Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Land of the Free (Labor)

       The history of the United States of America, the self proclaimed “land of the free” is peppered with the very worst abuses of humanity. While it is eager to point the finger of blame at other nations; the United States government has appointed itself the defender of human rights across the globe while its own record of exploitation presents a ghastly paradox. 
      Citizens and politicians alike have abdicated the essence of “liberty for all” in exchange for economic prosperity. The price of success for the American nation has been the wholesale dismantling of its founding principles. Americans continually view injustice as something that happens in remote countries in other parts of the world. The specter of slavery and oppression persists intentionally unseen within. The official state legitimization of human bondage is a threat to the good conscious of all people who call themselves educated or free. If American people wish to continue pretending to be the great emancipators of humanity then they must come to admit their own hypocrisy. Clearly, American history recounts the story of a people whose greatest moments of self-reflection have always come at a terrible cost in human suffering. The evil that America sees at-large in the world, and that which it seeks most ardently to destroy are the same evils of which it is most guilty      
   
      The use of prisoners as a labor pool is an old custom stretching back beyond written record. Human beings have made use of enforced servitude for millennia. It was the common practice for prisoners in the 17th century to be sent to penal colonies where the convicted men would be put work in grueling physical conditions.  The United States and Australia were both built, in a large part, by the forced labor of prisoners and slaves. The state of Georgia has humble beginnings as an English penal colony. To this day Georgia has the dubious distinction of housing the largest inmate population in the United States and includes over 100 correctional facilities, factories and farms. (Geogia Correctional industries) As crime rates rise lawmakers find plenty of public support to allocate taxes for the building of new facilities in order to house the growing inmate populations.  By promising that more prisons and more severe laws will provide safer communities the ethical arguments against convict labor, many of which are made by the U.S., are side stepped and morally fuzzy economic and social justifications are adopted. Americans tend to be very invested in human rights. What is unclear, are which humans they feel are entitled to those rights. 

     Laws are often written by people who are unable or unwilling to abide by to their own rules. Even as the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence the paradox of American moral superiority had begun. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” (Jefferson). Though Jefferson was a poignant writer who beautifully expressed the core principals of liberty, he himself was the master of a large plantation worked by slaves. Almost immediately ethical compromises were struck by the authors of those principals in order to justify that very incongruity. Later, the thirteenth amendment would emancipate slaves, however, it included special language which allowed for the continuation of forced labor in prisons.

     Prisoner labor currently provides for a wide variety of services to both public and private sectors. Private prisons, which claim that prisoner labor offsets cost and reduces criminal recidivism, also fail to mention that they make a considerable profit from the labor. If there was no profit the industry of privatized incarceration would simply not exist. “Cost considerations are especially important for state governments, which must maintain balanced budgets. As a result, fiscal reasons, not rehabilitation, have been the most politically popular arguments for private use of prison labor” (Kang) Hence, the argument that forcing criminals to do hard labor will rehabilitate them and give them employable skills actually falls short when considering the fact that while work programs have found great success prisons; employment training and education programs for inmates, as well as post-incarceration assistance, is almost non-existent. Currently Georgia employs the labor of over 1,400 inmates while only 450 of those inmates are enrolled in education or job-skills training that will allow them to function outside of the criminal corrections system. (Geogia Correctional industries). Private prisons benefit more financially from recurrence of crimes than they would from the rehabilitation and reintegration of convicts into mainstream society. “The ineffectiveness of private prison labor in meeting its stated purposes demonstrates how this policy is primarily a populist political response, not actually a revenue-raising or rehabilitation program” (Kang).

      Prisoners in America have little or no recourse available to them when their rights are violated or if their labor is wrongfully exploited.  An unfortunate sentiment among Americans is that prisoners have given up their rights by choosing to commit crimes against the community. However the community resigns the convict to a life in which criminal deviance because it becomes one of the few means of survival left to people with criminal backgrounds. The affluent society may deny responsibility for creating the underclass, however, it simultaneously relies on its existence. Many agree that prisons do not rehabilitate criminals, and this widely held perception has a clear effect on how formerly incarcerated people are received back in society. A criminal background check is the standard practice of many businesses and universities. People convicted of felonies are not allowed to vote, and are prevented from holding office. The upward mobility of any person, post-incarceration, is severely restricted and often a return to criminal activity is the only viable option.

       Upon a very cursory examination the parallels between strict contemporary repeat-offender legislation and post-civil war Jim Crow segregation laws, which were intended to prevent black African Americans from excising the full entitlements of their citizenship, are blatant and even celebrated as the means by which our communities are kept safe. One example is that Felons are forbidden to vote or participate in government for the rest of their lives. Many job positions become permanently closed no matter how many years pass or how many academic degrees are earned. Most insidiously by using the law to restrict it's inhabitants lives to that of poverty and crime, prisons have created a revolving door from which very few people are provided the opportunity to escape. The incarceration is not limited to the body, it also inhabits the mind. African American males, who previously made up the majority of the American slave population, are intentionally singled out for incarceration by the types of laws that are being enacted. Drug prohibition laws gained political ground after the overturning of alcohol prohibition precisely because substances like cannabis and cocaine were primarily being used by minorities at that time.  “The reality that so many young, low-skilled, minority men are being incarcerated will have dire effects on this population‘s employment prospects, racial disparities, and the ability to become productive law abiding citizens” (Cox)

While the racial makeup of forced labor in America has not changed much in the 200 years since this country was founded. What has changed is the tone of the rationalizations used to justify their existence. The slow reincarnation of the popular conscious on the constitutionality of drug prohibition laws only began after these substances had found favor with young white people. Even as drug laws are being overturned young black males find themselves being incarcerated more often than young white males for the same crimes. Every single state correctional system will bear out the truth of that statement.   

                H. L. Mencken wrote, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all" (qtd. in Keeler 185). There is stunning capacity for rationalization in the American consciousness when it comes to the undesirable segments of its own population.  The combination of fluctuating economic anxieties, racial prejudices, and unbridled capitalist ambitions have allowed self-described progressives to favor draconian systems of crime and punishment. United States policy makers draw massive support for increasingly disciplinary laws that target minority, low-income, and unrepresented groups. A recursive series of morally abhorrent consequences come to fruition for the people that these laws target, not the least of which is the creation of largest slave-labor force in the history of mankind.

Although the U.S. prison population is estimated to reach 9 million by the year 2015, the U.S. takes a hardline stance against the moral injustice of convict labor when it occurs internationally. While claiming to be concerned over the unfair use of convicts for labor in other nations, such as China, the U.S. government continuously benefits from the labor of its own incarcerated population. This condemnation is a glaring hypocrisy which seems to have escaped the notice of its ethically indignant citizenry. Susan Kang writes, “The United States’ condemnation of Chinese prison labor exemplifies the way the US has appointed itself a moral police man of the global economy” (Kang). Another mitigating factor of the American people’s acquiescence to policies that obviously contrast with their principles, is that it is responding to anxiety in the face of an uncertain global economy. “The United States’ condemnation of Chinese prison labor began at roughly the same moment that the United States legalized its own private use of prison labor. In the context of contemporary globalization, changes in international economic policies and domestic criminal policies have been intimately related. The US incarceration rate, for instance, was at its lowest point just one year before average wages peaked in 1973” (Kang)

 One convenient policy change leads to another, the legalization of private prisons also coincides with the federal militarization of the newly named “War on Drugs” which favors zero-tolerance policies and steep sentencing for non-violent drug users. Suddenly, prisons have found themselves with larger populations than they could hold. Since 1980 Drug offenders have taken up a significantly larger portion of the prison populations legitimizing the need to build even more prisons. (Cox). With a large labor pool and production industry prisons are able to produce many goods and services which are sold back to the government at below-market cost. Prison labor effectively drives other private businesses out of the running for government contracts by being allowed to undersell their competition like the state of Georgia where prisons may only legally sell to government entities. (Geogia Correctional industries)

     
  The sad reality of American law making is that it does not protect the freedoms of its citizens.   Instead we see a system designed to take so our so-called “inalienable rights” away from us at the slightest of infractions. The very lives of the lower classes are being sacrificed in the name of economic goals. Crimes that were once considered matters of personal choice can sentence a person to enforced servitude, hostile living environments, and societal segregation for the rest of their lives. America does not seem to have lost its taste for involuntary labor. It has however lost its taste with the international community who are reaping the same benefits. The consequences of that hypocrisy are not only felt by the inmates and their families. Society itself must eventually deal with the fall-out of creating a criminal under-class.  Exploding prisoner populations have not indicated safer streets or decreased criminal recidivism. Instead there is a growing percentage of people that being stripped of basic human rights and equal opportunities.  The same country that glorifies the emancipation of the slaves was built and is still run on forced to labor for the profit of private entities. In this case America has not freed the slaves or changed the meaning or use of convict labor. America has merely repackaged slavery behind a thin veneer of collective morals and personal safety. Unfortunately People often do not recognize that their rights are being taken from them until they are already gone.


Works Cited  

Cox, Robynn Joyce Afi. "An Economic Analysis of Prison Labor." Economic Disseratations Department of Ecomonics Georgia State University Digital Archive (2009): 1-183. Document.
Encyclopedia, Columbia Electronic. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 2013. Web Document. 20 April 2013.
Industries, Georgia Correctional. Geogia Correctional industries. 2013. website. 5 May 2013.
Jefferson, Thomas. "Archives.gov." 4 July 1776. The Declaration of Independance . Document. 2 May 2013.
Kang, Susan. "New Political Science." Forcing Prison Labor: International Labor Standards, Human Rights and the Privatization of Prison Labor in the Contemporary United States June 2009: 137-161. PDF Document .
Keeler, Mark. Nothing to Hide: Privacy in the 21st Century. Lincoln: iUninverse, 2006. PDF.

  





Thursday, April 18, 2013

Better off Damned


And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee” (F. Nietzsche 1886). 
 
 A common assertion made by evangelists, such as Pat Robertson and Ray Comfort, is that Atheists are miserable people. Our apparent melancholy is hypothetically derived from being overly dependent on science which, the evangelists continually claim, offers none of the hope that religion offers. Coming face to face with the harsh realities of a world without a divine parent do not offer any solution to the problems of human life; however it does invite humanity to unravel its own problems for itself. Many of the terrifying aspects of life, such as death and suffering, can be overwhelming. For a religious person God is the impervious rock upon which everything else in their lives is founded.  When compared to the promise of a second existence in paradise, the troubles of the human world are seen as a mere precursor. While it is true that Atheism does not supply humanity with the same extraordinary assurances that religion promises, it does offer something a little more realistic. Atheists do indeed rely on science in order to understand the natural world, and its painful realities. Understanding the interrelationships of nature as they truly exist teaches humanity some very profound things about itself.  Science teaches us that we are not fallen from grace, but raised from the very stars themselves. Atheism does not promise a solution to human misery, what it does do is release us from much of the suffering that we have created for ourselves, largely through devotion to tradition and religion, simply because of the consolation that they offers.   

The reassurance that people derive from God is based entirely on their belief in the power of that God over the natural world. The faithful believe that God supersedes nature and therefore can free them from certain frightening natural inevitabilities. Christianity teaches that the faithful will not die, and that they will experience an eternal second after-life. Buddhism and Hinduism teach that life can be lived a multitude of times. None of these doctrines acknowledge the reality, which is, that as far as we can tell there is no consciousness after death. The precious fragility of this singular human existence unfortunately gets marginalized in favor of what amounts to fantastical lies for which there is not one shred of evidence. Unlike Theism, Atheism embraces both life and death as natural processes that occur as part of a larger infinitely complex system of energy exchange. Both theism and atheism have ideas that are able to make death appear much less intimidating; however only one of these ideas requires supernatural belief, and only one of them excludes people who don’t follow a very complicated system of contradictory moral rules.   

True of many religions, especially Christianity, is the idea that belief in God is required in order to be a good person. A common theme of Christian sermons is that: being good is not enough. There is continual premise that human beings are lacking and in of need moral guidance from God. Obedience of God’s laws is paramount in order to be saved from the problems of this life and be granted a suffering-free existence in the next. However God’s laws are ethically insolvent. A rational person, unobstructed by the pursuit of the afterlife, can easily comprehend that the Bible is a litany of murder, misogyny, subjugation and slavery. Religion allows perfectly moral, upright people to rationalize acts of deep evil and even come to see those acts as ‘good works’ When blind allegiance to obviously horrifying ideas is seen as correct-thinking, Atheists have no choice but to reject the inhumanity of religion, as it commands people to be inhumane to one other.

In his book, The Portable Atheist, the late author Christopher Hitchens writes, “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely.” (Hitchens) While the notion of making only one life count might be daunting, and the finality of death is very frightening, it seems like a tragedy to squander this life in the fanatical hope that there will be another better life to come. For the atheist, this life is extraordinarily precious, and not to be trivialized or handed over.

To scientifically comprehend an individual’s place in the cosmos is to almost vanish completely. The universe cares nothing for the self-importance of human concerns. One of the most important aspects of atheism is that it offers no meaning at all and asks that people give their own lives significance. When presented with this notion many religious people will often ask what would become of the world without the necessary moral requirements of religious doctrines: such as the charity, compassion, and humility. In a Godless world, upon which we can only speculate, there would no doubt be many of the same problems and needs. Altruisms would no longer be a currency with which one would earn their place in the next life. Instead, a person would simply be compassionate because it in their nature to do so. What would be most notably absent in the secular world is the decision to withhold empathy or be indifferent to suffering simply because those people did not worship your same God or maybe any gods at all.

The prominent evolutionary biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins wrote, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world” (Dawkins).  Dr. Dawkins is an avid voice against the diluting of the public education system with fundamentalist Christian faith doctrines and creation tales, and uses his considerable celebrity to speak out publically against the harm being done by religion. His is only one voice in the growing ranks of Godless people who recognize the hypocrisy of religion and its monopolistic claim on morality. If history itself doesn’t serve as a good enough example of the intrinsic failure of religion, perhaps understanding that the origin of morality is not a religious or philosophical one does. Morality developed through human social and cultural evolution. As humanity has evolved it was cooperation with one another that has favored our survival. Complex, highly evolved systems of cooperation are what codes of ethics are derived from. Religion comes from morality not the other way around. The Religious person need not fear a secular world; at least, they need not fear it anymore than one where religious tradition is predominate. Clearly Secularists have historically had much more to fear from religious institutions than the other way around.  

Although there are, and always will be, fanatical people in every sector of society who can only envision their world with one single ideology, coexistence is not unattainable. Atheism is rising as a viable life choice in mainstream culture as it becomes more accepted. Many atheists no longer feel the need to hide in the shadows. The growing numbers of Atheists who are out in the open challenge conventional ideas about Godlessness. Atheists will come to be recognized as separate from the propaganda that church leaders would disseminate about them. Rapidly changing modern ethics and contemporary world views are becoming insolvent with religious ideology. Old-world religion will be forced to loosen its restrictions on its followers or risk losing them. Eventually the fear of death, which has been a cornerstone of religious recruitment, will not over power the way in which educated free people must live their lives. It has become the imperative of many people to value skeptical inquiry and ultimate freedom over comforting promises.
As our scientific understanding has deepened we have been able to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our origins that religion had once poorly attempted to answer. We have also opened new doors of inquiry where the spiritualists will fear to tread. Staring into the abyss of the cosmos has revealed both our precious rarity and our astronomical insignificance. If you are told from birth that you are the special creation of a supreme being at the center of a specially built universe, there may be a lingering sense of disillusionment when confronted with facts that say otherwise. While religion has undeniably had an important role in our social and cultural evolution humanity may find that, like the appendix, we no longer need it to function and may choose to remove it from our lives if it becomes enlarged and is threatening to our existence.    
 

Works Cited


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Great Britain: Bantam Press Transworld Publishing, 2006. Hardcover.

Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Philadelphia: De Capo Press Perseus Books, 2007. Paperback.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Wilder Publications, 1886.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Effect of Religious Tradition on Gender Roles


As children grow up they are told, often by their own parents, that they can be anything that they want to be. What a majority of people do not realize is that most of what we consider to be personal identity was already decided for us the moment we emerged into the world. Baby boys and girls come home to a myriad of gender based life decisions that have already been made for them. These pre-determined gender assignments arise universally out of the traditions of their parents who received those traditions from their parents. The constant factor in much of how the roles of men and women are separated seems to be religious tradition. While it is incontrovertible that religion has occupied a major role in developing and establishing of widely accepted roles for males and females to fill on earth, the lack of any evidence what so ever if the existence of a “divine spheres” makes it challenging to presume that the same can be said for them. So this discussion must therefore abjure the divine in support of an observable reality.

For much of human history it has been accepted for women to fit in to a subservient role to the men. This idea is deeply ingrained in to Hinduism which is one of the world’s oldest enduring religious traditions. Women have almost universally been viewed as the care takers of the homes, meant to be providing for her husband and producing many children. Their roles in society have been at best being the vessels of creation, and at worst as property to be traded and only slightly more valuable than livestock. This way of thinking has carried over into more modern religious traditions, such as Christianity, and even subconsciously influences much of contemporary society.

Monogamy is a major tenant of some religious traditions, as well as existing family values in many worldwide cultures. Religious tradition has created an unfair power differential that sets women up as the chattels of men. The root of this idea comes from the belief that, although women-kind is secondary and less significant than their male counterparts, that they are none the less required for the continuation of civilization. The idea that marriage should only include only one man and one woman is the solution created to stop men from competing for what they fear would become scarce resources which unfortunately in this case are human beings.

A common presumption espoused by religious leaders is that without the revealed customary assignments that humankind would otherwise degenerate in murderous anarchy. The claim of these leaders is that these regulations protect humanity from the inherent evil within ourselves.  In religious tradition the blame for this inborn trait has come to rest squarely on the shoulders of women which conveniently gives religious authority ethical permission to subjugate them. One of the worst examples of religiously sanctioned male chauvinist thought is the “Malleus Maleficarum” otherwise known as “The Hammer of Witches”. The Malificarum was written in the middle Ages, a time when religious authority permeated every single aspect of life, and it reads, “The evil of women is discussed in Ecclesiasticus 25[:22–23]: “There is no head worse than the head of a snake, and there is no anger surpassing the anger of a woman. It will be more pleasing to stay with a lion and a serpent than to live with an evil woman.” (Mackey 162).  This text use religious justification with scriptural backing by religious authorities to give themselves permission to murder and execute untold numbers of innocent women for perceived crimes. The fear and hatred of women by men is not, however, caused solely by religion, it merely supports and legitimizes it. Religion is simply the mirror by which our own worst insecurities are reflected.  Historically authority of any kind seems to seek ever more advanced methods of subjugation and is this fear which provided men with justification to subjugate women.

 Although in contemporary western society men and women both assert an equality of the sexes, the gender divide created by religious tradition is still in existence and is widely accepted. This divide is most apparent in the way that we orient our children from birth towards their gender roles. Walking through any toy or children’s store parents are given very specific set of toys and clothing choices for either their little boy or girl. Male toys vary greatly covering a wide variety of interests and female toys are strictly oriented at either domesticity or physical appearance. Without much thought parents give their daughters baby dolls and pretend kitchens sending a clear message to girls about their presumed roles.

 Parents, largely, wish to give their child the best possible advantages in life. Being able to fit into contemporary society is often seen as an important part of living life well, however, they might be unintentionally limiting the scope of their female children based on archaic religious ideas. The challenge moving forward for a more educated and secular society is to shed those gender assignments and other antiquated religious laws which limit our potential as human beings.   



Works Cited


 

Mackey, Christopher S. The Hammer of Witches: A complete traslation of the Mallus Maleficarum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Finding the Logic in the Truth


      "Reason over Passion" -- Pierre Elliot Trudeau
 
The ultimate truth of any conclusion depends entirely on the logic that was used to arrive at that end result. The question of which path we should take to reason out our conclusions means that we must ultimately define what logic is and define which methods we are using to determine what is logical and what is not. In order to produce reliable results it becomes essential to identify and reject what is not logical.

Can we even define: What is logic? Yes. Very Absolutely.
This isn't an arbitrary question, nor is it an unanswerable question
To have any type of rational discussion, or exchange of ideas first you have to all agree on some sort of baseline reality of the world. Certain things are facts,  The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. No matter what part of the world you come from

What we will discuss here in is the difference between deductive logic and inductive reasoning and how it is applied to a scientific understanding of the universe.  Deductive logic is widely accepted by the scientific community as an acceptable way to produce a true conclusion because it relies on universally accepted truths. Inductive reasoning is not primarily accepted by the scientific community as a sole way to produce a verifiably true conclusion. However, quantum theorists do use inductive arguments coupled with mathematics to correctly predict cosmic phenomenon long before we are able to actually verify it. Inductive reason can indeed be used to come to a scientific conclusion but only in tandem with a solid baseline of deductive truths. Although an inductive result may be supported by the hypothesis it does not occur because of it. Inductive reasoning can indeed produce correct results; however, it is reached through an incorrect method that will buckle under scrutiny.

The sun rises every morning in the east and sets in the west every afternoon. This celestial cycle is a simple and fundamental truth that everyone can agree on. With this information ancient people were able to infer many factual scientific truths about the universe. Thales of Miletus rightly deduced that the earth was round and was able to correctly predict a solar eclipse. Eratosthenes of Cyrene was able to use two sticks of equal length to correctly, or very nearly correctly, predict the circumference of the earth in the 3rd century BC. This was a long time before people could even physically see and verify that the earth was round.  Using a very general principal of nature that is accepted as true these men of classical antiquity were able to deduce very specific logical conclusions. This is deductive logic.
 
Deductive logic begins with a generalization like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, and then extrapolates specific truths from those generalizations. If the premise is correct then the resulting conclusion will consistently be correct. If the premise is not correct then the deduction will provide non-consistent result. This is the essence of the scientific method. When a consistent and reproducible result is not achieved then logically the hypothesis must be re-evaluated.     

                Since Galileo Galilei first observed the planet Venus in the 15th century it has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Before the age of space exploration arose, centuries after Galileo, it was widely theorized by educated people in the early part of the 18th century that Venus was in fact a swampy jungle populated, probably, by dinosaurs. From a very specific set of observations, that Venus was covered by thick layers of impenetrable clouds, people concluded that it must logically have dinosaurs. This is inductive logic because an argument is being made from an analogy.

On Earth swampy jungle environments are caused by lots of rain. On Earth clouds produce rain. Every cloud we have ever observed on earth has produced rain, or been created by evaporated water vapor. In extremely rainy climates cloud cover becomes very thick during storms covering certain regions in a deluge. Further swampy jungle environments are filled with plants, like ferns and trees. If there are ferns and trees then there are probably living things, like dinosaurs. As ridiculous as it seems in hindsight this idea was popular, especially during the early 1900’s when science fiction writers fired the imaginations of many people with stories of our “sister planet”. We can observe that clouds produce rain, and that Venus has clouds. Inductive logic supports dinosaurs on Venus.  

We now know through verifiable science that due to Venus’ lack of magnetic field and its run away greenhouse effect the planet’s surface is completely covered by a thick layer of caustic clouds composed of Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen, and Sulfur. There is nothing alive on Venus. The surface of the planet is a barren, rocky wasteland, by all accounts, a very unpleasant place for human beings or any other living things. This was observed by the Russian and handful of American space exploration probes that were landed on its surface in the 20th century. From a very specific set of observations, that Venus was covered by thick layers of impenetrable clouds, people concluded inductively and incorrectly that it must have dinosaurs. This example was used by Carl Sagan during the late 1970’s in the television series Cosmos. Carl Sagan believed that it was important to have an open mind but not so open that “your brains would fall out” There must be a core principal and a fundamental underpinning to what we choose to reason from. The main problem with inductive logic is that it can accidently or statistically support a scientifically correct conclusion. This is a slippery slope for those seeking to prove their conclusions before making conclusions from the evidence. We cannot correctly infer truth from incorrect principals.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sex, Art, and a Case for Completely Free Speech



When it comes to the freedom of speech, writer Irving Kristol is not shy about making a full use of his. Ironically, Kristol also believes specific types of expression must be censored for the good of society as a whole. This stance on the nature of objectionable materials states that without some sort of distinction between what is art and what is pornography, society will fundamentally degenerate into a baser and more animalistic way of life.  I disagree with Kristol on so many key elements of his argument; mainly his views about the intentions that underlie the freedom of speech. I believe that censorship is a personal decision that must come from within. It is my opinion that the freedom of expression is natural state of any human being and is thus not censorable from an outside authority.  I would go a step further and offer the idea that it is essential to the preservation of our national principals not to hinder free expression, especially those forms of expression that offend our sensibilities.
In “Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship,” Irving Kristol writes, “It [democracy] was not about to permit people too capriciously to corrupt themselves” (495).  It is Kristol’s contention that allowing obscenities to permeate culture under the guise of protecting an individuals’ rights to free expression will in fact cause harm to the basic fabric of our society and that this is not the aim of a democracy. He goes further to assert that in a democracy, “There is no inherent right to self-government if it means that such government is vicious, mean, squalid, and debased” (494). What Kristol does not explain here is that he feels this permission should only be granted according to his narrow view of what is squalid and what is not. He further states: “…they can and will brutalize and debase our citizenry. We are, after all… dealing with a general tendency that is suffusing our entire culture” (489).  I agree with Kristol that we are dealing with a general inclination of man. However, I do not agree with is Kristol’s assertion that society needs to be legally protected from its own nature.
My opinion is that Kristol deeply misunderstands the context and nature of democracy; and that he also seeks to push his own definition of appropriate expression on all other people across the board. Kristol seems to believe that people need to be protected from being offended or corrupted.  I believe that if we used Kristol’s idea of democracy the nation would be subject to the whims of the majority and allow for the continued suppression of unpopular ideas. This is an unforgivable transgression of the freedom of expression as laid out by the founding fathers. Kristol concludes confidently that, “if you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship” (495). I believe that this is only Kristol’s misguided opinion. The idea that there is even a right or wrong way to be a democratic American suggests that Kristol believes himself to be more capable of making decisions about how other people should behave then they themselves would be. This is totally contrary to the idea of American democracy, as set forth in the Constitution, which states that each person is free to pursue his own idea of life, liberty, and happiness according to his own design as long as it never violates the life, freedom, or the pursuit of happiness of another.
Pornography, which is the focus of Kristol’s condemnation in, “Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship” may in fact be considered art to any variety of people.  The photographer Robert Mapplethorp shot some of the most graphic gay sexual photography ever seen in the 1980’s or since.  In 1989, The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. cancelled Mapplethorpe’s showing after concern over right-wing protests (SRGF). After his death the National Endowment for the Arts dismantled the funding for private photography due to the offensive nature of his work. Pornography may violate Kristol’s happiness, but our laws don’t protect his happiness.  American law protects Kristol’s pursuit of happiness, which is much different. He is free to write and speak out against pornography if that makes him happy. Kristol may also encourage others not to view pornography on moral grounds. However, I believe that to censor pornography with laws is the same as legislating morality, and it is absolutely inconsistent with democracy. 

Photo by: Robert Mapplethorpe
 
 I do not, however, believe that people are free to say anything they want to. There are other forms of censorship that exist naturally without laws. A society imposes its own censorship. While on one hand it is considered brave or edgy to crack an offensive joke, some topics are considered too taboo to joke about. If a comedian uses a hurtful racial slur he may lose his career. It is not ethical to legally obligate him not to use hateful words. The idea is that he learns from his mistakes on his own.   
I am actually very critical of those who would use the First Amendment to duck the responsibility and penalty of their statements.  In “The Free-Speech Follies,” Stanley Fish writes, “The First Amendment protects unpopular as well as popular speech.  What it protects unpopular speech from is abridgment by the government of its free expression; it does not protect unpopular speech from being rejected by a newspaper, and confers no positive obligation to give your pages over to unpopular speech, popular speech, or any speech” (498).  I think what Irving Kristol does not understand is that American laws exist in order to protect the individual from the abuse of power by  government, not to protect us from each other, and not to protect the government from critics
I agree in the most fundamental way with Fish’s statement with two important concepts of my own to add. I believe it is our right to make judgment errors for ourselves. Learning how to deal with the consequences of what we say in public is an essential character building experience. I believe that a large part of social development is based on learning from those mistakes. I am perfectly free to anger and offend the rest of you. I have to deal with the consequences (intended and unintended) of my actions. I do not wish to be nor do I need to be protected from myself by Iriving Kristol or the United States government.  Secondly, there are those that believe that causing someone to become offended, for whatever reason, is causing them actual harm and needs to be stopped. However, it seems to me that asking the government to back up certain personal ideologies and sensitivities with legislation is more morally repugnant a violation of America than any pornography or art I’ve ever seen.
The need for censorship is actually the need for personal accountability not a legally sanctioned violation of civil liberties and certainly not to destroy my freedoms in order to protect Kristol’s idea of appropriate expression.  As an artist I believe that it is the right of art to offend.  Some people take that idea further and say that it is the duty of art to be offensive. How often have artists pushed the boundaries of comfortable expression to bring about social revolution? The images of dirty orphans working in textile factories still resonates in the American psyche today nearly a century after the institution of child labor laws. A video that depicts police violence that circulates the internet after a student protest or a photograph of a starving child are not pleasant things to see. Being shaken and upset has the power to spur people to acts of great honor or depravity.  It is for an individual alone to decide which path he will take once inspired.
There are a great many photographers whose artwork would probably be considered objectionable and pornographic to Irving Kristol. However, I am every bit as much an American as Irving Kristol and my opinion is that if the artwork is culturally relevant it could not be as effective without being offensive to some status quo. My opinion is that Kristol doesn’t want to protect American values because he does not understand them. Kristol wants to protect himself from being offended.  In the book “The Man Who Stole the Moon” Robert A. Heinlein states, “Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it” (155).  Wanting people to be legally punished for the high crime of causing offense is that same thing as declaring that you cannot control your own emotions and you are expecting everyone else to do that for you. It is an unreasonable expectation that a grown adult should be legally protected from hearing, seeing, or otherwise encountering something they dislike. 
Like many people who want to legislate morality Kristol does not seem to believe people can be trusted to hear objectionable ideas, as though perfectly ordinary good people can be corrupted toward evil simply by being exposed to unpopular ideas or objectionable images.  He states, “If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you also have to believe no one was ever improved by a book”(488). My question for him is this: If people intrinsically cannot be trusted to decide the difference between a good idea and bad idea on their own then why would we trust an entirely different person to decide what is objectionable for us? As a self-reliant American citizen I prefer to make those distinctions on my own.
My argument for unbridled free expression is supported by Robert Rosenblatt in “We Are Free to Be You, Me, Stupid, and Dead” Rosenblatt writes, “The strange beauty of American freedom is that it is ungovernable, that it always runs slightly ahead of the human temperament” (484).  The censorship of unpopular speech disintegrates the principals behind our other freedoms and rights. In America, dissent is patriotic. However, I only carry that argument as far as the law of the land. We should be held accountable for our words, by each other, not the government.  I feel that Kristol asks us to exchange self reliance for a cleaner play area. That is a dangerous road from which history echoes many unlearned lessons.