PRESIDENT OBAMA

PRESIDENT OBAMA

I’ve thought about this for a couple of days, and I can’t help feeling that President Obama, whose discretion I usually admire, should have stayed out of the controversy over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. Twice listening to his remarks, made at a White House press conference, reinforced that opinion.

The overarching reason why the president should have kept his counsel because, juridically speaking, the matter is none of his business. It interested him because Gates is a friend of his and because there is a racial element to the controversy. But Obama can’t escape the fact that he is president, and the president should not interfere in local civil or criminal matters — friend or no friend, race or no race. The more particular reason why the president should have kept his counsel is that — to put it bluntly — he didn’t know what he was talking about, and he said so. How does he rationalize saying, on the one hand, that he didn’t know all the facts of the case and saying, on the other hand, that the police acted “stupidly”? I was also astounded that at that early stage of the case, the president — who, mark you, said he didn’t have all the facts — used the occasion to make a strong statement (certainly valid on its own merits) against racial profiling, when there had been no finding that racial profiling had played a part in this case. His remarks added heat to what was already an incendiary situation.

HENRY LOUIS GATES

HENRY LOUIS GATES

The president’s statement at the press conference put the White House in the awkward position of trying to argue that when Obama said the police acted stupidly he did not mean that the officer who arrested Gates was stupid. Well, then, who was acting stupidly? It calls to mind Will Carleton’s warning about words, that “even God can’t kill them once they’re said,” a caution that presidents –perhaps more than anyone else — should take to heart. The president’s place was to say, as he has with respect to other matters, that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment until the issue had been thoroughly vetted in Massachusetts.

 

CHARLES DARWIN

CHARLES DARWIN

As I was driving to Passaic last night, I was listening to songs by Kate Smith that had been recorded from her radio broadcasts. It occurred to me that she might have been surprised if she had been told that people – well, one person at least – would be listening to those songs 60 years later while cruising along an interstate highway.

I also thought yesterday morning, when the women on The View were talking about evolution, that Charles Darwin might have been surprised – and maybe a little dismayed – to know that 150 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species” people would still be arguing about his ideas. 

But we are still arguing. The latest flurry of discourse – the one that got the tongues wagging on The View – was a study from the University of Minnesota that showed the degree to which high school biology teachers influence whether students accept the idea of evolution or question it based on its perceived conflict with the idea of creationism.

 

THE FORERUNNER

THE FORERUNNER

A story on the web site sciencenews.com included this passage: “For example, 72 to 78 percent of students exposed to evolution only agreed that it is scientifically valid while 57 to 59 percent of students who were exposed to creationism agreed that it can be validated.”

In other words, the survey suggests that high school teachers who introduce the religious idea of creationism into a science class may influence a considerable number of students to deny what is constantly being reinforced by studies of the effects environmental factors have on life forms from one generation to the next and over longer spaces of time.

I believe that high school students should be exposed to the full range of ideas that have been held and still are held by large parts of the population – including the idea that existence itself and particular things that have existence are brought into being by a deity, however that may be expressed in various religious and philosophical disciplines. I don’t believe the biology class is the place to teach that. It belongs in the humanities curriculum. To exclude from a student’s education at least the main themes on the subject of creation that are held by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others is to send him off to college or into the working world with an incomplete understanding of how most of the people on the planet think.

 

POPE PIUS XII

POPE PIUS XII

The discussion on The View didn’t have any intellectual depth, and it seemed to imply that a person must choose between belief in evolution and belief in the idea of a First Cause. That’s partly because the women were using the term “creationism” as though it stood for every shade of thought about a divine or supernatural origin of existence. Students who aren’t taught otherwise but who are exposed to such a simplistic public discourse on the subject might draw that erroneous conclusion. 

Pope Pius XII, hardly a progressive, wrote in his 1950 encyclical letter “Humani Generis”:

“The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”

More recently, in 1996, Pope John Paul II – taking note of what Pius had written – added this:

“Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.  It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.  The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

Many Catholics, I’m afraid, are unaware of this point of view and I know that many of them are creationists as such, rejecting evolution out of hand. They and parents like them, more than the biology teachers, may ultimately be responsible for this outdated argument to go on for at least another generation.

 

JOHN DEMJANUJK

JOHN DEMJANUJK

The Los Angeles Times had a video on its site in which the son of a man accused of participating in the deaths of thousands of people in a Nazi concentration camp, argues both that his father, John Demjanjuk,  is innocent and that his father – now 89 and frail – should not be extradited. A U.S. immigration judge on Friday issued an indefinite stay of deportation based on the Demjanjuk family’s claim that making the elderly man travel from Cleveland to Germany for trial would be tantamount to torture. The stay will continue until the judge rules on the merits of the claim.

Demjanjuk has already been convicted of lying to authorities about his past as a Nazi guard, but his conviction under a charge that he was the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka death camp was overturned based on evidence that identified another man as that guard.

Now he is charged with 29,000 counts of accessory to murder at the Sorbibo concentration camp in Poland. 

On the face of it, one might say that, inasmuch as he lied about his past in order to become an American citizen,  it’s tough luck for Demjanjuk if travel would be hard on him or even kill him. However, modern technology makes it unnecessary for Demjanjuk to be in Germany for the trial; he could attend through closed-circuit television or a secure webcast. Also, in spite of what is already known about his past, American justice can be true to itself only by granting him the presumption of innocence on the charges at issue. If he is sent to Germany for trial and is acquitted, and dies prematurely because he was forced to attend in person, that would be one more injustice piled on all the other unrequited injustices of the past.

 

JOHN DEMJANJUK

JOHN DEMJANJUK

 If Demjanjuk is convicted of the charges against him, he should be deported to submit to whatever sentence is imposed on him – old or not, sick or not. Both the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust and the fact that the roots of such crimes still exist among white supremacists and anti-Semites require that everyone who participated be brought to justice. But another suitable response to such crimes, especially when guilt has not yet been determined, is to act with the quality of mercy that was absent from the Nazi mind, a quality that is the antithesis of Nazi thinking.

Got a light?

March 29, 2009

funny-no-smoking-signThe federal government’s April Fool’s joke on smokers will be the largest increase ever in the tax on tobacco. As of Wednesday, the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes will go from 39 cents to $1.01. There will be comparable increases in the tax on other tobacco products. Not that they’re a cynical lot, but cigarette manufacturers, anticipating that this tax increase will have a negative impact on sales, raised prices a few weeks ago to make up for their expected losses. This is all for a good cause. The government’s object is to raise $33.5 billion over 4 1/2 years to finance an expansion of health insurance for children. Those who campaign to discourage smoking hope this tax increase, particularly in the midst of a recession, will inspire some people to reassess their priorities and give up the habit.

The connection between smoking and health insurance for children may seem obvious, but it is in fact selective. There are plenty of things that are potentially damaging to children’s health – carbon emissions and some fast food, for example – that the government could tax more heavily to finance the insurance program. Tobacco is the most convenient target, because the nation’s significant shift away from smoking has given smokers the aura of lepers; no one will come to their defense. This is hypocritical, because the same government that depends on tobacco as a safe source of revenue, the same government that makes manufacturers warn their customers that the product might be lethal, the same government that bars cigarette advertising from radio and television, in effect sanctions the sale and consumption of tobacco products by not prohibiting them by law. Smoking is a legal activity, but government would rather impose what amounts to a punitive tax on folks who smoke – which doesn’t include me – than make a serious effort to finance health insurance and other necessary programs by eliminating chronic waste in the federal budget.