying. The exceptions prove the rule. Special interest pamphlets and mailings are also very problematic. Because special interests typically focus only one or two key issues, they must harp on it to mobilize their voting base. They do this by ignoring other and often more important issues. The role played by special interest groups make it possible to succeed in electing one-trick ponies -- candidates who work for them on that issue, but are incompetent otherwise. Advertising sabotages the ideal that people vote in their best interests by presenting them with limited, biased, or false information. They are manipulated into voting for the ADVERTISERS' best interest, for the lobbyists' special interests -- not for their own.

We find ourselves in a situation where the voters have no power because they cannot make informed decisions for themselves: they are dependent on information fed to them by advertisements and special interest promotional material.

2. Actual political power, as held by politicians, is often misused or not used by the politicians in the interests of the common good, and this is so because of the system that we use. Representative democracy, capitalism, and the influence of the media have resulted in a combination that is not beneficial t to the common good. By themselves, democracy and capitalism are not bad ideas: together, though, and coupled with the power of the mass media, they make it possible for the peoples' interest to be completely ignored.

The United States is not an actual democracy: it is a representative democracy, where the voters send in proxies to do the voting for them. Ideally, this would work: the politicians are supposed to be professional civic administrators who decide what is best and do it. Voters can't even handle elections every two years -- let alone making decisions every day. We create the jobs of senator and representative so that there will be people whose only responsibility is to collect information on a situation, analyze the consequences of it, and act in a way that is conducive to the "promotion of the general welfare". If they do not do this well, ideally, they are removed from office and replaced by someone who the electors think is more competent.

This is not the case. The founding fathers never envisioned universal suffrage and the mass media. To borrow from Neil Postman, they created a constitution that envisioned a relatively small number of men making rational choices to serve their best interests -- not millions of people voting based on emotional appeals and out-and-out lying that constitute television ads and special-interest circulars. The result is the enslavement of democracy by money. I'll explain what I mean by that.

While democracy has always been a servant of money, so much money is now available that democracy has become an actual slave. The majority of campaign contributions to go advertisement -- organized lying. Each politician must counter the slander produced by the other side and produce slander of his or her own. Advertising costs money -- and money comes from business interests and special interest groups. Promises are made to them. Who wins? Whoever lies the best and whoever produces these advertisements. Who loses? The American people, whose interests have been subverted in favor of lobbyists and selfish businesspeople.

While democracy has always been the servant of monied interests -- witness the American and French revolutions -- so much capital is now available that democracy has become a complete slave. The majority of campaign contributions to advertising, which is just organized lying. Even if the advertisers don't intend to lie, the medium of television limits them to soundbytes. Polticians have to counter the lies the other side tells about them with their own lies. It takes a lot of money to advertise on television, especially during primetime or peak hours. Lobbyists and political action committees provide an easy source of revenue -- obtainable for promises of favorable legislation. Politicans whore their office and responsibility out to whoever can provide the money, just so that they can keep their offices. Who wins? Whoever lies the best, and whatever lobbyist supports the best liar. Who loses? The American people.

Not only has democracy become a slave to money, but it has become a slave to the whims of the public. To be frank, people do not always not what is best. We would like to think that we do, and we take umbrage when some 'elitist' implies that we aren't -- but consider! Consider that if people make judgments based on limited, poor, false, or biased information, they are tremendously liable to make bad decisions. Considering the mediums through which they typically get their information, why are we surprised to find ourselves in trouble?

Elections have become sheep-calling contests, with the contending politicians and their supporters yelling out buzzwords. The buzzwords change rapidly. I remember watching the political conventions, where one of the main issues was immigration. It dominated one particular Republican debate -- and yet now, we hear nothing about it, and we heard nothing about it before the economic crisis. We hear nothing of Iraq -- but people are still dying. The government there is still unstable. Why do we not hear of these issues?

I believe it is because of this problem that the citizenry are motivated chiefly by emotionalism and whims. Politicians who are running for election cease to do their jobs -- they are too busy campaigning, too busy making speeches and cajoling the populace. Their problem is that the populace gets tired of hearing the same words over and over again, so they have to move on to new ones. Politicians, in order to maintain their positions, must constantly cajole. They must constantly compromise the purpose of their office to obtain funds so they can do this -- and so concerned are they about losing their posts that they fear making unpopular choices that will evict them from office. Bear in mind that unpopular decisions are not necessarily bad, nor are popular decisions necessarily good.

The result of these two factors -- an uninformed voting public and the constantly compromised nature of political offices -- is a broken system. When James Madison and others wrote the Constitution, they could have never imagined the industrial revolution and the generation of more capital that has ever been witnessed in the history of humankind. They could have never imagined cheap newspapers, radios or television -- they never imagined a system where business interests could simply buy political advertising, lie to the voters, and protect their enormous profits. Had our Constitution been written in 1976, I believe it would have been quite a bit different.

How do we mend this system? How do we set it right? Is there a essential crack that we can fill with mortar and restore stability? I think there is -- and I believe the flaw is money. Remember how much voters rely on advertising, which is paid for by monied interests. Remember that advertising consumes the lion's share of campaign contributions. The money required -- $3 billion in the presidential election alone -- comes at the price of making promises: not promises to the voters with their divided interests, but promises to the people who have the money and only the interest of maximizing their own profit. We thus have both ill-informed voters and compromised politicians being unable to fulfill their potential. They are hindered by the inordinate role of money in our political system.

My solution is to remove money from that system as much as possible -- and I write on that here.