Monday, July 15, 2013

"Three of These Things Belong Together"

Among The Muppet Show's recurring features was a variation on the above question. The show's creators used one of two songs to introduce these segments: "One of These Things" or "Three of These Things Belong Together." As in the simple challenge shown below, the answer is obvious.

Unfortunately, as we get older we are frequently required to make distinctions between things that aren't so clear cut…distinctions of a moral or ethical nature. Because ours is an age where many of these concepts are viewed as "inoperative," decision making becomes a problem. In fact, decision making could entail charges of intolerance or of being judgemental. 

Either because of, or in spite of, parental upbringing, education, religious affiliation, or philosophical bent, the "true path" has become an intellectual absurdity and righteous decisions are largely decided by hitching on to either "the popular opinion" or the opinion of the broadcaster(s) whose views are most congenial to ours. Despite a divided polity, decisions must be made and, perhaps, if we look at decision makers who shaped history, and, in a break from conformity, get a glimpse of the "right road."


Martin Luther King, Jr.

Edward Snowden


In the selections shown here, "Three of These Things Belong Together" - which one doesn't?

Socrates aggravated the leaders of Athens through "impiety" (refusing to honor the gods of the day) and by espousing "the view that it is not majority opinion that yields correct policy, but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which is possessed by only a few." Citizens of Athens, chosen by lot, convicted him and sentenced him to death. But in accordance to his philosophy of obedience to law, he refused and drank the hemlock.

In Socrates case, there were strong views on both sides as his conviction passed by about 30 votes (there could be several hundred on an Athens jury) and few seemed convinced that he would actually be put to death. (It was not uncommon for prisoners in similar situations to "escape"  - helped by financially well off friends like Crito...many felt that would occur.)  But in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he refused and drank the hemlock.

Gandhi was already well known throughout the world when he adopted a campaign of "non-violent resistance" against the British government to gain independence for India. He combined this approach with hunger strikes undertaken while in prison. (The hunger strike was not a new approach but one which goes back in Indian history to 750 B.C. It was eventually outlawed in 1861.) But Gandhi re-instated it and, the British government, well aware of his international following and fearful of his death and subsequent recriminations, generally held him for short periods. But no one doubted his commitment. 

In his acts of disobedience it was not Gandhi's aim to break the law, but to go to prison as a demonstration of how strongly he felt over the injustices he had been protesting. In fact, the more dreary the jail, the better the support. With that in mind Gandhi wrote a letter (which auctioned off at $178,000 recently) to a British lord pleading that " is unthinkable that when India’s millions are suffering from preventable starvation and thousands are dying [while] the huge place in which I am being detained with a large guard around me I hold to be a waste of public funds. I should be quite content to pass my days in any prison...’

In his acts of disobedience it was not Gandhi's aim to break the law, but to go to prison as a demonstration of how strongly he felt over the injustices he had been protesting. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted a similar tact and in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" observed that' "…there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all…One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust. and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

Which brings us to the Snowden situation. An interesting one in that some I'd expect to lead the prosecution are his strong advocates (e.g., the Progressive Change Campaign Committee). Others, normally staunch supporters of the whistle-blowing school, suggest he might deserve lengthy prison time (e.g., Dianne Feinstein). So, no "popular opinion" dominates - yet decisions must be made.

Now I've been unrelenting in my criticism of both the PATRIOT Act and the formation of Dept. of Homeland Security. But as terribly structured and operated as they are, they are supported by law. 

Snowden's actions were a well-deserved blow to a government that has become increasingly indifferent to public concern. However, in his unsuccessful attempts to find asylum in a foreign land, the country's attention is directed on the pros and cons of his actions rather than on those of the government. As such I believe he, the law, and the country would be better served should he surrender. 

Final "One of These Things" doesn't belong quiz: Thomas More or Dietrich Bonhoeffer?