U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed”

dni-report

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence just released a report on Russia that lacks evidence and casts legitimate critiques of United States policy as part of a Kremlin plot.

On Friday, January 6, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report – Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber-Incident Attribution – that had been ordered by President Obama.  The report’s headline assertion, consistent with what anonymous officials had been saying to media outlets for months, was that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” (thus electing Donald Trump, the candidate for whom “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference”).

While U.S. intelligence agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report did claim that “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks,” actions that some Democratic Party leaders and media pundits believe contributed to Trump’s win.  Predictably, then, the report’s release has led to renewed outrage, with some prominent public figures declaring that Russia committed an “act of war” deserving of an aggressive US response.

One major problem with this response is that the report offered “no new evidence to support assertions that Moscow meddled covertly [in the election] through hacking and other actions,” as a piece in The New York Times noted.  Though it’s certainly possible that the Russian government was behind an email to John Podesta that a Clinton IT staffer mistakenly called “legitimate,” the American public has yet to see proof that Russia ordered such a phishing attack.  What the American public has seen, on the other hand, is a parade of misleading and sometimes outright false stories about Russian hacking that likely have something to do with 50 percent of Democrats’ belief that “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump,” a claim for which even the report admits there is no justification.  Especially given our intelligence agencies’ history of deceiving the public into wars in Vietnam and Iraq – not to mention current DNI James Clapper’s false claim about NSA spying in 2013, the FBI’s attempt to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide in 1964, and various other violations of people’s rights and the law over the years – skepticism of their current claims about Russian hacking, at least until they present some convincing proof to back up those claims, is well warranted.

Even more alarming than the report’s lack of evidence about Russian hacking was its ironically propagandistic accusation that the television network RT is a “propaganda machine” engaged in a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.”  Among what the United States government appears to consider part of this “Kremlin-directed campaign” of “propaganda:”

  • “RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’”
  • “RT framed the [Occupy Wall Street] movement as a fight against ‘the ruling class’ and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations[,] created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media[, and] featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies.”
  • “RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.”
  • RT programming has criticized “the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt.”
  • “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”

Those reading this list would be forgiven for being more convinced that RT is worth watching than that it peddles in Russian propaganda.  Violations of civil liberties in the United States are ubiquitous.  So is police brutality.  It’s an undeniable fact that our government’s use of drone strikes routinely kills innocent civilians.  Millions of social justice advocates across the United States oppose fracking, Wall Street greed, and America’s undemocratic electoral system for good reason.  And while fearmongering about the national debt is a definite problem, those doing it are more often moderating U.S. presidential debates than abetting the Kremlin.

To be fair to our intelligence agencies, RT is state-owned and does, as the network’s Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has admitted, have an explicitly Russian agenda.  But as Simonyan correctly points out, “there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from,” and that includes the US-backed Voice of America network.

In fact, mainstream media outlets in the United States, despite their technical independence from the federal government, often uncritically advance the ideas of those in power as well.  The Times’ publication of inaccurate information about former RT anchor Abby Martin after the intelligence report came out is a good example: they said Martin had quit RT because of her view that it was a propaganda outlet when Martin did no such thing – she was actually supported by RT even while she produced content critical of the Russian government.  The Times modified its article post-publication, but the piece still blatantly misrepresents what happened with Martin.  Recent and egregiously incorrect reports on “fake news” and the U.S. electrical grid in The Washington Post are other prime illustrations of this problem.

None of that makes any actual propaganda from RT less pernicious, demonstrates that the Russian government wasn’t behind a phishing attack on John Podesta, or means that U.S. intelligence agencies must be lying.  It just means that we should be skeptical of claims presented without evidence to support them, particularly if the sources for those claims have a less than stellar relationship with the truth – even if those sources happen to be the United States media and/or the United States government.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, US Political System

My Dadabhai, Ranan Banerji (May 5, 1928 to December 9, 2016)

My dadabhai (grandfather), Ranan Banerji, was an amazing person with whom I was very close.  He died on Friday, December 9 and I will miss him greatly.

I spent a lot of time with Dadabhai while growing up.  When I was really young, he’d often take me on the train to a nearby town called Lindenwold.  I looked forward to these train rides for days, thinking that Lindenwold was a special place called “Linden World” that specialized in ice cream, which I perceived to be the purpose of our trips.  I learned later that riding the train was actually the main reason for our excursions, and that the ice cream we got at a diner when we got to Lindenwold was decidedly mediocre.  But hanging out with Dadabhai was well worth it.

dadabhai-and-me

Dadabhai loved to tell stories and jokes and to play games.  A former professor of physics, mathematics, and computer science and an early leader in the field of artificial intelligence, he instilled in me a deep appreciation of the beauty of logic, strategic reasoning, and math. He taught me how to play chess in elementary school and precalculus in high school, tutoring me over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.  We had many long talks about science and religion, which he felt were more compatible than is commonly thought.  After I went to college, he’d send me emails and handwritten letters about mathematical concepts that he had promised to prove, or about political conversations he’d been replaying in his head.

I looked up to Dadabhai in many ways.  For one, he was a great life partner to my didibhai.  My sisters, wife, and I never tire of hearing the story of how they originally met.  They were on a boat to Edinburgh, Scotland in 1952 and, after their first encounter, Didibhai’s brother raved about Dadabhai’s intellect.  Didibhai told her brother that she thought Dadabhai was a slob.  “And I thought she was a snob,” Dadabhai would say.  “And then, two weeks later, we got engaged.”

I still don’t quite understand how they got from there to here – life apparently moves quite fast on a boat – but I do understand how they had an incredibly happy marriage that lasted 62 years.  Their respect for each other’s thoughts, admiration of each other’s strengths, and enjoyment of each other’s company were always apparent.  I have learned much of what I think a healthy relationship is from them (as well as from my parents).

I also admired Dadabhai’s power-balancing instincts.  He sought to buy from high-road companies and introduced me to Working Assets, which donates to progressive causes whenever I use my credit card.  He’d recommend I read The Hightower Lowdown and Yes! Magazine, pulling out and sending me articles he thought I’d find particularly interesting.  I recently learned that, in the late 1960s, he openly advised his students to get higher degrees to avoid enlisting in the Vietnam War.  Having such outspoken, authority-challenging views couldn’t have been easy for an Indian immigrant of his generation.

Other traits of Dadabhai’s that will always stick with me were his thoughtfulness and open-mindedness.  During debates, he’d lay out his assumptions and listen carefully to what others said.  He had a clear perspective, but it was grounded in logic and evidence and open to compelling counterarguments; in fact, he’d express excitement when confronted with evidence that was in conflict with a preconceived notion he had.  I think of him whenever I need a reminder to carefully and fairly consider opposing views.

For the last six years, up until Dadabhai’s health no longer permitted it, I would talk to him on the phone on my way to work almost every morning.  It was one of the highlights of my day, as continuing to talk to Didibhai in the mornings will still be.  I hope to one day be as good a grandfather as Dadabhai was to me.

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Filed under Philosophy

Bigotry and Disenfranchisement: Making Sense of Trump Supporters’ Motivations

Like many other people, Jesse Soza has spent a lot of time thinking about what might have motivated Donald Trump’s supporters to vote for him. Soza, a former classroom teacher, discusses the complementary nature of bigotry-based and economic explanations in this post.

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Jesse Soza

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” – Dietrich Boenhoeffer

In the past couple of weeks, the American public has been flooded with a variety of attempts at rationalizing Donald Trump’s unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton. What has struck me is that in almost every piece that I have read, explanations tend to fall into one of two categories. On one side, explanations revolve around the extreme racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia that Trump was able to bring out of his supporters. On the other side, various pieces point to Trump’s ability to speak to a large population of Americans who are experiencing high levels of social, political, and/or economic disenfranchisement.

As each side continues to attempt to validate its case as a way to legitimize or delegitimize Trump’s victory, it has become clear that rational discussion between these groups has reached an impasse. Due to the incredible amounts of emotion tied to this issue, it is not a surprise to see each side making its argument with little to no consideration of the middle ground. The fact that each side has dug in behind its respective strawman argument means that the critical dialogue necessary to begin repairs to American society is unlikely to occur. Such dialogue can only begin when each side is willing to believe that there is some validation in the other’s stance.

With that in mind, the following is my attempt to validate both explanations for how America has reached this point, and to explain how they’re connected. Others, typically in the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, have made similar points about the links between bigotry and a political and economic system that has left millions of Americans behind.  But as I believe a failure to call out bigotry is the most glaring problem in this debate, my focus will be on the undeniable role it has played in this election.

A Historical Commonality

Throughout the course of history, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, etc. and social, economic, and/or political disenfranchisement have been inexorably linked. Over and over again, we see that humans find scapegoats when times get tough, and those scapegoats have often been vulnerable groups within a population. Think about what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Acts of violence towards these groups provided perpetrators with a sense of regaining control and power where there had previously been none or the belief of losing it. Such acts did not actually improve the situation of the disenfranchised, but given their relative lack of persecution, some may have felt better off. The fact that this cause-effect relationship between social hardship and the targeting of vulnerable groups is so prevalent throughout history necessitates a critical examination of current events in America to see if there are similarities. (Spoiler Alert: There are.)

If social and mainstream media’s statement of economically and politically disenfranchised groups is true (which it undeniably is), we must acknowledge what that means at a deeper level: If conservative America considers themselves disenfranchised, they almost assuredly harbor deep anger, resentment and frustration. Whether this anger stems from economic difficulties, political disenfranchisement, or a more deep-seated resentment of the move away from conservative White values (likely a combination of all three for most Trump supporters), it is now clear that there was a powder keg of emotional turmoil hidden within conservative America.

I will admit, at the beginning of this election, that I, like many others, was woefully unaware of the degree to which people were angry with the system. Did I see frustration? Yes. But did I truly know that so many Americans had such deep feelings of alienation? No. The results of the election have shown that the magnitude of anger and frustration residing within many Americans was significantly higher than many of us predicted. How did so many people miss it?

I think such large numbers of people failed to predict the level of anger residing in conservative America because, until recently, that anger had no guided direction. Without a unified bearing, such feelings were hidden behind a veil of superficial civility and tolerance. Sure, we’d see random acts of violence and injustice from hyper-racist groups or individuals, but never did we believe that America’s problems with race, religion, sexual orientation and gender would become a national crisis. Shame on us. We became numb to the signs, and thus somewhat indifferent, to the potential for something much bigger and far more dangerous as a result of what was seeded within our nation. Because we failed to fully realize how strongly conservative America believed that they were losing their nation economically, politically, and socially, no major attempts were made to address the ticking time bomb of anger and resentment that stayed more or less under the radar as these Americans waited for someone who might empathize with their plight and give them direction.

Enter Donald Trump

One of the most common criticisms of Trump is that he never really explained how he was going to actually do anything he was promising. But I now believe that appealing to logic in terms of political action was never what he intended to do. Where I used to chalk up his lack of logic to incompetence, I now have to believe that it was his game plan. Trump’s talent resided in his ability to elicit emotional responses. Early on, he recognized the anger and frustration that was bubbling in the hearts of many Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) and knew that if he could tap into that, he’d get all the support he needed. The question was how he would do it.

Through his speeches, actions and promises, he stoked the emotional fires of those who felt they had been pushed aside by the economy, government and the rest of American society. In doing this, Trump knew that he could win the hearts of his constituency. He provided the age-old answer to “who/what is to blame,” thus giving all their anger and resentment direction and solidifying his status as “the answer.”

That, by itself, wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, as almost all strong leaders find some way to tap into the passion of their people and give that passion direction. However, in a reprehensible move, Trump, like so many despots of the past, chose to use fearmongering as the way to achieve this end. He successfully created and fostered the notion that there were enemies among us, implying that if we were to defeat these enemies, America would be great again. Trump’s 21st-century answer to America’s plight was to dehumanize Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, Jews, and women, painting immigrants in particular as the source of our woes. Historically speaking, when humans are labeled as impediments to progress, the corresponding social response sets a very dangerous precedent. It is frightening to think about what America is already flirting with, especially considering that Trump and his values have not yet officially taken office.

Trump’s bigotry and lust for power have played a primary role in stoking the anger and resentment that has been brewing in conservative America. Furthermore, he knowingly chose to funnel that anger towards vulnerable people. For that, Trump must be held accountable. We must acknowledge that the surge in overt bigotry America is currently experiencing is a direct effect of how Trump chose to run his campaign. Instead of calling for unity and working together as we overhaul a system that has disenfranchised many Americans (regardless of party affiliation), Trump chose to create and lead a modern day witch hunt. And like so many people in the past, a significant portion of downtrodden, resentful and angry Americans have attached themselves to a charismatic leader who is selling the idea that ultra-nationalistic bigotry will be the answer to their anguish.

Yes, Donald Trump spoke to the groups of people who felt that the economy and government weren’t on their side. Yes, he did unexpectedly well because his message was one of reforming a broken system. But we must remember how he framed his message of change. The change he promised was undeniably tied to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, those hateful –isms (and –obias) that have acted as foundations of this country since it was established. He stoked the fires of bigotry and anger without regard for the consequences of his actions simply because he knew that it would draw people to him. For too many Americans, he galvanized the idea that there are people within this country who deserve ire and intolerance. His campaign has not only emboldened individuals to practice injustice towards others, it has legitimized such behavior as a patriotic means of “making America great again.”

Donald Trump is dangerous. While I doubt he’ll be able to do even half of what he promised (though you should take that with a grain of salt, as I had similar doubts about him becoming president), the real danger lies in his capability to foster feelings of hatred and bigotry within a distressed conservative America while disguising such acts as patriotic. As a leader, he will continue to divide the American people and feed into the false notion that acts of injustice and dehumanization will lead to a better, more recognizable home for disenfranchised Americans. Due to his position, charisma and the fact that so many Americans are desperately looking for an answer to their perceived troubles, people will believe him.

Donald Trump has, without question, made it to the White House by painting both our fellow Americans and fellow human beings as what is wrong with America. In doing so, he has effectively made them targets for discrimination, oppression and dehumanization. Furthermore, the nature of his campaign has played a primary role in giving tacit approval for Americans to oppress each other.

Moving Forward

We must acknowledge the reality that Donald Trump has and will continue to encourage acts of injustice. To deny that or mask it with a neutral stance would be ignorance at its worst. Whether we see new discriminatory policies or other citizens who have bought into Trump’s misguided message that bigotry is the right course for America, we must get outraged and intervene. We cannot stand idly by if the rights and humanity of others are in jeopardy.

We also have an obligation to try to understand why so many people voted for Trump. Though the common idea that such a decision was made not because of racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry but in spite of them may strain credulity for some of us, we must consider that possibility and the possibility that, even in cases in which an –ism was the primary driver of a Trump vote, that -ism is deeply connected to a system that isn’t working. We can continue to straw man our respective arguments by oversimplifying answers or we, as a unified American society, can try to reach out in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the deep-seated pain and anguish that are currently feeding American anger and resentment.

The task before us is immense, possibly necessitating one of the largest social movements in American history. It is made more difficult by the fact that we have a charismatic individual coming into office who knows how to harness, incite and utilize social anger to his advantage. Still, acknowledging these things means we may have a fighting chance of pushing back against the tide. We know what the problem is: Anger stemming from pain. The solution: Love, compassion and understanding.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Race and Religion

Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

On Friday, a judge denied an injunction request from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) management, who wanted striking SEPTA workers, represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, to be forced to go back to work.  The judge made the right decision.  At a follow-up hearing on Monday at 9:30 AM, the judge should stand firm, as TWU Local 234 has every right to strike and is justified in doing so.

The union, which represents a group of bus drivers, trolley operators, mechanics, and other transit workers whose base salaries seem to max out around $70,000 a year, has been trying to negotiate a new contract with SEPTA for months.  The union was unhappy with a potential increase in their health care premium contributions – from about $550 annually to a little less than $4,800 annually – that would have coincided with some increased co-pays.  They’ve also been bargaining to improve their pensions, which have long been less generous than both the typical public pension and the pensions SEPTA managers receive.

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Perhaps most importantly, the union has asked for scheduling changes that would improve safety for workers and customers alike.  Bus operators can currently be required to work 16 hours in a day or 30 hours in back-to-back days and may only get 15-minute lunch breaks.  They have inadequate opportunities to go to the bathroom and can’t sleep on-site in between their unpaid breaks, which creates a major problem for drivers with commutes.  SEPTA management has thus far insisted that their scheduling practices are necessary for “flexibility” purposes, despite the fact that research on sleep and crash statistics recommend against them.

So while SEPTA management may have reduced the magnitude of their proposed hike to health care premiums and offered some salary increases since the strike began, those who believe in worker rights, economic justice, and public safety should be firmly in the union’s camp when it comes to negotiations.

Some Democrats seem to have sided instead with SEPTA management, which has “argued the strike was keeping children from school, making travel around the city difficult for people with disabilities and those in need of medical treatment, and threatening to disenfranchise voters in Tuesday’s presidential election,” as reported by Philly.com.  Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who appears particularly worried that the strike will depress voter turnout on Tuesday and be “a real plus for Donald Trump,” has even argued that the state legislature should take away SEPTA workers’ right to strike in the future.

The problem with this formulation, however, is that it ignores both the power differential between labor and management and which of those two entities is more likely to be on the public’s side.  Union members risk a lot when they go on strike – their jobs and their pay are on the line.  They don’t decide to strike lightly, and TWU Local 234 made this decision because, as their president Willie Brown has said, “It’s the only tool [they] have available to [them].”  Binding arbitration (when both parties to a negotiation submit their offers to a neutral third party who makes a final decision on which offer to go with) can be an effective alternative to strikes for public sector employees, but while Brown “said he would be willing to go to binding arbitration to avoid a strike[,] SEPTA officials said…that wasn’t an option they were willing to consider.”

Note also that, for all the hand-wringing about union members supposedly not caring about the election, many of its members plan to volunteer to help get out the vote on election day (for the record, TWU Local 234 has also endorsed Hillary Clinton).  SEPTA Board chairman Pasquale Deon, on the other hand, has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose record includes strong support of the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional in 2014.  Deon also donated to two Republican presidential candidates – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – whose careers are characterized as much by defunding poor kids’ schools, denying people access to the medical care they need, and constructing obstacles to voting as they are by virulent anti-union crusades.

To summarize: Pasquale and the rest of SEPTA management chose not to engage in good-faith negotiations.  They chose not to go to binding arbitration.  And their rhetoric is belied by the other causes they support.  Yes, having public transportation up and running on election day would be ideal, but those worried about whether that will happen should be applying pressure to Pasquale and his friends, not complaining about bus drivers’ efforts to secure affordable health care, improvements in their retirement security, breaks long enough to catch some sleep in between shifts, and enough time to use the bathroom during the workday.

The outcome of Monday’s hearing is ultimately unlikely to matter much in Tuesday’s election.  Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,” as The New Republic noted in 2008, and officials overseeing Philadelphia’s elections have pointed out that a 2009 strike did not depress turnout in that year’s local election.  Lyft and Uber are offering free rides to the polls that day, there are services connecting volunteer drivers to people who need rides, and the governor always has the option to extend voting hours if a lack of public transportation turns out to be a major voting obstacle.

What Monday’s hearing will impact, however, is TWU Local 234’s bargaining power.  More generally, people’s attitudes about the strike will impact the future of organized labor, an institution that raises wages for members and non-members alike, boosts opportunities for kids, and advocates broadly for the interests of low- and middle-income people.

The ethics are on the union’s side.  The public should be, too.

Update (11/7/16): SEPTA and TWU Local 234 reached a deal before the follow-up injunction hearing and the union will be back at work during the election.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor

Voting: Which Method Is Right for You?

Jenny Wolochow studied Philosophy and Religious Studies at Stanford University (MA ‘11), taught elementary school in California through Teach for America, and now works as a Product Marketing Manager for Partners at Coursera.  She is passionate about civic engagement and explains why in this post, which also touts voting by mail and links to a great guide she developed to help California voters navigate this year’s ballot.  Views expressed here are her own.

jenny-wolochow

Jenny Wolochow

I know some of you are disenchanted with American politics – especially this year.  But the craziness of this presidential election shouldn’t stop you from participating in our democracy.

Voting is a right that not everyone has, and our ancestors fought hard to earn us that right.  It’s a chance to have our voices heard – and it can make a difference.  For those reasons, it’s an important responsibility for us to take advantage of that opportunity and to use it well and wisely.

Outside of just the presidential election, there are many local candidates who deserve your attention.  In fact, one could argue that state and local races matter considerably more than federal ones.  If you live in 35 states, specific policy issues will be on the ballot and should also be on your radar.  I live in one of those states and have created a ballot guide to help my fellow Californians navigate this year’s voluminous and confusing set of propositions.  The guide includes information on the San Francisco ballot measures as well.

Knowing your options for how to vote (i.e., by what method you should vote) is also important.  Most states have three voting methods: (1) in person on election day, (2) in person early, or (3) by mail.  You can use the resources at vote.org to check with your local elections office to see the available methods and key deadlines this year.

My recommendation: If you want to get the biggest return on investment for your vote, you can get the same “benefit” with a very low “cost” by choosing to vote by mail.  As I’ve learned firsthand from being a native Oregonian (voting by mail is the default for everyone in the state), voting by mail has three important advantages over in-person voting:

1) It’s convenient. When you vote by mail, you can vote whenever you have time; you don’t have to worry about your schedule.  Traveling out of town on election day?  No problem.  Too busy at work to get time off for voting in person?  No big deal.  Not sure where your polling place is?  Doesn’t matter.  You don’t even have to fill out the ballot all at once; you can space it out and fill in parts of it whenever you have the time.  You can choose to return your completed vote-by-mail ballot either in person or by mail to a county elections office.  Just remember that your ballot must be turned in before the polls close on election day.

2) It helps you make thoughtful, informed choices.  When you get your ballot in advance, you have plenty of time to review it, consider your options, and research issues.

3) It’s more private than in-person voting.  You decide when and where to fill out a vote-by-mail ballot and put it in a sealed envelope, instead of having to carry your ballot around in a public place with a thin divider.

Voting is not perfect.  Our democratic system is not perfect.  But there are still good reasons to participate in it, and it’s often easier and more productive to vote than many people think.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Teacher Satisfaction: Education’s Failure to Retain Quality Educators

Jesse Soza, Ed.D., was a classroom teacher for twelve years but chose to leave after experiencing high levels of frustration and burnout. He now researches and consults with schools and districts about teacher satisfaction, which, as he describes in this post, is intimately related to working conditions for educators.

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Jesse Soza

A Conceptual Misunderstanding of Teacher Satisfaction

As the 2016 – 2017 school year gets under way, one of the goals many school districts will undoubtedly have will be the retention of quality teachers. While the objective of keeping talented and skilled employees would (and should) be a best practice of any self-respecting organization, education in particular has had a difficult time succeeding in this arena. With a standing attrition rate hovering around forty percent for teachers in the first five years of service, losing high numbers of educators has become a norm for the American system. Furthermore, as a result of an almost fatalistic acceptance of this norm, a dangerous notion has emerged that teaching can be approached as a “transient profession,” implying that sustained commitment to students, colleagues and the work itself is an unnecessary trait for teachers. As high turnover rates limit teacher quality and incur high monetary costs for districts, there is little doubt that this combination is devastating for education. Districts and schools are desperate to do whatever they can to keep quality teachers.

It is not surprising, then, that there is a lot of conversation around the idea of teacher satisfaction. Districts know that happy teachers are far more likely to remain teaching than those who are experiencing dissatisfaction. Thus, significant time, effort and expenses have been marshaled in an attempt to provide incentives that might lure teachers to the profession and, more importantly, keep them teaching. Example incentives include signing bonuses, financially supplemented graduate degrees earned during the first years of teaching and/or job security in the form of extremely quick tenure (this is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what districts may be willing to offer). On the surface, these common-practice incentives appear desirable. One could reasonably assume that a teacher who is able to attain them should have a noticeable increase in satisfaction and thus be more likely to stay committed to teaching.

Yet data seems clear that these and other incentives have not had the desired effect of increasing retention. No matter what teachers are being offered, overall levels of satisfaction have failed to increase and the result has been a continual hemorrhaging of young, talented teachers (not to mention the high levels of burnout experienced by veteran teachers).

After studying teacher burnout and attrition and interviewing teachers across numerous sites and systems about their feelings around what it means to be an educator in the current system, I have come to an important conclusion about teacher satisfaction: What satisfaction actually is and how it is generated is not well understood within the educational community. As long as satisfaction remains ambiguous or ethereal, attempts at building and implementing meaningful action to address satisfaction will continue to be ineffective. Therefore, the primary issue at hand becomes turning the nebulous concept of teacher satisfaction into something more accessible, and thus workable, for those who seek to engage it.

Defining Satisfaction

What makes satisfaction such an interesting phenomenon is that, while people experience it in a variety of situations on a daily basis, they often encounter difficulty in placing precise parameters around what exactly is going on. The overall concept, however, is fairly simple: Satisfaction is the resultant feeling that occurs when an internal desire or expectation is either fulfilled or denied (to a degree) by conditions of reality; the more fully reality fulfills an expectation, the greater the satisfaction one feels. When reality denies actualization of an internal expectation, dissatisfaction occurs. Levels of satisfaction are thus constantly generated as desires or expectations interplay with people’s experiences. However, what makes satisfaction difficult to analyze and measure is the sheer number of variables that influence it. Indeed, the devil is in the details. In the case of education, understanding teacher satisfaction requires insight into how the desires and expectations of teachers are interplaying with the conditions that make up their work environment.

The Desire to “Make a Difference” Versus the Reality of Teacher Work Environments

The vast majority of teachers enter the profession with the intent of “making a difference” in students’ social, emotional and academic lives. While the specific details of how that is carried out will vary from teacher to teacher, the expectation and desire to “make a difference” assuredly sits at the core of teachers’ passion and drive. Teacher satisfaction, then, must be considered a measure of how well a teacher is able to actualize those expectations and desires. The more they are allowed to work towards “making a difference,” the more likely teachers are to find satisfaction. However, if they perceive that they are unable to do so, dissatisfaction is likely to set in.

Unfortunately, teachers all too often find their expectations and desires of “making a difference” at odds with the current conditions of teacher work environments. These environments, heavily influenced by well-intentioned but deeply flawed reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, emphasize prescription and rigidity to meet metrics, requiring teachers to adopt pedagogy, methods and values that are not their own. Teacher autonomy, creativity and expertise (qualities normally attributed to professionals) have been sacrificed for formulaic, teacher-proof methods that mandate curriculum, instructional delivery systems and behavior management procedures, among other things. Reform meant to improve the system has actually created an educational culture that actively works to deskill teaching, although few would describe it as such. The institution defined by teachers carrying out the act of teaching is, in fact, becoming increasingly adept at stripping its workforce of its ability to do so. Fueled by what often seems like distrust and a lack of respect for teachers and their craft, various forces within society continue to deny teachers the ability to practice their vocation and, as a result, the opportunity to fulfill the expectations and desires that constitute their passion, drive and expertise.

When working conditions strip from teachers the ability to actualize the expectations that make up their passion and drive, they become alienated from the job and, because of the personal nature of teaching, themselves. Combined with teaching’s abysmal compensation and poor social status, it should not be difficult to imagine why attrition and burnout rates remain high (and will continue to be so in the future). Instead of honoring teachers as passionate, driven experts, the current trend is to view them as high-level technicians, merely carrying out dictums that have been passed down to them. The more teachers are forced to adopt the educational values, purpose, methods and strategies set forth by others, the more separated they become from their own values, purpose, methods and strategies.

This cultural invasion within education marginalizes teachers and undermines opportunities for them to find satisfaction. In a somewhat ironic twist, the passion and drive that keeps teachers in the classroom in spite of poor compensation, long hours, lack of resources, etc. is the same passion and drive that education is actively stripping from them. Without this passion and drive, there is no reason for an individual to commit to such a maligned profession, which explains the problems our system is experiencing today.

When writing about workers laboring in conditions where they cannot find meaning and purpose, Karl Marx noted, “[the worker] does not fulfil [sic] himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased.” This, unfortunately, accurately describes the current state of the American educational system and its relationship with its teachers. Education, as a human endeavor, cannot continue to operate in a way that dehumanizes those who work within it. Indeed, teacher satisfaction will only be realized in systems where teachers’ expectations, desires, passion and expertise are truly respected and honored.

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The Lazy Liberal Scapegoating of Millennials and Bernie Sanders

The Hillary Clinton campaign is “alarmed by the drift of young voters toward the third-party candidates,” according to the New York Times.  So are many Clinton supporters, including Clara Jeffery and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.  Jeffery says she has “never hated millennials more,” while Drum directs his hatred not at millennials but at Bernie Sanders, whom Drum argues “convinced young voters that Hillary Clinton was a shifty, corrupt, lying shill who cared nothing for real progressive values – despite a literal lifetime of fighting for them.”  Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA is “launching a multimillion-dollar digital campaign that talks about what’s at stake and how a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Donald Trump.”

These reactions misunderstand and condescend to millennials and ignore vital context about two main points.

First, millennials have very good reasons to oppose a Clinton presidency.  As I’ve tried to explain to Drum before (he has ignored me), many millennials, myself included, grew up with his perception of Hillary Clinton – that she is a good Democrat fighting the mean Republicans and subject to a relentless stream of unfair criticism from the corporate press.  It has only been during my adult life, after a lot of research, that I’ve developed my current view: Clinton may sometimes be the subject of unfair press coverage, but she also has a large, influential group of media cheerleaders and has been on the wrong side of numerous issues important to populations I care about: war, criminal justice, immigrant rights, LGBT rights, the death penalty, international trade, and anti-poverty policy, to name a few.  Drum’s idea that Bernie Sanders’ accurate critiques of Hillary Clinton’s record hoodwinked millennials into our current views is both patronizing and inaccurate.

Millennials recognize that third-party voting comes with tradeoffs.  While it does increase the likelihood that the worse of two major-party candidates will emerge victorious in an election (though much less so than third-party critics claim), it also has the potential to help break the two-party system open in the long run and holds Democrats accountable for ignoring the policies their base desires, policies that would help millions of disadvantaged people.  “Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors,” as I’ve argued before, “including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.”

Which brings me to my second point: while it’s perfectly fine for someone to believe that defeating Trump should be our top priority, anyone espousing that viewpoint should have supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.  The evidence overwhelmingly indicated – for months, getting stronger all the time – that Sanders would have been more likely than Clinton to beat Trump in a general election matchup.  The only rebuttal to that evidence – that Sanders hadn’t faced real criticism and that his numbers would tank when he did, if he eventually became the nominee – fell apart very quickly upon inspection.

In fact, what drew Jeffery’s ire was a now-deleted paragraph from a New York Times story that confirmed why Sanders would have been more electable than Clinton:

The third-party candidates draw their strongest support from younger voters.  Twenty-six percent of voters ages 18 to 29 say they plan to vote for Mr. Johnson, and another 10 percent back Ms. Stein.  A little more than one in five political independents say they will vote for one of the third-party candidates.

Drum points out that millennial support for third-party candidates in the referenced poll is a bit higher than it typically appears to be (he also links to a FiveThirtyEight analysis suggesting that it is strongest among people under 25), but he admits that “Clinton is clearly doing worse among millennials than Obama did four years ago.”  These results were completely predictable; millennials and independents were the groups among which Sanders most dominated Clinton in the primary and are two constituencies for whom support for Democrats (and/or showing up in November) is most likely to be conditional.  “Voters in these groups – unlike voters in Clinton’s key constituencies – may very well abandon the Democrats if Clinton is the party’s nominee,” I wrote in March.  That’s exactly what appears to be happening.

Despite the foreseeability of this result during the primary, Drum asserted that Clinton was “almost certain to be more electable in November than a self-declared democratic socialist,” citing exactly no evidence to back up this claim.  It seems odd that he, Jeffery, and other Democrats spent so little of their time analyzing the electability evidence during the primary, given their intense focus on beating Trump today.  If they had, they would have known what people like me had been trying to tell them for a very long time – large numbers of millennials and Independents who would vote for Sanders might very well not vote for Clinton – and, if beating Trump was their prime objective, spent their time pleading with older Democratic voters to support Sanders.

Millennial voting patterns are thus not only a product of voters’ legitimate analyses and electoral strategy; they’re also entirely expected.  Those upset about them who backed Clinton in the primary and/or advanced the incorrect notion that she was more electable than Sanders have nobody to “hate” but themselves.

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Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.

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Privilege: Many Jill Stein Voters Have It, and Many Hillary Clinton Voters Do, Too

As an outspoken supporter of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, I often get questions akin to the one Stein was asked at the Green Town Hall on August 17: “Given the way our political system works, effectively you could help Donald Trump like Ralph Nader helped George Bush in 2000.  How could you sleep at night?”  More often than not, such questions are followed by the claim that voting for Stein in November is an act of self-indulgent privilege.  Only those with little to lose from a Donald Trump presidency can afford to risk it by adhering to a rigid set of principles that will never come to fruition, third-party critics argue; people who might suffer under Trump’s policies, on the other hand, understand the stakes involved in this election and that Hillary Clinton is the only practical alternative to Trump.

This formulation misconstrues privilege dynamics and misrepresents the identities and considerations of third-party voters and others who refuse to support Clinton, who are far less often White, affluent, heterosexual men than their detractors seem to believe.

The status quo is serving many people poorly.  Proclaiming that, because the alternative is “worse,” everyone must vote for Clinton – a politician who has championed policies that have actively harmed millions of people both here and around the world – is, at its very best, patronizing to those who are currently suffering.  It’s a promise of crumbs instead of a meal with the admonition that starving people better be thankful for crumbs, as the other candidate might take even those away.

This rationale plays on the fears of disadvantaged people and those who care about them in order to perpetuate current power dynamics.  Its use is in many ways an expression of the very privilege it critiques.

Third-Party Critics Misconstrue Privilege Dynamics

Privilege is a multi-dimensional concept, and very few people can claim to speak for the most downtrodden in society.  Individuals writing widely read articles about the privilege of third-party voters aren’t refugees from Central America who President Obama is currently deportingwith Clinton’s support, until recently.  They aren’t incarcerated for marijuana possession or sitting on death row, likely to stay locked up or sentenced to die if Clinton becomes president.  They aren’t living under Israeli occupation, or in deep poverty, or afraid of being obliterated by a drone strike, with little hope for change under the specter of a Clinton presidency.  As Morgana Visser recently noted, “many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton,” and those accusing nonvoters and third-party voters of privileged indifference to the plight of others have the privilege themselves not to be so marginalized that four, or eight, or indefinitely many more years of incremental change to the status quo is intolerable to them.

The thing is, the argument that the Democrats are the only actual alternative voters have to Trump – that the status quo cannot be radically improved and that incremental change is all that is possible – is one that many people cannot afford.  Those of us voting for Stein seek to challenge this thinking, to fight for a world in which the most marginalized people are not consigned to deportation, lifetime imprisonment, poverty, or death at the hands of Democrats who are better than Republicans but not nearly good enough.  Third-party voting and abstaining from the presidential election altogether are strategies designed to either change the Democratic Party or create an alternative in a political system that has failed disadvantaged populations for decades, as Sebastian Castro points out.

It’s perfectly fine to challenge the efficacy of that strategy, and I encourage everyone to read compelling cases for lesser-evilsism in 2016 from Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky and John Halle, Shaun King, and Adolph Reed.  I evaluate the risks of Trump relative to Clinton and a lesser-of-evils vote relative to third-party voting differently than they do, but I also have a ton of respect for where they and other social justice advocates like them are coming from.

It is wrong, however, for anyone to wield accusations of privilege as a cudgel against those with different electoral strategies, especially because this tactic ignores the voices of Michelle Alexander, Cate Carrejo, Rosa Clemente, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, Benjamin Dixon, Eddie Glaude, Marc Lamont Hill, Jenn Jackson, Rania Khalek, Arielle Newton, Kwame Rose, Kshama Sawant, Cornel West, and numerous other members of marginalized groups who support alternatives to the Democratic Party and/or believe it’s fine not to vote at all.

Those who prioritize identity politics should also remember that prominent spokespeople for the Green Party (including Clemente and Cuéllar) tend to be less privileged than their Democratic Party counterparts, that a woman has been on the Greens’ presidential ticket every single year in which the party has launched a bid for the White House (beginning in 1996), and that the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates this year – Stein and Ajamu Baraka – are by far the least privileged candidates running.

Third-Party Critics Misrepresent Voter Demographics

Statistics on Green Party voters in the United States are hard to find, but it’s possible to back out some rough estimates from recent polling.  The graph below uses data from four different polls to compare demographic shares among registered Clinton supporters, registered Stein supporters, and all registered voters.

estimated-green-shares

The estimates debunk the notion that Stein’s base is especially privileged.  Her supporters are about as likely as Clinton’s to be women and seem to be a little less likely than Clinton voters to make over $50,000 a year or to have the privilege of a college degree.  The confidence intervals on these estimates are likely fairly large and the average differences between the candidates’ supporters in these domains, if there are any, are thus probably small, but other evidence also suggests that Green Party voters tend to have low incomes; as Carl Beijer has observed, Ralph “Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic.”

Beijer also makes an important point about the domain in which Stein and Clinton supporters differ most: age.  While age-based privilege is a complicated concept – both young and old people can be targets of discrimination – younger voters have to worry much more than older voters about “what happens over the span of decades if [they] keep voting for increasingly right-wing Democrats.”

Now, to be fair, Clinton voters are more likely than Stein voters to be people of color.  But Stein’s share of voters of color is similar to the share in the general population of registered voters; Stein voters are not disproportionately White.  Looking at the total population that won’t vote for Clinton, which is a larger universe than the set of registered voters who support Stein, provides an even more striking rebuttal to the those-who-oppose-Clinton-are-White-male-Bernie-Bros narrative.  As Visser shows, Reuters data actually suggests that over 40 percent of people of color do not plan to vote for Clinton in 2016.  In fact, neither do over 45 percent of the LGBTIQ community, nor the majority of women, “marginalized religious folk,” and people making less than $50,000 a year.

None of those statistics change the fact that I, along with many Clinton supporters, am privileged enough to have little to lose from a Trump presidency.  But like nearly all Clinton supporters – and unlike the millions of people who, as Visser reminds us, “do not have the privilege of feeling or being any safer under Democrats [as] opposed to Republicans” – I have even less to fear from a Clinton win.  Pundits and partisans would do well to spend less time alleging that third-party voters don’t care about the disadvantaged and more time reflecting on why large numbers of people are much more worried than they are about the status quo.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, Sports, US Political System

War in the Name of God: Christianity Is No Less Addicted Than Any Other Religion

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, explores the relationships between religion, spirituality and institutional violence.  In this post, Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at www.tomblock.com) summarizes some of the book’s core themes to debunk the notion that Islam is uniquely violent.

THOMAS

Tom Block

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Gary Gutting (a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame) argued concerning what some call “radical Islamic terrorism:”

Islam has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth.  To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.

This Western-centric, racist and arrogant attitude from the spiritually “advanced” Christian religion toward the unreformed and medieval Islamic one is all too typical. As I write this, Christian nations (mostly our own) rain bombs down from drones onto weddings, schools and other secular places and events in Islamic lands.  The difference between our bombs and their bombs, however, is (according to the narrative) massive: we drop our payloads in the name of peace and with a great sadness that they force us to, while they joyfully blow themselves up in evil acts of anarchy and murder.

At least Christian killers value their own lives!

One needn’t dig too deeply into the American story, or psyche, to discover specific examples of our country’s Orwellian “war is peace” paradigm, all tightly supported by the loving vessel of American Christianity.

Christian language and imagery are explicit in the American call to arms.  America’s wars have almost always been – and continue to be – spiritual/religious affairs in which young men and women are called to sacrifice themselves for the Christian God.  As was noted in an article in Newsweek:

In America, God and war have a particular kinship: evoking God in the midst of mass killing is inspirational…Divine sanction has been used to give meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equality, as well as to license genocide…This impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of ten call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation’s two-and-a-third centuries).  Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

If you’re not convinced that this defines a current American attitude, consider the United States’ response to “Islamic terrorism” (the American existential threat du jour).  “In the weeks after the September [11, 2001] attacks,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges observed, “communities gathered for vigils and worship services.  The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura…The state, and the institutions of state, became for many, the center of worship.”

On the first anniversary of the attacks, seven months before the 2003 incursion into Iraq, President Bush said: “Our cause is even larger than our country.  Ours is the course of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience grounded by peace.  This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.”  As the British newspaper The Guardian reported:

George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’”

Bush’s politics of war were always framed for the public in a religious manner.  As Anglican Priest Jeremy Young noted, for example, Bush suggested in his 2003 State of the Union address “that America is Christ and that its role is to save the world.”  However, it is true that Bush hasn’t been president for nearly a decade, so it might be argued that now, finally, America has moved past the conflation of Jesus’s will and our military incursions.

Would that it were so.  President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has continued the starry-eyed vision of an American Christ of the sword.  Professor Robert H. Nelson, writing for the mainstream PBS website, notes that Obama, too, has infused religious imagery into his speeches.  And Obama has buttressed this faith with bombs.  According to Politifact, by the spring of 2016, Obama had ordered 500 drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen (as opposed to 60 by President Bush); 1000 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2014 alone; and a smattering of others in Syria, Libya, Iraq and other far-off, generally Muslim locales.  The Huffington Post noted that “nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target,” allowing Obama’s scattershot Christian murders to be assured of killing Muslims, though rarely the “correct” ones.  Far from shying away from these actions, our Christian leader has bragged about it: “There isn’t a president who’s taken more terrorists off the field than me, over the last seven and a half years,” he puffed in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace in April 2016.

None of that is to say that American Christians are in any way different or worse than contemporary practitioners of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, or even Buddhism.  It is simply the case that Christianity is no better, no more evolved, no more peaceful than any of the world’s religions – all of which (even Buddhism) are steeped within a tradition of sacred violence, and are currently involved in wars of choice in the name of God.  (While I am well aware that many will balk at the idea that Buddhism, too, is as bloodthirsty as the other world’s religions – gasp! – Buddhist practitioner Brian Daizen Victoria notes in his book Zen at War that “warfare and killing are described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion” and Buddhists are, in fact, committing violence today.)  All faiths utilize war-like language and imagery to describe matters of the spirit and exhort followers to religious catharsis through violence.  Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer stated in his book, Is Religion Killing Us: “Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of those texts.”  Since virtually all major religions have embedded within them violent images of God, people can selectively recall these texts and extract from them divine support for war, creating the foundation for what Nelson-Pallmeyer terms the “violence of God tradition.”

One central reason that contemporary leaders have such a willing audience when representing war as religiously sanctioned – and, in many cases, even a spiritual obligation – is the extensive history of uniting physical war and the spiritual path within the sacred teachings of virtually all creeds.  Though much of the religious language was undoubtedly meant as metaphor, the human mind runs quickly downhill to the literal, leaving reams of imagery and injunctions for leaders to utilize when discussing military campaigns within the secular culture, and influencing the minds of potential warriors.

American politicians, the media and even mainstream entertainers – like those of all other cultures and religions – do everything in their power to play up the similarities between the religious path and war, all for the poorly obscured purpose of exploiting human pawns to protect their own earthly power or to just simply make a buck (e.g., Boeing, General Electric, Northrup Grumman et al.).  Perhaps, to some extent, they might even believe their own words, especially if they themselves have fought in a war and come out more or less whole.  In this case they will be forced to trust in the lie of a mystical war, if only to help justify the horrors they themselves witnessed and perpetrated.

We need only examine the words of a man considered an American hero, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to understand how war language explicitly borrows from the religious and even mystical lexicon.  Here’s how he eulogized a soldier fallen in Afghanistan:

He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good…Love and honor oblige us.  We are obliged to value our blessings, and to pay our debts to those who sacrificed to secure them for us.  They are blood debts…The loss of every fallen soldier should hurt us lest we ever forget the terrible costs of war, and the sublime love of those who sacrifice everything on our behalf.

Note how the very real horrors of war are euphemistically referred to in the language of mysticism: “sublime love,” “obligation,” “good causes,” “moral purpose, “save the innocent,” “peace” and “sacrifice.”  This presentation persuades the general population to bypass the intent of their religious teachings, concentrating instead on its sometimes-grisly content.

For those who waver, the dead soldier is held out as incontrovertible proof of the necessity and worth of the war.  After all, how could one “force” the soldier to have died in vain, by questioning the worth of his action?  The war becomes worthwhile because someone has died undertaking it, a reversal of the normal assignation of worth, which defines an action’s merit before the risk is actually taken.  In a horrifying example of the “sunk costs” theory, the more people that die for a cause, however mistaken, the more religiously valuable the action, no matter what the true human or economic price really is.  Through the sacrifice of human souls for political ends, war becomes enmeshed with a true God experience.

Perhaps as dangerous as the ongoing conflation of spirituality and war are assertions like those from Gutting, who declares that American Christianity has “moved past” religiously sanctioning state violence.  This blindness allows our country to engage in wars for our victims’ own good – in much the same way that 12th-century Crusaders (a term used by George W. Bush in describing America’s response to the attacks of 9/11/2001) or 15th-century Spanish Inquisitors did.

It’s time for a dose of honesty: Christianity is in no manner more mature or less war-like than Islam or any other religion. To heal the illness of state-sponsored murder, we must first admit that.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Race and Religion