Monday, May 30, 2011

Maltese Fallout

by Edd Doerr

On May 28 in Malta, the tiny Mediterranean country with less than half the area and population of Maryland's Montgomery County, 72% of eligible voters turned out to vote 53% to 47% in favor of legalizing divorce. The referendum was only advisory, but the Parliament is expected to agree.

Catholic Church officialdom opposed the referendum hysterically, advertizing that voting for divorce or even abstaining from voting against it would be a "mortal sin". Malta is nominally about 98% Catholic, so the referendum is another indication of how little ordinary Catholics think of Vatican pronouncements.

Chalk up another victory for church-state separation. Too bad so many American politicians are moving in the opposite direction.

Ratko Mladic and Clergy

Serbian war crimes fugitive Ratko Mlakic was arrested in Serbia last week. On May 30 the New York Times' report on his arrest noted that Mladic declared that "he had been visited by many priests", obviously Eastern Orthodox. Deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said that apparently Mladic maintained ties to an "'anti-Hague' lobby of religious leaders". The Serbian newspaper Blic reported that in 2006 Mladic had taken refuge in the St Melanije monastery near Lazarevo.

So, some religious leaders were shielding an alleged war criminal and covering up war crimes? That too bears investigation and exposure.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kane is not Able

by Edd Doerr

Gregory Kane writes a column in the Washington Examiner, the freebie tabloid competing with the Moonie-founded Washington Times for the coveted status as the most reactionary rag in America. in his May 19 column he swatted at the Supreme Court's 1963 8-1 ruling against public school prayer and Bible reading in Abington School District v Schempp, asserting that "prayer and Bible reading in public schools hurt no one", that the ruling may have led to "a decline in academics and discipline in public schools since 1968", and that Potter Stewart, the lone Schempp dissenter, was right that the Court stretched the First Amendment too far.

Kane and others in his camp are just not able to grasp the following facts: 1. Schempp was preceded by the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engel v Vitale, a challenge to government sponsored public school prayer brought by parents of various religious persuasions; 2. That in 1962 only about half of the nation's public schools had prayer and/or Bible reading, nearly all of them in the east coast or southern states; 3. That far more people than just humanists were offended by the devotions; and 4. That there is no evidence that the absence of government-sponsor devotions negatively affects public education.

But Kane missed the big picture. Public school prayer and Bible reading were hallmarks of the Protestant hegemony in public schools that was offensive to our growing Catholic population from the mid-19th century until 1962, a hegemony lacking an effective legal remedy that pushed Catholic Church officials to create an extensive system of private religious schools. By 1962 Catholic private school enrollment had reached about 5.5 million students.

After Engel v Vitale things began to change. We elected our first Catholic President in 1960, a Catholic strongly dedicated to church-state separation who supported the Supreme Court ruling that ended the Protestant hegemony (except perhaps for parts of the old Confederacy with few Catholics -- or humanists). The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 liberalized the church somewhat and elevated conscience over dogma. In 1968 the Vatican blanketly condemned contraception, against the advice of its own experts, and triggered a huge and ongoing revolt by Catholics against the malignant patriarchalism of the "Old Boys Club on the Tiber".

Voila! Catholic private school enrollment began to slip, from 5.5 million in 1965 to a little over two million today. Studies by Catholic universities for the pro-voucher Nixon Administration showed that the decline was due not to economic factors but to "changing parental preferences".

On the other hand, the end of the Protestant hegemony in the public schools, combined with the successes of the Civil Rights movement, led to the start of the growing fundamentalist private school movement, the spread of homeschooling, and growing evangelical/conservative support for school vouchers and tax credits. At the same time, Catholic movement away from sectarian private schools (about 80% of Catholic kids now attend public schools) has led to Catholic voter opposition to diversion of public funds to religious schools.

Animated, American Dreams of Summer

It’s the start of the summer movie season, which offers some relief from reality and more celebration of cinematic American Exceptionalism. With the help of computer generated imagery (CGI) an Americanized Thor is already smiting evil giants. Many are salivating for the unreal, computer enhanced world of movies like Kung Fu Panda 2, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Transformer: Dark of the Moon and Green Lantern. All potential blockbusters. I’m a childhood fan of the Green Lantern, so it will be fun to leave the world of real problems behind and see the emerald crusader deal justice to powerful CGI-created aliens with my grandsons. The image of a huge green hand swatting evil characters is compelling. And I like the combined message of achievement and serving Justice even if the violence used is a bit too up front compared to say Toy Story. Maybe it's all a comfortable distraction, but the smooth effects that technology-enabled effects allow, stand in contrast to our mired situation in the real world. One thought is, if we can do this why can't we solve REAL problems.
As American summers fill our screen with neat, crisp, wham-bang solutions reality, as in unemployment, rising oil prices and declining home values for many Americans, has no immediate good ending. Real, down-to-earth problems haunt lives back here on the non-animated earth. As many have noted, the Great Recession that started in 2007 continues to echo the unemployment and dim prospects of the Great Depression. One non-obvious comparison is the attraction of youth into the military since times of high unemployment and expensive education make this a more attractive option. But another phenomena is the success of movies. The 1930s weren’t necessarily boom times for all Hollywood dream factories, but there was a serious effort to put out comforting messages. These took many forms and were sometimes a mix of breadlines and champagne - see In Hard Times, the Hoi Polloi Stay in the Picture.
Champagne-style included the Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire musicals, and light, “screwball” comedies (and Marx Brothers) but also King Kong and SF features as harsh economics drove more people to seek cinematic escape. A movie like My Man Godfrey (1936) presents a common man embodying rare common sense in contrast to the foolishness of "privileged" society. These are portrayed as both insularly out of touch with reality, but also unprincipled. There were more critical perspectives offered in more breadline style movies such as Sullivan Travels, Our Daily Bread, and American Madness.

Perhaps we’ll see their like, but for this summer
technology-enabled animations are in the forefront of advertizing. There are now TV, computer games and the social web to comfort and distract. Still Hollywood produces Blockbusters of the American Exceptional sort. They promise to be great distracting comfits. Their appeal is perhaps a bit of the idea of American Exceptionalism that I covered in a previous post. They feed into concepts we want to be proud of. They also give use a sense of doing things or knowing how to do things without really doing things in a way that can be done this side of CGI. And going along with it they are often implicitly militant. I don’t mean militant in the sense used in the phrase "militant atheist". There the term is used to describe an atheist who stands up for his/her values and is bold enough to, as David Niose says, “openly question religious authority or vocally express his or her views about the existence of God,” I’d be happy to see a movie, animated or CGI heavy or not which included such values. It's not even the celebration of Veterans we see on Memorial Day.  No, the militancy I see is the one that take a stance that we are in a continual war with “evil” and that our physical-technical might is key to overcoming it. It's the the continuing hold that violence has on the human psyche, especially when its real consequences are abstracted away. Movies help create a cultural slippery slope celebrating combat and its militant values. As Chris Hedges says, "The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation."

The Curious Case of Shah Bano

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Indian Parliament passed a law ending the “Shah Bano affair”: a classic case study of the lunacy of allowing religious considerations to influence government policy, with a bizarre twist at the end.

Shah Bano was not the sort of person you’d expect to touch off a government crisis. Born in 1916 to an Indian Muslim family of modest means, she married Mohammad Ahmed Khan at the age of 16, and bore him several children. She then committed the serious blunder of growing old. Mohammed surveyed the field, found a more attractive soul mate, and kicked 59 year old Shah Bano out of his house.

Actually, there was a little more to it than that. He first completed the Muslim sharia legal requirements for a lawful divorce, which are quite appealing to those interested in streamlining red tape. All he had to do was to tell Shah Bano “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” and the deed was done. (Muslim women, of course, are not allowed to divorce their husbands in this manner.)

Muslim sharia also thoughtfully provides that a husband who follows this procedure must provide for the support of the evicted spouse. First, he must restore the “bride price” originally paid at the time of marriage. In Shah Bano’s case, this was a handsome sum equivalent to about $66 US dollars. He also had to provide for her maintenance – for a period of three months, or until a divorced spouse who is pregnant gives birth.

So how exactly was 59 year old Shah Bano, who had never held a job other than managing Mohammed’s household and raising his children, supposed to feed, clothe, and shelter herself after burning through three months and $66 bucks? That was not an issue of concern in the sharia. Perhaps the 9th century Arabs who developed it intended to incentivize women to be less grouchy and to age more slowly, so their husbands wouldn’t want to divorce them. The bigger question is, why in the world would late-20th century India, purportedly a civilized country, allow such a travesty to occur?

The answer extends back to 1937, when the British were in “divide and conquer” mode in their efforts to main control over an increasingly restive India. A “Shariat law” was enacted, providing that Muslims in India would be governed by Islamic religious laws in matters relating to the family; Hindus would continue to be governed by Hindu religious law. Nothing could have been better calculated to divide neighbor against neighbor than to impose different sets of rules on one than another. The Shariat law was an important step along the road that led to the separation of Pakistan from India, at the cost of over a million lives (so far).

India finally achieved independence in 1947, under the leadership of the brilliant Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was a confirmed secularist – one of the greatest the world has ever seen.

The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests.

Heard any American politicians talking like that lately?

After the religious bloodbath of partition, Nehru was intent on restoring harmony between India’s Hindu majority and its still sizable Muslim minority, who comprised over 20% of the population. He stood nearly alone on this; the Hindu religious leaders and their political flunkies remained bitter about the 1947 massacre, and convinced that Indian Muslims were a “fifth column” seeking to undermine the new state for the benefit of Pakistan, who deserved treatment as pariahs. When Nehru insisted that Indian Muslims be given full rights and status, a rival Hindu chauvinist politician bitterly joked that “There is only one genuinely nationalist Muslim in India – Jawaharlal.” This led to intense Muslim voter loyalty to Nehru’s Congress Party as their chief protector, just as American minorities have been drawn to the Democratic Party for the last 80 years.

Nehru was equally intent on dragging backwards India into the 20th century, by giving it a modern legal system and a focus on science. By the time of his death, in fact, India had a space program and the second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers in the world. Nehru’s hand could also be seen in Article 44 of India’s 1950 constitution, which mandated that “The state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.” Thus, there would be no more separate marriage, inheritance, and other personal laws dividing India’s Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.

Nehru then proceeded to carry out the constitution by drawing up a modern, balanced law of marriage and divorce, guided by principles of what makes sense in the real world rather than by what some God expert said a thousand years ago. Here, though, Nehru suffered a rare defeat. Immensely popular, a brilliant builder of coalitions, Nehru could not overcome the opposition of modern day God experts who resented government intrusion on their turf. The best he could cobble together was a bill that, while thoroughly modern and rational, only applied to Hindus. The Hindu opposition parties opposed all change, and the Muslims within his Congress party refused to go along with anything that irked the imams. So Nehru reluctantly settled for a Hindu-only reform, ending polygamy (among other things) for the vast majority of Indians, in the hope that someday it would become universal as the Constitution required. But “someday” never came, so into the streets Shah Bano went.

At that point, some do-gooder lawyers got involved, who for once actually did some good. There was no question that Mohammed was on solid legal ground from a marriage law standpoint, but in scouring the statute books someone noticed Article 125 of the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure, requiring a husband to provide 500 rupees a month maintenance to an indigent wife – including a divorced wife who has not remarried. So which law controls – sharia, or the criminal code? India’s legal system fretted over this for nearly a decade, before the Supreme Court finally decided that Shah Bano was entitled to her 500 rupees a month.

To hear the howl that went up from India’s Muslim politicians, you’d think the court had ordered a systematic extermination campaign. Nehru would undoubtedly have been delighted with a result that not only brought uniformity to Indian law but protected millions of Indian women. But his grandson Rajiv Gandhi, then serving as prime minister, was not. Rajiv inherited none of his grandfather’s backbone, and saw nothing other than the unhappiness of the Muslim politicians who formed part of his Congress party. So, principle and Constitution be damned, he rammed a “Muslim Women Act” through Parliament exactly 25 years ago last week, reversing the Shah Bano decision and making life vastly easier for footloose Muslim husbands (though not quite as easy as Mohammed Ahmed Khan wanted it). So much so, in fact, that some Hindu men now complain of discrimination, and seek to overturn Nehru’s modern law.

And now for the promised bizarre twist. You might expect Shah Bano to have been gratified with her court victory, and proud of her role in improving the lives of her fellow Muslim ex-wives. Nope. Someone got to her, and let her know what a dim view God took of anyone who threatened his sharia. I’ll wildly speculate, without any evidence to back it up, that the same someone made certain promises about cash payments to take care of her future needs. In any event, during the uproar following the Supreme Court decision, she suddenly announced that she had changed her mind, that she didn’t want to go against God, and that she’d reject her hard-won 500 rupees a month, immeasurably easing the way for passage of Rajiv’s “Muslim Women Act” the following year.

All of which may put in a slightly different light old Mohammed’s decision to dump the old bat in the first place …

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Unfiltered Life

The other day, as I was searching for something about humanism using Google Gmail, I noticed a list of topics on the right side of my screen under "More about...". I rarely look for such things on my browser that prompts me with linked topics. But in an ideal Internet world it could be something that I might like to know more about. One of these labeled Secular Humanism (SH) seemed appropriate. So for probably the first time, I clicked on this topic-link. Maybe a path to a new Google experience. About a dozen things popped up and I was so surprised with the results that I saved the page, so I could comment on what I saw.

The first thing was a link labeled "New Spiritual Magazine"! Not exactly my idea of a SH topic. Next came one called New Age Book Publisher which said “ Share Your Spiritual Journey with Your Inspirational Book. Free Guide” and listed a web site. Then I was enticed to “Earn a Ph.D. in 3 Months". Only after this did I get a real SH topic -Discover Humanism! connecting to The American Humanist Association (The voice of Humanism since 1941) at There was one other item I’d think of as properly appropriate for an SH person. The rest of a distracting (and maybe a bit disturbing list) of non-SH topics included:

• Ancient & Mystical Order - Find the Key to Universal Wisdom.
• South African Diamonds - We will not be undersold !
• Expand Your Mind - The Key to Change Your Life is to…
• How to Do Meditation?
• Study Psychology Online - Launch Your Career in Psychology
• Practice Futures Trading - Forget The Old Boys Club!
• Find Truth or Reality
• EthicShare: Research Site Find, Share, Collaborate, Network
• Spiritual Seeker.

Clearly the Secular Humanist “ads” were in the minority and most of the competition was hogging my space and crowding my time. Weren't there enough Secular Humanist things for me to learn about? Apparently not the paying kind. My free Google service was guiding me into a easy path to meditation, education and futures trading. This is the Internet at work - making money. Sure there is perhaps a bit of a reason to be concerned, but why should I expect Google to understand that I'm not interested in such things.

Later in the day I found a reason to be more disappointed, because Google and other Apps may know too much about me and still not shield me from things I'm not interested in. A friend from a discussion group I’m in sent me a link. It was something he found both interesting and frightening (“the dark side of Internet personalization”) and he wanted to discuss it at our next meeting. The topic was Filter Bubbles, which is a term for the automated, personalized filtering of information you get from Facebook, Google and Yahoo! etc. The idea is that sites such of these personalize what we see based on info we have provided, which features we have turned on, the nature of our searches, or what we have chosen to view. Automated filters hide stuff we typically ignore and show search results similar to the kinds we've preferred in the past. The result is being in our own bubble while online. This wasn't exactly my experience with the Google ads, but I decided to look into what was being discussed as filter bubbles.

This activities and possible implications are discussed in Eli Pariser's (MoveOn co-founder) new book called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. I haven’t read the book but you can see Eli's 8 minute or so TED talk on The Filter Bubble and the effects of online personalization at

From this and reports I’ve read you can understand Pariser’s concern. "Smart" but invisible customization of one’s Internet experience can limit exposure to the broad set information that we expect from the Internet. The example Pariser uses is from a person’s recent search using the key word “Egypt”. One user, who in the past looked at political topical pages, may get the latest news such as on the revolution or its aftereffect. Others might only see search results about Egyptian vacations, since they usually search for such things by naming a place. Aren’t they both entitled to all the facts? I for one was not aware that searches could give such different results based on how an Internet site classifies us. Pariser’s research suggests that the top 50 websites collect an average of 64 bits of personal information each time we visit. Some of these are our responses say using a Like button. Others are not, but they are all in the cloud of data we produce, which Apps may use as they want. The total set is used to custom-design sites to conform to a simple, perhaps naive view of our perceived preferences. After all Internet Apps need not be into deep analysis of our philosophies and intents. They exist in a synthetic environment not the one we evolved from.

As a person interested in transparency (see I agree with Pariser's concern about the implications of site personalization. It's an:

“invisible, unaccountable, commercially driven customization turns into a media-bias-of-one, an information system that distorts your perception of reality, parochial, exploiting your cognitive blind-spots to make you overestimate the importance or prevalence of certain ideas, products and philosophies and underestimate others.”

After looking at the TED video I quickly did my own test of my own bubble. I did a Google search for “Secular Humanism” logged into my own PC. A minute later I did the same serach using my wife’s login on her computer. The results were different, although since we are similar, I assume not as much as they would be with a random person. I got 691,000 hits while she had 706,000 so they might be filtering me from a few of those spiritual hits! The first 2 hits were the same for each of us, but 3 and 4 were different and my wife got to the Wikipedia listing before me (and I thought that I was a big Wikipedia user!). But she also got to BeliefNet on the first page and I didn’t.

I’m not sure what it all means yet and like Pariser I’m not convinced that all of it is intentional malicious. It may be more of a candy-like phenomena on both ends. Automation offers me some benefits and it is too sweet and tempting idea for the Internet companies to resist. They want to do things to bring us to their sites and appealing to what we “like” is an easy way to ensure that. If I see something that I "like" I can help promote it. So Facebook has a ‘like’ button which is easy to click, especially for simple ideas. But consider something complex like war and conflict - news about Afghanistan or Iraq. When Pariser talked to the people who run news websites like Yahoo!, they’ said that war in Afghanistan doesn’t “perform” well. To them it means they don’t get a lot of clicks. Remember clicks are how they make money. Yet, this is the type of the information a citizen needs. I share Pariser's concern that big Internet companies are by default a new type of Gatekeeper. The way the system works they have a financial reason to dumb
down and repackage content. But the internet needs to handle complicated, important topics like ‘war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year’. But whose job is it? It's’s not Facebook’s mission. They are just doing the simple stuff that makes a profit. Long-term implications are not a problem they may wrestle with. Sounds like that is the lack of wisdom we sometimes get from markets. But unless we as a society think through the implications of things we might wind up in bubbles that are echo chambers for simple ideas in a very non-simple real world. That's not the future vision of transparent access that I signed up for.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Political Pragmatism and Philosophical Pragmatism

Pragmatism usually refers to a practical way of dealing with life. It's a very down to earth way of deaing with problems in a sensible and realistic fashion. Pragmatic approaches are often contrasted with decisions and actions based on ideological, highly abstract or theoretical frameworks. This difference may over dichotomize things as discussed in my article on the Binary Thinking Habit, but popular accounts often use a simple notion of pragmatism in discussing decision making styles. Thus, to a mixture of praise and frustration, President Obama’s governing style is often labeled politically “pragmatic”. One example of this was his approach to health insurance reform. The HC reform approach evolved from the government-sponsored language he used in campaign speeches, to a hybrid compromise that could be passed by both Houses of Congress. He was also called pragmatic to attempt to compromise with Republicans in extending unemployment benefits and providing some relief to the middle class when he gave up on a key campaign promise to roll back Bush-era tax cuts for the “wealthy”.

This practical politics has lead some to ask what values Obama really has. His pragmatism makes various stances seem unprincipled, hard to define and predict. Is he focused on the economy, or terrorism on managing government? What won’t he compromise on?

According to University of Chicago political scientist William Howell, Obama often starts with some "clear policy views," for the longer term, but they may not be clear to casual public scrutiny because "they're conjoined with a recognition that presidential power is contested ... and he gets very pragmatic very quickly." Such political pragmatism is often described as one that recognizes here-and-now “realities”. But what are realities and how do they different from political positions?

Obama's Mideast speech was described by some as pragmatic since it recognized US limitations along with democratic yearnings evidenced by what has been called an Arab Spring. But the speech also repeated his position that Israel-Palestine peace negotiations must acknowledge the 1967 borders as a starting point 1967 borders. This is politically practical in the sense that Obama’s position represents a general consensus. Reflecting this he has already secured the political backing of the United Nations, European Union and Russia. But to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this policy is not grounded in reality as he sees it. He frames the issue differently, a process discussed in my blog on Towards Understanding Rationality and its Limits Regarding Complex Issues . Netanyahu would prefer to ground things on new “demographic facts on the ground”. The 67 border lines do not take into account what Netanyahu called "demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years," This includes an estimated 500,000 (illegal as discussed in Israeli settlers living on West Bank land. These settlements represent an occupation which the US and most others do not recognize and to many it represents a manufactured, force based outcome dictated by an occupation plan of a greater Israel.

One problem with trying to get practical results is opponents can see the possible path you can take and attempt to block it. Political pressure can be brought to accept "facts on the ground”. So are we pragmatic to deal with facts on the ground such as this or facts based on terrorist stances whether national or group? Such perceptual differences in reality are part of the challenges and dangers for what some call practical approaches and inquires into reality – political or otherwise.

Another is that problems and decisions may involve multiple issues and so one may need a coldly calculating meta-practical approach to decide how to tradeoff various positional strengths the reality of which is hard to know. In reality pragmatic approaches involve inquiry and analysis to understand what truthfully has worked, is working and will work. In pragmatic theory truth can neither be separated from the specific context of an inquiry, nor can it be divorced from the interests of the inquirer (Obama and Netanyahu for example). Understanding past analyses, the habits of the culture and persons involved are all part of a complicated analysis that makes something practical or not. For all these reasons it is easy to see why pragmatic policies are hard.

But are Obama’s approaches to things like health care, budget, and the creation of a 2 state solution really pragmatic? In a traditional, shallow sense they are part of a uniquely American political approach called political pragmatism. This philosophy was observed by Tocqueville during his American journeys which he described as a philosophy that says, 'if it works, we don't really care why.' As such it is a rejection of a purely /theoretical and ideological approach to solving political problems. To a European it was a new form of politics using means-tested facts and grounded reality. This still represents a recognizable American value and bears some relation to the broader, formalized pragmatic philosophy that originated in the US a bit later in the 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. These are 2 philosophers that Americans should be proud of and know more about. Some of the background story for their story and the whole American pragmatism movement is covered Louis Menand’s enjoyable book: The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The book argues that the Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but the brutality of an uncompromising ideological struggle also damaged the whole intellectual culture of the North. It took nearly half a century for Americans to develop a set of ideas, a way of thinking that would help them cope with the resulting conditions of “modern” life. That struggle, especially the philosophical struggle is elucidated by Menand’s book as he explains how the philosophy of pragmatism grows out of it.

But problems seem to have grown up about our understanding of what is pragmatic. Current political pragmatism is to the philosophy of pragmatism a bit like what Social Darwinism is to Darwin’s theory of evolution. It has some connection, but it is a loose application of some simple expressions of core ideas. without a validated theory and can lead in problematic directions. The family of ideas called pragmatism was concerned with broad theories of meaning, truth and reality and how a person comes to know. At its core is an emphasis on the practical consequences of a person or a group holding a belief. The question of what happens in the future is essential. Consequences are the behavioral and observational means we use to evaluate the truth of that belief. This simple focus on the practical helps evade many earlier metaphysical and epistemological problems discussed in Western philosophy. That’s good, since American don’t like endless debate on philosophical issues. So belief is something like an hypothesis. It is true if it brings about a satisfactory result in a particular inquiry or investigation. The truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution is measured by what it can be applied to and the results it secures. Obama’s push for a 2 state solution isn’t Newtonian Physics, but to a pragmatic philosophy it might be tried on to see how useful it is. Of course it is easier to test the validity of falling bodies than of establishing states and peacefully controlling borders. As I asked before, is a pragmatic approach practical for such types of issue? It’s complicated, but as we are all concerned with better outcomes it behooves us to understand the world in practical terms by their implications as well as the validated consistency of their predictions. As a philosophical stance Pragmatism helps clears away some of the philosophical underbrush, but the reality of the world and especially the social world represents real challenges for a practical philosophy. Which is a long, humbling way to say that what is called pragmatic politics may be better than a purely unvalidated, ideological approach; but is far from the approach to knowledge, truth and meaning that philosophical pragmatism espouses.

The Rapture - Just for Kooks, or Is It Mainstream?

Well, I am happy to report that I and my family, agnostics, atheists and theists alike, have survived the 2011 version of The Rapture.

To my knowledge, none of the religious folk in my family actually believed any of that nonsense, at least not as asserted by Mr. Camping. Some of them may, however, actually believe the story as predicted in the last book of the bible, Revelations. Many Christians do, and not all of them are kooks and nut cases.

It is interesting, however, to note that however much many of us have both derided the prediction that yesterday was to have been the beginning of the end of times and are gloating that yet another boring prediction has failed - again - this idea, this religious prediction, IS a mainstream belief. It is just that most Christians look at it as being the subject of some far off thing in time and space that probably won't affect them or their kids. Thus, it gets pushed off to the back of their minds and in cases like this week, are relegated to the status of being an embarrassment.

So, why do modern Christian denominations still preach that this is part of god's plan? Why is it still tolerated as a part of the canon, thus a "true" book of the bible? Oh, some might say, it is just the harmless meanderings of a church bishop over a thousand years ago, and really is meant to be allegorical, not a REAL prediction. And the preacher will go through about an hour of theological rationalizations to prove it. Or maybe less.

But IS it harmless? Just how much harm could the senseless delusions of an imprisoned, exiled bishop of over a thousand years ago cause in the 21st century?

I guess we could start out by asking about all these recently broke believers who gave away all their worldly goods, expecting to be in Paradise right now, instead of behind on their mortgages and with no savings to send their kids to college (now that the Rapture has been postponed yet again, so that maybe there'll be time for college after all).

But the REAL harm is to the Middle East and the United States, as our country charts a course through that quagmire of political minefields, blindly pursuing a course of action designed to support Israel, regardless of consequences, simply to please a small, vocal religious minority in this country that has aligned itself with at least part of the Jewish community. A religious minority that firmly believes the predictions of the end of times, and is determined to bring about the conditions that are supposed to presage the beginnings of those events described in the book of Revelations, chief among them, the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. (We'll just ignore the explosion of violence and anger such a move would cause in the Muslim world, we all know Jesus will never allow those backward Muslims to stop his Return.)

This group of the ultra religious will never tolerate reasonable suggestions to end the cycle of violence. Ideas like the President's suggestion of borders and a two state solution are met with anger and derision, and never mind sensible suggestions like making Jerusalem an international city, and allowing both states to then share it as a capital. No, it must remain a political football, forever to divide the various sides in this eternal conflict.

The insanity of this reality is denied when any of the mainstream Christians in this country hear this. They cannot abide the idea that even a small part of the biblical canon could be instrumental in defining bad policy - so much that they will even deny the disastrous nature of that policy and make up nebulous reasons to defend the policy as good for this country.

The occurrence of predictions like Mr. Camping's should be opportunities for this country to examine these issues, these beliefs and the results that come from their implementation, and make adjustments to end the influence of bronze age literature on US foreign policy.

Sadly, we probably won't.

Robert Ahrens

Erasing Women

By now you’ve probably seen both versions of the picture. The original photo, from the White House Situation Room, shows President Obama, his Secretary of State, the director of counter-terrorism for the National Security Council and other high officials watching intently as the raid to nab Osama bin Laden unfolds. Then there is the doctored version, in which the Secretary of State and the director of counter-terrorism are neatly airbrushed out of the picture, replaced by shadows. Why? Because it appeared in Di Tzeitung, a Brooklyn newspaper published by Orthodox Jews, who have a long history of erasing women from the category of full personhood.

The newspaper quickly asserted a constitutional right to commit whatever fraud it chooses, on the grounds that it is doing so in the name of religion, where truth is of no value. “Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women,” the paper brashly announced. Then it went on the offensive: “The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office is a malicious slander and libel.”

Always a sucker for a dare, I’ll take that bait. I hereby allege that “religious Jews denigrate women,” and have always done so. If Di Tzeitung wants to call that malicious slander and libel, I invite readers to examine the facts.

Not all Jews think alike, of course, any more than all Christians, Muslims, or Mormons do. There are plenty of religious Jews who don’t denigrate women. But there are plenty who do, and those who do are far closer to the mainstream of 3,000 years of Jewish tradition than those who don’t.

Exhibit number one is the counterfeit picture itself. I’m fond of a little immodesty from time to time, and this isn’t it. Ms. Clinton is fully clothed in a conservative suit, and Ms. Tomason is barely visible at all. Di Tzeitung is saying that it is impossible for a depiction of a woman to be anything but immodest – even though it is possible for a picture of a man to be perfectly ok. This treats women differently from men, diminishing their rights to be depicted in any form, and thereby denigrates them.

Shabby Jewish treatment of women goes all the way back to the Torah; it is Eve, after all, who gets blamed for Adam’s lust. Deuteronomy shows God treating wives like tradable chattels; when a man dies without a son, his brother automatically inherits the widow as a wife without bothering to ascertain her views. (This law is still enforced by the Israeli government today.) Jewish law forbade women from acting as judges, or even offering evidence in court, while barring daughters from receiving any inheritance from a man who had sons. As 1st century Jewish historian Josephus put it: “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive.” Islam, which split off from Judaism in the 7th century, was downright feminist by comparison: women’s testimony counted half as much as a man’s in court, and daughters could inherit half as much as sons.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in the 2nd century, Judaism entered the Talmudic age, in which the position of women grew even worse, starting with the command of the rabbis at Yavneh for men to thank God during morning prayer for not making them slaves, women, or Gentiles. The Talmud teaches in various spots that “Women are light-minded,” that they are “gluttonous, eavesdroppers, lazy and jealous,” “querulous and garrulous,” and “addicted to witchcraft.”

Jewish polygamy was permitted and officially practiced nearly to the dawn of the Enlightenment. Jewish law also had an elaborate set of rules governing concubinage, which was a great deal for men who could afford it. Virginity was required for brides; if the groom discovered otherwise on his wedding night, “Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” After marriage, the Talmud is most specific in defining the frequency and preferred techniques of sexual intercourse. If a wife did not live up to her husband’s expectations, a list of her failings would be read aloud in the synagogue, and she could be divorced unless she corrected her mistakes.

Even in modern times, Jewish law treats women as less than fully human. Israel does not recognize civil marriage; God experts are granted complete control over marriage and divorce. In a 1969 case, a husband was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for committing six indecent assaults and three rapes. For some reason, this exhausted the patience of his wife, who sued for divorce. However, since the man refused, the couple remained married; the wife had no recourse under the religious law mandated in Israel. A former Israeli Minister of Religion explained that: “We have a legal system which has always sustained the people. It may contain within it some thorn that occasionally pricks the individual. We are not concerned with this or that individual, but with the totality of the people.”

Jewish law remains obsessed with the phenomenon of menstruation. The Talmud prescribes that:

A menstruant must not cut her fingernails, lest a husband or child accidentally step on or touch the clippings and, as a result, develop boils and die; a priest whose mother, wife, or any other female member of the household is menstruating, may not bless the people, lest his blessing become a curse; a sage who partakes of food prepared by a menstruant will forget his learning; a menstruant’s spit, breath, and speech cause impurity in others.

In Orthodox congregations even today, during menstrual periods, husband and wife may not touch each other, even by means of an intermediate object, nor pass objects between them. They may not share a bed nor sit together on a seat. The husband may not eat directly from his wife’s leftovers (though she may eat his); he may not see parts of his wife’s body that are usually covered, smell her perfume, gaze upon her clothing (whether or not it is being worn), listen to her singing, or discuss sexually exciting subjects with her. At the end of seven days, the wife must visit a ritual bath after nightfall, where she must remove all foreign objects from her body, comb her hair, blow her nose, and wash herself thoroughly, before spreading her legs for inspection to make sure she’s acceptable again.* We’re not talking about the dark ages here: we’re talking about 21st century Israel and Brooklyn, USA.

Judaism is not the only religion that denigrates women – they all do, to a greater or lesser extent. The great conundrum is that in all parts of the world, throughout history, women still tend to be more religious than men, any way you choose to measure it. So why do women put up with this kind of garbage? Beats me. Maybe somebody ought to write a book about it …

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Conservatism Wins Again

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has announced a ruling in the case of Mohamed v Jeppesen Dataplan in which they have denied cert, meaning that they will not hear the case. This leaves in place the en banc ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that endorsed the government's argument that any legal challenge to any executive branch action must be dismissed immediately once the government invokes the State Secrets Privilege.

For a quick explanation of this case and its implications, go read Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars post of the 19th, entitled, "Kiss the Constitution Goodbye":

I cannot imagine that the SCOTUS could possibly allow the Executive Branch to hide illegal behavior. Such a ruling is so contrary not only to past SCOTUS rulings, but to the very purpose for the Court's existence. In the past, the Court has acted as a brake on the government, a bulwark against government misbehavior and oppression. That is the reality of why it exists as a third, independent Branch of Government, so it can rule against such overreaching activity and have a hope of it being obeyed. That is why it has the power to completely overrule and kill an act of Congress that has been signed into law by the President. That is why it is the only Branch that can, by itself, overrule the other two Branches in a way that would require a Constitutional amendment to be itself overridden! Yet, the Court has completely let us down, in one of the most important cases in recent memory. In this one ruling, without even hearing the specifics of the case, the SCOTUS has virtually destroyed the accountability of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. This is a hole big enough to drive a whole army through, much less a Mack Truck.

The only way I can imagine this to happen is through the current conservative majority on the court, which just happens to include 5 catholic members.

Now I don't for a minute blame this on the RCC, or on these five Justices' religious beliefs. It IS on account of their conservatism, however, and I think this is a clear indication of how we can expect the Conservatives to act if and when they become a majority of this government, given how the Republicans have acted on their own in the House since obtaining a majority there.

Will this really mean the end of the Constitution's protections? By itself, I don't think so. A vast majority of people brought before the bar of justice on this country are brought before State and local courts, where it is unlikely that any State Secrets will be at issue. I would also doubt that many of the Federal actions would also fail to rise to that level, either.

But this IS a bad ruling, contrary to the very principles enshrined in the Constitution, that the Government cannot use illegal actions against citizens where those citizens' freedom or welfare is at stake. It allows the Government to continue its bad behavior, without the brake of Court oversight.

Hopefully, in time, a more liberal court will reverse this travesty.

Robert Ahrens

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


by Edd Doerr

Where do our rights come from? One very common answer would be to point to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."

Let's look at this in context. When the Declaration was written in 1776 we were well into a war with the greatest empire on the planet. Perhaps a third of our population supported independence. Nearly as many were Loyalists and at least a third were indifferent. The deck was stacked against us. We did not know that the British would make as many mistakes as they did or that French aid would be crucial. As the country from which we were seeking independence supported the widespread "divine right of kings" notion, it made good public relations or propaganda sense to speak of the divine origin of our rights.

But if rights came from a deity, why was this asserted only in 1776 and why did it apply only to white males? Why did African Americans have to wait until 1865 for slavery to be be abolished and another century to pass before the civil rights movement succeded in advancing rights? And why did it take until the early 20th century for women to get the right to vote? And why are women still only 17% of our national legislature? And why are most of the world's people still without much in the way of rights?

Should we blame God? Hardly. What we need to do is recognize that rights exist because We the People conceive them, spell them out, define them, fight to acheive them, and create the machinery to defend them. And we have keep on refining them ( as the Supreme Court did in 1973 in Roe v Wade with regard to women's rights of conscience) and defending them -- forever.

We cannot rest. We cannot throw in the towel.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Arizona Catholics

by Edd Doerr

Self-identified humanists are just a blip on the US demographic radar, but self-identified Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the US population. So a recent poll of Catholics in the Phoenix area, reported in the May 13 National Catholic Reporter (a rather liberal bi-weekly), unreported elsewhere, is revealing.

In November 2009 St Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix performed an abortion to save the life of a young mother suffering from usually fatal pulmonary hypertension. The abortion was approved by Sister Margaret Mary McBride of the hospital's ethics committee, who was later backed by hospital president Linda Hunt. Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted flew off the handle and announced that McBride was "automatically excommunicated" and that the hospital could no longer call itself Catholic.

The April 2011 poll of Phoenix area Catholics by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington produced the following results.
By 77% to 12% respondents still regarded St Joseph's as a Catholic hospital. When the matter first became known respondents favored McBride over Olmsted by 72% to 13%. When the matter played out they supported McBride by 79% to 16%. By 59% to 20% they said that Olmsted misused his authority by saying that McBride was excommunicated. By 71% to 19% they said likewise about his removing the Catholic label from the hospital. Women favored McBride over Olmsted by 74% to 12%, while men did so by 68% to 14%. Hispanics favored McBride over the bishop by 65% to 12%, while non-Hispanics did so by 74% to 13%. Those who attended church services weekly favored McBride over Olmsted 63% to 20%, those who attended only monthly favored McBride 77% to 9%, and those who never attend favored McBride 88% to 4%.

So what? This poll and numerous others over the years, plus abundant data on actual behavior, show that most Catholics disagree with official church teaching and dogma on reproductive health issues, on clerical celibacy, on ordaining women, on divorce and remarriage, on sending
their kids to parochial schools, on diversion of public funds to religious schools, on donating to the church. Catholics tend to be more politically liberal than Protestants generally and far more liberal that evangelical fundamentalists.

So? Humanists need to take more nuanced positions with regard to the incredible diversity among people self-identified as religious.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Greg Paul's Washington Post Op Ed

Greg Paul, a long-time WASH member, recently had an Op Ed published in the Washington Post:

The article got about 1500 comments.

Nice work, Greg!

JFK + 50

by Edd Doerr

Fifty years after the squeaker election of the first Catholic President, politico-religious demographer and Voice of Reason editor Albert J. Menendez has produced the definitive study of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon White House contest, The Religious Factor in the 1960 Presidential Election: An Analysis of the Kennedy Victory Over Anti-Catholic Bigotry (McFarland & Co, 2011, 261 pp, $45). Based on actual voting data from every county in the US, Menendez' book shows the extent of anti-Catholic voting back then. No other scholar has looked at that campaign in such detail. Voting in 1960 was more influenced by religion than previous scholars or journalists had estimated.

Menendez analyzes in depth the distribution of anti-Catholic and anti-Kennedy literature disseminated by much the same religious fundamentalist outfits now dominant in the Republican Party and anti-Obama outfits.

Menendez includes in the book the complete texts of Kennedy's April 21, 1960, address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and his September 21, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he faced the religious and church-state issues head-on.

Kennedy firmly opposed tax aid to religious private schools (in 1960 about 90% were Catholic schools) and US diplomatic recognition of the Holy See (Vatican). Nixon favored tax aid for religious schools after he was elected President in 1968, while Reagan extended diplomatic recognition to the Vatican in 1984. (On February 9, 1984, I represented the American Humanist Association, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, the American Ethical Union, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Americans for Religious Liberty in oral and written testimony before a congressional committee on "Reprogramming Funds for US Mission to the Vatican".) After the Supreme Court's 1962 ruling against government-mandated prayer in public schools, Kennedy stood with the Court.

Paul Blanshard, co-author with me of the church-state column in The Humanist, met with Kennedy and Ted Sorensen in the White House early in 1960. Blanshard assured me that Kennedy was sincere in his strong support for church-state separation.

A point to be made in all this is that humanist values are widely shared across the religious spectrum and that solidarity across religious divisions is essential to heading off the consequences of a fundamentalist and ultraconservative ascendancy.

Transparency and TCamp: Shining a Little Light into Dark Corners

There is a natural curiosity in most of us to know how things work. There is a joy in having mystery solved and its nature revealed. Figuring out the “why and how of things” is part of the charm of childhood and extends into adulthood. Understanding the clear nature of natural things was a central goal of the Enlightenment. The Encyclopedists made a start on organizing the scientific profession and that’s why they might have enjoyed our current state of knowledge. I’m sure they would have enjoyed the knowledge available at a site like: Building on the 17th century revolution science has done a pretty good job of shining some light on natural phenomena. As John Dewey noted “Revelation” is an ongoing process. Scientific advances like Darwinian evolution reveal the world to us. This continues to pull back the curtain on some deep mysteries of how and why things are as they are.

“The question of why anything exists is the most awkward that philosophy can raise- and Revelation alone provides the answer. “— John Dewey

Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature and Other Philosophical Works (1753/4), ed. D. Adams (1999), Section

But when it comes to understanding how our society (and its politics) actually functions may things are unrevealed –economics included. In part this is because the objects of study are subjects themselves and have to participate to help understanding. When the subjects of study are powerful they can make understanding difficult. If they are not interested in understanding as an obvious good then can spin a tale and refuse to open things up. Why should The Prince show how they influence events? This side of Machiavelli it can still be a sensitive and shocking topic. In his blog “PEARL of Great Price: Public Education and Religious Liberty" Edd Doerr ( noted how the non-transparent American Federation of Children (AFC) group works to defund public education and for channeling public funds to sectarian/private schools using vouchers and tuition tax credits. In actually they are one of several fronts for the infamous Koch Brothers as well as the DeVos family (of Amway fame) interests. This is just one of many covert operations that seek a more conservative, religious society.

The workings of business, government and their related doings are also often opaque. Sunlight is not what some in these institutions want across the board. That is why there are now a range of transparency organizations that shed light on dark areas of society. Transparency International, for example, is one civil society organization engaged in the fight against corruption across the globe - One tool it uses is a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which was launched in 1995, to put a spotlight on international corruption. The CPI ranks almost 200 countries by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys. See

In the US the battle over transparency and the effort to open window into how political things work is heating on around political influence -such things as having companies seeking federal contracts influencing the contract possibilities through political contributions. The Washington Post recently reported that a White House budget official will testify May 12th at a joint congressional hearing to explain a draft proposal to require company disclose of political contributions. Public disclosure of contributions seems reasonable, but apparently 21 House Republican members (including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor & Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy) have a problem. They saw a leaked draft order by President Obama forcing federal contractors to disclose their political donations and quickly signed a letter condemning this form of transparency. Officials have been asked testify at the May 12th hearing which they are calling “Politicizing Procurement: Would President Obama’s Proposal Curb Free Speech and Hurt Small Business?” Perhaps they see it as the administration counter to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision - which freed up endless corporate (yes even foreign) donations to support political campaigns. If so I think an executive order for more sunlight on political and electoral process is timely. Many people feel that democracy has been hijacked by a hybrid of corporate interests, their lobbyists and pliable policymakers/officials. As a result policymaking is driven by whatever vested interests have the best planted operatives and tacit agreements supported by big pocket strategies to manipulate public opinion. What can we do to recover more of a real democracy of free interests? Now is a time to find practical steps to reclaim popular democracy so that it once again centes on what is best for our society in the long term. Well transparency into the way the corporate-lobby-political alliance works is one step. I was actually quite surprised to hear words arguing for such transparency on the PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s South Riding show. South Riding describes England’s 1930 era debates over the need for, and efficacy of, public works. In particular South Riding describes the desperate need for new roads and hospitals, schools and maternity clinics. These became progressive goals and resulting in conflict between old and new, especially between a traditional rural lifestyle built on personal relations, and a new social organization created by bigger government trying to solve problems. But government also brings an impersonal bureaucratic style mixed with more democratic processes. As one character favoring a new approach says of a conservative – “I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for — feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation."

We are beyond the ‘30s memory of feudalism but our economic woes have stirred the political pot anew. In the ‘30s FDR pursued public works programs, but people also called for more government transparency to understand what was happening. This is stirring again.

Transparency then and now seems very American and democratic, since it helps hold lawmakers (and their corporate backers) accountable for their actions. It was important then and necessary now and should be welcomed because transparency comprehensively affects civic life. People are interested in a range of processes from how their money is spent on road to what drives legislative priorities and spending). Transparency combines with other activities like regulation and might help avoiding another round of bank meltdowns. Federally insured institutions should be required to hold more reserves. In general a good citizens needs to be informed in a democracy. For example we could use better transparent into the nature holdings and risky, leveraged dealings.

There have been attempts to legislate this, but there are counter efforts to block such transparency. One might think that attempts to rollback transparency, Freedom of info laws and block greater government transparency should bring progressives & tea party folks together. Indeed there has been some massive citizen backlash following such attempts. Nonetheless, we see powers in the House fighting to keep the campaign donations of federal contractors essentially secrete. Which suggests that we need a sustained effort to keep the degree of transparency we now have and indeed move forward with this as part of a more open and participatory society.

WikiLeaks is one effort to show the way things work. It’s threatening so rather than face an embarrassing after the fact disclosure, government and businesses should be working to balance the transparency and security tradeoff and throw in some development of ethics. One group that is helping move constructively is the Sunlight Foundation.
Early in May the Sunlight Foundation hosted Transparency Camp 2011 (aka Tcamp) This is there annual a two day event overflowing with talented, dedicated people discussing how to improve transparency throughout society using open data, better technology, and providing more access to information. Discussions of how to donations more transparent was just one aspect of Tcamp discussion. Efforts on a more participatory democracy include improving neighborhood information. White house Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Andrew McLaughlin discussed civic commons and Code for America - a platform for cities, working with tech companies to solve common problems ( Many sites providing useful information on government and corporate operations were discussed for example, & Other people discussed how understanding is enhanced by visualization in a post-Google maps era. With simple tools using open source technology one can take openly published data and visualize it on a map using. Mapping data helps tell a story story about what is going on. A simple example was the Department of Education mapped broadband internet speeds over school districts throughout the country. Other examples of explanatory maps made with simple tools, include the Chicago Tribune’s map of mayoral election results, a map of seismic activity after the Japan earthquake, and the ‘I Heart NPR’ Facebook app.

Twitter fans you can see the stream of tweets from #tcamp11. These give some idea of the range of topics covered in 2 days of sessions. The “wordle” picture shown below created from discussions at the camp is another way. A Wordle generates “word clouds” from text. The formed cloud gives greater prominence to some words (e.g. Data and Government) that appear more frequently in the source text. It’s just one of many examples of technology served up at Tcamp - you can create your own by inputting particular text to

For more on what was discussed at Tcamp2011 see

Sunday, May 15, 2011

School Prayer

by Edd Doerr

Education Week (May 12) had an interesting article reminding us of the importance of the Supreme Court's school prayer rulings of 1962 and 1963, Engel v Vitale and Abington School District v Schempp. These rulings are important because they reaffirmed the church-state separation principle in the First Amendment and confirmed that public schools are required by the Constitution and our society's pluralism to be religiously neutral. Many conservatives got bent out of shape and launched repeated campaigns to amend the Constitution to authorize government to impose religious exercises on all kids. These campaigns all failed, not because of efforts by humanists but because sensible mainstream people and groups supported the rulings.

There is much still to be said about these rulings. First of all, at the time of the rulings only about half of the school districts in the US had school prayer and Bible reading, virtually all in the original east coast states and the states of the former Confederacy. Next, the rulings came at about the same time as the Civil Rights movement and massive resistance to desegregation. The rulings and the massive resistance combined to trigger the rise of the conservative Christian school movement. Previously about 90% of all nonpublic schools were run by the Catholic Church. That figure has slipped to under half while Protestant enrollment has surged.

Engel and Schempp, by rendering public schools religiously neutral, removed the reason for the 19th century founding of Catholic schools in the US, the Protestant hegemony in the public schools. In the wake of Engel and Schempp, Catholic schools began to decline in enrollment from 5.5 million students in 1965 to about 2.1 million today. Catholic school enrollment decline was further related to the election of a Catholic President in 1960, the Second Vatican Counail of 1962-1965 (which opened the windows and let in a lot of fresh air), and the Vatican's 1968 denunciation of contraception, against the wishes of its own advisers and angering the majority of Catholics worldwide. When President Nixon sought to initiate school vouchers, studies by Catholic universities studies showed that the enrollment decline had nothing to do with economics but with "changing parental preferences".

Between 1966 and 2007 there have been 27 state referenda on various plans to divert public funds to religious schools, including in heavily Catholic states like New York and Massachuestts. In every case Catholic voters joined others in handing huge defeats to the voucher folks. I well remember campaigning in Michigan in 1970 for an amendment to strengthen the state constitution's ban on tax aid to religious schools (which I helped draft); I was being heckled at a lecture in a Lutheran church when a Catholic nun in uniform rose to defend me and note that she was a public school teacher.

We should also note now that Catholic Democrats in Congress are among the strongest supporters of public education and church-state separation and opponents of diverting public funds to religious private schools. We might also note that a school prayer amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives in 1971 largely because of the efforts of Rep. Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest.

Learning Holiness at Auschwitz – Part 2

Last week, we started to examine the recent claim that Auschwitz was the “school of holiness” for Pope John Paul II, starting with the Catholic Church’s role in the persecution of Polish Jews and carrying through to the falsehoods spread by the Vatican about young Karol Wojtyla’s efforts on behalf of Jews during World War II.

When that war ended, persecution of Poland’s remaining Jews did not. Cardinal Hlond was furious that the Jewish problem persisted: “Yet again they are holding important positions. Yet again they wish to impose a regime alien to the Polish nation.” Some Jews even had the audacity to ask for their stolen homes back. A pogrom in Kielce in 1946 left 49 Jews dead; nearly 100,000 more fled the country, many to Palestine, where they created a new set of problems that has yet to end. Karol Wojtyla, who became a priest that year, said not a word about all this, then or ever.

Wojtyla’s go-with-the-flow attitude earned him a bishop’s miter in 1958; his diocese included the former extermination camp at Auschwitz, where we are now told he learned his holiness. The bishopric gave him a seat at the Second Vatican Council in 1962. One of the most emotional topics at that Council was a revision of the Church’s longstanding attitude toward the Jews. After lengthy and heated debate, the Council issued the famous declaration of Nostra Aetate, that today’s Jews should not be blamed for the killing of Jesus, and that anti-Semitism in all its forms has no place in the Church.

What did the bishop whose diocese included the world’s most potent symbol of anti-Semitism have to say? A great deal: he spoke seven times at the Council, and submitted four different written statements. None of them, however, had anything whatsoever to do with Nostra Aetate or the Church’s posture toward the Jews. I guess the holiness he learned at Auschwitz is a private thing.

A few years later Wojtyla, by now a cardinal, published a book he called Sources of Renewal, describing the work of the Council for the benefit of the faithful. Most of the work, that is. He censored out part of it, including the key conclusion of Nostra Aetate that “the Church … decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” Why tick people off?

In 1968, “Prague Spring” erupted just to the south, and communist governments throughout eastern Europe were terrified that the breath of freedom from Dubček’s Czechoslovakia might threaten their own hold on power. The Polish communists knew exactly what to do: blame the Jews. Yet another crackdown ensued, this one so severe that 34,000 of the country’s remaining 37,000 Jews packed up and left. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, one of Poland’s leading intellectuals and Wojtyla’s lifelong friend, visited Krakow to raise the issue with him. “I had a conversation with Cardinal Wojtyla about the anti-Semitic issue and asked him to make a stand. He agreed that it was a matter that needed to be reflected upon, that the Church should indeed make a stand.” If you guessed that Wojtyla ultimately said nothing at all, you’d be right.

After becoming Pope in 1978, it became more difficult for John Paul II to keep his head down on the Jewish question. So he began playing a double game. He visited Auschwitz, he visited a synagogue, and twenty years into his papacy he issued a paper actually regretting the Holocaust – though it devotes far more attention to exonerating the Church than it does to sympathizing with the victims.

At the same time, he covered his bases with the Church’s still large anti-Semitic wing, notably in the matter of Kurt Waldheim. After concluding a successful diplomatic career including a stint as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Waldheim ran for president of Austria; in the rough and tumble of the campaign, facts were uncovered indicating that Waldheim had actively participated in the extermination campaign, including the deportation for slaughter of the entire Jewish population of Salonika. In 1944 he also approved a quantity of anti-Semitic propaganda that was dropped behind Russian lines, reading “Enough of the War! Kill the Jews! Come Over!”

An embarrassed Austrian government appointed an international committee of historians to investigate, which concluded that Waldheim had indeed lied about his record. So many documents had been destroyed that there was no smoking gun tying Waldheim to a particular atrocity, but as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal put it, “I could only reply what the committee of historians likewise made clear in its report: ‘I cannot believe you.’”

Most of the world, including the Reagan Administration, declared Waldheim persona non grata and refused him entry to their countries. Not John Paul II. He not only made a state visit to Austria and received a state visit from Waldheim, but he even went so far as to award him a Vatican knighthood in the “Order of Pius IX.”

The irony could not be more acute: Pius IX, the most rabidly anti-Semitic Pope in history, was the single person most responsible for launching the wave of hatred that 70 years later crested in the Holocaust. In 1990, not content with honoring Waldheim, John Paul even decided to beatify Pius IX himself. Now that John Paul is beatified as well, perhaps he shares a condo in heaven with Pius IX, where the two of them sit around swapping Hymie jokes.

Even though the Jesuit dream of an “asemitic” Poland has now largely been realized, Polish anti-Semitism remains alive and well, thanks to the Catholic “Radio Maryja.” Polish law gives Radio Maryja the tax privileges of being owned by the Catholic Church, even though for years it was financed by a Polish expatriate who was prevented from entering the United States because of his collaboration with the Nazis.

Radio Maryja is notorious for its anti-Semitism. A report of the Council of Europe stated that Radio Maryja has been “openly inciting to anti-Semitism for several years.” It features Holocaust deniers such as Dariusz Ratajczak, who informed listeners that Auschwitz was not an extermination camp at all but merely a labor camp for Jews. Other commentators warn listeners that “men from Judea ... are trying to surprise us from behind,” and refer to the World Jewish Congress as “a main firm in the Holocaust Industry.”

A negative word from a Polish Pope could have shut down Radio Maryja in a heartbeat. That, of course, never happened. Instead, John Paul received visits from the station’s political organization five different times, warming their hearts with comments like “Every day I thank God that there is such radio. It is called Radio Maryja.” The current Pope isn’t doing anything about it either; in 2007, Benedict warmly received the political priest who runs the Radio Maryja empire just a few weeks after he accused the “Jewish lobby” of trying to extract millions from the Polish state. The following year, Radio Maryja sponsored a service in Wojtyla’s old Basilica where speakers shouted that “The Jews are attacking us! We need to defend ourselves!”, pumping up the crowd with posters proclaiming “The kikes will not continue to spit on us!”

So is it true that now-Blessed John Paul II learned his holiness at Auschwitz? That’s not the way I would put it. I would say he learned cynical duplicity. He learned to let his PR team crank out lies about his courage while basking in the resulting adulation. He learned to tell the western press how bad he felt about the Jews, with a wink and a nod to Radio Maryja and the butcher Waldheim.

He learned, in short, to be a God expert.