Thursday, September 18, 2014

War and Anti-War Voices

By Gary Berg-Cross

With a bit of militarism in the air I see that the National Geographic Channel has a series on “American War Generals”  The “war leaders” assembled have some familiar names:

 Gens. Collin Powell, Stanley McCrystal, Petraeus, Wesley Clark, Jack Keane, George William Casey, Barry McCaffrey and Raymond Odierno, along with Lt. Gens. Karl Eikenberry and Michael T. Flynn, and Maj. Gen. Herbert R. McCaster.

Some call it must see other ambitious and fantastic. The Air Force Times called it a cautionary tale as:

“… the U.S. escalates its campaign against jihadists in Iraq and Syria, a new documentary offers a cautionary tale about putting too much faith in technology and forgetting hard-fought lessons from the past. American War Generals,” …. looks at how the U.S. military recovered from its disastrous endeavor in Vietnam, remade itself into an all-volunteer force that focused on fighting conventional wars, and then came close to defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan as it faced a type of enemy it vowed never to fight again.”
A cautionary stance is good, especially in these times and some of the generals use the word mistake and Iraq in the same sentence.  So perhaps we owe some thanks to husband-and-wife co-producers  Peter Bergen and Tresha Mabile, whose  film cites sobering statistics on American and Iraqi deaths . They say 4,489 and more than 150,000, respectively but there are estimates of many more Iraqi deaths due to those external effects of war such as via disease and accident.  The cost to US taxpayers comes in at more than $2 trillion, but here too one can estimate additional external costs such as the benefits of investing the money elsewhere. 

Many of us remember the run up to the Iraq war and how militant voices were heard with nary an anti-war quest given time on the air.  Perhaps we’ve learned a bit from that mistake.  Still I’d be very happy to see a series on those very same anti-war voices now and their retrospective and prospective views.  A good start might be selecting a few folks from the site Americans who tell the truth  - Models of Courageous Citizenship which features:

   citizens who courageously address issues of social, environmental, and economic fairness.

They feature quite a few people worth hearing from. Some like Dr. Margaret Flowers & Kevin Zeese have been speakers at WASH MDC.  Others like Jane Addams have had featured blogs.

And  we might all be the wiser to hear a bit more from someone like Chris Hedges War Correspondent, Writer : 1956
"Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Going the Extra Mile to Visit Jane Addams

By Gary Berg-Cross

One of the many nice national “monuments” in DC is The Extra Mile. As the name suggests its a mile long “monument” bronze medallions installed in the sidewalks of downtown Washington D.C. The markers form a one-mile walking path through an area bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th Street, G Street, and 11th Street.  These “points of light” honorees are people described as ones:

"through their caring and personal sacrifice, reached out to others, building their dreams into movements that helped people across America and throughout the world".

Each honoree has a custom-made bronze medallion installed along the path. And there are lots of good folk who have a medallion:

 I ran into a stretch of medallions on F Street NW between 14th and 13th streets and lo, luck afforded me a chance to step over a special one  – Jane Addams (1860 –1935).  That very afternoon I was to moderate a peace panel which included a small section on the Progressive era and the Women’s movement with Jane as a principle agent.  
Progressive women reformers like humanist  Jane Addams, were both venerated and vilified as they increasingly involved themselves in the peace movement and events like the. 1st International Congress of  Women, held at The Hague.
In the spirit of an enlightened expanded beyond a Procrustean war-peace dimension many of us have heard Addams’ one-liner on a deeper idea of peace : 

“True peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.” 

Addams is, of course, more famous for the social justice she enabled with Hull House. It is interesting to note that she founded the first settlement house which led to a later era of Christian settlement houses that sought to stress a Christian social consciousness via the social gospel.  While Christians latre tried to popularize her Christian image Jane Addams might be better characterizes as a “ force of secular humanism”. 

According to Joslin (2004), “The new humanism, as [Adams] interprets it comes from a secular, and not a religious, pattern of belief.”  Fair enough that something that starts a bit more secular can inspire others to do the right thing.

Jane Addams’ pacifism, social activism and pursuit of justice earned her label and interesting label as, “the most dangerous woman in America.”
She was dangerous enough with progressive ideas that in 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.   

A good neighbor to have in DC and her Medallion is worth visiting and her thoughts remembered.

Civilization is a method of living, an attitude of equal respect for all men.
                                      Jane Addams

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Inconvenient Models of our Likely Future

by Gary Berg-Cross

 At a recent WASH MDC meeting on Peace Issues main panelist Edd Doerr
noted how the hope of advancing the world peace agenda will be challenged by a number of destabilizing forces as detailed in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
. As Edd noted Diamond discussed collapses of once-powerful societies including the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years. He also features the iconic Easter Island collapse as inhabitants destroyed their environment 

“where a society that could build 80-ton statues 33 feet high and drag them 12 miles, and who could navigate the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, could also cut down their rich rain forest and doom themselves utterly. With no trees left for fishing canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The appropriate insult to madden a member of a rival clan was, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth!” The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered in the 300 years since.”  From the Long Now Foundation

All of current society might face similar collapse.

Along with climate change and environmental degradation there is the pressure of population growth.
These were time observations and Edd and Jared are not alone in their concern. Recently the Guardian newspaper had an article by researchers Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander which looked back at earlier predictions about what the earth of 2100 might be like.  Their focus was a study commissioned by a think tank called the Club of Rome in the 1970s. I've blogged on this before.  The club’s research developed a model using of key factors including population but also - industrialization, food, use of resources, and environmental pollution. Their data base was modest by today’s standards but they had 20th century data up to 1970.  To look forward they developed a range of scenarios (optimistic, pessimistic, likely etc.) out to 2100. An optimistic view was that human societies and institutions would take the problem seriously and take substantial action on environmental and resource issues. Well we know that these along with carbon abatement didn’t happen. The club’s central warning that “the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods etc. would eventually lead to a crash was, much criticized and shouted down by the establishment and its operatives such as the Club for Growth. After all business as usual and its growth was threatened as it is by a serious response to climate change. Indeed even in the “business-as-usual” scenario rather than the pessimistic view the club’s model predicted “overshoot and collapse” within the economy (yes Club for Growth think of 2007-8), environment and population before 2070.  As the population grows resources are used up and get more expensive, we metaphorically cut down our trees like the Easter islanders and impoverish our environment.

So where are we now as we are half way from the 1970s to 2070?  Right on schedule for overshoot and collapse it seems as the Guardian reports the models are on track.

“The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.
These graphs show real-world data (first from the MIT work, then from our research), plotted in a solid line. The dotted line shows the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario out to 2100. Up to 2010, the data is strikingly similar to the book’s forecasts.”

To be clear the Club’s models developed by MIT are not as good as we have now but their crustal ball has been better than the business as usual folks. As Turner and Alexander say their research like the earlier work is not a definitive prediction of worldwide economic, environmental and population collapse. They aren’t here to say the future will unfold exactly in the pattern described in the “Limits to Growth” scenarios. We don’t know enough to predict things like resources wars or large panic migrations or as they say the emergence of “genuine environmental leadership” that could dramatically affect what happens.

Turner and Alexander end their article by quoting a paragraph from the conclusion of “Limits to Growth” which still seems like good advice even if we are 40 years closer to 2100:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity. (from Current Trends Follow Book Predicting Global Collapse)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Boy Scouts can deny/revoke membership at will

By Mathew Goldstein

Since the Supreme Court declared that The Boy Scout of America organization is a strictly private organization it follows that BSA can deny or revoke any membership application at any time with no explanation. They can do this for no reason at all, or for any reason at all. This is the way it should be with strictly private organizations. BSA wanted this designation, they fought for it, they got it.

Rob Boston thinks that the law is murky as to whether or not government institutions can own and operate membership based units of such strictly private institutions. Unlike him I am not a lawyer. So I guess I look at this from a simple perspective. My simple perspective is that I do not see government institutions owning and operating church membership groups or any other such strictly private membership group. My simple perspective is that government institutions are prohibited from owning and operating such strictly private membership groups precisely because governments cannot prohibit strictly private organizations from discriminating.

Start with a clear civil rights violation, add sophistry, and the result is murky. BSA is very clear and direct about their membership policy. No atheists, no atheist leaning agnostics. Silly me, I believe there are no gods (on a weight of the overall available evidence basis) and I never consented to surrender any of my civil rights.

Americans United Remains Committed To Protecting The Rights Of Non-Believers ( a response to Mathew Goldstein's Post)

I have worked at Americans United for 26 years. In that time, I have observed the organization work repeatedly to protect the rights of all Americans – religious and non-religious – to be free from government-sponsored theology. I resent my organization and the good people who work there being called "hypocrites." Such a characterization is not only untrue, it is offensive.

There are many non-believers among AU’s membership, and over the years we have, time and again, stood up for the civil rights and equality of humanists, atheists, agnostics and non-believers. Non-believers have been plaintiffs in just about all of our major cases, among them the challenge to “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, the fight against “intelligent design” in Dover, Pa., and most, recently, our lawsuit against official prayers before municipal meetings in Greece, N.Y.

Americans United is a coalition. Some of our members are religious and some are not. All are dedicated to the principle that government must never impose religion onto the unwilling nor treat anyone as second-class citizen based on what they believe, or don’t believe, about god. We frequently work with religious and secular groups to achieve this goal.

Mr. Goldstein is disappointed in the way that AU dealt with a matter he brought to our attention. Rather than assume that Americans United had abandoned its commitment to protecting the rights of non-believers, perhaps he should have asked if the situation he raised was a strong church-state violation. As it turns out, it may not be.

According to his complaint, Mr. Goldstein is upset because he believes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is sponsoring a Boy Scout troop. AU’s intake attorney did investigate the matter and was unable to find strong evidence that the department does in fact sponsor the troop. However, after Mr. Goldstein provided some additional information, the attorney referred the matter to AU’s full Legal Department for further review.

That process is ongoing. While things may not be proceeding at the pace Mr. Goldstein would like, it’s important to remember that Americans United receives complaints concerning church-state violations every day. We examine each one, and this can occasionally create a backlog. The file on this matter remains open.

I share the frustration many humanists feel over issues related to the Boy Scouts. Last year, the BSA changed its policies and now allows gay Scouts, but it hasn’t budged on atheists. The BSA’s policy of excluding non-believers is reprehensible, but it has proven a difficult issue to challenge in court. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a private organization that may legally deny membership to gays and atheists.

After that ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue public schools and other units of government that sponsored Boy Scout troops. In 2005, the BSA recommended that government entities stop sponsoring Boy Scout troops. The BSA was worried that public schools and other arms of government might get sued. Many schools and government offices, worried about the time and expense of a lawsuit, did indeed end sponsorship of Boy Scout troops.

No court ordered them to do this. Thus, there is no case law explicitly stating that units of government may not sponsor BSA troops. From a legal perspective, this is a murky situation.

I am sorry Mr. Goldstein is disappointed, but I want to assure him and others that Americans United has not deviated from its willingness to assist freethinkers. In reality, we’re more than willing to help non-believers and do it all of the time.

For more information about Americans United and the work that we do, please visit or email me directly at