The Republican in charge of government oversight wants to prohibit criticism of Trump’s ethical violations

Dahlia Lithwick writes: It is going to be practically impossible for Donald Trump to take office next Friday and stay on the right side of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause without divesting and placing his businesses in a blind trust. This fact is — with a clutch of dissenters — not in dispute. Ethics experts across the political spectrum have explained carefully what needed to be done to avoid the appearance that the president was benefiting financially from foreign gifts, payments, or favors. But Trump announced this week that he has no intention of creating a blind trust, arguing that voters don’t care about the issue and declaring that he would donate any hotel profits from foreign governments to the Treasury and let his sons manage his business for the duration of his presidency.

At his Wednesday announcement, Trump’s lawyer, Sheri Dillon, disputed claims that he even has any such constitutional obligations: “These people are wrong. This is not what the Constitution says, paying for a hotel is not a gift or present and has nothing to do with an office. It is not an emolument,” she said. She added that “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” meaning, I suppose, that the normal rules don’t apply to rich presidents. (Mitt Romney was willing to divest in 2012, so maybe it’s just that the normal rules don’t apply to Trump).

The director of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, immediately dismissed the president-elect’s dramatic nonplan as “meaningless.” He was quoted this week as saying at an unprecedented press conference at the Brookings Institution, “It’s important to understand that the president is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president.”

Most ethics experts have agreed with Shaub that the arrangement announced Wednesday is inadequate to address the conflict rules. Trump’s expectation and hope seems to be that — since the only fix for an Emoluments Clause violation is impeachment — Republicans will do as Trump has instructed and stop caring and that Democrats won’t have the nerve to raise the point that the president will — every day after next Friday — be violating the Constitution in a way that risks putting him in thrall to foreign powers. Republicans seem happy to oblige. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Donald Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff warned the director of the Office of Government Ethics on Sunday to “be careful” about criticizing Trump’s handling of his business conflicts.

“The head of the government ethics ought to be careful because that person is becoming extremely political,” Priebus said on ABC News’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Priebus suggested that Shaub, who was appointed by President Obama, was supportive of Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
[Continue reading…]

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How Harvey Cox reminds us of the radical possibilities and egalitarian hopes of a Christian left

Elizabeth Bruenig writes:  In a recent Harper’s Magazine article, Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs caused something of a stir: What had become, he asked, of America’s Christian public intellectuals? Once a prominent feature of public life, the Christian social critic seems to have faded from view. “Half a century ago,” Jacobs noted, “such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now.”

It’s impossible to dispute Jacobs’s central point: In the United States, we no longer have a Walter Rauschenbusch or a Reinhold Niebuhr, thinkers who critiqued American society from a Christian perspective. True, there are Christians who are also intellectuals — figures like Cornel West and Robert P. George — but their cultural cachet is hardly comparable to that of their 20th-century predecessors.

In part, this is the result of shifting currents in the American disposition. As a public, we don’t have the same taste for sermonic advice we once did, intellectual or otherwise. But, as Jacobs argues, the decline of Christian public voices is also a function of something internal to Christian thought: Over the past half-century, many strains of Christianity have seen a “privatization of religious experience and discourse.”

Ever since, Christians on the right have been attempting to reverse this process, whether by invoking a past in which some aspects of traditional Christian thought defined social norms, or by using many of the rights created by liberalism in order to protect the public expression of Christian values — for example, conservative Christians have claimed legal protection for abstaining from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and for refusing to offer insurance coverage for medical practices they believe run counter to their faith.

Indeed, the right’s dominance over public expressions of Christianity has been so pronounced that it has created something of a crisis for liberal and left-wing Christians: How can one launch a Christian critique of poverty, inequality, racism, or the United States’ seemingly endless appetite for war when Christianity, at least as it has largely been understood by one’s comrades, is often associated with the fundamentalist right? How can one invoke the egalitarian and communitarian ideals of the faith when the right has so dominated the public landscape that the very notion of “left Christianity” is often now a puzzling idea?

Without a unified Christian left to contrast against a powerful and already unified Christian right, there is no obvious political program or donor base for an incipient generation of left-Christian activists and intellectuals. Young Christians committed to social and economic justice have to carve out their own lineage and propose their own goals and priorities; on the right, that work has already been done for them.

It’s in the face of these challenges for an emerging new generation of Christian liberals and leftists that Harvey Cox— a Baptist minister, Harvard divinity professor for more than 40 years, and Christian left-wing intellectual to the core—offers a beacon of light. [Continue reading…]

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White House ethics experts argue Trump’s business conflicts are so big it should affect how the Electoral College votes

 

Politico reports: Norm Eisen has become an unlikely media darling. Since Donald Trump’s victory on Nov. 8 opened a debate about how the president-elect would keep his vast business interests separate from his new public obligations, Eisen has emerged as one of the two most prominent government ethicists calling for Trump to take drastic action to avoid scandal or worse. Eisen, the former top Obama White House ethics lawyer, has been cited more than 1,000 times in news stories, explaining the intricacies of the “emoluments clause” to journalists many of whom hadn’t heard the words a month ago. With Richard Painter, who held the same job under President George W. Bush, Eisen has taken control of a leading government watchdog group that’s staffing up to hound Trump’s administration for conflicts of interest they say are unprecedented for the occupant of the Oval Office. A video produced by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org of Eisen and Painter talking about a potentially obscure constitutional violation notched more than 2.5 million views in its first week.

“It’s unreal. It’s like a full-employment plan for government ethicists, for White House ethicists,” Eisen told me Monday as he dashed between interviews with U.S. and international journalists lining up to ask him about Trump’s complicated financial arrangements. “Fortunately, there’s basically only a handful of us. There’s really only two.”

That might be an exaggeration, but Eisen and Painter happen to be the two ethicists who are actively working to shape the outcome of an election that most voters think has already been decided. For the #stillnevertrump faction, Eisen and Painter represent the last hope of persuading wobbly members of the Electoral College to vote against the president-elect when they convene on Dec. 19. Failing that, the two men are laying the groundwork for a case that Trump’s sprawling financial arrangements—real estate investments, hotels, golf courses and product licenses spread across the U.S. and at least 20 other countries—will inevitably lead him into scandal or worse once he takes office. Trump is set to hold a news conference Dec. 15 in New York to provide more detail on his future financial plans, but the two men have no expectation that Trump will take their advice and sell off his entire business enterprise and put the proceeds into a “blind trust” with no control or knowledge over where the money goes. [Continue reading…]

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China is at the forefront of manipulating DNA to create a new class of superhumans

G. Owen Schaefer writes: Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger, or better looking? As the state of science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants, and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism, and even moral reasoning.

So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the US or the UK, where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China.

Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent Pew study of 4,726 Americans found that most would not want to use a brain chip to improve their memory, and a plurality view such interventions as morally unacceptable. [Continue reading…]

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The Pentagon’s ‘Terminator conundrum’: Robots that could kill on their own

The New York Times reports: The small drone, with its six whirring rotors, swept past the replica of a Middle Eastern village and closed in on a mosque-like structure, its camera scanning for targets.

No humans were remotely piloting the drone, which was nothing more than a machine that could be bought on Amazon. But armed with advanced artificial intelligence software, it had been transformed into a robot that could find and identify the half-dozen men carrying replicas of AK-47s around the village and pretending to be insurgents.

As the drone descended slightly, a purple rectangle flickered on a video feed that was being relayed to engineers monitoring the test. The drone had locked onto a man obscured in the shadows, a display of hunting prowess that offered an eerie preview of how the Pentagon plans to transform warfare.

Almost unnoticed outside defense circles, the Pentagon has put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s dominant military power. It is spending billions of dollars to develop what it calls autonomous and semiautonomous weapons and to build an arsenal stocked with the kind of weaponry that until now has existed only in Hollywood movies and science fiction, raising alarm among scientists and activists concerned by the implications of a robot arms race.

The Defense Department is designing robotic fighter jets that would fly into combat alongside manned aircraft. It has tested missiles that can decide what to attack, and it has built ships that can hunt for enemy submarines, stalking those it finds over thousands of miles, without any help from humans. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. torture left legacy of damaged minds

The New York Times reports: Before the United States permitted a terrifying way of interrogating prisoners, government lawyers and intelligence officials assured themselves of one crucial outcome. They knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm.

Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong.

Today in Slovakia, Hussein al-Marfadi describes permanent headaches and disturbed sleep, plagued by memories of dogs inside a blackened jail. In Kazakhstan, Lutfi bin Ali is haunted by nightmares of suffocating at the bottom of a well. In Libya, the radio from a passing car spurs rage in Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, reminding him of the C.I.A. prison where earsplitting music was just one assault to his senses.

And then there is the despair of men who say they are no longer themselves. “I am living this kind of depression,” said Younous Chekkouri, a Moroccan, who fears going outside because he sees faces in crowds as Guantánamo Bay guards. “I’m not normal anymore.”

After enduring agonizing treatment in secret C.I.A. prisons around the world or coercive practices at the military detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of detainees developed persistent mental health problems, according to previously undisclosed medical records, government documents and interviews with former prisoners and military and civilian doctors. Some emerged with the same symptoms as American prisoners of war who were brutalized decades earlier by some of the world’s cruelest regimes. [Continue reading…]

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Pope says welcoming refugees keeps us safe from terrorism

Catholic News Agency reports: Pope Francis has encouraged Europeans to welcome refugees, calling authentic hospitality “our greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.”

Francis Saturday spoke to alumni of Jesuit schools in Europe who were in Rome for a conference on refugees.

The pope said: “I encourage you to welcome refugees into your homes and communities, so that their first experience of Europe is not the traumatic experience of sleeping cold on the streets, but one of warm welcome.”

He said each refugee “has a name, a face and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future” for their children.

“At this place and time in history, there is great need for men and women who hear the cry of the poor and respond with mercy and generosity,” the pope told a group of Jesuit alumni Sept. 17.

He noted how there are “tragically more than 65 million” forcibly displaced persons around the globe, calling the number “unprecedented” and “beyond all imagination.” [Continue reading…]

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Ethical shifts come with thinking in a different language

Julie Sedivy writes: What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages — more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language — as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. [Continue reading…]

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What to do about Liberia’s island colony of abandoned lab chimps?

By Ben Garrod, Anglia Ruskin University

The story of Liberia’s former research chimpanzees is both well-known and contentious. A non-profit blood bank, the New York Blood Centre (NYBC), set up a virus-testing laboratory in the country in 1974, and wild chimpanzees were trapped from their forests and housed within the “Vilab II” facility. They were subjected to medical experiments and were intentionally infected with hepatitis and other pathogens to help develop a range of vaccines.

By 2005, the director of Vilab II, Alfred M Prince, announced that all research had been terminated and that the NYBC had started to make “lifetime care” arrangements for the chimpanzees through an endowment. Over the next ten years, the chimps were “retired” to a series of small islands in a river estuary, receiving food, water and necessary captive care (at a cost of around US$20,000 a month).

Then, in March 2015, the NYBC withdrew its help and financial support and disowned Prince’s commitments. The move left about 85 chimps to fend for themselves. Escape is impossible, as chimpanzees are incapable of swimming well, and many are suspected to have likely died from a lack of food and water.

Although the Liberian government owns the chimps as a legal technicality, the day-to-day management of the chimps and the experiments were carried out by NYBC and it in no way absolves it from ultimate responsibility. But it has used this to distance itself from calls for it to continue funding care. In a statement last year it said it had had “unproductive discussions” with the Liberian government and that it “never had any obligation for care for the chimps, contractual or otherwise”. It has also said that it can “no longer sustain diverting millions of dollars away from our lifesaving mission”.

Understandably, animal rights groups are vocally opposing the blood bank’s actions.

[Read more…]

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Torturing animals injures humanity

tufted-capuchin-monkey

John P. Gluck writes: Five years ago, the National Institutes of Health all but ended biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees, concluding that, as the closest human relative, they deserved “special consideration and respect.”

But chimpanzees were far from the only nonhuman primates used in research then, or now. About 70,000 other primates are still living their lives as research subjects in labs across the United States.

On Wednesday, the N.I.H. will hold a workshop on “continued responsible research” with these animals. This sounds like a positive development. But as someone who spent decades working almost daily with macaque monkeys in primate research laboratories, I know firsthand that “responsible” research is not enough. What we really need to examine is the very moral ground of animal research itself.

Like many researchers, I once believed that intermittent scientific gains justified methods that almost always did harm. As a graduate student in the late 1960s, I came to see that my natural recoil from intentionally harming animals was a hindrance to how I understood scientific progress. I told myself that we were being responsible by providing good nutrition, safe cages, skilled and caring caretakers and veterinarians for the animals — and, crucially, that what we stood to learn outweighed any momentary or prolonged anguish these animals might experience. The potential for a medical breakthrough, the excitement of research and discovering whether my hypotheses were correct — and let’s not leave out smoldering ambition — made my transition to a more “rigorous” stance easier than I could have imagined.

One of my areas of study focused on the effects of early social deprivation on the intellectual abilities of rhesus monkeys. We kept young, intelligent monkeys separated from their families and others of their kind for many months in soundproof cages that remained lit 24 hours a day, then measured how their potential for complex social and intellectual lives unraveled. All the while, I comforted myself with the idea that these monkeys were my research partners, and that by creating developmental disorders in monkeys born in a lab, we could better understand these disorders in humans.

But it was impossible to fully quell my repugnance at all that I continued to witness and to inflict. At the same time, in the classroom, I began to face questions from students who had become increasingly concerned about the predicament of lab animals. [Continue reading…]

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It is not what you believe, but what you do that matters

Steven Nadler writes: In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The leaders of the community, having consulted with the rabbis and using Spinoza’s Hebrew name, proclaim that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

Over the centuries, there have been periodic calls for the herem against Spinoza to be lifted. Even David Ben-Gurion, when he was prime minister of Israel, issued a public plea for ‘amending the injustice’ done to Spinoza by the Amsterdam Portuguese community. It was not until early 2012, however, that the Amsterdam congregation, at the insistence of one of its members, formally took up the question of whether it was time to rehabilitate Spinoza and welcome him back into the congregation that had expelled him with such prejudice. There was, though, one thing that they needed to know: should we still regard Spinoza as a heretic?

Unfortunately, the herem document fails to mention specifically what Spinoza’s offences were – at the time he had not yet written anything – and so there is a mystery surrounding this seminal event in the future philosopher’s life. And yet, for anyone who is familiar with Spinoza’s mature philosophical ideas, which he began putting in writing a few years after the excommunication, there really is no such mystery. By the standards of early modern rabbinic Judaism – and especially among the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam, many of whom were descendants of converso refugees from the Iberian Inquisitions and who were still struggling to build a proper Jewish community on the banks of the Amstel River – Spinoza was a heretic, and a dangerous one at that.

What is remarkable is how popular this heretic remains nearly three and a half centuries after his death, and not just among scholars. Spinoza’s contemporaries, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, made enormously important and influential contributions to the rise of modern philosophy and science, but you won’t find many committed Cartesians or Leibnizians around today. The Spinozists, however, walk among us. They are non-academic devotees who form Spinoza societies and study groups, who gather to read him in public libraries and in synagogues and Jewish community centres. Hundreds of people, of various political and religious persuasions, will turn out for a day of lectures on Spinoza, whether or not they have ever read him. There have been novels, poems, sculptures, paintings, even plays and operas devoted to Spinoza. This is all a very good thing.

It is also a very curious thing. Why should a 17th-century Portuguese-Jewish philosopher whose dense and opaque writings are notoriously difficult to understand incite such passionate devotion, even obsession, among a lay audience in the 21st century? Part of the answer is the drama and mystery at the centre of his life: why exactly was Spinoza so harshly punished by the community that raised and nurtured him? Just as significant, I suspect, is that everyone loves an iconoclast – especially a radical and fearless one that suffered persecution in his lifetime for ideas and values that are still so important to us today. Spinoza is a model of intellectual courage. Like a prophet, he took on the powers-that-be with an unflinching honesty that revealed ugly truths about his fellow citizens and their society. [Continue reading…]

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A week from hell

Charles Blow writes: This was yet another week that tore at the very fiber of our nation.

After two videos emerged showing the gruesome killings of two black men by police officers, one in Baton Rouge, La., and the other in Falcon Heights, Minn., a black man shot and killed five officers in a cowardly ambush at an otherwise peaceful protest and wounded nine more people. The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, said, “He was upset about Black Lives Matter” and “about the recent police shootings” and “was upset at white people” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”

We seem caught in a cycle of escalating atrocities without an easy way out, without enough clear voices of calm, without tools for reduction, without resolutions that will satisfy.

There is so much loss and pain. There are so many families whose hearts hurt for a loved one needlessly taken, never to be embraced again.

There is so much disintegrating trust, so much animosity stirring.

So many — too many — Americans now seem to be living with an ambient terror that someone is somehow targeting them. [Continue reading…]

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