Have a Little Self-Respect

Have a Little Self-Respect

A much loved teacher, when asked about teaching, attributed her success to the “culture of respect” she had been able to develop in her classrooms. Respect, she explained, opens the heart, as well as the mind, to the lives of others, generates empathy, and transforms the classroom into a vibrant learning community. Children discover that each is large, interesting, distinct, and able, and that each has something special to offer the whole. Thus sustained, the outside world feels safer to explore. Communal support leads to generous, confident personalities, boosts acquisition of knowledge and attainment of skills, and imparts important life lessons.

Self respect is foundational, a basic human need. One has the right to grant oneself such-respect on one’s own account, but in the long run it must be earned and deserved to be believed. It’s wonderful, therefore, that self respect follows naturally from respect for others in a classroom, in a cycle of engaged hearts and minds guided by clear-seeing eyes. In respecting you, I enlarge my regard for myself. In admiring your unique qualities and limits, I clarify my own. Selves and societies, as George Herbert Mead put it, are “twin-born;” they emerge together; they co-inspire. Great societies are guided by informed, respectful, and thoughtful citizens. The small community of grammar school children kindles an ideal of what could and should be the model of adult civic discourse.

There is something else of fundamental importance this special teacher taught. “Respect,” she said, “is given away. It’s nothing material. It’s not property. It’s yourself— your self, a most accessible and available gift. Give your respect freely to others and good feelings will be returned your way. Disrespect others and you can expect resentment and unfavorable portraits in return.

Wow! Think about that! What happens if I withhold the respect you deserve as a human being? I actively injure myself as I insult you. I prevent a part of myself from being born. I atrophy myself by being unable to honor you. Something shrivels and hardens. Personalities and selves are not literally discovered; they are grown, developed, nurtured, cultured, and then embraced. It’s not the same as opening a box, and pulling out a doll. Genetics doesn’t take us all the way to personhood. Therefore, this wonderful, swirling concordance of self and society ever upward through respect granting cycles regresses hellishly into a sickening maelstrom of personal and social diseases as shouts of disrespect are cycled downward in “no, dammit, you’re the dunce” claims and games.

This teacher’s observations came to mind with a jolt when the Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, the former Mayor of Waterville and a Tea Party candidate, while running for election for the governorship in September, 2010, promised voters that he would, if elected, tell President Obama to “go to hell.” They have been coming to mind repeatedly this winter as the Republican candidates for President castigate President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and each other, in their various “debates,” better described perhaps as equal opportunity ‘debasements’—debasements of candidates, rivals, host networks, and questioners alike

Disrespect of President Obama, everyone must know by now, has been egregious and over-the-top from the conservative right of the Republican Party from even before the President took office. The President has been repeatedly accused of not being born an American citizen by the so-called ’Birthers,’ led by Donald Trump, the current front runner for the nomination of his party. The President has been battered for eight years with charges of being a foreigner, a Muslim, a terrorist, an infiltrator, a liar, a spy, a traitor, an incompetent, a fool, a devil, Satan, and the Antichrist. When the President delivered his otherwise kindly-received State of the Union Address to Congress earlier this month, with its theme of working together and national unity, several candidates skipped the event, and yet couldn’t resist the urge to opine or tweet various insults: “boring, … hard to watch.” (Trump); “Obama will … ‘demagogue’ his record” (Cruz); and, “you lie” (Paul). The dueling candidates seem to enjoy competing for novel epithets by which to savage the President

It is important to note that President Obama is nothing like that. None of the whacky aspersions fit. The people who voted for President Obama twice, as I did, electing him by comfortable margins both times, have a favorable image of the President now, just as we did when we voted for him. It’s obvious to me that he’s a nice person, a good husband, an engaged and loving parent, patriotic, intelligent, quick witted, thoughtful, dedicated, knowledgeable, informed, competent, articulate, an exceptionally good speaker, patient, caring, cool under fire, analytical, and pragmatic in making decisions. Isn’t this the least anyone should be able to say about him? I find him also to be honest and ethical, dedicated and diligent, visionary and realistic. I leave it to the reader to list his accomplishments and narrate his legacy, if that’s at all meaningful before he leaves office. His list of accomplishments, by any standard, are many, important, and consequential, not only for the nation, but for the world. He has done most everything I personally would have asked of him. I’d vote him a third term if that were an option. He surely is among our finest Presidents in coping with tragedy and loss, a form of leadership that has been required of him maddeningly and depressively often. He grieves, he cries, he comforts, and leads the citizenry in the search for meaning and justice. The larger point, though: He is a good man.

Against this portrait, It is incredible and ludicrous that millions of Americans routinely treat their President with scurrilous epithets. Beyond the debates, Obama bashing is a mass phenomenon and a favorite parlor game in many Republican households and gatherings. Shamefully, name calling is a staple on the 24 hour cable news channels and more than a few websites. Around 66 million people voted for President Obama in 2012, against 61 million votes for Governor Romney. Assume, for the sake of fairness and argument, that two-thirds of Romney voters speak civilly of the President; yes, they dislike his policy and programs; yes, they’re disappointed he’s President, but they don’t savage him with ad hominem attacks. Well, that would still leave over 20 million people who routinely diminish him as a human being. The disease is national; the atrophied selves are legion.

It is true that politics is a rough, tough contact sport. It’s true that most Presidents have had similar treatment from sizable numbers of critics and haters. It’s true that we have had and do have deeply polarized politics and dysfunctional government. It’s true that Presidents G. W. Bush, Clinton, L.B. Johnson, and Nixon, among others in recent times, have experienced mass derision and hate. Everyone knows what contumely Lincoln had to endure, a hate so great as to claim his life. Anyone can see that the belittlement mills are operating at warp speed to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first woman President. Not withstanding all of these diminutions, the treatment President Obama has received is special, if only because the technology and media climate allows spectacular excoriation at all hours of day, night, and weekend. Even a foreign President has been invited to Congress to take potshots at the President.

It’s not President Obama’s fault, it’s ours. As Pogo exclaims, in the Walt Kelly comic strip:

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Some hate the President because they are racist; others because they are ideologues, embittered hard-right “movement” conservatives; others because they are nativists terrified by immigrants and war refugees; and still others because they are petty religionists terrified by Islamic terrorists. President Roosevelt cautioned the nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” People associate this quote with our resolve in entering World War II. We won that war, but fear threatens to prevail in our country now. Fear is galavanting free all over the land of the free, like so many wild horses. Without fear, what would the haters dine on? What would they live for?

Respect, it is useful to note, is an eye metaphor—closely associated with looking, watching, and seeing, and akin to spectator and specs, as in eye glasses. The idea is to look back (‘re’), both literally and contemplatively, at an object (spec, specter, spectacle, person), and to give it good standing in the world. Yes, that’s a tree; that’s a cat, that’s a young child; and that is a man, President Obama. If you can’t see President Obama for who he is, you’re afflicted by more than cataracts, you’re blinded by dark phantoms of fear and hate. You lose the ability to love. The sighted person who refuses to look at the obvious lies to himself about what he sees, and thus becomes a public liar as well, a condition the great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky saw clearly and cautioned us against:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.                      Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov 

Most Americans probably don’t realize that President Roosevelt’s message on fear is not a response to Pearl Harbor, in 1941, but rather appears in his first inaugural address in 1933. The reference is to fears associated with The Great Depression. His invitation to the nation is as relevant now as it was then. Roosevelt said:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

In treating President Obama with respect we preserve a regard also for the Presidency itself, so that future occupants might receive the basic respect they will need to carry out their constitutional obligations and duties.

What is the import of this sober tale? Americans, listen up! Believe in your country. Govern thoughtfully and wisely. Be good to each other. Cut out the labels and insults. Let’s start treating each other with respect. Follow the little children. Open your eyes. Open your mind. Talk to the great people all around you. Give up lying. Have a little self-respect.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

January 26, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Antonin Scalia’s War on Secularists

Antonin Scalia’s War on Secularists

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a January 2nd speech at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, Louisiana, told the audience that the constitution does not require government to be neutral between religion and non-religion. The separation clause of the First Amendment prevents government from favoring a particular faith, that is true, but it is not intended as a rebuke of religion. Government, in Scalia’s judgment, can and should favor religion over non-religion

While the Louisiana speech has brought fresh attention to his views, Justice Scalia’s has stated them before, for example at Colorado Christian University in October, 2014, when he was awarded a honorary degree. Note the consistency of message in Dustin Wicksell’s Inquisitir story on that event and Debra Cassens Weiss’s synopsis of the Metairie speech for the ABA Journal. Key quotes from the two sources appear below:

From ABA Journal:

“Our country’s constitutional traditions do not require government to be neutral between religion and nonreligion (sic), Justice Antonin Scalia said on Saturday in a speech to Catholic high school students. . . .government can’t favor one religion over another, but government has been allowed to support religion over nonreligion (sic) for hundreds of years.”

Scalia also said the United States has benefited because of its support for religion. “God has been very good to us,” Scalia said. “One of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. … Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor—in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.” Debra Cassens Weiss, Scalia: God has been good to US because ‘we have done him honor,’ 

From Inquisitir:

“… the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non-religion,” Scalia said.

“We do Him [God] honor in our pledge of allegiance, in all our public ceremonies,” he continued. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”
Dustin Wicksell, Scalia: Government can favor ‘Religion over Non-religion’

I find Justice Scalia’s argument disturbing in many ways:

  • A political opinion is promoted under the guise of legal scholarship. This is deceptive. Scalia is speaking as a political advocate.
  • Justice Scalia does not detail his definition of religion. We don’t know which self-avowed religious assemblies are included and which excluded by his definition.
  • No attention is given to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Paine, and others’ commitment to the values of the Enlightenment, their anti-clerical as well as anti-monarchical views, their deism, and their trust in reason, experience, evidence, and science. The founders clearly thought that a free people of self-educating citizens could govern themselves in a democracy without the intervention of king or priest.
  • The deism Jefferson and others favored referred to “nature’s god,” not an organic, anthropoid, personal being. Deism points to the rationality and scientific lawfulness that give structure and unity to nature. No wizard behind the machine is assumed. Frank Lloyd Wright stated the idea well when he answered: “Yes, I believe in God. I call it Nature.” So did Jefferson. So did Einstein.
  • The nation was founded as a secular democracy that recognizes and protects the right of citizens who happen to be believers, the large majority, to freely practice their religion without government interference or help.
  • Justice Scalia’s ecumenicalism is curious, not just because ecumenicalism is more often associated with liberal purveyors of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, and secularism—the folks on the receiving end of his friendly chastisements—but also because it lacks substance, vigor, and punch. Mr. Scalia is a proud Catholic and a supporter of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But what then is this generic “religion” as against “non-religion” he speaks so knowingly about? Is this not the vapid ecumenicalism of President Dwight Eisenhower when he opined that religion is good for us all, and it mattered not what that religion is called. To the contrary, one gets the impression that Mr. Scalia cares very much what religion we’re talking about. His concern is mostly about Christianity, isn’t it? If this is not the case, perhaps he should try out his talk in broader venues, at Mosques, temples, meeting halls, and smokehouses.
  • Justice Scalia is on record in the Smith Case as voting against the right of American Indian tribes to use peyote in their traditional religious rituals. Freedom of religion is not protected in this instance. European traditions of government and religion apparently trump Native American notions of religion. Is this not hypocritical?
  • Justice Scalia’s category of “non-religion,”against whose dangerous membership “religion” is to be privileged by government, is even more curious. Who are they, one wonders? Voila! There is the answer in the speech at Colorado Christian University: it is those nasty “secularists,” people who go by such names as freethinkers, skeptics, rationalists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and unbelievers. That’s a large group, and it includes me!
  • I would like to defend ‘nonbelievers’ from Scalia’s categorical indictment. They simply don’t believe in god or anything else. They are not aggressive about it. They don’t assert: there is no God! They just don’t care, one way or the other. They probably don’t even want to be secularists! So let’s leave them alone!
  • I take Justice Scalia’s opinion to be a personal prejudice and not so subtle permission to discriminate against atheists, humanists, and their intellectual compatriots. His counsel is intimidating and divisive.
  • Justice Scalia might consult the website patheos.com, whose tagline is “hosting the conversation on faith,” for an alternative approach to his. Patheos gives atheists a faith desk of their own and welcomes them into the discussion. Very smart, welcoming and civil too.
  • Justice Scalia makes belief in God a defining characteristic of religion, conflating religion and divinity. In my book, Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, I advocate for a religion that honors the sanctity of life. A deity is not strictly needed for that. This issue is therefore important to understanding me, as well as to understanding Scalia. I use a definition of religion formulated by the French sociologist and anthropologist Émile Durkheim, from his book Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). He defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them.” He considered sacredness the important characteristic of all religion, but not belief in a deity.
  • “One of the reasons God has been good to us,” Justice Scalia asserts, is because “we have done him honor.” This is a breathtaking thesis, the foundation perhaps of our national sense of ‘exceptionalism’ that has enticed us into so many military adventures as apostles of democracy and guardians of world order. If Scalia’s argument is parsed and its presuppositions laid out, he asserts that: A. God has been good to us (we Americans, our country); B. because “we as a nation have done him honor;” C. “in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways;” D. in comparison with the “countries of the world that do not even invoke his name;” E. who, by deduction, must be faring worse than we the favored ones; F. by the agency of a wise, supreme Male being with all the attributes of (in Christopher Hitchens apt phrase) a “celestial dictator.”
  • “Master Scalia,” my civics teacher would have said, ”This is a most interesting thesis, but incomplete and unacceptable as it stands. Would you please make a list by decades of the good and bad outcomes that have befallen our nation, and identify which ones had the beneficence of God behind them and which did not? For example, where do slavery, the destruction of the Twin Towers, and the various wars we have fought fit into the picture? Please also explain why God would gift rewards and not punishments to us, or do you believe He gifts both? Why would he intervene with us and not in all nations?” My science teacher would require in addition a well-designed experiment to test Scalia’s hypothesis.
  • It seems relevant to note that listening, hearing, obeying, understanding, praising, worshipping, following, beseeching, kneeling, and praying are the kinds of attitudes believers typically take toward their gods. Honoring, undoubtedly an appropriate attitude for a nation and its people to take toward parents, military heroes, and judges, sounds vaguely inappropriate as a nation’s favored regard toward God. Our most fortunate nation status seems to be getting us a lot of presumed goodness on the cheap, for very little citizen effort. It sounds a little hokey to me, particularly when some of the honoring—names on money, pledges of allegiance, etc—didn’t commence with the signing of the constitution. A few words stamped hard on filthy lucre is about the last honor a self-respecting god might want!

In sum, I find Scalia’s viewpoint dishonest, inaccurate, hurtful, dangerous, divisive hypocritical, and fantastic. If political advocacy is his passion, perhaps he should step down from the Supreme Court and join the lecture circuit full time. It pays very well I’m told.

In closing, I remind the reader that I too, like Justice Scalia, am a “theist,”as well as an enthusiast for religion, but only of a god who physically exists, as you and I physically exist, and of a religion devoted to the sacredness of life. Sadly, I haven’t found a deity that meets the physical existence test yet, and I find the religions that cohere and aver around the monotheisms of Abraham tribal, aggressive, inclined toward war, and negligent of the environment. That is the reason I have in all good humor advised the gods that people imagine and pray to in those monotheisms to vacate the office for awhile, until humanists, with the help of science, clean up the planet and return it to hospitable standards.

Those who go by the names of secularists, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, freethinkers, inquirers, unbelievers, humanists, and the like have something in common that gives them a powerful presence in civic conversation, democratic institutions, and social progress. They judge the truth of their statements against standards of evidence and reason. They speak tentatively and conditionally. They seek truth. They don’t think humans evil and damned. They are not ruled by fear and a false need for certainty. They are comfortable with uncertainty. They change their minds as the facts require. They say  “I don’t know” when they don’t know. Religion, as important as it may be in individual identity formation, cultural continuity, and social order, is based on faith in ancient events that may not have happened, or happened in a very different way. Religion claims certainty where little certainty exists. This difference in attitude is the most important defense of secularism, and the reason secularists are so valuable in a democracy. We need to guide our affairs by good will, reason, evidence, and science, now more than ever.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

January 13, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good