This episode of NOW looked at a bitter battle over President Bush’s judicial nominee for the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Janice Rogers Brown’s nomination was called one of the “most divisive judicial nominees in modern times” by THE NEW YORK TIMES and “an extraordinary nominee with a compelling personal story” by THE LAWYERS WEEKLY. NOW took viewers inside the chambers of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation to see American democracy at work and experience for themselves this important and controversial nomination.
Under Bill Emmott’s leadership, THE ECONOMIST, the world’s leading current affairs weekly, has consistently broken its own circulation records by offering a world view of the events of our time. Known for his unflinching views, Emmott gained international notoriety when the magazine branded Italian prime ministerial candidate Silvio Berlusconi “unfit to govern.” David Brancaccio sat down with Bill Emmott for an outsider’s perspective on America.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, author and social critic. In her book SLEEPING WITH EXTRATERRESTRIALS: THE RISE OF IRRATIONALISM AND PERILS OF PIETY, she writes about the difference between intense belief and rational thinking. Kaminer talked with Bill about being a non-believer when the public discourse is saturated with God-talk and the political effects of piety in government. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
It may seem like nothing more than partisan bickering, but the fight in the Senate over nominees to the federal judiciary goes to fundamental issues of how America will be governed for the rest of this century, and whose rights and interests will be protected by law.
Every name the President sends to Congress represents a set of ideas and experiences that alarm the opposing party.
Yesterday on the Senate floor, the fight got especially nasty. Republican leaders tried and failed to break the Democrats’ filibuster of Charles Pickering, a conservative judge from Mississippi, whose nomination was stalled last year.
Earlier in the week, even before the hearings for Claude Allen got underway, Democrats vowed he would never be confirmed.
And then there’s Janice Rogers Brown.
She came up for a hearing last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
NOW’s David Brancaccio and producer Bryan Myers have this report.
BRANCACCIO: Each week brings another skirmish in what may be the most ferocious and important political battle in Washington. The scene? A Senate hearing room. That battle? Who will sit on the highest courts in America.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH (R-UT): This morning, the committee considers the nomination of California’s Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown. Do you swear that the testimony you are about to give…
BRANCACCIO: Janice Rogers Brown is an outspoken conservative and the latest in a series of controversial nominees to the federal bench made by President Bush. She’s so controversial, a recent NEW YORK TIMES editorial called her nomination, quote, “among the very worst.” Criticized for both her public views and legal scholarship, opponents say she’s a prime example of President Bush’s efforts to pack the courts with conservative ideologues.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): A judge who makes the law instead of interpreting it is a judicial activist. Making law not interpreting it is an undesirable quality in a judge, whether that judge is coming from the far right or the far left.
BRANCACCIO: Democrat Charles Schumer is the senior Senator from New York.
SCHUMER: Instead of finding well qualified consensus and moderate nominees, the White House has once again in my judgement reached out for an out of the mainstream activist of the first order.
BRANCACCIO: Republican Senator Orrin Hatch chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. In recent months, he’s seen a handful of Bush nominees with views similar to Brown derailed by the Democrats. Intent on not seeing this one slip away, Hatch set the tone early with a pre-emptive strike.
HATCH: The powerful political interests opposing President Bush’s judicial nominations want judges who will advance their narrow, leftist ideology. To them, results matter more than the law. That is the wrong standard. I hope the better standard prevails and that the downward slide of the confirmation process can be reversed.
BRANCACCIO: But with that, old wounds were opened. In a sign of just how contentious these hearings have become, it would be almost an hour before anyone even heard from Justice Brown, as the Democrats brought up a little history of their own.
SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): It should not be forgotten that the Senate has confirmed the vast majority of President Bush’s judicial nominees. To date we have confirmed 165 nominees and held up three. The score is 165 to three, for those who are following this process. Republicans express outrage that three of President Bush’s nominees have not received an up or down vote on the Senate floor. Yet, 63 of President Clinton’s judicial nominees never received an up or down vote in this committee. The 63 were either denied a hearing or a vote or both.
BRANCACCIO: And so it was against that highly partisan and polarized backdrop that Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced Brown. In a show of solidarity, he sat next to her at the witness table, rather than with his colleagues.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): As judge, Justice Brown has received strong support from Californians. As you can see, Justice Brown during the 1998 election was one of four justices of the California Supreme Court including the chief justice who were up for retention elections. Justice Brown received a yes vote of 76% of California voters, the highest vote percentage of all four justices and hardly the vote of confidence for somebody who can be fairly or accurately characterized as out of the mainstream.
BRANCACCIO: But there is genuine concern about where Brown is coming from. She has a way of making provocative remarks. Consider her comments on the role of government at the conservative Federalist Society several years ago. “Where government moves in,” she said, “civil society disintegrates, and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies. The result is: families under siege; war in the street; unapologetic expropriation of property; the precipitous decline of the rule of law; the rapid rise of corruption; the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit.”
SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA): And your hostility is so extraordinary in these kinds of statements, I was just again startled by the strength. It wasn’t just one speech, it wasn’t just even a phrase.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): Your views are stark. So the question I have: is that the real you?
JANICE ROGERS BROWN: Let me respond to your question first by taking issue with the characterization that my speeches are intemperate. I may speak in a very straightforward way, I’m very candid and sometimes I’m passionate about what I believe in, but often I am talking about the constitution and what is being reflected in those speeches is that I am passionately devoted to the ideals on which I think this country is founded.
FEINSTEIN: Then you would say that the quote which I read to you yesterday, and I’ll just read one part today, on government, is that, “The result of government is a debased, debauched culture which finds moral depravity entertaining and virtue contemptible.” Do you really believe that?
BROWN: Well, as we discussed yesterday, I am myself part of government. I think that there are many things that government does well, many things that only government can do, but I’m referring there to the unintended consequences of some things that government does.
BRANCACCIO: To what extent Brown believes government is a force for evil or a force for good is a big deal. The court for which she’s been nominated, the DC Court of Appeals, is considered the second most powerful in the America, second only to the Supreme Court. And that court has been designated to specifically oversee the work of several government agencies that deal with consumer, worker, and environmental protection.
KENNEDY: My question is to you: how in the world can anyone whose rights are being represented and protected by these organizations have any confidence with how you’ll rule in the District Court when you’ve taken these positions.
BROWN: I understand what you’re saying, Senator, and so I want to do everything I can to assure you that I understand that government can have a very positive role and that there are very beneficial things that government can do.
BRANCACCIO: Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois wanted to know about another part of that speech.
DURBIN: You called 1937, the year in which President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation started taking effect, the triumph of our socialist revolution. What do you mean by that?
BROWN: Well, Senator, what I’m doing there is making a speech and I note that the speeches that have been of most interest to people are the ones that I have made to younger audiences, to law students and in making a speech to that kind of audience, I’m really trying to stir the pot a little bit, to get people to think, to challenge them a little bit and so, that’s what that speech is designed to do. But I do recognize the difference in the role between speaking and being a judge.
BRANCACCIO: But the Democrats argued she has failed to keep those roles separate, and that, in fact, some of the views expressed in her speeches have crept into opinions she’s rendered as a judge in California. For example, that quote about the Socialist revolution of 1937 found its way into an opinion she wrote about rent control laws.
DURBIN: Can you explain why virtually identical rhetoric, that many would call quite extreme, finds its way into both your speeches and your judicial opinions?
BROWN: I will willingly acknowledge that a judge is not some kind of automaton or computer. You know, a judge is a thinking human being and the writing of a judicial opinion is an organic activity. So it is never true that nothing of a judge is reflected in the work that they do. Writing is that kind of task.
BRANCACCIO: Beyond her speeches, Brown also has a history of issuing controversial opinions in legal cases. Her opinions in civil rights and discrimination matters have troubled many. In one age discrimination case, Brown stated, quote, “discrimination based on age—does not mark its victim with a stigma of inferiority or second class citizenship.” Groups like the AFL-CIO and the National Organization for Women are not fans. And in this letter, the Congressional Black Caucus urges Brown’s defeat, saying that, quote, “Nothing less than our liberty and our freedom are at stake.”
KENNEDY: Let me go to an issue regarding the racial slurs and the unlawful harassment.
BRANCACCIO: One case often cited by Brown’s critics involved Avis Rent-a-Car. In that case, Brown dissented from a decision ordering Avis to stop a supervisor from using racial slurs against Hispanic workers. Brown opined that even if this name-calling could be considered illegal discrimination, it was still protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Brown herself has listed her dissent in the Avis case as of one of her ten most significant opinions.
KENNEDY: How does that possibly advance the cause of justice?
BROWN: Well, I think these are difficult cases, Senator, because there are countervailing interests and there were a number of other judges on my court who also expressed the same concern about a prior restraint.
KENNEDY: Well, I think you were in the minority on this, were you not?
BROWN: Well, I was in the minority but I was not alone.
HATCH: Okay. Now, you’ve been attacked by many groups, mainly the usual suspects among liberal special interest groups, who we’ve had to put up with around here.
BRANCACCIO: But Brown’s opinions haven’t always towed a rigid conservative line…a point that committee chairman Hatch made sure to bring to everyone’s attention. He listed a whole series of them to demonstrate her evenhandedness. In one such case, Brown voted to suppress drug evidence seized from a defendant stopped by police for riding a bike the wrong way down the street.
BROWN: What was happening here is that these minor traffic infractions could actually be used to justify these very broad searches. And I argued very strenuously that to give that kind of discretion to law enforcement was likely to lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.
BRANCACCIO: In another case, Brown upheld an aggressive interpretation of a California state environmental law.
HATCH: Well, I think that would please all of our liberal brethren and sisters and I hope it would please all of our conservatives, because it happened to be right. So the government does have the responsibility in assisting and protecting the environment, doesn’t it?
BROWN: Yes, it does.
HATCH: And you’ve never said otherwise.
BROWN: And I’ve never said otherwise.
BRANCACCIO: In yet another case, according to Hatch, Brown took on a conservative sacred cow—the National Rifle Association.
BROWN: The National Rifle Association was very unhappy with that decision. It ran a series of infomercials where my picture was prominently displayed.
HATCH: Does that give you second thoughts? Maybe you shouldn’t have done that to irritate the National Rifle Association like that. Does that give you second thoughts?
BROWN: Well, no.
BROWN: Because I approached the case to decide what the right answer is, and that’s the only point…
HATCH: Based upon what?
BROWN: Based upon the Constitution and the law that applies to it and what the facts are.
HATCH: Based upon the Constitution and the law. That’s what judges should do, shouldn’t they?
BROWN: I think so.
BRANCACCIO: It’s Brown’s interpretation of the Constitution that concerns some Senators, and not just Democrats. Senator Arlen Specter is a moderate Republican, and considered an important swing vote. Specter raised questions about an opinion Brown wrote upholding a California ballot proposition outlawing affirmative action. Specter was concerned that opinion violated the “supremacy clause,” a key section of the Constitution which states that the laws of the United States are the “Supreme Law of the Land.” Brown seemed not to know much about it.
SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA): Well, doesn’t the supremacy clause of the Constitution mean that the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment trumps California Proposition 209?
BROWN: Doesn’t the supremacy clause mean that?
BROWN: Well, the U.S. Supreme Court has not said that.
SPECTER: I’m not sure whether they’ve said that or not. Maybe they’ve not had it presented. But the state cannot have a Constitutional provision which conflicts with a U.S. constitutional provision, can it?
BROWN: I think that, and I have to admit that this is not the issue that was before us in that case and so this is not an issue that I have looked at in detail.
BRANCACCIO: Brown’s hearing was just the latest reminder of just how partisan and bitter these judicial nominations have become. “Brown gets Borked,” said a WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial yesterday. “Liberals reserve their harshest and most personal attacks for minorities with the audacity to wander off the ideological plantation.” Hatch brought the committee’s attention to this cartoon that appeared on an African-American community Web site. In it, Brown is crudely portrayed in caricature, along with Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.
HATCH: It’s pathetic and it’s the utmost in bigotry that I’ve seen around here in a long time.
BRANCACCIO: While every Senator took great pains to condemn the cartoon, some reminded the committee they themselves have been subject to similar attacks simply for doing their jobs.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): When we opposed Miguel Estrada we were called anti-Hispanic, even though the record of Democrats supporting Latinos for the federal bench is unmatched in American history. When we opposed Priscilla Owen, we were reduced to branding us as being anti-woman, a complaint that’s so laughable it’s hard to even mention it.
BRANCACCIO: And when it came to opposing William Pryor, a nominee who’d made no secret of his anti-abortion views, Leahy complained that attack ads like this had smeared Democrats as anti-Catholic.
LEAHY: And in an especially despicable ploy, when we opposed William Pryor, the right stooped to religious McCarthyism. Religious McCarthyism which has no place in the United States Senate. I don’t believe it has any place in America.
BRANCACCIO: And next week, the committee is expected to vote on Brown’s nomination.
HATCH: Last month, the WASHINGTON POST observed that the judicial confirmation process is quote, “steadily degrading,” unquote. I believe that the nomination before us offers another opportunity — indeed, an obligation — to change that trend.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW. The intersection of God and politics: what’s it doing to America?
BRANCACCIO: We turn our attention now overseas. Where does America fit into the rest of the world seven months after the invasion of Iraq? For that, we turn to one of the best observers of the U.S., THE ECONOMIST newspaper as it’s formally known, despite it’s magazine shape.
The British publication was started in 1843 under the belief that free trade is the way to go. A hundred and sixty years later THE ECONOMIST is still into free markets and free trade. Take a look at this cover from a few weeks ago when a round of trade liberalization talks broke down in Cancun, Mexico. Get the point?
But beyond freer trade and markets THE ECONOMIST is delightfully unpredictable in its ideology. Perhaps one of the many reasons so many people read it in the U.S. Its circulation is about two and a half times higher than in Britain. The magazine endorsed Ronald Reagan, then Bill Clinton. It backed George W. Bush in 2000. But as this cover proves, THE ECONOMIST has not been the current administration’s most loyal supporter.
Bill Emmott is the editor of THE ECONOMIST, what we call in America “editor-in-chief.” He’s also the author of four books, three of them on Japan. As well as a book published this year, 20:21 VISION: THE LESSONS OF THE 20TH CENTURY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. Mr. Emmott, welcome to NOW.
EMMOTT: Great to be here.
BRANCACCIO: Now, I was reading, THE ECONOMIST supported the idea of going to war in Iraq. Second thoughts?
EMMOTT: I think that every human being should have second thoughts and probably third thoughts too. Every human being before the war in Iraq should have been uncertain. It’s not the kind of situation that you should look at with absence of doubt. Indeed the scariest people are those to me who seem most certain.
But I still think it was the right thing to do because I think you have to compare it with the alternative which was leaving a dictator in place, a murderous dictator contained by bases from Saudi Arabia, sanctions that were killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children prematurely. The options were terrible. All options were terrible.
I believe that Britain and America took the best of the bad set of options. Now things are not going well. But seven months after the conflict finished, the real war is, if you like, happening because the resistance didn’t take place during the formal war. It’s taking place now.
BRANCACCIO: But you made a point in a recent leader, a recent editorial that U.S. policy, British policy in Iraq is not failure. It’s a little hard to swallow given the headlines that we see each day. I mean, just this week more soldiers died, explosions, humanitarian groups. Even the very intrepid Doctors Without Borders having a discussion about leaving Iraq. It sounds like a failure.
EMMOTT: Well, I think that anyone who thought that it was going to be simple was deluding themselves. Just as when the Allies occupied Germany after the second World War. There was a lot of despair among— even on the American side after six, nine, twelve months that things were going badly. Same in Japan.
Rebuilding a country after having invaded it and after 35 years of dictatorship, three wars in the last 20 years. How could that be easy? The simple fact is that it’s a long journey and it’s gonna be a journey that’s got a lot of pain in it. But it’s a journey that has to be taken.
BRANCACCIO: And, Mr. Emmott, one of the other costs I wanted to talk to you about which is the view of America in the world. So, Bill Emmott foreigner, I want you to look at this.
BRANCACCIO: When the brutality of terror struck on September 11th two years ago citizens of the world rallied to the side of America. Europe spoke as one. There it is in the French paper LE MONDE. “We are all Americans.”
Countries as far away as Kenya offered what they could to help in the new war on terror. There Musai villagers donated some of their communal wealth to the American people, 14 head of cattle. Two years wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and one derailed Israeli/Palestinian peace process later and it’s clear that many folks across the globe think America and its policies stink. You may have seen President Bush getting a taste of that on a visit to long-time ally Australia earlier this month.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Today Saddam’s regime is gone. And no one —
BRANCACCIO: Some Australian elected officials were even ordered out of Parliament for protesting during Mr. Bush’s speech.
SENATOR: Senator Brown will excuse himself from the House.
BRANCACCIO: The Australian prime minister is a fan of Mr. Bush, and the President may not have expected the level of opposition he faced there. During his Far East swing Mr. Bush had been left puzzled by a number of misunderstandings about America he encountered during a meeting with moderate Islamic leaders in Indonesia. He is reported to have asked his aides, “Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?”
But the President should not be surprised by the depths of anti-American sentiment. The Pew Global Attitudes Project measured how things have changed. Three years ago 78 percent of Germans regarded the U.S. favorably. Now, it’s down to 45 percent. Turkey, 52 percent then, 15 percent this summer. Brazil from 56 percent to 34 percent. Separately a recent State Department panel found that hostility toward America in the Islamic world has reached quote “shocking levels.”
[END VIDEO SEGMENT]
BRANCACCIO: It’s not a pretty picture. How do you account for it?
EMMOTT: Two wars. I don’t think there’s any answer that can be said that’s more sophisticated than that. You don’t get popular when you fight wars. And I think that America needs to repair that in order to achieve the ends that it wants to achieve.
BRANCACCIO: Yeah, among those ends is doing business around the world. And if there’s a lot of folks who just don’t like our faces anymore it’s gonna be hard to do business with them and things like trade suffer.
EMMOTT: I think that’s true. That is a danger that there will be sort of boycotts of American goods. Although, you know, that Pew Global Attitude survey that the video showed had some better news in it as well. There were questions to people around the world about their attitudes to free markets, attitudes to globalization, attitudes if you like to an American style capitalism.
And those results showed a very positive response in developing countries, even in the Muslim world. It was as if the message was, “We don’t like American leaders but we do like American ideas.” You know, and a lot of it is absorbed by George W. Bush personally.
BRANCACCIO: It’s something about him personally that translates to a general antipathy about America?
EMMOTT: I think it’s antipathy about America policies. And popularly they are blamed on him. So the good news for America is that it’s not personal to Americans. That of course has happened before when Ronald Reagan was President. That was exactly the sort of prejudice that there was against—
BRANCACCIO: With the cowboy thing—
EMMOTT: The cowboy thing, the idea that he was not intelligent, the idea that he had a simplistic view of the world. And people underrated him as a result. But they certainly had a lot of animosity towards him.
That’s now true of George W Bush. He’s going to come to London on an official visit in the middle of November and there’s gonna be a lot of protests.
BRANCACCIO: You know, it’s not just Iraq that’s causing further tensions. The President was also seemed to be puzzled by something else he encountered on that stop in Indonesia. It was the sense from some moderate Islamic leaders also that the U.S. is not serious about pushing for a Palestinian state.
EMMOTT: I think this is a serious problem for the United States and for George Bush personally that no progress has been made in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine, and there are many complicated reasons for that, nevertheless George Bush is not seen as being even handed between Israel and Palestine.
BRANCACCIO: Not seen as even handed? Is it just a problem of perception or it is not even handed?
EMMOTT: I think he’s not even handed. I think that too little pressure has been put on Israel to make moves in parallel with moves by the Palestinians. Whereas Israel wants to do it in sequence, if you like. It says, “The Palestinians must solve terrorism, stop the conflict first, then we will start talking about settlements.”
I think that that’s hopelessly naive about how you can solve a conflict like this. And I believe George W. Bush has been complicit in that.
BRANCACCIO: Now, you’re European. How does Europe fit into this? I mean, we really were on each other’s nerves through much of 2003 and we’re talking about world public opinion. I visited Europe recently. People are still a little annoyed.
EMMOTT: Which bit of Europe did you visit?
BRANCACCIO: Well, I was in France.
EMMOTT: Right. You went to— you picked your place perfectly. France is clearly at the extreme end. I think public opinion in Europe as a whole is pretty anti-American at the moment—
BRANCACCIO: You say I didn’t come to your house. You wouldn’t have been hostile?
EMMOTT: That’s right. Exactly. I’d have been nice. But I think there is a general problem in Europe for the United States. But it’s a problem that doesn’t matter immediately and in the operational sense. We don’t need to be working together in any of the current crises, in the sort of way that’s threatened by this public opinion of anti-Americanism.
In a few years’ time things will sort themselves out. You know, my favorite quotation about America is by Winston Churchill from the 1940’s when he said that, you know, the thing about Americans is that they always do the right thing once they’ve exhausted the alternatives. And that I think, in a cute way, sums up the attitude of a lot of Europeans to America.
BRANCACCIO: What about the Europeans doing the right thing? Maybe helping out militarily more in Iraq?
EMMOTT: I couldn’t agree more. I think that the Europeans are terrible. And they have the luxury of impotence, if you like. They have the luxury of not being responsible, the luxury of not really being involved. It just means that they carp from the sidelines.
BRANCACCIO: Now, I would be remiss if I had the guy who edits THE ECONOMIST in front of me and not ask about the US economy. Word is that the U.S. economy between July and September grew enormously.
Gross domestic product up 7.2 percent. Is THE ECONOMIST gonna put out a headline that says something like in the CHICAGO SUN TIMES today, “America’s Economy Blasts Off.” Is that the story here?
EMMOTT: No, I don’t think it is. I think that it is a fantastic period of growth. But it reflects the war, partly. There were uncertainties up to the end of the war. And then I think people inside America started spending money again after it.
There are a lot of short-term factors. So this is welcomed. But it’s not gonna be sustained. There is a recovery underway that will be sustained in the United States, I think. It will be a modest healthy recovery that I do believe will be creating jobs from now on through the rest of this year and through 2004.
BRANCACCIO: Some people worry though that we bought this by borrowing. In other words, the tax cut isn’t really paid for. And we’re spending a lot of money in Iraq. And deficit is ballooning. But that is leading to this short-term stimulus. To what extent do you worry about it?
EMMOTT: Frankly, I don’t think it’s an emergency situation. I think it’s a problem for the administration over the next four years. Problem for whoever succeeds this administration if it loses next year.
BRANCACCIO: If it loses next year? With GDP up 7.2 percent and if policy in Iraq is not a failure as you believe, they can’t lose.
EMMOTT: Oh, they can lose. I mean, for a start, the economy is up 7.2 percent this quarter. That means the next quarter’s gonna be much slower. So the headlines around the turn of the year just when the primaries are starting will be, “Economy In New Slow Down. Crisis For Bush?” — question mark. So I think that the politics of this economic recovery are not yet clear. And Iraq, 18 months it could take to get a democracy underway. And—
BRANCACCIO: Yes, and we have an election one year from next week.
EMMOTT: Precisely. So how it will look next summer, which is a crucial time, I do not know.
The paradox of the post-war period to me is that initially it looked like Tony Blair in my country was taking much more of the heat than George W. Bush did.
BRANCACCIO: Certainly looked like it in Parliament.
EMMOTT: It did. But actually Tony Blair is totally secure. He has no election until 2005. He has survived the heat in Parliament. Still ten points ahead in the opinion polls. Whereas George W. Bush is the one who’s, I think, seriously in trouble. Personally if you made me place a bet, I would still bet on Bush re-election. But I don’t think it’s anything like a clear thing.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Bill Emmott, thank you so much for stopping by NOW.
EMMOTT: It was a pleasure.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS: U.S. soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq dealt a second blow when they get home: delays in medical care, not enough money for their families. Some are given the shocking advice, “Seek handouts.”
STIFFLER: You know what they told us? Churches, family, friends, trustees, welfare.
ANNOUNCER: Falling through the cracks. Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.
Judge for yourself: read some of Justice Brown’s decisions. See what the rest of the world likes and doesn’t like about America. Read the latest on the global effort to wipe out polio.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: You can’t avoid God these days. That is to say, you can’t avoid politicians talking about God. Democrats on their way to the recent debate in Detroit all stopped off to pay their respects to the almighty at local churches. President Bush was campaigning at a church in Texas this week, greeted as he entered by gospel hymns and swaying hands and Christians chanting “USA! USA!”
In Florida, governor Jed Bush responded to the prayers of his religious constituents to do God’s will. And overruled the courts to keep a severely brain damaged woman on life support. And the Supreme Court says it is preparing to decide on whether the words “under God,” can stay in the pledge of allegiance.
I imagine Wendy Kaminer would be alarmed at all this religious rhetoric in public places. Miss Kaminer is one of the nation’s noted social critics. A lawyer and a writer who pays close attention to religion even as she confesses to being a non-believer. Her book, SLEEPING WITH EXTRATERRESTRIALS: THE RISE OF IRRATIONALISM AND PERILS OF PIETY, argues that declarations of intense belief have largely taken the place of rational discourse.
But in the current issue of the magazine FREE INQUIRY she has some surprising advice for her fellow secular humanists. Quote, “We ought not become fixated on the dangers posed by evangelical Christians.” This I had to ask her about. Welcome to NOW.
KAMINER: Thank you.
MOYERS: Have you had a change of heart about religion in the public square and about conservative Christians in particular?
KAMINER: No, not at all. And I have never thought that people shouldn’t be free to bring their religious beliefs into the voting booth, bring their religious beliefs into the public square. And indeed, how could we stop them? People’s religious beliefs are the deepest part of who they are. What has always worried and even scared me is government endorsement of particular religious beliefs.
People talk about the faith-based initiative, for example. That’s a very misleading term. It suggests that we are a country of one faith. And we are a country of a great many faiths. And we are a country in which some people have no faith at all.
So for example, when people say they support the faith-based initiative, they’re generally thinking about government money going into the religions they like. If they think about government money going to outre religions, like Scientology or the Hare Krishnas or Islamic fundamentalists, they’re not going to be so much in favor of the faith-based initiative.
But in fact, once you say that the government can give money directly to religious organizations, you can’t allow the government to discriminate against particular religions. And that’s precisely why we have this tradition of separation of church and state.
MOYERS: You’re saying we should not be financing those efforts.
KAMINER: Absolutely not.
KAMINER: Because we are a pluralistic country. And we should never want the government to be directly funding sectarian activities. People forget that the whole principal of separation of church and state is intended to protect religion. It’s intended to protect religious diversity.
MOYERS: You write in this article in FREE INQUIRY, quote, “The complaints of conservative Christians about excessive secularism are not unrealistic. They have reason to feel besieged by culture and should not be dismissed as delusional.”
KAMINER: They have reason to feel besieged by popular culture.
I understand that many conservative Christians are appalled by the number of half naked teenagers they see riding around on MTV. I mean, we have a popular culture that was not exactly shaped by the ideals of a lot of conservative Christians. When they complain about sex and violence in the media, they’re complaining about something real.
Now I don’t share their complaints, I certainly don’t share their remedies for what they see as these ills, but they’re complaining about something real. We don’t have a popular culture that’s been shaped by their ideals.
MOYERS: This surprises me, I must say, from someone who as a kid, found the Christmas lights in your town to be offensive.
KAMINER: I was, as a child, I felt not just irritated, but quite alienated by the Christmas lights. Almost as I was by the mandatory school prayer that I had to recite every morning. And that was because I was acutely aware and all of this made me acutely aware of my own status as a minority.
I was not a Christian, my family was not Christian. And I deeply resented being constantly reminded that I lived in a Christian country. I thought this is my country, too. And I shouldn’t have to be a Christian to feel comfortable here. I suppose that I’ve become less sensitive to that as I’ve grown older.
I’ve also become, I think, more understanding of religious belief. And I think that partly comes with age. I mean you realize how hard life is for people. And you realize all the losses that people have to endure and you realize the comfort that religion can give to people. And you also, you know, as you get to know more religious people, and people of different religions outside your own circle, you start dispelling some of your stereotypes about people.
And you realize how extremely well-intentioned some of these people can be. That doesn’t mean that I think that they’re right. But it means that I don’t disrespect them individually and I really really wouldn’t want to live in a country in which people didn’t feel free to talk about Jesus or whatever other divinities they believed in.
As long as the government is not endorsing a notion that in order to be a virtuous and a moral person, you have to be a religious person. That you cannot be a moral person unless you are raised in the tenets of a traditional you know, the Judeo-Christian tradition.
MOYERS: Unless you draw them from an absolute —
KAMINER: Unless you draw them from some absolute source. Now it was interesting to me to see how all of this talk about religion being essential to virtue dissipated a little bit, or was at least qualified a little bit about September 11th. Because, as I and other people have said, September 11th was essentially a faith-based initiative.
And people began to realize that here was a very clear example of the ways in which faith can be horribly cruel, horribly destructive, horribly malevolent. And that’s what’s interesting about religion. It can bring out great benevolence in people and it can bring out the worst in people. My favorite quote about religion was by Mary McCarthy who said religion is good for good people.
MOYERS: What do you mean by that, “religion is good for good people”?
KAMINER: I think what she meant is that religion is a vehicle for whatever is in people. And if you have naturally a lot of compassion and desire to help people you can find great support for that in religion. You can find a vehicle for acting that out in religion.
And if you are more naturally cruel and autocratic you can also find a vehicle for that in religion because it can give you a sense of your own absolute moral rightness, you know? When you invoke God, you invoke all the rightness of divinity. And that can be a very dangerous thing.
MOYERS: What does it say to you that a society that is so saturated with religiosity, has such an enormous tolerance for lying?
KAMINER: That is a very good question. I think that has a lot to do with the old adage about people not practicing what they preach. And I think that, you know, look, even many religious people would tell you that they find it very hard to live up to their own religious ideals.
But they might also say, “Well, at least we have those ideals. At least we realize where we fall short.” I mean Bill Clinton himself was apparently quite a religious man and after, in fact during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he made a great show of a public confession. And he told us who his spiritual advisers were.
And he, at least ostensibly, bared his soul to us. I mean I found all that rather offensive. Because I didn’t really care about the state of his soul, I cared about the state of the country.
MOYERS: Would both of us agree that when it comes to politics, the reason people accept lying is because their partisan goal is more important than anything else?
KAMINER: I think that’s partly true. But I think that people also accept it because all of us or most of us lie in our own lives. And we’re not just telling white lies, we’re not just telling social lies to avoid hurting people’s feelings. We’re telling self-serving lies. And you don’t just see it in government.
You see it in organizations, you see it in any group of people. One thing that I have learned over the years is that there are very few people, regardless of their religious affiliations, their politics, their ideals, who are not in some way corrupted by power.
Who don’t come to believe that it is more important for them to remain in power than it is for them to be absolutely truthful about everything they’re doing. If being absolutely truthful will threaten their hold on power. I don’t think that’s a vice of the left and I don’t think it’s a vice of the right.
I think that it is a natural human failing. And it is a very difficult thing to resist. And I don’t think religion keeps people from resisting it. You know, we have more than enough examples of extremely bad, even sinful behavior, among religious people. You know, including of course, the scandal about pedophilia in the Catholic church.
To know that religion is simply not a good predictor of character. Of morality. I mean, people — if there are 250 million Americans and if 95 percent of them are religious, 95 percent of them are not virtuous. You know, we all know that. If that were true, we wouldn’t have two million people in prison.
MOYERS: You yourself call yourself, openly and honestly, an agnostic. Does that — where do you draw your ideals from? Where do you draw your ethical code from?
KAMINER: It’s very hard for me to articulate. You know, I could say that I got it from my parents who— neither one of them were religious. My father especially was a confirmed atheist. My mother would have enjoyed believing in God if she could. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to it.
But they were very honorable, ethical, fair-minded people. I was just brought up with a sense of fairness. I suppose that’s part of it. I don’t know where else it comes from. I, you know, is it instinct? Is it temperament? Is it all the things that happened to you when you’re a child? Is it the kind of larger environment that you grow up in?
But I suppose one reason that I don’t have a good answer to that question is that it’s not a relevant question to me.
MOYERS: What is — it’s not a relevant question?
KAMINER: No, the source of my moral values is not relevant to me. What’s relevant to me is trying to figure out my moral values. You know, what’s relevant to me is trying to live up to my own moral values. I’m not a religious person but I use words like “evil” and “sin” quite freely.
MOYERS: To describe realities you see in the world?
KAMINER: To describe behavior that I think is really, really bad, you know? If bad isn’t a strong enough word then I’ll call it sinful or I’ll call it evil. And I’m not offended when public officials use words like “sin” and “evil” necessarily because I think they’re very effective words.
I think that they convey a sense of real horror at really, really, really bad behavior. But I can’t tell you where that comes from. You know? I — you can — there are political theorists who have much more sophisticated ideas about it than I do.
I think you can look at human history. I don’t think you have to look at religious teachings. I think you could look at human history and draw a lot of messages about what is good behavior and what is bad behavior, about cruelty, about the importance of not being cruel to people.
About the importance — I don’t know. I think a lot of children have a basic sense of fairness. I don’t know where it comes from. But I think it’s there in people.
MOYERS: All of us who are parents can remember a three-, a four-, a five-year-old when offended by something that happens at the table from the sibling says, “That’s not fair.”
KAMINER: That’s right.
MOYERS: “Stop that. That’s not fair.”
KAMINER: That’s right. And that sense can be encouraged in people or it can be squelched in people. And then, of course, all kinds of things take over. Self-interest takes over. Ambition takes over. Insecurity takes over.
Fear of being exposed in public takes over. You know? And I suppose the most, you know, I’m speaking now off the top of my head so please don’t hold me to it. But I suppose —
MOYERS: This is television. You’re permitted.
KAMINER: This is television. I’m allowed to do that.
I suppose, one of the most important ways you can teach children to live up to the moral codes that you try to instill in them is to try to make them strong enough to stand out from a crowd, you know? To try to make sure that when a group of kids is going to do something that they think is wrong that they’re strong enough to say, “I don’t want to be a part of this. Maybe I can’t stop you from doing it. But I don’t want to be a part of it.”
MOYERS: Well, I’ve often thought that the religious traditions that I know most about have all drawn upon a basically humanist well when they talk about the essence being do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
MOYERS: Because we can’t live in a society unless we all respect that ethos, right?
KAMINER: I think that’s right. I think the Golden Rule is actually a very important thing to keep in mind. I think empathy can help make people moral. And, you know, I’m not a biologist. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a philosopher. So I can’t tell you why some people have more empathy than others. But I think without empathy you’re very vulnerable to falling into the pit of cruelty.
MOYERS: This is a very powerful article you have written in FREE INQUIRY. And there’s a sentence in there that I’d like to ask you about. You say, “Social freedom means the right to define vice and virtue for yourself and choose between them.”
But isn’t that what worries the Christian Right? Isn’t that what the Christian Right would deny you? The right to define for yourself the difference between virtue and vice and then to choose?
KAMINER: Absolutely. And that’s what our argument’s about. But, you know, let me even qualify my own statement. I mean, obviously when we’re talking about things like murder and rape and other kinds of violence, assault, you don’t get to choose that murder is a virtuous thing to do. And, well, I suppose you can choose it but you better be willing to pay the consequences if you do.
The problem in trying to define virtue and vice for society comes when you move outside of the areas in which there’s a general moral consensus. We have a general consensus that cuts across religious lines. It cuts across lines of people who have different faiths and no faiths that murder is wrong, that gratuitous violence is wrong. That stealing is wrong. People may not live up to these ideals. But they will generally concede that these things are wrong.
We don’t have a consensus that homosexuality is wrong. We don’t even have a consensus that abortion is wrong. We are divided almost right down the middle of that. We have no consensus about right-to-die issues, these very difficult issues. One of the things that’s troubling about what’s going on in Florida is not just that the governor, Governor Jeb Bush, has decided to override the decisions of the court. I mean, Jeb Bush in Florida is really having his George Wallace moment. It’s completely — in terms of the structure of government, it’s completely inappropriate.
But he’s also not just playing to a religious community of people. He is playing to a sectarian group of people. Because there are many religious people who would not agree with his decision at all.
And so when we move into these areas in which the firm belief is not one that’s widely shared but it’s mostly shared by one particular religious group, those are the times when we have to step back and say, “No, we don’t impose the views of one religious group on the rest of us in a pluralistic society.”
MOYERS: What do you mean by secularism? The right has demonized the term. What do you mean by that?
KAMINER: When I talk about secularism I’m not talking about a personal stance. I don’t call myself a secularist because I don’t believe in God. I call myself a secularist because I believe in a secular form of government.
You know, if you ask me do I mind all this religious rhetoric? You know, it might irritate me. But I associate it with freedom of religion. I associate it with freedom of conscience.
And protecting freedom of conscience is actually more important to me than protecting my own secular sensibilities. And, you know, I recognize that we live in a very noisy and a very diverse culture. And there’s a lot of noise out there that’s going to irritate any one of us. And part of living in a democracy is being willing to be irritated. And not confusing being irritated with being oppressed.
MOYERS: Wendy Kaminer. People can read your article in FREE INQUIRY by connecting to pbs.org. They’ll also find there a bibliography of your books and articles. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
KAMINER: Thank you.
BRANCACCIO: We have been hearing about religious fundamentalism, and a deep distrust of America. These are having some unexpected results around the world.
In Nigeria, polio is spreading quickly across borders, but local Muslim leaders in the north are blocking emergency vaccination drives.
They claim the oral doses of the vaccine are contaminated, part of an American conspiracy to spread AIDS and make women infertile. It’s not, and it doesn’t.
The setback complicates hopes of eradicating polio by 2005, but it in no way diminishes the extraordinary success of a 15-year drive to wipe polio off the planet. As many as ten million people had been infected worldwide when in 1988, the World Health Organization and UNICEF spearheaded a global eradication program. This year, fewer than 500 new cases were reported.
At a time when the U.S. is trying to go it alone in the world, when multi-national agencies are looked at with skepticism, the success of these UN-affiliated groups — under staggeringly difficult conditions — is remarkable.
World-renowned photographer Sabastiao Salgado has documented this in a new book: THE END OF POLIO. Here are his photographs, and his thoughts, through a translator.
SALGADO (TRANSLATED): Every child in the United States receives the polio vaccine. We’re trying to see if every child on the planet can receive it in order to stop this disease.
You give just two drops orally and it’s very cheap, but it must be kept cold from production until the moment that you drop it in the mouth of the kid.
In a few countries giving it out is very complicated because a lot of places are in a kind of permanent war.
Like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, health officials sometimes have to travel for four or five days on motor bikes. And go across a river in small boats to bring the vaccines to a village.
And there’s a big risk of kidnapping. When I was working there, several health workers were killed in the forest.
Somalia’s a very complicated place to work. The territory is split between the warlords and we must be accompanied by what we call down there “technical support.” Technical support is having a machine gun on a four-wheel drive truck. And a group of men with machine guns to protect the team doing the vaccinating.
In some countries we have a free moment from war. The fighting will stop, and then the health teams go in and inoculate the children. When they come out the fighting starts again.
This picture I shot at a train station near New Delhi.
A team of inoculators goes to work when the train comes in. They are very fast. They inoculate every kid under five years old before the train leaves the station.
In a rehabilitation center in New Delhi, I saw a group of girls and boys between 11 and 15. And what impressed me the most was the upper part of this picture they look like just normal kids at play. In the lower part you see how affected they are by the disease.
Sometimes the person hit by polio must stay in bed all the time. In a nomadic family, they are often abandoned, as in the case of this boy named Mohammed that I met in Baidoa in Somalia.
It was very hard for the family to have a child like this with them. And once they came to Baidoa, they abandoned him, and he started to live on the streets.
When we started this big campaign to finish polio about 12 or 14 years ago the number of cases in the world was 350,000 per year. This year we have so far until now less than 500 cases. That means we’ve had a reduction of more than 99 percent. It’s an incredible campaign. And we have a big hope that in four or five years we’ll have no more polio on the planet. I believe it will be a big conquest for all humanity.
MOYERS: That’s it for NOW. David Brancaccio and I will be back next week.
I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.
This transcript was published on August 13, 2015.