Category Archives: Humanism

Combatting Progressives’ Self-Destruction

Combatting Progressives’ Self-Destruction

Entering 2020 at a time of growing existential threat to basic humane values in America, and across the world – concern for human decency, respect for science, valuing democratic institutions – it would seem to be an overriding imperative for progressives to do all in their power to unify the forces of human decency in the service of an inclusive vision of social justice. But I have become deeply distressed by the recent tendency I have seen among many groups on the Left of developing an increasingly intolerant racialized politics.

Losing sight of the historic concern of progressives for building an egalitarian multi-racial, multi-ethnic, democratic society committed to combatting all forms of ethnic, racial, religious, and gender prejudice, many having taken to blaming white people, often particularly white males, as the cause of the suffering of black and brown people. And they have shown increasing intolerance for any who challenge their racialized politics, rather promoting an identity politics that explicitly sets racial and ethnic groups at odds with one another, and denigrates and alienates vast segments of the population. And this regardless of the widespread and shared suffering of so many that results from the vast disparities in wealth and power consequent upon de-industrialization, privatization, deregulation, automation, the decimation of the organized working class, unconscionable reductions in government income due to the practical disappearance of taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, and the consequent evisceration of the social “safety net,” not even to speak of the growing existential threat posed by global warming.

Having spent a good part of my adult life fighting for the values embodied in the mission statement I wrote more than 40 years ago: “promoting sustainable development, revitalizing local communities, enhancing human dignity, creating effective democracy, and achieving economic, social and racial justice,” it has particularly pained me to see two local historically progressive organizations, Citizen Action of New York and the Long Island Progressive Coalition, with which I have long been associated, increasingly lose interest in that inclusive progressive vision. Rather they have become relatively uninterested in the general societal issues effecting all working people. They have increasingly come to see all issues in racial terms, tending toward exclusively prioritizing a racialized politics. They have thus become quite comfortable blaming white people for the oppression of black and brown people, even going so far as to claim that all white people are racists. And they have become increasingly intolerant of divergent opinions, thus creating a toxic interpersonal environment for any who dissent from their “group think”. This view was exemplified recently by a LIPC Board member who said that he didn’t give a damn about the working class in general, or for the Labor movement, in particular. A further clear example of this trend can be seen by Citizen Action’s recent appointment as its Statewide Political Director of a person who had recently posted a blog entitled “All White People are Racists – A History Lesson.”

I find these views quite unacceptable. The entirely legitimate and necessary concern with fighting racial discrimination has degenerated into a racialization of political discourse which it has long been the goal of progressives to combat, namely that of stigmatizing an entire population because of the color of their skin. Is that not the classic definition of racism? Further, such a policy, beyond being morally indefensible, is politically disastrous. How can we expect to build an effective progressive movement while alienating the majority of the population? Rather than such demonization and divisive attacks, progressives should be building that multi-racial, multi-ethnic, socially inclusive, program which maximally unifies the 99% around a program of social justice and democratic empowerment, not one which divides that potentially empowering majority. We must repudiate such racialized attacks, and rather give renewed voice and vitality to that inclusive vision so brilliantly articulated by Dr. King when he dreamed of a world in which his “four little children will … live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character … and (where) little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? That’s a vision that we must not lose sight of, and one which should continually motivate our work and guide our activity. And any organization that would move us in an opposed direction certainly does not deserve our continuing support.

Reflecting on “The Swerve” – and the future of civilization

Poggio Bracciolini was a hunter of lost manuscripts. One of many 14 & 15th Century Italian Humanists seeking to recapture lost classical civilization. He was also apostolic secretary to Pope John XXIII. (If you wonder how that could have been the case, since you remember the remarkable 1958-1963 Pontificate of Pope John XXIII, I’ll get to that later.) He stands out in history because of his remarkable success in finding a copy of Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things that had disappeared from public view more than 1,000 years earlier. The fascinating detective story of how this was accomplished is beautifully told by Steven Greenberg, in his award-winning book The Swerve, which I had trouble putting down. 

But that is not the point of this comment. Rather, it is on the light this book sheds on the challenges of cultural development that I wish briefly to comment. While reading – for the second time – this dramatically unfolding story, I was continually drawn to thinking about the fragility and complexity, the socially and economically interrelated and historically conditioned reality, that is contemporary civilization. And how much each of us is a product of the time and place of our birth, having to make the most of the historically determined “niche” in which, for better or worse, we chance to find ourselves. And more, having a seriously limited capacity to effect the context or trajectory of our encompassing society, and its historically constituted social, economic and cultural situation. 

Poggio and his fellow Humanists, for example, were surrounded by the historical ruins of Classical, and particularly Roman, civilization. And they were deeply aware of the limits of their own possibilities, and of how far their current world was from that lost world. They could fantasize a classical life for themselves, as they sought to recapture a classical Latin literary style, but they could not significantly effect the degraded culture in which they found themselves.  

Poggio, for his part, not being of noble birth or having important family connections, was only able to take advantage of his exceptional handwriting ability – to write with clarity and elegance – and thus to pursue a highly successful career as a scribe. (Such a skill in our modern computer-based world would, of course, be of practically no use.) Thus he was able to fairly quickly advance within the Church bureaucracy, itself deeply involved in the developing world of contentious Italian city-state politics of the early Renaissance. It was also a world of pervasive city-state conflict, court intrigue, and Church corruption through which any one interested in succeeding had to navigate perilously. It was that world that both produced the Pontificate of the completely corrupt Baldasare Cossa, and then his removal from office, three years of imprisonment, and the complete effacement of any acknowledgement of his reign from official Church history, thus allowing the saintly Angelo Roncalli to assume the title of John XXIII in 1958.

As I was thinking about what it might have been like to be Poggio, and to have found oneself in his time and place, I compared his situation to mine — and, in a wider sense, to “ours,” those born in the Unites States in the last years of the 20th and the first years of the 21st Century: to the complexity and fragility of the technologically advanced civilization and life styles we take for granted. For example, life expectancy for most Italians in Poggio’s time was about 40 years. And those who, like Poggio, lived into their 60s or 70s — very few lived much beyond that — were plagued by numerous ailments, even quite minor ones by contemporary standards, for which there were no effective medical treatments. And, of course, travel beyond one’s local town or village was practically impossible, except for the quite wealthy, with travel time being at best 7 miles an hour, and communication being almost entirely word of mouth, and limited to the most immediate local concerns. 

I will not further dwell on such historical contrasts except to underline the dependence of the life chances of each person on the current historical and cultural conditions which we had no role in producing. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of historical progress in science, culture, economics, medicine, communications, and politics. But certainly not all of us, and certainly not all equitably. For that historical development has sadly and tragically also been scared by imperial expansion, colonial exploitation and oppression, even genocide, and an increasing despoilation of the Earth, with an increasing threat to the very conditions of decent life on the planet. Nothing guarantees the continued survival of our civilization, nor the continued cross-cultural advances in world-wide life expectancy, and certainly not the success of efforts to combat pervasive forms of corruption, subjugation, exploitation, and oppression. Civilizations, even the most powerful, have disintegrated and died, and that usually more from internal rot than external conquest. Did people in the declining years of the Roman Empire know that their Empire was in the process of disappearing? And was there anything that they could have done about that? 

And what of us today, in the US in the age of Trump? Are we in the midst of the agonies of a nation and a culture in decline, tearing itself apart? And if so, as I fear, is there anything that we can do about it? I, for one, have committed my life to the collective struggle to provide an alternative path that leads from decline to cultural renewal. And our human potentials for the advancement of human well being are literally unprecedented. 

But far too many take our economic, scientific, educational, medical, social and cultural advances for granted, and can only see how we fall short of our highest ideals, or even of our most realistic possibilities. And far too many others are infatuated by fantastical religious beliefs and practices, themselves the products of scientifically primitive ages, and, convinced of their revealed Truth, seek to impose them on the rest of us regardless of the consequences. While still others will use the resources of civilization to amass unlimited amounts of wealth and power without regard to either their effects on the lives of the vast majority or on the long-term consequences for the Earth’s habitability. 

Many of these groups seem quite content to demonize those with whom they disagree, and are prepared to destroy whatever stands in the way of their ascendency. Meanwhile, the complex and tenuous project that is human civilization, on this our increasingly fragile planet, apparently proceeds with business as usual, as we tend toward numerous potential calamities, from climatological, demographic, ecological, biological, chemical, to nuclear. How can we preserve and protect the magnificent accomplishments that are human civilization – in science, medicine, technology, art, history, culture, human rights, environmental preservation, and cross-cultural appreciation – while still mobilizing our collective resources in practical and realistic ways to counter these forces of destruction? Perhaps we may take heart from the growing numbers of people across the globe that have begun to mobilize to counter these institutionalized forces of destruction, but I am far from confident of their success. Life on this earth does not come with an insurance policy. Nor is salvation provided for people or civilizations. Yet such mobilization, as amorphous as it is, is our only hope. For success is not assured, but without it we are lost. So let us all resolve to do our part, step by step and piece by piece, while never losing our humane bearings in the effort to contribute to a world of enhanced mutual respect for human dignity and for the sustaining of an harmonious balance between human beings and the natural world that is our only home.  

On Being Mesmerized by Donald Trump

On Being Mesmerized by Donald Trump

I Fear Progressives Are Being Mesmerized by Donald Trump. We have been outraged by his positions, and frightened by the support he has received. And that is understandable. So we have focused our attention and mobilized our supporters in opposition, as if his success would be the worst thing that could happen to this country. And, in our determination and narrow-minded focus, I fear we have lost sight of the bigger picture, and the far more serious threats that are being hidden behind the Trump phenomenon.

No question that Trump’s policies, such as one can make them out, are real threats to the humanistic and progressive values we cherish. And there can be little remaining doubt about his significant character failures. But the fact remains, that his positions, bad as they are, are not nearly as bad as those of all of the other establishment Republicans who rightly feel threatened by his ascendency.

The so-called Conservative establishment is a systematic and organized attack on LBJ’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal, and even on much of the best from the Progressive Era. And our exclusive attention to Trump has led many to feel that even Ted Cruz — who is the closest thing we have in current mainstream politics to a Fascist — is preferable to Trump. That, for example, was precisely the position that Bill Maher expounded this past Friday. And even the “progressive” media seems to be falling for the same line. Meanwhile, much of the mainstream of the Radical Right, such as The National Review, know that Trump is no “card-carrying” member of that mainstream. (He doesn’t even call for the destruction of Social Security.)

And while we, and the mainstream media, are transfixed by the Trump phenomena, and many are even tending to speak nicely of the “moderate” John Kasich, we are failing to pay attention to the real dangers lurking off stage, such as the Republican and corporate donor class preparing to bring a white knight, such as Paul Ryan, to the rescue. While Trump would be a real disaster for the country, he is clearly the most defeatable Republican candidate. But Paul Ryan, whose policies are straight out of a corporate America’s wet dream, has been lionized by the mainstream media as a “new face,” as a thoughtful policy wonk who offers real solutions to America. And he is young, dynamic, attractive, and supposedly not even trying for the job. The age contrast he would present to either Democratic nominee would play well in American media.

In short, he, and most any other Republican “savior” who is likely to emerge from a successful stop Trump movement, would be both far more threatening to humanistic and progressive values, and far more likely to be elected than would Donald Trump. So let’s stop being mesmerized by, and singularly focused on, Donald Trump, and keep our eye on the ball. The Republican Party has been taken over by The Radical Right — there is nothing “conservative” about them. They are committed to eviscerating the social safety net, environmental safeguards, labor rights, and so much more. And in important and complex ways, Donald Trump threatens even that establishment. His candidacy could vastly weaken the Republican brand, and certainly help the Democrats regain national ascendancy, including in the Supreme Court. While the Bernie phenomena, regardless of its own electoral success, can provide the groundwork for moving the entire country leftward. But this will not happen if the Republicans can derail Donald Trump, and replace him with a “white knight.”

On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion

On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion.

At the recent convention of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association I picked up a book on “Living the Secular Life” by Phil Zuckerman. Since Dr. Zuckerman is a “professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California,” and the book comes with endorsements from Susan Jacoby, Greg Epstein, and David Brooks, among others, I thought this book would be useful in developing the theory and practice of our Ethical Humanist congregation on Long Island. But, to my profound chagrin, and even annoyance, I found from the outset, that rather than contributing to our efforts, Professor Zuckerman had defined us out of existence. Without the slightest degree of self-awareness, this “expert” on secular studies simply treats as interchangeable the words secular and anti-religious. Thus all of his facts and arguments presuppose that to be secular you must be anti-religious, and to be religious you must be anti-secular, that is, I suppose, you must believe in the divine and the sacred. I say “suppose”, because I must admit I could not get much beyond the first few pages, so put off was I by this casual conceptual extermination.

But I think the deeper point that calls for comment, is the fact that Professor Zuckerman’s approach is quite representative of the views and attitudes of the vast majority of Americans — and perhaps of many people around the world. As an expert in “secular studies” you would think that Professor Zuckerman would have known better. But that he reproduces conventional prejudices does call for, at least, a response and a clarification.

The word religion may be seen as coming from the Latin religio (or perhaps religare) which refers to being bound. There need be no reference to the divine, sacred, or transcendent in its meaning, though, of course, often there is. But quite to the point, religio speaks to one’s being bound by belief and practice to a shared community – similar to the root of yoke, from which Yoga is drawn. (According to Wikipedia: “yoga (from the root yuj) means “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach” in its most common literal sense. By figurative extension from the yoking or harnessing of oxen or horses, the word took on broader meanings such as “employment, use, application, performance” (compare the figurative uses of “to harness” as in “to put something to some use.””)I need not appeal to Buddhists or Confucians, however, to underline the point that one can be bound up with a community of believers and practitioners, who celebrate life’s passages together, while “ministering” to the needs of one’s fellow congregants, without having to make any appeal to “higher authorities.” In fact, one may well be committed, as are we at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, to building a community of “caring hearts,” living an ethical life, attributing dignity to all human beings, and seeking to promote human respect and social improvement throughout the world, without making the slightest appeal to the divine or sacred. And to do all of this as a secular religious community, that is at least recognized as such by the US government, if not by Professor Zuckerman. If he had made that distinction, I would have loved to see how his factual analyses would have changed, as well as his consideration of the personal and social values of such secular religious communities — with their commitment to science and human betterment — as well as the social and institutional role that such secular organizations might play, more particularly, in the policies and programs of the United States.