Archive for February, 2008

Moral Responsibility is not Anti-Americanism

February 26, 2008

(Shortly after I first posted this essay, I found that I had inadvertently uploaded an earlier draft of the post. I’ve now uploaded the intended final version, with some slight revisions. Sorry for the error.)

“Anti-American.” “You hate America.” “Blame America first.” These are some of the epithets repeatedly slung in the face of liberals when defending their political beliefs. “We’re essentially a good nation; why can’t you give America a break?” Strangely, few accuse conservative critics of hating the U.S. when they condemn the nation’s moral decay. These labels lack merit; they only stifle meaningful debate, and reflect an immature and simplistic notion of national moral responsibility.

Not infrequently, the term moral equivalence is thrown into the discussion to further muddy the waters. What a silly concept! As if we could add up the quantity and quality of sins committed by nations and then gloss over U.S. actions because our total in blood, pain, and suffering is calculated as lower than that of others. The equation is always rigged, of course. Those who rely on the concept insist that the crimes of the U.S. are somehow justified, and by some feat of calculus ameliorate our tally. John Adams keenly observed:

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws (letter to Thomas Jefferson, 02.02.1816; courtesy of WP).

(Adams knew whereof he spoke, having rationalized the egregious breach of civil rights in signing the Alien and Sedition Acts; but in contrast to our conservative friends, he had the integrity to keep the nation out of an unnecessary war with France for which much of the nation was clamoring.)

No, we must seek a more honorable and morally sound perspective than one constructed on a subjective, comparative foundation—a perspective like the one I’ve found that in the paradigm of liberalism. I came to appreciate this perspective largely as a result of my religious instruction and, ironically, the parenting of my politically and socially conservative parents.

I was rather a handful as a child. Overheated disputes with my brothers and sisters were not uncommon. Invariably, my parents would be alerted by the commotion and swoop in to break up the fracas and dispense judgment. And almost as invariably, I would be held most responsible, no matter how irritating, obnoxious, or otherwise culpable (in my entirely objective opinion) the brats had been.

“You are the oldest,” my parents would inform me “You should know better.” Or perhaps “you’re bigger than they are.” And for good measure, “I expect you to be an example.”

By this method, repeated more times than I care to remember, my parents stressed an important principle, one taught by the Savior.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required (Luke 12:48).

Morally, those who have much are more accountable than those who have little. Much can refer to wisdom (being older than my sibings, I was expected to be more emotionally mature). It can also refer to temporal power (being older and larger, I was perceived as more capable of causing physical harm through carelessness or spite than the younger children).

Our nation was founded not ostensibly on conquest, or ethnicity, or the personality of some charismatic ruler; but instead on the loftiest of ideals, collected from the accumulated wisdom of at least a couple thousand years. We cannot condone the betrayal of those ideals simply because it may be strategically expedient at a given time. From the outset, the leaders of our nation saw our nation as an example which would hopefully inspire enlightened change throughout the world. That hope has been echoed in our nation over it’s two-hundred plus year existence. Those ideals and the words of hope will come back to condemn us if we continue to capriciously abandon those principles whenever it suits our interests.

No less have we been given much in regards to worldly wealth and power. We are the world’s sole superpower, with wealth beyond anything the world has ever before dreamt—and destructive power unparalleled in the world’s history. As the saying goes “when America coughs, the whole world catches a cold.” Wrongdoings on our part are far more likely to have far reaching consequences than those of smaller states. Our very preeminence and power requires us to maintain the utmost circumspection.

Another question my parents frequently asked when I would grouse about the transgressions of my siblings is “what did you do to them?” Likely as not, an inspection of the events revealed that some thoughtless or intentionally spiteful action on my part had instigated the misbehavior of my siblings.

This is no less true in the realm of U.S. international relations. The U.S. has often used its might around the globe both thoughtlessly and at times in a deliberately self-serving manner. It is disingenuous for us to then act surprised or offended that we’ve engendered a great deal of hostility in the Middle-East, South America, or Asia. Some few brave souls not typically associated with left-wing politics, such as the late Harry Browne (former Libertarian Party presidential candidate) and Ron Paul have had the intellectual and moral integrity to recognize this reality. Unfortunately, they’ve been rebuffed by most conservative voices for their rationality.

By no means does this mean that all hatred for and violence perpetrated against the U.S. by outside (or internal) forces is a result of U.S. wrongdoings. But I am confident that we will be far more successful in curbing such hatred and violence by reforming our own actions than by force or retaliation.

As seriously as I take all these considerations, I consider them secondary causes for my perception. The most important reason was expressed somewhat cryptically by Noam Chomsky in verbal exchange about U.S. involvement in the corrupt and brutal government of Suharto in Indonesia (I believe it was with William Buckley). When his adversary defended U.S. actions by citing the crimes of the other side, Chomsky was unwavering. “That was them,” He insisted. “I’m talking about us.”

I could relate instantly to Chomsky’s rather laconic rebuttal. It was completely consistent with the lessons I’d learned from my parents. I recalled an occasion from my childhood in which I was in a spat with Dan, another child in the neighborhood. My father noticed the scuffle, and was quick to take me aside for a reprimand, and cut off my defense. “I don’t care who was wrong,” He declared sharply. “Dan is somebody else’s business. I’m responsible for you.”

As the years have passed and I’ve (mostly) outgrown the pugnacity and excitability of my childhood, I’ve come to realize that the principle about which Chomsky was speaking and upon which my father was acting was an extension of the admonition of Jesus to his disciples.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye (Matt. 7: 3-5).

We should concern ourselves first and foremost with our own morality. If we believe in protecting the environment, we should first and foremost take responsibility as individuals to reduce our ecological footprint. If we believe in the importance of lifting up the downtrodden, we must first and foremost seek to find ways as individuals to aid the disadvantaged.

Yet our responsibility does not end with ourselves. There are hierarchies of responsibilities in our lives. My father was concerned with my actions because I was his child. Though my sins were not his, he had a legal and ethical concern and even responsibility for my actions. As a member of his family, they reflect upon him.

The actions of the U.S. federal government are likewise within the hierarchy of responsibility of me and every citizen. Because the government is ultimately accountable to us, because it derives its legitimacy solely from our consent, we can and should hold it to account. The actions of our nation reflect upon us, and should be of concern.

Yes, other nations or extra-national entities act foolish, unethically, criminally, and barbarically. I recognize that France has shown a callous disregard to freedom of expression, and has amorally sold weapons to repressive tyrannts; that Turkey is dishonest in denying their genocidal history regarding the Armenians and their repression of their ethnic Kurds; that China has viciously abused its populace and continues to neglect their welfare; that South American leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have been repressive, power-hungry, and corrupt; that many nations in the Middle-East are barbaric in their treatment of minorities and dissenters; and so on and so forth.

So what?

I’m variously saddened, outraged, and horrified by these and many other tragic facts abroad. But I am not responsible for the actions of France, Turkey, China, or the rest. They do not represent me. The U.S. does represent me, and I am responsible—if only in some small way—for it.

We as a nation need to be more mature in our perspective. We must stop rationalizing the transgressions and crimes of our land by pointing to the sins of other nations. It is our duty to focus on the civil rights abuses, warmongering, power grabbing, disregard for the welfare of our citizens and our environment, economic pillaging of other lands, and all other manner of sins of our own nation regardless of what other entities have or have not done. Contrary to the vitriol of the Right, this isn’t about pessimism, negativism, anti-Americanism, hating America, or blaming America first, any more than my parent’s efforts to hold me accountable was about negativism, anti-Derekism or hating Derek. It is about growing up. Are we ready as a nation to do this?

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Utah Moms for Clean Air and HB 199

February 21, 2008

Courtesy of Utah Moms for Clean Air:

Our big focus right now is the Utah legislative session in progress, and we’re writing to ask you to contact your legislators regarding important clean air legislation.

Home energy use is a major source of air pollution in Utah. Inefficient homes burn more natural gas, more coal, and more wood to heat, cool, and power electric appliances—all of this burning fuel creates air pollution. House Bill (H.B.) 199 Tax Credits for Energy Efficient Residences, sponsored by Fred Hunsaker of Logan will address this problem, but it has been stuck in rules since February 14. The end of the session is approaching and we need to get this bill out of House Rules and to a friendly committee so it can be passed to the floor for a Yes vote.

There are two ways you can help get this bill passed and improve air quality in Utah.

  1. Write the members of House Rules
  2. Contact the members of House Rules and ask them to send the bill to a friendly committee.

    House Rules Committee
    Stephen H. Urquhart, Chair surquhart@utah.gov
    Gregory H. Hughes, Vice Chair greghughes@utah.gov
    Jackie Biskupski jbiskupski@utah.gov
    James A. Dunnigan jdunnigan@utah.gov
    Kevin S. Garn kgarn@utah.gov
    Mark W. Walker mwalker@utah.gov
    Michael T. Morley rley@utah.gov
    Neal B. Hendrickson nhendrickson@utah.gov

  3. Write your Legislators
  4. Call or email your Representative and Senator to voice your support of House Bill 199 – Tax Credits for Energy Efficient Residences. You can find contact information for you legislators here. You can read the full text of the bill and learn more about its progress here.

    Legislators have told us that hearing from constituents makes a difference in how they vote. They recognize that each individual email and phone call they get represents many others. So, please, make your voice heard!

Background for HB 199

This bill is great for Utahns and Utah’s air quality. Energy efficiency is the easiest, cheapest, most readily available energy resource; and the state should encourage energy efficiency with appropriate incentives.

Only one half of the buildings we will be using in 2030 have not been built yet, so there is great opportunity to create more energy efficient homes for the future. New energy efficient homes save energy over their entire life (which for some homes can by 100+ years). This bill provides corporate and individual nonrefundable tax credits for highly efficient (above code) new home construction, which is critical as Utah’s new homes market continues to grow.

For existing homes, this bill provides tax credits for energy efficiency retrofits such as premium evaporative cooling systems, high efficiency furnaces, water heaters and boilers, insulation, windows, and duct and air sealing which will save energy and prevent pollution starting now.

Rules for qualifying for the tax credits will be made by Utah Geological Survey, and the Utah Tax Review Commission will study the tax credits.

Benefits to Utah’s Homebuilders

  • Highly efficient new homes would receive a tax credit ranging from around $1,300 to $2,000 per home.
  • Highly efficient homes are part of a growing niche market of high performance and “zero energy” homes that will give Utah ‘s home builders a competitive advantage.
  • Today’s slowed housing market is a perfect opportunity to help the industry “re-tool” to provide high efficiency homes for Utah citizens, which will help homeowners reduce rising energy bills.
  • Energy efficient home retrofit projects would be eligible for tax credits up to $1,000.

Benefits to Utah’s Homeowners

  • Energy efficient homes are more comfortable, have lower operating costs, and higher re-sale values.
  • Compared to a Utah home built to current code, highly efficient homes (30-50% above code) can save between $650 and $1350 per year in energy costs.
  • Lower mortgage rates (Energy Efficient Mortgages) are available from many leading home lending institutions for energy efficient homes.

Thank you for all you do!

Cherise, Dana, Cameron, Travis, Michelle, Pat, Deborah, Lori, and Jennifer
The Founders of Utah Moms for Clean Air

Mayor Becker Persuaded by My Plea

February 19, 2008

I’m glad I pull some weight in this town. Mayor Becker has reconsidered his support for SB 260, citing erudite and compelling letters from certain members of the Salt Lake City blogging community.

Okay, he may not have exactly said that nor attributed his change of heart to me. But you can read it in between the lines if you look carefully enough, can’t you?

In any case, I’m glad he came to his senses. Now I can only hope that those politicians who can actually vote on the bill take a similar view.

Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century

February 16, 2008

I just listened to a very compelling show on NPR’s Speaking of Faith, “Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century.” Douglas Johnson,a founding member of The International Center for Religion & Diplomacy and Evangelical Christian, discusses some of his experiences helping diffuse conflict in the Middle East which addresses the perspective of religion.

We hear from many in our U.S. Christian communities (including LDS communities) beguiled by the siren song of militarism and violent coercion, so willing to turn to the easy solution of the sword. It is refreshing to hear from those who have the courage and conviction to seek more healing, more unifying, and more Christian solutions.

Becker Stands with Burbank and Buttars

February 15, 2008

Yesterday, Ralph Becker came out in favor of Senator Buttars’ SB 260, which would ensure that disciplinary charges against police throughout the state are kept private, as noted by Jeremy and later by one of my commentors.

Well, now that Ralph supports the Bill, I’m okay with it.

Please.

My stands are about principle, not partisanship. It makes no difference who supports the bill. I believe that those who have such great responsibility and great power as do our law enforcement officers must be held accountable. A lack of accountability and transparency heightens the temptation to abuse that power. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m reasonably confident that Chief Burbank is an honorable person. But he is wrong to support this bill, and risks tainting the honor of the profession which he is trying to protect. The best way to maintain that honor of isn’t to stifle awareness of abuse, but to open the windows and make sure abuse isn’t possible without public awareness.

I’m very disappointed in Ralph for supporting this bill. He is taking the wrong side of this issue, which I’ve let him know in an e-mail to his office.

Given this is his first offense, I’m not yet about to tar him with the same brush as I’ve done the Utah Republican Party. But rest assured, if he were to consistently oppose government/public servant accountability and expand his personal power base, I’ll call him a spade as well.

Showdown over Utah’s Balance of Power

February 14, 2008

SB 144 really has me stumped. I just don’t know what to think about it.

The national experience of the past eight years has made me nervous about anything which looks like executive overreaching. It doesn’t quite seem right for the Governor to take upon himself decisions involving taxation or legislation. I believe in the principle that those matters rest in the legislative branch, and that the separation of powers must be maintained.

On the other hand, I have no faith whatsoever in the Utah legislature’s ability to maintain a sensible balance of power. Their track record is one of perpetual power grabbing and pettiness (do they really expect us to believe them when they assure us this is not merely payback for Governor Huntsman’s Western Regional Climate Action Initiative agreement?). Is this really about restoring a balance of power, or establishing a pecking order among the powers?

An interesting quandry.

SLC Mayor Becker Supports the Troops on Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2008

Mayor Becker continues to prove to be a person of conviction and compassion.

On Valentine’s Day, Mayor Ralph Becker will host a special breakfast with the wives of Utah’s 116th National Guard unit. The women’s husbands have been serving in Iraq since May and are expected be gone for at least 12 months.

To thank them for their sacrifices and help make Valentine’s Day a little better, Mayor Ralph Becker, in cooperation with Bambara restaurant and Hotel Monaco, will host the wives for a heartfelt thank-you breakfast.

Courtesy of The Utah Amicus. See that blog for more details.

Many prominent Utah politicians have used the rhetoric of supporting the troops as a bait and switch to support U.S. adventurism. Becker has found way to add more meaning to that phrase. What better way to do so than to provide support and comfort to the families from which the Bush administration has separated them?

Kudos to my Mayor!

Buttars Doesn’t Think Police Business is the People’s Business

February 12, 2008

Jeremy wrote a fine post at yet another of Buttars’ bad bills.

Is there no aspect of government which our Republican legislators think should be exposed to sunlight?

Symbols and Public Classroom Displays

February 11, 2008

A Utah Senate committee recently passed SB 190, which would require all public school classrooms to display the U.S. flag and Constitution, and each school prominently display the national motto (“In God We Trust”).

I very much agree with the stated intent of the bill, as listed in section 1.

The Legislature recognizes that a proper understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship, and that the public schools are the primary public institutions charged with responsibility for assisting children and youth in gaining that understanding.

I think that the means described in sections 3-5 by which it is hoped that the bill will help develop that proper understanding are very sensible—if perhaps a bit intrusive on the local school boards. I strongly encourage people to explore the documents by which our nation is governed, the principles upon which the nation was founded, and the words and lives of the men who were essential in establishing those documents and that nation.

But then the Senate committee got to what seems to have been the primary thrust of the bill, with sections 6 and 7 requiring the display of the flag and Constitution.

What, do the Senators believe that the students will absorb patriotism by osmosis? “The latest physics research indicates that the convection and radiation of citizenship from patriotactive materials will increase patriotactivity of all citizens within a forty-foot radius (though it may cause patriotactive poisoning in illegal immigrants).”

I suppose it is a fairly small thing—aside perhaps from the “unfunded mandate” issue (the inability of conservatives like Senator Christensen to distinguish between legitimate dissent over an unjust war perpetrated on false pretenses and a lack of patriotism is another issue altogether). It certainly doesn’t hurt to hang the flag in a classroom. Yet it is indicative of a larger issue among conservatives.

Items like flags are nothing more than symbols. Symbols are very important in the way humans process abstract information. But problems arise when people turn the symbol into a fetish. The Right seems to struggle with this tendency, as indicated by Orrin Hatch’s flag burning amendment, Chris Buttars’ attempt to dictate recitation of the pledge, the email-forward tizzy over Obama’s decision not to cover his heart during the national anthem (as addressed several months back by The Life that I’m Living), and this bill. These conservatives seem to forget that a symbol is only representative of an abstract concept, not an actual manifestation or avatar of that concept. The concept is in no way harmed by neglect of a symbol, or even outright desecration. Symbols are not voodoo dolls.

In fact, principles and concepts aren’t necessarily nurtured by the strict observance and veneration of their symbols. The pharisees very proudly maintained the symbols of their faith/culture/nation, strictly observing the outward rituals associated with those symbols—yet Jesus denounced them as vipers and hypocrites.

I would suggest that many in our history have tarnished the principles of this nation while wearing flag pins, waving the flag, saluting the anthem, and otherwise performing outward rituals of respect. Conservatives must learn that pride is not patriotism. Similarly, many who decline superficial observances have done much to buttress those important principles. External trappings really mean very little.

Hopefully the Utah Legislature as a whole will display a less shallow understanding of patriotism and citizenship, and will look at more meaningful methods by which to promote these virtues.

Some Other Thoughts about the Presidential Election and Militarism

February 8, 2008

Romney’s “surrender” statement provides us yet another opportunity to reflect on foreign policy and militarism.

Jeff Huber of Pen and Sword, a retired Navy commander, looks at the attitude of the presidential candidates towards war and foreign policy in Blooper Tuesday.

Whatever line may have once demarked American foreign policies from domestic ones has vanished, probably forever. We cannot possibly address our internal woes effectively without some sort of workable solution to the overseas fiasco our Unitary George has created, but I’m somewhat pessimistic that the majority of our leading presidential hopefuls can provide that solution.

John McCain gives the promise of more war, even though war has devolved over the Bush decade into a degenerative tool of foreign policy. All Mitt Romney seems offer is a chance bribe the rest of the world into cooperating with us from his personal fortune, but even his pockets aren’t deep enough to pull off a stunt like that. As best I can tell, the crux of Mike Huckabee’s foreign policy plan involves having Chuck Norris beat up anybody who doesn’t do what we tell them to, and I fear Hillary Clinton will still be explaining how she didn’t really vote for the war in Iraq she voted for even as she explains how she didn’t really promise to get us out of it.

That leaves one viable candidate who might have a chance of hauling us out of the sand trap we’ve hooked our way into. So far, Barack Obama’s taste in foreign policy advisers (like Zbigniew Brzezinski) seems impeccable. Let’s just hope we never hear of him hunkering down with the likes of Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan.

Faithful Progressive looks at the lack of depth in the Conservative agenda revealed in Romney’s statement.

If Mitt Romney is the great hope of the conservative movement, it is a very shallow movement indeed–particularly when it comes to foreign policy and efforts to curb world-wide terrorist groups. Romney offered the American people only cheap and bellicose slogans rather than a coherent strategy to oppose al-Qaida. It is a mildly hopeful sign that even red-meat, rank-and-file Republicans rejected his one-liners and slogans.

…This is the most self-serving and ridiculous statement made by a Presidential candidate this year. Neither Democrat has talked about any such surrender where we have real interests at stake.

…This latest slogan–Democrats are for surrender– comes after his earlier promise to double the size of Guantánamo. How this would help the US national interest is unclear: Romney offered only slogans, not a policy…

…Now that the cheap slogan-eers are out of the race, perhaps Americans can have a real debate on whether or not we remain a Constitutional Republic.