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Allergic To Religion?

Remember that old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

Boy, do we ever!

I can’t help wondering what people living  40-50 years hence will think about this fraught time in America. (Actually, wondering about that is an exercise in optimism–it assumes climate change hasn’t eradicated what we call civilization…)

The multiple offenses of Donald Trump will of course receive treatment by historians, but I wonder how those future scholars will connect the various “dots” that led to his “election” and especially how they will view what may be the roots of a newly secular, evidence-based age. (Okay, I said I was an optimist…)

A month or so ago, FiveThirtyEight–Nate Silver’s blog–reported that Christian fundamentalists were driving more liberal people–especially young people– away from all religion, and as a consequence, away from the GOP.

A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”

This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.

A number of surveys, including those by Pew (the “gold standard” in survey research) have found the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans increasing substantially over the past few years . The reasons for that shift are complicated, but as the article notes, politics has been an important contributor.

“Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”

Nearly one in four Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. Nearly 40 percent of liberals are, and that’s an increase of 12 percent since 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. The number of self-identified conservatives and moderates who are unaffiliated has also risen, but less dramatically.

Social scientists were initially reluctant to entertain the idea that a political backlash was somehow responsible, because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are. Even now, the idea that partisanship could shape something as personal and profound as our relationship with God might seem radical, or maybe even a little offensive.

But when two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular, those conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.

Subsequent research confirmed the thesis. The newly political Christian right energized religious voters, but Christian conservatives’ social agenda prompted other people to opt out of religion entirely. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

Campbell also warned that increasing secularism is reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together–something that, theoretically at least, helps to break down partisan barriers.

Add this social shift to the other massive social changes we are experiencing, and the ability of those future historians to make sense of it all looks pretty daunting.

 

At Least We Aren’t Alone…

In the United States, we apparently are divided into two completely different species: the know-nothing cult that is today’s GOP, and the people who live and worry in what has been called “the reality-based community.”

As depressing as it is dealing with the alternate reality inhabited by Trump and his defenders, we need to recognize that we aren’t the only once-dominant nation busily crapping in our own mess kit. (Sorry, but that seemed the most apt description.)

Britain has Brexit. And Boris Johnson. (Although I’ll note that the UK also has 21 Conservative lawmakers who were willing to put the interests of their country above their party. Thus far, that’s 21 more than we have.)

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian reported on the likely consequences of a “hard Brexit”–the path they are being taken down by Boris Johnson.

No-deal Brexit has never loomed larger than in the current moment. Boris Johnson has said that Britain will leave the European Union on 31 October. His entire political strategy is based on the credibility of his threat to follow through, regardless of whether he has come to an agreement with the remaining 27 members. As a result, the need to understand what no deal may mean in practice has become increasingly urgent.

At the UK in a Changing Europe, we have tried to address this: our report on it is out on Wednesday. We don’t have any inside information. We’re not privy to material that others do not have. But we do have a team of scholars who have spent their careers studying the relationship between the UK and the EU, and so are well placed to consider the potential implications if the UK were to leave in this manner.

What does that increasingly likely no-deal Brexit look like?

No deal means a cliff edge; the full panoply of checks and tariffs will be imposed on our exports to the EU, and cross-border trade in services will face new restrictions.

So trade with the EU will become more difficult and more costly, with those costs being potentially catastrophic for smaller companies that do not have the margins to absorb them.

After noting the probable disruption to trade and freedom of movement, the article highlighted issues that have received less attention:

One little discussed consequence of no deal is that the UK will immediately lose access to EU databases and other forms of cooperation including the European arrest warrant, the Schengen information system and Europol. This will hinder policing and security operations in a world where data is key to solving crime. Nor is it inconceivable, say, that we will witness a rise in organised criminal activity, as gangs seek to profit from this disruption.

And then, there are the problems that have been foreseen, but not solved:

But perhaps the biggest and most dangerous unknown is what happens on the island of Ireland. The UK government has said it will not apply checks and tariffs at the Irish border – a stance which is at odds with its commitments under, inter alia, WTO rules. The EU, however, has made it clear it intends to apply the rules, though whether all checks will be imposed from day one is less obvious. Both sides are likely to blame the other, with unforeseeable political and economic consequences.

Over the longer term, the economy will adjust. But there will be a significant cost. Our earlier research, which analysed the effects of trading with the EU on WTO terms, found that after 10 years this would reduce the UK’s per-capita income by between 3.5% and 8.7%; other credible analyses come to much the same conclusion.

With or without a hard Brexit, the decision to leave the EU will weaken the UK in multiple ways. With or without Impeachment or a “blue wave” in 2020, the U.S. will need a generation–at least–to recover from the systemic damage inflicted by a mentally-ill ignoramus monumentally unfit for the office he holds. If we recover.

The UK and the US are both in a world of hurt because significant percentages of citizens in both countries voted their racism. In England, a vote for Brexit was an anti-immigrant vote; in the U.S., a vote for Trump rewarded his abandonment of dog-whistles in favor of full-throated, unembarrassed bigotry.

As a result, there’s you-know-what in the mess kit.

Lessons From Portugal

Note to those who previously ordered Living Together: I apologize for the formatting. (Never self-published before–publishers always fixed spacing, etc.). I’ve deleted and republished, and hopefully those who order from now on will receive a nicer-looking text. (Contents haven’t changed.)

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Remember when it was possible to believe that the United States was a leader among nations?

I have no intention of enumerating all the lessons we Americans have stubbornly refused to learn because, after all, what could those foreigners have to teach superior-by-definition us? (Think education, gun control, transportation, urban planning…)

But given our struggles with Opiod addiction, and our counterproductive approach to marijuana, it might be timely to take a look at  how things are going in Portugal. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, taking what it called a “Health and Human-Centered Approach.”

So how’s that working out?

Since Portugal enacted drug decriminalization in 2001, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, overdose deaths and HIV infections among people who use drugs have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use have fallen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is facing an overdose crisis and resistance to common-sense reforms.

In March 2018, some 17 years into Portugal’s experiment, America’s Drug Policy Alliance took 70 U.S. reformers to Portugal. The trip was billed as an opportunity for drug policy reform advocates to determine whether a dramatically different approach to drugs might be more effective than criminalization. (Spoiler alert: it is.)

Some definitions and conclusions from the group’s subsequent report:

Drug decriminalization is defined as the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possessionof drugs for personal use, as well as the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of equipment used for the purpose of introducing drugs into the human body, such as syringes. ….

While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization–including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands –Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs. Canada, France, Georgia, Ghana, Ireland and Norway are all currently discussing ways to end criminalization of personal drug use….

Under the policy, when police come across people who are using or possessing drugs, they confiscate their substances and refer them to a Dissuasion Commission. This Commission is comprised of one official from the legal arena and two from the health or social service arenas who determine whether and to what extent the person demonstrates dependency on drugs.

These Commissions –which operate independently from the criminal justice system –make decisions on a case-by-case basis. If the committee believes the person’s use of drugs is not a problem, they can simply dismiss the case and the application of sanctions altogether. Alternatively, they can impose administrative sanctions that range from fines to social work or group therapy. The majority of people who appear before the Commissions are deemed to be using drugs non-problematically and receive no sanction or intervention, but rather a provisional suspension of the proceedings.

If they are not found in the possession of drugs again within six months, the matter is completely dropped. For people who appear to use drugs frequently and problematically, the Commissions will make referrals to treatment, which is always voluntary and never mandated. If people with substance use disorder opt not to enter treatment, administrative sanctions –such as the revocation of a driving license or community service –can be applied, but rarely are.

Meanwhile, back in the good old U.S. of A…

In the United States, the dominant approach to drug use is criminalization and harsh enforcement, with1.4 million arrests per year for drug possession for personal use. Disproportionately, those arrested are people of color: black people are three times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession for personal use.

The impact of these arrests and convictions goes well beyond possible incarceration, to include a range of barriers to access to housing, education and employment. The ripple effect throughout families and communities is devastating.

Given how intensely criminalization targets black and brown people in the U.S., it amounts to a form of systemic oppression. Meanwhile, criminalization means that few resources have been devoted to providing treatment, access to health services, and support to those who need it. For low-income people of color, such services and support are often non-existent.

Portugal’s approach is based upon the understanding that drugs are a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue–and Portugal has demonstrated that its approach works.

Ours doesn’t. But Americans make policy on the basis of religion and ideology, not evidence.

Time To Take A Stand

The news media and my Facebook feed are full of stories about the horrific mistreatment of families and small children at the border.

Children are dying of disease and neglect. One seven-year-old girl died of dehydration--she wasn’t given enough  water to drink! A four-month old was separated from his family. Hundreds of people are packed into shelters built to hold a fraction of the number crammed in…the horror stories go on and on.

From Lawyers for Good Government, we learn that

The Trump administration argued in court this week that detained migrant children do not require basic hygiene products (like soap and toothbrushes) to be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions. Lawyers who recently interviewed detained children report that kids are living in “traumatic and dangerous” conditions – insufficient food and water, going weeks without bathing, kids as young as 7 years old being told to care for the babies and toddlers.

Our delusional and mentally-ill President has no intention of doing anything to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis he has created. In interviews, he insists Obama began the family separation policy (he didn’t–the only time his administration removed children from their families was when they were believed to be in danger) and simply denies what numerous reports have documented.

Meanwhile, rather than calling on Congress or all those self-proclaimed “Christians” to intervene, conservative apologists attack those who–like AOC–call these facilities what they clearly are: concentration camps.

There is no ambiguity about what is happening. The heartless people who are defending the documented abuse and inhumanity are telling the rest of us who–and what– they are. 

“Fox & Friends”co-host Brian Kilmeade showed his support for President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach to border policy, adding that the migrant children who have been separated from their families“aren’t our kids.”

“Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” said Kilmeade on Friday’s episode of the Fox News morning show. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he’s doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country and now people are saying that they’re more important than people in our country who are paying taxes and who have needs as well.”

Is this really what America has come to?

Are we really prepared to defend unforgivable and inhumane treatment so long as the objects of that treatment aren’t “our” kids?  Are we content to be like the “good Germans” who wouldn’t personally have taken their Jewish neighbors to the camps, but who were quite willing to close their eyes and pretend not to see the atrocities around them?

This isn’t about immigration policy. Good people can disagree about border security, about the criteria for allowing migrants to cross the border, about the number of refugees America should resettle. Good people do not and cannot excuse callous, barbaric, inhumane treatment of children and families trying to escape desperate conditions–conditions that our country has some measure of responsibility for creating and that our ignoramus President has made worse by cutting off aid that would to some extent ameliorate the conditions they are fleeing.

This humanitarian travesty is being done in our name. And to add insult to injury, private prison companies are profiting from it. Big time.

For me, there is nothing worse than the feeling of powerlessness–the recognition of a great wrong that I feel helpless to address. Surely other people feel the same.

What would it take to organize a national strike? A day when only critically important workers (policing, hospitals, etc.) show up? Those of us for whom morality means caring for our fellow humans rather than fixating on other people’s genital activity need a way to tell our broken, pathetic excuse for a government–in Howard Beale’s famous words– that we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore. That we aren’t going to sit by while an American government perpetuates unforgivable behaviors in our name.

I’m open to other ideas, but we need some vehicle to express our collective outrage, and send a message. We can’t just avert our eyes.

 

Culture Of Entitlement

Among the (many) things that irritate me is the widespread habit of attributing characteristics or behaviors to whole groups of people. I’m not just talking about obviously reprehensible–and racist–broad-brush assertions about African-Americans or Jews or Muslims, etc., but accusations about “businessmen” or “poor people” or the growing animus against “rich folks.”

With respect to rich people, there are obviously significant differences between, say, a Nick Hanauer and a Charles Koch.

Of course cultural differences do exist, and people who have been socialized into specific cultures will reflect those differences . What’s important is to recognize that not every member of Group A will exhibit characteristics that are statistically more prominent among members of Group A.

With that extended caveat, there is growing evidence that affluent people as a group are more likely to exhibit “entitled” behaviors. As an Irish journalist has reported,

DID YOU EVER get the feeling that people driving fancy, expensive cars are more aggressive on the road, more domineering or that they think they own the road?

Well, what if I told you that isn’t just a ‘feeling’ – there is a significant body of research to support the idea that people driving expensive cars are more inconsiderate on the road.

Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley monitored motorist behaviour at a pedestrian crossing in California.

It is illegal for cars in California to not stop for a pedestrian at a zebra crossing but half of the drivers in expensive cars broke that law and didn’t stop for their fellow citizens who were waiting to cross the road.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in that survey is that the very oldest and least expensive vehicles were classified as ‘beater cars’ – In Ireland we would call them ‘bangers’.

Every single one of the people driving a banger stopped at the pedestrian crossing.

It wasn’t simply driving behavior. The article referenced a number of other studies that seemed to confirm that–as a group–wealthier individuals were less considerate, less ethical, and more likely to “cheat, lie and steal.”

In another experiment researchers sat a jar of individually wrapped sweets in front of a group of people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The participants were explicitly told that the individually wrapped sweets were for children in a nearby laboratory but that they could take some if they wanted.

Were rich people more willing to take sweets meant for children? Of course they were. Rich people took twice as many sweets as the people from the lower income groups.

Other studies have found that rich people were more likely to cheat. In one study, people earning more than €130,000 a year were four times more likely to cheat than someone earning €14,000 a year. They are also less likely to be generous. Students of philanthropy can cite to numerous studies confirming that people on low incomes give proportionately more to charity than rich people do.

In the U.S., differences in social class are overwhelmingly a result of parental income and what the article identifies as a “multitude of structures from good addresses to parent’s social contacts, financial backing and private education.”

But very few of the fortunate recognize the factors that have benefitted them.

Far from being aware of the advantages they have had in life – they think that they succeed because they are the smartest, the hardest working or the most determined.

But why are they more likely to cheat, lie and to cut off pedestrians? And why are they less likely to give to charity?

It may be in part because they are cut off from the reality of poverty – living in an upper-class bubble. But primarily the researchers found that greed is actually viewed more favourably in upper-class communities.

“We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritise self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behaviour,” the researchers concluded.

One of the great drivers of American innovation–and one of the significant protectors of civil liberties–has been a culture that respects individualism and rewards individual effort. Over the years, however, that culture has become corrupted. Not only has much of America lost sight of the “golden mean” between individualism and the common good, the culture has promoted a mythology that allows many beneficiaries of inequality to lie to themselves–to believe that their good fortune is solely the product of their obvious superiority.

We can see this phenomenon rather clearly in Donald Trump and his enablers.

Do all wealthy people wear these ethical blinders? Absolutely not. But these days, far too many do–and the mounting resentment they engender may well result in a blowback that will not discriminate between the good guys and the Trumpists.