"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Real Diversity - Nuts, Sluts, And The Rest Of Us

Psychology 101 at Yale was called ‘Nuts and Sluts’. It was a teaser, designed to attract would-be psychology majors by illustrating the varied nature of human mental disturbance. We all loved the course, took Psychology 201, were bored to tears by the statistics and classifications, and quickly dropped the course.

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I once asked a veterinarian whether or not dogs had as much diversity within the species as human beings. “Of course”, he said. “Even more”.

Yet every time I walk down the street, I am reminded of Nuts and Sluts. Forget the obvious distinctions of race, sex, height, age, and weight.  We are each of us twitchy, hangdog, perky, purposeful, down-at-the-heels, or morose. Our eyes flutter or squint.  We grimace, hard smile for the camera, bouncing along or drag our feet.  We are all just a few steps and a few bits of DNA shy of the ‘infirm’ we studied at Yale.

“She reminds me of Carole Perkins”, said a friend; but while the woman on the park bench in Farragut Square did indeed look like our classmate, a closer look revealed that they were nothing alike at all. The woman in the park had arched eyebrows, but Carole arched her eyebrows. Carole wore her hair long and  flipped it like a Pantene model while her look-alike was more primly composed. Carole’s nose was long and straight, but its arrogant angle was nothing like the woman in the park.  Patience was not in Carole’s character – not for buses, meetings, or people – and I recalled that I never saw her sit on a park bench, on the beach, or in front of the television.  The woman in the park was calm but lacked confidence. She was still because of little curiosity or social ambition.

No one ever reminds me of anyone else. There is a new app which through facial recognition software and mining of social media postings can match you up with your doppelgänger. The comparison pictures in the ads show remarkable likenesses.  A young colleague was intrigued, bought the app, and found her look-alike. She, however, was not satisfied in simply looking at what was close to her mirror image and wanted to know what her twin was like.  It turned out that the woman was a checker at a Walmart in Alabama, had five children, fat friends, and no husband.

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No one has ever said that physical likeness is anything other than pure chance and not a predictor of behavior, character, or personality like the DNA of identical twins.  Yet there is something compelling about look-alikes; something more than chance configuration.

So other than in the case of identical twins, everyone is fundamentally different from everyone else.  Even children of the same parents are often as different as strangers from another continent. According to Mendelian law children should inherit much of their DNA from their parents, but genetic bits of a strayed great-grandfather or more distant ancestor seem to find a way into the double helix of offspring, much to everyone’s surprise.
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Similarities among offspring are there if you look hard enough, but show up only through a badly distorted a posteriori lens. A psychologist friend who prides herself on professional and personal insight was surprised when I said that my niece and nephew were very different. No, she said.  They are very similar. Something about a very centered core that was more elemental to personality than the artistic flair, mathematical talent, and athletic abilities that differentiated them on the surface.  Perhaps, but all I could see was my niece on the stage in a Provincetown production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my nephew breaking code for the NSA to know she was wrong. My sister’s children may indeed have some fundamental stability to their character; but it is their differences that I and everyone else notice.

Members at my sports club are by and large white, middle-aged and upper middle class, and share neighborhood, schooling, background, breeding and profession. Yet one watches Oprah reruns in the locker room naked and manspread. The Man Who Polishes His Balls works his towel like a shoeshine strop.  Death, a sallow, greyish scarecrow who works the elliptical with an intensity and a far-away look so vacant that I imagine that she was staring into the abyss. Hot Shit barks about her triathlons, biathlons, and Senior Iron Woman endurance events. She shouts heart rate, number of reps on the bench press, stress test results, miles biked, run, walked, or swum.  The Gerbil looks exactly like a rat, with a small head, pointy nose, receding chin, and tiny little eyes.  He has spindly legs and arms, and when he gets on the treadmill, he pumps them so fast that he looks like he is working the exercise wheel in a hamster cage.

All are all lawyers, former White House advisors, advocates before the Supreme Court, lobbyists, and entrepreneurs. No matter how much they all shared, they were so distinctly different if not eccentric that they could have belonged to different tribes.

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After a number of years at the club and many more spent on K Street, I decided that I had had enough of diversity, and took a long-term lease in a small town in Montana. There, I assumed, life and people would be a lot simpler; and best of all they would be more predictable and uniform than in DC. As naïve as this might sound, I was convinced that personality craziness was a function of a stressful, highly competitive environment.  Either stress corrodes the screws and bolts that hold personality together until crazy eccentricities show up; or eccentric people are drawn to the circus sideshows of Washington. In any case, I was becoming jumpy and jittery every time I saw some weird thing in the gym or in my office; and I had to take a respite.

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Of course I was wrong; and the only difference between Washington, DC and Brightwood, Montana was size.  There the cowboys, ranchers, railroad workers, barkeeps, and barbers were just as crazy.  They all shared a common culture and felt at home in the unregulated catch-as-catch-can atmosphere of the West; but certainly were just as twitchy and unpredictable as anyone back East. Digging postholes, stringing barbed wire, herding cattle, and managing the grain silo and feed lot were the equivalent of lawyering or lobbying and only provided the architecture for intense personalities.

Montana was a balm, however. It was so different from Washington, so culturally unique that most of the oddities and eccentricities went unnoticed by anyone beyond the Great Plains. I drank beer, walked, ate out, and played video poker; but never noticed anything strange.  In retrospect, there was probably something ‘off’ about the man at the end of the bar stirring his drink; or the older woman smoking in the corner by the Budweiser sign; but I was too ingénue to know what it was. Montana-as-spa worked wonders, and I came back to DC calmer, more sanguine, and certainly more tolerant.

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All of which brings me to the subject of ‘diversity’ – the political kind comprised of race, gender, and ethnicity. Isn’t it enough to live in such ridiculously varied plurality without having to fit people into general categories?

A former colleague told me of the diversity training classes she was forced to attend at her office.  Signs indicating ‘Diversity’ category had been posted on the stage of the auditorium – black, white, mixed race, indiscriminate; male, female, transgender, indeterminate; European, African, Hispanic, Asian, mixed ethnicity, etc. Participants were asked to gather under the signs that best characterized them.  My colleague refused, got demerits and a poor performance rating (“Adele has shown distinctly uncooperative tendencies”), and eventually left the firm.

“ I cannot imagine anything more degrading and insulting”, she said.

For me there is too much diversity in the world and at times it is suffocating; which is why I have decided to narrow my social choices. I know that I risk the same naïveté as I did in Montana, but I am convinced that the more exclusive the club and the more alike its members are on all but the contents of their most private inner rooms, the happier I will be.

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I always recall the song in West Side Story, ‘A Boy Like That’ where Anita sings “One of your own kind, Stick to your own kind”. We all have a tendency to group together; and it is less to keep out The Other than to avoid him.  It is unsettling to have too many shows of unpredictable personality.

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I have been accused of being inconsistent – liking the human circus and taking shelter from it in my exclusive redoubts – but the criticism is off the mark. I want a society in which there are no labels, categories, or groupings to define individuals whose nature is, by definition, indefinable. At the same time I can only take so much individuality, quirkiness, eccentricity, and nuttiness.  Thank God for the Washington Universe Club.

Friday, May 29, 2015

A Just War - Is There Really Any Such Thing?

Most wars are fought over political and economic interests. The Crusades were ostensibly about religion and the desire to extirpate the Muslim menace from the Holy Land, but they were of course about European hegemony. The Turks had been making constant advances in the East, and were now threatening Constantinople itself. The Greek emperor sent urgent letters to the Pope, asking for aid against the infidels, representing that, unless assistance was extended immediately, the capital with all its holy relics must soon fall into the hands of the barbarians.
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The defeat of the Byzantines at the hands of the Seljuk Turks in 1071 set the wheels in motion for the First Crusade. The Battle of Manzikirt resulted in victory for the Turks and the loss of Byzantine territory in Asia Minor and Northern Syria. Indeed, this military defeat saw the Byzantines fall into political chaos and civil war. Fast forward ten years to 1081, and general Alexius Comnenus took control in Byzantine and enacted government control over what was left of the Byzantine Empire.
However his leadership would not be enough to regain the territory lost in the Battle of Manzikirt, and in 1095 he appealed to Pope Urban II for Western troops to assist and “Urban transformed their request for military aid into a campaign of religious revivalism.” However, even before the Battle of Manzikirt, in the eighth century, the Christian world had seen great loss of land to the Muslims which included North Africa, Palestine, Syria, and most of Spain. Add this to the loss of Jerusalem in 638 to the Muslims and tensions began growing between the two religions (Abigail Pfeiffer, ‘The First Crusade, 2011) 
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The Eighty Years War between the Dutch and their Spanish rulers was in part religious because the  Protestant Dutch resented the harsh imposition of Catholicism by Phillip II of Spain; but it was really the Dutch War of Independence. There was no doubt that the newly Protestant Low Countries resented the imposition of a now foreign religion upon them, but more nationalistic and territorial imperatives were the principal causes of the conflict.

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The French Wars of Religion (1562–98) were fought between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and House of Guise, and both sides received assistance from foreign sources. Once again, although these wars could be called religious since they were fought between religious factions, they were, like all other wars, about hegemony, power, and territorial integrity.

The Thirty Years' War was a series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 lasting for thirty years. It was one of the longest, most destructive conflicts in European history. Initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmenting Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers of Europe, becoming less about religion and more a continuation of the France–Habsburg rivalry for European political pre-eminence (Wikipedia)

Each of these wars was considered just by those who organized and fought them.  The fact that religion was a major factor made such justification more easy.  Protestants and Catholics were both sure that God was on their side and that the superior religion would prevail; but so would the military might of the victor.

Philosophers and theologians have always been concerned about the concept and nature of a just war.  Most believed that there was such a thing, and tried to fit conflict within larger religious and ethical constructs. In Ancient Rome, war was always potentially nefas ("wrong, forbidden") and risked religious pollution and divine disfavor.  A just war (bellum iustum) thus required a ritualized declaration by the fetial priests More broadly, conventions of war and treaty-making were part of the ius gentium, the "law of nations", the customary moral obligations regarded as innate and universal to human beings(Wikipedia)

Augustine, perhaps Christianity’s most influential theologian was one of the first to assert that a Christian could be a soldier and serve God and country honorably. He claimed that, while individuals should not resort immediately to violence, God has given the sword to government for good reason (based upon Romans 13:4). In Contra Faustum Manichaeum book 22 sections 69-76, Augustine argues that Christians as part of government should not be ashamed to protect peace and punish wickedness.

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Nine hundred years later, another influential theologian, Thomas Aquinas set forth the conditions under which just wars should be fought:
  • First, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. (Proper Authority is first: represents the common good: which is peace for the sake of man's true end—God.)
  • Second, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (for example, "in the nation's interest" is not just) or as an exercise of power. (Just Cause: for the sake of restoring some good that has been denied. i.e., lost territory, lost goods, punishment for an evil perpetrated by a government, army, or even the civilian populace.)
  • Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence. (Right Intention: an authority must fight for the just reasons it has expressly claimed for declaring war in the first place. Soldiers must also fight for this intention.) Wikipedia
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It is easy to see how political leaders were able to subjectively interpret these doctrinal teachings to serve their own interests.  Both Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the then de facto head of the Catholic Church in the United States issued a declaration saying that a war against the Germans in World War I was right and just.

The Episcopal bishop of New York,William Manning said the following:
Our Lord Jesus Christ does not stand for peace at any price...Every true American would rather see this land face war than see her flag lowered in dishonor...I wish to say that, not only from the standpoint of a citizen, but from the standpoint of a minister of religion...I believe there is nothing that would be of such great practical benefit to us as universal military training for the men of our land.
If by Pacifism is meant the teaching that the use of force is never justifiable, then, however well meant, it is mistaken, and it is hurtful to the life of our country. And the Pacifism which takes the position that because war is evil, therefore all who engage in war, whether for offense or defense, are equally blameworthy, and to be condemned, is not only unreasonable, it is inexcusably unjust. (C. T. Bridgeman 1962, A History of the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York: The Rectorship of Dr. William Thomas Manning)
History has not been kind to either side in The Great War, and most observers conclude that it was a war that never should have been fought. Millions of lives were lost unnecessarily.

The point is that religious justification for war is almost always wrong, for it deliberately disguises the real, practical, secular reasons for it. Flying the banner of religion, however, is a sure way to assure the support of the faithful.

A number of recent commentators have suggested that the American-led war in Iraq was immoral and unjust; and that in addition for being a principle cause of the current instability and conflict in the region, George Bush broke God’s law.  In addition, those many ordinary Americans who backed the President in his attempt to topple Saddam Hussein were also morally derelict.
Several months before the start of the war, Peter Steinfelz wrote in the New York Times: “Given that the United States is repeatedly said to be a religious country and that over 80 percent of its citizens are reported to be Christians, it is interesting how little has been made of the declarations by so many Christian leaders and ethicists that the Bush administration's proposed war against Iraq is unjust and immoral.” (Jim Wallace, Sojourners)
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In other words, most Christian Americans did not heed those few spiritual leaders who condemned the war. Why is this not surprising?

Even if the precepts of Aquinas are applied only gently, the Vietnam War was as immoral as they come; and yet at least at the beginning, most Americans were in support of Eisenhower’s Domino Theory, Kennedy’s attempts to influence Vietnamese politics (the assassination of Diem), and LBJ’s response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Only after the war was thought to be unwinnable did most of the street protests begin. The war was wrong, protestors said, but did not necessarily raise the banner of righteousness.

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Jimmy Carter was one our most moral and ethnical Presidents and one of the least popular.  His concern for human rights and criticism of America’s ‘malaise’ did not set well with Americans stung by the Vietnamese defeat and hungering for a return to world supremacy.  Most citizens knew that global politics was not a matter of morality, but of winning.  Ronald Reagan embodied that new secular patriotism and national identity. He was smart enough to fly the banner of religion in the face of ‘Godless Communism’; but knew that the battle against the Soviets had little to do with God or religion.

Daniel Goldhagen wrote a book called Hitler’s Willing Executioners in which he condemns ‘ordinary’ Germans for complicity in the Holocaust.  They had to have known about the camps, the gassing, and incinerations; and cannot be excused for their ignorance.  Although Goldhagen’s argument is somewhat simplistic – Hitler was very good at decentralizing extermination, making absolute confirmation difficult; political intimidation ensured burgher silence; etc. – there is no doubt that good, Christian Germans had an important, if indirect role to play in the Holocaust.  Without a doubt most Germans were very supportive of Hitler in his defiant stance against the former Allied oppressors; and had no qualms about what could be considered his ‘immoral’ invasions of the Sudetenland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

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Like Christian, faithful Americans who put aside any reflections on the immorality of the Vietnam War, faithful Germans backed the Fuhrer and his policies.

History has shown that not only are their no just wars, but that geopolitical interests, patriotism, and economic self-interest always trump moral considerations.

However, American leaders still have not learned from history.  President Obama has repeatedly cast ISIS as ‘evil’ and immoral; and that defeating them will be a moral, Christian victory.  This stance, however, has put him in a confining box. If it is a moral struggle, then he can’t very well use immoral means against the enemy. We must always be concerned about civilian casualties and doing the right thing. 

At the same time, of course, ISIS acts with no moral constraints whatsoever.  They only want victory and the creation of a Muslim Caliphate.  The ends justify the means.  Obama has created an uneven playing field by giving ISIS the advantage. Playing by rules of moral rectitude against an implacable, bloodthirsty enemy is not a recipe for victory.

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It is time, once and for all, to jettison the idea of just wars, moral crusades, and American righteous exceptionalism.  Wars are territorial, geopolitical, and always about power and influence.  Get over it.