On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

In 1890 the young W.E.B. Du Bois delivered the Harvard University Commencement address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois focused on a central figure of nineteenth-century America as he prophesied the meanings of freedom, democracy, and what American life — or more accurately, civilization — would look like over the next hundred years and beyond for the white world, the black world, and other non-white populations that hitherto occupied spaces outside the epicenters of civil and political society.

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator for the state of Mississippi and later Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Following Pierce’s failure at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to acquire Presidential re-nomination support from party delegates, Davis ran again, won, and went back to Congress as a Senator. Yet with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and escalating distrust between South and North, Davis resigned his Senate post.

After ensuing Southern secession, Davis assumed the Presidency of the Confederate States of America, maintaining the position until the Civil War’s end. Davis had poor health much of adulthood and detractors internal to the Confederacy. While underestimated by peers and despised by several prominent Confederate politicians and generals, he nevertheless forged an obedient coalition and crafted a resolute model of governance and rule. Although Davis lived until the post-Reconstruction year before Du Bois’s speech, his thoughts and actions as Confederacy President provided core teachable moments.

Du Bois considers Davis a person whose self-conception is that of “a typical Teutonic hero” and whose notion of leadership personifies “the idea of the Strong Man.” By ‘Strong Man,’ Du Bois means a leader espousing “[i]ndividualism coupled with the rule of might.” The Strong Man, suffuse with strength, privileges the “I” and self-assertion over the “Thou.” The Strong Man bolsters civilization through “stalwart manhood and heroic character” on the one hand and “moral obtuseness and refined brutality” on the other. The Strong Man often relies on disgruntled and violent mobs, adherents who are, as Hannah Arendt observes, angry masses that feel excluded from previously accessed corridors of politics, believe their standing is society has evaporated compared to the prior generation, loathe heterogeneous society as is, and cry out for the homogeneous order the Strong Man promises. The Strong Man’s patriarchal idea of civilization is intimately tied to racial orders, and it is his vision of a future world that augurs the consolidation and regeneration of the white race above all other races.

Du Bois contrasts the Strong Man with the ‘Submissive Man,’ characterized by weakness, a commitment to truth, and desire to acquiesce to the Thou, the You, the part of personhood not obsessed with the image of the being reflected back in the mirror. Whereas the American Teuton, of which Davis is exemplary, is indicative of the Strong Man, the Negro is for Du Bois the archetypal Submissive Man Davis dismisses.

Ironically, the Strong Man and Submissive Man need one another, their diametrically opposed views notwithstanding. Otherwise, the polity they inhabit devolves into despotism or slavery, and not merely for those emboldened at any given time with the might and right of state.

Jefferson Davis, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free,” missed the inseparability of the I and the You. He refused to admit the ways we’re interconnected, in relation, despite our pluralistic and differential conceptions of the free life and in spite of attempts by agents of state and their lackeys to interfere, dominate, segregate, deport, and annihilate.

Davis’s Strong Man hubris spawned a vitriolic, angry, white nationalist, revolting mass. It also led to his downfall, the Confederacy’s decline, and American civilization as he conceived it, in large measure due not only to abolitionists but also the actions of fugitives and slave agents catalyzing its genesis. It didn’t, however, obliterate the wages of whiteness and political philosophy of white supremacy in the post-1865 polity. Du Bois documents this in The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, “The Souls of White Folk,” and, most notably, Black Reconstruction in America, as do scholars such as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Nell Painter. This last point haunts us today.

Authority and authoritarianism undergird Du Bois’s prognostications. An agent with “authority” demands dogged obedience, compliance, and dispelling of ressentiment urges by the subjects of sovereign command. “Authoritarianism” is the structural macropolitical systemization of a type of statecraft designed by what Theodor Adorno and collaborators call an authoritarian personality. It is a hierarchical social, political, and economic order militating against egalitarianism. Moreover, as Arendt notes in “What Is Authority?” we shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tyranny, for “the tyrant rules in accordance with his own will and interest, whereas even the most draconian authoritarian government is bound by laws.”

Du Bois wrestles with Jefferson Davis’s legacy because Davis oversaw a confederation based on slavery and apparatuses of unfreedom enshrined in jurisprudence. Du Bois cautions against ambivalence, nihilism, and avoidance of the afterlife of chattel slavery, first since modes of enslavement sanctioned by law mutated and have been upheld at different junctures by authoritarian personalities, though not always in the public sphere by the prime executive. An amplification of these chilling effects occurs when the entity wielding authority — whose public beliefs defend racism, sexism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and rabid masculinity — is Commander-in-Chief. Second, struggle, resistance, and abolitionist challenges to authority and authoritarianism are as much a tradition as the tradition their actions seek to dislodge. Never forget that.

Our current moment is unprecedented. Yet past lessons offer signposts for future judgments and decision-making. President-elect Donald Trump entered campaign 2016 a noted businessman, consummate reality TV performer, and political chameleon. In the process of winning the Republican primary and shockingly defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump clarified certain issues and left many policy positions open-ended.

What’s incontrovertible is Trump’s authoritarian personality. Only time will tell what type of authoritarian President Trump will be, Jefferson Davis reincarnated or otherwise. And if his senior administrative appointments are any indication, particularly the ghastly selection of avowed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as top White House advisor, then we’d be foolish to assume Trump’s stated public beliefs and campaign promises are one big bluff. Parrhesia is hard to digest.

We have a choice in the Age of Trump: ignore history and our intrinsic abilities for action, thereby reifying the authoritarian order Trump very much plans to implement. *Or* protest. Petition. Resist authoritarianism and its mob enforcers. Organize. Unlock our political imaginations. Believe firmly our actions can match our convictions.

‘American Democracy’ is an unrealized and perhaps unrealizable Platonic ideal, but democracy in America, in the hemisphere, and in the globe, measured by nodes of progress, are attainable. Progress, as with regress, comes in stages. And like freedom, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, the meaning of progress and attendant strivings for it begin with acknowledging a foundational phenomenon: perpetual flight.

Flight operates betwixt, between, and beyond the options of Strong Man and Submissive Man. “Human” progress, a consequence of ongoing marronage, beckons us.

This piece was published in the African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog on December 4th, 2016

~ Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. He is author of the award-winning Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Roberts is presently completing A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass for The University Press of Kentucky, and he is President-Elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts. (Bio Credit: AAIHS Blog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Morning After Election Day 2016

3f86f-ballot2bbox2bclosed2bprotestI watched the election results roll in last night on the same sofa and in company with the same good friends as eight years ago when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. As the night wore on, our dearest hopes that we would see the first woman elected president of the United States were dashed, to the deep disappointment of everyone in the room. Trump was elected president. It was clear to me that though all believe that women should have equal chances of being elected president, the gender of the candidate was not foremost in their minds last night. It was the misogyny, racism, crass materialism, and bullying personality of Trump and his followers that must be defeated, showing the world that our values are much better than our new Twitter-troll-in-chief might have you believe.

My friends are nearly all liberal, my family mostly conservative. Some of my loved ones are rejoicing, some are mourning, and probably, given the new president’s coarse speech and demeanor, checkered past, and nonconservative positions on many issues, more were at least as glum as they were glad.

For some of my religious family members, I believe they did not vote for Trump because they like him, admire him, or agree with him on many issues. They voted for Trump while holding their noses at his attitudes toward women and minorities, his coziness with Putin, his anti-free-trade positions, his hiding of his tax returns. For them, abortion is by far the most important issue at stake, so the candidate that will nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices and oppose Roe v. Wade is their only viable choice. I understand their position: if you truly believe abortion is legalized murder, then the candidate that will likely to most to change the law in this regard must be their candidate. But that doesn’t mean they like having to vote for him.

Other people I know and love do sincerely admire Trump, dismissing some of his worst behavior as mere indiscretions, excesses of the vitality and exuberance that made him the go-getter they see him as: the man of the people who made himself rich in the can-do, hard-working, all-American way. For myself, I have a hard time seeing how exactly how the actual Trump fits in with this perception: his primary business is building luxury amenities for the wealthy, funding it at the beginning with piles of money he didn’t earn; he’s repeatedly exploited bankruptcy laws to the fullest which allowed him to escape personal responsibility for his bad investments while stiffing his contractors, the hard-working Americans that he’s supposed to represent; the things he does have made are often built from cheap Chinese steel and with low-paid Chinese, not American, hands; he starred in a reality TV show where he showcased his ‘business acumen’ by glowering behind a big shiny desk in a too-big suit, repeating generic self-help platitudes that convey no real guidance or information at all. In other words, he is just business-as-usual. But like so many Americans, they fell for his brand, the heavily marketed, glossy persona that the media lap up because he’s just so entertaining.

For me, what the Presidential candidates represent often does take priority over what they do, since they do not run the country on their own. Many of the qualities and principles that Trump represents to people are, I think, even uglier than what he’s said and done, which is often bad enough. But it seems that what he doesn’t represent is what got him into office: he doesn’t represent the establishment and he doesn’t represent the multicultural cosmopolitanism of the new information-centric world. And he doesn’t represent what’s been called the feminization of our culture, as machismo, militarism, and hyper-individualism slowly erodes from our national character. Hilary Clinton largely represented this feminization, the idea that the state also exists as a facilitator of care, for promoting health and education, of taking in those that flee to us for help, nurturing the young and the disenfranchised so that all have an equal shot or, if you happen to be a casualty of the capitalism most of us benefit from, you’re not out on your ear. And she represented it in a way that the strong mom does: idealistic yet practical, ruthless if need be in defense of her brood. Clinton has flaws, perhaps as many as Trump, but they are flaws of excess in the pursuit of greater and worthier things than self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. But women, traditionally, are not allowed to have flaws, not if we are to be admired and promoted to any position of influence. For men, that’s just, well, part of being a man, part and parcel to being strong, bold, and getting things done.

I wish we could have shown the world last night that we believe in women too, that our girls do have the same chance of becoming president as anyone else, and they could do so by being women, unapologetically, able to succeed to our fullest potential whether or not we have flaws too.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Our Present and The Past, by Ben Alpers

Millenium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2014 by Amy Cools

Millennium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

At times of great political upheaval, people suddenly start paying attention to history, grasping to find past events that might provide a kind of road map for what the world is going through in the present. The last several months and weeks feel extraordinary in so many ways. The steady stream of mass killings around the world, many of which are connected to ISIS. The nomination of Donald Trump, whose candidacy is clearly unusual and seems to many unusually disturbing. Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party nearly becoming the first candidate of the far right to win a western European presidency since World War II … and getting a second bite at the apple when the election results get thrown out. The Brexit vote and the apparent meltdown of UK politics. Cops caught on video killing African Americans in this country with seemingly little cause. The shooting of five cops in Dallas. And today an attempted military coup in Turkey. On and on it goes.

1968 seems to have emerged in recent months as the go-to historical analogy for our current global political upheavals. In the spring, it was often raised by Democrats made nervous by the Bernie Sanders candidacy who wondered if this year’s convention in Philadelphia might fall apart like their party’s 1968 convention in Chicago did. Donald Trump, too, brought back memories of 1968, though more of third-party candidate George Wallace than of Republican Richard Nixon.

As things seem to have fallen apart around the world, the ’68 analogy has been extended beyond the presidential race itself, though most Americans who lived through that year remember it as much worse. “What’s happening now is terrible. 1968 incomparably worse: RFK & MLK assass, 17k US deaths VN, LBJ steps down etc,” tweeted James Fallows last week.

Over the weekend, Vox published an interview with the journalist Michael Cohen, who wrote a recent book on America in 1968. Acknowledging that the political unrest we’re experiencing leads to the analogy, Cohen, like most others who have tackled the question in recent weeks, thinks that 1968 was much worse, both because it was significantly more violent and because we have made so much social progress since then.
But what fascinates me about this whole debate is that it misses half of what 1968 was about. 1968 is such a painful memory because it was a year of dashed hopes. Johnson’s stepping down was a triumph for the anti-war movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. began the year planning a Poor People’s March that would broaden the scope of his movement. RFK emerged as a candidate who seemed potentially capable of bringing America together and end the war in Vietnam. Of course none of these things worked out.

1968 was a year of dashed hopes around the world, as well, The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Student movements in France and Mexico. The sense of political defeat that set in by the end of the year was so strong precisely because the hopes had been so high.

For 1968 to stand only for things falling apart, for political promises unfulfilled, is something that could really only entirely emerge in hindsight. And there’s nothing particularly unusual about this. In fact, that’s why we do history. In the middle of a string of events, one simply doesn’t know how things are going to turn out.

And that’s very much the case for our experience of 2016. So far at least, if the political violence and despair, at least in the U.S., seem less acute this year than they did then, so too do the hopes for change. But we really don’t know, can’t know, how 2016 will turn out, let alone how we will remember it. There is an odd comfort in reaching for analogies, even when those analogies are very negative. If 2016 is 1968 redux, if Trump’s movement is fascism, then at least we know what we’re dealing with. But history never really repeats itself. We can certainly learn from the past. But this year, however it turns out, will end up being something new.

Ben Alpers is Reach for Excellence Associate Professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College, whose faculty he joined in 1998. His primary teaching and research interests concern twentieth-century American intellectual and cultural history, with special interests in political culture and film history. Among the courses he offers in the Honors College are colloquia on World War II in history and memory and film noir, and Perspectives courses on American social thought and politics and culture in the Great Depression. Alpers is also affiliated with the History Department and the Film and Media Studies Program. He is the author of Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s (UNC Press, 2002) (Bio credit S-USIH.org)

~ This piece was originally published on July 15, 2016 at U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends Freakonomics: Is Migration a Basic Human Right?

Airport Terminal in Salt Lake City, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

I just listened to this episode of Freakonomics Radio podcast the other day, which I enjoyed very much and learned a lot from, and I think you’ll love it too. Freakonomics Radio is hosted full time by Stephen Dubner, one of the two authors of the famous book of the same name, published in 2005, with occasional guest hosting by its other author Steven Levitt. The book and podcast consider individual, social, and political situations from the view that human behavior is best explained in terms of the incentives that motivate us.

The podcast episode I’m recommending here is called ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ and I can hardly think of a more timely question. As Syrians fleeing death and destruction flee their war-torn country, we are invited to consider this question: do nations’ rights to maintain secure borders trump (how funny …no, actually ironic that I need that particular word right here!) the individual human right to survive and to flourish?

I love Freakonomics, despite the fact that it adopts, at times, a dismissive and even scornful tone towards philosophy (as do some of my other favorite podcasts), but that’s okay: there’s so much good information and clearheaded processing of it that its informative values trumps (groan) what might be philosophically lacking. After all, I believe, philosophy is at its best when it’s informed and disciplined by evidence, and it’s such a firmly established, fascinating, and eminently useful discipline that it can withstand critique and dismissiveness from economists, science enthusiasts, and so on. But to my edification and delight, the guest in this episode, Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, gives a spirited defense of philosophy almost right off the bat.

Here’s a little excerpt for those of you in a hurry, but for the rest, I recommend you just skip this and go listen to the whole thing. Enjoy!

DUBNER: …As much as you may not like those reasons, aren’t they very much a symptom of the way humans have behaved throughout history? Borders, I mean.

TABARROK: So, borders are very common in one sense. As you say, when you look around, that’s the way the world is organized. And we’ve just gotten so used to them that we don’t even ask very much about their fundamental justification. And it’s when you come to ask about the fundamental justifications for borders that they begin to look very strange. Because they run counter to almost all of our moral writings and intuitions and philosophies. …

DUBNER: …I’ll be the skeptic for a moment — I could just say, “Well, that’s what philosophers do. Philosophers talk about ‘in a perfect world where all people were X, Y, and Z, things would go like this.’” But we all know that philosophers have no idea how the world actually works.

TABARROK: So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else …Now, to defend philosophy, for very long periods of time, racism was perfectly normal; people have been doing it for thousands of years. And then people began to ask, “Well, what justification is there for treating someone so differently just because of their race?” And when people couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, when they were forced into this discomforting area that they can’t justify this terrible injustice, things began to change. …


Sources and inspiration:

Dubner, Stephen. ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’, Freakonomics Radio podcast, episode 231.


Really, America? Ban the Refugees, Let the Troops Do All the Work?!?

Like so many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been dismayed, though not really surprised, at the vitriol aimed at Syrian refugees and Muslims in general, following the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino. Much of it is voiced in the form of inflammatory but silly memes, but now, even some of our presidential candidates are chiming in. Reactionary religious and ethnic hatred are at least as old as human history, and so are political capitalizations on them.

These memes and the anti-Islamic proposals they promote, such as calls for the U.S. to stop taking in Syrian refugees, to ban all Muslims from entering the country, or to force all Muslims to register with the government, as far as I can tell, are mostly coming from some on the conservative end of the political spectrum. However, the backlash against all this reactionary hate-mongering is coming from both liberals and conservatives, and their arguments are bolstered by the best in our political system and its founding documents, focused, if not always perfectly, on the protection and expansion of human rights.

Besides the basic problem of the xenophobic, anti-human-rights nature of the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric, there’s something about the whole thing that’s been bothering me, something that I hadn’t really seen addressed in so many words. I jotted down this thought in the notes for this piece, and I hadn’t had the chance to finish it until tonight.

Then, today, just a few hours before I planned to write this, I heard a re-broadcast of a news story that appears to confirm my suspicions. A recent poll from Harvard revealed that the majority of millennials, age 18-29, say we should send more troops to fight ISIS and say they wouldn’t even consider enlisting.

This was my thought before I heard that story: for all the rhetoric calling for an increase in the war effort against Islamist violent extremism, and all the preaching about supporting our troops, it seemed to me that many of the same people who want to send more military abroad to fight to protect people’s freedoms want little or nothing to do with the effort themselves. They want others, namely our soldiers, to take all the risks, shoulder all the burdens, and do all the work of defending and promoting American values, but don’t want to participate even in a relatively small way by helping out the people who are most victimized by Islamic radicalism, who vote with their feet by fleeing from violent Islamist groups to ethnically diverse, religiously free nations.

It looks as if this poll reveals that this ‘you go do it, brave soldiers in uniform, but leave us out of it!’ attitude is likely true for at least for one significant slice of the population.

What happened to the idea that if we, the people, decide to go to war, it’s we, the people, who should fight it? Makes me feel nostalgic, in the way that you can feel nostalgic for a time you’ve never experienced yourself and are not sure ever really existed, for the ‘greatest generation’ of World War II and earlier wars. Wasn’t it the case back then that most ordinary citizens felt duty-bound to participate in the war effort that their nation was fighting, even if in some small way at home? Didn’t they involve themselves, if necessary, in the work, the sacrifice, and the danger of doing the right thing, even if doing so meant some risk to themselves? It’s not even that they have to worry about conscription anymore! Isn’t the mission of promoting the American values of multiculturalism and religious freedom, protecting the innocents that flee for sanctuary to our shores and in our neighborhoods, worth our support and participation, even if we do face the risk that a few terrorists might sneak in among the innocents?

It seems that decades of complacent materialism and the all-volunteer military, among other things, have eroded some of that true civic pride and moral courage it takes to show the world that Americans are willing to do the right thing, no matter what.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

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Sources and inspiration:

Gabriel, Trip. ‘Donald Trump Says He’d ‘Absolutely’ Require Muslims to Register’. New York Times website, Politics: First Draft. Nov 20th, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/20

Khalid, Asma. ‘Millennials Want To Send Troops To Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want To Serve’. NPR.com. Dec 11, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459111960/millennials-want-to-send-tro

Walsh, Deirdre, Jeremy Diamond, and Ted Barrett. ‘Priebus, Ryan and McConnell rip Trump anti-Muslim proposal’. CNN.com. Dec 8, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/08/politics/paul-ryan-tru

A Moral and Political Critique of Republican Primary Debate 2015 Arguments, Part 2

This is the third installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties. So far, this series includes critique and commentary on selections from the second Republican debate and the first Democratic one.
As with the first two, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.
CNBC Republican presidential primary debate, October 28th 2015
The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, which is in turn as transcribed by the Federal News Service.

: Governor John Kasich, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Mr. Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Mrs. Carly Fiorina, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Rand Paul.
Moderators: Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, John Harwood, Sharon Epperson, Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer.

….HUCKABEE: …I’ll tell you what a weakness is of this country: there are a lot of people who are sick and tired because Washington does not play by the same rules that the American people have to play by.

Hear, hear. Let’s see if the candidates propose concrete reforms that will ensure everyone has to play by the same rules. And as long as we’re using the analogy of a game, let’s hope that if one of these candidates are successful, they’ll also try to make sure that everyone gets to start out with at least roughly equivalent equipment: access to the same information as to how the game is played, a ball that can hold air, a tennis racket with all its strings in place, a pair of athletic shoes with intact soles, so that they have a chance to successfully compete with those who grow up receiving the best equipment money can buy.

RUBIO: …I would begin by saying that I’m not sure it’s a weakness, but I do believe that I share a sense of optimism for America’s future that, today, is eroding from too many of our people. I think there’s a sense in this country today that somehow our best days are behind us. And that doesn’t have to be true. Our greatest days lie ahead if we are willing to do what it takes now…

Many on Rubio’s side of the aisle are convinced that such things as high taxes, possible (they say inevitable) future insolvency of the Medicare system, illegal immigration, and over-regulation are what’s mainly holding America back and making us feel pessimistic about the future. While some of this might be true and especially for some people, I suspect that the seeming hopelessness of reforming our political system, bought and paid for through crony capitalism, corruptive campaign finance laws, and the revolving door between Washington and Big Finance / Big Business, informs American pessimism more than anything else. In short, we no longer feel like the government is of, by, and for the people. There are a few leading Republicans once again paying lip service to the idea that government could actually be a noble and worthy institution if we reform it. Yet the idea that now pervades the Republican party, that government is little else than a necessary evil and an inherently oppressive busybody, does not help in the least to inspire confidence or a feeling of civic unity and national (not nationalistic!) pride.

CARSON: ….we’re talking about America for the people versus America for the government.

…aaand there goes Carson, chiming in with that anti-government rhetoric. Maybe if those seeking to lead that government would identify it with the people, and in a hopeful and confident manner, portray it as capable of reform and of doing good instead of wishing it were so small and weak that it could be ‘drowned in a bathtub’ (a charming little Grover Norquist-ism) Americans would be better served, and the promise of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights could be more fully realized.

FIORINA: But I also think that these are very serious times; 75 percent of the American people think the federal government is corrupt. I agree with them. And this big powerful, corrupt bureaucracy works now only for the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected…. Ours was intended to be a citizen government

Now that’s a good start. Now let’s see if you want to keep government big enough to actually be useful. Remember, we started out with a small, weak government under the Articles of Confederation, and that didn’t work out so well, to say the least.

CHRISTIE: I don’t see a lot of weakness on this stage, quite frankly. Where I see the weakness is in those three people that are left on the Democratic stage. You know, I see a socialist, an isolationist and a pessimist. And for the sake of me, I can’t figure out which one is which.

I’m halfway with him on the isolationist part, but not militarily: I’m referring to the economic isolationism of protectionism, which removes vital opportunities for the improvement of human lives and for the exchange of ideas. That’s my primary complaint about Bernie Sanders, who appears an extreme and unapologetic protectionist, which is a deal-breaker for me. But more on that when I return to the Democratic debates.

HARWOOD: … You [Kasich] said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues. Who were you talking about?

KASICH: Well, I mean …to talk about we’re just gonna have a 10 percent tithe and that’s how we’re gonna fund the government? And we’re going to just fix everything with waste, fraud, and abuse? Or that we’re just going to be great? Or we’re going to ship 10 million Americans — or 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here in this country and dividing families?

Here, as in the previous debate, Kasich’s taking on the role of the realistic, practical, get-it-done politician, criticizing some of the extremist, crowd-pleasing, but impossible solutions offered by his rivals. Here, he’s challenging his fellow debaters to be responsible and accountable in their rhetoric, and to offer workable solutions, that hold up under scrutiny, for real problems, and not to pander to the reactionaries in the party.

FIORINA: Let me just say on taxes, how long have we been talking about tax reform in Washington, D.C.? …We now have a 73,000-page tax code. …There are loads of great ideas, great conservative ideas from wonderful think tanks about how to reform the tax code. The problem is we never get it done…

QUINTANILLA: You want to bring 70,000 pages to three?

FIORINA: That’s right, three pages …You know why three? Because only if it’s about three pages are you leveling the playing field between the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected who can hire the armies of lawyers and accountants and, yes, lobbyists to help them navigate their way through 73,000 pages.

Fiorina picks up on the analogy of the game here, and makes a very good point: if the tax code that everyone has to adhere to is too long and complex, it gives the wealthy an unfair advantage over average citizens who can’t afford to hire specialists to help navigate its requirements and discover obscure loopholes and tax breaks to take advantage of. Three pages sounds unrealistically short to me, and her claim that it’s now 73,000 pages sounds exaggerated, but her basic objection to the length and complexity of the current tax code is fair and reasonable. Our tax code should not automatically give any special advantages to the wealthy if we are truly dedicated to the principle of equal rights for all.

HARWOOD: ….[Governor Bush,] Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother, recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given in to know- nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?

BUSH: (inaudible), the great majority of Republicans and Americans believe in a hopeful future. They don’t believe in building walls and a pessimistic view of the future.

The Know-Nothings, later called the American Party, was a political party in the mid-1800’s centered around anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, pro-Protestant, nativist sentiments. While most mainstream Republicans might object to the comparison, it seems a fair one when leveled at many leaders of the Republican party prominently featured in the media today. For example, in response to the attacks in Paris, many leading Republicans predictably reacted with calls for an immediate halt in accepting Syrian refugees. They portray this as a common-sense, defensive policy to protect the American people from terrorists trying to sneak in among the refugees, but it appears to me that they’re jumping on this as they would any other excuse to keep Muslims and other non-white, non-wealthy, non-advanced-degree-holding people out. While it’s true that most terrorists around the world today are Muslim, it’s also true that the actual percentage of Muslims who actually are terrorists or who support terrorism is very small, that the Paris attacks were not carried out by Syrian nationals but by citizens of the E.U., and that the refugees they want to turn away are fleeing from the terrorists and other violent Islamist extremist groups. I compare keeping these refugees out, as I have compared deporting Mexican people who entered this country illegally to escape the drug war, to our old policy of keeping Jews out who were fleeing the Holocaust, forcing them to return at peril of their lives. If we really want to show the world a shining example of the nobility of our values and the strength of our commitment to them, I think we need to accept the risks that come with doing the right thing, and to do it anyway.

…. To be continued….

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A Moral and Political Critique of the Republican Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

As have many Americans, no doubt, I put on the Presidential primary debates of both parties mostly as background entertainment while I was doing chores, at least at first listen. Yet it occurred to me that it might be fruitful to sit down and take some time to really consider the arguments. Yes, we’re all a bit cynical these days, it seems, and it’s easy to wonder: why bother? Aren’t all of these presidential hopefuls just corporate shills and lapdog ideologues of the powers that be anyway?

Be that as it may (and I doubt that’s the case for all or most of them, at least not fully, though I agree that the financial incentives in the current political structure are corruptive to say the least), many of these arguments win over or enrage a lot of people, and it seems important to understand why and how. After all, we’re still, ostensibly, a democracy, and we all still have to live together in this country. Why not make the effort to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that pit citizens against one another, uniting people within factions while dividing the nation as a whole?

So here’s a critique of arguments offered in recent Republican primary debates; I’ll do the same with the Democratic debate(s) soon as well. The debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by a series of ellipses.

From the Fox News / Facebook Republican presidential primary debate, August 6th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is Time.com
Participants: Donald Trump, Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, and Governor John Kasich.
Moderators: Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.

KELLY: It is nine p.m. on the East Coast, and the moment of truth has arrived….

Great, truth, let’s hear it!

…Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.

You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” …. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president…?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. …I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness…

I agree with Trump on one thing: political correctness can be a problem in public and political discourse, and I think our ‘outrage culture’ has gone too far in sanitizing what we could and should be able to say, both publicly and privately, and especially in education. Some of the outrage and sensitivity comes from a good place, the concern that, through offensive speech, we can harm one another, act as bad influences on one another, and perpetuate our own bad habits of thought. These are true. But it’s also true that speech is necessary for confronting and addressing ideas honestly, whether they be good or bad. For example, sexuality and gender issues, like all else, are all part of the human story that can and should be told, and humor, banter, and in-your-face crudeness are some of the valid ways in which we address them. Trump may consider himself a harmless participant in all that.

But we can and should consider what people say when we make judgments about people, especially when we’re choosing our representatives in government. In a free society, we all decide if someone who regularly makes remarks that disparages women as thinking beings and gauges their worth based on sexual attractiveness to men is the sort of person we think best represents the American people and their core values. And as we’ve already considered, the words we use, and especially that influential people use, can go a long way in determining how a society thinks and acts. Besides, do we really want to elect a person who makes such nasty remarks about the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of other people, which we wouldn’t tolerate directed to our own, to the highest office in the land?

So let Trump freely say what he wants to say. If Trump sounds like an asshole when he talks about women or anything else, that’s very useful information he’s providing. In the end, the people will decide if what he reveals about himself shows he’s worthy and capable of representing the rest of us on the national and international stage.

…WALLACE: Governor Huckabee, like Governor Walker, you have staked out strong positions on social issues. …You favor a constitutional amendment banning abortions, except for the life of the mother. …

HUCKABEE: Chris, I disagree with the idea that the real issue is a constitutional amendment. …I think it’s time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law

The glaring assumption in this argument, of course, is that possessing a unique sequence of human DNA is equal to personhood. But so far as I know, neither American law nor its parent British law has ever established such a thing. Historically, legal personhood has been linked to the assignation of roles and responsibilities, and in modern times rights, to independently living, breathing human beings. Most spiritual and religious traditions have also equated breath and life throughout history, including the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It may very well be the case, with the advances we’ve made in medical science, that it’s time to reevaluate the concept of legal personhood. People who can no longer breathe on their own or otherwise survive naturally can be kept alive through extraordinary means, sometimes with their cognitive abilities intact or capable of restoration, and fetuses in the later stages of development are now usually viable and possess most or all of the mental capacities of newly born, healthy infants.

But linking personhood to DNA is a very recent and I would say extreme innovation, and as yet no federal court has recognized this linkage, to my relief. The science of human reproduction reveals that it’s a complex process, rife with false starts (it’s widely estimated that well over half of all human conceptions fail to result in healthy live births). To assign personhood to every human conception would overturn centuries of very good legal precedent which does not concern itself too much with assigning rights and responsibilities to human organisms in the earliest and not yet determinate stages of development. Instead, it does and should concern itself first with the protection of the rights and responsibilities of individual human beings who we know already possess the attributes traditionally assigned to legal persons: viability without radical intervention and/or evidence of consciousness. Recent attempts to enforce laws based on DNA-based personhood have reduced pregnant and potentially pregnant women too close to the legal status of mere incubators.

…KELLY: Governor Kasich, You chose to expand Medicaid in your state …[and] defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God, saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.

KASICH: …we’re treating [drug addicts] and getting them on their feet. And …the working poor, instead of them having come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet. And do you know what? Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose….

It’s a relief from time to time to hear an American politician on the Christian right who remembers, if only occasionally, what the Christian religion was originally all about, and what it’s still all about at its best: eschewing greed and helping others. The Ayn-Rand, Gordon-Gecko brand of ‘nothing personal, it’s just business’ ethics, equating selfishness and relentless personal enrichment with ‘personal responsibility’, is not traditional; it’s another very recent innovation, though not so recent as the unique human DNA = personhood one. The early Christians were the original socialists, though their government was not linked to the civic one, and the only enforcer of their laws was, according to the New Testament, God himself. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who hid some of their wealth from their Christian community which required the sharing of all resources. When Paul calls them out on their deception, God strikes them dead.

If I heard more conservative Christian politicians declare publicly that while they don’t believe the government should interfere, it’s still a grave sin for people to spend their money on lavish lifestyles for themselves when their employees are underpaid and so many others go without healthcare and other basic necessities, I’d be inspired. If I heard their voices crying in the wilderness of this self-centered, hyper-materialistic society we’re creating that it’s wrong to hoard money in tax shelters, depriving their fellow citizens, including the military and its veterans, of lawful tax revenue, I’d listen and admire. What would the God of the Acts of the Apostles think of such deception? But it still appears clear that those who benefit most from tax loopholes are the ones funding most of these ‘pro-business’ politicians and giving them lucrative private sector jobs when they’re done. In such an environment, these politicians rarely proclaim that they believe Business, just like everyone else, should conduct itself according to principles that the biblical Jesus spent most of his time talking about.

….WALLACE: Gentlemen, we’re turning to …the issue of immigration. Governor Bush, …I want to ask you about a statement that you made last year about illegal immigrants. And here’s what you said. “They broke the law, but it’s not a felony, it’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.” Do you stand by that statement and do you stand by your support for earned legal status?

BUSH: I do. I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family But we need to control our border… We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic that people are dying because of the fact that — that local governments are not following the federal law. …I hope to be that president — will fix this once and for all so that we can turn this into a driver for high sustained economic growth. And there should be a path to earned legal status…

Sadly, this is not the first time people have been driven to our borders as political and economic refugees. In times past, we turned them away, and as they had no opportunity to enter illegally, their ships were forced to return, and they died in the Holocaust. In that case, I believe those fleeing to our country would have been justified in breaking the law, as their right to sustain their own lives trumped all. As Bush pointed out, the situation is not that different for many illegal immigrants. Our policies help perpetuate the drug war ravaging so many of the countries south of our border and our own citizens are the eager customers of the murderous cartels, and while we might point out that it’s their governments’ responsibility to protect them, not ours, that makes no difference when it comes time to choose, to try and make a safe and decent life for themselves and their children.

But Bush is not correct in claiming that people are dying specifically because sanctuary cities are not targeting illegal immigrants for arrest. The relatively few people who are the victims of crime at the hands of illegal immigrants are suffering because some people do wrong, whatever their citizenship status. Later in this debate, in remarks I leave out for the sake of space, Trump, Cruz, and Carson offer anecdotes of conversations had with Border Patrol agents and other officials as ‘proof’ that illegal immigrants are bringing unprecedented waves of crime with them, a very poor type of evidence compared with the official arrest and crime records which contradict their claims. If Bush, Trump, Cruz, Carson, and others want to make the argument that ‘sanctuary cities’ should do more to arrest illegal immigrants as a crime prevention measure, than for consistency’s sake they would need to argue in favor of also rounding up American citizens too, since they’re the ones committing violent crimes at higher rates.

It seems that we would do more to reduce crime and violent deaths across the board by reducing the incentives and opportunities which lead to them. We should change our drug policies, decriminalizing many drugs, replacing our prohibition system with sensible regulation and treatment options. And we should stop allowing guns to flood our country, making it all too easy for the depraved, the violent, the angry, the untrained, the mentally ill, the depressed, the clumsy, and the just plain unlucky to kill each other and themselves.

KELLY: Alright, gentlemen, we’re gonna switch topics now and talk a bit about terror and national security. Governor Christie. You’ve said that Senator Paul’s opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone records has made the United States weaker and more vulnerable….

CHRISTIE: When you actually have to be responsible for [prosecuting, investigated, and jailing] terrorists, you can do it, and we did it, for seven years in my office, respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland….

PAUL: …I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over! John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights…

CHRISTIE: …You know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment! …Get a warrant! …Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants …indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records….

It’s always interesting to me when people who describe themselves as proponents of ‘small government’ become ardent defenders of big, intrusive government when it comes to certain pet causes. I agree with Paul here: one of the strengths of our system is that there are mechanisms built into our laws, at least ostensibly, to keep government accountable to its people. Obtaining a warrant before gathering information on citizens is one great way to accomplish this, and to show the world that we actually mean it when we claim to believe in a government of laws that’s accountable to its free citizens. And let’s not forget: amassing one massive, centralized database of the communication of private citizens provides an irresistible target for those who would want to hack into and steal such a gold mine of information, be it for political power, business, or terror.

… KELLY: Senator Cruz …you asked the chairman of the joint chiefs a question: “What would it take to destroy ISIS in 90 days?” He told you “ISIS will only be truly destroyed once they are rejected by the populations in which they hide.” …

CRUZ: Megyn, we need a commander in chief that speaks the truth. We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, “radical Islamic terrorism”. …When I asked General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution. We need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization. That, with all due respect, is nonsense.

KELLY: You don’t see it as…an ideological problem — an ideological problem in addition to a military one?

CRUZ: Megyn, of course it’s an ideological problem …Let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, “Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions–” ….

Cruz is right insofar as it’s an ideological problem, but not necessarily in the way he means. People are prone to be inspired and radicalized by ideology, and right now, there’s an influential brand of Islam that inspires its followers to do violence in its name. But waging war, especially in the opponent’s territory, doesn’t solve this problem; it doesn’t tend to make one’s ideological enemies wave the white flag right off the bat. It tends to do the opposite, to inflame patriotism on all sides, especially for citizens and sympathizers of the country that’s been ‘defiled’ by ‘outsiders’ breaching its borders. Young men, especially single and without families, have always been most susceptible to this. And a cause like ISIS, which promises salvation through glorious martyrdom, is an irresistible draw to people of certain temperaments and beliefs, and especially to those who have not made their own lives meaningful to themselves in some other way. History is rife with examples of this, the original Muslim conquests, the Inquisition, and the Crusades all included.

A policy which encourages a backlash of more martyrdom-seeking looks like the strategy of defeating the mythical Lernaean Hydra by cutting off heads as fast as you can, knowing all the while this causes twice as many to grow in their place. We would probably do better by other means, such as helping other Muslims defeat them, or by capturing their leaders and putting them on trial, showcasing them as criminals and murderers and not noble defenders of a worthy cause. While Obama may err sometimes on the side of political correctness, it’s clear from the context that his goals (and they are worthy ones) are to avoid stirring up more religiously-motivated hatred, and to reduce the use of religious- and ideologically-charged rhetoric that self-proclaimed holy warriors can use as recruitment tools.

…  KELLY: Dr. Carson, in one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Obama signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques in fighting terror. As president, would you bring back water boarding?

….CARSON: Alright. You know, what we do in order to get the information that we need is our business, and I wouldn’t necessarily be broadcasting what we’re going to do

This is a silly remark in the information age we live in. If government agents torture people, we all find out at some point, and not only does it undermines our credibility when we do it in secret, we cede the moral high ground. We’ve made the moral decision, along with most of the civilized world, that we no longer believe in using tactics that are so brutal and corrosive to respect for human dignity. How can we hold ourselves up as an example to the world while resorting to tactics we’ve declared wrong to use on our own people when it suits our purposes? And, of course, our willingness to resort to torture is yet another recruitment tool for ‘holy warriors’ and provides them with the justification they want to torture captured Americans.

CARSON: We’ve gotten into this — this mindset of fighting politically correct wars. There is no such thing as a politically correct war. …And I’ve talked to a lot of the generals, a lot of our advanced people. And believe me, if we gave them the mission, which is what the commander-in-chief does, they would be able to carry it out. And if we don’t tie their hands behind their back, they will do it extremely effectively…

If he means that torture is more effective than other means of extracting information, than he’s just empirically wrong. It’s been shown time and time again that people being tortured, just like people under other kinds of duress, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Look at the history of torture and how often torturers got people to confess to the most ridiculous and unbelievable things, such as trafficking with the Devil and casting spells to kill neighbors’ cattle. Not to mention the huge amount of data we have on coercive interrogation techniques in law enforcement, which we’ve come to discover has led to unacceptably high rates of false convictions.

BAIER: …Now, broadly, ..the size of government is a big concern … But year after year, decade after decade, there are promises from Republicans to shrink government. But year after year, decade after decade, it doesn’t happen. In fact, it gets bigger, even under Republican politicians. …Is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?

HUCKABEE: It’s not too big to shrink. But the problem is we have a Wall Street-to-Washington access of power that has controlled the political climate. The donor class feeds the political class who does the dance that the donor class wants. And the result is federal government keeps getting bigger.

True, Huckabee, that’s true of the revolving door, of the tendency of many of the wealthiest to co-opt the power of the federal government to promote their special interests. If Republicans were generally even a little less willing than Democrats to keep money flooding into politics from special interests, equating dollars with speech, I might believe he’s on the right stage. As of yet, it’s only been a relatively few libertarian-leaning candidates, and John McCain, who’s consistently, openly criticized the Republican party and called for its reform on this account.

…. HUCKABEE: And I’m still one who says that we can get rid of the Internal Revenue Service if we would pass the Fair Tax, which is a tax on consumption rather than a tax on people’s income, and move power back where the founders believed it should have been all along.

The so-called Fair Tax system is an interesting idea overall: it has a built-in system of basic welfare, which delivers on the claim that we value equal opportunity; it taxes consumption, which might significantly curb the environmental effects of industry; the code itself is simpler, increasing transparency and making the ordinary citizen more or less as able as the wealthy to navigate it without the help of professionals; and it’s progressive in one sense, in that people with less money, up to a point, end up paying less. It has some big problems as its currently formulated, such as: the excess money of the wealthiest people, who couldn’t spend most of it even if they tried, would not be taxed and would therefore fail to generate much-needed public revenue; it would be more difficult to enforce, especially when it comes to services; capital gains would not be taxed, encouraging investment in what Joseph Stieglitz calls ‘rent-seeking’ over innovation and the creation of useful goods and services; and its doesn’t have any disincentives that I could find for the kinds of financial speculation that so often brings down our economy. If the Fair Tax system underwent some pretty thorough reforms to solve some of these problems, I might become a proponent myself.

…BAIER: Dr. Carson, do you agree with that?

CARSON: What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make

Carson, by contrast, advocates a flat tax, which is a deeply unfair system if there ever was one. $1 out of every $10 is a crushing burden to a poor person, but can have little to no impact on the quality of life of a wealthy person. And even if he wanted his Christian beliefs to inform our tax laws, there’s no evidence that the Judeo-Christian God would advocate a flat tax anyway. While tithing was a common charitable religious practice for the Jews as it was for other traditions, two remarks of the biblical Jesus express a different view of what the just person should contribute. In one parable, he dismisses the large charitable donations of the rich while praising an old women who gave only a tiny amount, because it was nearly everything she had. In another place, he said, ‘For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required’. Instead of proportionality, he valued the contribution according to the generous spirit with which it was given, and how much was given compared to how much one received in life. In this sense, Jesus could be considered a critic and advocate of reform of the old practice of tithing, just as he was of many other practices of his time.

KELLY: The subject of gay marriage and religious liberty. Governor Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?

KASICH: Well, look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said the court has ruled … And guess what, I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. …I think the simple fact of the matter is …we need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have….

Well said, a succinct and plain-spoken defense of the American value of pluralism and of the rule of law, the latter of which can be extended to protect people who had previously, and unjustly, been denied its protection.

…BAIER: Governor Huckabee, the culture of the American military is definitely changing. Women are moving into combat roles. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has obviously been dropped. And now Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently directed the military to prepare for a moment when it is welcoming transgender persons to serve openly. As commander in chief, how would you handle that?

HUCKABEE: The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is kill people and break things. It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America

The American military has been de-segregated and liberalized many times over the centuries, to it and the nation’s benefit. While its primary purpose to to fight wars and defend the homeland, its also a powerful symbol of how we conduct ourselves among the nations of the world. For example, when black soldiers were treated shamefully in the barracks, on the battlefield, and at home despite their heroism, the injustice of the differential treatment really sank in for the American people, and the civil rights movement first gained its real traction as a result. But the military is not only a symbol, it’s our national defense, and as such, should represent who we are as a people. And whether some individuals like it or not, we are, as a people, men, women, black, white, brown, straight, gay, and transgender.

KELLY: …In our final moments here together, we’re going to allow the candidates to offer their final thoughts. But first, we want to ask them an interesting closing question from Chase Norton on Facebook, who wants to know this of the candidates: “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”

….KASICH: …You know, today the country is divided. …We’ve got to unite our country again, because we’re stronger when we are united and we are weaker when we are divided. And we’ve got to listen to other people’s voices, respect them …because of how we respect human rights, because that we are a good force in the world, [the Lord] wants America to be strong. …And nothing is more important to me than my family, my faith, and my friends.

Again from Kasich, he is honest about his beliefs, but succinct: he places the focus of his answer on solving the political matter at hand, and expresses a commitment to the law and to human decency, which all Americans can unite behind, regardless of whether his religious beliefs cause him to disagree personally on specific matters. This is the right tone to take when you run for the presidency of a pluralistic society dedicated to freedom of belief. Carson took the same tone in answer to this question. The rest of the candidates made comments that mostly sounded religiously divisive to me, more like preachers and less like public officials.

….KELLY: Thank you all very much, and that will do it for the first Republican primary night of the 2016 presidential race. Our thanks to the candidates, who will now be joined by their families on stage.

To be continued….

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* A nearly identical version is also published as a guest post at The Moderate Voice.