Monday, December 17, 2012

Federally Mandated Firearm Liability Insurance

In the wake of last Friday's unspeakable tragedy, I like many have been moved to think about the politics surrounding gun ownership and the policy problems at the heart of the issue. The legal and social forces impacting this question are intensely complex, but the need is so urgent that I hope we may see forceful and rapid action to reform our gun law regime in significant terms. In that spirit, I would like to add my voice to others who have proposed a policy solution that might form a departing point of consensus over a fraught issue: the adoption of a federal mandate requiring liability insurance for the purchase and ownership of a firearm.

First, let me address the underlying principle of such a proposal. The logic of requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance is the same as that which applies to users of automobiles. Right now the rights of gun ownership are private, but the costs of gun accidents, injuries, and violence are socialized. This is a fundamentally unfair situation. The second amendment guarantees that gun ownership is a right, not a universal actuality on the terms most convenient to those desiring weapons. If the second amendment allows that every citizen may be compelled to pay the fair market value of a weapon, it also allows that each gun owner may contribute toward private funds mitigating the social costs of gun use.

This policy would naturally serve as a "gateway" impediment that would deter gun sales, and those who oppose gun law reform might argue that it would keep firearms out of the hands of those who "need" them. This is a complicated point of contention, but it in no way rises to the level of a disqualifying objection. The potential benefits of such a policy are so salient that any ancillary "down side" could be remediated by, for example, the passage of subsidies to make coverage accessible to small business owners and low-income citizens who might otherwise be blocked from gun ownership.

In social policy terms, this measure would be a versatile means to use the forces of the free market to foster gun safety and responsible gun use. Actuarial studies could determine the level of liability coverage that was optimal for all gun owners, and private insurers could be relied upon to sell such coverage to individual gun owners at the fair market cost. Naturally, gun owners who could demonstrate that they had adequate gun safety training, had laid plans for the secure storage of their weapons, and had purchased weapons whose design minimized social hazards (e.g. "smart guns" with private locks or designed to be operable only by their owner) would attain the most favorable rates of coverage from private insurers. Such an insurance regime would not only influence gun owners, but gun manufacturers and retailers as well, incentivizing them to adopt best standards and practices that promote gun safety and security in the community at large. Thus with a minimum of government intervention behaviors could be widely fostered that would be socially constructive and might deter tragedies like the most recent sorrow in Newtown.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hanukkah and Christmas

The proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas gives it a special place in the yearly calendar for American Jews, one fraught with opposing pressures and ambivalent sentiments. On the one hand Hanukkah is a joyous festival and an opportunity to participate in the spirit of the all-consuming "holiday season." On the other hand, that very impulse raises guilty feelings of assimilation, imitative consumerism, and diluted Jewish identity. While Christians (or some of them) fret about the secularization of Christmas, Jews are prone to fret about the "Christmasization" of Hanukkah. This anxiety is exemplified by Rabbi Wayne Dosick, who in his text Living Judaism insists, "Chanukah and Christmas have nothing in common, other than they are celebrated at the same time of year. Chanukah does not need to be compared to any other religious observance or celebrated in any out-of-proportion way (p. 154)." Similarly, in a recent piece in the New York Times, Hilary Krieger laments that because Hanukkah has "morphed into 'Christmas for Jews,'" the holiday has been sanitized of all its associations with conflict and "Jewish survival."

Any genuinely historical perspective on comparative religion, however, must acknowledge that the Hanukkah and Christmas festivals are intimately linked- instances of "spiritual mirroring" across a sectarian boundary that has often been more porous than many adherents on either side would allow. If today Hanukkah has become "Christmas for Jews," in earlier times Christmas was undoubtedly "Hanukkah for Christians." This may seem absurd- what can the commemoration of a child's birth have to do with a story of bloodshed and war? Yet this perceived asymmetry is an anachronism born of our modern sensibilities.

To Judeans of the classical era the Hanukkah and Christmas stories were structurally parallel. The story of the Maccabees ends with the revival of Jewish kingship- the reemergence of an independent Jewish throne for the first time since the Babylonian exile. It was this miracle that the Hanukkah festival commemorated centuries before anyone recorded the story of the lamp and the oil familiar to us today. The story of Christmas, similarly, ends with the appearance of a new King of Israel. The visit of the Magi to the manger with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is a scene of coronation. The placing of the Christmas holiday in close proximity to Hanukkah reinforced the dynastic themes of Christ's messianic status. Jesus was the natural extension of the Maccabees, the man who would fulfill Jewish hopes in a more absolute and permanent manner.

Here, one might argue, the similarity ends. If Christ was a King, he was one in a very different mold than Judah Maccabee. He raised no army, drove out no conquerors, and ended condemned on a cross. Yet at this juncture we may perceive that the "Christmasization" of Hanukkah began long before anyone sat a child on Santa's lap. For if Christmas radically de-emphasizes the political and military aspects of Christ's "kingship," over time Hanukkah similarly turned away from triumphalism toward more exclusively spiritual themes. The Talmud makes no mention of Hanukkah except in connection to the miracle of the oil, transmuting the holiday from a celebration of human victory into a commemoration of a divine wonder. Hanukkah became, over time, the "Festival of Lights," just as Jesus, as messiah, was epitomized as "The Light of the World." Both Christmas and Hanukkah evolved to commonly turn the worshiper away from kingship understood in terms of blood and iron and toward a contemplation of light, that immaterial substance most evocative of the Transcendent.

It might be tempting to conclude that both Hanukkah and Christmas convey a deliberate and inspirational message of peace, but a more pragmatic reading of the holidays' parallel histories suggests itself. Jews were compelled, in diaspora, to relinquish the dynastic hopes embodied in the Hanukkah festival. If the continuity of Judaism had required the revival of Jewish political institutions the community would have perished, thus survival necessitated finding a more spiritual foundation upon which to build an enduring Jewish identity. Similarly, in their early days Christians were faced with a Roman authority they could not hope to contest militarily. The practicability of Jesus' salvational message thus hinged on finding some way to distinguish Christ as "king" from the Caesars with whom he could not materially contend. Christmas and Hanukkah evolved toward one-another because both Jews and Christians needed to distinguish between the power inherent in Light and the power inherent in Iron.

This historical reading, though less romantic, may be edifying for us today in its own way.  The story of Hanukkah's and Christmas's parallel evolution conveys a lesson about religious life that certainly applies to our own time. When as human beings we seek spiritual fulfillment in concrete, material achievements- the building (or destruction) of a particular edifice, the enforcement of particular rules, the ascendancy of a particular lineage- the effect is generally ephemeral and oftentimes tragic. When, however, we locate spiritual realization in more abstract and universal realms- light, harmony, peace- the effects are generally more enduring and more consistently positive. In a world embroiled by bloody disputes over sacred boundaries and sectarian divisions, we might pause to draw a lesson from our collective past.

[This post was inspired by discussions in a class on Judaism at Congregation B'nai Israel (Rumson, New Jersey), led by Rabbi Jeff Sultar. The opinions and errors, however, are exclusively my own]

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Face of the Taliban

The lead article in today's New York Times, about the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in northern Pakistan, is instructive for anyone concerned about U.S. policy in that region of the world. At the age of eleven Malala had been outspoken in her support of women's education. Yesterday she and three of her classmates were shot and wounded by Taliban militants as they rode a bus to school.

Americans are understandably weary of the ten-year conflict in Afghanistan. Many have been critical of the drone program that has destroyed homes and taken innocent lives in Pakistan. But if there has ever been any doubt that the threat to U.S. security in the Afghan-Pakistani theater is real, the shooting of Ms. Yousafzai should dispel them.

One often hears the complaint that Al Qaeda no longer maintains a viable presence in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda fighters remaining in the region are stuck in Pakistan, confined to cave dwellings where they are under constant pressure from drones or the Pakistani military. Our opponent in Afghanistan is the Taliban, a group with interests and concerns different than Al Qaeda. The Taliban, so goes this argument, does not present the same threat to U.S. security, thus it does not warrant the extreme effort being waged against it in Afghanistan.

Ms. Yousafszai's fate should expose the flaw in this logic. The Taliban gave shelter and aid to Al Qaeda. It hosted Al Qaeda as it planned the 9/11 attacks and refused to break that alliance when presented with evidence of Al Qaeda's act of war against the U.S. Before we can risk the Taliban coming back to power over all or part of Afghanistan, we must be sure that the Taliban will never make common cause with Al Qaeda again. As the shooting of Malala Yousafzai shows, we can never be sure of such an outcome.

My concern is not simply that what the Taliban did was wrong, though it certainly was. Even more troubling, however, is that this attack shows the Taliban to exist in a completely alternate universe of value from that occupied by the U.S. and its allies (and, incidentally, from most Pakistanis and Afghans). What currency can be offered  to, what deal can be struck with an opponent that perceives the urgent necessity of shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head and neck? A group that will go out of its way to commit this act is not a group that can be counted on to "leave well enough alone" where the U.S. is concerned. They do not calculate their interests in a way that would allow us to predict that, knowing the consequences of allying with Al Qaeda a second time, they would choose a different course. Moreover, we know for a certainty that our economy will continue to produce Carly Rae Jepsen songs and Julia Roberts movies and export them throughout the world via ever-faster digital technology. Who can believe that the would-be murderers of Malala Yousafzai would ever be content to co-exist peacefully with such a country, even if it withdrew its support from Israel and forswore any interference in the affairs of the Middle East?

For any U.S. government to abdicate the struggle against the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies would be a gross dereliction of duty.  The surge ordered by President Obama has not achieved its objective of breaking the momentum of the Taliban, but that does not argue for the wisdom of complete withdrawal. The President's plan calls for Afghan forces to "take the lead" in the fight against the Taliban in 2014, but we can expect American troops to remain in Afghanistan far beyond that threshold. Like the Axis powers of World War II, Afghanistan was the origin-point of an attack on the U.S. and its citizens, and like Germany and Japan, Afghanistan can expect to play host to U.S. soldiers for many years to come. It is tragically unfortunate that that occupation will be marked by continued violence and suffering, but as long as the Taliban enjoys robust traction in Afghan and Pakistani society, the threat they pose to U.S. security will demand an armed response.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Arab Spring and the Loss of Innocence

The wave of anti-American protests set off by the film The Innocence of Muslims has occasioned an explosion of politicking, soul-searching, and speculation across the media spectrum here in the U.S. and among our allies abroad. Amidst alarm intensified by the genuinely horrific murder of America's ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues, the polemics and rhetoric generated by these events have been white hot and wildly divergent, suggesting a discourse made incoherent by hysteria. Dire predictions of an ensuing clash of civilizations abound, pundits decry a U.S. foreign policy "in shambles." In their rush to pronounce definitively upon a fluid and sensational situation as it unfolds, few observers seem willing to pause long enough to consider what the long-term historical implications of this moment might be.

To anyone paying attention to this crisis, it should be clear that it is not a spontaneous paroxysm of conflict between the Muslim world and "the West." Innocence of Muslims (or at least the 14-minute "trailer" for this supposed movie that has been available on the internet) is a transparently childish provocation. It is an insult so vapid and generic that any number like it could be unearthed from the fringes of American media culture at any time, and it persisted in total obscurity for months before interested parties in the Arab world waged a campaign to incite outrage corresponding neatly with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Though the resulting protests have generated real violence and vivid imagery, they have engaged a narrow band of the citizenry of the Muslim world. In Cairo, a city of 6.7 million people, the protests at the U.S. embassy have drawn about 2,000 individuals. That is a potentially dangerous mob, but it hardly reflects the consensual state of public sentiment.

If one realizes that this is not a "spontaneous" cultural reflex, but the very deliberate mobilization of social groups in promotion of particular political interests, many of the more feverish assessments of the foreign policy implications of these events are shown false. The idea that these protests are a response to "American weakness" is absurd. If this crisis were a visceral response to perceived American weakness, it would not have required such cynical and contrived fabrication. Likewise, the notion that these events stand as an indictment of the Arab Spring or of the wisdom of America's support for democracy movements does not stand the test of logic. The fact that regimes like the Mubarak government could forestall this type of unrest through brutal oppression did not make the world a safer place or further U.S. interests, and as events like the Danish cartoon crisis demonstrated, repressive secular regimes were not above stoking Islamist aggression when it suited their interests.

If we can get beyond the pulling of hair and rending of clothes, what can or should be done? We cannot imagine that these attacks are innocuous or harmless. The death of Ambassador Stevens in Libya is both a tragic loss and a grievous insult to the United States. The destruction of the American Cooperative School in Tunisia is a senselessly nihilistic blow to the fabric of international civil society. The response to such crimes must be resolute and vigorous. But we should remain aware throughout that these attacks are more focused on the internal power dynamics of the nations in which they occur than on the international geostrategic order of which the U.S. is a part. Those who destroyed the American Cooperative School did not do so to weaken America, but to make life more difficult for Western diplomatic personnel (whose children principally constituted the school's pupils), in hopes that the nations they represent will politically and economically disengage from Tunisia. Such an outcome, if it came about, would weaken the forces in Tunisian society that thrive on cosmopolitanism, and strengthen the hand of those who would usher in parochial theocracy. Corresponding motives underlie the "protest" movements in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and the other Muslim nations that have experienced unrest.

In light of this fact, the most important step the U.S. and its allies must take is to refrain from panic. America must match the Islamists' resolve to disrupt communication and trade with a countervailing resolve to remain engaged in Muslim nations, even in the face of hostility and violence. The perpetrators of these attacks will only truly represent the Muslim world if countries like the U.S. abandon the field of interaction and debate, leaving those in Egypt, Libya, and other Muslim societies who support openness and exchange isolated and vulnerable. We cannot force our values onto other nations, but neither can we completely desert our potential roles as interlocutor, partner, or ally in the diverse communities of the Muslim world.

We should take heart in the apparent weakness of the forces challenging our resolve. Like the Nazis and the communists of the 20th century, today's Islamists are using techniques of mass mobilization and mob violence to expand their influence during a period of weakening state power. Those former groups, however, did not make targeting foreign embassies a central strategic method of their program for political ascendancy. The fact that today's Islamists evince the need to isolate their societies internationally is not a sign of strength, but of fundamental insecurity.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Myth of the "Anti-Israel" Obama

Speaking with other Jews, one of the themes that often arises when one discusses the current presidential campaign is the notion of President Obama's purported hostility to Israel. Even staunch Democrats who avow their support of Obama will opine that "Romney would be better for Israel." There is a broad expectation that such concerns will make many more Jews vote Republican in this cycle.

Relations between the Obama White House and the Netanyahu government have been visibly strained, but other than this particular friction it is difficult to fathom why so many American Jews are persuaded that President Obama is "anti-Israel" in the abstract. His opposition to the building of new settlements in the Occupied Territories and his open endorsement of "pre-1967" boundaries as a baseline for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority have been seized upon by the President's critics as blatant provocations, but they do not open any daylight between Obama and his Republican opposition.

An example of the hazy logic behind this conventional wisdom can be seen in a recent piece posted on the blog Israel Commentary by Michael Freund: "Where Does Paul Ryan Stand on Israel?" In it, Freund calls upon Jewish voters to vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket, noting that "On Ryan’s Congressional website, Israel features prominently in the section entitled 'Homeland Security.'" But if one goes to the actual text concerning Israel on Ryan's website, there is nothing to distinguish his position on Israel from President Obama's. Indeed, Ryan declares that "Real peace will require Palestinians to recognize that Israel has a right to exist, even as it will require two states for the two peoples," a key pronouncement which might be lifted out of the speech for which President Obama has been so decried among some of Israel's supporters. Freund admits sullenly that "Unfortunately, Ryan also endorses the so-called two-state solution, which is clearly a non-starter," demonstrating how far out of the mainstream those who have most actively promulgated the myth of Obama's "anti-Israel" stance really are.

The stubborn persistence of the image of Obama as "anti-Israel" is sometimes quite puzzling.  Mitt Romney has moved to capitalize on the impression, asking in a recent campaign ad why Obama has never visited Israel. Though it is true that Obama has never visited Israel officially as President of the United States, the same is true of all but four of the eleven U.S. presidents that have served in office since Israel first came into existence: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The two Republican presidents who did visit Israel (a list that noticeably does not include Ronald Reagan) did so only in their second terms.

Moreover, the notion that "Obama has never visited Israel" is simply not true. Senator Barack Obama visited Israel while campaigning for president in 2008. On that trip he made a point of visiting with victims of a rocket attack by Hamas forces in the town of Sderot, declaring that, "I came to Sderot with a commitment to Israel's security. Israel has the right to defend itself, and peace should not undermine its security." That proved to be more than an empty promise. As Colin Kahl notes, "Obama has championed efforts to provide Israel with $275 million over and above its annual FMF to help finance Iron Dome, an anti-rocket system that has already saved Israeli lives by intercepting approximately 90 percent of projectiles launched against protected areas in the country's south in the past year."

Indeed, Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Israel has hit historic highs under the Obama administration, reaching $3.1 billion in FY 2013. Monetary aid is only one dimension in which the security relationship between Israel and the U.S. has grown historically close under Obama's stewardship. Technological exchanges and cooperation on key defense matters have accelerated under this administration faster than under any previous president, prompting Ehud Barak, Bibi Netanyahu's Defense Minister, to declare: "It's been proven to all the doubters, President Obama is an ally and friend of Israel. The Obama administration gives backing to Israel's security in a wide, all-encompassing and unprecedented manner."

Despite all the evidence, the notion that President Obama is hostile to Israel persists, fueled by sound-bite impressions and skewed rhetoric. The Romney-Ryan campaign believes that they can win Jewish votes on the strength of this myth, and their success in winning the allegiance of backers such as Sheldon Adelson seems to bear out their strategy. The facts, however, tell a different story. Though Obama's advocacy for a two-state solution has occasionally produced friction between his administration and that of Bibi Netanyahu, it does not in any way distinguish him as a matter of policy from his Republican rivals. Those who vote against President Obama on the suggestion that he "has been bad for Israel" are being sorely misled.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Context and More Context

Much ado has been made of Barack Obama's purported declaration that "If you've got a business- you didn't build that." Democratic pleas that the President's remarks are being taken out of context will have little effect in certain quarters of the electorate. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Republicans contend, that Obama was wholesale denying the value of individual initiative and entrepreneurship. He was, however, arguing that our social responsibilities and indebtedness remain robust, even grow, as our individual success contributes to the general prosperity. That message will never be welcome among voters who are persuaded that taxes must never be raised on "job creators," no matter how much context is provided for the President's phraseology.

In fairness, Mitt Romney's words have been subject to similar parsing in the course of this campaign. In August of 2011, during a soapbox talk at the Iowa State Fair, Romney made the unfortunately phrased declaration that "corporations are people, my friend." Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called this a "shocking admission." Republicans would correctly point out that Romney's words are only shocking if you misconstrue his meaning and elide his subsequent remarks. The former Governor did not mean that corporations themselves have the moral status of human beings, but that "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."

Still, put into the larger context of his campaign message, Romney's statement does draw a clear contrast between his perspective and that of the President. This June in Wisconsin, Romney accused the President of being "out of touch," saying, "He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people." If we place this quote next to Romney's declaration of last August; what other implication can we draw except that corporations are people, but firemen, policemen, and teachers are not?

Romney's defenders would no doubt insist that this is a misreading of the candidate's words. At the very least, however, they beg an inquiry into his larger perspective. If Romney is spontaneously capable of articulating that "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people;" why is he not likewise intuitively capable of acknowledging that everyone rescued, protected or educated by the groups he denigrates are people too?

Though a narrow focus on a candidate's phrasing offers little insight into his or her policy positions, the extemporaneous choice of words can open a window onto a candidate's general values, priorities, and political reflexes. Whether any of the statements quoted above represent genuine "gaffes," they do in some sense offer a picture of two general world views. The President spontaneously stresses our responsibilities to one another over the rewards due individual initiative. Mitt Romney, by contrast, reflexively exalts monetary earnings and and is dismissive of personal labor. This fall the voters must decide which perspective they find more humanistic and humane, which represents a clearer and more positive break with our recent past, and which will best serve the nation in a time of economic distress.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Syria is not Iraq

In yesterday's New York Times, Thomas Friedman offered a column entitled "Syria is Iraq." In it, he notes that "Syria is Iraq’s twin — a multisectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology." He therefore predicts that a "decent outcome" is unlikely in Syria in the absence of "a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition." In other words, Syria is doomed to perpetual anarchy and civil war, because unlike Iraq, Syria will not enjoy the benefits of being invaded by the United States.

Friedman is not arguing for a U.S. invasion of Syria. He concedes that "Iraq was such a bitter experience for America" (as opposed to the Iraqis themselves, for whom the U.S. invasion was presumably a holiday) that invading Syria is unthinkable. It is difficult to fathom the practical point of Friedman's piece. Having conceded that "what is impossible," Friedman notes that "in the Middle East, the alternative to bad is not always good. It can be worse." His conclusion would thus seem to be that since the U.S. can not do what is necessary in Syria, it should do nothing at all.

What intrigues me most about Friedman's column is the way it epitomizes much conventional American thinking, not only about the Middle East, but about the world at large. "Decent outcomes" can only come from the application of U.S. power. Where American might is ineffective, only pessimism and fatalism are warranted.

In his fit of paternalism, Friedman has forgotten one colossal difference between Syria and Iraq. The movement to displace the Assad regime, unlike the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is an organic, indigenous impulse of Syrian society. That fact alone may create resources and possibilities that were curtailed in the case of Iraq. If the Hussein regime had fallen to a home-grown uprising rather than succumbing to a sudden power vacuum caused by foreign invasion, perhaps in the process alternative power structures could have been built and new social compacts negotiated, precluding the "need" for a nine-year occupation. Perhaps the outcome in that case might have been a good sight more decent than the strife-torn country Iraq is today.

What is happening right now in Syria is of course very tragic, but it is potentially very hopeful in the long term. If the Syrian rebels manage to oust the Assad regime, it will be a major victory for people's revolution over the forces of modern military technology and entrenched totalitarianism. The very fact that the Syrian people have sustained their armed revolution for seventeen months in the face of murderous violence demonstrates that they have more courage, resourcefulness, and political will than Thomas Friedman gives them credit for.

A good outcome may be long in coming, and perhaps Friedman's darkest predictions will bear out in truth. But if the Syrian people do fight through to a better day, perhaps we can finally put aside delusions of American "midwifery" and come to a new assessment of the limits and potential of U.S. power. In the meantime, though the ultimate fate of Syria depends on the Syrian people themselves, it would be unwise of any nation to stand by and spectate as Syria bleeds. It is arrogant to assume that the Syrian people require a U.S. invasion to build a new future, but it is foolish to assume that any revolutionary movement facing such stacked odds can win through without assistance. If a new day does dawn in Syria, its people will remember who aided them and who stood idly by.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Rectification of Names

On July 10th, the New York Times published an editorial by Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell entitled "A Confucian Constitution for China." It argues that a Confucian "Way of the Humane Authority" is more suited to the needs of China than either authoritarianism or democracy. The essay has provoked much response, in both  English and Chinese. I do not intend to parse through the individual points of Jiang's and Bell's proposal, as that has been done ably by several commentators. As Perry Link observed in a brief response published by the Times on July 13, the chief failing of the essay is its claim to develop a genuine "third way" for China. Though Jiang and Bell demonstrate clearly how their system differs from democracy, which they deem "flawed in practice," they do little to distinguish it from China's current system of authoritarian rule or to explain how it would better serve the Chinese people than the current regime.

Indeed, the only thing to recommend the constitution outlined by Jiang and Bell is its purported "Confucianism." For those of us engaged in the academic study of Chinese culture here in the U.S., such a public exercise in Orientalism is disheartening. The tendency to fetishize aspects of China's venerable culture has always been strong, but one hopes that over time it will be ameliorated by education and expanding awareness.

Progress has obviously been slow, however. As one colleague pointed out in an online forum, a close historical analog for the Times' proposal can be found in the case of Frank Johnson Goodnow, an American scholar who urged the first president of the Chinese Republic, Yuan Shikai, to dismantle the republic and declare himself emperor. Goodnow, like Bell and Jiang, argued that democracy was ill-suited to Chinese culture, and that the Chinese people needed the succor of their traditional institutions. Yuan (who from the outset was an erstwhile Republican) happily took Goodnow's advice, and the result was disaster: China was plunged into a decade-long "warlord period" marked by suffering and destruction. This kind of romanticization of Chinese tradition is rare in the academy today, but it obviously continues to inflect the attitudes and judgment of many cultural leaders here in the U.S.

My own sorrow at this incident is heightened by the fact that, in one respect, I agree with Jiang and Bell. Like them I believe that Confucian tradition will be very influential in the future political evolution of China, and I am convinced that the rich legacy of Confucianism has much to teach thinkers, leaders, and artists of all kinds throughout the world. In that respect, however, the essay in question has done more harm than good. However many romantic notions about Chinese tradition they might hold, Times readers generally know a silly idea when they see one. If this is their only exposure to Confucian thinking on current problems, they can not come away with the impression that Confucianism has much of value to contribute to today's discourse. This is an unfortunate misperception, and necessitates the Confucian practice of "the rectification names." All its readers should be aware that not only is Jiang's and Bell's proposal not very practical, it is not particularly Confucian either. Do not judge the entire Confucian tradition on the basis of this one use of its symbols and rhetoric.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Letter to President Obama on Syria

Dear President Obama,

I write out of concern for the ongoing conflict in Syria. Your actions in Libya demonstrated that the United States can, in consort with our allies, effectively project armed force in support of our values and interests. The strategic situation in Syria is clearly very different, and your prudence up to this point has been well warranted by the circumstances. However, the crisis has become so dire that we are compelled to take action, despite the real risks.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad, with its recent indiscriminate massacre of civilians, has fallen back on the use of unrestrained terror as the last remaining bulwark of its sovereign power. Such a government has put itself beyond the reach of any genuinely political process, it is not an entity that can be engaged diplomatically. The only way to revive a political process in Syria and to restore effectiveness to diplomatic means is to aid the development of a robust military alternative to the Assad machine. It is thus imperative that the international community rally to support the Free Syrian Army with funding, training, and weapons, so that they may protect the Syrian populace and force the Assad regime to refrain from committing wholesale slaughter.

Arguments against such a policy are of course valid. We do not know the precise composition of the Free Syrian Army, and some of its members are no doubt hostile to the U.S. and Israel. Support of the Free Syrian Army would anger Russia and antagonize Iran. Such caveats are undermined by the dramatic nature of the current crisis, however. Little can be done to destabilize the situation further than it has already become, and there is nothing that can be done to ameliorate the crisis that will be accepted by either Russia or Iran.

This being an election year, any action you take will no doubt come under unfair criticism from your political opponents. I would urge you, however, to show the same strength of leadership in the case of Syria as you showed in Libya. If the Assad regime is able to reestablish itself through naked terror, the cause of the Arab Spring will be set back dramatically, a consequence that will rebound to the severe detriment of the U.S. and her allies. Audacious action is required to secure the progress that the people of Syria and the Arab world at large have fought so bravely to achieve.

I hope this message finds you well. Thank you for your attention on this matter.


Andrew Meyer

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Letter to SCOTUS on the Affordable Care Act

To the Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States,

I write you as a citizen out of concern that you might overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and signed into law in 2010. This is the most significant piece of social legislation enacted by the federal government in my lifetime, and a great step forward in solving problems that have increasingly debilitated the health care system of our nation for many decades. It is devastating to think that such a significant achievement, executed with such thought and effort, is in peril of being dismantled by your high office. The political climate of the nation being what it is, such a decision handed down by your Court would derail health care reform for another generation, condemning millions of Americans to lack of basic care and millions more to suffering brought on by rising health care costs.

This prospect is made doubly painful by the fact that all challenges to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act rest on highly specious logic. In an economy where 10-15% of the price of all goods and services now represents the health care costs associated with production and distribution, it is fantastic to imagine that the Affordable Care Act falls outside of the purview of Congress' duly mandated authority to regulate commerce. While the search for a "limiting principle" that would constrain the powers arrogated to Congress by the enactment of an individual mandate is of course valid and prudent, such a limiting principle is self-evident if one examines the issue with an unbiased eye.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act claim that if it stands, Congress will be able to compel the purchase of any commodity or service by appeal to the commerce clause. This is manifestly untrue, however. Health insurance is not fungible with almost any other form of purchasable commodity, in that health insurance is itself a form of currency for the consumption of goods and services. Because of the unique nature of the health care market, insurance (privately acquired or publicly funded) is the currency with which health care is purchased in virtually every industrialized country. By mandating that all Americans must be insured, Congress is effectively regulating and rationalizing the commercial marketplace, by mandating that citizens convert one form of currency into another form more suited to the efficient operation of the health care market.

Unless one can explain how broccoli or cell phones necessarily operate as currency within an existing market, it is difficult to imagine how Congress could justify a mandate to purchase those items on the precedent of the Affordable Care Act. One might object that a mandate to buy burial insurance would nonetheless be constitutional on this principle. Even if one conceded that the precedent of the Affordable Care Act made a burial insurance mandate "proper" under the commerce clause (and there are so many structural differences between the mortuary and health care markets that such a contention would hang from a slender thread), does anyone believe that as a matter of degree, such a mandate could be construed as equally "necessary" to the regulation of the marketplace?

Moreover, this mandate does not entail an unprecedented injunction to "positive action," because the health care market is one in which all Americans already participate. To mandate that citizens buy insurance is not equivalent to mandating that they must push an elderly person away from an oncoming bus or face sanction. Rather, if there is an imperative to positive action with which the health insurance mandate is analogous, it is an injunction that a diner must pay his or her check before exiting a restaurant on completion of a meal. Viewed in this correct light, the Affordable Care Act does not arrogate powers to Congress that it does not already possess.

Upon careful deliberation, I urge you to do what the integrity of our constitutional system demands by upholding the Affordable Care Act and securing its benefits for the citizens of the United States. I hope that this communication finds you well, and thank you for your attention on this matter.


Andrew Meyer

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Secular Chauvinism and the Triumph of False Cognates

This past week I gave a lecture to my students that almost certainly failed in its objective. The course was "Shaping of the Modern World," the topic was "Religion and Science, 1450-1750." I pleaded the case that the conventional story about religion and science in modern history should be held in suspicion. We are often inclined to think that as the world "modernized," science became more important in society and religion less so. I tried to persuade my students that the picture was more complicated, that the roles of religion and science in global society have both surely changed since 1450, but in complex ways that make facile quantitative comparisons of their relative influence specious.

Blue in the face as I may be, I suspect that I will receive many essays on our upcoming midterm which begin, "Since 1450, religion has become less important in world society as the influence of science has grown (for those of my students enterprising enough to find this blog-congratulations! you have a jump on the exam)." Much of the fault for this lies in my own weak powers as an instructor- I lack the personal charisma and clarity of expression required to create a "dissonance effect" that will shake my students out of a deeply entrenched paradigm. Part of the fault, however, lies in the depth to which the paradigm is entrenched, and the frequency and intensity with which it is reinforced by our popular culture and mass media.

The "religion : modernity as oil : water" fallacy is pervasive, as evidenced by the cottage industry of popular secular chauvinists such as Bill Maher. The bias to which it gives rise is insidious. Even people of faith are not immune: if only I had a dime for every devout Jew or Christian I have seen lament the inability of Islam to adapt to the modern world. This might all be amusing if it did not have serious consequences for our discourse and politics. Because so many are so ignorant and so dismissive of religion, we tend to collectively misunderstand many events and movements in which religion plays a central role.

The controversy over reproductive freedom is a central case in point. The past few years, statistics have shown that so-called "pro-life" opinions were becoming more widespread. Some polls seemed to show that a majority of Americans had become "pro-life." This impression was based on a misconception, however. Though many Americans object to legalized abortion for ethical and religious reasons, those reasons are so varied as to not truly be mutually fungible. This fact has been thrown into stark light by the recent  controversy over contraception. As Gail Collins wrote yesterday in The New York Times, "[The] more we argue about contraception, the more people are going to notice that a great many of the folks who are opposed to abortion in general are also opposed to birth control." The perception that a "majority" of Americans had become "pro-life" hinged upon the ascendancy of a false cognate. Those who oppose abortion because they view a fetus as a person and those who oppose abortion because they feel that all aspects of sexual life should be controlled by God are both called "pro-life" by the media, but many in the former group have less in common with fellow "pro-lifers" than they do with large swaths of America that consider themselves "pro-choice."

Other regrettable instances may be seen in American perceptions of the Middle East. Followers of Osama bin-Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini are both "Islamists." Those who view Israel as a vestigial remnant of colonialism and those who view Israel as an impediment to the creation of a new caliphate are both "anti-Zionists." Conversely, those who would defend the "Green Line" and those who would annex "Judea and Samaria" are both simply "Zionists." All of these labels confuse forces and actors that are fundamentally incommensurate with one-another, and all these distortions materially degrade the effectiveness of our foreign policy.

As an ardent secularist, I would never argue that secular chauvinism is a greater problem for our society than religious chauvinism. No such biases come without a cost, however. Anyone who views religion with dismissive scorn does so at his or her peril. The role of religion in today's society is obviously different than that of 1450, but religion remains a robust, multidimensional, and dynamic presence in all corners of the globe and in all aspects of human affairs. Until the common misconception of religion's "decline" is put aside, we will continue to misunderstand the forces that are shaping the world around us, and fail to respond effectively to events that impact our daily lives.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Contraception, the Catholic Church, and the War on Religion Flim-Flam

Furor over the Department and Health and Human Service's ruling that Catholic agencies must offer employees health coverage granting access to contraception is the latest centerpiece of the conservative media's attempt to frame the Obama White House as waging a "war on religion." To hear pundits on the right, this regulation is the greatest assault on conscience since the Spanish Inquisition. The resulting cascade of incendiary rhetoric and ill logic has been painful to witness.

For all the sound and fury, I have yet to see anyone explain whose conscience the disputed regulation violates, or how. Yes, the policy almost certainly will result in the Church indirectly paying for such practices as the use of condoms, which its teachings forbid. But this is no more a violation of conscience than a pacifist's taxes paying for a military engaged in active warfare, or an orthodox Jew's taxes paying for mail carriers that work on the Sabbath. No social contract in a pluralistic society will ever perfectly accommodate the parochial commitments of all individuals.

Moreover, the use of contraception is a question of conscience, but the availability of contraception is not- it is a question of public health. The HHS regulation will not force a single individual to use contraception. Allowing the Catholic Church to inhibit access to contraception to the myriads its agencies employs (many of who are not Catholic), however, will most certainly contribute to the spread of AIDS, hepatitis, and a host of other diseases. Conservatives are fond of complaining that nine unelected judges should not be empowered to set public policy. How much less should that power reside in the hands of a small cabal of bishops and cardinals completely unaccountable to the electorate at large?