Friday, November 11, 2016

The Electoral College is bad and Tara Ross fails to convince me otherwise with her video "explaining" it.

Tara Ross wrote a book (second edition published in 2012) about the value of the Electoral College.  She summarizes her points in favor of the electoral college in a short PragerU video, which I’ve seen some people post now that we have had the second election in sixteen years in which the winner in the electoral college is not the winner of the popular vote.

I happen to agree with Ross with some of the ideas in her other book, about George Washington’s attitude toward religion and democracy. For example, I think religious participation and belief can support democracy, and governments ought to encourage religion in general without supporting any particular sect or favoring any particular religion.  However, when it comes to her defense of the electoral college, I’m not in agreement with her argument.  Let me present my analysis and discuss the points she makes in her short Praeger lecture.

Tara Ross begins by asking a good question.  “Why do we have the electoral college, and why do we still need it?”   A better way to phrase this question might have been, “what reasons still justify its continuing presence, and what arguments justify removing it, and on balance, ought we to keep it or abandon it?”  But, this isn’t a fair inquiry into the electoral college.  She is an intellectual who lives in the conservative bubble.  She presents her ideas and gets heard by all the think-tanks and media outlets and journalism outlets that are funded by the capitalist elite class in its attempt to shape public opinion and government debate, and in that realm of the American Enterprise Institute, the Weekly Standard, the National Review, Fox News, and so forth, people don't really ask fair-minded and dispassionate questions… everything is prepared to support a particular agenda.  Every word is chosen to influence people into the cult.  I could say the same about some left-wing media outlets (you don’t read or watch The Nation or In These Times or Daily Kos or The Young Turks with the intention of being exposed to a broad range of ideas and fair-minded questioning either).  At any rate, her answer to her question of “why we still need the electoral college” is based on the idea that it protects us from the flaws of direct democracy, it encourages nation-wide campaigning and other good results in election politics, and it prevents anyone from stealing elections.  I think she’s wrong in just about every point she makes.

Tara Ross then claims that “the founders” believed we should not have a pure majority-rule democracy.  She also claims that “the founders” allegedly “knew” that pure democracies did not work, and they knew this because they had studied the history of pure democracies.

Well, who are the “founders” she is talking about?  Of course James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were all opposed to direct democracy, but those were not the only “founders” and James Madison actually supported the idea of direct popular election of the President.  Also, in what cases was representative government favored, and in what cases was direct popular voting favored?  It’s obvious enough that even back when the nation had only four million voters, they couldn't possibly deliberate and vote on all the various laws.  The town hall direct democracy of New England wasn’t going to work at the level of state governments, let alone the federal government.  Of course as a practical necessity, the “founders” all agreed there would need to be some form of representation and representative authority.  It wasn’t workable to have direct democracy for the nation as a whole, or for the states, rather than representative assemblies, and no one proposed direct democracy as a plausible alternative to having a Senate or a House and Senate.  So, when conservatives such as Ross claim that the “founders” wanted representative government rather than direct democracy, they are not saying anything that really helps their point.  Of course the founders wanted representative government, that’s not the question.  The question is why do we need representative government (a college of electors) to elect our President rather than having the President selected by a popular vote. It’s a specific issue, not a general question about direct democracy at the Federal level. 

 In fact, at the Constitutional Convention the direct election of the president was suggested as a possible method for choosing the leader of the executive branch (the other possibilities were having  the House choose the President, which still can happen if no candidate gets more than 270 votes in the Electoral College, having state legislatures select the president, and the electoral college system we ended up with).  Clearly, the founders who proposed the direct election of the president at the Constitutional Convention were not so opposed to direct democracy in that one specific case of electing the president.  In fact, on August 24, 1787, the vote to have direct popular election of the president went down with 2 states for and 9 states against.  So, some of the founders were certainly comfortable with the idea of direct popular elections of the president.  Who were these founders? In one source I find that “Direct election by the people had strong support from some of the leaders at the convention, including James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and James Wilson, also of Pennsylvania.  John Dickinson, Rufus King, Daniel Carroll, and Abraham Baldwin also supported popular election.” (George C. Edwards, Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, page 81)

Ross does not actually state her case, but she is implying that the electoral college is one method of protecting our republic from the harmful possibilities of direct pure democracy.  No doubt direct democracy can be harmful, and it’s certainly unworkable as a system of regular government for any group of people that exceeds a fairly small number—perhaps a hundred thousand.  But, a government can clearly protect itself from those harms through a variety of means, such as having two representative legislative bodies with one having members elected infrequently, checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and restricting the role of direct elections, referenda, and recall votes to a manageable level, perhaps by setting up requirement for petitions and the collection of many signatures before allowing direct popular voting on issues of concern.  The question Tara Ross ought to address is whether, when all these things are present to protect citizens from the abuses and logistical difficulties of direct democracy, it is still necessary to elect the chief executive through an electoral college.  That’s the real question, and her answer is just to generally say that direct democracy is dangerous (no doubt it can be) and we need protection from its problems (no doubt we do), and the electoral college does this (that is the question at issue, and simply stating it as a fact does not win her case for her).

Tara Ross claims that the founders “knew” that direct democracy tended to fail.
 She makes the claim that “pure democracies do not work.  They implode.”  What was the evidence for that?  Well, Madison claimed, “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”  (Federalist Paper #10).  In other words, with popular government (“direct democracy”) you get the violence of faction, the tyranny of the majority, and a tendency toward instability, injustice, and confusion, and this tendency is just what the enemies of democratic governments use to justify their tyranny (illustrated well by how China state media point to the election of Donald Trump as proof that the American system is failing, and the form of dictatorship led by the Chinese Communist Party is superior).  Is this really so?  What did the founders know, and what are the facts?

The American “founders” knew direct democracy from their knowledge of classical history: the Roman Republic, the Greek City States (which were sometimes democratic, as was Athens in the times of Pericles, Cleisthenes, and after the overthrow of the 30 tyrants, guided by the ideas of Solon and others). They also knew (if they were from New England) about town governments using direct democracy in town hall meetings.  Did they know about the councils of the Althing in Iceland, or the deliberative councils of the Seneca, or the governing councils of the Six Nations (the Haudenosaunee “Iroquois" Confederacy)?  They certainly did know about democracy in the Indian system of governance. Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, was very familiar with the Seneca politics and governance, and I think Benjamin Franklin knew something about the governance systems within the Six Nations. Had any of these examples collapsed and failed? 

There were other historical examples beyond Rome and Greece, and not just the popular assembly in Iceland or the tribal assemblies of Northeastern American Indian nations. What about  the system of direct democracy in the smaller Swiss cantonal governments and communal assemblies, or the guild systems and elected assemblies in the free cities and small states such as those in the Hanseatic League or Venice or Florence or Strasbourg? Those historical examples offered a mixed record: stability in Switzerland, instability in Italian city states.  How about the democratic forms of governance in Novgorod that flourished until Moscow took over? That system seemed to flourish for a long time, and external, rather than internal problems ended its success.  It’s clear from Federalist Paper #20 that Madison was aware of the systems of governance in the Dutch Republic, and he didn’t approve (the United Provinces were a confederation of seven or eight tiny states that functioned as a republic between 1581 and 1795; they were the first government to recognize the independence of the United States).  Within the Dutch republic some of the states practiced direct democracy (Friesland comes to mind), and I don’t recall that they ever had any implosion.  San Marino has been a republic since the 4th century, and it uses direct democracy through referenda, and it used a general popular assembly (the “Arengo”) for centuries without implosion.  The claim that direct democracies “implode” is an empirical claim, and I don’t know what the evidence for or against it may be, but I would be very surprised to find that Tara Ross has conducted some sort of survey of direct democracies to support her argument, and I can find no historical reference work to answer the question, either.  My sense is that there are several examples of long-term direct democracy that endured for centuries without implosion, and these have been especially successful in smaller city states or in areas of low population.

She then points out that forms of governance in which bare majorities can easily tyrannize the rest of the country are unfair to minorities (she uses the simile of two wolves voting against a sheep about what to have for dinner).  This is an interesting point, and it’s very relevant to how legislative assemblies are formed.  However, is it relevant to the issue of selecting a president? The problem of the president being a “wolf” is corrected by having the legislature control the creation of legislation, the approval of appointments and treaties, the allocation of money, and so forth.  The Supreme Court can also weigh in and declare a President’s actions unconstitutional.  So, why do we need the Electoral College?  Ross again gives a general argument that would support the principles that shape the structure of our government, but may have no relevance to the specific question at hand. 

Ross then explains that we have three branches of government to protect us from the tyranny of the majority.  Exactly.  Since we have these branches of government, and many other things in our Constitution to protect us from the tyranny of the majority, how is it that we still need the Electoral College to protect us from a popular vote for the president?  In what case would the Electoral College give us a president different from one who won the popular vote?  Well, in 2000 and 2016 the Electoral College stepped in when the popular vote was quite close.  If the popular vote is quite close in the election of the president, isn’t it also the case in actual practice that the legislature will be fairly evenly divided?  If the Congress is fairly evenly divided, why do we need the further work of the Electoral College?  In a situation where the popular vote is very close, is it plausible that this is because a candidate has won a fantastic majority in a few regions or large states and been utterly defeated everywhere else?  If that even were the case, how would choosing one candidate over the other in the electoral college protect a minority from a tyranny of the majority?  Isn’t it much more likely that in close elections, each candidate will have a fair degree of support everywhere, with perhaps a few lopsided losses and victories here and there, but not the sort of total isolated regional victory the Electoral College was designed to thwart? 

She also claims that the threat of tyranny of the majority is the reason why each state has two senators, regardless of the state’s population (so that people in Wyoming and Montana and Alaska and Vermont get one senator for every 400,000 to 600,000 persons while people in California, Texas, and New York get one senator for every  10 to 18 million persons).  Another way to express this is to look at the actual situation we face in America now. The rural states and rural areas of sparsely populated landscapes–the places where the people are almost all European-American—hold a minority of the population. Urban centers and metropolitan areas (that also happen to have great racial diversity, partly because a few generations ago some European-Americans had pogroms and laws to force Americans without European-American heritage out of their rural areas) have most of the population.  So, while most people live in the big cities and their suburbs and exurbs, a minority lives in the rural countryside.  The system with senators representing all the states equally means those rural states with low populations get more representation than the states with lots of big cities.  Senators from New York, Florida, Texas, California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania add up to 18.  Senators from Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Montana, Alaska, North Dakota, Idaho, Delaware and South Dakota add up to 18. This protects the people in those rural, sparsely populated, tiny states.  It protects them from what?  Financial allocations are made by the House of Representatives, not the Senate, and the House has representation proportional to population, but are those sparsely populated tiny states getting fewer federal dollars on a per capita basis compared to the biggest states?  Isn’t the actual case that we face in the existing situation a tyranny of the minority, inflicting the policies favored by our rural population on the urban centers?  Is that better than a situation in which the urban centers had proportionate power to shape policies?  In what way?  It’s a discussion that Ross isn’t going to have.

She also claims the difficult process of amending the Constitution is also made difficult to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.  Yes.  I agree with her on this point.  It should be difficult to amend the Constitution. 

She claims that the electoral college encourages coalition-building.  Back in the 1780s this was, of course, necessary, because people only knew local candidates, and in order to get policies through the Federal system you needed institutions to push people to build coalitions.  But, since the invention of modern telecommunications and transport and mass media, we surely have natural incentives to form coalitions, and the usefulness of the Electoral College to achieve this end is questionable, and the need is simply no longer there.

She claims that the electoral college encourages national campaigning.  The evidence is that it most manifestly does not.  What Democratic candidate for president is going to waste time campaigning in the inter-mountain west, the high plains, or the deep south?  There are a few states (Nevada, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina) where maybe the Democratic candidate can hope to win, but where else in those regions does either candidate need to campaign?  And what Republican candidate is going to waste time and money on the Pacific Coast or the Northeast?  Aside from New Hampshire, and Maine (where the state doesn’t allocate all its Electoral College delegates as one big bunch), no Republican needs to campaign in New England, and campaign stops in New York are more likely to be fundraisers than campaign rallies.  In the face of this, how can Ross make the counter-intuitive claim that the electoral college encourages national campaigning, when it manifestly discourages this?  She has two points: first, the swing states are scattered all over the country, and second, the swing states change over time, so good candidates will try to bring new states into the status of swing-states, and over time, various states will have opportunities to become important in national presidential campaigns.   Well, her argument is therefore that “over the course of many years, the electoral college encourages national campaigning in several states scattered across the continent.”  The counter argument, which she does not address, is that “abandoning the electoral college would instantly encourage national campaigning everywhere.”  No wonder she doesn't carefully consider that alternative claim.

She points out that regional voting blocks will not provide sufficient electoral college votes for a presidential victory, and this forces presidential candidates to seek votes from beyond a single region of the country.  This is not an argument that specially favors the Electoral College.  No single region of the country has enough of the population that a presidential candidate could focus all their attention in one region to win a direct popular vote.  With direct popular elections a candidate would have to seek votes all across the country, and not just in one or two regions.

She claims that in a campaign based on direct election of the president, candidates would probably campaign in areas of high population density, and restrict much of their campaigning to large states, neglecting small states like West Virginia, Iowa, and Montana.  There is already in the existing system with the Electoral College no reason for Democratic candidates to campaign in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, or other small states like that, and no Republican is going to waste time trying to win in Delaware, Rhode Island, or Vermont.  The Electoral College is achieving the exact evil she says would be effected by direct popular elections.  It is true that candidates would probably campaign most vigorously in areas of high population density, but those areas (urban areas) exist in all the states outside of Vermont and New Hampshire.   If we had direct popular elections, a Democratic Candidate would have a reason to at least make a brief visit or two in Boise, Idaho and Butte, Montana, and Fargo, North Dakota, and Birmingham, Alabama, and San Antonio, Texas.  All places for which there is no strategic reason for any Democratic candidate to now visit or purchase advertisements.  Likewise, with direct elections, Republicans candidates would visit Los Angeles and San Diego and the San Francisco Bay, and they would visit New York and upstate New York’s small cities, and Providence, Rhode Island, and Chicago, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington.  These are all areas where no Republican currently has any reason to visit or advertise or campaign, but with direct popular elections, all of these cities would be important campaign stops.  Also, in the current system, where candidates must visit swing states because of the Electoral College, are they going out to give their speeches in towns with fewer than 10,000 residents in Florida and North Carolina and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin?  No, of course not.  They advertise in television markets, which are based in cities, and they come to visit cities and large towns. With direct popular elections, even if candidates didn’t personally visit states where they would not win local majorities, they would need to organize active campaigns everywhere, because votes from everywhere would count.

She anticipates the argument that swing states get all the attention from candidates, and says that over time the swing states change.  Yes, but how is it helpful to her argument to point out that over the course of decades a handful of new states become swing states and a handful of swing states become safe states?  The fact is, in any single election year, only a dozen or perhaps a score of states are swing states where candidates need to do any campaigning.  That is one (of many) problems with the existing Electoral College System.  Saying that over the course of four or five election cycles about half of the states will at some point be decisive, even if in any one election cycle only a dozen or so are really decisive, is not a convincing argument in the face of the counter-claim that with direct popular elections all the states would be important in all the elections.

She says that the specific defeat of Gore was attributable “really because” a “safe state” (West Virginia) was considered a safe Democratic Party win, and the 4 electoral votes from West Virginia went to Bush because Gore had neglected it.  There are so many reasons that Bush was installed in the White House despite the fact that Gore won the popular vote (even in Florida, as it turns out), that making a claim that this outcome was “really because” of  some specific thing is just ridiculous.   Maybe it was “really because” Gore didn’t stir up enough enthusiasm in his campaigning?  Maybe it was “really because” Gore didn’t offer ideas about policies that really excited the Democratic base?  Maybe it was “really because” the Supreme Court forbade Florida from recounting the ballots (which, after all the ballots were eventually counted from the whole state, showed that Gore had in fact won the vote in Florida).  Maybe it was “really because” Gore didn’t campaign enough in his home state of Tennessee, and lost there.  Maybe it was “really because” Republicans had stripped many minority voters (likely Democrats) of their voting rights in Florida.  It’s laughable that Ross would argue that Gore’s neglect of a supposedly “safe win for Democrats” state in West Virginia while his opponent Bush cleverly campaigned in West Virginia because he recognized it had become a swing-state is somehow a argument in favor of the Electoral College.   There were many states Gore (and Bush) neglected in their campaigns because of the Electoral College system.  How can picking one of those states to point out that in one particular case a candidate was mistaken in neglecting the state be counted as an argument in favor of a system that had both candidates neglecting dozens of states?  There are about 650,000 potential voters in West Virginia, and in a country where the popular vote has been won by fewer than 2 million votes in 2000 and 2016, a presidential candidate would need to campaign in West Virginia, even when there are 7 million potential voters in New York and 9 million potential voters in California.

Ross says the electoral college protects us from stolen elections.  In a direct election, she claims, it might be easy for a solidly blue or red precinct to allow voter fraud, and such things could influence the national election.  However, she claims, with an electoral college someone who wanted to steal an election would need to steal votes in a swing state, and swing states present more difficulties to the would-be election thief, since they are evenly-split areas, and they change from year-to-year.  This argument has more merit than her other arguments, but it’s still not very convincing.  Wisconsin and Michigan and New Hampshire were won by margins of less than 25,000 votes in 2016, and Florida and New Hampshire had close margins in 2000.  In fact, in Florida in 2000, it may very well be the case that the election was stolen by the local Republican Party’s successful disenfranchisement of many legitimate voters through their administration of the election system (Republicans controlled the election system in Florida).   It’s true that in a close national election where the victor has only a margin of a few tens of thousands of votes, the federal election system would need to be vigilant everywhere to the potential of vote stealing.  However, with our current Electoral College system, a corrupt state government in a swing state could easily manipulate the election to provide their favored candidate with a few thousand extra votes, as probably happened in Chicago, Illinois in 1960, and probably happened in Florida, in 2000. In close elections where the winner takes all in the Electoral College, this poses a real threat to our elections, and in fact, twice in living memory unfair behaviors by local officials have influenced the national election outcomes.  A national direct popular election of the president would reduce the risk of these sorts of abuses.

Okay, that’s why I’m not convinced by anything Tara Ross has said in her PragerU video.  I’ll also add that my understanding of the Constitutional Convention and the Twelfth Amendment is that the electoral college was really instituted to give Virginia and other slavocrat states where humans were held as property a better chance to have its candidates win the presidency (and this worked well for Virginia).  Also, we can use the National Popular Vote to correct the problems of the Electoral College.

In contrast to Tara Ross and her claim that the Electoral College was instituted to protect us from the tyranny of the majority or the problems of direct democracy, William C. Kimberling, at one time the Deputy Director of  the Federal Election Commission National Clearninghouse on Election Administration has this to say:

A third idea [for a method of selecting a president] was to have the president elected by a direct popular vote. Direct election was rejected not because the Framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence, but rather because they feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would naturally vote for a "favorite son" from their own State or region. At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, the choice of president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones.

So that it.  The electoral college was instituted because people wouldn't be familiar with national candidates, and it was also instituted to please states with very few people like Delaware and Rhode Island and Georgia (at the time) so they wouldn't always be dominated by presidents from Virginia or New York or Pennsylvania.

Finally, I refer my readers to a short video explaining the National Popular Vote movement.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

My thoughts in reaction to the 2016 election

I have some comments related to the recent elections in the United States.

My first comment is that the issues with polling are quite interesting.  When we sample from a population and ask questions, we understand that there will be some “random error” or “sampling error” and there are also issues with measurement and so forth, and so in survey research and polling we have a margin of error, or a confidence interval.  Before election night, there were many states where this sort of sampling error suggested that the race was a “toss up” or “leaned” in one direction or another.  Now, normally, the error is fairly random, and the actual result could go either way, a bit higher or a bit lower than the predicted outcome.  However, in the 2016 elections, in almost every state where the presidential race or the senate race was a toss-up, the actual result was more Republican.  This suggests that polling was strongly biased, or skewed, toward being pro Democratic. That is, polling was consistently overestimating the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidate performance. 

This surprised me, as I had been looking at methods of the polling, and thought that most of the polls were under-sampling younger and poorer voters, and younger and poorer voters are more likely to vote for Democratic Party candidates. What happened?  Political scientists will have to examine the results to give us an answer in the coming weeks, but the most plausible explanation is that poor and young voters did not come out to vote at levels pollsters had expected.  Also, it seems persons in historically marginalized groups (African-Americans, women) were not as solidly for Clinton as polling had indicated.  For example, if political scientists know that 90% of African-Americans support a candidate and 50% of African-Americans will actually vote, and then on the election day only 80% of African-Americans support that candidate and only 40% of them vote, this means that for every 100 African-Americans, the favored candidate will only pick up 32 votes, rather than 45.  Something like this probably happened among many of the core “Democratic Party” voter groups such as African-Americans, although I’m not sure what the numbers would actually be.  No doubt Clinton generally was preferred by wide margins among college-educated persons, women, Hispanics, and African-Americans, but I suspect her leads among these groups was slightly less than polling had predicted, and the turn-out among these voters was also less than expected. 

At any rate, this is the most interesting aspect of the election to me.  I am very curious about how this systematic bias in the polling could happen.  Probably one issue is that people were using historical models, and the campaign was unusual and didn’t fit into historical patterns.  The main difference I see is that the Republican candidate was very unusual, without a political background, and his style was quite different.  Most of the social scientists and pollsters and journalists who studied the electorate before the elections come from rather elite strata of society, and my impression is that these types of persons tend to be very conventional, very conservative, and very cautious about the models they use for interpreting the world.  If things have worked a certain way in the past, such people will make the reasonable assumption that things will continue to work that way into the future.  And, if most of those sorts of persons are making this assumption, there will be strong social pressure on everyone in the group to go along with such models and assumptions. 

I thought I perceived some of this in the Democratic primaries.  It seemed obvious to me that Sanders would have a far better chance of defeating Trump in a general election.  It seemed to me self-evident that an outsider anti-establishment candidate who was very likable would offer the Democrats the best chance for defeating another outsider anti-establishment candidate, or especially a traditional bland mainstream candidate.  But, it also seemed clear to me that Trump had so many problems, and would be so unpopular among religious conservatives and elite globalist corporate conservatives that he wouldn’t even be able to defeat Clinton.  I thought many religious conservatives would shun him for some of his behaviors and his language, and I thought his protectionist opposition to trade and his general unpredictability would make him abhorrent to mainstream elite Republicans. As it turns out, many Republican leaders did indeed take a strong disliking to their presidential candidate, and many pious Republicans also felt misgivings about him.  But, faced with the alternative of a Democratic candidate whom they all loathed, Trump was able to win.  He was helped by the surge of voting from persons who normally wouldn’t vote for a Republican or vote at all. These voters offset the defection of the Republicans who couldn’t support Trump. Those conservatives who didn’t support Trump seem mostly to have refused to vote for Clinton.

I usually vote for third party candidates, and I have therefore usually expected to see the candidates I vote for lose elections.  So, I don’t feel any sense that “my candidate” lost because Trump won.  None of the candidates (even the third party candidates) reflected my values or policy preferences perfectly (and it’s unreasonable to expect that any ever would), so rather than saying to myself that one candidate or party was “my candidate” or “my party” I tend to think in terms of “this candidate has these qualities and ideas that I admire, and would probably do these policies that I think would be best, but has these qualities and ideas that I think are wrong, and would support these policies that I think would be disastrous or unworkable”.  Thus, I look at every candidate as a source of some potential good and some potential harm.  Trump has a few ideas I like, but many I don't.  I'm hopeful that his good policy ideas and instincts will be successful, and that he will be thwarted or converted to some other position on his many policy ideas with which I disagree. He seems somewhat mercurial, so it's hard to pin down where he actually stands and guess at what he will actually do.  

  In this election cycle I did not think the media was giving fair treatment to either of the mainstream candidates.  Many liberals and Democrats were unfairly mischaracterizing things Trump had said, or quoting him out of context, or ignoring the overall thrust of his argument because they could pick at specific ridiculous things he said.  And, of course the Republicans and Trump-supporters demonized Clinton and mischaracterized her record and her character in ways that made me feel sick. There was a sort of smugness and hubris in both of the mainstream campaigns, a sort of attitude I thought repugnant, but very human. I think in response to this I was more interested in how the losing side would take their defeat than in how the winning side would celebrate their victory.   

But, as most of my friends and family members are quite liberal, and either strongly supported Clinton or at least strongly opposed Trump, I offer some observations that might bring consolation.

First, about a third of the electorate is conservative.  They will vote for any conservative candidate, whether noble or vile.  They are ideological voters.  They see the world through a value lens that puts more emphasis on purity, respect for authority, and loyalty.  They are not as concerned with fairness, although fairness is important to them.  They are much less concerned about the caring ethic, although most of them are caring and do value caring to some degree. They don’t tolerate ambiguity, especially in questions of morality.  Another third of the electorate is liberal or even radical.  They will vote for any left-wing candidate, regardless of character or background. They are also ideological voters. They care most about policies that are caring and fair. In comparison to conservatives, they care less about purity, respect for authority, and loyalty, although they do care about those.  When it comes to values of conservation and appreciation, or liberty and opposition to tyranny, it’s not possible to characterize the ideological liberal and conservative voters, as those values are about equally important to each ideological frame of mind.  In the long-term, more Americans are embracing liberal perspectives, and those who embrace conservative perspectives are dwindling. 

Second, about a third of the electorate is neither conservative nor liberal.  These voters switch between conservative mental models and liberal mental models.  They think about some issues as conservatives, and other issues as liberals.  Or, on some days they feel more liberal, while on other days they feel more conservative.  They are swing voters.  Also, a high portion of these people care far more about personality, or intangible gut instinct impressions of candidates.  Sometimes these voters just want to vote for “change” without any clear idea of the sorts of policies they prefer.  They vote for personalities and characters more than policy.  The undecided voters who couldn't choose between Trump and Clinton by summer were generally non-ideological.  Undecided conservatives were choosing between Trump or an independent or third party candidate, and Undecided radicals were choosing between Clinton or Stein (most ended up voting for Clinton or just not voting at all—Stein received about half of the votes I thought she would get).

Third, most Americans don’t understand how policy is made.  Many may be able to answer questions accurately about the branches of government, the levels of government, and the political parties, but in their intuitive thinking about how the world works, these people don’t really think through things, and they don’t understand how policies are made and implemented.  When I say most don’t understand, I mean about two thirds of the electorate; the vast majority of the non-ideological swing voters and a significant portion of the conservatives and liberals.  These people intuitively feel as if the president is responsible for everything.  It may be true that Congress must pass legislation to be signed by a president, but these people don’t think about that; they only emotionally react to what is going on, and blame or give credit to the president (or their governor) for everything that happens.  A good example of this would be a liberal voter who blamed Obama for not getting a Universal Single Payer health care reform passed in his first two years of office.  Such a policy was not politically feasible, and anyway, the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate (Pelosi and Reid) had the responsibility to draft the legislation and get it passed, not the President.  Likewise, any liberal who criticized Obama for not passing good legislation in his last six years in office would demonstrate an ignorance of the role of the House of Representatives in the process of passing legislation, and an unawareness of the political climate in the House of Representatives for these past six years. This majority of Americans who don’t understand politics also don’t understand that many important decisions about their lives and communities are made in local government or state government.  They are distracted by news reporting about international affairs and policy disputes or political battles in Washington, D.C., but know next to nothing about what goes on in their state legislature or their governor’s office, let along their city councils. 

Given this environment, winning elections requires three things.  First, one must motivate one’s allied ideological third to support one’s candidate with enthusiasm and effort.  One must get a higher percentage of one’s support base out to the polls at election time, and must do so regularly, so that elected leaders will feel pressure to consider the opinions of one’s ideological base.  Second, one must sway the opinions of the non-ideological voters, finding ways to appeal to them and make them like one’s candidates.  Third, one must blunt the opposition of the ideological opponents.  This can be done by making one’s candidate more appealing to them, so that ideological opponents will not be able to use visceral emotional disgust in whipping up enthusiasm against one’s candidate.  It can also be done by vilifying and attacking the candidates of the other ideology, but this has been tried through American history, and has proven to be corrosive against civil society and our democratic institutions. 

One way to gain recognition for one’s candidates and make them likable is to have candidates in one’s party come from a pool of civic-engaged persons who are active in non-partisan service and community institutions.  There are a wide variety of social institutions where persons of various religious and ideological backgrounds come together to collaborate in doing important service work.  These institutions include religious congregations, especially in larger mainstream denominations.  Also, the service organizations that promote non-partisan recreation or education, such as YMCAs, amateur sporting leagues, youth development groups like Scouting, 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc. fall in this category, as do the service and social groups such as the Masons, Shriners, Rotarians, Lions, and other clubs like that.  Local chambers of commerce, art or historical associations, holiday celebration organizing committees, and community development organizations also bring people of diverse backgrounds together to achieve common goals. To some extent, even the armed forces fall into this category of non-partisan service organizations.  A huge problem for secular liberal and radical groups in this society is that secular liberals participate in these sorts of civic organizations at a significantly lower rate than do more conservative persons. It therefore becomes a problem for the left that they have a smaller pool of talented persons with wide social capital and community service experience. While radicals may offer the intellectual basis for resistance to the extremes of capitalism, they are more likely to be living the sort of individualistic atomized lives that weaken their social capital and political power, whereas conservatives, who may ideologically support the forms of unrestrained capitalism that do the most harm, are more likely to be living lives resisting the excesses of destructive capitalism, by their continuing involvement in non-partisan collective service or community-building groups.

Another problem that liberals and radicals have had in this election cycle is the burden they have placed on themselves by focusing on “social justice” and identity politics.  I say this as someone who cares very much about social justice, and tries to work toward it.  My point isn’t that it’s wrong to advocate for marginalized or historically-oppressed groups, or that we ought to accept rudeness and bullying.  My point is that these struggles have their place, and such movements need to be balanced with other struggles to improve the lives of everyone.  So, for example, liberals and radicals need to be aware that economic opportunity is the real issue that faces everyone.  If we ignore the top 20% of the population’s income distribution, and just look at the bottom 80% of American households in terms of their purchasing power and lifestyles, we can see that things have just stagnated or gotten worse since 2000.  Look at the Pew report on global income distributions, and notice that the United States has actually had stagnation or declines in the percentage of its population that lives with living standards qualifying as wealthy or affluent, whereas most European countries since 2000 have had increasing shares of their population living at these highest levels.  The stagnation or decline in living standards for many Americans, including European-Americans, is a significant issue, and ought to be addressed with just as much, or more intensity than the social justice issues. In 2016, the candidate who did make it his issue won the electoral college votes to become President.  And, I think far more of the critical votes he got in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania represent voters who have suffered declining standards of living, and understood (correctly, I believe), that the Democratic policies would not change their situation.  When the Democrats portray those who voted for Trump as being racist chauvinist bigots (no doubt quite a few are), they are performing an act of silencing and shaming on voters who weren't particularly bigoted, and mainly voted for Trump because they detest the ruling elites and the rentier class on Wall Street and the free trade and neoliberalism that has harmed them so badly, and thought Trump might do more against those perceived (?) enemies than Clinton would.  Calling Trump's victory a victory for fascism or racism or xenophobia is only a half-truth, and the non-ideological Trump-voters who aren't supporters of fascism, racism, or sexism who hear this complaint are more likely to respond with hostility and deepening suspicion toward liberals than they are to feel shame or regret for voting for Trump (at least for now).  

Liberals and radicals can take heart from Clinton’s defeat if they consider the long-game.  Had Clinton won the presidency, she still would not have been able to oversee the passage of significant legislation.  The U.S. House is under firm Republican control, and will remain under Republican control for a long time yet.  Since most people consider the President responsible for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen), Clinton would have been blamed for the continuing inertia in the federal government, and she could have become a one-term president.  She certainly would have remained unpopular, as she faced incredible levels of vicious attacks from people who hated her.  Now Trump will have the White House, and he will have allies in control of the House and Senate, and he will be able to install conservative Supreme Court Justices.  This should frighten liberals and radicals because of what he might accomplish in the coming two or four years, but remember that the Democrats can filibuster in the Senate, and that whatever happens in the next two-to-four years will be blamed on Trump and the Republicans. If you really believe that his policies will be disastrous, then it should be easy for the Democratic Party to pick up seats in the 2018 mid-term elections and win the presidency in 2020.

If you are a liberal or radical or a Clinton supporter, how do you think Trump will do?  Will he have successes in the administration of the White House?  Will his cabinet appointments be persons of the highest caliber?  Will he present himself on the world stage as a great statesman who instills confidence in our allies?  Probably, you think he will do none of these things.  If you are right, and he is a disaster as an administrator, how will the American people react?  Also, what sort of legislation will the Republicans pass?  What policies will Congress give Trump to execute?  Will these be successes, making America prosperous?  Will we avoid having a recession in the next three or four years?  Again, if you believe Trump and the Republicans offer ruinous policies that will harm the working classes and middle classes, then you only have to wait for these terrible policies to unfold so that the Democrats might actually regain control in the White House and Congress in four years when the two thirds of the electorate who aren’t ideological conservatives react to the Republican policies.  

Trump supporters and Republicans now have their chance to put together the policies they think will work best.  If they can stop Democratic filibusters in the Senate, they can repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordability Act.   With what will they replace it?  Over sixteen million persons gained access to health insurance with that law, and how will they vote if they lose their insurance?  Trump will be able to appoint anyone he and the Republicans like to any judicial or cabinet post.  So, the Republicans have a chance to try out their vision.  Will they balance the budget?  Will they cut deficit spending?  Will they create new jobs?  If they are right, and their policies work, we will see the sort of improvements they have been promising.  The Republicans control most state governments, and now they control the Federal government.  By the time they have passed their policies and those polices have taken effect, around 2017-2019, we will see what fruits they bear.  If the Republicans have been right about the world all along, they will be so successful and popular that they will easily see Trump re-elected in 2020.  

Radicals and liberals, however, don’t anticipate this.  They think that the Republican policies will be destructive, and they expect the American people to suffer.  If they are right, the suffering American people, at least the third that are non-ideological, and the half that think the President is responsible for everything that happens, will react to the Republican hegemony by electing Democratic challengers in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and the Trump presidency will go down in history as a four-year lesson to the American people in why they should not trust such candidates.    

This is not a thing anyone needs to argue about.  We can just wait and see.  The American economy and society over the next four years will either vindicate Trump and his supporters and the vision of America held by the Republican Party, or it will not.  If it does, the conservatives will deservedly keep power and America will thrive in greatness. If it does not, the liberals and radicals can come back and win elections like the Republicans did in 1994 and 2010, and get their own chance to put their vision into effect.  The Democrats haven’t had this chance during Obama’s time in the White House because Obama’s policy ideas were blocked by conservative Democrats in Congress and the Republican Party.   The same was true in the 1990s during Clinton’s administration.  By giving the Republicans Trump as president, and nearly full control of the levers of power, the Democrats stand their best chance of letting the Republicans demonstrate what their policies would actually inflict upon the American people, and then perhaps getting their own chance to sweep into power in Congress and the White House four years from now.  If Clinton had won, it seems entirely implausible to me that the Democrats could ever have taken back Congress, and we would not have seen any opportunity for Democrats to control the White House and Congress together for eight to 16 years. By having Trump elected, Democrats may get that chance in merely four years, assuming they are right that Trump and his policies will bring wreckage and ruin to most Americans.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Some music I heard in Canada this summer

I spent a couple weeks (actually 16 days) in eastern Canada this summer.  While my son and I were driving around, we sometimes listened to local radio stations.  There is some good music up there, especially in Quebec.

I like French music, but I wasn't very familiar with Franco-Canadian popular music.  Well, here are some songs I heard and liked, all of the bands/singers are Canadian:

Valérie Carpentier - Le Rendez-vous

Ariane Moffatt - Montréal 
Ariane Moffatt - Debout 

Eli et Papillon - Les rêves
Eli et Papillon - Dans La Danse 

Salomé Leclerc - Tourne encore  

Laurence Nerbonne - Montréal XO 

Gazoline  -  Ces Gens Qui Dansent
  and another version (acoustic) is here  

2Frères - Nous Autres  

Les Trois Accords  - Les amoureux qui s'aiment 

Amélie Veille - Je prends tout de toi  

Beau Dommage - Le blues d'la métropole  

Wintersleep - Who Are You 
Wintersleep - Amerika and this version: (it’s the best video of all the links here).  Wintersleep is the one Anglophone band on this list.  They are from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

There was also some good French music from French artists on the radio in Quebec.  Here were a couple artists and songs I wasn't familiar with: 

Navii - J'écoute du Miles Davis  

Radio Elvis - Les Moissons  

Then there were some songs that weren't Canadian or French, but were new to me anyway:

Like this amazing mash-up of Bob Marley’s Exodus and Tinariwen’s Tamatant Tilay from Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project.   Herbie Hancock  & Tinariwen & others:   Tamatant Tilay / Exodus

Also, a song by Los Campesinos (a bad I’ve liked for years) that was pretty cool, You! Me! Dancing! 

In Canada I heard an American Indie band that sounded a bit like Jared Mees and The Grown Children to me: The Front Bottoms - Santa Monica 

When the Olympics started, we heard Brazilian standards such as:

Caetano Veloso - Um canto de afoxé para o Bloco do Ilê (so glad to hear this.  I think it had been over 15 years since I last heard it).  Here is another version, from a live show in 1982: 

Sergio Mendes - Magalenha  

Were American radio stations playing Brazilian music in honor of the Olympics host country?  I suppose perhaps some local public radio stations might have been doing that.

Anyway, that was a lot of music to discover just by listening to the radio as we drove around, and usually we weren't even playing the radio.  We listened to books on tape or my own music playlists or we just had the sound off and enjoyed the quiet.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A response to a gay Baha'i

Back before the Internet's widespread use, when people were using electronic bulletin boards and e-mail lists to discuss various things, I was often engaged in groups that discussed the Baha'i Faith.  Back then, a common topic was the fact that our religion, the Baha'i Faith, teaches that people ought not express love through homosexual behaviors.  The sources of that teaching, the actual teaching, how that teaching is interpreted, what was actually intended, how the teaching is implemented in Baha'i community life... all these things were regularly discussed.  And then, in the later 1990s more people became involved in internet discussions of these things.  It seemed to me the same things kept getting discussed, and the same ideas were repeated so often that I became very bored with the whole topic.  It's been over ten years since I've ever posted on this topic, but a recent blog post inspired me to write about it again.  I think I offer a few insights that are not often repeated in these discussions.

I've never actually cared much about this issue.  For a while, perhaps for several months when I was in my late teens or early 20s, I did think that homosexuality was probably unhealthy or wrong, but I never felt any emotional negativity about gay people. I've had very close friends, whom I loved very much, admit that they felt homosexual attraction to me, and I have felt some slight regret that I was never able to reciprocate those feelings in any way, and I have sometimes felt that my non-sexual or non-erotic love for other men has been devalued because, in general, American culture devalues non-sexualized love.  But, anyway, gay behaviors don't strike me as worth much attention, outside of the social context that makes them important (because of the persecution of gay people). I understand that because many people feel extremely prejudiced against gay people, and society inflicts harm on gay persons, therefore we have a need to protect the rights of gay people, and defend them, and so forth, and that appeals to me.  But, having never had strong emotions about it, I sometimes don't understand the fuss at an emotional level.  Some people enjoy playing chess, and some don't, but who cares?  If there was no persecution and discrimination against homosexuality, people's sexual orientation would be, for me, of about the same importance as people's orientation toward enjoying a game of chess.

I am, however, very thankful for the social critique that gay activists have brought to us, because in my opinion, heterosexual behaviors are generally quite problematic in this world; and I think gay theorists give us some very useful insights into the problems of sexism, homophobia, machismo, and so forth.

Anyway, I'll share my response to the blog post here on my own blog.  The original post to which I was responding was at this link, and may still be there.


Thanks for sharing a lovely essay with the world. Your heart seems pure and loving, and your faith seems strong.  I agree with your friend, the Baha'i Faith needs famous gay Baha'is who stick with the Faith.

A few points to consider:

Homosexuality and homosexual behaviors, and the experiences of homosexual behavior or identity, will be extremely diverse. In different times and places, with various cultures, such behaviors have been quite frequent or extremely rare. Evidently, the social context matters for how people express their sexuality.

There is always a biological (emerging from our biochemistry and evolution quite independently of the family and cultural environment we grow up in) element to everything in human behavior. Obviously.  What else could there be? Even supernatural or spiritual aspects will be manifested in actual body changes and chemistry, which will exist because of biological evolution.

Homosexual behavior and feelings, or sexual orientation, in general, speaking about populations of humans, seems to exist along a continuum, which is sometimes measured by the Kinsey scale.  If you are at an extreme end of the Kinsey scale, your orientation may be purely homosexual or heterosexual, but some sexuality researchers believe most people exist along the continuum, and it is our language (which divides us into pure categories) which pushes us into "homosexual" or "heterosexual" categories (although, if you are at extreme end of the scale, you would presumably be purely homosexual or heterosexual, and so, from that point of view, it might be appropriate to think of the issue in dichotomous--homosexual or not homosexual--terms).

All speech is, to some degree, political.  After all, Baha'u'llah pointed out that "utterance is an essence which aspires to exert an influence".  When we use language, we are attempting to influence others.  "Politics" (broadly defined) is the effort to influence others.  So, suggesting someone's work is "politically motivated" rarely tells us much that is useful.  What work isn't?

The Baha'i Faith and the "Cause of God" can be understood in many ways.  In one sense, the Baha'i Cause is the general cause of God for this age and for all ages: people ought to create societies that maximize human flourishing and happiness; people ought to be ethical and treat each other well; men and women ought to be equal; prejudices should be eliminated; peace should replace war; justice should dominate, while tyranny and injustice should be diminished; people should cultivate their spiritual natures and seek to worship and respect the Divine, etc. In such a general sense, many people who have never heard of the Baha'i Faith are already "Baha'is".  In another sense, Baha'is are members of the organized religion of the Baha'i Faith.  To what extent that organized religion is an imperfect but honest attempt by flawed human beings to create a system and organization that reflects the intentions of Will of the Creator of the Universe, and to what extent it is an actual incarnation of the Will of that Creator, is somewhat mysterious, and it may be impossible to distinguish those two aspects of religion (its existence as a creation of humans and their societies, and its existence as a supernatural embodiment of Providence).  In another sense, the "Baha'is" are persons who actually live up to the teachings and ideals promoted and revealed by Baha'u'llah, and in that ideal sense, everyone can strive to be a Baha'i, but no one should expect to actually be one, just as no one can realistically expect to be "perfect" in some absolute moral sense.

Baha'i individuals and Baha'i communities vary tremendously in regards to their strengths and weaknesses, their failures and successes. Gay Baha'is might be able to find complete acceptance and love in some Baha'i communities, and certainly in some loving friendships with Baha'i individuals, whereas in other communities the homosexual Baha'is might suffer cruel persecution and ostracism.

Religions must offer guidance to persons in many different cultures, in many different times. On one hand, they need to stand above historical trends, so they can condemn what is wrong, even in times when what is wrong becomes widely accepted.  On the other hand, they must also be flexible, embracing moral thinking and new insights about reality as civilization advances and humanity matures.

When it comes to moral laws and truth, we must consider what is absolutely true, and what is true in particular contexts.  As a thought experiment, imagine that homosexual identities and behaviors are objectively morally correct and favored by God in 0.5% of humanity, discouraged but tolerated in 1.5% of humanity, and spiritually harmful in 98% of humanity.  Suppose that human nature being what it is, if a religion is entirely supportive of homosexual behaviors and identities, 5% of the population would identify as homosexual, and 20% would sometimes engage in homosexual behaviors; whereas if a religion is mildly unaccepting and discouraging, only about 0.5% of its believers will take on the homosexual identity and perhaps fewer than 2% will ever engage in homosexual behaviors.  From a utilitarian point of view, if that was the objective situation, which position would be more spiritually healthy for the religion to take?  But, I'm not a strict utilitarian, and the psychological and social suffering of the small minority who would persist in following their core nature in their homosexuality while worrying about their rejection of the guidance offered by their religion concerns me.  And, by the way, I'm not at all certain the scenario I've suggested bears any resemblance to the actual situation. Perhaps homosexuality in the modern North American sense is objectively morally neutral, and what Shoghi Effendi was describing was the homosexual behaviors he knew from the Middle East and upper-class 1920s England, which may differ substantially (in terms of morality) from what 21st century North Americans do. Or, perhaps homosexuality really is a spiritual sickness or distortion of the spiritual nature of humans in all its forms and manifestations. I don't know, and I don't even have an opinion, it just doesn't matter to me, as there are so many other problems in the world that are very clearly wrong.

God doesn't seem overly concerned with our psychological suffering or physical suffering.  After all, this universe relies on natural selection, with all the death and misery that includes, and uses predation, competition for scarce resources, mutations, diseases, and death, as the process that forms atoms and molecules into bodies capable of manifesting the human spirit. Also, natural evil, like the disasters that kills thousands, millions, or possibly somewhere in the universe, billions of lives, seem fairly regular.  God seems mostly concerned with our spiritual well-being, and supposedly, when we understand that, the emotional, mental, and physical suffering we sometimes endure may seem more acceptable, since such suffering offers us opportunities for spiritual growth.

It is possible that the "homosexuality" condemned by Shoghi Effendi and forbidden to Baha'is is general homosexuality, even the sort of modern North American homosexual behaviors and identities.  It's also plausible that it is not, and the situation we have now in modern homosexuality is not the sort of thing that was condemned, and therefore we should allow it without any concerns.  It's possible that Shoghi Effendi's interpretation was right for his time, but the Faith should be able to evolve and change its legislation to reflect a new consensus, but it's also possible that Shoghi Effendi's interpretation is still the best one, even now, and the faith should not ever change its rules about homosexuality.  It's possible that the law exists to protect many people from doing spiritual harm to themselves, even though it imposes great hardships on a few persons for whom homosexuality is spiritually harmless or beneficial, but it's also possible the law is beneficial for everyone, and it's also possible that the law is just God giving us more hardship in this mortal world to build up our spiritual abilities, and it doesn't really protect anyone from spiritual harm because homosexuality isn't necessarily spiritually harmful.  It's possible God doesn't care at all about homosexuality, and this rule about homosexuality is just an artifact of culture and history that has been inflicted on the religion through the religion's human failings, but it's also possible God really does not want humans to express their homosexual tendencies. All of these are possibilities, and Baha'is (and other people who believe that religious truth comes from Revelation and authoritative Sources such as Manifestations of God) must each consider these approaches and use both their independent search for truth and rational faculties along with their respect for authority and attraction to ideals of purity to figure out what they believe.

The Baha'i Faith as a social institution is either "stuck" or "blessed" with specific interpretation from the last Guardian that will put it "behind" the progressive morality that accepts and celebrates various sexual orientations and new conceptions of marriage.  For Baha'is or potential Baha'is (in the sense of being official members of the organized religion) who are gay, this is going to be a big challenge. For people who think that religions ought to be perfect and also think that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, this will also be a problem.  For people who think homosexual behaviors and identities are wrong or misguided, it won't be a problem.  For people who expect even good religions to have imperfections, who also think that modern homosexuality in North America is no more problematic than modern heterosexuality in our culture, it's still a problem, but maybe not enough of a problem to keep them out of the Baha'i Faith.  It's up to individuals to decide for themselves what this aspect of the Baha'i Faith means to them in terms of whether they want to join the organized religion or just be a Baha'i in the broader sense of desiring the core Baha'i goals of unity and peace and so forth.

I hope some of these ideas or observations are useful in our mutual search for truth and "whatever is pleasing to God".  Please remember that I write with no more authority than anyone else on this subject.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tolkien: Archetype and Word

I have just enjoyed reading a fine essay published in October of 2013 examining the Lord of the Rings in terms of Jungian archetypes.  The review essay is by Patrick Grant (of the University of Victoria in British Columbia), and it is entitled: "Tolkien: Archetype and Word" (published on the Jung Page).  It's quite long, but if you are seriously into Tolkien and have some interest in Carl Jung, I think you'll enjoy every paragraph of it.

Why do so many people still admire Osho?

Osho is quite popular here in Taiwan.  Some of my friends share quotations from him, and some of his ideas seem quite inspiring to people here.

I know Osho as Rajneesh, and my main knowledge of him came from reading magazine and newspaper articles back in the 1980s when he and his followers created an intentional community in Oregon (Antelope, Oregon). I’ve had a life-long interest in alternative lifestyles, intentional communities, communes, and spiritual teachers, both those within the mainstream religious traditions and those outside those traditions. But, I haven’t really read or studied Rajneesh, and haven’t been interested in him.  

When evaluating the teachings of someone, or judging whether their insights and wisdom are actually wise or accurate, it’s important to do independent investigation.  The essence of justice is using our own eyes and ears, instead of just relying on what we hear second-hand, and I realize most of what I know about Osho (Rajneesh) is second-hand.  I’ve read some of his materials, and watched some old videos with him, and I have some observations.

There are plenty of hostile writings about Osho available on the internet.  Some people seem to think he belongs in a category with other mind-control cult leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Shoko Asahara. Others seem to think he was a great New Age spiritual leader like Emanuel Swedenborg, Paramahansa Yogananda, or Rudolf Steiner. I’d put him more in a category with people who offered a mix of wisdom and silliness, who meant well, but didn’t always live up to their potential, and associate Osho with people such as G. I. Gurdjieff, Helena Blavatsky, Jidda Krishnamurti, or Edgar Cayce (although to be fair to Cayce, he was never a teacher or leader of anything when in a waking state, but the things he revealed when in a trance offer a similar mix of profound and inspirational wisdom combined with baffling pronouncements that are obviously ridiculous). 

By the way, my personal favorite guru was ‘Abdu’l-Baha, although I am fond of some of the works of Abū al-Faḍl Gulpāyigānī, Thomas Merton, Loren Eiseley, Rene Dubos, Buckminster Fuller, Philip K. Dick, Edgar Cayce, P. D. Ouspensky, Charles Fort, Edmund Gurney, William James, Frederick W. H. Myers, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frank Podmore, Carl Jung, and sometimes for intellectual entertainment I like engaging with the ideas of persons such as Graham Hancock, Rupert Sheldrake, Stuart Hameroff, John Polkinghorne, Werner Heisenberg, Stanislav Grof, Bertrand Russell, and William R. Corliss.  Recent and contemporary gurus who I think are better than Osho would include: David Deida, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shih Cheng Yen, Jack Kornfield, Thomas Moore, the 14th Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis. However, I strongly recommend anyone who admires gurus and spiritual leaders to give a few hours to “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power” by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, which should provide an engaging intellectual and spiritual challenge.

There are many things I don’t like about Osho.  I’ll describe a few. 

His community and followers seem very much centered on him, his person.  I prefer communities centered on ideas or ideals, teachings and principles. When I see a community with too much emphasis on a leader or guru, this repels me. This probably comes from my Protestant and Baha’i spiritual background, as I was brought up in a liberal United Methodist tradition that emphasized a direct relationship between the individual and the Divine, and I have been a practicing Baha’i for over thirty years, and the Baha’i Faith forbids clergy, teaching that in this age people are enlightened and wise enough to read for themselves and think for themselves. I also know enough about psychology to be cautious about the unhealthy dynamic between gurus and their followers. I’m too egalitarian for that.   

Osho seemed to have too many psychological problems.  Some people suggest he had narcissistic personality disorder, but I don’t know if that is accurate. He also supposedly had issues with addictions to medications. Again, these allegations may not be true.  There are worse allegations about his problems, but I don't know if those are true, either. But, all in all, I sense that he was more psychologically troubled and damaged than most people I know, and when I admire the writings and ideas of someone, I like also knowing that the person whose ideas I’m admiring was also a throughly psychologically healthy and well-adjusted person.

He allowed people with horrible agendas to do horrible things on his behalf.  When he lived in Oregon, the person he put in control of his affairs attempted to murder people and attempted to poison the food supply of a town in Oregon.  Osho claimed he knew nothing about what was done, and I think there was no evidence that he was guilty of anything, but still, it shows his poor judgement that he promoted a person so deeply flawed into a position of trust under him, and allowed that person to amass such power while he was still alive.

Some of his teachings about sex were, I think, not especially healthy or helpful to his followers. I think the women who experimented with working in pornography or prostitution to get over sexual hangups, based on advice from Rajneesh, were probably not helped much by following his advice.  This is just my intuitive sense of things, as I don’t think anyone researched this. 

I don’t like how he collected luxury cars and insisted that material things were no barrier to spirituality. It may be true that for some enlightened persons, the material things and luxuries could be meaningless, and perhaps Rajneesh was trying to show that he didn’t care about material things by having so much luxury around himself. But, I think for most people wealth and material luxury is a barrier to spirituality, and I think science will probably confirm this, and therefore, I think Rajneesh was wrong.  

His spirituality seems to me very much centered on personal growth and personal spirituality, but I think better spirituality combines in approximately equal measure the teachings for personal spiritual cultivation with commitment to others through the charitable love, empathy, and compassion that lead to solidarity, self-sacrifice, activism, volunteering, and philanthropy. There is nothing wrong with helping individuals autonomously reach personal wisdom and spiritual insight, but if that aspect is emphasized and the commitment to community is neglected, I am dissatisfied.

In his rhetoric, he was given to hyperbole. I object to some things he said, but I don't know if those things I object to were intended as literal truth or as exaggerated positions he used to shock and alert his audience.  For example, he said that he rejected all religion, or all human history. He wanted new people to arise, new people who were free from the mental shackles of the past and of traditions. I don't think he could have been serious in some literal sense when he said that. Human nature has potential for good and evil, and rejecting all religion or all past conventions of humanity is to reject all the good that is already present in human nature and achievement, simply because it is associated with all the bad we have also committed or suffered. Radical rejections of everything seems to indicate to me a discomfort with the facts of human nature, and a rejection of reality.

For an example of the type of foolishness or folly I find mixed in with his wisdom, I will take two claims from “Understanding the Nature and Nurture of Love” from “Being in Love: How to Love with Awareness”.  First, Osho wrote: “Love cannot be learned, it cannot be cultivated. The cultivated love will not be love at all. It will not be a real rose, it will be a plastic flower.”  This sets up a false dichotomy between “learning and cultivating” something and having something occur naturally and spontaneously. It is natural for people to learn things, to cultivate things, and to practice behaviors or thoughts until they improve. There is nothing artificial about people improving themselves or improving their feelings and behaviors. Intuition and spontaneity may sometimes be preferable as a means for achieving something, but even so, achieving the same thing through effort and struggle doesn't mean the end result is false or diminished. If I find a gold nugget lying in a stream, I’m luckier than the miner who had to blast and dig through hard rock to find a similar quantity of gold, but in the end, the gold is the same. 

Osho also wrote: “When you learn something, it means something comes from the outside; it is not an inner growth.”  I think here Osho is forgetting that we exist partly as individuals inside bodies, but also as relationships and interactions in environments. My “self” includes, to some degree, the people with whom I interact. I express myself and exist partly by what I say and do with others. Learning is simply taking knowledge and behavior from the environment and internalizing it and incorporating it into our own individuality. Inner growth usually comes from our interactions and responses to external stimulation. Learning (from outside) is to great extent the process by which we experience inner existence and inner growth. 

On the other hand, Osho was quite correct to say that love could be our natural, spontaneous being. I think we have within us the spark of the divine, or the clear mirror capable of brightly reflecting the splendor of the holy. As “love” (compassion, altruism, affection, devotion, intimacy, mutual aid, altruism, kindness, attraction, benevolence, joy, and caring) seems to be a very fundamental aspect of human nature (and a tendency in the universe, and a force I associate with God), I think Osho is correct to suggest it is natural for us to love, and much of our inability to love correctly arises from bad information and unpleasant experiences we’ve learned from our environments. So, while I think love can be learned and cultivated, and learning and cultivating something good (such as love) is often admirable or necessary, the other insight (that acquired knowledge or experience may be blocking a natural love) is probably quite useful and accurate in some cases.
Osho is too proud.  He compares himself to Messengers of God such as Jesus or the Buddha. Osho is not a Messenger of God, and it’s a marker of his folly that he would compare himself to those Messengers. But, on the other hand, Truth is Truth, whether it comes from the mouth of a Messenger of God, or a modern guru, or a friend having a nice conversation with you, so in that sense, as we are all sometimes vehicles for expressing Truth, Osho can compare himself to Jesus or Buddha, but so can anyone else. 

I can see why people are attracted to Osho’s teachings. I admire some of what he says.

Osho had an admirable ability to use humor and ridicule in his teachings. 

In the communities of Osho followers, people tried to make spirituality fun.

Osho was strongly against nationalism.

Many of Osho’s teachings are quite reasonable and wise. Looking through some of his books, I can see that he does have some deep insights, some clever ways of putting the problems of life into a healthy perspective. Although I find within his books of wisdom some utter foolishness and ignorance, there is nothing unusual about that. Most of us are capable of some deep wisdom and some folly and foolishness. Osho is like all of us. 

Osho has a playful way of presenting his ideas.  His lack of seriousness is refreshing.

I like how Osho knows enough about religion and philosophy to bring together ideas from many sources. I’m a scholar, so I’m concerned that he doesn’t usually refer to his sources or inspirations, and I as I read his ideas and find ideas I’ve encountered before, I do note that he frequently is not giving credit to earlier thinkers who have said essentially what he is repeating.  However, he is a teacher giving sermons and lessons to followers, and not an academic presenting theories at a conference or in an academic speech, so I guess his approach is appropriate for what he is doing. I do find that many of the things he brings in from philosophy or religion are the same sorts of ideas that I found attractive, so in most of what I’ve read, I find Osho’s ideas generally to be a pleasant mix of the sort of ideas I find attractive.

A guru or autocratic leader may have some brilliant ideas worthy of admiration, and some bad ideas as well. Even the worst doctrines had at least some reasonable and good teachings, otherwise they would never be able to hold on to followers and supporters.  The Nazis supposedly had good animal welfare policies and taught reasonable things about nutrition and public health. Transcending selfishness and egoism is a worthy spiritual goal, but taken to excess and used by gurus or political leaders, this noble tendency can be distorted. The North Korean regime survives by forcing North Koreans to leave behind egoism and devote themselves to the adoration of the Kim family, and the Nazi Party in Germany attracted people by visions of self-sacrifice for the “greater good” and surrendering of personal interest to the complete devotion to Hitler. The group called “Daesh” or “ISIL” asks sincere Muslims to give loyalty to God (as understood by the Daesh theologians), which would be all fine and good, except that their understanding of God is horribly wrong. Jim Jones of the People’s Temple taught many progressive spiritual critiques of modern racism and capitalist excesses, but he was always a bit crazy, and finally forced or convinced hundreds of his followers to commit suicide with him (much as Hitler convinced so many Germans to engage in hopeless wars that led to the destruction of Germany).  Osho seems to have been far less dangerous or toxic than these mind-control cultists like the Nazi leadership or the People’s Temple or the current regime in North Korea. On the contrary, in many respects he seems benign or harmless, and perhaps even quite helpful or useful to persons exploring spirituality and critiques of mainstream mindlessness in conventional society or religion.  

However, I do wish people would explore a wide variety of gurus and spiritual teachings, mix in a bit of serious scientific or philosophical work with their new age spirituality reading, and keep an open mind about some of the wisdom to be found in conventional and mainstream religious traditions and organized religions. The Western and Eastern traditions have precious insights to offer everyone, but they also have imperfections.  People ought to keep this in mind, and even if you give yourself over to certitude and faith and devotion, it’s wise to preserve some detachment from one’s own passionate belief and faith.  Love can be a sort of attachment that leads us astray just as much as hatred, and the constructs we hold in our mind, whether they seem fair or foul, might be wrong. As long as people retain this bit of doubt and maintain a seeking or critical attitude, at least in respect to their personal understanding of what it is they believe, I think people can enthusiastically embrace faith and devotion to religions and spiritual leaders.  But people must maintain their common sense ethical compass, and look out for religions and spiritual leaders transforming the religious experience into mind-control cults. When our gurus or religious leaders become promoters of violence and hatred, or turn their followers into zealous loyalty-based groups defining the world in terms of “us versus them” where only the in-group of true believers are treated with the decency and respect that everyone deserves, then it's time to leave. Osho didn’t teach violence or hatred. He didn’t get extreme in the “in-group versus out-group” loyalty game with his followers.  Although in certain times and places some of his followers seem to have attempted to set up a mind-control cult in his name, it doesn’t seem Osho was directly doing that.   

But it is remarkable that, despite the serious flaws in his life, teachings, and his community of followers, his lectures and teachings have been gaining popularity, and many people today find them quite inspirational.