Cultural Psychology

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How We Go to War

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AS CITIZENS it’s vital that we understand the devious but predictable means by which our government gets us into wars.  When enough do, perhaps the day will come when we can stop our country from continually plunging into unjust and disastrous wars.

As we learn from the works of writers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the process by which we go to war is fairly consistent.  It can be seen as having four steps: (1) Motive, (2) Opportunity, (3) Pretext, and (4) Consent.

1. Motive

First the government needs some motive for fighting a war.  Almost always the motive is economic gain; occasionally it is self-defense; but it is never humanitarian.  If the government were motivated by sheer humanitarian concern, it would recognize that there are far better ways to help the poor and suffering of the world (e.g., with food, medicine and education) than by fighting wars.  Wars tend to produce worse humanitarian conditions than those they purportedly set out to remedy or prevent.

Often our government wants war to please foreign allies (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia).  However even in such cases motives are ultimately economic.  That is to say it isn’t the people of these countries that want the US to fight a proxy war for them, but rather elite oligarchs (e.g., Saudi billionaires) or vested interests (e.g., Israeli defense contractors) within those countries.

Besides motives specific to each situation there are also constant background factors that predispose our country to war.  Among these are (1) the military-industrial complex, which thrives on war, whether necessary or not; (2) banks and financial institutions, which can usually find ways to make huge profits from wars;  and (3) politicians for whom war is a way to gain popular support and/or to distract attention from domestic problems.

2. Opportunity

Having a motive isn’t enough.  There needs to be some window of opportunity that makes a military intervention appear to have reasonable probability of achieving its goal. An unpopular or authoritarian ruler or general domestic instability within a foreign nation are two examples.

This principle helps explain why there is usually a rush into war.  The politicians say, “We don’t have time to deliberate this carefully.  The situation is too urgent.  We must act immediately.”

It’s also important that the country being targeted for intervention not have too many powerful allies, and that it not itself pose a credible military threat.

3. Pretext

A government can’t very easily say, “we’re fighting this war for our own gain.” There needs to be a socially acceptable pretext.  Common ploys are as follows:

Exaggerate threats. Sometimes there already exists a convenient pretext, such as actual violations of human rights.  These are then exaggerated.  They are also presented in a one-sided way.  For example, we are told of terrible actions committed by a foreign ruler, but not of equivalent acts by opposing factions. Every effort is made to demonize and dehumanize the enemy.

Instigate. If there isn’t already a convenient pretext, our government has almost unlimited power to create one.  A standard method is to sponsor a rebellion within the target country.  This tactic has been used countless times by our government.

The example of the Panama Canal is illustrative.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the US had an immense economic interest in building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama.  At the time this area was part of Colombia.  Colombia was willing to lease rights for a canal to the US, but balked at the first offer, seeking better terms.  In response an angry Teddy Roosevelt promptly resorted to ‘Plan B’:  for the US to work with a faction of Colombian businessmen to orchestrate the secession of Panama.  A warship, the U.S. Nashville was promptly dispatched to Central America. Once it arrived offshore, a small revolutionary force (actually, a fire brigade paid by the New Panama Canal Company) declared Panama an independent country.  The Nashville then quickly landed its troops to keep Colombia from interfering; high-ranking Colombian military officials were also bribed.

From the newly independent Panama, the US procured extremely favorable arrangements for building and operating a canal, including de facto ownership of adjacent land (the Canal Zone remained a US territory until 1999).   As one Senator at the time put things, “We stole it fair and square.”

Some may say, “But it’s perfectly legitimate for the US to back a popular insurrection.  After all, didn’t the French help us during our revolution?”  There is, arguably, a small grain of truth to this argument — but no more than that.  There are dissidents and malcontents in every country.  The question never asked is whether such a group represent a popular rebellion, or merely a small faction.  When are rebels honest patriots, and when merely warlords, thugs, and greedy opportunists?

In this case the US helped orchestrate the secession of Panama.  Other times it connives to depose an inconvenient foreign regime via a coup.  Confirmed (from since-declassified official documents) cases of the CIA’s global campaign of regime-ousting coups include Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), the Dominican Republic (1961), and Brazil (1964).

But these are only the cases where our own official documents confirm the activity.  In addition there are over two dozen more instances where there is little doubt of active CIA involvement in a foreign coup. A classic study of this topic is William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II.

Outright lies. As people are only all too willing to assume the worst, this tactic seldom meets with much resistance.  The most wild, illogical and preposterous charges are accepted as truth.  There is no shortage of sources who will gladly concoct and feed to the government false stories, which news media happily repeat.  A classic, recent example of this is the ridiculous charge that Libyan president Qaddafi distributed Viagra to his troops to facilitate a genocidal campaign of rape. In reality, the only genocide that occurred in Libya is when the foreign-backed, armed and trained rebels, upon deposing and brutally killing Qaddafi, besieged the hapless sub-Saharan immigrants whom he, a staunch pan-Africanist, had brought into the country to supply construction labor.

Provoke. Provocation is another regularly used tactic.  One simply needs to make aggressive advances towards a foreign government, with the calculated intention of provoking a military response.  That defensive response of the foreign government — which might be no more than a minor, face-saving action — is then vastly exaggerated, and demands are made for a full scale war in retaliation.

When in 1846 the US wanted to acquire large expanses of new territory, and most importantly, California, it stationed troops on the disputed border between Texas and Mexico.  The purpose was to provoke military action by Mexican troops.  Eventually an American scouting party sent into disputed territory ran into a Mexican scouting party; shots were fired and eleven Americans killed.  Scarcely had the blood from the skirmish dried before President Polk, a fervent expansionist, sent an outraged message to Congress, which then rushed to approve measures for all-out war.

An unwilling witness to proceedings in Texas, Colonel Ethan A. Hitchcock, wrote in his diary at the time:

I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors…. We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country [Mexico] as it chooses…. My heart is not in this business, but, as a military man, I am bound to execute orders.  (Zinn, 2010)

False-flag activities. There is almost always some dissatisfied faction within a foreign country that can be goaded by our government into staging a rebellion or coup.  But if all else fails, there is an even shadier recourse: false-flag operations.

These come in two varieties. One is to direct our covert operatives to pose as rebels or dissidents and perform an act of violence against a sitting regime. When the foreign government takes reprisals against the actual rebels, it is accused of being a brutal dictatorship, and this used as an excuse for our military intervention.

The other is for our operatives to perform or sponsor a malicious action posing as agents of the foreign government itself.  That government is then held responsible, and the events used to justify going to war.

4. Manufacture of Consent

Now all that is needed is to convince the American public to support the war.  Usually this isn’t very hard to do: unfortunately, many Americans still consider it their duty to support every war under a misguided sense of patriotism and maintenance of unity.

When every news source recites a war mantra like, “So-and-so is an evil dictator who kills his own people” the public begins to uncritically accept this as fact.   As is well documented, the same marketing techniques that are used to sell cars and laundry detergent are enlisted to manipulate the public thinking into accepting war.

Without going into detail here, we can briefly note several characteristic means of manufacturing consent for war.  These include:

  • Propaganda. The US government today can basically write its own news story and hand it to media sources to uncritically repeat. The number and nature of specific falsehoods is beyond counting.  (“Truth is the first casualty of war.”)
  • Censorship. News media do not publish information which might contradict the official government narrative of events.
  • Intimidation. At home, protestors, dissenters and other anti-war activists can be subjected to actual or implied intimidation, including black-listing, arrest, tax audits, and so on.
  • Conformity. Human beings are herd animals, and the government knows this.  Hence it tries to create the impression that a public consensus exists, even when it doesn’t.  Once people are told “most Americans support this war” they tend to go along with it.
  • Patriotic appeals. Having the Blue Angels fly over a football stadium is always a nice way to rouse the war spirit.  Or maybe have beer commercials featuring wounded veterans.  Call dissenters traitors.

Because the historical facts and the principles at work basically speak for themselves, this is an intentionally short article.  More information can be found in the sources listed below.  However the point of writing this is that today generally — and perhaps even more especially in the weeks preceding the November 2016 election — the public needs to be on its guard lest our government plunge us into another war.  Several potential crises are looming, including Syria, Libya, and the Ukraine.  All three of these fit the pattern outlined here.

Note in any case that everything said here applies only to how our government tries to create a perception of just cause for military intervention.  Establishment of just cause is only the first step of sincere war deliberations. Several other conditions must also be met, including: exhaustion of all other alternatives (i.e., the principle of last resort); assurance that the war will not create greater evils than it seeks to redress; and reasonable prospects of winning the war (which, as recent experience shows, are almost nil).  In actual practice, none of these other components of just war doctrine are realistically considered.  Once the case of a just cause has been made, we jump immediately into war.

All the more reason, then, to exercise utmost vigilance lest our government commence yet another disastrous military adventure.

In conclusion, it is vital that we as citizens examine the record of history to learn how our government lies us into wars.  As the anti-war journalist Richard Sanders put it:

The historical knowledge of how war planners have tricked people into supporting past wars is like a vaccine. We can use this understanding of history to inoculate the public with healthy doses of distrust for official war pretext narratives and other deceptive stratagems. Through such immunization programs we may help to counter our society’s susceptibility to ‘war fever.’

We must learn to habitually question all government narratives that try to lead us to war.  We should be skeptical in the utmost.   We need to train ourselves to ask questions like these:

What is the actual danger we are trying to address?

Where is the documented evidence of this danger?

Why is immediate and lethal force needed to redress this injustice?

Perhaps most importantly we should always ask:  who benefits (cui bono)?  If we do so we will inevitably find that the real motives are private gain.

Further Reading

Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Revised edition. Zed Books, 2003.

Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Berrett-Koehler, 2004.

Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Revised edition. Knopf Doubleday, 2011.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Revised edition. Harper Collins, 2010.

Zinn, Howard. Zinn on War. 2nd edition. Seven Stories, 2011.

You can also find lot’s of videos (speeches, interviews, documentaries, etc.) featuring Zinn, Chomsky, Blum and Perkins.



Responding to the ‘Voting for Jill Stein Merely Elects Trump’ Fallacy

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SINCE 2008 I’ve been making arguments in favor of supporting third-party presidential candidates even if they seem unlikely to win.  What, for example, can you tell an associate who says, “If you vote for Jill Stein, then you’re only helping Trump get elected, just as Ralph Nader’s candidacy helped George W. Bush to win in 2000.” Here are some of the arguments.  Do they make sense?  Are they persuasive?  Can they be stated more succinctly?

1. The lesser evil is still evil.

Today the world is in a descending spiral of violence and hatred.  We need a president who will oppose US wars and military imperialism.  Neither Trump nor Hillary fit the bill. Yet of the two, Hillary is more hawkish.  She took a lead in the destruction of Libya by the US and NATO — a ruthless war for profit disguised by flimsy pretexts and false rumors.  She also tried to pull the same stunt on a larger scale in Syria, and if elected might still get her way there.

Hillary evidently sees no problem with starting wars, imposing child-killing sanctions, supporting coup attempts, training rebels, funding insurgencies, and sponsoring false-flag operations for the sake of Wall Street and other special interests.  This is documentable.  We have her emails (well, at least the ones she didn’t destroy).

We are responsible for the actions of officials we vote for.  If people vote for Hillary, either not knowing what she’s done in Libya and Syria or because they haven’t bothered to find out, then they are morally responsible for any unjust wars she starts.  The responsibility would be even greater than that of Bush supporters in 2000; at least people didn’t know Bush was a warmonger.  They do in Hillary’s case.

2. It’s a racket.

The Wall Street system is setting you up.  It’s giving you a forced choice between Trump and Clinton precisely to scare you into maintaining the Wall Street hegemony by voting against the more feared candidate.  If you fall for it (as voters have consistently since 2000), then Wall Street will continue to work the same scam election after election.  Nothing will ever change (except that candidates will get even scarier and the polarization and mistrust among citizens more extreme).

You should be angry about this and stop playing along!  It’s like negotiating with terrorists.

3. It’s about more than the next four years.

In making an important choice, long-term outcomes matter more than immediate results.  So, okay, suppose that many Democrats vote for Jill Stein, and Trump wins the general election.   The world will not end (at least not because of that). We managed to survive eight years of George W. Bush, for example.  And after that Obama became president.  For all we know this all produced better results (from a Democrat perspective) than if Al Gore had been president from 2001 to 2008 followed by a George W. Bush presidency from 2009 to 2016!

The White House regularly passes between the two parties.  If the Democrats lose it in 2016, they may win it back in 2020 or 2024.  And in the long run, that might be better for Democrats.

We simply don’t know — and that’s the point.  In a case like this it’s better to make a choice based on rock-solid principles — like the fact that US militarism is wrong and it is our absolute duty as citizens to oppose it — than based on vague speculations about what could or might happen if, say, Trump wins.

If Clinton loses because of Jill Stein in 2016, it would give the DNC a well-deserved spanking; they might just come back in 2020 with a real presidential candidate and an anti-war platform!

And what about, say, 50 years ahead?  If Wall Street continues to run the world we are in danger of descending into a dystopian nightmare.  Now on way or the other we’re stuck with a Wall Street president in 2016 (assuming Bernie isn’t nominated). But the sooner we start voting for third-party candidates, the sooner the journey to a better future begins.  When precisely do we intend to get off the merry-go-round if not now?  What’s gained by waiting?  The same system clever enough to cajole us with saying, “no, just one more time” is clever enough to come up with equally and more nefarious tactics in future elections.

Whatever else is true about it, the Wall Street system is smart.  And maybe smarter than us, too — but in any case in complete control of the agenda, which is the next best thing.  We cannot out-strategize the Wall Street system, so we must rise above it.  Our only sure defense against being deceived and manipulated election after election is to follow the certain prompting of our deepest Conscience. And that tells us these wars are wrong.

4. It’s about more than elections.

Voting is sacred.  We have a responsibility to other citizens to vote in an intelligent and moral way.  If you vote ‘tactically’ (e.g., voting for Clinton merely to prevent Trump from winning) then, in a sense, you’ve lied to your fellow citizens.

Suppose each ballot contained the instructions “please vote for the person you think is *most qualified*, even if that person is unlikely to win.”  Then voting your true preference would be a gesture of honesty and good faith.  It would say to others, “Even though I will not win, I will inform you, with my vote, what I think *should* be.”

When you vote your ideals, others see that your and their ideals are the same.  It gives ideals more power to change society.

It also increases love in society as others see fellow citizens who are morally courageous.  It creates a new consensus of honesty and integrity.

But if we’re a society of compromisers, that has the opposite effect.  It causes fellow citizens to  become cynical and mercenary.

Remember what we tell children:  “Just do the right thing, and let the chips fall where they may.  *Trust* that doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.  Believe that the universe takes care of people who do the right thing.”

5. What if everybody did that? (WIEDT)

Game theorists recognize tactical voting as an example of a social dilemma.  A social dilemma occurs when, if every individual seeks to maximize personal gain, the outcome is worse for everyone.  Nuclear weapons proliferation is a classic example.  At one level it’s entirely rational for a country to build up a nuclear arsenal for self-defense.  But because all countries think like this, the end result is a world where everyone has nuclear weapons. Then nobody is safe.  Yet despite this, each country feels compelled to acquire the most sophisticated and destructive weapons it can.  Acting ‘rationally’ (in this limited sense) leads inexorably to outcomes that no rational agent would want.

Some moral theorists suggest we are at a crossroads in human evolution.  Unless we soon find a generic solution to modern social dilemmas, then, between the effects of global warming, pollution, competition for food and resources, and advancements in weaponry, we might not survive much longer.  What’s needed, these theorists say, is the emergence of a new ethos in which people habitually ‘think globally’ in all their moral choices.  In short, we must become a species where we routinely ask before acting, “what if everybody did that?” (WIEDT), and let the answer guide our action.

How would the WIEDT principle apply here?  Well if everyone voted for Trump or Hillary, we’d be endorsing with massive popular support the evil Wall Street war machine.

And what if everybody voted for Jill Stein?  Then we’d end US wars and militarism.  Therefore this is the moral choice.

There are plenty of more arguments, but this is enough to get started.

More reading

Yoga and Voting for Peace

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Art by Dan Morris

ONE definition of Yoga is the integration of the spiritual and material realms in the human being, making a union of Heaven and Earth.

Given this definition, it is possible to approach politics as a form of Yoga.  This would of course be very different from the usual practice of politics today.  Rather, it would try bring into social affairs and institutions of government divine and eternal principles of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

While we’ve grown accustomed to think of politics as selfish and egoistic, in truth it is something that can glorify the Divine.  Among the animals only human beings have devised such things as governments and elections — methods with which, if used rightly, we can greatly improve our lives and planet.

Today the world is in great peril, with a dangerous combination of growing populations, militarism and materialism, combined with threats to the environment and climate.  But since we believe in a benevolent and superintending Spirit, we remain confident that solutions will reveal themselves in due time.

Putting these two thoughts together, we may see that political institutions like elections and voting, if approached rightly, give us a means of shaping a positive future.

What does it mean to approach politics rightly?  Some basic guidelines are evident.  First we know that our choices should be governed by unselfish rather than selfish or egoistic aims.  Our goal as ‘yogic voters’ should be to better the condition of all, not only of some.  Further, it follows from the principles of Yoga, that our actions should seek to unify, not divide members of society.  In addition, right politics and voting should leave our mind more calm and peaceful, not agitated and angry. These principles alone would exclude perhaps 90% of usual politics.

Today we are faced with one great need above all, which is to end the terrible program of constant war that our country (that is, the government and corporations) has pursued.  To help you exert a countering and correcting force of Love, I have placed my name on the ballot in the June 7 primary as an independent peace candidate for US Congress in our district.  A vote for me will be recognized as a vote for peace.  In this way the ordinary process of an election is turned into a referendum against war and for peace.  Since we do not have direct referendums on war, this means of producing one appears promising and I hope others will follow the example in future elections.

Every vote for peace will have a positive karmic effect, helping to improve our country and world.  It is to enable you to gain positive karma for yourself and others that I am running.  The direct goal is not to win the present election, but to begin the journey to peace.

I may add that the alternative — to vote for a Democrat or Republican politician — would, in my opinion, have little effect, as both represent materialistic values and the differences between them are negligible; I also believe they habitually promote divisive issues with the aim of diverting public attention from more fundamental needs for change, such as ending war.

Therefore please let me ask that you visit my campaign website and consider voting for peace.

If you should like to share this information, that would also be appreciated as I am relying on grassroots means of reaching voters.


John Uebersax


Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency

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 ELECTION 2016 can be a tragedy or not, depending on how we approach it.

I mean ‘tragedy’ here not so much in the colloquial sense of simply something bad, but in a more technical sense associated with game theory: a terrible outcome that develops almost inexorably, though it might have been easily avoided. (One example of a tragedy in this technical sense is the prisoner’s dilemma, about which I’ve written previously.)

The tragedy of 2016 would pit Hillary Clinton against some yet-unnamed Republic opponent, in a bitter struggle in which Hillary would win a close race, and where 99% of voters would vote Republican or Democrat, neglecting third parties (as in the previous two elections). The real loss would be to further engrain the two-party (and Wall Street) hegemony of American politics, with the result of further degradation of our economy, foreign policy, and quality of life. And, because nothing would change, in the 2020 and 2024 elections the same thing would happen again, and so on ad nauseam.

Let’s be honest. Hillary, while she might be arguably be marginally better than a Republican opponent, is per se not a good candidate for President of the United States (as even many more enlightened Democrats would agree). Beneath a veneer of concern for the welfare of the community is a huge amount of personal ambition, egoism, and arrogance. She is also beholden to corporate special interests, and eager to use war to benefit US commercial interests (as evidenced by her support for the vicious military ouster of Qaddafi in Libya).

Please understand, the point here is not to bash Hillary. Hillary, personally, is incidental to the main point. But her defects must be honestly noted in order to substantiate the real issue here: that many Democrats will vote for her knowing and despite these things.

What prompts this article is that the other day it occurred to me, in a sort of flash of insight, how this impending tragedy could and should be avoided. The concept relates to how we view what an election is, and what our duty and role as voters are.

The Power Theory of Voting

What I would propose is that there are two possible models or theories about what voting for a political candidate is all about. The first model corresponds to the status quo — what has happened in recent years and what will potentially happen again in 2016.

We’ll call this the pragmatic theory or power politics model of voting. By this view one sees voting as a means to exert ones personal force in an arena where all other voters, with various value systems, do the same. To the extent that this is a strictly pragmatic activity, it is a-moral: the end justifies the means. Such is characteristic of a Hobbesian society: the bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of each with all.

While at first glance this may seem a normal and obvious way for one to promote ones preferred social agendas, its basic wrongness — or wrongness in principle — can be easily shown by carrying the same principle to more extreme levels. If voting is supposed to be a pragmatic exercise of personal power, then one should logically use any means possible to sway an election towards ones desired end (so-called political realism). Mudslinging, propaganda, lying, or even cheating — casting two votes, bribing others, ballot-box tampering — are fair game. And, in fact, all of these have been used by both parties and justified based on the end justifies the means principle.

Yes people instinctively know these things are wrong. And this common knowledge calls into question the underlying principle: whether the legitimate and intended purpose of an election is in fact for people to attain an end or to exert selfish power.

I grant that the reader may not see where I’m headed at this point and the preceding statement may seem puzzling, but it will become clear momentarily.

The Idealism Theory of Voting

I wish to suggest that there is another viable and plausible approach one may take to voting. We’ll call this the Idealism theory. According to this view, an election is like a vast national opinion poll or referendum, in which each individual is asked, “What do you believe should happen? What are your true beliefs concerning fundamental political and social principles?” One then expresses ones true beliefs by endorsing the candidate whose platform is most similar to them.

Let’s note the great virtue of the Idealism model: unless voting is approached in this way, there is virtually no other means by which the collective Ideals of a society can find themselves ultimately expressed in political institutions and programs.

Voting is arguably the one and only chance you have as an individual to bring your deepest hopes, aspirations, and instincts to bear on the deeply important issue of constructing, however gradually, a more Just, Good, True, and Beautiful world. It is the only means by which the common moral vision of humanity can contest the juggernaut of blind social forces, Wall Street, and government corruption.  This voting your Ideals is an incredibly important, even a sacred task. You are God’s emissary in the social sphere, your vote a divinely appointed task.

But voting is mere egoism if conducted at the level of selfish pragmatism.

What would the Idealism model imply for the 2016 presidential election?

For Democrats, I believe those who vote according to Ideals and conscience would find the Green party candidate the best choice. For Republicans, the Libertarian or possibly Constitution party candidate would be the true and honest choice. Voting for these candidates, then, would manifest true Ideals, and contribute to the long term common good; voting expediently, against ones principles, for the Republican or Democrat status quo, Wall Street, pro-war candidates would be unethical.

Most of all, anyone who rejects US militarism in principle should not vote for any candidate who does not publicly denounce war. War is insane. Any candidate who does not publicly denounce war publicly announces their moral derangement. It is immoral in the utmost to vote for a morally deranged presidential candidate!

The Practical Value of Idealism

By Idealism here we don’t mean the starry-eyed, Pollyanna kind. Idealism in its finer sense — that which expresses our greatest aspirations and hopes — is the highest form of pragmatism. It is by the actualization of our Ideals that we become most happy and satisfied. Mere practical considerations, when detached from Ideals — and even more when they are antithetical to them — are self-defeating, because they ignore, deny, or even oppose the integral connection between moral virtue, truth, and happiness.

As tangible evidence of the practical value of Idealism in this context, consider this. If third-party presidential candidates, collectively, gained as little as 5% of the popular vote (in 2012 the number was 1.7%) , then in the next election we’d say greater respect paid to third parties. It would create pressure to include third-party candidates in the televised debates. The range of issues and options discussed during the campaign would be greatly widened. Suddenly, ideas like clean air or peace would become topics for public discussion again!

Further, if any individual third-party candidate received 5% of the vote — far from an unattainable result — that party would become eligible for federal campaign financing in the next election. A snowball effect would commence.

Thus, even beyond its moral implications and consequences, the level at which your vote becomes numerically meaningful — or even individually decisive — is much lower than you suppose. Yours could be the vote that pushes a candidate over this critical 5% threshold.



A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.

Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.

Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant.   Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.

What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise.  Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!

The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.

A Transcendental Humanism

Plato-Aristotle-by-RaphaelSchool of Athens (detail)

school-of-athensSchool of Athens

I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting.  They are worth quoting in full:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.

What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature.  This philosophical view has a long history, and a name:  Idealism, or Platonic Idealism.   It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.

It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.

Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere,  need to direct their attention to these issues.   As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions.   Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other.  This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality.  But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions.  In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions.  The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.

We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent.  To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice.  But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.

Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent.  This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside.  Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man.  We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.

Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications.  For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:

15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.  The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.



Demolishing the ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ Excuse for Voting Democrat or Republican

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ELECTION time is near upon us, and American politics is worse than ever. But let’s at least accomplish this much: to retire once and for all the fallacy that says “I should vote for a useless Republican/Democrat candidate because he/she is a lesser evil than the useless Democrat/Republican candidate.”

This is both faulty and dangerous reasoning, and why is explained below.

At this point we all agree that the available Republican and Democrat candidates are deplorable. All pay allegiance to the same rotten status quo/System/Wall Street Establishment/power elite or whatever else you want to call it.

“But,” so Democrat voters have mistakenly reasoned for the last several elections, “if the choice is between a Democrat bandit who will support Obamacare and a Republican bandit who wants to take it away, clearly I should vote for the former as the lesser of two evils.” And vice versa for Republican voters.

The logical error is twofold:  (1) in supposing that there are only two choices; and (2) in failing to take a long-term perspective in the calculation of harms and benefits.

One has the option to vote for neither the Republican nor Democrat bandit.  If a third-party or independent candidate is offered, then at the very least voting for that candidate will serve to protest against the status quo. And if the candidate actually stands for something good (like no more wars!), so much the better.  Then you’ve made a positive statement of values to your fellow citizens.  They’ll see, and be more likely to vote their true preferences in future elections.  Important changes don’t happen all at once.

Look at it this way.  There are three possible scenarios for the future:

  1. People continue to vote slavishly for duopoly candidates, and Democrats win overall. Then our country faces 50 years of bad and worsening conditions due to a failing social, political and economic system.
  1. People continue to vote slavishly for duopoly candidates, and Republicans win overall. Then our country faces 50 years of bad and worsening conditions due to a failing social, political and economic system.
  1. People vote for third-party or independent candidates with good ideas. Then our country faces, say, from 4 to 8 years of bad conditions while the current bandits rule. BUT, positive change has begun. There’s hope that in 10 or 20 years third-party candidates can win seats in Congress and things will improve. Further, as voters flee the two big parties, pressure will be on Republican and Democrat politicians to come around and stop the insanity.

By considering all available options and taking a long-term perspective, the most ethical choice is to reject both mainstream candidates, and vote for a more reasonable third-party or independent candidate.

Get over the illusion that we’ll see positive change in Washington in the next few years.  It isn’t going to happen.  Use your vote, then, to produce positive change in the longer term.

And there is an immediate positive: voting on principle will make you feel much better.

Written by John Uebersax

September 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Ending Drone Attacks by Appeals to Conscience

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A news story today reports how activists in the Pakistan tribal areas have constructed a huge photograph of a child casualty visible to US attack drone operators.  The action is described at notabugsplat  [the meaning of ‘notabugsplat’ is that drone strikes are killing real human beings, made in God’s image and likeness; yet US policy dehumanizes them so thoroughly as to treat them as no more than insects.]

I would like to commend those responsible for this idea.  They have rediscovered an important truth: that when one meets aggression with anger and accusations, the climate merely continues to be aggressive: the aggression not only continues, but the aggressor feels vindicated.

The most effective response, therefore, is to take the high road.  Change the rules of the game, the narrative, the context.  Appeal to conscience, and in so doing, force the aggressor to come to his or her senses.

This approach dovetails with a judicial response to drone strikes to produce maximum results.  Like the appeal to conscience, the judicial approach is a peaceful means that pleads the principles of the case in court.  This again places the entire problem in the light of higher reason, where solutions may be found.

Yet a third approach, based on similar principles and which complements the preceding two, is prayer for ones oppressors.

If Pakistanis in the affected areas were to hold public prayer meetings, asking God to forgive drone operators and commanding officers and to help them see their error, and then publicize this activity, it may well, in addition to meeting with God’s favor, mobilize considerable world public opinion against the illegal and immoral US drone attacks.

We can be certain that the consciences of drone operators and their superiors are devastated by their participation in drone attacks.  They genuinely deserve our sympathy.  These unfortunate men and women are the unwitting tools of the US political system.  Many will have mental difficulties later in life, and then their government will turn its back on them.

Written by John Uebersax

April 8, 2014 at 12:00 am