Posts tagged with: politics

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, October 23, 2008

Although many scientists cultivate the popular image of the benevolent, detached savant toiling away for the betterment of mankind, the fact remains that Ph.D.s in physics or genetics are subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. The image has some currency because there is an element of truth in it: scientists in many fields have contributed in remarkable ways to the material progress of humanity. That contribution should not be underappreciated.

Yet scientists are not immune to temptations to exaggerate, distort, and deceive. And the field of politics, containing as it does the promise of access to power and funding, is the near occasion of sin par excellence.

Various PowerBloggers have detailed the problematic fusing of politics and science in the area of climate change. In the latest issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson do the same for the subject of stem cell research (currently accessible online by subscription only). It’s an outstanding summary of the relatively brief history of the debate, with special attention to the not-usually-praiseworthy role that researchers played in the political arena. “We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007,” the authors assert, “for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.”

Two morsels from the essay:

Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Last week presidential candidate John McCain distanced himself from economic adviser Phil Gramm, after Gramm’s comments that America had become a “nation of whiners” and that the current concerns over a lagging economy amounted to a “mental recession” rather than any real phenomena.

The press and political reaction was swift and quizzical. What could Phil Gramm possibly mean? Why would an adviser to a presidential candidate publicly broadside the American electorate? As one editorial page wondered, “we can’t fathom the target of his ‘nation of whiners’ zinger.”

Sen. Obama himself seemed a bit (mockingly) incredulous. “Then he deemed the United States, and I quote, ‘A nation of whiners.’ Whoa,” Mr. Obama said. “A nation of whiners?” After his remarks were published, Gramm would later clarify that he was talking about “American leaders who whine instead of lead.”

But Obama’s reading of Gramm’s original remarks seem to be the most natural. “It isn’t whining to ask government to step in and give families some relief,” said Obama.

Well, maybe it is whining, but that’s precisely the sort of family-friendly rhetoric that makes Gramm’s remarks seem unduly harsh by comparison. But does it matter if there is truth to the substance of Gramm’s assertions? A day after Gramm’s statements appeared in the Washington Times, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the findings of a study that characterized the baby boomers as a generation of…”whiners.”

The study by the Pew Research Center found that

More than older or younger generations, boomers — born from 1946 to 1964 — worry that their income won’t keep up with rising costs of living. They say it’s harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago. They are more likely to say that their standard of living is lower than their folks’ but that things don’t look too good for their kids either (67 percent of younger generations, meanwhile, feel they have it better than their parents).

This despite the fact that boomers, dubbed here the “gloomiest” generation, have had it objectively better for a longer period of time than any other generation before or since. Anecdotally I had a “boomer” relative tell me the other day that the movie Cinderella Man resonated with her because it happened during a time of economic duress, the Great Depression, that so closely resembles the problems of today. Talk about a lack of correspondence between perception and historical reality!

The real problem with Gramm’s remarks was that they displayed a lack of connection to the perceptions of many Americans, even if his comments corresponded better with reality than many popular perceptions. Part of what makes a successful politician is the ability to understand and sympathize with his or her constituency, beyond the clarity of vision simply to see what the objective truth is. Gramm’s comments were more than just “bootstraps” rhetoric. Perhaps they were meant to be prophetic, in a way that gives people a kick in the rear and forces them to readjust their frame of reference.

And, again, the substance of the remarks didn’t differ much from what the “straight talking” McCain campaign has been saying all along. Last April McCain marched into Ohio, a part of the country hardest hit by globalization of industry, and said, “a person learns along the way that if you hold on — if you don’t quit no matter what the odds — sometimes life will surprise you. Sometimes you get a second chance, and opportunity turns back your way. And when it does, we are stronger and readier because of all that we had to overcome.” This sort of approach takes seriously the realities of both global trade and the plight of displaced workers.

So McCain’s dismissal of Gramm should be understood as having as more to do with rejecting the tone and style of Gramm’s message than the substance. McCain may have learned something from the resonance of Mike Huckabee’s message to blue collar evangelicals that trade needs to be “free and fair.” But for many economic conservatives, reactions to that message were as negative as reactions were to Gramm’s message. Free and fair? Free is fair, right? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t always seem to be so. And simply repeating “free is fair” isn’t going to work rhetorically.

The ideological inability of many economic conservatives to frame their message in a way that resonates with mainstream Americans is what is reflected in Phil Gramm’s comments and the corresponding rejection and derision of Mike Huckabee by many in the GOP (the positive reception of Gramm’s remarks among many economic conservatives underscores this). In politics, communicating the truth effectively is just as important as perceiving it. McCain might be on a steeper learning curve on that score than many of his fellow Republicans.

Barack Obama recently announced that he wishes to expand President Bush’s program of public funding for religious charities. In his latest piece for National Review Online Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, warns us of some of the dangers of federal funding for faith-based charities.

Rev. Sirico writes:

The lesson of this long history is that if you want to do religiously motivated work in the United States, it is best to do it on your own dime. This is what American culture expects, a belief rooted very deeply in our history and current practice. I believe that this practice is best for the health of religion and the health of the state. We all benefit by keeping religion separate from the public sector so that it can better grow, flourish, and transform society.

The fact that Obama intends to expand government funding (and control) to religious charities should not be surprising, however, because it falls in line with his philosophy on the role of government. In his article, Rev. Sirico elaborates on this:

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised that Obama is warm to this idea. It is part of his intellectual apparatus and part of the party he will represent in the election. He believes in government and all its pomps, and never misses a chance to say that something good should be subsidized by the public sector. This accords with his philosophy.

The new Italian government was sworn in on May 9, headed for the third time by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The center-right coalition has a vast majority both in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, giving it a good chance of serving its full five-year term.

For the first time since 1948, there will be no communists represented in either chamber. For forty years following World War II, the Italian Communist Party was the second largest party in the country and the most influential in Western Europe, as Michael Barone points out in a recent analysis.

The largest party was the Christian Democrats (DC), who led every government and guaranteed a type of “Italian” stability. Most of all, the DC was perceived by the people as the only defence against the communist threat. But after the corruption scandals of the 1980s, the fragmentation of political parties and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of communism faded away along with the Christian Democrats’ primary raison d’être.

In the 1990s, the political situation changed systematically with splits in both parties. Hard-core Communists re-fashioned themselves into smaller fringe parties and will not be represented at all in the new parliament. While not left out of parliament entirely, the old Christian Democrats, now primarily known the Unione Democratica di Centro, are not a part of Berlusconi’s governing coalition.

This means that for the first time in the history of the Italian republic, a government will not have a Christian Democrat minister or an explicitly Catholic spokesman. This does not mean, however, that none of the new ministers are Catholics. For example, the minister for economic development, Claudio Scajola, was a Christian Democrat when he was younger, and Berlusconi himself received a serious Catholic education. And most if not all of the ministers are baptized Catholics and would call themselves as such. However, Sandro Magister a known journalist has underlined that Berlusconi can be considered the most secular politician.

But will the new government reflect a Catholic identity? The upstart newspaper Il Foglio has called it “post-Catholic” but the influential Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica is pleased with the defeat of the communists and seems more worried about coalition parties such as the secessionist Northern League. A weaker Catholic identity may affect not only the Church’s reputation and influence but reinforce radical secularism.

While the Christian Democratic tradition is rich in Italy and some other Western European countries, the question now is whether such “officially” Christian parties are necessary. On several matters of Catholic social doctrine, good Catholics can and probably should disagree on its application. Sometimes a secular politician can have more common sense than an “officially” religious one. The formation of individual politicians and voters, rather large political parties, seems more suitable to the spirit of the times.

This does not mean the Catholic Church in Italy will be silent; it never has been. The Church’s public statements are usually on matters such as marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and biomedical research. But beyond these non-negotiable issues, there are many areas where Catholic politicians and other members of the laity can and must promote Catholic identity and Church teaching. All without a Christian party label.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, May 8, 2008

Michael Franc has an interesting piece on NRO about the demographics of campaign contributions. The gravamen is that Democratic presidential candidates in the current election have exhibited a whopping advantage among all kinds of elite groups, identified by professional, financial, or educational status. Meanwhile, Republicans garnered more support from plumbers, truckers, and janitors.

Franc doesn’t make much of an effort to explain the phenomenon, other than to note that Democrats have enjoyed a $200 million advantage in general, which may go a long way toward generating the more specific category advantages. And which may further be explained (this is my speculation) as being due to a) more people thinking a Democrat will win the White House and wanting to support a winner, or b) the Democratic primary race being more competitive than the Republican, or c) a combination of the two.

Instead of positing explanations, Franc focuses on what the trend may mean for the respective parties’ conventional policy tendencies:

What should we make of all this? National political parties, after all, reflect their supporters, and party leaders traditionally feel a responsibility to cater to their supporters’ whims. A party that receives overwhelming support from elite Wall Street investment firms, corporate bigwigs, and highly educated professionals may find it exceedingly difficult to raise their taxes or impose draconian new Big Government regulations on them. Similarly, a party that is losing well-educated suburban professionals and gaining support from blue-collar workers may find it more difficult to support free trade agreements and embrace globalization.

This sounds like a book with a compelling narrative: McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.

I’ve often thought about the connection between organized crime and legitimate governmental structures. In the NPR interview linked above, “Journalist Misha Glenny points out that while globalization may have given the world new opportunities for trade and investments, it also gave rise to global black markets and made it easier for criminal networks to do business.” There’s a lot of cogent analysis of trade issues and how government policy not only combats but also contributes to the existence of globalized “black markets.”

It has occurred to me more than once, in watching shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos,” that a good deal of the socio-political aspects of organized crime is explicable in terms of alternative (and often obsolete) forms of governance. That is, often when extorting money from business owners, superficially legitimate services are offered, like “protection,” i.e. protection that the official authorities like the police are unwilling or unable to provide.

Can Tony Soprano claim to be the “king,” or at least “kingpin” of a more feudal or monarchical socio-political structure? Perhaps, just perhaps, there is the hypothetical exceptional situation in which the “outlaws” represent a more legitimate form of governance than official but tyrannical structures (think of Robin Hood, for instance).

But there is at least clear precedent for understanding the reverse to be true; legitimate authorities can certainly degenerate into outright banditry even if bandits may not be able to rise to the level of authentic sovereignty. As Augustine has reflected on the nature of legitimate sovereignty,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

And so the appeal to political legitimacy can only be made in recognition of the rule of law, the higher law or the “law beyond law,” that governs all human endeavors.

Over the last two days, Italians have been heading to the polls to select a new parliament and a new government. As I’ve already noted, despite its commitment to moral and ethical issues, the Catholic Church in Italy does not have a favorite political party.

In last week’s Wall Street Journal Europe, Francis X. Rocca, a Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, wrote a very coherent op-ed on this delicate topic. Rocca says the Church is not impressed with the center-right candidate for prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and seems to be closer on social-economic issues to center-left Catholics, like Francesco Rutelli, the once and perhaps future mayor of Rome, and Opus Dei member and Senator Paola Binetti. He also recalls a past statement of then-Cardinal Ratzinger: “in many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine.”

The Italian religious-political situation is a bit complicated. There are some significant divergences between Italian center–left policies and Catholic social teaching that Rocca could have noted. In the administration of its national welfare policies, the center-left hardly respects the principle of subsidiarity. Center-left environmentalists are vehemently opposed to genetically-modified organisms, while the Church has supported the use of biotechnology to feed the poor. Finally the center-left has historically been opposed to giving Catholic schools tax exemptions.

But the most intriguing aspect of this campaign has nothing to do with any of the main candidates or parties. Despite his formerly communist roots, Giuliano Ferrara is probably the most classically liberal voice in Italy who is running on a single issue: a moratorium on abortion (Read this interesting profile of Ferrara in the New York Times). He has also promoted the popular movie “Juno”. Surprisingly enough, he has not found much support from some major Catholic institutions, as explained by journalist Sandro Magister. The Catholic establishment seems to think Ferrara should not have created a political party devoted solely to abortion, as the Italian pro-life movement has become a mostly cultural and popular one.

Because of Italy’s byzantine political system and customs, important issues are often neglected by the parties and hence left to fringe candidates. This is why many Italians are fed up with mainstream politics, and partly explains the country’s economic woes. It is nonsensical to think that important ethical matters should have no part in a political debate. If there is ever to be a morally serious, classically liberal movement in Italy, this will have to change.

It’s election time in Italy, with voting scheduled for April 13 and 14 to select a new parliament and government. With the center of the Roman Catholic Church located within the Italian republic and historic tensions between the Church and State in Italy, it is worth asking how Italian pastors address public issues in this notoriously political country.

On March 18 the Secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), Giuseppe Bertori stated that the Church does “not express any involvement or preference for any politician or political party.” Local bishops can and do react differently, however. Vatican journalist Sandro Magister recently highlighted how the Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Caffarra, has issued specific guidelines for his priests.

Bologna is a noted left-wing city, where the cultural and political life is dominated by professors of Europe’s oldest university and Italian communists (yes, they still exist!). So the temptation for Bolognese priests is often to find common ground with the dominant part. Perhaps as a result, Cardinal Caffarra has forbid his priests from getting involved in partisan politics, primarily because it would compromise the communion of the Church.

The Cardinal has also prohibited the use of Church property for any political meetings or debate, will not allow parties to campaign on Church grounds, and has forbid the posting of any election posters, most likely making these parts of Bologna the only manifesti-free zone on the peninsula.

None of this means that the pastors cannot “guide” their flock. The last guideline says, in part, “If a parishioner should ask for counseling concerning the upcoming elections, priests must bear in mind that every elector is called to express a choice [….] The priest is called to help the parishioner, guiding him, so that he may distinguish those human rights worthy of being defended.” Finally, Cardinal Caffarra directs his priests to Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s note on the participation of Catholic in political life.

So while the Church in Italy is non-partisan, it clearly has something to say about politics, especially when it comes to issues such the taking of innocent life, marriage and family, Catholic education and biotechnology. It has not, to date, addressed the various economic proposals of the parties, so we can assume that faithful Italian Catholics can differ on these matters in good conscience. The argument over economic reform should therefore take place on the basis of sound economics, which would probably mark an historical occasion in this country.

Speaking of Chuck Colson, he’s participating in a debate sponsored by the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia tonight at 7:00 PM (Eastern). The proposed resolution is: “Religion should have no place in politics or government.”

Arguing the affirmative are Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Jacques Berlinerblau, Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization, Georgetown University. Taking the negative are Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries and Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., Senior Pastor of Hope Christian Church.

Like Colson, Jackson has co-authored a new book, his with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Personal Faith, Public Policy.

The debate will be webcast live and archived on the Miller Center’s web site (linked above), and will be broadcast on PBS analog and digital channels nationwide (check local listings for details).

Related: “Private Faith and Public Politics”

Over recent weeks a great deal of controversy has been swirling in Michigan over allegations of an affair between Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty. Lower courts have approved the release of text messages between the two that would seem to belie the sworn testimony of Kilpatrick and Beatty, and an appeal is currently being considered by the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate John McCain came under media scrutiny following a NYT piece that raised questions about the nature of his relationship with a lobbyist. These are just two of the most recent instances of high-profile political figures being embroiled in allegations of immoral conduct (AP reporter Libby Quaid gives a rundown of the reaction of a number of the spouses in recent instances).

The recent case of Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal comes to mind. Prominent Michigan businessman and political activist Peter Secchia reportedly linked the Kilpatrick scandal to Clinton.

At an Economics Club luncheon earlier this month,

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Secchia managed a swipe at Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former President Bill Clinton. Starting with his back to the crowd, he turned quickly to face the podium. “I did not have text with that woman,” he said, pointing at himself with both thumbs.

While particular occasions can be easily used for partisan jokes and finger-pointing, the questions of immoral actions by public servants cut across both aisles and through the annals of history.

Moreover, these kinds of allegations (and actions) are really no laughing matter (indeed, the reaction among conservatives to the NYT story has been anything but jovial). The accusations alone can be powerful enough to destroy lives, marriages, families, and careers.

In a penetrating essay on the Kilpatrick affair, David Hess compares the consequences of alleged marital infidelity between elected government officials and corporate CEOs. He makes a strong case that there is a double-standard, with the more stringent line being taken not in politics but instead in the private sector.

He writes of the comparative consequences for a CEO: “A steadily declining share price? The board of directors will give you a second chance. An ethical violation that does not have an immediate, direct impact on company performance? A resignation is expected as soon as possible.”

Hess examines both the internal (e.g. setting organizational values) and external (e.g. loss of consumer confidence) reasons for this moral “high ground” among both for-profit and non-profit corporations and organizations. He looks in particular at the cases of Mark Everson, former chief executive of the American Red Cross, and Harry Stonecipher, former chief executive of Boeing.

Hess’ analysis bears out upon reflection. Just consider in recent memory how many politicians in office have survived sexual scandals. Larry Craig is still a United States senator, but Ted Haggard was rather ignominiously dismissed as head of the NAE and a mega-church in Colorado Springs.

This, too, makes some sense. That oldest non-profit of them all, the church, has had some pretty stringent requirements for leadership since its very inception, such as being “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable,” and so on. I wouldn’t want to make the correlative claim that instances of sexual immorality are less common among Christians than the general populace, or among the church’s leaders than other public figures.

But, as Hess claims, it seems pretty clear that there is a different standard of judgment for such things, and that the higher standard applies not in the case of political figures but rather among business, church, and community leaders (perhaps sports figures like Kobe Bryant being an exception).

It’s also the case that calling out political figures on their infidelities has historically been a dangerous calling, but one that the church’s prophetic responsibility embraces.

The pertinent question seems to me to be not why the market and the church typically hold their leaders to such high standards, but rather why citizens and voters don’t do the same for the government. Apathy? Secularism? Something else?