The Impossibility of Justice

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Justice is a term that is often misused and misunderstood.  To be correctly understood,  justice typically needs to be preceded by an adjective to circumscribe a domain of meaning.  For example, “social justice” defines one sphere of meaning while “poetic justice” refers to an altogether different sphere of meaning.

In the context of legal or juridical proceedings, justice implies, for most people, something like fairness, impartiality, evidentiary presence and clarity as well as openness to allowing that evidence to lead to an outcome that is not already determined prior to any judicial proceedings.

Ethicists define several subtypes of justice that are minimum requirements for “juridical justice.”  The first of these subtypes is “procedural justice.” This type of justice refers to the actual and perceived fairness of the process being used to reach a conclusion and implies rules of evidence, testimony etc. that do not favor one party over another and which ensure that all relevant information is available to those adjudicating a case or attempting to reach a personal or organizational decision.

A process which is procedurally just is a sine qua non for an outcome which is either “distributively” or “retributively just.”  Distributive justice is most often used in a social justice context to refer to the distribution of social goods and retributive justice is used most frequently in situations where the possibility of paying a penalty for wrongdoing might be required.  Both distributive and retributive justice are germane to the sphere of juridical and legislative decision making.

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Lady Justice

In the absence of procedural justice, it is impossible to have either a just distribution of the social goods under consideration, like a job on the Supreme Court or the application of just retribution, like impeachment for serious improprieties in office.  Adherence to the principles of procedural justice is one of the principal reasons that in the United States and other democracies, both ancient and modern, Lady Justice is pictured as blind and holding the scales of justice in one hand and the sword of righteousness in the other.

The recent United State Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were an exercise in misogynistic procedural injustice.  The sub-committee did not hear from all the available witnesses nor ground their own reflection on an independent fact-finding investigation by the FBI.  Several Republican members of the sub-committee voiced their intention to vote for Judge Kavanaugh prior to the conclusion of the hearing.  Chairperson Grassley failed to maintain good order as he allowed Judge Kavanaugh to rail against the entire process.  Kavanaugh’s yelling and invective stood in stark contrast to his accuser’s heartfelt retelling of the evening she was attacked and the impact of that attack on her life.

As I write this, the sub-committee plans to go forward with a vote without an independent investigation, without hearing from all the relevant witnesses, in the face of the wholly believable testimony of Dr. Ford.  The procedure the sub-committee has followed is deeply flawed and therefore unable to provide a just outcome for Dr. Ford or anyone else.

In this case, Lady Justice was not blind to the position and power of the parties, she did not arrive with scales unweighted or the with the sword of righteousness ready to challenge its enemies.  With the exception of Dr. Ford’s testimony, the sub-committee was rather like Macbeth’s world, “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.”

Dr. Ford sought to do her civic duty and “help” the sub-committee.  She sought to “signify” something and to make a difference but there was no justice for her and consequently no justice for any of us in a hearing that never had even the rudiments of procedural justice.



A Distinction That Makes a Difference

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The continuing war in Syria and political instability in other parts of the world, has led to an increase in individuals moving from these troubled areas to less troubled countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia.  In the media, these people are alternately referred to as “migrants” or “refugees.”  Often these terms are used interchangeably, although the words are hardly synonyms. Failure to make clear the distinction between migrants in general and a refugee–a particular type of migrant–can lead to misguided governmental policy and increased suffering and gruesome deaths like that of the young Aylan Kurdi  whose photo lying dead on a beach awakened the world to the plight of those fleeing war and brutality in their homelands.

Aylun Kurdi, age three, alive and well before the tragic ordeal that led to his death.

Aylan Kurdi, age three, alive and well before the tragic ordeal that led to his death.

The word migrant is a general term denoting anyone moving from one country to another and has its roots in the Latin verb migrare, “to move from one place to another.” Most of the time this general term is applied to individuals and families who choose to move temporarily or permanently in order to improve their living conditions–typically by finding employment in the new location or living in a country with different political freedom or social  support.  Migration of this sort has gone throughout human history and has, fo the most part, improved the human condition.

A refugee is a particular kind of person moving from one country to another.  In fact, refugees are not simply moving but rather fleeing their homeland to preserve their lives and ensure the safety of their families.  The word refugee has its roots in the Old French refugier, “to take shelter, to protect.”  Refugees are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those fleeing to a safe place (from the Greek asylos).

It is probably fair to say that all refugees are migrants but that not all migrants are refugees.  Refugees need protection and a safe place to live. They first and foremost need sanctuary. Migrants who are not refugees simply seek a better life in a new place.  The immediate plight of refugees is a much different thing than the simple migrant’s desire for a better life and demands a more immediate response from any country or person who can help.

While it may not always be possible to tell whether a given individual or family is a migrant in search of a better life or a refugee in desperate need of asylum, when large masses of people start taking dramatic risks to flee domestic situations fraught with war and lawlessness, perhaps the presumption should be that most are in headlong flight not simply moving?

Is the young man (child) standing outside what was his home in Aleppo now a simple migrant or a desperate refugee in need of protection?

Frightened child in Aleppo Syria

Frightened child in Aleppo Syria

Are the former occupants of this street in Homs, Syria simply seeking a better life or might they have something to fear.?

Before and after photo of the same street in Homs, Syria

Before and after photo of the same street in Homs, Syrialife. Or, might they not very well be in desperate flight,  if alive at all?

Refugees from Syria start to walk from Budapest to Germany.

Refugees from Syria start to walk from Budapest to Germany.

Are these people, who are taking the drastic step of trying to walk from Budapest in Hungary to what they hope is safety in Germany, not refugees?

And, what of this mother carrying her child in a manner reminiscent of a Pieta?  Doesn’t the agony on her face tell us that she and others like her are not simple migrants.

Mother and child in flight. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Mother and child in flight. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

There is a distinction between a migrant and a refugee and it is an important one.  Migrants need an orderly process to move from place to place in search of a better life.  Refugees need all of our help right now!

Civil versus Religious Duty

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Rowan County, KY clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples raises a perennial but easily answered question about violating religious conscience as a grounds for refusing to carry out any of the duties of an elected or appointed public official.

When a person accepts the responsibility of performing a public civil function, that person also accepts the duty to society to perform that function in accordance with the law. If a person has a sincere religiously grounded moral objection to a legal requirement of their civil function, they are not free to simply not follow the law on the grounds of their belief.  In the case of Ms Davis, she can either perform the function of county clerk as defined by the law or, if doing so offends her conscience, resign from her public position or delegate the offending aspect of her function to another official in her office.

Religious freedom is a civil right as is the right to marry whom one chooses.  One right does not trump the other.  Ms Davis’ is completely free to believe what she wants.  She can also take whatever position she chooses on moral issues and participate in the public debate of those issues. She is, however, not free to violate the civil rights of others.

The law cannot require Ms. Davis to hold or abandon her religious belief but the law can require the county clerk of Rowan County not to violate the civil rights of its citizens and to provide all of the services of that office.  If Ms Davis cannot perform her function because of her adherence to  belief, it is her belief which ethically precludes her from serving her civil function as county clerk.

Consider Ms Davis’ case in light of  the role of military chaplain.  The role of military chaplain requires that clergy who accept that role be ready and able to provide chaplain services inter-denominationally without attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity or Catholics to some other denomination.  Clergy whose belief structure requires them to proselytize cannot serve as military chaplains because they cannot fulfill all of the requirements of that office.  Consequently, only clergy who can function inter-religiously and respect the belief structures of all service members are admitted to chaplaincy in the military.

Some may object that we make exceptions for conscientious objectors so why not Ms. Davis or any other public office holder.  Individuals who seek exemption from combat roles for religious reasons receive that exemption as individual citizens not public office holders.  Respect for religious conscience and a commitment to religious freedom ensures that citizens are not forced to fill roles in society to which they morally object.  Ms. Davis, the individual citizen, cannot be forced to serve as county clerk because providing all of the services of that office would violate her conscience.  However, Ms Davis, the sitting county clerk of Rowan County, no matter what her personal religious convictions, must respect the civil rights of all.

Her best and most moral course of action, given her beliefs, is to exercise her religious freedom and resign her office rather than claim a specious religious right to selectively violate the civil rights of others.

Grandchildren, Grief, Grace & Gratitude

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Most of the posts on this blog deal with social and political issues.  This post is more personal but I hope that it resonates with other grandparents whose lives and hearts have been transformed by the arrival of a new, small, speechless, innocent person:  their grandson or daughter.

Just about two months ago our family was gifted with a new member who weighed just over seven pounds.  As any new grandparent, I was overjoyed at the birth and anxious to meet my grandson.  He was born in Hawaii and my wife and I live in Rhode Island so we boarded a plane and eagerly headed West.

As I expected just seeing, touching, holding and smelling this precious infant filled me with joy and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for his life and for the opportunity, along with other members of the family, to nurture him along life’s way.  I doted over him as did my wife and his parents who showered him with love.  He was/is cherished.  I watched his parents care for him.  I watched my wife care for him. I watched my in-laws care for him. And, I care/d for him myself.

A surprising thing began to happen to me as my heart opened and embraced my grandson.  The more I cherished him, the more aware I became of a feeling of sadness stirring deep within me.  I was  perplexed.  Where was this sadness coming from in the midst of such joy?  Was I suffering a bout of depression that I had struggled with earlier in life?  Why were my hands shaking? Why did I feel joyful and a bit empty at the same time?

It took several weeks and the help of others, like my wife, to recognize what was going on.  The joy and hope I felt as I held my grandson had awakened long repressed and pre-verbal memories of my own childhood.  My grandson was clearly loved and I knew he felt that love even though he could not speak or understand the spoken word.  He could feel it in the most primal of ways.

Although I imagine that my parents did the best they could, I never got this primal message of being cherished and protected.  Somehow my core feelings were loneliness, fear and trembling.  The love I felt for my grandson was naturally and inexorably putting me in touch with a deep sense of grief.  I was/am grieving never feeling those primal feelings of love and safety.

Grieving like this has been a very good thing.  It has made me much more profoundly aware.  Letting feelings come to the surface and sharing that grief with others like my wife, siblings, children, friends and readers of this blog is enabling me, at age 68, to consciously and positively incorporate my sense of loss during my own infancy and childhood into the man I am today.

My grandson and the love I have for him has opened and deepened my heart and I can feel joy without having to psychologically bury the pain of the past.  Each day of my grandson’s life is a day in which I can feel real joy without having to repress the negativity of my own childhood.    For this grace, I am deeply grateful.

Enough about me.  I would prefer to meditate on the grandchildren everywhere who bring new life and hope both into world at-large and into the lives of everybody who has the chance to love and nurture them.  They are all grace-in-the-flesh.

Are God and human rights self-evident?


The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence begins with these immortal and oft quoted words:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These statements may have been self-evident truths to Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers of this nation in 1776, but in the year 2015 (and for some considerable time before that) a great many people, while still holding that all human beings are of equal value and are possessed of the unalienable rights referred by the Declaration , no longer base that claim on the idea that there even is such a thing as a creator to endow anybody with anything.thomasjefferson_sm

The word “self-evident” in common English usage means something akin to “obvious.”  In the Declaration, Jefferson is making the claim that the existence of a creator is obvious.  He is also making the claim that this creator has intentions for humankind and bestows rights on us so that we might pursue those intentions.  Put another way, he is saying that it is obvious that there is a God/Creator, that this God has created human beings with rights and, by implication, these rights are not to be abridged because they are divinely bestowed. This argument is analogous to the argument for the divine right of kings to which the republicans of Jefferson’s time were so opposed.  Whether ruling by divine right or living as a free citizen by divine right,  Jefferson is saying that his conclusion is obvious.  But is it really?

One need not be an atheist or agnostic to have problems with the “obviousness” of the existence of a creator.  All three of the major Western religious traditions present themselves as “revealed” religions; i.e., dependent on God to reveal him/herself through a prophet or spokesperson of some sort.  They do not make the case that the particular God whom they reveal is in any sense self-evident.

What is obvious, however, is that many people belief in a divine creator and ground their notion of the rights of human beings on that belief.  Belief in a creator is much more self-evident than the existence of that creator and, I suppose, that is what Jefferson assumed when he penned the Declaration.  He no doubt hoped to make the case for the nascent United States an obvious one–a “no brainer,” so to speak.

The philosophical, theological and general intellectual framework of the early 21st Century no longer presupposes the existence of a creator God or any God at all for that matter.  Advances in physics and cosmology have raised all sorts of questions  about the nature of matter, energy, time and space.

The more we learn; the more things become less “self-evident.”  Once obvious observations about nature are demonstrated to be illusory as science delves deeper into the nature of the cosmos.

The Declaration of Independence is surely an important document in the history of our nation and political science in general, but since it grounds its claims on the existence of a creator (whose existence was once obvious but is no longer so), it should not be used as a cornerstone for building individual, social or political ethics.

In this post-modern, pluralistic age, building an ethic on the existence of a creator is to build that ethic on a highly debatable and not self-evident premise.  The two lines quoted above might better be put in something like the following form to avoid the use of a potentially false premise while still advocating for human equality and rights:

We hold these principles to be inviolable: all human beings are of equal value and that this equality entitles them to certain permanent rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While my restatement may lack the historical ring of Jefferson’s famous lines, it avoids the assumption of the existence of God, establishes ethical principles as ideals affirmed by a people and avoids exchanging the divine right of kings for the divine right of a citizens.  In short, it separates church from state, as they should be.


On the Future of Illusions

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2In 1927 Sigmund Freud published a short book entitled The Future of an Illusion.  The specific illusion he had in mind was the combined illusion not only of the existence of God but also the impact of God’s activity on human life and particularly on what Freud liked to call “civilization.”  For Freud, and illusion was a belief originating not in empirical evidence but in wish fulfillment.  Illusions for Freud are the things we “would were so”  and help us cope with all of the threatening aspects of life.


What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. – Sigmund Freud

In this short essay, I would like to take this kernel of Freud’s thought and draw an analogy to current considerations of race relations in the United States.  To this day, many Americans (and I would venture to say many people globally) think there is a biological phenomena called “race” which refers to a group of people who not only share biological characteristics like skin pigmentation but other characteristics like temperament,  intelligence, industriousness and moral rectitude to name just a few.

These “racial” differences are assumed to be largely a function of biological destiny and to explain differences in the life outcomes of what are thought of as “racial groups.”  Some have even imagined a kind of hierarchy of races often with their own race in the superior position–a wish fulfillment of sorts.

In the absence of verifiable empirical evidence, imagining these sorts of racial differences has provided humankind a handy way of explaining differences in behavior between varying groups.  The science of past centuries new nothing of DNA and the workings of the human genome yet we (humankind) wished to be able to account for difference not just in appearance and economic/social outcomes but in how differing groups should orient themselves to one another in order to secure their future and even to prosper.

The concept of race is a bit like the concept of God from the Freudian point of view.  It is a kind of wish fulfillment: We would that it were so.  We would that race explained fundamental differences between people. We would that if some races were better than others, we would be a member of the better race, share in its blessings and take comfort in being able to ‘justifiably” keep others in their biologically ordained place.

In this sense, racial difference, beyond the most superficial, is an illusion. illusion Modern genetics has given the lie to this illusion just as science and the general advance of human knowledge has given the lie to all manner of previous illusions: the sun orbiting the earth, bleeding a patient being an effective medical intervention, evil spirits bringing disease to our communities, or the salubrious impact of sacrificing animals or one’s first born.

One thing that is not an illusion, because we have plenty of empirical evidence for it, is that we human beings make lots and lots of errors.  We do, however, continue to wish that we did not and thereby give birth to new illusions; for example, the oft repeated declaration racism no longer exists, America is the land of the free, social and economic oppression are things of the past, enlightened self-interest is an effective regulator of excess etc. etc.

Perhaps the greatest illusion of all–that hubris is the other person’s problemcontinues to rule the day.  Illusion may be part of the human condition. We will surely continue to wish for things we do not have but, as we do, we cannot afford to let what we wish were the case to take on the status of settled and all inclusive knowledge.  In fact, abandoning known illusions is the only path to the a viable future.  Clinging to illusions is deadly.  Race as we have used the word for several hundred years is a meaningless term.  It is an illusion to think otherwise.

racist-save-white-americaRacism is, however, not an illusion.  It is all too real.  Combatting racism is a pressing issue especially as the world shrinks in size daily.  The illusion of race has had a large hand in creating the reality of racism.  Perhaps, one of the first steps in the right direction is for each of us to examine our innermost selves and root out the vestiges of the now illusory definition of race ensuring that this particular illusion does not take another step into the future.

Religious Liberty & Religious Tyranny

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The adjective “religious” is unlikely to sound strange when modifying either liberty or tyranny.  Neither combination has the ring of oxymoron. Why? Because, religions and the belief systems that undergird them have been used throughout human history both in the cause of  freedom and to justify all manner of social tyranny.

In the United States, what is called “freedom of religion” is enshrined in our Constitution.  People are free to believe as they choose to believe and worship as they please to worship.  People are also free to express those beliefs as long as the mode of that expression does not burden other citizens too heavily. We make some accommodations for one another’s beliefs; e.g., respect for one another’s religious holidays, prayer discipline or the like, in order that we all be able to go about our daily lives in comity.

Our society is pluralistic and governed by laws that are the product of civic debate and legislative action.  This societal debate is engaged in by individuals of various religious convictions.  The debate, however, is secular, hopefully rational and in pursuit of the common good; i.e., the good of all.

revelationThe three major Western religious traditions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are all, what is known as, revealed religions. A revealed religion is a religion the tenets of which can only be known by being revealed to human beings by the Divine.  Put another way, the content of these religions is not accessible to the human mind and its experience of the finite world without Divine revelation.  Once spiritual truth is revealed to us, we can, according to these traditions, use the God given gift of reason to deepen our understanding of the revelation and its importance for human life.

All of these traditions therefore require the belief in a God who reveals him/herself to us and communicates with us in various ways:  most often through classic texts like the Torah, the Gospels or the Koran.   These traditions all see humankind, without revelation, as walking in a kind of darkness which can never be sufficiently illuminated by the light of reason or the intuition of the human heart on its own.

Moral and ethical debate can and does take place in the public square without reference to revealed knowledge.  Generally, there is little difficulty in agreeing about things like the undesirability of random killing or stealing without reference to the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  Consequently, we can enact laws against murder and grand theft essentially using reason alone.

Religious people may refer to their belief systems in the process of secular debate and identify instances in which their belief and secular reason coincide.  This coincidence even makes it easier for the Western believer to feel comfortable in our pluralistic world.

There are occasions, however, when reason and revelation seem to come to different conclusions.  At the moment, the rights of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people are being placed in opposition to the rights of religious believers who feel that living as a gay, lesbian, bi or transgender person is sinful and contrary to the will of God.  These believers declare that it offends their conscience to normalize what they see as Divinely proscribed behavior and that consequently they should not be required to provide services to these people and thereby demonstrate tacit approval of sin.  They see any such requirement as an infringement of their religious liberty.

For religious believers, at least in the three main Western traditions, God is the supreme authority and arbiter of what is right and wrong. For non-believers there is no God to function as a supreme authority or to reveal what is right or wrong to humans.  In a pluralistic society, believers and nonbelievers have equal standing and if there is to be social debate on appropriate social regulations the interlocutors must  be able to address one another in terms that are understandable and meaningful.

For a believer to declare that this or that is right or wrong because God says so may be understandable to the nonbeliever in terms of what the words mean. However, such a statement lacks real meaning for the nonbeliever because it attributes authority to something nonexistent. Nonexistent beings do not do, say, think or feel anything. They are nonexistent.

The nonbeliever can, for her part, ground her conversation in a rational inquiry into the question at hand without reference to any data outside of natural experience, scientific knowledge, rational thought and respectful concern for other human beings and the natural world in general.  These very same sources of knowledge and processes of thought are available to believers.

Believers and nonbelievers therefore share access to the language of reason, science and human solidarity.  They can converse meaningfully with one another in these terms.  Believers can think that there is “more going on” and hold onto notions of the Divine; but, at the level of meaningful social dialogue in a pluralistic society the only conversation to be had between all parties is the secular one.

This secular conversation is the one that concluded that religious belief should be respected because it meant so much to those who believed not because any particular Divine revelation was in fact true.  We therefore make those accommodations alluded to above even in serious matters like the defense of the nation to which we allow citizens to conscientiously object.

We accommodate for religious belief as long as that accommodation does not overly burden citizens who do not share that belief and as long as that accommodation does not infringe on the rights of others.

Indiana SymbolThe State of Indiana has recently passed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the State of Arkansas is following close behind.  This law makes it possible for individual believers to refuse to provide business services to individuals who because of their sexual orientation offend the conscience of these believers.  These believers argue that to require them to treat gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people like anyone else is to require them to violate their religious convictions.  In short these believers seek an accommodation.Arkansas_WikiProject

As with any other religious belief accommodation, the question is whether granting this accommodation would be reasonable and nondiscriminatory in the sense of treating fellow citizens with inequity–as not equals.  In our society, we have decided that there is no reasonable grounds for discriminating against others on the basis of race, creed, gender or national origin.  From a secular perspective, sexual orientation is no different from any of these other grounds upon which people are not to be discriminated against. Believers remain free to believe what they want and it may offend the conscience of some to have to have normal business dealings with same-sex oriented individuals.  But, the offense to the conscience of these individuals grounded, as it is, on a sectarian belief the objective truth or falsity of which is unascertainable via natural reason cannot trump the rights of any citizen to equal treatment in the public square.

Religious liberty in the service of discrimination like this turns the notion of freedom on its head and makes of religious freedom the exact thing the framers sought to avoid:  religious tyranny.









Cultural Dialogue and Humility

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2It is difficult to observe the world these days without being struck by the ubiquity of conflict both in the US and around the World.  All our politicians seem to do is fight with one another. A new terror attack is an almost daily occurrence as are shooting incidents in schools, homes and stores abound some even perpetrated by toddlers. Racial tension and strife continues. The rich get rich and the poor get poor.  Income inequality grows and society grows less and less civil.

In all this we do not seem to be able to talk to one another and to work through difficulties.  Real dialogue is becoming more and more elusive.  Why? In this short essay I would like to suggest two among myriad explanatory contenders: the lack of social humility and courage.

As finite beings, you and I really can not interpret the world around us from anyone else’s perspective.  We can empathize and try to see things from the perspective of another but we can not, for example, actually leave ourselves and look back at ourselves from the other’s point of view. We can imagine. We can project. At best, we can approximate.

This reality is very easy to forget.  The experience of our own self-awareness–our consciousness– can fool us into thinking that we have stepped out of ourselves and taken up a kind of universal and decontextualized perspective from which we perceive ourselves and others objectively, clearly, truly. The fact that we experience, to one degree or another, what psychologists call, a subject/object relationship with ourselves can deceive us into thinking that we can have an almost unlimited and disembodied point of view on all of reality. While most of us have no trouble acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to vexing life issues, we much less frequently acknowledge that our perspective itself is radically constrained by the conditions of our finitude.

One of the conditions of that finitude is the fact that our lives are deeply contextualized.  We exist in time and space–we live in a particular time and place.  We all enter that time and space with specific genetic potential and limitation. Experience, both profound and apparently insignificant, teaches us about life, shapes our identities and our views of what is good/bad, wise/unwise and right/wrong.  We become who we are and live as we do within a context of past and present experience.  We do not live or perceive outside of that context. The notion of decontextualized perspective is an illusion.

One aspect of our radical contextualization is culture.  We are all encultured and see our world through the lenses of the various cultures and subcultures that have shaped us and which we continue to shape in turn.  Enculturation is both a good and somewhat problematic feature of our lives.

On the one hand, enculturation enables us to interpret the world around us in the real time of everyday life.  Without a cultural framework we would be, metaphorically, stumbling around in the dark without any sense of the “lay of the land” and without reference points and “aids to navigation.”  In this sense, culture affords us what Archimedes, over two thousand years ago, called “a place to stand.”


archimedes 1

On the other hand, because cultures seem to those who live in them and have been shaped by them to define the natural and normal way of things, they make cultural realities other than one’s own seem unnatural, odd and in many cases even invisible. For example, it is difficult to see economic or racial privilege for what it is from the point of view–cultural perspective– of privilege itself.  In other words, each culture limits the perspective of its members to its own confines and because members of a cultural group see their own cultural norms as the natural “way of it,” they default to the assumption that their own cultural lens is more revelatory and less limited than it actually is or can be.

These qualities of contextualization put us in a difficult position.  We need the guiding light of our cultural cues but if we follow that refracted light alone, we will miss the guidance of other refracted beams and fall afoul of the dangers no single cultural light can illuminate.  Are we stuck? Must we simply stand still or continue going along merrily oblivious to our cultural myopia.

To proceed we need the virtues of humility and courage simultaneously.  The Latin root of the word “humility” is humus which means earth or ground. The humble are those who recognize that they are of the earth.  Dust we are and to dust shall we return.ashes

The humble person is the person who realizes and accepts his/her earth bound finitude–their humanity in all its limitations.  The humble person embraces and accepts the conditions of finitude and does not fall victim to imagining themselves on high free of all the conditions of finite existence and enlightened by some universal light.  The humble person takes themselves to be seeing their way through life lighting their path with their own unique light along with all others who are doing the same.  The humble person takes their light to be a light like any other–no better no worse.  In this sense, humility shares a great deal with being firmly grounded.

The Latin root of “courage” is cor which means heart and, by extension, innermost spirit.  In its earliest usage, the word meant to speak or act one’s heart and later to mean an inner strength in the face of fear.  Accepting that we are finite, mortal and profoundly limited in a variety of ways can be a fearsome prospect and requires real courage but without a courageous acceptance of finitude (humility) we sentence ourselves to a future of tunnel vision confined to our own limited context and unable to see beyond our present cultural limits.

Real social dialogue requires both humility and courage.  Without a deep acceptance of our finitude and the humility that ensues, we can never really open ourselves to the individual and cultural lenses of others.  While we consider ourselves “mighty,” “exceptional,” “special” and “more enlightened than thou,” dialogue remains a pipe dream.

It’s not my fault. It’s yours.

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2We all like to be able to better understand and explain the world around us, especially when times are difficult, threatening or in some other fashion profoundly unsettling.  Recent deadly shooting incidents between police officers and young Black men and the subsequent public protests raise troubling questions in our minds whether we are Black, White, police or civilian. We look around us for the reasons that will help us to understand events, protect ourselves, punish culprits and “prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”  In this process, we often move quickly to assign or attribute blame.

Infrequently do we start this problem solving process by attributing the cause of the situation to a factor internal to ourselves.  For example, the police do not start out trying to understand an incident like the shooting of Michael Brownmike brown by declaring that a primary reason for the incident was a negative attitude toward Black male youth in general on the part of police in general (or the particular officer/s involved). The police do not attribute their action to, what social psychologists call “the internal disposition” or moral character of the involved officer/s.  Rather, the tendency is to point to some aspect of the external situation for an explanation.  In this circumstance, the police are most likely to point to the situation in which the officer/s find/found themselves.

Not only will the police tend to explain the incident by focusing on situational considerations to characterize their actions but also they will tend to focus on the internal disposition or character of the person who was shot, in this case Michael Brown et al. to bolster their argument.

Police are not unique in explaining contentious events in this way.  We all have a tendency to do this.  This very human tendency is so ubiquitous that social psychology even has a name for it: the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias.  Simply put, the error is to blame personal flaws in others when accounting for their behavior while explaining our own behavior in terms of situational factors rather than any personal internal flaw.

Consequently, just as police will focus on justifying situational factors in explaining their behavior, those affected by that behavior will likely attribute the lion’s share of the blame to the internal disposition of the officer/s rather than any situational factor.  Individual racism, cowardice, fear and fury will be the sort of language used most frequently.

Community or societal failure to realize our natural tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error (FAE) can lead to a vicious cycle of FAE upon FAE until groups of similar people no longer consider varying life situations at all and simply attribute all behavior to the internal dispositions of the members of a particular group.  All Black men become shiftless and criminal.  All policemen/women become rigid, violent bullies.  All poor people become lazy social leeches. All rich people become greedy and uncaring. All intellectuals irrelevant and all who care impractical.  Et cetera, et cetera in an ever descending vortex of social disintegration and devolution.

Not a pretty picture of the human condition or early 21st Century America.  But, this is where we might be and that we got here by reflexively blaming “the other guy.”  Perhaps, there is a note of hope in this latter, simple realization.  If we got here by blaming the “other,” perhaps the hope lies in the realization that there really are no “others” per se only others-like-ourselves.

Moving Beyond the Past–Cuban American Relations a Vestige of the Cold War.

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Some people remain unable to take another step forward and to leave the past behind.  They remain stuck trying to resolve the issues of the past in the terms of the past and to no one’s present best interest.  They cling to the vestiges of the past and are thus destined to remain frozen in time.

At the end of World War II in a speech delivered in Fulton Missouri, Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed the world that ““From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”



The Cold War between East and West was on and would become marked by the nuclear arms race, aggressive espionage, witch hunting at home, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crises and in the Western Hemisphere the severing of relationships between the United States and its neighbor ninety miles to the South, the domino effect and the Korean, Vietnam and other conflicts.

We often date the end of the the cold war with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.  We mark November 9, 1989 as the death of one old and outmoded world order and the birth of a new more hopeful era in East-West relations. Although there was a sea change in geopolitics in 1989, vestiges or remnants continued to fester.

The relationship between the United States and the island nation of Cuba is one of those vestiges.  The US Embargo and isolation of Cuba began with Castro’s rise to power and came to a head the during the Cuban missile crisis of 1961–fifty-three years ago.

The main protagonists: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy

The main protagonists: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 but there was no real movement to end the cold war stalemate with Cuba until yesterday, December 17, 2014 with the historic agreement worked out by President Obama and Raul Castro.

Yesterday we began a journey out of the mid-twentieth century to a potentially new relationship with one of our closest neighbors.  In doing so we have removed Cuba from the list of cold war vestiges which still trouble the world.

Vestiges can serve a useful purpose in society because they can call to mind steps we have taken on our way to the present and perhaps help us to avoid pitfalls in the challenge of the future.  Clinging to vestiges of the past can however be a grave danger because the world in which we live is constantly and rapidly changing.  We may marvel at the past and the journey we have trod but we can not live in that past.

The English word “vestige” is derived from the Latin word for “footstep,” vestigium.  Vestigium are the foot prints we leave on the pathway of time.  We can look back at them but it is really impossible, no matter how hard we try or how much we desire it, to actually stand in them–they are of the past and we are of the future.

No matter how personally painful in may be for some, fifty-three years of standing in a footprint is way too long a time to waste before stepping off into the future.  Even those who grieve Cuba’s past and the loss of their own loved one’s can find no relief or salvation in the status quo.