Monday, May 24, 2010

United States Should Ratify Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

The invention of nuclear weapons should have severely shaken Thomas Jefferson's optimistic view of the unlimited potential of humanity. The fact it was the United States which first created and deployed them would have perhaps caused him to despair. Jefferson was a scientific man, but he would have been dismayed to see the fruits of scientific knowledge bent towards the creation of weapons so powerful that they could easily destroy all of humanity. Had he lived to see the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is likely Jefferson would have agreed with what the philosopher Albert Camus said a few days after the attacks:

Mechanized civilization has just reached the ultimate state of barbarism. In a near future, we will have to choose between mass suicide and intelligent use of scientific conquest. This can no longer be simply a prayer; it must become an order which goes upward from the peoples to the governments, an order to make a definitive choice between hell and reason.

If he lived in the 21st Century, Jefferson would have seen the American nuclear arsenal of more than 5,000 nuclear weapons as ridiculous and obscene, especially when less than one-tenth of that would be more than sufficient to deter any enemy. He would be a fierce proponent of strong nuclear controls, the long-term objective being the abolition of nuclear weapons altogether.

An important step in the cause of establishing proper nuclear controls would be for the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was adopted by the United Nations back in 1996. The United States signed the treaty, but has never ratified it. As a result, it still lacks the force of international law.

The CTBT is very simple: all those nations who are party to the treaty are forbidden to carry out any nuclear explosions of any kind at any time. Needless to say, the entry of this traty into force would would greatly simplify efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new states. It would also be a powerful symbolic statement by the nations of the world that humanity might one day achieve the dream of abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.

Advances in computer modeling mean that the United States does not require physical nuclear detonations to ensure the continued viability of its existing nuclear arsenal. The fact that our country has yet to ratify the treaty has been used by other non-ratifying states, including India, as a justification for their continued rejection of the treaty. The country has not tested a nuclear weapon for nearly two decades, which makes our continued refusal to ratify the treaty all the more inexplicable.

President Obama has been outspoken in his calls for greater nuclear controls and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. But he has yet to make a serious push in the Senate for the ratification of the treaty. This should be done without delay, especially as the chances for ratification may take a sharp turn for the worse after this year's mid-term elections.

21st Century Jeffersonians should ask: what is President Obama waiting for?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Turn Off the Television

April 19-25 was TV Turnoff Week, during which all citizens are encouraged to keep their "idiot boxes" turned off. Originally organized by the anti-consumerist group Adbusters and now run by the nonprofit group Center for Screentime Awareness, the event has been held regularly since 1994.

Television could have proven to be the most Jeffersonian invention since the printing press. Had the powers-that-be in the network world upheld civic virtue rather than succumb to a mere profit motive, the programming on television could have been focused on quality drama and comedy, well-made intellectual documentaries, and news programs that fully explore complex issues. They could, in short, have made television into a great source of enlightenment, education, and uplifiting of the spirit.

Instead, we have the infamous "vast wasteland." Television was so described by Newton Minow, then chairman of the FCC, in a famous speech in 1961. Back then, there were only three networks in the country, and if the quality of the programming was not particularly good, at least there wasn't that much of it. Today, by contrast, we have a much vaster wasteland to deal with, literally hundreds of channels all peddling the same lowest-common-denominator drivel that is dissolving our national spirit like a steady dripping of acid.

What do we see when we look at the vast wasteland today? We see reality shows that follow the moronic antics of immoral people trying to achieve some useless or degraded objective. We see formulatic comedies, the vast majority of which focus almost exclusively on crude and sexual humor that no decent person would find amusing. We see game shows the message of which seems to be that Americans should be as stupid as possible. After fifteen minutes of watching standard American television, one feels the need to take a shower.

There remain a few programs of worthwile and intelligent content. Public television, funding directly by citizens and therefore not dependent on corporate advertising for its revenue, regularly features excellent documentaries and the last remaining news programs of any value in America. A few of the cable networks produce some excellent drama and comedy programs as well. But these diamonds in the dunghill are few and far between, and their numbers seem to dwindle with every passing year. Besides, reading a good book or taking a hike on a nature trail is preferable to even the highest quality television program.

Depending on which study you read, the average American spends between three and four hours a day watching television. That's more than 1,200 hours a year. Do they really see anything they needed to see, learn anything worth learning, or see anything remotely meaningful or even relevant to their lives? If they could wave a magic wand and get all those hours back, would it be make sense for them to spend that time in front of the television again?

The average American sees something like 30,000 commercials every year. Television is by far the most important medium for corporate propaganda to weasel its way into the minds of American citizens and American children. The latest psychological research is employed to persuade Americans to buy what they do not need using money they do not have. It spreads the insidious message that consumerism is the end-all-be-all of life, and that virtue and decency are quant relics of a bygone age.

The time we spend watching television breaks down the Jeffersonian pillars of our society. Every hour spent in front of the "idiot box" is one less hour for reading a book or newspaper, for gardening, for enjoying dinner parties with friends, for attending school board meetings, or for voluntering with local community groups. In effect, television simply plugs itself into our souls and gradually sucks out our Jeffersonian energies.

Turn it off. And, if you're wise, keep it off.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Separation of Church and State Must Be Protected

Thomas Jefferson would have seen the Religious Right as perhaps the greatest threat to the continued freedom of the American people. Some pundits have asserted that the political power of the Religious Right has been on the decline in recent years, but 21st Century Jeffersonians shouldn't be fooled. They are not disappearing from the political scene anytime soon.

Well-organized and well-funded, activists of the Religious Right have been doggedly pursuing their vision of a Christian America for the past several years. It is a vision that most of the Founding Fathers, and Thomas Jefferson in particular, would have found horrifying and abhorrent. For they envisioned a completely secular government that had no power over the religious lives of its citizens. In the words of Jefferson himself:

[O]ur rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. But the rights of conscience we have never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
What the Religious Right wants is for the government to have the power to dictate to American citizens on matters of religious belief. They constantly attempt to use the power of the courthouse, the state legislatures, and Congress itself to advance their agenda. They seek to impose their views on sexual morality onto the rest of society, to block the teaching of perfectly sound scientific theories because they feel they violate their particular interpretation of Scripture, to subject judicial nominees to de facto religious tests (in violation of the principle of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution), and to divert taxpayer money to religious organizations.

In addition, the Religious Right seems to be generally in favor of high federal defense spending and a militaristic foreign policy, which is quite a contrast to the admonitions of Jesus to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. Oddly enough, these people claim to oppose "Big Government", but they seem more than happy to support a big government if it were to follow their orders and they clearly want a government big enough to interfere with the personal lives of its citizens.

Thomas Jefferson stood opposed. And so must 21st Century Jeffersonians.

Jefferson, more than any other figure in American history, is responsible for the establishment of the separation of church and state in our country. Indeed, he coined the phrase himself in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he says:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
Jefferson was referring, of course, to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which clearly states that the government has no authority to act either on behalf of or in opposition to any religious opinion.

Jefferson had been working on behalf of religious freedom and the separation of church and state for some time before he wrote that letter. In 1779, he had authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which separated church and state in Virginia. Jefferson thought his authorship of this bill so important that he included it as one of only three achievements he desired to be listed on his gravestone.

Separation of church and state is especially critical in the United States because we are one of the most religiously diverse nation in the world. If any one religious opinion in our country were allowed to gain traction as an officially favored faith, it would trigger the same kind of religious violence that has torn many countries apart throughout history (and which, in recent months, has been seen in Malaysia and Nigeria).

Jefferson knew from history that mixing religion and government was always an insidious proposition. 21st Century Jeffersonians must always maintain eternal vigilance on this subject, and keep a wary eye on the Religious Right.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Grow a Vegetable Garden

21st Century Jeffersonians strive to be as self-sufficient as possible, because it is only through self-sufficiency that we can be truly free. If we are dependent upon Big Government or Big Business for all of our basic needs, then we are not free citizens under any rational definition. Jefferson would look at the lack of self-sufficiency on the part of the average citizen as the one of the most profound challenges our society currently faces.

In Jefferson's time, more than nine out of ten Americans were self-sufficient farmers who relied only on themselves for their food. We live in a very different world today. Only 2% of Americans are farmers, and most of them work for giant multinational agribusiness corporations. The proportion of Americans who today produce even a small amount of their own food is probably a fraction of one percent.

Realistically, it is not possible or even desirable to go back to the state of things in Jefferson's time, with the vast majority of citizens growing all of their own food. But the number of backyard vegetable gardens has been increasing over the last few years, and people are beginning to realize that they can, in fact, produce a significant amount of the food they need. Theyneed not be utterly dependent on the corporate chain grocery store for every bite of their food.

During World War II, citizens were encouraged to plant "victory gardens" to supplement their food supply in the face of wartime rationing. These were small gardens planted in backyards or vacant lots, by individual families or small groups of citizens working together. Amazingly, upwards of 40% of the vegetables consumed in America during the war came from these gardens.

In the face of encroaching Big Government and ever-present Big Business, both of which sap American citizens of their self-sufficiency and therefore their freedom, we need to make a collective effort to restore a measure of independence in the production of our food. Every potato or tomato a citizen produces on his own makes him that much more free.

Starting a vegetable garden in your backyard, or a container garden on the porch of an apartment, is easy, enjoyable, and a fundamental way to increase your own self-sufficiency. Get started today.