REFLECTIONS ON THE DEATH PENALTY

Without exception, I am opposed to the death penalty.  Regardless of the heinousness of the crime, I do not believe state-sponsored killing is appropriate.  I am a nonviolence practitioner and hold to the pacifist faith; hence, my firm disagreement over capital punishment is coherent with my individual and social ethics.

Some argue in favor of the death penalty from a punitive perspective: the degree of justice must be commensurate with or proportional to the extent of the pernicious perpetration.  If a person kills another, especially in a premeditated manner and not out of self-defense, then the murderer should also lose one’s life.  This point of view seems fair and logical on the surface.  However, there are different forms of justice: retributive, procedural, procedural, and distributive, to name a few.  When determining what best suits a particular homicide, relevant types of justice should always be considered.  Killing the murderer is a tit for tat, quid pro quo, eye for an eye reaction to what horrifies or scandalizes us.  Ostensibly, it is fair; but decisions about fairness depend on values and morals, sociocultural ethos, emotional intelligence, context, and so forth.  Retribution might appear to be equal justice, but its goal inveterately remains revenge, i.e., getting one’s condign deserts.

I empathize with those who suffer loss; most of us do.  The unnecessary and sudden demise of a person is always tragic and can be understandably infuriating, yet vengeful killing does not accomplish anything constructive and gratification or fulfillment is utterly elusive.  It is not justice.  Rather, it is a weird kind of selfishness that cannot really satisfy for obvious and subtle reasons.  Any amount of punishment meted out against the perp will not bring back the dead.  The loss will always be sad and difficult.  Killing the criminal precludes the possibility of redemption.  And the state colludes with the posture of payback instead of exercises its transcendent moral and judicious authority.  Nothing is accomplished save another death, and the void among the mourners lasts as long as their memory cords lengthen.

Furthermore, I am not a fan of restorative justice in the sense of seeking to reconcile perpetrators with mourners.  That kind of appeasement is too saccharin for me, and unrealistic, in my opinion.  Perhaps, such conciliation might momentarily lighten the burdens of family, relatives, and friends, and assuage the guilt of murderers.  However, I think of these psychological maneuvers as cosmetic gestures and not germane to the provision of justice and fairness.  I guess I incline towards ensuring public safety, making bereavement services available to those in need of it, requiring due process under law for offenders, and balancing sentencing with rehabilitative services, education, and medical treatment.  Violence breeds violence, and one salient way to stop that vicious cycle is to offer effective alternatives that do not mirror the brutality of the offense or palliate the vengefulness of the bereaved.

So what next?  If not capital punishment, then what?  From my vantage point, the answer depends on what paradigm we use for our society.  I am not overly idealistic: I realize that malignancy and inhumanity abound in every place on this globe.  Nevertheless, I maintain that character can change and people who were once obstreperous and abusive can become disciplined and mannerly with intervention and assiduous effort.  Whereas I note that sentencing life without the possibility of parole has numerous supporters, I stand unconvinced that this ruling ought to be universal for all murderers.  Social facts and contextual circumstances must be examined together in order to analyze a situation comprehensively.  “Without the possibility of parole”—could such a sentence ever be too extreme, restrictive, and not generalizable?  I believe it could.  If we believe that people can actually change for the better, then peremptory sentencing must answer to the axiological, personalistic, and communitarian aspects of moral law.

In what type of society do you want to reside?  That is the fundamental question.  I want to live in a land where we work indefatigably to prevent the marginalization of people and afford every person the opportunity to participate fully in the body politic.  This endeavor requires us to remove the obstacles to success and continually to identify the causes and effects of lawlessness, chicanery, and resort to violence.  Once these ills are known, we could develop ways to eradicate them and, at least, shape a society in more wholesome, compassionate, and purposeful ways.

Posted in Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

OBAMA AT THE NATIONAL PRAYER BREAKFAST

All the negative hoopla about President Barack Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, February 5, 2015, should stop. First of all, it was a brief reference to the Crusades and the Inquisition, to which Obama alluded in demonstrating that even Christians have engaged in immoral violence. I do not believe that Obama really offended anyone, except those who do not understand their own humanity. Obama cautioned humility when referring to one’s faith, for as long as we are all on this side of the Jordan River, so to speak, we make many mistakes and commit many atrocities. We all need to do better—even Christians!

It is very peculiar that very few are making comments about Obama’s references to slavery and Jim Crow. Or is it? Of course not! Slavery and Jim Crow are too close to home—for the pernicious practices of those two historical facts were committed primarily by people who confessed and professed Christianity. Institutional discrimination that still continues to this day is perpetrated fundamentally by Christians. It is as if most of the commentators slamming Obama have no comprehension of lynching and treating human beings inhumanely in this country. Just because we now have the Internet and social media galore does not mean that the hidden killings of countless individuals of indigenous, African, and Latin descent is not as egregious as the horrific beheadings and burning of people by Isis.

I ask that you do an Internet search and discover the whole speech by Obama at the prayer breakfast. You will find that Obama received numerous applause throughout his remarks. In actual fact, his address was quite poignant, piquant, and moving, and I would suggest that everyone take a look at it. I do not necessarily like a head of state waxing religious or sharing one’s personal faith in public settings, so I did feel a bit awkward when I first perused his remarks. However, in light of all the criticisms levied against Obama, I want to lift up his statement as an example of what adherents to Christianity should consider and should do.

It is so easy to grab an excerpt of a person’s speech and to parade it around as if that is all the person said. Inevitably, doing so results in distortion or corruption of the original full comments—and that is, indeed, what has happened with Obama’s talk at the prayer breakfast. Whether the juxtaposition of Muslim extremists with Christian perpetrators of evil seems a bit untimely or ill-advised or awkward in some way, let us not forget that we can find people of murderous malevolence in all religions and in all humanity regardless of their philosophies or worldviews. Such is the nature of human affairs—but isn’t it great that such evil is not the practice of the majority of us?

Posted in Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

A KING’S VILLANELLE

I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong:
He’s left so many signs that tell his mind.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

His care for those who ached all the day long
Engrossed him humane solutions to find.
I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong.

He spoke inspiring words to lift the throng,
Compelling them to treat each other kind.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

He read of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong;
With Jesus, Gandhi, Niebuhr, he aligned.
I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong.

A revolution of values crooned Chong;
From Royce details of beloved he divined.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

I wish we all could hear his words so strong,
And share the melody he once opined.
I think with King most folks get the rhyme wrong.
What joy it is to sing his simple song!

Happy Birthday, Martin!

Posted in Social Ethics

THE REAL KING

During the last three years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., was making some changes in his approach to realizing his vision of the beloved community.

After having received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964 and witnessing the Voting Rights Bill enacted into law the following year; King was acutely aware of the challenges ahead. Issues concerning educational attainment, Job training, employment opportunities, poverty, and militarization became increasingly important since the so-called cosmetic changes relating to interstate travel, public accommodations, civil rights, and the franchise had been tackled.  King recognized the road ahead would be difficult and more complex because dealing with the multifaceted dimensions of economic development is a task that would impact and call into question the very nature of American society and its role in the world

It is easier for many of us to focus on the earlier King. As long as he was addressing racial discrimination in its overt forms, he was all right with us. Allowing a person to sit anywhere on a bus or to eat at whatever restaurant of one’s own choosing was not a serious concession to make.

However, attacking the gap between the haves and the have-nots in all of its social forms, which became King’s focus in the latter part of 1965until his assassination in April1968, met with much resistance. Why? Because it would concentrate on more subtle types of racial discrimination and call into question the very structure and processes of the American capitalist and militarist system.

King believed that the gap in educational achievement between blacks and whites could be closed not only by improving the quality of schools in ghettoized neighborhoods, but also by improving the socioeconomic and political options available to the poor. He sought the cooperation of businesses to offer on-the-job training to help reshape the economic conditions of impoverished communities and improve the changes of the younger generation to realize success in life.

Since the employment picture was bleak, King also advocated a guaranteed annual income so that the poor would be able to meet the needs of their families. King championed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged to assist the indigent in becoming full participants in the fabric of our democratic republic.

In addition, King backed President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative. But because of the escalation of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War, this endeavor was significantly diminished—much to King’s consternation. He believed that the war effort considerably diverted attention away from eliminating the concerns of the economically depressed and exploited, not to mention that the war sent young black men onto the battlefield abroad while they were continually locked out of equal opportunities at home.

King broadened the scope of his proactive concern for the poor by seeking by seeking to speak to all those who are economically strapped regardless of their racial and ethnic background. Thus was born the Poor People’s Campaign.

What King attempted to do was to gather people together in a tent city in the nation’s capital to bring the plight of the poor front and center. He wanted the Johnson administration and Congress to take seriously the War on Poverty by instituting steps to end economic injustice.

King was promoting a bold and dynamic nonviolent revolution that would take on the socio-structural problems of racism, poverty, militarism, materialism, and anticommunism. As a matter of fact, King had become increasingly convinced that the traditional tools of the civil rights movement—boycotts,sit-ins, demonstrations, etc.—were no longer effective in the new era of social action he was inaugurating.

He felt the time for depending on the largesse of the white population and for counting on governmental goodwill was over. Consequently, he was no longer averse to utilizing massive civil disobedience to sabotage the functioning of the social system until these structural problems were attended to and resolved. The world never got to see the radicalization of the Movement under King’s leadership. Today, we find the very things King desired to eliminate still plaguing us: racial and ethnic disparities in education, employment, economic class, health care, incarceration, home ownership, social mobility, and so forth. To honor King’s dream and to continue his search for the beloved community, we need to make a concerted effort to eliminate racism and poverty.

In 2015, 50 years after King’s decision to shift his focus and to wage a new nonviolent revolution, we should work together in creative ways to improve the lot of those who are suffering.

Posted in Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CALIFANO MISREPRESENTS JOHNSON’S ROLE

Any representation of Martin Luther King, Jr., will always be hopelessly inadequate in my estimation—so enamored of the real deal am I!  I think the enactment by David Oyelowo is less than satisfactory; I feel he does not really capture the emotional intelligence, pathos, and warmth of personality that was Martin.  I realize that I am, perhaps, a bit unfair in my assessment, but I was less than thrilled by the acting in Selma overall.  I saw the film late at night after a long day of successive meetings, so maybe I was not in any condition to evaluate it properly.

The jumping back from the planning and beginning of Selma march to the September 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, depicting the murder of the four girls, was quite a shock and unexpected—since it was a year-and-a-half before Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965).  I’m not sure of director Ava DuVernay’s motivation for cutting to that tragic event, but it was certainly alarming to the audience and me.  However, maybe it was prescient.  For after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, a variety of activists began focusing on voting, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  Even though a lot of attention was given to public accommodations in 1964, by the end of that year, the SCLC staff, through the encouragement of James Bevel and the invitation of Amelia Boynton, were inclined towards Selma and a multidimensional voting rights campaign.

What’s important here to realize is that the idea of focusing on voting was already underway in Mississippi.  After all, Freedom Summer was focused on registering blacks to vote.  The refusal to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City further brought home the necessity of demonstrating for elimination of de facto discrimination at election offices and at the polls.  Talk about a voting rights bill was happening long before the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy.

Consequently, the recent remark made by Joseph Califano that President Lyndon Johnson suggested a voting rights campaign to King in January of 1965 is preposterous.  Bevel had already proposed the idea and King and the SCLC staff had accepted it much prior to the latter’s conversation with Johnson to which Califano alludes.  Califano acts as if Johnson was a saint and was the lead orchestrator during this stage of the Civil Rights Movement.  That is absolutely false.  How soon Califano forgets that Johnson was opposed to King going into Saint Augustine, Florida, in the late spring of 1964 to continue to emphasize the need for passage of the civil rights bill.  Califano has a convenient amnesia that Johnson refused to seat the black delegation from Mississippi, despite King’s urging.  It was only through the dialogue between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Joseph Rauh (among others) that suggested at least two persons from the MFDP be given a nonvoting seat.  Johnson was more concerned about reelection over Sen. Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent, than the struggles for human decency being waged in the South.  Califano’s forgetfulness continues over Johnson’s initial conciliatoriness to Gov. George Wallace.  When an injunction was handed down against marching, Johnson was not supportive immediately after Bloody Sunday of the demonstrators to march unencumbered.  He was reluctant to federalize the National Guard.  How soon Califano forgets that King had to plead with Johnson to protect the marchers.  Some of Johnson’s staff was more progressive in this regard than the president.

In spite of the criticisms levied against the film, and regardless of my persnicketies about representations of King, I still strongly suggest people see Selma.  Most Americans since the generation of the 1960s are clueless about Jim Crow and the civil rights struggles starting during mid-twentieth century.  The film is not a documentary, but, rather, a popular screening subject to artistry, budgets, practicalities, and other creative and contingent factors.  Nevertheless, like all such projects—from media news to epic cinema—there is a mixture of fact and fiction, understatement and hyperbole, comic relief and melodrama.  Yet, because of our ignorance of past events or our revisionist histories à la Califano, watching the film can only enhance understanding of a part of our country’s development that ain’t too pretty and that can’t be denied!

Posted in Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Freedom of Expression? Yes!

The Bill of Rights sets the example for all democracies and wannabes around the world.  It was a revolution in personal freedoms and restrictions on government theretofore, and since that time it has enabled many individuals and groups to promote the good and dissent against injustice throughout the country.

The decision by the French weekly Charlie Hebdo to print cartoons that put Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a bad light met with violence from individual jihadists.  This series of events brings into the foreground the degree to which freedom of expression should be limited.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Does the Western view of freedom of speech protect the scandalizing and ridiculing of religion; are religions somehow exempt from criticism and satire, or are they to be held sacrosanct from attack ex nihilo, adherents, or secular entities?

From my vantage point, any religion must be treated as any other social institution, and any adherent to a particular faith perspective is first a citizen.  Consequently, when the religion or one of its members takes a position on something in the public arena, that point of view is fodder for any attack.  If the religion’s founder is cited for justification of that position, then the founder is subject to criticism by opponents as well.  Such is the nature of political discourse—and it is fair.

However, the First Amendment does not protect all speech.  When the language used is intended to injure or insult so much so that societal peace is breached, then that speech is not easily protected.  Hate speech is a prime example of that.  The question whether political cartoons and satirical, or derisive, remarks are prohibitive has been debated and legally argued continually throughout American history.  It is very difficult to determine motivation and intention—so measuring genuine harm or the degree of offensiveness is no easy task.  A person, group, business, or other entity could always claim criticism of any thing, place, or person that is part of the public discourse can never be too captious and, thereby, disclaim any responsibility for how the populace reacts.  Everything is up for grabs.  What people are responsible for is how they choose to respond to whatever is interpreted as insulting—and that decision also must not be deliberately injurious, offensive, violent, or invasive to others.

There have been countless times when I have watched a movie—from classical period pieces to popular films—when I have unexpectedly heard racially derisive dialogue and seen violent acts against certain categories of people.  I have attended comedy routines during which inflammatory language has been utilized.  These are contexts in which everything is open season, i.e., there are no holds are barred.  Hence, getting all bent out of shape about what is said or done is excessive, and the best response is either to be equally creative or artistic in return or to ignore the characterization or to enter into constructive debate about why this or that verbiage or action should not have been perpetrated.

As an advocate of nonviolent direct action, I believe there are always alternatives to violence that can be effective and instructive.  In my opinion, physical violence, that is to say the use of force or power—whether against property or people—ought never to be an option.  I know this outlook, or estimation, is absolutist, but I firmly feel that the old saw “violence begets violence” is true and causes irreparable damage.  It is always excessive.  Certainly, words can be intrusive, offensive, hypercritical, and hyperbolic; if so, there are ways to counter such interpretation that are equally incisive, trenchant, and caustic, but resort to violence—particularly that which is primarily physically or bodily harmful—is insuperably disproportionate in nature.  Here, I do not mean to downplay or minimize emotional or psychological impairment, for that is real and can most assuredly be described loosely as violence.  However, such detriment can be treated, whereas death forever ends the possibility of recovery—and especially when innocent lives are lost.

Posted in Social Ethics, War & Peace | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

REMEMBERING MARIO CUOMO

I did not know Mario Cuomo personally, but I came to admire him a lot—not for his role as a politician and three-term governor of New York, but for his citizenship, service, and truth-telling about the obscenities of xenophobia in the United States. When I think of Cuomo, I cannot help but to think of another giant in our country’s history, albeit in a different arena: the so-called “method actor,” Marlon Brando (1924-2004). Like with Cuomo, it is not because of what made him most noteworthy; rather, it is for his unrelenting support for pluralism and the acceptance of all people. Brando was, for example, a participant, alongside a few other celebrities, in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963—where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. On several occasions, Brando waxed eloquent on network news morning programs about racism in the United States and how it is a perennial and pernicious blight against arguably the greatest country in the world.

Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention is compared with two speeches at the 1984 convention of the same political party: Jesse Jackson’s party-unity speech and Cuomo’s “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address. Cuomo’s speech detailed how a child of Italian immigrants, stereotyped and maligned in this country, became the governor of the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. His understanding of ethnic bigotry helped him to dislike systematic oppression of all people and to fight for the disadvantaged. He could always be counted on to argue for humane treatment of others, which is something sorely lacking in the body politic today!

Cuomo was an ardent opponent of capital punishment and fought tooth and nail against the death penalty. His impassioned rhetoric against government-sanctioned killing showed prescience for the racial disparities in the criminal justice system long before it became somewhat fashionable to assert. In addition, Cuomo was a defender of woman’s rights. Despite his personal antipathy of abortion in line with his Roman Catholicism, he nevertheless advocated that the government stay out of women’s reproductive decision-making.

Whenever we embark upon characterizing a person’s life and legacy once he/she has passed, we are inevitably faced with the fact that all human beings are flawed. Knowing that no one is perfect and that all make mistakes, reflectors on an individual’s biography or obituary are faced with the moral dilemma of assessing that person’s triumphs and tragedies. It is often difficult to ascertain what is fair in such an endeavor, and much, quite frankly, often depends upon one’s own biases and presuppositions—philosophical, political, and otherwise. The figures mentioned herein—Brando, King, and Jackson—all had their foibles, idiosyncrasies, and missteps, but they also defended the highest ideals any human being could ever hope to preserve. Needless to say, the same could be stated about Cuomo.

What happens on a daily basis, however, regardless of the sociopolitical platform, is the engagement of faulty reasoning and the lack of critical thinking. It is much easier to use logical fallacies in our disagreements than to argue constructively about purposes and effects of structures, policies, procedures, services, and practices. One of the most common types of illogic is the argumentum ad hominem, which is attacking and discrediting a person’s character, and not the content of that person’s perspective. Such misguided attempts at invalidating an argument by attacking the person are ubiquitous and should not be tolerated anywhere.

Cuomo was elected for three terms as governor, and prior to that tenure he was in other governmental and public service capacities. I listened to him a few times in the 1980s and was enamored of his willingness to be inclusive. His decision not to run for the nomination of his party for president in 1988 and 1992 surprised me. I learned later of his procedural agony in choosing not to run. What stands out for me, as we mourn his passing and learn from his life, is his anchorage upon the saying of his mother, Immaculata, found toward’s the end of the first chapter of his book, Reason to Believe: “that what is right is usually also what is necessary; that in helping one another we almost always help ourselves.”

Posted in Social Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,