June 2004

Humanism in Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry, creator of the sensational television series Star Trek, wanted the characters to portray the ultimate of human potentials according to Susan Sackett in her May 13th presentation to the Humanists of Utah. She was the personal executive assistant to the Star Trek creator for the 17 years prior to his death in 1991. She said Mr. Roddenberry resisted pressures from religious leaders to include theistic messages and references to deities in Star Trek scripts. He wanted to personify human abilities by portraying the power of the human mind to resolve conflicts and solve challenging problems. With the use of computer generated clips from various Star Trek episodes she demonstrated how Roddenberry used the series to exemplify the human ability to resist evil and eventually subdue oppressive powers.

In addition to serving as Roddenberry’s personal executive assistant, Sackett was his production assistant on the first Star Trek film and Production Associate during the first five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Gene Roddenberry became a member of the American Humanist Association in 1986 and was the recipient of the Humanist Arts Award at the AHA’s annual conference in Chicago in 1991. In receiving the award, Roddenberry was praised as “one of the most influential humanists of the Twentieth Century.” He told the AHA that Star Trek was his political philosophy, his social philosophy, his racial philosophy, and his overview on life and the human condition.

Susan Sackett is president of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix and is hosting the HUMANICON Southwest Conference this summer, August 13-15, 2004.

–Flo Wineriter

Are Our Democratic Ideal Being Eroded?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Fred Edwords’ answer to the question in the title of this article is yes. In a piece in The Humanist, March/April 2004, he shows how our basic democratic ideals were set forth eloquently by Pericles in a funeral oration in Athens in 431 BCE during the Peloponnesian War.

There were three democratic concepts–equal justice under the law, political inclusiveness, and public service as a civic duty. And he espouses respect for the rule of law, a concern for victims, and a community conscience. He further asserts that quality of life is important enough that it should be fostered by government, commercial trade and society. He offered a bold affirmation of the open society with a focus on freedom of access for foreigners and an absence of government (especially military) secrecy and disinformation. He expressed the ancient Greek commitment to reason, unfettered freedom of inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge.

Athens, of course, failed in many ways to live up to such noble sentiments. Nevertheless even the level of democracy attained was highly unusual for the time. And such a clear statement of the ideals and aspirations wasn’t only unique but powerful enough in its influence to transcend centuries and continents to become the basis for the proliferation of democratic ideals in our time.

What does a comparison between the Greek democratic ideal and the current American reality show? First, what are the opportunities for citizens of ordinary means to fulfill the civic duty of public service? The merging of money and politics in America has made it next to impossible for all but a few to run for significant public office. Furthermore, the mainstream media’s focus on celebrity journalism, and away from issues affecting the community, has generated widespread political apathy. Although there has been progress in the area of social tolerance for individual freedom of expression, it continues to be resisted by the forces of tradition and faith, both inside government and out. Respect for the rule of law has been undermined by the criminalization of a number of harmless or minor activities. Draconian “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing laws has placed millions of Americans in prison. As for the quality of life, it has been reduced to a trivial pursuit of consumption.

The federal government has turned its back on the ideal of the open society and embraced secrecy. Let’s just compare the application of the democratic ideal to the present administration in the White House, comparing its realities to just three Periclean principles: the open society, individual freedom and the triad of reason, inquiry, and knowledge. Immediately after George W. Bush assumed the presidency, federal agencies were directed to freeze more than 300 of President Bill Clinton’s pending regulations until they could be reviewed. This is a common practice of new presidents, but unlike with other presidents, this review process, according to U.S. News and World Report, December 22, 2003, “expressly precluded input from average citizens.” Three months later the White House notified federal officials that they could no longer make information publicly available about federal government spending on information technology. Fees for government documents skyrocketed “to preserve the confidentiality of the deliberations that led to the president’s budget decisions.” U.S. News reports that in May 2002 Dick Cheney’s energy task force called for an increase in gas and oil drilling, including on public land. Activist organizations sought access to the task force’s records, expressing a suspicion that lobbyists from energy companies had unduly influenced the process. The organizations filed suit and won an order from a federal judge that the government produce the records. But, arguing the separation of powers, the Bush administration has appealed the case to the Supreme Court. After 9/11, government curtailment of the free flow of information increased dramatically until today it is difficult to secure details on many federal programs, the specifics of certain federal civil and criminal court cases being pursued by the justice department, and much of the business and consumer information that private entities must report. Large numbers of documents previously available under the Freedom of Information Act have been declared secret or returned to a former classified status, and the administration is even seeking a narrowing of the act itself. The overall impact has been particularly strong on environmental groups. They have found it more and more difficult to learn about not only environmental effects of government activities but also those being carried out by businesses which must report to governmental agencies. The party line is that information on the nation’s infrastructure would be valuable to terrorists and therefore must be hidden.

The free flow of information is also being affected by the administration’s religious and social doctrines. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) was pressured to remove the findings of a study from its website that contradicts the fundamentalist myth that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. The NIH and Centers for Disease Control have also removed fact sheets on condoms and a sex education curriculum from their websites, replacing them with information on condom failure rates.

Related to the concept of an open society, civil liberties have fallen on hard times, sacrificed to the fear manufactured by the promoters of the war on terror. The Patriot Act dramatically increases the power of the state; and, worse, the public doesn’t know the extent of civil liberties violations occurring under the act. It has secrecy and gag orders written into it, making it difficult to learn just how it is being used and against whom. Furthermore, the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2004 was quietly signed into law when the world was watching a newly captured Saddam Hussein being checked for lice. This expansion of the Patriot Act gave the FBI the power to check the financial records of any citizen, even if that citizen isn’t suspected of involvement in terror or other crimes. The FBI doesn’t need to go before a judge or show “probable cause.” By using a number of stealth tactics to get the Act passed, the principles of a closed society were used to jeopardize the privacy rights of citizens–to remove protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. There is not enough room here to chronicle a number of other ways in which the police powers of the state have been augmented.

Why so vigorous a rejection of democratic ideals? A desire by a privileged or opportunistic few to consolidate money and power in their hands? Or a desire to make the world better?

Can the driving force be also a misguided ideology? This is the thesis that runs through Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill. This book recounts the struggle to apply the ideals of reason, inquiry and knowledge to the Bush-Cheney administration–but generally met a brick wall of foregone conclusions drawn from political ideology.

A problem was the way loyalty was defined in the inquiry process in the administration. O’Neill followed a core principle of inquiry: learning all the facts you can and then “telling someone what you really think and feel–your best estimation of the truth instead of what they want to hear.” The White House relied on “loyalty to a person and what they say and do.” Reasoned analysis was often taken as disloyalty.

And then there was Bush’s lack of engagement in the inquiry process. Christine Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said she had never heard Bush “analyze a complex issue, parse opposing positions, and settle on a judicious path. In fact no one–inside or outside the government, here or across the globe–had heard him do that to any significant degree.” Bush also didn’t read newspaper reports or newspapers. As a result, cabinet meetings and other important gatherings of advisers became carefully scripted events in which Bush rarely asked questions. When she began outlining in a meeting the compelling scientific evidence on climate change behind the Kyoto Protocol, Bush said, “Christie, I’ve already made my decision.” Then he read to her portions of a previously written official letter declaring the administration’s sudden opposition to Kyoto and a reversal of his own campaign promise to regulate the carbon dioxide emissions of U.S. power plants.

Whitman and O’Neill saw the pivotal, behind-the scenes role played by Cheney. His central precept was that first priority be given to energy production, which necessitated protecting coal and lifting energy regulations regarded as burdensome. There was a tight circle of neoconservative advisers around the president promoting an agenda involving a foreign policy of pax Americana, a domestic policy of deregulation, and a social policy of conservative religion.

Official consideration of a war on Iraq began in a meeting of the National Security Council on January 30, 2001, only ten days after Bush assumed the presidency. Bush at that meeting gave all the major players specific assignments for gathering more information or drawing plans. All of this together with the eventual invasion of Iraq demonstrates the power of doctrine to shut out a free exchange of ideas. O’Neill experienced this phenomenon when it came to the budget. As secretary of the treasury he inherited from Clinton a possible surplus of 5.6 trillion dollars over the next ten years. He had hoped to use some of this money to rescue social security. But he watched that surplus disappear in two years.

The costs of abandoning the Periclean ideal are indeed dear. And those affected aren’t only the citizens of a society incrementally letting go of its democratic principles but sometimes the leaders as well, who can suffer failures that usher in their own loss of power. Also, history shows that less-than-democratic societies are more inclined to make war on others. They spread the suffering to other societies. Washington Post Correspondent Pamela Constable writes that what legal protections were enjoyed by Iraqi women over the last four decades–such as prohibitions of marriage below age 18, arbitrary divorce, and male favoritism in child custody and property inheritance disputes–have dissipated as the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council voted to wipe them out.

“Democratic values,” concludes Edwords, “…are a global, not just a national issue. This is why it is imperative in this dawning millennium that we reassert the democratic ideal. Born in the ancient world, revitalized in the Renaissance, nurtured by the Enlightenment, and matured in today’s international age, democracy remains the best hope for humanity.”

Secrets and Lies: Operation Iraqi Freedom and After

~Book Review~

Secrets and Lies: Operation Iraqi Freedom and After by Dilip Hiro argues that the war on Iraq was planned by the neoconservatives prior to the election of George W. Bush. The book starts with this premise, and goes into great detail on how the aggression was planned. Weapons of Mass Destruction were completely destroyed prior to 9/11, according to numerous footnotes that follow each chapter.

Dilip Hiro clearly defines the cost of this war to the American people, not only in lives, but also in dollars. It is a shocking expose of the deception of the Bush administration’s war with Iraq. Amazon.com readers gave the book a four star rating

–Cindy King

Time Traveling

~Book Review~

How serious have been the religious wars against science? Humanist George A. Erickson devoted more that two years researching this question and condenses 3000 years of brutal history into a disgusting and interesting 160 pages. Time Traveling With Science And Saints written by George A. Erickson, and published by Prometheus Books, details the historical battles against Galileo, Servetus, Bruno, Copernicus, Kepler, Darwin and hundreds of other scientists.

The battle for the human mind should now be over but Erickson points out it continues today with conservative theists pressuring to keep ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, awarding diplomatic recognition to the Vatican, restricting abortion and family planning, declaring the U.S. a Christian nation. Time Traveling is fascinating reading and a vital reminder that “religion has done a lot to uncivilize humanity.”

–Flo Wineriter

Life’s Purpose

Everyone of us is engaged in a life long effort to make living both meaningful and significant. Meaningful by fulfilling our own potential. Significant by improving the world.

Lyle Simpson, president of the Humanist Foundation, put it this way in a paper he wrote last year for “Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism” published by the Humanist of Houston:

After considering the question of “what is my purpose?” for years, I find that for me only two aspects of life ultimately have relevance. First, “our life is meaningful to ourselves to the extent we share in happiness.” By achieving actualization of our own life, in the manner articulated by Dr. Maslow, we reach the pinnacle of our own existence. However, that alone would cause one to become selfish, and to miss the greater values in life that come from sharing one’s own existence with others. Therefore, the second relevant element is equally necessary.

Simply stated, “our own life becomes ‘significant’ to the extent the world becomes a better place because we have been here.” The healthy person keeps both in balance. Thus, as humanists, we not only have a duty to actualize our own existence, but we also must assist others to achieve the same result.

–Flo Wineriter

Humanist Declaration on Sin

The following is a statement authored by Fred Edwords, Editorial Director of the American Humanist Association that was adopted by the membership present at the ATA Conference held in May 2004.

We, the members of the American Humanist Association assembled at the organization’s 63rd annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, wish to declare to a candid public that there is no sin. We say this because sin is a theological concept, not a moral one. And as Humanists we have no theology.

Therefore, while recognizing the existence of ethical wrongs, unwise personal behaviors, and socially harmful practices–all of which should be discouraged–we see nothing as legitimately warranting the epithet, “sinful.” Nor do we judge a whole person as a “sinner” for wrong acts.