Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Like Lives, Words Matter (And — in non-Racial Contexts — Some More than Others)

In our local newspaper, The Ventura County Star for 18 September 2018, there was what turned out to be a nice letter to the editor calling for people to help other people, with the title (possibly requested by the letter-writer) and final line "All Life Matters."

There's a problem with that line other than its subtext if applied to the US politics of race.

A snarky but important comment goes, "Don't say 'All life is sacred' while eating a hamburger," to which I add "Or a carrot." The great mass of life on Earth, the dominant forms of life through the history of life on this planet have been microbial: what are currently called archaea and bacteria; and if bacterial life is sacred, in the time I worked in microbiology labs, I was a mass murderer.

I don't feel guilty about the billions of bacteria I killed; I do feel some guilt about the rats, dogs, and other mammals I killed, and that is one of the reasons I don't eat mammal meat.

Even if you're a scrupulous practitioner of Jainism or a rigorous Vegan, your immune system kills other organisms, and most of us squash cockroaches, spray mosquitoes, spritz disinfectants, gargle mouth wash that "kills bacteria on contact," and eat organisms more closely related to us than insects and bugs, and/or, with octopuses, arguably of high intelligence (squid I guess I can eat).

When people say "life is sacred" they usually mean to say "human life is sacred," and they really do need to go to the trouble to add the two syllables of "human" or prepare to argue for a definition of "life" that excludes so much that is clearly alive. And they might do better to make that, "Human life is sacred, and all life should be respected, even when we kill." (Peoples who ask an animal’s forgiveness before killing, or recite a blessing implying that even culturally permitted or valued killing is in some way problematic and needs sanction — may be on to something.)

Words matter, and some more than others. To use some key words and say that "There’s a death in every abortion" is correct. There’s also a death with every hamburger you prepare or carrot pulled from the ground and eaten. The question is what’s being killed and from there its or his or her ethical status and from there the status of that organism under the law. "Abortion is murder," always and necessarily, if, but only if, we’re dealing with human beings from the zygote (fertilized egg) through the stages of a developing embryo to a fetus and then on to a human being with "the breath of life." Personally, I have trouble seeing a single-cell organism as human or even a ball of human cells; potentially human, yes, and a human individual — with "monozygotic siblings" (so-called identical twins and triplets and all) as a limiting case on individual, but not a contradiction. ("Identical" twins aren’t literally identical.)

It may turn out that on abortion and related issues we American would do best to remain vague and contradictory and muddle through with muddled reasoning. Maybe. That hasn’t worked too well so far, though at least we haven’t gotten resorted to heavy weaponry yet. We might try clarity. 

Words matter, and some matter a great deal: "human being"/"person under the law," life are among those that matter a lot. In America, we fought a Civil War to recognize that Black people are fully human and as much as anyone full citizens under the law.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Kol Nidre and the Constitution: 5779/2018

I don't often commit acts of poetry, and the last time I inflicted a poem on the public was 1987, with a relapse in 2016, republishing the poem in a blog. On these rare occasions, though, something in my head has something to say, some concern to work through, which the prose part of my thinking can't handle. 

The occasion of this occasion was my thinking about upcoming Kol Nidre (the start of Yom Kippur, 18 September 2018) and thinking of an oath I'd taken at least twice, and maybe several times: possibly for Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), definitely, and in writing, to teach in the U.S. States of Illinois and Ohio. The people administering the oath (or affirmation — this is America, after all, and one cannot be forced to swear an oath) — the people administering the oath weren't all that serious, but I take my word very seriously. And I wondered if in old age, I'd finally be challenged to keep my word. 

We would've kept it for the tune, 
Or that's what many think, or guess
And the memory — 
Remembering is big this time of year —
Memories of hidden Jews in places made less judenrein than
The early purifiers sought and thought.

The lyrics of Kol Nidre though, the words as meaning
With all the charm of a car-rental contract,
And in need of a note
That only vows to God, by God get voided
Yom Kippur or ever.

Those made I to you and we to us,
Those vows to humans hold.

All our oaths and affirmations,
Promises we make to one another … 

And to the Republic?
The one of the ideal, the Republic of the Promise, 
The Constitution of the Dream?
Are we still sworn to that?
Sworn to preserve, affirming we'll protect,
Still dedicated to defend,
A Republic ours if we can keep it,
Ours only if we can keep it?

Defending against all enemies — 
Did I swear that part?
ROTC — registration freshman year, 
Getting Army shoes, and that great greatcoat
We wore against regs on rainy days —
And at one station on the line did we swear
(Or affirm) defense
Against all enemies, foreign
And domestic.

Did we all (there or elsewhere, other whens) swear, affirm, and 
Vow kol nidre,all our vows —
All of us who talk of "rule of law" and decency and 
Putting all that is our selves against the latest enemies,
Foreign and domestic?

And is now the time of testing?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Democracy, Republic, Trump and the Twenty-Fifth

Miami University (the one in Ohio) once had a rule worded that professors could be stripped of tenure for cause if their performance significantly deteriorated. One or two of us wise-asses asked if a sufficient defense would be, "Hey — what deterioration?! I was incompetent when you hired me."

I've been thinking about that joke when I hear assertions that it would be a denial of American democracy to invoke the 25th Amendment (section 4) to make President Donald Trump step down until he ... let's say "got better" because the sovereign American People knew what they were getting when they elected him. 

Ya gotta love that "democracy" appeal when talking about the Electoral College, a specifically undemocratic part of our "mixt Constitution" as originally written and still not screamingly democratic when candidates with fewer popular votes get more electoral votes and become president.

I'll defer to PoliSci and history folk on this topic, but my memory from high school civics class and my youth is that that United States is a Republic, not a democracy, and democratic aspirations on the Left are often for liberal democracy, where the sovereign will of the People as indicated by a majority or "power majority" is thwarted when that temporary "power" or actual majority are messing over minorities. 

Also, "majority decision" ≠ "majority rule," and the capital "R" Republicans have been practicing much too much majority rule, where a temporary majority does what it wants, without much concern for the desires of the minority party, or minorities more generally. Athens was much more democratic than the USA, and after its fashion so was Sparta — if, but only if, you were "Athenian, male, of age, and free" or Spartan born, not a helot-slave or resident alien (and if Spartan women were better off than in most Greek cities, that's a low bar). Well, and Sparta was a kind of democracy if you didn't mind spending most of your life as a Spartan damn it, a soldier under military discipline, or a female popping out and initially raising Spartans for military duty. (Plus that the inspiration to young Spartan males going off to battle with Mom's loving words for her precious boy, "Come back with your shield — or on it," i.e., honorably alive or honorably dead.)

But yet again I digress.

Donald Trump after his fashion and that of a big part of the 20th century, could claim (had he the wit and education) to be an ultimate democrat: the Leader embodying the will of the Nation, with the sovereign Nation performing that will though him without those republican checks and balances, i.e., without restraints. And the real American Nation is like that of Athens or Sparta or the real nations as they now imagine themselves as always having been (screw the messy facts of history): a single people based in "blood and soil," descent and race and religious faith and no outsiders allowed in to "sap and impurify" the Body Politic.  


There's a legend that Ben Franklin walked out of the close of the Constitutional Convention to be accosted by a lady who asked, "Well, Dr. Franklin, what sort of government have you given us?" To which he replied, the legend concludes, "A republic, madam — if you can keep it." We have a Republic, with democratic aspirations I hope we keep liberal. If we can keep it.