May 2011 Archives

Is It Time to Bring our Legions Home?

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BEAUFORT, SC - MAY 27: American flags fly in f...

This Memorial Day comes during a time of increasing unease and civic anxiety. Two protracted wars are still being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a cost of more than a trillion dollars from our treasury and thousands of our service men and women have been maimed or slaughtered, while many of those returning home will always suffer from the silent, unspoken scars inflicted by their service.

How can we honor these brave men and women, as well as the millions of soldiers, sailors, marines and coast guardsmen and aviators who answered the call to service during the past two and half centuries since this country's founding?   

As of today, there are approximately 1.5 million active duty personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States. There are an additional 1.5 million members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard, hundreds of thousands of whom have been regularly deployed overseas since 9/11.  As of 2009, the budget of the United States spent $965 billion dollars on military and military-related expenses. Further, the most recent "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that the Department's physical assets consist of "more than 600,000 individual buildings and structures, at more than 6,000 locations, on more than 30 million acres." Most of these locations listed are within the continental United States, but 96 of them are situated in U.S. territories around the globe, and 702 of them are in foreign countries.

            Today, the United States deploys active duty personnel in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training  projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, sixty-five years after the end of World War II and fifty-six years after an armistice was declared in Korea. More than 100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three countries, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three countries have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

In response to protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from the daily experiences. The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad.

            After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence have vastly increased their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight, out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality. Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and duplicative, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist  the lobbying power of defense contractors. Many of these same Congressional supporters decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money or have refused to extend unemployment benefits to those who have been unemployed more than ninety-nine weeks.

The welfare-through-warfare mentality that dominates Washington groupthink today threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his recent book, Washington Rules, has warned. While defense contractors will benefit from this arrangement, the United States will increasingly impoverish itself as our pandering political and economic elite, and their media allies, continue to argue that we no longer have the resources to address pressing domestic problems here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

            The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders.When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

            How should we honor our soldiers this Memorial Day? We need to bring our legions home and work to transform our country and the world through peaceful efforts to address compelling human needs.Those who remain naysayers need to answer only one question: Are they willing to volunteer themselves, or to urge their children or grandchildren to enlist in the military? Their answer to that question is an easy one to guess.    

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Have The Bishops Abandoned The Church?

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The bishops of the Church in Wales at Gregory ...

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  This month, more than 75 professors at Catholic University and other prominent Catholic colleges addressed a letter to Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who had been invited to deliver the cm commencement address at Catholic University by the latter's board of trustees, twenty-two of whom are cardinals, archbishops or bishops. Boehner had earlier endorsed, and was instrumental in securing passage in the House, a Republican-supported budget that the Catholic educators emphasized would harm the poor, the elderly and the most vulnerable, and that, as a professed Catholic and a graduate of a Xavier University in Ohio, had failed to uphold essential Catholic moral teachings.  

         Their letter, in stark contrast to the right-wing criticisms of Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama to speak at its commencement last year, did not excoriate the university for its decision to invite Congressman Boehner or urge the withdrawal of the invitation. Rather, the letter sought to engage Speaker Boehner in a discussion about the meaning and importance of Catholic social doctrine. In part, the letter stated, "We congratulate you on the occasion of your commencement address to The Catholic University of America. It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance."

             The letter further noted that, "Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church's most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it."

             "The 2012 budget you shepherded to passage in the House of Representatives guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society. It is particularly cruel to pregnant women and children, gutting Maternal and Child Health grants and slashing $500 million from the highly successful Women Infants and Children nutrition program. When they graduate from WIC at age 5, these children will face a 20% cut in food stamps. The House budget radically cuts Medicaid and effectively ends Medicare. It invokes the deficit to justify visiting such hardship upon the vulnerable, while it carves out $3 trillion in new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy...A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly."

             Sadly, in response to that letter, the Speaker chose not to discuss his fidelity to Catholic moral teaching but, instead, devoted much of his commencement address to describe his life story, punctuated by copious weeps. 

             Shortly thereafter, Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican legislator who authored the House budget and who is also a professed Catholic, released an exchange of letters with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In his letter of April 29, Ryan sought to justify his budget proposal with the argument that "The House Budget's overarching concern is to control and end the mortal threat of exploding debt.  By scaling back Washington's excesses, the budget will reduce deficits by $4.4 trillion over the next decade compared to the President's budget proposal.  The House Budget is intended to restore the confidence of job creators in order to encourage expansion, growth, and hiring today.  The budget better targets assistance to those in need, repairs the social safety net, and fulfills the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans.  The budget reforms welfare for those who need it -- the poor, sick, and vulnerable; it ends welfare for those who don't -- entrenched corporations, the wealthiest Americans.  It's a plan of action aimed at strengthening economic security for seniors, workers, families, and the poor."

             Archbishop Dolan's reply can only be interpreted as an endorsement of the House Republican's deeply flawed budget and a rejection of traditional Catholic social teaching: "I deeply appreciate your letter's assurances of your continued attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress.  As you allude to in your letter, the budget is not just about numbers.  It reflects the very values of our nation.  As many religious leaders have commented, budgets are moral statements". 

             "As is so clear from your correspondence, the light of our faith -- anchored in the Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the Natural Law -- can help illumine and guide solid American constitutional wisdom.  Thus I commend your letter's attention to the important values of fiscal responsibility; sensitivity to the foundational role of the family; the primacy of the dignity of the human person and the protection of all human life; a concrete solicitude for the poor and the vulnerable, especially those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty; and putting into practice the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, here at home and internationally within the context of a commitment to the common good shared by government and other mediating institutions alike."

             Archbishop Dolan's response epitomizes what is terribly wrong with the current hierarchy of the American Catholic Church: They have become captives of the status quo who have apparently been chosen by the Vatican not for their intellects but because of their unquestioning obedience to the current pope and, in the worst sense of the phase, their "political skills"

             Contrary to the arguments of those American Catholics who have explicitly endorsed the kind of politics espoused by Congressmen Boehner and Ryan or who, like Archbishop Dolan, have given their tacit support, Catholic moral teaching is very different. Because it traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today, it is fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current U.S. political discourse.

             For that reason, historic Catholic social doctrine is impossible to square with the current assault that is being waged by Republicans against the importance of government as a positive instrument to advance the public good. In his encyclical, Mater et Magister, Pope John XXIII emphasized the central role of the state in promoting social justice: "20 As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, "the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue." (7) It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman. "         

            "21. It is furthermore the duty of the State to ensure that terms of employment are regulated in accordance with justice and equity, and to safeguard the human dignity of workers by making sure that they are not required to work in an environment which may prove harmful to their material and spiritual interests. It was for this reason that the Leonine encyclical enunciated those general principles of rightness and equity which have been assimilated into the social legislation of many a modern State, and which, as Pope Pius XI declared in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, (8) have made no small contribution to the rise and development of that new branch of jurisprudence called labor law. "

              Contemporary events suggest that the current questions about the reasons for Church's loss of educated Catholic laity are misplaced. Rather, a different set of questions needs to be posed and answered: Why have the American bishops become so timid when confronted with injustice?  Why have they abandoned their historic duty to teach Catholic moral philosophy?

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Is The Notion Of The Public Interest Un-American?

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Photo of Thomas Hill Green.

                               Thomas Hill Green

       The grip that John Locke's concept of liberalism continues to exert upon American society and our politics is tenacious and profound, both because of its codification in the written constitutions, its institutionalization in the legal and political machinery of the federal government and of the fifty states, and because of the widespread, often unconscious acceptance of Locke's ideas in the popular political culture to the exclusion of any other possible political worldviews. Locke's politics continue to dominate the Weltanschauung and the narrative of political discourse in the United States.

    To be sure, the adoption and wholesale incorporation of Locke's political ideas into the American psyche has not been not without some positive and very beneficial effects. Locke propounded his political philosophy at a propitious moment in British and American history. In England, the elevation of William of Orange to the throne ensured the Protestant Ascendancy. In the Colonies, with the exception of the Catholic Lord Baltimore's Maryland, Protestant sects fervently embraced the radical ideas of personal freedom and the essential equality of all believers, particularly the non-conforming, low-church dissenters who populated Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut and New Hampshire. The primacy of one's own conscience and one's beliefs, rather than obedience to the dictates of a theology articulated by a centralized hierarchy, were among the fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation.

    Those Protestant dissenters were predominantly drawn from the ranks of the rural land-tillers and small sharecroppers who were dispossessed by the Enclosures Movement in England and who were emerging into the merchant/trader class. As dissenters, they resented the trappings, the rituals and the perquisites of the ancien regime, along with the ecclesiastical and secular nobility, their titles, class condescension, and their vast holdings of land. Hence, Locke's insistence that liberty consisted of the right of every man to become a king in his own dominion and to create his own destiny proved irresistible and signaled an irreversible and undeniable break with the traditional order of the Middle Ages.

     At the outset, then, Locke's political philosophy provided an antidote to the class stratification and duties of fealty and mutual support which exemplified the Middle Ages in Western Europe. The Church's condemnation of avarice was now belittled. Henceforth, aggrandizement and the chance for personal advancement would provide the vehicles by which a future middle class would emerge, one that was thoroughly emancipated from the Catholic worldview - a worldview which had emphasized duties as opposed to rights, and the proper place of each in the Great Chain of Being. Locke's politics provided the intellectual superstructure. That superstructure ensured that a new property-owning democracy would emerge, unhindered by the medieval guilds or later by restrictions upon trade and commerce. These latter restrictions were exemplified by Parliament's mercantilist policies under which many traders and merchants in the Colonies chafed.

    The incorporation of Locke's politics into American political discourse, however, has also contributed to the existence of significant institutional and structural problems at the federal, state, and local level. Because Locke's political philosophy has been constructed upon a foundation which recognizes and envisions only solitary selves, a concept of the whole - the public interest, what we owe to one another as citizens--is largely missing from American public discourse. Whether the issue is universal medical coverage, poverty, antiquated labor laws which harm workers and benefit employers, access to education, the need to rebuild our economy and to address decaying infrastructure, or the need to re-establish collegial ties with our European allies, the impediments which are the legacy of Locke's politics remain: parochialism, special interests, and, all too often, an inability to see beyond the refrain of "What's in it for me?"

    In contemporary American society, the anti-social individualism which is the essence and legacy of Locke's political philosophy has been given free reign, unencumbered by the restraints, modifications and caveats to which it was subjected in England and in other European political systems. There the ties of the traditional society and medieval ideas which place an emphasis upon cooperation and extol communitarianism have not unraveled and continue to inform and bind the political discourse. As a consequence, in Europe, Locke's individualism was given nuance and context; whereas in America, in the context of the political of the New World, the self has become the avatar.

    A willingness to recognize that the self is a social being is central to the concept of citizenship that has been an abiding part of the tradition of conservatism since the time of the ancients. In turn, that recognition carries with it an understanding that each of us, as members of a political community, enjoys rights which depend for their exercise and protection upon the existence of the polis, and an acceptance that we have concomitant responsibilities to one another and to the community.

    The recognition of this duality of citizenship becomes an essential predicate to the idea of a public interest, one which is separate and distinct from the definition of society propounded by Locke, Bentham, and Mill. Because of their nominalist limits, proponents of classical liberalism continue to insist that society is a mere aggregation of social atoms and personal interests; and they have thus been unable to posit or to entertain the possibility of the existence of any universal or collective entities which are more than the sums of their parts.

    The absence of a concept of citizenship and of the public interest is one of the core deficiencies of contemporary American political culture. John Dewey, in his book The Public And  Its Problems, argued that, in a consumerist, capitalist culture, "The political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowded to one side." It has contributed to the emergence of the anomic man depicted by Emile Durkheim and chronicled by David Riesman.

    Perhaps one place to look for wisdom and guidance on how to meld the private and the public interests in a liberal culture is to be found in communitarianism of T.H. Green, his students, L.T. Hobhouse and Bernard Bosanquet, and, later, A.D. Lindsay. By reaching back into the conservative political theory of antiquity, Green was able to reformulate classical liberal doctrine. Although his effort to modernize liberalism remained, at its core, firmly supportive of individual rights, Green sought to restore the recognition that rights and obligations were reciprocal and he argued that they were based upon mutuality and societal recognition. Green also reminds us that each of us derives meaning as citizens, and not as solitary beings. For that reason, too, freedom becomes not a "freedom from," which enables individuals to erect walls and barricades around themselves, but rather a positive power or capacity to do something worth doing in concert with others.

    "The self," Green insisted, "is a social self," and, for that reason, government, as the agent of society, should be viewed as positive instrument for the public good. As Hobhouse succinctly put it, "Democracy is not founded merely on the right or the private interest of the individual. This is only one side of the shield. It is founded equally on the function of the individual as a member of the community. It founds the common good upon the common will, in forming which it bids every grown-up, intelligent person to take a part."

         The systematic efforts of T.H. Green and his students to redefine the liberalism and to instill within its core a commitment to the public interest have been largely unknown and unaddressed in American political discourse. Green's vision and that of the Oxford Idealist Movement he inspired  provide an essential foundation of any attempt to advance a progressive agenda in  the United States that seeks to move our political system beyond the current status quo in which it is mired and its corruption by self-seeking, unaccountable special interests.      
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