an obession with first principles

Life, Death, and Punishment

Posted: Friday Apr 10th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

If you’ve seen any headlines lately you’ve seen that here in Boston the Tsarnaev trial has gone to sentencing. Unsurprisingly, he’s been found guilty of all 30 charges. This is what everyone expected.

I’ve shared a small bit of my own feeling about this whole experience. It touched my life indirectly. The morning of the marathon I biked, with my girlfriend at the time and six friends, the marathon route. We started in Boston and went out to the starting line and back in to the finishing line. We arrived according to our plan at the finish line just before the wheelchair race started. We took a group photo, all our bikes lined up in front of the finish, and we posted it with joy. We rode off to breakfast with two of our friends. Ate, went home. Showered, and went back down to the marathon to watch and support some of the runners. Since we were up at 4AM for our ride, we got tired pretty quick. We went back to Cambridge and took a nap

The constant buzzing of our phones woke us up. People were trying to get in touch with us because they saw our photo at the finish line. We were shocked at the news. I jumped on twitter to learn what I could quickly. We assured everyone we were safe. That was the extent of my personal involvement. But my girlfriend at the time was not so lucky. She lived in Watertown, two streets over from the boat in which Tsarnaev was found. That night she was woken up by gunfire, terrified, and texted me. Again I jumped on twitter to gather as much as I could as fast as I could. I relayed all the info she was able to tell me about what was happening back into twitter. Eventually her and all her roommates were removed by SWAT police from their apartment for over fifteen hours. The travel-ban was lifted, but they had not yet gone back to their apartment.

So many people throughout Boston, and beyond, have been personally touched by the events of that week. And now the city is at the end of it. But, of course, we’re witnessing the vulgar underbelly within peoples hearts and minds about what happened. And many of these people aren’t even in the city proper. The city of Boston is specifically against the death penalty in this case. Only 27% support the death penalty. But throughout twitter and facebook I see the emotion and desire from people to see Jahar killed. I want to examine this thinking specifically.

I think there is a powerful argument to be made that killing Jahar is precisely the same logic that vindicates his and Tamerlan’s actions. It was widely reported that the instigating thoughts and feelings behind Jahar and Tamerlan (whoever took the lead, or followed, is irrelevant in this case) actions were reactionary. Their actions were a response to US led aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, many operations outside US borders were conducted within international norms for military operations. However, very many were not. Countless non-combatants, men, women, and children, were killed both at the hands of US troops and drones. And I do say countless because the Department of Defense conflates the numbers in order to hide the deaths of innocents.

So let us recount that in detail. In their eyes Jahar and Tamerlan witnessed the killing of innocents in countries and lands they felt a solidarity with. And their response was to kill. They killed those in solidarity with the perpetrators. They didn’t need to kill the exact solders or remote drone pilots to get their point across.

Now let us look at those calling for the death of Jahar. Some want him to be sentenced to death by a court. Others literally want him dropped off in Dorchester to be killed (we’ll ignore the inherent racism in that comment by Massachusetts residents). Notably, Massachusetts has no death penalty. Which is largely (in my opinion) why this course went Federal. None of the crimes crossed borders, everything took place within Massachusetts. Someone wanted blood. That is to say, people saw Jahar and Tamerlan killing innocents they felt a solidarity with. And their response was to kill. They have in custody the perpetrators and they want to kill them.

Is this not the exact same logic that motivated Jarar and Tamerlan? Are we at all different from them when we call for their heads? I submit we are not.

There are many Americans who call into question the drone programs and the death they deal. At every turn these Americans are called un-patriotic. But the very same “patriotism” that “real Americans” evidence to defend these drone programs is the same emotion and feeling the resulted in two actual American citizens — let it never be questioned that both Jahar and Tamerlan are real US citizens, who participated fully in our country and the state of Massachusetts — killing other citizens who triumphed in the death of people they felt solidarity with?

As Americans are we fully incapable of believing that our borders truly are porous? That people who live here have ties to many other places around the world? And that even as Americans we are inevitably tied up integrally with the rest of the world through politics and economics — despite the fact that some of us, like myself, have never even left our shores? The fact I’ve never been out of the country is irrelevant. We are all tied up together. And to imagine that we live in some kind of pre-WWI isolationism is a sick joke.

Do we realize that the exact forces that are compelling us to kill Jahar are the exact forces that compelled Jahar and Tamerlan to kill people?

If we realize that then there are some repercussions. To me it means that we are not ruled by law. And as I observe all the facets of American life this is unsurprising. There are so many elements of American life that refuse to be ruled by law — the execution of black Americans by police is the first, but no where near the last. I don’t honestly believe that we really believe we are ruled by law. The notion that we are a nation ruled by laws is a fanciful tale we believe and reify consistently while actively denying through our lives. If we believed we were ruled by law we’d know how many laws we could be arrested for just living our daily life. But we don’t — until police feel like imposing those laws on us. And then we react “Wait, there is a law against that?!”. If we really believed that we were ruled by laws why would we continually see the same reaction by the media when massive corporations are brought up on charges, whether financial corruption, environmental disaster, or otherwise. And we react with “Well that company will never be found guilty”, while the CEOs and managers remain in power to continue their corruption. Blue laws are still on the books from the 19th century that we routinely break every weekend — but they’re still laws. NYPD tried bringing up a 19th century law against masks as a reason to arrest protestors. We all sit idly by. We know with such accuracy that the laws do not matter — the only thing that matters is the monopoly of violence the state has to enforce whatever it wants. You can be arrested for only resisting arrest, without any other charges. You didn’t break the law to be arrested, but you were arrested for not being arrested. This is clearly unlawful. We put up with it. We instinctively understand “This really means that the police didn’t like you, so they arrested you.” This is not law. We know this. We refuse to change it.

I only wish we would tell the truth. If we are not a nation of laws. And we operate on the same logic of death as the people we want to kill — then let us all admit this is about the efficacy and efficiency of our killing apparatus. And we should continue with the fact that our “defense” spending is greater than the next eight countries combined, seven of which are our allies. If we kill them faster we win, otherwise we lose. Let us all admit that is the logic we are operating by. Then let us ask “who is us”? Because I’m not sure we’re all on the same page there. Because I have many friends living abroad. And many friends have family living abroad. And one of these days we’re all going to be touched by the death of someone we’re connected to at the hands of the US death apparatus. While the recent “House of Cards” seasons 3 tried to give a narrative to this by bringing the victim of a US drone into the White House, few Americans are currently dealing with this, and many will. After all, US citizens have already been killed abroad by drones. Which, I shouldn’t have to tell to you, required State Department attention, when black American citizens are killed every day within our borders without being recognized by our government.

I don’t for a minute think this is about punishing Jahar for his actions in the bombing and after the bombing. This is not about punishment. This is not about law. This reaction to Jahar is in the same identical spirit as his actions. Americans are no different than him. After all — he is an American. He went to Rindge and Latin here in Cambridge. He is slightly younger than me and he consumed every song, news and TV show that I ever have. He obviously learned this lawlessness from somewhere. And in my estimation he learned it from us. Because we exhibit this lawlessness every single day. Now we’re doing it again in calling for the death of Jahar. It just reifies and defends his own actions. His actions had nothing to do with law. Our drone killing program has nothing to do with law. We kill civilians every day abroad. Police kill unarmed people in our country every single day. All of this is unlawful. We recognize the monopoly of violence, but we refuse to be honest about it.


I Love Stephen King

Posted: Monday Apr 30th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Politics | View Comments

I guess some of this mad right-wing love comes from the idea that in America, anyone can become a Rich Guy if he just works hard and saves his pennies. Mitt Romney has said, in effect, “I’m rich and I don’t apologize for it.” Nobody wants you to, Mitt. What some of us want—those who aren’t blinded by a lot of bullshit persiflage thrown up to mask the idea that rich folks want to keep their damn money—is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America. That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged. That it’s not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It’s un-fucking-American is what it is. I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that—sorry, kiddies—you’re on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay—not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor Christie’s words, but to pay—in the same proportion. That’s called stepping up and not whining about it. That’s called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn’t cost their beloved rich folks any money.
Stephen King: Tax Me for F@%&’s Sake!


Using the Church in Political Discourse

Posted: Sunday Oct 30th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

A couple of times I’ve run into the Church being used polemically when discussing politics. A perfect example is 2012 Presidential Candidate Ron Paul – please go watch. I wish the creator would let me embed it here, but they disabled that ability

As an aside, Senator Paul is incorrect about the cause of the prices in healthcare. The commentator in the video hits the nail on the head when he wonders what the difference between the Church saving him, and the Government saving him. The only real difference is that everyone pays taxes, and only some people voluntarily give to Churches. The commentator, again, rightly remarks about the steady decline in the influence of Churches over the years. Pragmatically – a social safety net like this is getting smaller. But pragmatism is not the issue here. An issue that I find relevant is that Ron Paul failed to be that supporting community when one of his staffers (who does not get health insurance by Ron Paul, his employer) died because he could not pay for the treatment. Ron Paul did not help this man financially.

The issue I find is that the Church is being co-opted into a discourse within which it has no expectation to be. I do not mean here, “the separation of church and state”. I do expect and hope that the Church will be more active than it has been (and all the churches I have been a part of remain active in helping people financially navigate their lives). But, the Church has a right to make their own decisions. To be ‘free’ as Ron Paul would say, to act of their own responsibility. Political arguments cannot assume, presume, or coerce the Church into a position she has taken of her own volition.

A government is responsible for its people. It is responsible to further the people in their collective goals, and individual goals. Certainly every individual must act responsibly. But, frankly, shit happens. Families who are barely feeding and housing themselves should not have to worry about finding a way to stay healthy. Even for myself, a resident of Massachusetts who pays every month for the public healthcare option, carries a risk. There is no responsible investment I can make that will absolve me of all health risks. If I get hit by a car and have permanent injuries (which happen to 2 million Americans every year) insurance will not cover most of it, and I will have to pay out of pocket for the rest of my life. Unlucky, yes, but at 2 million per year, how much progress and human flourishing are we losing? Is it worth losing? Those Americans who want universal health care, and especially a single-payer system, say it is not worth losing our humanity because of money.


Occupy and the Protestant Work Ethic

Posted: Tuesday Oct 25th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

One of the strangest, at least to me, is the institutionalized form of a protestant work ethic within a free market economic system. The phrase “protestant work ethic” was coined by Max Weber. To summarize the protestant work ethic as it is known today:

He who does not work shall not eat.

God helps those who help themselves

How it is known today is nothing like what Weber advanced. The latter is terribly wrong, for God send rain on the just and the unjust alike. The former is a caricature of 2 Thess 3:10. The verse says “will not work”, not “does not”. There is a big difference between the two, not only of language, but also the early Christian situation. In taking Christ as Lord many were thrown from their communities (some, e.g. those in Jerusalem, weren’t). Finding random jobs would be incredibly hard if people knew who they were.

Now to Weber and the Reformation. The Reformation actually had a lot to say about work because they had a specific historic event to deal with: the rise of a merchant class. For time immemorial there were those who owned and ran estates, fought in wars, and made political decisions. There was no illusion that this did not constitute work, yet it had its vast rewards. And everyone else worked with herds, land, or mills (unless you were a priest – but their activities were also seen as strenuous work). When the Reformation occurred there was the rise of a merchant class who seemed to do no work, and make profits. They traded goods or money, made loans, and connected people together. There was no category within which to place them as truly “working”. Any attempt in the late 19th or early 20th century by Weber to equate the writings of Luther, et. al. with what he witnessed culturally are entirely misguided, an attempt to read that history far far too literally. There are valuable things to say about the value of virtuous work, but what we’ve done with it is horrific.

We have codified that the market is God. The market decides who is righteous and who is a sinner. Those who succeed and make money are righteous. Those who are unable to make money are sinners. The market has thus judged. This is a shocking development once this idea takes its root. For then the ends justify the means. If you can make money through illegal actions the market will vindicate you. If you can cheat, lie, and steal, but your balance sheet is positive – you are righteous.

OccupyWallStreet recognizes this codification. It says the ends do not justify the means. The market is rigged. Occupy does not reject the virtue of work. It rejects the state of affairs that the market declares the righteous and the sinner. Occupy sees itself as the people who have followed the rules, all the recommendations everyone has made for them. Go to college. Save money. Buy a house so you have equity. And those with crushing student debt can’t get a job. Those with houses can’t refinance or have lost them to mortgage. They’ve worked virtuously and have been declared a sinner by the market. And the financial establishment has cheated and changed the rules constantly, their risk now being covered by the promise of the government. Greed is one of the seven mortal sins, and their greedy behavior is being rewarded by the market as the righteous.

The market is not God.


Occupy as Re-imagining the World

Posted: Sunday Oct 23rd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

For the last month I’ve watched the Occupy movement. I’ve steadily been more involved with the OccupyBoston movement. I’ve attended GAs, watched 129 people get arrested at 2am. I’ve been ravenously consuming all of the news I can about economics and political maneuverings from Dr. Lessig, William Black, various documentaries, and the experiences of individuals. After Noam Chomsky’s talk last night I’ve finally started reflecting on everything.

Out of all the reporting which tries to elucidate what Occupy is all about, I want to focus on one aspect: the movement, as such, being a demand, or “what they want” as everyone seems to be asking. The first goal of Occupy was to take over public space and refuse to leave. That’s been done in NYC, Boston, DC, LA, and many other places. Chicago, SF, and Cincinnati are still trying to fulfill this first goal. The second goal has been to air the grievances of the 99%. That’s been done very well, even if the main-stream-media (MSM) doesn’t have the brains to pick up on it. One of these grievances is the method by which progress is (or is not) made. The movement itself cries out for a movement. For the placated, passive, comforted, and “entertained”, to get up and do something. Each Occupy movement has created for itself an alternative reality which stands over and against the current reality.

This alternate reality is, in very many ways, similar to how the Church itself has been spoken of throughout history. Whether in Catholic/Orthodox terms (our collective life hidden in Christ) or Protestant/Evangelical terms (the in-breaking of the Kingdom). The Church has always been a different reality which we enter in order to see differently. That we may speak about the world and what we see there, from a different perspective.

I think the popularity of such TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, or even Lost (which I did not watch) is that it also creates this alternate reality. Science Fiction has always been praised in the world of literature and film as having the innate ability to give us another world by which to analyze our own. The inherent premise postulates another world, within which the plot and characters are often showing us how to think and discuss our own world. There is no surprise, then, that the millions of people who love and watch these shows are trying to think about our own world and re-imagine it.

The communities of Occupy are precisely this re-imagining manifesting in this broken reality. Everyone can come and participate. And everyone needs to participate if this new reality is to have a force. While this participation is cathartic it cannot be the only success of the movement. We watched in Battlestar the President, Admiral, military, and civilian fleet fight vigorously about how to construct their new world after catastrophe. Truth, promises, and lies fought for belief in the heart of each person. Occupy is this fight. We are still fighting about how to reconstruct our own alternate reality. And we are fighting about how to construct the broken reality the world shares. This is just the beginning if we have the will and discipline to see it through.


Money and Politics

Posted: Monday Mar 28th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Politics | View Comments

Jeffrey Sachs from Harvard was saying that the United States is turning into a plutocracy. And this is a feeling you get throughout the world, that the politicians are not powerful and the power is in the hands of a few strong players in the business sector. Do you feel that way?

“We are still a democracy, but we have moved in my lifetime towards a plutocracy. We do not have a plutocracy, I want to emphasize that, but the distribution of wealth and the influence of wealth have moved in that direction.

“If you look at the 1992 top-400 tax returns in the United States, the average income for those 400 people was $45 million per person. The last available figures show $340 million per person – that is eight for one in a period when the average worker went no place.

“The average tax rate for the top 400 went from 28% down to 16.6% during the same period, so we have had a system where as people have gotten richer and richer, they have been favored by taxation and have gotten richer to a greater degree. To my mind that is a bad trend, and it will probably get corrected in time. The rich have more influence in politics than they did 50 years ago.”
Warren Buffet


Responsibility

Posted: Monday Mar 28th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News | View Comments

So who’s to blame for the financial crisis?

“The American people, including banks, Congress, the administration, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the media – they all subscribed to the idea that residential housing could not collapse …. The idea that a $22-trillion asset class in an economy that is only worth in aggregate maybe $55-60 trillion, which for two-thirds of people with their own homes was their major asset, and in many cases they borrowed very significant funds against something that would plunge in value – this was something that we all participated in.

“It was a collective delusion, that once adopted, spread through all kinds of institutions and instruments of finance so that the interdependence of these items, once the delusion became exposed, once it became apparent that the emperor had no clothes, swept through the economy with the impact and the speed of a tsunami. All kinds of things happened that you wouldn’t have thought possible because of this huge interdependence in markets.”

You didn’t mention the rating agencies.

“It includes them – there were a few people out there shoring up subprime, but basically it includes everybody.”
Warren Buffet


Healthcare – Wow

Posted: Friday Mar 18th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising, Politics | View Comments

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.
Atul Gawande, The New Yorker

This entire piece is incredibly well done. I encourage you to read all 8 pages of it. This is also how editorials will continue to make money: by writing this well.


Law and Deuteronomy

Posted: Monday Mar 7th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Blasphemy, In the News, Politics | View Comments

I find it incredibly laughable that any modern person considers either the formative or contemporary laws of the United States of America to be in any way similar to those found in Deuteronomy. Whatever rhetoric might persuade about a country being the new Israel and the civic documents its stone tablets looking at the actual documents you better immediately see a giant disconnect. Looking at contemporary ideas of justice and law:

The disparity between Deuteronomy’s commandments and those that one might extract from their policies could scarcely be more stark. The new right-wing bible reads, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of America, so be sure to extract every dollar from your operations so that you don’t end up as one again.” Christopher B. Hays

But if one actually looks at Deuteronomy:

But the warnings to the whole nation are similarly stern: The people are told to “put these words of mine in your heart and soul… and teach them to your children… so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land.” If not, “curses will come upon you,” and the rest of ch. 28 graphically describes them. Essentially, the Bible advocates that Israel must embrace a moral sustainability akin to the ecological sustainability to that we moderns think more about. ibid.

There is certainly no morality left in either politics nor economics. There is no construction of a shared civilization or culture, let alone a shared space. Everything today is about “me and mine.”

America has some serious problems; a recent study of developed nations by the International Monetary Fund ranked America near the bottom in income inequality, food security, life expectancy at birth, and level of incarcerated population; all of which reflect the scandalous lot of the poor. Yet the reaction to the recent economic crises from many quarters has been to slash the safety net that keeps such inequalities from being even worse.

Many in politics who clutch onto the good book are seriously endangering their fellow Americans as well as many fellow Christians. But they don’t actually care, so long as their tax bracket doesn’t change. Utter disgrace.


Remembering Rev. Gomes

Posted: Wednesday Mar 2nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News | View Comments

Don’t misunderstand me — I don’t despise patriotism — but there is no salvation in love of country. There is salvation only in love of Jesus Christ, and if you confuse the two, the greatest defeat will have been achieved. first sermon post 9/11

On Feb 28th Reverend of Harvard’s Memorial Church, Professor Peter Gomes passed away. We have all lost something. I will always remember the few times I have seen him speak at his introductions to the Noble Lectures.