Can we best live by dogma or discovery, by religion or science?

It may very well be the principal question of our time, — are President Trump and his hirelings choosing religion and authoritarianism, dogma, and while doing so rejecting science? Too often it would seem they were. 

RALPH WALDO EMERSON says that the world exists to teach the science of liberty.

DICK TAVERNE says that science and democracy are based on the rejection of dogmatism.   (In 1973, Labour MP Dick Taverne caused a national sensation when he stood against his own party as an independent to win a historic by-election in Lincoln. Would there were Republicans in Congress who would do the same!)

TIMOTHY FERRIS  in Chapter 12 of his book, The Science of Liberty, writes:

Dogmas (from the Greek for received opinions that “seem good”) may seek to unify people (as is the implied intent of religious dogma, religio being Latin for “binding together”) but insofar as a dogma must be taken on faith it winds up bifurcating humanity into a faithful us and a suspect other.

Scientific discovery might have divided the world, but instead has found that all human beings are kin—to one another and to all other living things—in a universe where stars and starfish alike obey the same physical laws. So as humans move from dogma toward discovery, we increasingly find ourselves inhabiting one world.

This development raises the prospect that as the influence of science grows, people may overcome old prejudices and parochialisms and treat one another more liberally. To an extent this is already happening—the world today is more scientific and more liberal, better informed and less violent, than it was three centuries ago—but with such prospects have also come problems.

Religious and political dogmatists react against science and liberalism with everything from denial and attempted suppression (of, for instance, the teaching of biological evolution) to terrorism. The liberal democracies have too often responded to such threats with insecurity rather than strength, reverting in times of trouble to illiberal practices little better than those of their adversaries.

Meanwhile scientific findings challenge everybody’s received opinions, while the growth of technology creates conundrums—with global warming currently at the top of the heap—that unless competently addressed threaten to reverse much of the progress our species has so recently made.

Dogmatists like to portray science as just another dogma—to the brazen all is brass—but science is a method, not a faith, and the unity of the universe was discovered by scientists who set out to demonstrate no such thing. When Newton identified the laws of gravitation he did not assert that they held sway everywhere, but wondered whether “God is able…to vary the laws of nature…in several parts of the universe.”

The physicist Ernest Rutherford, whose experiments exposed the structure of the atom, was so skeptical about drawing grand implications that he threatened to bar from his laboratory any scientist who so much as uttered the word “universe.”

When the astronomer Edwin Hubble established that the Milky Way was one among many galaxies, he called them “island universes” and questioned whether “the principle of the uniformity of nature” pertained across such enormous distances.

This is the opposite of starting with a deeply held faith and accumulating evidence to support it. Scientists have a story of discovery to tell, dogmatists a story of obedience to authority. The scientific discovery that everything—and everybody—is interwoven with everything else was a boon for liberalism, which took a unified view of humanity before such a stance could be justified empirically….

The liberal claim that people ought to have equal rights was a theory, vulnerable to test by experiment and properly to be judged by the results. The experiment having since succeeded, while science determined that all human beings belong to the same species, we can now understand that we’re all us; there is no other.

Darwin’s discovery that biological evolution functions through random mutation and natural selection revealed the common ancestry of all human beings, but it did so at the cost of exposing the unsettling fact that we are here by virtue of chance.

Genes mutate randomly, DNA/RNA copying errors altering the genetic inheritance of every organism. Changes in the environment—which are themselves random, to a first approximation—can alter circumstances in such a way that previously marginal mutants are better able to survive and reproduce than are those superlatively adapted to the prior order.

The environmental changes involved may be as slow as the parting of continents or as sudden as an asteroid impact, but they never cease: Stasis is an illusion. Homo sapiens did not emerge because they were superior to other animals, but because their ancestors happened to be in the right place at the right time. This rather stark finding is difficult for humans to absorb; hence we are apt to regard ourselves as distinctly different from the other animals, and to imagine that we are here for a special purpose…. 

Scientific research is practiced in much the same ways everywhere, deriving results that apply throughout the known universe. Therefore it would be surprising if science did not eventually imply and evince invariant ethical standards. Some of these emerging values may strike us as odd—if, for instance, humans are animals, and differ from other animals only by degrees, then shouldn’t the other animals have some rights?—but the teachings of Jesus seemed odd at first, too, and yet have proved lastingly popular. What might a scientific ethics look like?

Two promisingly invariant precepts were suggested recently by the geneticist Sydney Brenner, who when asked by a student at the Salk Institute what commandments should govern the behavior of scientists, replied, “To tell the truth,” and, “To stand up for all humanity.”

People everywhere wish for a better world—a more peaceful and prosperous world, where their children can live healthy, happy lives—and they have long sought the right intellectual tools with which to pursue this goal.

Religion works best when it emphasizes common decency, philosophy when stressing our ignorance, art when exposing us to visions larger than ourselves, history by drawing lessons from the past—but the most effective tools are liberalism and science. They may on occasion lead to harmful results, as may anything else: You can poison a prophet with a Girl Scout cookie.

But science and liberalism have an unequaled capacity for doing good—for reducing cruel ignorance and villainous certitude, encouraging freedom and effective government, promoting human rights, putting food in the mouths of the hungry and attainable prospects in their future. If we keep our heads, use our heads, nourish learning, tend the fires of freedom, and treat one another with justice and compassion, our descendants may say of us that we had the vision to do science, and the courage to live by liberty.


I’ve selected and taken the above passages from Timothy Ferris’s 2010 book, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, Chapter 12, ONE WORLD.
Timothy Ferris, born August 29, 1944, is an American science writer and the best-selling author of twelve books, including The Science of Liberty (2010), Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988),  and The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report (1997).


Their only real sin was not being born American, on American soil. Brittany Hunter

You find out, if not who you are, what you believe by reading the thoughts of others.

Although there are still many, probably the majority, who don’t read beyond their discovery that the writer doesn’t share their beliefs, and then put the book down, with the result that too many go on believing what they believed to begin with. These many (and here I include our president and many of his hirelings) learn nothing new about themselves, that which could have added real substance and meaning to their lives, let alone in the case of our president direction to the life of the country, which at present does seem directionless.

I’d like to think that I’m one whose beliefs are not fixed for all time (btw, if they had been been where might they have originated? I often wonder about that.). But most likely in regard to my own beliefs, as well as to all the great variety of beliefs and opinions that are out there, it does seem sometimes the case that even my beliefs are fixed, walled off from dissent as it were, unchanging and changeless. Too many of us have stopped looking about, stopped being observant. And instead we go on simply adhering to liberal, conservative, or middle of the road opinions, however they may have come to us, and however they may be directing our lives in the wrong direction.

The problem is simple. Our belief systems, such as Islam, Christianity, socialism, capitalism and all the rest, all the myriad ideologies that so encumber and impede our thinking, stifle our freedom in so many ways, also, and most important, leave no place for evolutionary principles. This is our great mistake, a great crime against ourselves. In respect to the carnage and destruction we’ve witnessed during the recent past, in Europe, Asia, and now Africa, the rejection of evolution, that which demonstrates without question the common origin of all life, has meant the rejection of science, of man’s power of reason, such providing the very greatest means of improving our lot, and yes of restoring human dignity and human rights.

The leaders of nations, at war with one another or not, by rejecting evolutionary science, are committing a crime against humanity. For evolutionary science, when unencumbered by ideologues and ‘true believers’, communists, evangelicals, members of ISIS and Al Qaida, and the like is what has during the recent several million years of homo’s presence on earth accounted for the huge material progress we have made. And from material riches spiritual progress has followed, not as many true believers would have it, the other way around. Without his material needs being met, man’s spiritual needs have no chance. And science, not religion is what has improved his material conditions.

Religions and ideologies of all kinds have only stood in our way, making progress towards a better life much more difficult to achieve than it would have been otherwise. For we, as crazy as this seems, go on thinking and believing whatever it may be, in spite of the evidence of our senses to the contrary, that, for example,  global warming is not the result of our actions, that the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent, ordinary people like ourselves, caught in the crossfires and labelled  collateral damage, that these deaths are not due to our adherence to false ideologies. Doesn’t it have to be a kind of craziness to hold onto beliefs that push us to go on waging wars? And for what realistic and honorable end? To make us capitalists, socialists, democrats or worst of all true believers? What war has ever achieved, by the slaughter of thousands, its intended ends?

I started thinking about these things after reading Brittany Hunter’s FEE article about Senator McCain’s own nationalistic dogma.

John McCain Fights Nationalism with More Nationalism

President Trump’s adherence to such ideologies as nationalism, isolationism (the wall between us and our neighbors to the South), white supremacy and America first, and much more, is only possible because he knows nothing about our history, and in particular about evolutionary science. Ideologues keep people from realizing that all people are the same and need to be treated the same. Will Trump ever change? Probably not. He seems no longer to be learning.

Hunter begins by talking about Senator McCain, who is with us in regard to his put down of Trump’s nationalism (while also being a war monger) and a nationalist himself.

Hunter: This modern flavor of American nationalism is exceptionally frightening. The sentiment all too present at the Charlottesville rally just a couple of months ago solidified any claims to the contrary: 20th century-nationalism is back in a big way, and it is a threat to individual liberty. But so is perpetual unjust war which Senator McCain almost seems to favor, although with good ends in mind.


McCain: We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.


Hunter:  And what a blessing America and her foreign policy have truly been. Already in 2017, civilian deaths at the hand of American drone strikes have increased by 60 percent: emphasis on “civilian.” These were not ISIS leaders or even recruits. They were just people who happened to have been born within the “wrong” political borders. Their only real sin was not being born American, on American soil.

Hunter: Of course, these civilian deaths are disregarded as “collateral damage”: unfortunate, but necessary to protecting America’s foreign interests.

Hunter: When we assert that we have the right to invade and occupy foreign lands simply because we are Americans, it is nationalism.


McCain: We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.


Hunter: This McCain proudly declared during his remarks. And again, he is partially right. Part of the reason America and its emphasis on individual liberty were so important to the course of human history was because it was a revolution of ideas. And while North America just happened to be the place many escaped to, America itself did not make us what we became. It was the individual efforts of many diverse and unique people that made America exceptional.

Hunter: America was a land where you could escape your past and build a new life. A place where access to opportunity was equal to all those willing to work – with the exception of women and slaves at the time, of course.

Hunter: Your past or where you were born should not determine your right to self-determination. All you need do to acquire these natural rights is be born, anywhere on this earth. That is the principle on which this country was founded.

Hunter: When Americans assert that we have the right to invade and occupy foreign lands in the name of expanding our own freedom agenda, simply because we are Americans, This is nationalism. Pure and simple.

Hunter: To make matters worse, this feeling of self-superiority has led America-first supporters to justify these acts as if they are our duty. If we don’t bring the principles of democracy to the uncivilized “savages” in the Middle East, we have not fully reached our potential as Americans, as some may claim.

Hunter: And, of course, if anyone voices opposition to “business as usual” in the foreign policy realm, they are cast off as unpatriotic, unwilling to do what needs to be done to ensure our own safety and the well-being of the world. Unwilling to put America first…


McCain: To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.


Hunter: So while McCain is trying to cast his own prerogatives in a light contradictory to that of the new nationalists, his nationalism and that of Trump are branches of the same tree, acting under the notion that whatever Americans do is justified because they are Americans….

Hunter: But the only real moral obligation we have to the rest of the world is to let them be. To not let their fate be determined by the fact that they are not Americans. They do not deserve this.


Brittany Hunter is an associate editor at FEE. Hunter studied political science at Utah Valley University with a minor in Constitutional studies

20 Things Boys Can Do to Become Men

GettyTony Tomsic

Why should a young man listen to an old guy about the best way to become a man? Because the typical teen is not yet able to see a future past the next few months. That’s not a fault of character, but the fact that teens’ brains have not yet physically matured. The pre-fontal cortex (PFC) does not fully develop in most people until they’re twenty-four years old. Yet, the PFC is responsible for regulating mood, attention span, impulse control, and the ability to plan ahead and understand the consequences of one’s actions. In the meantime, it’s up to the adults to guide them by showing them possible consequences—good and bad—of their behavior. With that in mind, here’s my guide to becoming a man:

1. Learn who you are as an individual.

Figuring out who you are, what you care about, what you believe in, and what you stand for is the most important—and most difficult—challenge of becoming a man. We’re all raised with people telling us what to think, how to act, and what to say. Sometimes those people are parents, teachers, ministers, and other so-called authorities. Sometimes they are our friends and peers. Most of the time, given the choice, we seek the easiest path, the path of least resistance. We go along to get along. Sometimes that’s okay. But it’s those instances when you opt for a different path that can really define you as an individual. The important thing is you make those decisions for yourself—not out of spite against authority figures, or because of peer pressure, or even out of fear of losing someone’s affection—but out of conviction of who you are and who you want to be.

2. Stand up for yourself and your beliefs.

British statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” That’s one of my favorite quotes because it reminds me that it’s not enough to have lofty ideals and beliefs, you sometimes have to actually get off the couch and defend those beliefs. This is especially hard when you’re hanging with your friends and they all express an opinion that is the opposite of yours. Because you’re outnumbered, it’s easy for them to ridicule your opinion. Be strong. Defend your opinions and beliefs. If you think it’s wrong to be racist but someone in your group says something racist (or sexist, or ant-Semitic, or anti-gay), then tell them you don’t agree and that you don’t think they should make such statements. That’s how these verbal bullies are eventually defeated. More important, you’ll feel proud that you took a stand. Those moments you do nothing will haunt you for a long time.

GettyRogers Photo Archive

3. Avoid a physical fight—if you can.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, Kareem. You’re 7’1″ so nobody wants to mess with you.” That wasn’t always true. When I was a young boy, I was bullied. And my dad was a cop, so that made it even more embarrassing. Later in life, I took up martial arts and even trained with my good friend Bruce Lee. That’s why you can trust me when I say that fighting is almost always a mistake. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The man who throws the first punch has lost the argument.” That means that when an argument turns into a fight, it’s because the one starting the fight realizes he isn’t smart enough to win verbally, so he resorts to violence. It’s always the dumbest guy who resorts to violence.

What do you do if someone threatens you with violence? You walk away, even run away if necessary. Even if you’re pretty sure you could take him. Bad things can happen in a fight, even if no one means them to. Someone can take an unexpected fall and crack his head open. Teeth can be knocked out. Facial bones can be cracked. And all the crying later about how “it was an accident!” won’t change that.

So, if you’re threatened, leave and tell your parents. Some people are of the belief that you should just go right after the bully, fighting him to show you’re not afraid. While this works well in movies, it doesn’t work as well in real life. These days violence tends to beget violence. The bully doesn’t just slink away, he returns with a baseball bat—or worse. You can still stand up for yourself without resorting to violence: that’s what Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, the Buddha, and Jesus did.

The only time you should fight is if there is no other recourse. You can’t run, you can’t talk your way out of it. If that’s the case, hit first, either in the nose (sometimes the blood will discourage further fighting) or the crotch (because the pain will make it hard for him to chase you). One punch and then run.

4. Play a team sport.

I’m all for individual sports—as I mentioned, I did martial arts for many years and also yoga. (Don’t think it’s a sport? Try it!) But playing on a team teaches you how to interact with others, adjust to various personalities, work together as a team, be generous, and many other character-building traits. The cool part is that you don’t have to join an organized team; you can just go down to the playground or open gym and play pick-up basketball or volleyball.

GettyRobert Abbott Sengstacke

5. Choose your friends for the right reasons.

Good friends can see you through a lot of the tough parts of growing up. But bad friends can actually be the cause some of those tough parts. Don’t hang out with kids just to piss off your parents or try to be something that you’re not. You waste a lot of your youth that way—and miss out of some meaningful friendships.

6. Fight your fear of the unknown.

We all have a tendency to hate what we don’t understand, whether it comes in the form of different food, different cultures, or different ideas. There was a Yale study in which researchers examined the brains of people as they were presented with proof that an opinion they held was wrong. MRIs showed that when those people immediately rejected the new evidence, their brains released an addictive chemical that made them feel good. In that way our own bodies are actually encouraging our ignorance and fear. Fight that impulse. Becoming a man means growing, learning, and understanding—not cowering under a blanket with a handful of comforting notions.

(By the way, don’t confuse physical bravery with intellectual bravery. It’s easier to jump out of a plane—hopefully with a parachute—than it is to change your mind about an opinion. Acts of physical bravado will give you an initial rush, but exploring a new culture or examining a new idea will mature you and make you the kind of person others will be interested in.)

GettyBob Gomel

7. Listen to advice.

Whatever troubles and doubts you’re facing, billions of guys before you have gone through the same thing. Your dad probably knows exactly how you feel most of the time because he can remember the same pain and anxiety. Listening to people’s advice doesn’t always mean taking it. You have to decide which advice is right for you. But it might be a good idea to collect some quotes from those who came before you so you can refer to them when you need to.

I’m going to get you started with one of my favorites from philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That means that if you don’t learn from the experiences of others and yourself, you will end up making the same mistakes over and over. So, when someone gives you advice, don’t dismiss it just because they’re older than you.

8. Be politically aware.

One clear difference between children and adults is an awareness of your community outside your circle of friends and family. The world is constantly changing. Whether it changes for the better or the worse depends on the actions of those willing to get involved. Kids who don’t know anything about their world try to hide it by saying, “I don’t really care. It doesn’t affect me.” But that just confirms that they wish to remain children and have adults tell them what to do and think. Part of being a man is to be informed so you are prepared to take an active and responsible place in your society. Read newspapers, magazines, watch the news. Discuss these subjects with your friends, but always while respecting each other’s opinions.


9. Mind your manners.

When you’re a kid being told to firmly shake hands, keep your elbows off the table, or ask guests if they’d like a drink, it all seems like a load of dumb and arbitrary rules. Some of it is. But part of becoming a man is the realization that it doesn’t matter whether or not the rules of manners make sense. What matters is the effect of following these rules: people appreciate the effort and respect shown them. In turn, they will show you respect.

GettyBill Ray

10. Be patient in love.

Most of the information boys have about girls is WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! It’s based on stereotypes, rumors, bad songs, shallow teen movies, and immature celebrities in personal tailspins. The worst thing you can do in looking to find a significant other is to try to change yourself into something you’re not just because you think that’s what girls are looking for. It doesn’t work.

The best way to get an idea of what’s attractive to girls is to talk to them. Like a girl? Get to know her, ask her about herself, then show her you’ve been listening to what she says. Did she mention a book she likes? Send her an article about the book. It’s low-key, non-stalkerish, and shows you care what she talks about.

11. Stay fit.

It’s hard for all those teenage boys with turbo-charged metabolisms to understand that their bodies will not always be evaporating the masses of greasy calories they consume. They can eat a pizza and a tub of ice cream, then run three miles. They can’t imagine that will ever change, even when you show them photos of their lean dads’ as teens and they look at the potbellies that have miraculously appeared later. But eating somewhat healthily and maintaining an exercise regimen will not only help fight off diseases and aging, they’ll also help ensure an active lifestyle for many years. In other words, the body is like any machine: It may run great when it’s new, but after years of neglect it will slow down, and eventually break down. Then you’re the one vegging on the sofa while your pals are playing pick-up ball at the gym.

“I dare you” may be the three most dangerous words in the language for kids. The challenge to prove yourself to others is very tempting, especially since the alternative seems to be showing yourself to be a coward. But that’s not really the case. The person who dares you is counting on your not being strong or smart enough to see this challenge as the empty, laughable joke it is. The person who refuses a dare displays intelligence, courage, and independence. And that’s what daring someone is trying to rob them of.

13. Get organized.

One main difference between a boy and a man is that boys talk about what they want to do and men actually do those things. Another difference is that men have less time to accomplish more. In order to do all the things they want, they have to be organized. They keep a calendar (the one in your smart phone is handy), they make a to-do list, and they don’t put off doing things until later. Being organized can change your life: you do more things you want to do, you finish things you need to finish, and you have more time to pursue new activities and relationships. In general, you will be much more successful.

14. Find heroes to copy.

There are so many worthwhile people to look up to and try to emulate. People from history. Even characters in books and movies. The trick is in picking the right people for the right reasons. Skip most sports, music, and movie/TV celebrities. It’s not that they aren’t nice people, but the fact that they’re successful and make a lot of money doesn’t make them wise. Often, it’s just the opposite. They pursued fame and glory so single-mindedly that they have no other interests and minimal education. Many are woefully misinformed about current events, yet at the same time frequently offering their weak, misinformed opinions. Don’t make the mistake of believing that just because a person can act or sing, he or she also has valuable insights into politics or culture. Find heroes—real or fictional—that embody the values that you want to have, not the bank account.

15. Be independent.

A man can take care of his own daily needs. In fact, he wants to. Make your bed, do your laundry, learn to cook, hang up your clothes. Slovenliness is the sign of an immature mind. The sooner you start doing things for yourself, the sooner you will have the respect of others—and of yourself.

GettyBill Ray

16. Question authority.

Respect your elders but don’t think them infallible. Teachers, parents, relatives, politicians, and well-meaning guys like me really do want what’s best for you. But we aren’t always right. Even when presenting supposed “facts,” people can be misleading in an effort to manipulate you into being who they want you to be or doing what they want you to do. History is filled with politicians misrepresenting “facts” in order to convince the population to back rash policies. Teachers sometimes aren’t caught up on the latest research. To be your own man, you will have to make up your own mind about things.

Making up your own mind doesn’t mean “going with your gut,” “listening to your heart,” or any other such clichés, however. That’s the lazy man’s way of avoiding the work that comes with developing an informed opinion. Want to express an opinion about the election, the death penalty, or gay marriage? First, do your research. Don’t rely on biased sources. Your goal is to find the truth, not just confirm an opinion you already held. Every time you express an uninformed opinion, others will dismiss you as a child, someone who can only parrot others’ opinions. A man knows how to educate himself in pursuit of truth.

GettyBill Ray

18. Express yourself.

Go ahead, dye your hair purple. Grow it long, shave it off. Wear all black, wear all white, wear boots, wear leather, wear a dress. This is the time to try on new identities to see which ones fit you best. Sure, you might have to endure some taunts, but it’s more important that you figure out who you are than caring what those shut-ins of the mind think.

(A word of caution: avoid doing anything permanent, like tattoos, because, just your taste in clothes, hair styles, music, your thoughts about pretty much everything will change. What you think is really deep and insightful today will seem shallow and immature in a few years. And you don’t want something you will later think is childish permanently etched on your body.)

19. Pay attention to the short run…

People who care about you are always talking about your future: what courses to take for your career, what sports will help you get into college, what to look for in the person you’re going to marry. All that stuff is important to think about. But don’t let planning for your future consume your present. Do some things just because they’re fun now. Take that art appreciation class just because it would be fun to learn about it. Play Injustice just to see Wonder Woman kick Batman’s ass. Read those Deadpool comic books just because they’re wickedly funny.

GettyTony Tomsic

20. …But keep your eye on the long run.

Most of what’s important to you now won’t be in a few years. Friends will change. Priorities will shift. That can be a pretty scary prospect. Most boys are afraid of growing into their nightmare version of an adult: the flaccid, self-righteous, humorless sack of meat dumped on the couch shouting commands or barking advice that begins, “When I was your age….” Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Another favorite quote of mine is from Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He meant that the cost of freedom is to always be watching for someone wanting to take that freedom away, but a variation of that quote can apply here: “The price of being a man is eternal vigilance.” Know who you are, what you stand for, watch for any assaults on your principles, but always be open to change if the evidence warrants it.

MORE KAREEM: 20 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Turned 30

PLUS: KAJ’s Full Archive on Esquire.com

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: TEACH CRITICAL THINKING

FROM THE Magazine OF THE WASHINGTON POST  October 26, 2017

Fix this democracy — now,  38 ideas for repairing our badly broken civic life

In his study of 19th-century American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville explained his mission this way: “I undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties; and while they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future.” Nearly two centuries later, all of us — Republican, Democrat, Trump supporter, Trump critic — should be able to agree that some future-pondering about the state of our democracy is in order.

In so many ways, the underlying conditions of U.S. democracy need repair. Among American citizens, ideological and philosophical divisions seem insurmountably sharp; among their representatives in Washington, compromise appears impossible. Whatever side you were on in last year’s election, it’s clear that the campaign brought these problems dramatically to the surface of our national life; it’s also clear that these challenges would have been with us, in equal measure, no matter who won.

And so, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the election, we asked dozens of writers and artists to look beyond the day-to-day upheavals of the news cycle and propose one idea that could help fix the long-term problems bedeviling American democracy. The result: 38 conservative, liberal, practical, creative, broad, specific, technocratic, provocative solutions for an unsettled country. — Richard Just

One of the 38 responses was this one,

BY KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR,

TEACH CRITICAL THINKING

[Although if critical thinking is at all like Plato’s virtue it can’t be taught.]

1963/1964 Abdul-Jabbar on the A train on the way to school in New York. Courtesy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

(Abdul-Jabbar’s most recent book is “Becoming Kareem,” an autobiographical account of his tumultuous, spiritual and athletic journey from childhood through college and his first year in the NBA.)

America’s No. 1 problem is zombies. And, yes, they really do want to eat your brains. They will not stop until everyone is a mindless, staggering, empty-headed shell of humanity just like them. Fortunately, there is a cure.

Okay, zombies are a metaphor. But the reality is just as cataclysmic. Nazis marching in Charlottesville with presidential approval (their words). Racist policies in the administration. Seventy billion dollars for a border wall that no experts believe will work. Climate-change-denying head of the Environmental Protection Agency. NPR tweets the Declaration of Independence on July Fourth and receives vitriolic backlash from Trump supporters, who not only don’t recognize the words but claim the network is inciting violence.

Oh, the humanity!

The federal government is in gridlocked turmoil because we the people have elected a Gordian knot of representatives without the intellectual capability, moral integrity or patriotic zeal to lead this country. How has this come about? Because the zombies that surround us are those Americans who have abandoned their responsibility as citizens to make choices based on facts and logic rather than selfish emotions and comfortable traditions. They have chosen to allow others to manipulate them based on their fears rather than control their own futures through reasoned choices.

The solution is to teach mandatory critical thinking in every year of public school from first through 12th grade. Students must become familiar with all the logical fallacies — slippery slope, false dilemma, begging the question, etc. — that are used by those seeking to confuse and manipulate them, whether they are politicians grubbing for votes, Russians disseminating fake news to influence our elections, or misleading advertisers. As of now, we teach critical thinking in spurts or only as it applies to specific subjects. That’s why we can have successful professionals who can apply logic to their jobs such as law, engineering, medicine or business, but are unable to do so when it comes to human relationships, politics or social policies.

White supremacism, Breitbart, Fox News and Donald Trump would melt under the scrutiny of logic like the witch splashed with water in “The Wizard of Oz.”

It will take several generations to scrub away the sloppy thinking habits we’ve been encouraged to use because we face so much resistance. Some parents don’t want their kids rejecting their beliefs based on facts and logic, and elected officials used to whipping up base emotions don’t want a voting population that demands evidence and specific plans rather than rhetoric. However, by implementing logic as a form of cultural and political self-defense, we can stop the spread of the brainless zombies trying to infect the rest of us. You want to end the divisiveness? Bring us together through a shared use of reason.


 

The Know Nothing President

Ideas, words don’t reach this guy.

It’s as if first the Galilean and Newtonian powered scientific revolution of the 17th century, and then the Enlightenment of the 18th., never happened. Does the President even know they ever took place, let alone what they accomplished? What they are still accomplishing and contributing to our lives?

Then has anyone ever made President Trump listen? Has Trump himself ever replied knowledgeably and appropriately to an interviewer’s questions? Has he ever changed his mind about anything in response to correction? Does he even have something we might call a mind? Wearing his heart on his sleeve, as he does at the rallies, may very well attract his base while hiding the absence of a mind. We know he watches a lot of cable TV, we know he tweets, or at least tells someone what he wants to say who will then tweet for him. But in all the thousands of tweets has there ever been even one idea of substance establishing the mind’s presence?

No. This a guy who seems to have come to us directly from a tribal hunter gatherer society, where there were minds but probably few ideas, probably no laws (a world without laws seeming to be what the president prefers), where the strong man or woman could pretty much say or do whatever he or she wanted to say or do, running over whatever other primate opposition there might have been.

This is the clown like figure who on this week’s New Yorker cover seems to be stepping out confidently into the modern world from what is probably his own dark, primitive, tribal past. Boisterously gleeful while thinking of the havoc his coming will wreak upon the rest of us.

TRUMP!

In fact there is plenty of opposition to the clown from members of the president’s own cabinet, from the Congress, from the courts, although imminent but not yet in evidence, from the Supreme Court itself, and most strikingly of all from the classical liberal press, led by the Times and the Washington Post. But the opposition, other than that of the Press, is in pieces that never seem to come together and join in opposition to the president, thereby allowing the man in the Oval Office to pretty much have everything his own way….


Borders may make countries, but have never made civilizations.

I always try to read Andrew Sullivan’s weekly NY Magazine piece. And not just because I most often agree with him. No less often are his ideas fresh and different, and I learn from them. This past week it was his idea that the single most important issue facing the country was mass immigration, and furthermore that this single issue [waved about like a black flag by Donald Trump and his minions] could lose the next election for the Democrats.

And why is that? Well, as Sullivan says, the most powerful of Trump’s words during the campaign, was probably a tweet, that being the only language the Trump seems to know,  “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.” And the Democrats, they were flat-footed, didn’t move an inch in response, evidently had no answer, that which the millions of Americans who were watching immediately saw.

But Andrew Sullivan is wrong about all this, implying that Trump here is on the side of the truth. He’s not. The tweet he cites is just another lie of Trump’s, to be eaten up by his followers. No borders (in Trump’s case, no border walls) no country. A Trump lie, although at best perhaps half an idea, or half truth. But, as Sullivan says, so far the Democrats don’t seem to have an answer for Trump’s false statement that countries are made by borders. (Another question entirely, what makes a country.)

This lie, that no borders means no country, is a lie coming directly from the president’s abysmal ignorance of history. I would argue also that there is an answer, a good answer, a great answer, to Trump’s silly tweet, and I would hope that even now, after the campaign, there are Democrats, and others from the disappearing center of the country,  who could agree, get behind this answer, give it their support, promote it from the bully pulpit. That’s what we need to even begin to do away with the multiple divisions that now divide us.

To Trump’s tweet, “no border, no country,” THE ANSWER is SIMPLE AND OBVIOUS. For without borders you then have a good chance of having something much better than a country, a civilization, that which Trump knows nothing about. The greatest moments in our history are about times when borders were not up and keeping peoples apart, when there were real civilizations resulting from peoples coming together across border lines.

We read mostly about civilizations, not so much about countries, in the history books. Such, for example, as the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, that of the Christian Middle Ages, that of the Islamic  Caliphate of Cordoba in 8th. century Spain. And any number of others, including that of the Mongols in the 13th. century that covered nearly half the earth (no borders there!).

Open borders allow and encourage diverse peoples to come together and build, not a country, but a civilization. I’m for a civilization. If we can stop the Trumpists, the white supremacists, the nationalists, and all the others who would try to close us off from the world, why then we might go on, as in fact we have been doing up until now, with the creation of an American Civilization.

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, YES, BUT AS IT WAS BEFORE THE COMING OF THE WHITE MAN

DO WHITE SUPREMACISTS EVER THINK ABOUT WHAT AMERICA WAS, BEFORE THEIR COMING? AND FURTHERMORE DO THEY EVER TELL US WHAT THEIR MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN WOULD EVEN MEAN, IF IT EVER WERE TO HAPPEN? IF AMERICA EVER WAS GREAT, OR, AS OUR PRESIDENT WOULD SAY, FIRST, AS IN AMERICA FIRST, IT JUST HAD TO BE BECAUSE WALLS HAVE NOT BEEN BUILT AND IMMIGRANTS OF ALL FAITHS AND ALL COLORS HAVE BEEN WELCOMED HERE. BUILD THE WALL AND DOING SO DO AWAY WITH THE WELCOME AND THE GREATNESS.

[I take the following passage from Louis L’Amour’s Western tale, Westward the Tide. It’s the story of Matt Bardoul’s struggle to win his girl, marry and settle down, and raise beef cattle in the newly opened Black Hills area of South Dakota following the defeat of the Oglala Lakota tribes who had long lived there but had never established their ownership of the land. This is a story of the carnage that white supremacists have brought upon what may have been at a time in the past a great land and people.]


Matt scarcely saw the old Indian move past him and stop at the edge of the firelight. Murphy was the first to see him. He lifted a hand. “How!” he said, in greeting. The old Indian looked around. “How,” he said mildly. He gestured and said: “Many white man come. Too many.” Murphy chuckled. “That’s right as rain! This was a good country before it got all cluttered up with white men!”

The Indian looked at him sourly. No white man need tell me what my eyes can see. The white man came to a land of grass and trees, to a land of clear, cold streams where the buffalo roamed in their thousands and the beaver filled the streams. They came to a land rich and beautiful, and what have they done? They descended upon the land like starving wolves and they have slaughtered the buffalo for their hides and left the meat to rot upon the prairie, they swept the beaver from the streams and ripped the metals from the earth, and where the white man has been, the streams are fouled with mud and the poison from their mines.

“Where there were forests there is now a wilderness of stumps and useless brush, and the rain washes out the soil from around the roots, and the few trees die. Where there was grass, there is desert; where there were buffalo, there are vast and empty plains swept by sun and wind. No longer does the beaver tail slap the water in quick alarm. His people are gone from the clear waters, his dams are broken. So my people are dying also, and you white men will sweep on across the land digging and killing and ripping up the long grass lands until finally you reach the waters in the west, and then you will wash back upon yourselves. You will return upon the land you have raped and looted, and fight like snarling, starving dogs filled with hunger and hatred.

“Where you found forests, you leave desolation; where you found plenty, you leave famine; where you found prairies waving with tall grass, you leave a desert. Finally, you will turn back upon yourselves and fight over the scraps until all is gone and you turn and stare about in astonished wonderment at the land you have ravished, and you will say, ‘Great Spirit, what have we done?’

“He’s crazy!” Harless said, staring at the old man. Murphy tugged at his beard. “Maybe. I think the old boy makes sense.”

Red_Cloud3
Red Cloud (1822–1909)

Born in Nebraska in 1822, Lakota chief Red Cloud was an important figure in the 19th century land battle between Native Americans and the U.S. government. He successfully resisted developments of the Bozeman trail through Montana territory, and led the opposition against the development of a road through Wyoming and Montana for two years—a period that came to be known as Red Cloud’s War. Red Cloud died in South Dakota in 1909.

“I have been to your great cities, White Men. I went with the great Red Cloud, but what did I see? Only a mad rush for wealth, all fighting and wrangling and hurry, and I found no contentment there, no peace. There is no calm in your people, there is no majesty, you are a people of thieves who sell your daughters for money and barter your souls for gain.

“I shall not live to see the end, nor will you, for the land you have stolen from the Indian is rich, and the looting will take years. The spirit of looting within you will not end, and you will come to call your greed a virtue. You will call it energy and industry, and he who steals the most will gain the praise of his fellow man until finally a day will come when you will look back and see with eyes like mine, and then you will understand.

“You came to our land: a people in search of homes, and homes are good things, but then homes would not content you. “There must be more, and more, and MORE! Like beasts you slew my people, like beasts you looted our land, and now you praise yourself for your energy. This you said, is what a white man can do!

“It was not your energy, White Men, it was the wealth you found when you came. Any man can appear rich if he spends all he possesses in a mad orgy! You are like the foolish young brave who found the skins of many animals, and draped himself in these skins, and said ‘See! What a great hunter I am! What a great warrior!’ but when the skins were sold or given away he had no more. His wealth was gone.

“Some among you have talked of saving the trees, of keeping the grass, but they are a few small voices whispering against the wind. The men you send to speak in your councils speak for the greedy, and for this they are given a part of the spoils, and as they grow old and fat and lose their hair and teeth and the strength of their loins, they grow more rapacious.

“White Man, you have destroyed my people; you are destroying my land; but a day will come when you must face destiny, when you will find the metal you made into cheap trinkets or into objects soon to be worn and tossed away, you will find that metal is the metal you need to survive. War and desolation will sweep over you, and you will be gone. The white man will go. He will die, not slowly like the Indian, but swiftly, suddenly, and then he will be gone.

“The white man is not fitted to survive, for he knows not content. He knows not peace. Wars and more wars and bitter famine and pestilence shall end his pride. He cannot learn. Wherever he goes there is war. The Indian fought, but his battles were short and soon over, and the Indian returned to his hunting and his lodge and his squaw. But the white man lives in violence. Where he goes there is fury, and he will die, tearing at the agony of his wounds, crushed and bloody and wondering because in all his hurry and his doing he has never understood his world nor what he does.

“My people will not be here, but when the fury of the white man is gone, the grass will return, and the forests will grow tall again, for at last, White Man, it is the grass that must always be the victor. It is the grass that made us, the grass built your cities, and the grass fed your flocks. It is the grass that made us, and it is the grass that will come back, sewing up with green thread and winding brown roots the gashes you have ripped in the earth, and the grass will save the water that trees may grow tall, and the flowers bloom again. And the grass will strain the mud from the rain water and the streams will grow clear again, gathering the soil from the desert into bounty once more.

“The white man will be gone. Nothing of him will remain. His cities will fall to ruin, rust will gnaw his steel, and when the years have swallowed him, “there will be nothing to mark his passing or the fury with which he looted this green and golden land.

“I shall go, White Man. You have taken my Black Hills from me, the dwelling place of the Great Spirit. You soon will take the Big Horns. My chiefs have died to save their people, and we have fought well, but your ways of war are hard, and my people are not persistent in their hatreds. We have fought well with what little we have, and now we shall go, wrapped in our blankets and sorrowing that this must be “an end.”


 

“This man in the Oval Office…”

From: The Nation

Trump’s latest outrage.

by Dave Zirin

 

We’ve all seen the San Antonio Spurs’ future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich in a state of exasperation on the sidelines, or in postgame news conferences. Many of us have also heard him speak with great vexation and clarity about the direction of this country and the actions of Donald Trump, particularly on Trump’s “disgusting tenor and tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.”

But I have never heard this man more frustrated, more fed up, and more tense with anger than he was today.

Coach Pop called me up after hearing the president’s remarks explaining why he hadn’t mentioned the four US soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger. Trump said, “President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”

Maybe it was the bald-faced nature of this lie, maybe it was Pop’s own history in the military, but the coach clearly had to vent. He said, “I want to say something, and please just let me talk, and please make sure this is on the record.”

Here is what he said:

“I’ve been amazed and disappointed by so much of what this president had said, and his approach to running this country, which seems to be one of just a never ending divisiveness. But his comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families are so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words.”

At this point, Coach Pop paused, and I thought for a moment that perhaps he didn’t have the words and the conversation would end. Then he took a breath and said:

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner—and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers—is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this president should be ashamed, because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”

Then he said, “Bye, Dave.” And that was it.


Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité