Saturday, January 28, 2006

More on Civic Skepticism

The lead editorial in tomorrow's New York Times is a systematic demolition of the Bush administration's alleged defense of domestic spying without a warrant. One point in particular echoes the point on civic skepticism I was making a few weeks ago.
Just trust us. Mr. Bush made himself the judge of the proper balance between national security and Americans' rights, between the law and presidential power. He wants Americans to accept, on faith, that he is doing it right. But even if the United States had a government based on the good character of elected officials rather than law, Mr. Bush would not have earned that kind of trust. The domestic spying program is part of a well-established pattern: when Mr. Bush doesn't like the rules, he just changes them, as he has done for the detention and treatment of prisoners and has threatened to do in other areas, like the confirmation of his judicial nominees. He has consistently shown a lack of regard for privacy, civil liberties and judicial due process in claiming his sweeping powers. The founders of our country created the system of checks and balances to avert just this sort of imperial arrogance.

I have nothing to add.

Atheistic Zealotry

My local paper ran an AP story this morning about a peculiar legal action in Italy: 
An Italian judge heard arguments Friday on whether a small-town parish priest should stand trial for asserting that Jesus Christ existed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Civic Skepticism

I'd like to, but I'll refrain from belaboring the argument against the current expansion of executive power in the government of the United States. Suffice it to say that we have a President who believes he is free to interpret laws even as he signs them, and free to break them when it suits his convenience as Commander in Chief. The President has a long and very public history of not paying attention to evidence or arguments that might count against his own beliefs about the world. He has also nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who has advocated for something called "the unitary executive."

All of this is a matter of public record.

Watching the trend toward greater executive power as it has unfolded over the last four or five years, all the while teaching and thinking about the bases of a legitimate political order, I've been struck by the degree to which the Constitution of the United States - and perhaps liberal democracy itself - is grounded in a kind of civic skepticism.

Consider the largely tacit argument for allowing the President to have more power: George W. Bush is a decent man, the argument runs, a fine and upstanding Christian conservative; we should trust him. In short, we should give him the benefit of the doubt. The President's opponents, on the other hand, are supposed to bear all the burdens of doubt: doubts about their intelligence, their claims to knowledge, their moral standards, their integrity, their support for the troops, their patriotism.

As an example, consider the ease with which the Adminstration appeals to strategic skepticism when it suits their purposes - shifting the burden of doubt onto others in the case of climate change, for example - all the while labeling as an enemy of liberty anyone who disagrees with the President on any other matter of policy.

It doesn't matter how trustworthy the President says he is. It doesn't even matter how trustworthy he seems to be. We have the right and the responsibility as citizens to doubt him on this point, and to keep him from overstepping the constitutional bounds of his office.

The whole point of our system of government is that we should not have to trust one individual, whether it's George III or George W. Bush. The United States is supposed to be a nation of laws, not of people, precisely in order to avoid the imposition of arbitrary power of any individual or group over any other individual or group.

I would certainly not be the first to say that dissent is the first right of a citizen in a democracy. I would add that a moderate sort of civic skepticism may be our first duty.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Intelligent Design and Philosophy, cont'd

On reflection, I think there's an easier way to characterize the problem with the supposed "philosophy" course in California that is set up to assault the "philosophy" of Darwin.

The point of "teaching" ID in a philosophy class would not be to get students to either accept or reject ID as such, but to help them gain some critical perspective on the broader debate over the place of ID in public schools. This would involve looking carefully and thoughtfully at the existing debate over science and religion, its history (going back to ancient times, if necessary), and the assumptions that underpin the arguments of various advocates on various sides.

Intelligent Design and Philosophy

Advocates for "intelligent design" have found a new tactic: since they cannot seem to pass legal muster in their efforts to get ID into science classes, at least one teacher has taken the suggestion of the ACLU and others that ID might be taught as part of a philosophy course.

The problem is that the teacher in question doesn't seem to have the slightest idea what philosophy is, or what it means to teach philosophy.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Blasphemy for Fun and Profit

I discovered a few years ago that I have the same name as a writer of comic books, including Invincible and the inimitable Battle Pope (about which more in a moment).