Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ideology, acrimony get in the way of finding solutions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 25 January 2015 
I believe making good political decisions and good public policy need robust discussion, not “acrimony, accusations, and aspersions,” (Mike Varney, 2015). Unfortunately, recent research by the Pew Research Center does not bode well for robust discussion in our political arenas. In a report titled “Political Polarization in the American Public” ( Pew demonstrates a trend toward more political polarization among Americans, “Today 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” That Democrat and Republican elected officials are becoming more ideological, less moderate and less cooperative with each other is obvious. Supposedly the larger body politic doesn’t like it and wants more cooperation and less posturing. Except the public is becoming more like that, too.
One can quibble over how Pew measured polarization. Indeed, I think some of the choices suffer some wording problems and for anyone who takes a scalpel instead of an ax to such statements, the “test” is crude ( Nevertheless as Pew has measured liberal and conservative ideology, polarization is occurring.
Polarization doesn’t appear to be a problem identifying what the important issues are ( Two-thirds or more identified these as important issues for the next two years: terrorism, economy, jobs, education, and Social Security while less than 40 percent identified global warming or global trade as a priority. And Democrats, Republicans and Independents agree on what the top challenges and priorities are. All three list terrorism and the economy as a top policy priority, both Democrats and Republicans list improving the jobs situation. Social security is a top priority for Republicans and Independents. The specific solutions are starkly different and reflect the polarization.
“Compromise” and possibly developing better policy by incorporating elements of the competing views is unfortunately nearly impossible when there is little common ground between the groups. According to Pew, the more consistently liberal one is, the more likely they are to prefer urban environments, while the more consistent conservatives prefer suburbs or the edges of small towns. This is not just social separation but physical as well; its de facto self-segregation. Indeed, Pew labels the phenomenon “ideological silos” where half of consistently conservative and 35 percent of consistently liberal people indicate it’s important that they live where most of the people share their political views and 63 percent of consistently conservative and 49 percent of consistently liberal people indicate that most of their close friends share their political views. In terms of what is important to people about the community they live in, everyone agrees that being near family, good schools, having access to the outdoors for fishing, hiking and camping are important, but for consistently liberal folks, so is access to the “arts’ (73 percent) while for consistent conservatives it’s not (23 percent). Perhaps this explains why there seem to be few conservatives in Hollywood.
Most distressing is the antipathy between the groups; 79 percent of consistently liberal folks hold negative views of the Republican Party, just under half, “strongly unfavorable” views. Consistently conservative people hold similar negative views of the Democratic Party, 82 percent unfavorable, with over half “strongly unfavorable.” Half of consistently liberal people view the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. A whopping two-thirds of consistently conservative people view the Democratic Party that way. I wonder how consistent liberals view the National Socialist Movement (white supremacist party) and how consistent conservatives view the Socialist Workers Party? This antipathy extends to individuals; nearly a quarter of consistent liberals would be unhappy if a family member married a Republican and 30 percent of consistent conservatives unhappy if a family member married a Democrat.
I can see the increasing polarization leading to extremism where even members of the respective sides do not and really cannot question their own positions due to accusations of heresy and apostasy. In short, their beliefs become articles of faith. Questioning the beliefs is viewed as a weakness. The beliefs are no longer held “rationally” but emotionally, similar to how people with racial or sexual prejudices respond to contrary evidence to their prejudice; evidence to the contrary only hardens their belief(s). This kind of insularity contributes to “group think” and an increasing narrowing of perspective. Don’t we tend to scoff at the insularity of Saudi Arabia and North Korea?
Before shootings, beheadings and bombings started between the Sunni and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, IRA and Loyalists, and other polarized violent groups, did ideological polarization, silos and antipathy between the groups come first?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Candid discourse needed on U.S. use of torture

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4 January 2015

A Gallup Poll from summer 2013 asked Americans if the country’s moral values are getting worse. Seventy-two percent said yes (among Republicans, 87 percent; Independents, 68; Democrats, 56).

In December 2014, Pew asked Americans if the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified. Fifty-one percent said yes. An ABC News/Washington Post poll used the hot button word “torture” (usually not a good idea in good polling practices) and received the highest positive response of the major polls asking that question, 58 percent. Over half see the future torture of suspected terrorists as justified. (Only 20 percent reject any justification for the use of torture.) Is it ironic that 87 percent of Republicans said that the country’s moral values are getting worse yet in the Pew survey, 76 percent of Republicans said that the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified, followed by 49 percent of Independents, and 36 percent of Democrats?

Following the US/Allied defeat of the evil of Nazism/Fascism, and based on the atrocities uncovered in war crimes trials of the Nazi/Fascist leaders, the U.S. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Geneva Convention as well as subsequent conventions. Rebecca Evans writes:

“The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, in unqualified terms, that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (Article 5). The Geneva Conventions of 1949 not only provide protection for enemy combatants and civilians but also instruct that unlawful combatants must be ‘treated with humanity and … shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial’ (Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 5). The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture even ‘during public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation’ (Articles 4 and 7). Similarly, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment insists that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability of any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’ (Article 2).”

It would be interesting to see how many Americans today agree or disagree with these statements. In light of recent poll results, I suspect no more than around 20 percent would strongly agree.

Legalities aside, it’s the moral and ethical questions that are of concern because in the moral calculus that 80 percent of Americans are willing to use to justify torture (generally viewed as an evil act), to torture one person to obtain information to stop another 9/11 or worse (the Fox series “24” justification), do we also calculate the corrosive effect of violating our own moral positions? Since so much of the moral discussion is in terms of “effectiveness” then should that calculation also not estimate the inevitable loosening and “normalizing” of torture?

History shows this is the case, from Abu Ghraib to the French in Algiers to Argentina in the 1970s. The use of torture, history shows, undermines the rule of law, something that should be very worrisome to a “nation of laws.” Is the use of torture in the war on terrorism related to the seeming increase in police brutality? History suggests that it may be. We have been in the war on terrorism now for over a decade. President Obama ordered torture stopped. What assurance is that?

If “effective” is the justification for what is moral or not, then Jim Wright poses this challenge to that argument:

“Theft is an effective means of making a living.

“Murder is an effective means of winning an argument.

“Abortion is an effective means of ending a pregnancy.

“Terrorism is an effective means of conveying a political point.”

We need a national conversation on where the lines should be drawn, much like we have been having with abortion for 40+ years. Where is the point too far? Is torturing, raping or beheading a family member of a suspected terrorist justified if it’s effective? How about slowly cutting off fingers, toes, nose, ears, then limbs with an axe, if it’s effective? Why not bomb Mecca if a suspected Islamic terrorist doesn’t cooperate? Where is it that our moral compass finally quivers over to “no, not justified.”

Lastly, Americans used to value freedom over all else and claim that it was the universal value. What does a prisoner want more than anything else? To escape; to be free. So, why don’t we offer their freedom in exchange for what we want? If giving Sheik Mohammed Khalid his freedom in exchange for information to stop another 9/11 or worse, wouldn’t it be worth it?

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