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Consumerism and Demcracy 28 February 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences.
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Living in San Francisco, it's pretty obvious that there's a difference between the way the wealthy live and the way the poorest of the poor live. Having a large homeless population in the city and living across the street from a night-time homeless shelter at a local church, I endure my fair share of stepping over sleeping veterans, schizophrenics, migrant workers, drug addicts, and the down-on-their-luck San Franciscans. But I also live in a city of wealth and a city dominated by dual-income Professional Managerial Class (PMC) families, the only people with the slightest chance of buying a home. Class and the markings of class sometimes seem obvious in Sodom by the Bay. But not so fast. Just as often the drunk hipster in ratty clothes screaming at you across the street is, by day, a high-powered professional. San Franciscans seem to swing between two poles, either consciously displaying our self-consciously hiding their economic class.

Does the fact that we have access to such an abundance of consumer goods, across the class spectrum, so much so that we can hide our class, negate the effects of economic inequality in a democracy? At one level, the answer seems obvious, in that the super wealthy in our society control most of the wealth (net worth, holdings, property, stocks, etc.):

5% receives 20.3% of income
Top 20% (including the top 5%) receives 47.% of income (household incomes from 80K annually on up)
Middle 60% receives 48.5%
Bottom 20% receives 4.3% of income

1% controls 39% of the wealth
Top 20% (including the top 1%) controls 83% of the wealth
The bottom 60% control just under 5% of the wealth.

On the other hand, is any of that really a problem for democracy? If poor people have televisions and microwaves and cars, is there a need for economic equalization for the realization of an effective democracy? Thomas Jefferson believed that every person with a stake in the democracy must be guaranteed by the society a minimum level of economic well-being in order for the democracy to be effective. Jefferson believed that if an individual was obligated to spend all of his or her time working to support himself (he wasn't a feminist), then he could not be a good citizen. For Jefferson, the point of a democracy was to provide a society where individuals were as independent as possible to pursue happiness, both in the public and private spheres. If you create a democracy wherein people cannot be economically independent (for Jefferson this meant yeoman farmers who were self-sustaining), then you have failed to create a democracy. Jefferson even argued that working to consume could never lead to the true happiness that an effective democracy could have. He also argued that working for wages was like slavery, because you are beholden to someone else for your livelihood and for the way you dispose of your time; and he further argued that credit for consumption was like slavery and was a mental burden.

Maybe this is why political scientists often refer to Jefferson as the "quack" among America's founders, as it's so contrary to what America actually became. Obviously, American democracy was institutionalized by James Madison (who wrote the constitution) and Alexander Hamilton (who, as secretary of state in three administrations designed the economic policy of the government), two men who believed that the government's primary role was to guarantee property rights and secure the ability of those with property to continue to accumulate.

I am left with Jefferson's critique: We are a consumer culture, facilitated by falling consumer prices, facilitated by technique and globalization. We are obviously a culture obsessed with consuming. Jefferson's argument may still obtain, that consumption isn't happiness; but what of his democratic argument?

Whereas Jefferson would have argued for mere economic independence, perhaps we would have to argue about consumerism: How much consuming power must an individual have, at minimum, in order to consider the democracy effective? How many hours per week maximum should a person have to work in a democracy, before it infringes on that person's ability to "pursue happiness"? Should credit cards be legal in a democracy? As much as credit enables consumptions, especially for the bottom 60% of Americans, is the credit worth it?

This is obviously not the democracy that Jefferson would have wanted, and even more obviously, it is a democracy inextricably tied to finance and industrial capitalism.

So is this it? Is democracy nothing more than the freedom to get a job and buy shit?


Family Values: A Response to the LDS Church’s Proclamation 28 February 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Ethics, Gender, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church, Sexuality.
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This is a response to the Proclamation on the Family, issued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1995, which lays out a political and theological justification for the church’s anti-gay politics and anti-woman policies. Ten years later, the LDS church continues to perpetuate false ideas about gender, sexuality and family structures, and to support problematic research at Brigham Young University. In rebutting the church’s positions, this proposal takes an agnostic stance as described by Thomas Huxley in the late 19th century, which is literally that there is no knowledge without evidence; from that place of agnosticism, this response directly contradicts the church’s claims of divine plans for gender and family, and its claims of knowledge about pre- and post-life spiritual existence. This proposal rests instead on the current scientific evidence from evolutionary development, anthropology, history, sociology and medicine. My apologies for the seeming disorganization of my response; it rebuts the Proclamation’s arguments paragraph by paragraph, following the illogic of the original (for the Church’s document, you can do a quick google search of the Church’s web site). If you have a current or past affiliation with the LDS church and would like to add your name to the list of signatories at the bottom, send me your name and location.

We, the undersigned former members and New Order members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists among us), solemnly propose that marriage between a man and a woman is a social construct and that the idea of “the family” changes over time and from culture to culture, depending on the needs and values of the people in question.

All human beings–male, female, intersexed and transsexual–are products of the same evolutionary processes. We propose that each already-born human life is valuable and should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of gender identity, as each human has an individual nature and the capacity to choose its own destiny within its context. Gender identity is a complicated interaction of genes, hormones, development, brain structure, social interaction, cultural values, and personal experience.

There is absolutely no scientific evidence of human souls existing either before birth or persisting after death; religious belief in such existences should not be used as a basis to make ethical or legal decisions here and now. Our individuality as we experience it arises out of our individual bodies and our individual experiences within particular social, cultural, and physical environments in the time and place that we live. This fact in no way changes our understanding of the value of each individual, already-born human being. Physical bodies are indeed a gift, providing pleasure and pain and embodied experience of the material and social universe during our lifetimes. Although people are free to believe that familial relationships continue beyond the grave, this should not be the basis for moral decisions about family relationships. This is a vitally important point, undergirding our conviction that we need to build meaningful relationships with people here and now. Religious rituals, including those of the Mormon temple, may provide feelings of connection and transcendence to some and may serve social purposes binding individuals and couples to various religious communities. But as unverifiable religious beliefs, they must have no formally binding power in a democracy.

The “Adam and Eve” story is a myth hobbled together by a series of Hebrew temple priests and scribes before and after Babylonian captivity. While there is a place for myth in creating meaningful lives, it is foolish to base our lives on a (roughly) 2500 year old myth originating from a completely different social context. It is equally foolish to use such myths as justification to command people to reproduce without concern for other human beings or the health of the planet’s other organisms. The pleasure and connection of sexual relationships need not be tied to reproduction; may be enjoyed among people of same, opposite, or indeterminate gender; and should be engaged in among consenting adults and in an ethical manner which accounts for the feelings and needs of all parties involved. Current laws regarding marriage are outdated and unfair and need to be brought into conjunction with the way people actually live in today’s world.

We declare that the means whereby humans reproduce is completely natural, biological, and links us with other sexually-dimorphic organisms. We affirm the sanctity of already-born human life and the importance of that sanctity as a communal value necessary to secure a meaningful human existence and a peaceful society.

Spouses of whatever gender have an ethical obligation to be completely honest with each other about their needs and desires and should commit with each other to meet those needs and desires to the best of their abilities. Spouses should revisit their commitment as often as necessary to make sure that each partner’s needs are being met and that they are happy with each other and their relationship. When children are born or adopted to parents of any gender, they have an ethical responsibility to provide, to the extent possible, an environment where that child can grow to explore their world, develop their own personalities, and learn about life in a safe and loving environment. Whether or not the child is raised with a religion is up to the parents, but care should be taken to allow children to choose their own spiritual path as they grow up. Children should be taught to think critically about the laws of the nation to which they are subject and obey them to the extent that they are not immoral or unjust. Parents should be held accountable to society for any criminal shirking of their responsibilities.

“The Nuclear Family” is a construction of late-capitalist, liberal democratic societies. Certain religions in American (among others) society have latched onto the idealized “nuclear family” as the basic unit of society. Historically, however, human beings have organized families in many different ways; indeed, families have had many different structures even in America’s short history. Marriage is not divine or god-given in any sense, but is a social convention that allows economic, social, and emotional relationships to be controlled by the society at large. We propose a social structure that allows people as much freedom and leeway as possible to form the kinds of marital relationships and families that work for them and their loved ones. We further propose that no national government should either penalize or reward any particular form, as long as the relationship adheres to the minimum standard of the democratic harm principle and that it be between adults who are capable of giving consent. Religious teachings may or may not lead to happiness in a marital relationship, but should never be used to judge the value of a given relationship; instead, a relationship should always be judged by its effect on the partners and, if any, their children. Successful spousal and parental relationships should be founded on compassion, tolerance, patience, forgiveness, openness, respect, and a willingness to work. There is no divine design of gender roles within familial relationships or in society at large. Spouses should work out between them who will have what responsibilities, duties, and privileges within the relationship; this division of labor within the relationship should be revisited as often as necessary to account for changing circumstances, desires, and needs of the partners. All parents are responsible to make sure that the material needs of the family are met and all parents are responsible for the nurturing of children. That spouses should treat each other as equal partners is obvious. Unfortunately in real life, difficult things happen, including death, disability, infidelity, or even simply a growing apart of partners who no longer can meet each others’ needs. Such situations should be handled with compassion and openness, to make the necessary transitions or changes possible, understanding that even in the best of circumstances, they will often be painful, heart-wrenching, and overwhelming, as any major change in relationships can be. Leaning on friends, chosen-families, and blood-families may help ease the transition.

When spouses have decided to be sexually exclusive to each other, they should honor that agreement until they mutually decide to change it; when one violates that agreement, they must understand the pain they cause and the possible outcomes of such a deception. Some couples may elect to not be sexually exclusive; in such relationships, spouses have an obligation to be sensitive to the wishes, needs, feelings and health of their partners. Physical abuse and sexual abuse between spouses or in parent-child relationships are not acceptable and perpetrators should be held accountable to the society at large by law. Spouses and parents must understand that failing to live up to emotional, financial, or material responsibilities may result in great disturbance in the lives of spouses and children alike. Ancient and modern “prophets” speak from their own cultural biases and should have no claim on our actual lives. Rather, individuals and groups should be free to find the answers that work for them, within the ethical bounds discussed above. And we proclaim that changing the shape of individual families to meet the needs of the members of those families is good for society, in creating happy, mature, and responsible adults and children. The continual change and adaptation of family structures is a simple fact of history and is neither good nor bad. It is simply a response to the world we live in here and now.

We call upon responsible citizens and officers of governments everywhere to promote these measures designed to free people from unnecessary religious, traditional, or cultural baggage, and to relate to each other as fully human, responsible adults, in order to organize their personal lives and their most central relationships in the ways that best suit them, their children, and their communities, leaving individuals the freedom and space to do so.

Written by J. Todd Ormsbee, 28 December 2005, San Francisco, California.

Signed by:
Corey J. Kilpack, 29 December 2005, San Francisco, California.
Shannon Weber, 29 December 2005, San Francisco, California.
Elizabeth Udall Thompson, 30 December 2005, Solihull, England.
Hellmut Lotz, 30 December 2005, College Park, Maryland.
Amy Snyder, 30 December 2005, Aberdeen, Maryland.
Todd Brauer, 2 January 2006, St. Louis, Missouri.
Miranda Webster, 2 January 2006, Farmington Hills, Michigan.
Justin Rhodehouse, 5 January 2006, Farmington, Utah.
Travis Taysom, 24 February 2006, Holly, Michigan.
Erica Hatch, 25 February 2006, Stansbury Park, Utah.
Brandon Hatch, 25 February 2006, Stansbury Park, Utah.
Adam Hansen, 28 February 2006, Great Meadows, New Jersey.
Caroline Udall, 20 March 2006, Hood River, Oregon.
Chris Connelley, 11 April 2006, West Valley City, Utah.
Christy Putnam, 19 April 2006, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Jeremy Putnam, 19 April 2006, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Russell Martin, 31 January 2007, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Joel Layton, 9 February 2007, Director of Atheists of Utah.
Sean Tibbits, 15 June 2008, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Theresa Sumrall, 23 June 2008, Gainesville, Florida.
Rheana Rogers, 29 November 2008, Arvada, Colorado.

War & Democracy 27 February 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Political Commentary, Politics, Social Sciences.
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This week, one of my classes will be studying briefly the American response to World War I. The parallels between the Bush administration's "War on Terror" and the Wilson administration's efforts to garner support for and push America toward war seem too precise to be real: appeals to nationalism and democratic zeal, stifling of dissent, propaganda deployed unashamedly to manipulate public opinion, the interaction of business and Congress in the decision to declare war, and the erosion of Civil Rights in the name of "national security." Perhaps these are merely inescapable tropes of the modern democratic state, and it shouldn't be at all surprising that we're revisiting these things yet again in the 21st century.

At the end of WWI, when debates were raging over the League of Nations, the Wilson administration continued its clamp-down on dissent by using its propaganda office to stir up public fear against socialists, communists, and anarchists. I reread over the weekend the National Popular Justice League's 1920 report concerning U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's and the Justice Department's illegal and unconstitutional actions against American citizens and legal aliens. The NPJL enumerated five violations of the U.S. Constitution by the Justice Department, which they had documented: 1) cruel and unusual punishment; 2) arrests without warrant; 3) unreasonable searches and seizures; 4) provative agents [entrapment and intimidation]; and 5) compelling persons to witness against themselves [torture]. The words of their conclusion ring true 86 years later:

There is no danger of revolution so great as that created by suppression, by ruthlessness, and by deliberate violation of the simple rules of American law and American decency. It is a fallacy to suppose that, any more than in the past, any servant of the people can safely arrogate to himself unlimited authority. To proceed upon such a supposition is to deny the fundamental American theory of the consent of the governed. Here is no question of a vague and threatened menace, but a present assault upon the most sacred principles of our Constitutional liberty….

Unfortunately, I see no danger of revolution at all in 2006 America. Salon.com has an interview in today's issue if you want to see how depressingly we not only resemble, but surpass the Wilson administration and the NPJL's 1920 report.

The Inaugural Punch: Apocalyptic Thinking Is Immoral 27 February 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cultural Critique, Ethics, Islam, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion.
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Testing the waters, a little, I'm just repeating a post I made over at Folks on the Fringe to see how Blogger works.

The belief in an "end of times," "second coming," or as Evangelicals call it "rapture" is among the most problematic and, in my opinion, deeply immoral beliefs to come out of Christianity. It leads believers to see history and their world as a declension narrative, that is, a story of decline and fall. Because of that perception (which is historically not even close to being verifiable), it enables them to disengage and watch human suffering, salving their consciences with "Oh, but Jesus is coming soon."

People in various messianic religions have been predicting the returns of their messiahs for thousands of years. He/she never comes back, and we still live in this world, right now, with real problems and real suffering, which we have the power to ease and maybe even eliminate.

There is a way that people who expect the return of their messiah take joy, or at least a sick kind of excitement, in the suffering of other human beings–for to them, it appears to be a "sign" of the immanent return. Many of us have sat in church meetings or at family reunions where believers speculate about Gog and Magog or whether we'll have sex during the Millenium, almost giddy with pleasure.

Given that it allows human beings to cut off compassion, justify their inaction and apathy, and even take pleasure in the suffering of others, I can think of few other aspects of Christianity or Mormonism that are more immoral than eschatology (belief in the apocalypse).

Considering that the people who run our country have all drunk the Evangelical Kool-aid (not to mention munching on the Neo-Conservative Chex Mix), I fear that they will use that power to force an Armageddon, because they believe it is supposed to happen, ignoring all the possible other ways to solve, reconcile, change the world we live in here and now. I am afraid not of Jesus's immanent failure-to-show, but that because the people who hold the guns think that their messiah (e.g., Jesus or the Mahdi) is coming back soon, so they will gladly start a bloodbath to make it happen and fulfill their own fantasies…er, prophecies.