Saturday, March 28, 2015

The religious freedom fakeout

Indiana enacted a law that prohibits "state and local laws that 'substantially burden' the ability of people — including businesses and associations — to follow their religious beliefs."

Um, okay. Can somebody tell me

  1. What's an example of a law, in Indiana or anywhere else, that has "substantially burdened" anyone's religious beliefs?
  2. Why it's so important for a for-profit business to follow anyone's religious beliefs? (More on this below.)
  3. How a law like Indiana's is needed when we have the First Amendment? What exactly does such a law do that isn't covered by the First Amendment, and is it a good idea to do more than the First Amendment requires?
The "right" of businesses to have religious (or other) beliefs is one I've criticized more than once: in January 2013, December 2013 (specifically talking about the then-pending Hobby Lobby decision), June 2014 (first reaction to Hobby Lobby), July 2014 (more Hobby Lobby thoughts). Nobody — certainly not the blinkered and prejudiced majority on the Hobby Lobby decision — has explained why the business owner has a superior right to "express" his religious faith than his employees do. That's why the Hobby Lobby decision is such a travesty of law and such a disgrace for the Court. It's blindingly, indefensibly hypocritical and one day will rightly be tossed in the trashcan, the way Dred Scott has been, its majority Justices despised for indulging their rank prejudice.

As far as the rights of actual human religious believers are concerned, I think reality is pretty damned clear:

  • Religious believers are in absolutely no fucking danger of having their rights abridged.
  • Religious believers' rights have not been abridged.
  • When religious believers complain about being an endangered species or a victimized minority, most of the time their complaints are utter horseshit.
  • When religious believers say their rights have been violated, they're complaining about perfectly reasonable attempts to keep the public square public.
For God's sake (pun intended), the United States is the most religiously devout nation in the developed world! What objective, sane observer would say that this country needs more protection for believers?

The price of living in a pluralistic society is that we all have to suffer the occasional abridgement of our "rights" in order to keep the peace. It used to be that organized religions and their followers understood that. Not any more, if the likes of Mike Huckabee are to be taken as representative of the faithful today. So for the Mike Huckabees (and Rick Santorums and Pat Robertsons and all the other privileged white men crying "victim") out there, let me take one more shot at explaining things to you.

To take the obvious and absurd example, even if a religion called for human sacrifice, we still wouldn't permit it. (At least, I hope not.) But you don't have to go as far as that to run up against behavior that requires government to balance the competing interests of different groups.

Is it really such a grave imposition on a business owner to require that she not refuse service on the basis of sexual orientation? Or for another business owner not to be allowed to refuse to carve an ice sculpture just because the occasion is a gay couple's wedding? (I'm tired of using bakers as examples.)

How far are the rest of us supposed to go to accommodate these "faithful" people? And why should it be permissible to discriminate if you claim your God tells you so, when I can't claim that same permission just because I tell myself so?

Why the fuck should we take at face value the absolutely idiotic argument that providing a service to a gay wedding (or a Satanic one or a Buddhist one or a Baptist one) is an endorsement of the ceremony, the lifestyle, or the couple getting married? Why the fuck shouldn't we blazon forth the truth: that the objectors are just scared that they'll be tarred as collaborators in sin in the eyes of their bigoted brethren?

And how long until we stop manufacturing fake crises and start dealing with our real problems: poverty, racism, environmental degradation, climate change, etc., etc., etc.? The list of real problems is long and growing longer. Let's stop fucking around with this fake outrage bullshit and get something useful done!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Their way or the highway

Absolute, unquestioning support for Israel is merely the latest example of the far right's zeal for conformity.
Where past Republican leaders had their disagreements with Israel, today’s Republicans have made support for the Jewish state an inviolable litmus test for anyone aspiring to national office.
A "party strategist", Ron Bonjean, sums up the (so-called) thinking on the issue:
Any deviation on that, he said, leads to inevitable questions: “If you’re not supporting Israel, then who are you supporting? Are you supporting Iran?”
As with so many other issues, the far right insists on bumper-sticker sloganeering rather than comprehension, and confuses nuance with betrayal.

I suppose that for some it's comforting to know exactly where you should stand. You never have to question what you believe, you only have to worry about whether you believe it hard enough. Me? I'm full of questions. I often wonder whether I'm right. I know I'm human and therefore fallible. I'd rather have my errors corrected than to keep making them.

I don't consider being corrected to be a moral failing. I consider it a step toward becoming a better, more moral being.

You guys on the far right ought to wonder whether you're so perfect that you can afford to be so inflexible.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Email isn't the problem

I resisted reading this piece in Slate for a long time. It purported to be a rant about email, and having worked in tech I find the average end user's complaint about computer software to be ill-informed at best.

However, Chris Kirk's piece turned out to be a tale of how he was driven to create his own email client. That is a feat I can respect. I wouldn't have the guts to start a project like that. (I've read the tiniest part of the specifications documents for email and the complexity of this seemingly boring utility is awe-inspiring.)

The takeaway from Kirk's piece, though, isn't the software, which he readily admits is far from a finished product and probably doesn't suit anyone but him. No, the takeaway is a perspective on how email should fit into our lives.

Email isn't a dragon to be slain. It's an old beast of burden, and we've abused it by throwing the whole spectrum of human communication on its tired back. What if saving this loyal creature doesn't mean radically transforming it but merely easing its load? Maybe the dream of an email-free future isn't dead; maybe it just means a future in which email is merely a sliver of our communication rather than the whole pie.
He points to Slate's in-house use of a collaboration tool for instant messaging. Though Kirk has no hard numbers, his perception is that it has reduced email by a lot.

I'm not fond of the idea of having to monitor multiple communications channels. On the other hand, Kirk is eminently correct that email's original purpose is at odds with how and why we communicate with each other a lot of the time. Much communication is ephemeral, disposable. There's no reason the mail from my coworker two doors down suggesting it's time for lunch should linger in my in-box, but I'm conditioned not to dispose of email. By comparison, I have no such concerns about, say, SMSes. I and people like me need to get over our calcified habits and embrace more effective ways to communicate.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

R.I.P. Danny Schechter

"Danny Schechter, the News Dissector" was how I heard Danny Schechter introduced on the airwaves of WBCN ("The Rock of Boston") back in the mid-1980s. He was a wizard of editing, putting together audio collages that sent pointed messages about politics, society and social justice. He contributed heavily to the album and single Sun City, which I celebrated over four years ago. The Wikipedia article on the record is fascinating for the details Schechter himself provides, though unfortunately his quotations are unsourced and for all I know are apocryphal.

The News Dissector passed away last Thursday at the age of 72.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Of Scientology and Going Clear

Going Clear is the documentary about Scientology adapted from the book of the same name by journalist Lawrence Wright. The documentary is slated to run on HBO in the very near future; I'm sure you can find the air times on your own.

At this point in history, if you know anything about Scientology but you think it's not as bad as it has been painted, you are a good candidate to become a Scientologist. That's not a recommendation; oh my, no. I'm warning you that you're vulnerable.

I'm not going to watch the documentary or read Wright's book: I very much doubt I would learn anything new. If you know nothing about the organization, though, you should probably watch or read: forewarned is forearmed, and you definitely want to be forearmed against Scientology.

Paying a price

William Saletan's piece in Slate is subtitled, "We no longer have a Netanyahu problem. We have an Israel problem", summing up my feelings nicely. (Another Saletan piece, "Don't Believe Bibi", nicely expresses my feelings about Netanyahu's post-election attempts to walk back some of his most inflammatory pre-election rhetoric.)
The U.S. government believes that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, are entitled to a sovereign state. We believe it’s wrong to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to you. We believe that ethnic minorities are entitled to participate in the political process and that they shouldn’t be vilified to scare up votes. The events of the past week suggest that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t believe these things and that most of his people either agree with him or don’t care enough to vote the other way.
Of Israel's increasingly immoral rhetoric and behavior, Saletan argues:
We [the United States] have enabled this behavior, and we must end it. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. We must clarify the price Israel will pay for continuing to flout international norms and commitments.
This is not to say that we should take our marbles and go home, leaving Israel entirely to its own devices. The U.S. has a bad habit of acting as if reality is polar: black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. A simpleminded, absolutist reaction ("cut off all military aid to Israel", for instance) will make things worse.

Saletan suggests a modest U.N. resolution we could embrace that would be a measured signal to Israel. Sounds good to me. But we'd better be ready to send other signals, signals that clearly convey the reality that it's not Netanyahu but the policies he has embraced that are the problem — and that the U.S.-Israel relationship is going to be in peril if a majority of Israelis also keep embracing those policies.

Israel can listen to the fanatical dreams of its most fundamentalist citizens if it likes, but it had better understand that if it does, it's not dragging the U.S. into international isolation and war along with it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Time to reassess our relationship to Israel

I've touched on this subject before and now that Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud has won Israel's election, it seems like a good time to say it again: the U.S. needs to take a fresh look at its relationship to Israel.

No relationship between nations is without friction, and the U.S. goes through hot and cold periods with most of the nations with which it's on nominally good terms. What should prompt a revisiting of the U.S.-Israel relationship right now is Benjamin Netanyahu, both his person and his policies.

His brazenly partisan appearance before Congress rubbed a lot of us the wrong way. He used our legislative body as a campaign prop for his election, and aligned himself forever more with the Republican Party. His apologists note, correctly, that there's no love lost between Netanyahu and President Obama, but his personal dislike of the President does not excuse his blatant violation of diplomatic courtesies. Bibi's appearance amounted to a slap in the face not of President Obama, but of the entire United States.

It sounds like my gripe is with Netanyahu himself. It's not. While he does piss me off, Netanyahu also pursues policies that stick in the craw of anyone who is interested in easing tensions throughout the region — and anyone who's interested in simple justice. That's where the U.S. faces real risk by reflexively supporting Israel.

The headline from 16 March 2015 says it all: "Netanyahu Says No to Statehood for Palestinians". Left unsaid is how Netanyahu thinks Palestinian grievances should be addressed. The implication is that he doesn't give a damn.

That's certainly the attitude of ultra-Orthodox (read: fundamentalist) Jews in Israel, for whose illegal West Bank settlements Bibi has showed unabashed enthusiasm. Not that Bibi is the only Israeli prime minister who has tolerated them. They're a testament to just how much ultra-Orthodox Jews, and their enablers in Israeli political circles, do not care about justice, and how much they do care about themselves as The Chosen People. Jewish fundamentalism is as big a threat as Islamic or Christian fundamentalism. It leads to acts of reckless stupidity and needless provocation. And that's on its good days. Ultimately, fundamentalism is incompatible with pluralism, or even democracy.

By reaffirming their support for a Likud-led government, Israelis have sent a message: "we're okay with the status quo". Now the U.S. has to ask: are we?

Rethinking our relationship to Israel should start by figuring out what we want from that relationship. Do we want Israel to be a reliable strategic partner in the region? That certainly seems to be how we've thought of it historically. Israel has done dirty work for us. It also has kept the Arab nations distracted, which has been useful for those Arab governments which would rather preserve their status quo rather than redress their populaces' grievances; that, too, was a net plus for the U.S. when we had reliably pro-U.S. autocrats running things. But things have changed. The Arab world has been roiled in ways that are still playing out. Israel, too, is changing, becoming more right-wing. That rightward shift has made Israel more pugnacious, more inclined to act preemptively against what it regards as existential threats.

Will — can — Israel continue to be a reliable strategic partner to the U.S.? Or have our nations' interests diverged in ways the U.S. hasn't taken into account?

A deeply emotional factor is also at work here. Israel exerts a powerful hold on the Western conscience: it's the living reminder of the West's failure to stop genocide in World War II. Even after seven decades, that failure weighs heavily on our collective conscience. Supporting Israel has been one way to redress it.

Israel will still serve as a reminder to us all. That's an aspect of its national identity it can never lose. However, it is no longer possible or even reasonable to excuse Israel's shortcomings because of the country's "specialness". And maybe that's how it should be. To view Israel solely as — I hate this term but I can't think of a better one — reparation for the Holocaust is to view it as an abused child, incapable of taking responsibility for its actions. That, of course, is not the case. Israel's policies may have "never again" as their subtext (in Israeli minds, anyway), but that subtext does not excuse the negative consequences of those policies.

Netanyahu's reelection — even though he wasn't on the ballot, that's how things seem to have worked out — is a really good time for our own government to take a long look at our relationship to Israel. We know where Israel stands. Where do we?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Quick thoughts, 2015-03-10

  • It doesn't matter where you work, the rule is the same: work is done via work email. Why Hillary Clinton thought it was a good idea to use a domain she administered rather than the State Department, I'll never understand. It seems she won't be explaining herself to us any time soon, either.

    In this day and age, Mrs. Clinton, you expect us to believe you used the same account for discussing Iran and your daughter's wedding plans? Really?


    Excuse me while I enjoy a good, long laugh.

    As far as I'm concerned, this is enough reason to reject her as a presidential candidate. Next! Biden, you still interested? Even better: Bernie Sanders, can you lay out an agenda that will bring disenchanted progressives on board?

  • Speaking of disqualifications, let's talk about the 47 Republican Senators, including majority leader Mitch McConnell, who sent that dimwitted letter to Iran's leaders — not to any one of them in particular, but effectively "to whom it may concern".

    Or no, let's not talk about that. Let's just agree that it is one of the most childish political gestures ever made by a group of United States Senators.

    This idiotic letter wasn't going to change anyone's mind. It was intended solely as red meat to the Republicans' most rabid, most uninformed, and very likely most racist party faithful, who hate Barack Obama with a fervor it's impossible for the rest of us to comprehend (largely because they don't subscribe to facts).

    But this letter wasn't even good red meat. It was so crude that no one could take it seriously. Its low level of intelligence disgraced the Senate stationery on which it was printed.

    Senators, fling all the red meat you want to your constituents, but leave foreign governments out of it. Otherwise we're going to have to prosecute you. This dances right on the edge of sedition, you jackasses. Do we have to send a few of you to prison for you to understand just how badly you're behaving?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"What ISIS Really Wants", Graeme Wood

This is a lengthy piece in The Atlantic.

I haven't read most of the pieces that claim to set out "what ISIS really wants", so I can't say if this one is better or worse, more or less convincing than the others. What I can say is that it reinforces my suspicion that, contrary to the simplistic attitudes of many in this country, simply flattening everything in the territory claimed by the so-called Islamic State wouldn't end the group's ideological threat. Its apocalyptic creed resonates with "a certain subset of the population", as Wood notes, and as he might have added but didn't, apocalyptic creeds have a long and ugly history. What most of those creeds haven't had are enough members and resources to put up a stiff fight, the ability to spread their message worldwide (thanks to the Internet), and the mission to spread their gospel or die. Whatever else we may think of the group, it's a pioneer of sorts.

It's also a group that can't be fought on ideological grounds by most of the world. The only ones who can discredit its poisonous creed are Muslims. The rest of us, by definition, are infidels to whom it's positively dangerous for devout Muslims to listen on spiritual and religious matters. Even Muslims can't "cure" current ISIS adherents: they can only try to keep one another from falling victim to its ideology.

Wood points out that ISIS' true believers are ready to be slaughtered if need be: a slaughter of Muslims is part of the divine plan that will lead to a completely Muslim world. This bothered the hell out of me until I remembered that Christians have a similar end-of-days model in the Book of Revelation, a story that laid the groundwork for a lot of bloodshed in the past. Somehow, though, Christianity shook itself out of its obsession with "convert, kill or die" as a guiding principle, and the Bible became for most (though hardly all) a moral touchstone rather than a divine road map.

It's too easy to believe an "Islamic Reformation" is all that needs to happen because "it worked for Christianity". A little thought reveals the idea of an Islamic Reformation is a waste of time. For one thing, the Christian Reformation didn't put an end to all of Christianity's problematic ideas: if it had, we wouldn't have apocalyptic rhetoric showing up in many fundamentalist churches on a regular basis. For another, Islam isn't locked into a single hierarchy of authority: there is no Islamic Pope against whom to rebel. If you think your Islamic religious authority is wrong, you can already pick a different one.

We're never going to be rid of end-times obsession: a small fraction of humanity will always be fascinated by it. We're never going to be rid of ISIS' creed: "the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it". All we can do is to do a much better job of keeping young people from being so alienated from society that an apocalyptic creed fires their imagination.

And as long as ISIS embraces its uncompromising "convert, enslave, kill or die" credo ("enslave" per Wood's article), I don't see that the rest of us have a choice: we have to give its fighters the martyr's death they want. It sucks, but if the alternative is enslavement or conversion, so be it. Western civilization can't coexist with a creed that detests the very idea of pluralism and is willing to kill to spread itself.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Boo to Bibi

Israei's Prime Minister, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, addressed the U.S. Congress today. The invitation was issued by House Speaker John Boehner directly, ignoring standard diplomatic protocol that calls for such invitations to be issued by the White House. Accepting the invitation also violated standard diplomatic protocol.

In short, Boehner and Bibi extended their middle fingers to President Obama. I'd like to take the opportunity to do the same to our childish House Speaker and his opportunistic Israeli ally. Fuck both of you.

The sad thing is that Netanyahu might — might — have been worth listening to. It's hard not to wonder if Iran, like North Korea, is using negotiations over its putative nuclear capabilities merely to stall for time while its researchers get closer to developing a weapon. Netanyahu's argument that Iran can't be trusted might be correct. It certainly is a possibility that can't be discounted, not right now.

If Netanyahu had made his case in a high-profile speech at home, he might have changed hearts and minds here in the U.S. But he didn't give the speech at home. Instead, he gave it in D.C. as part of a cheap political stunt by one of our political parties. The speech was also a cheap political stunt for Bibi, who's in a tight reelection race and who probably enjoyed having the GOP as bit players in his little passion play. Whatever the value of the content of his speech, the circumstances demeaned it beyond consideration.

This is the sort of stunt that, if it had been pulled on George W. Bush, would have had Republicans screaming for Democratic blood. The word "treason" would have been thrown at the Democratic leadership.

Boehner didn't commit treason. He did, however, trade the dignity of his office for crass (and, I suspect, short-term) political gain. I previously considered him a beleaguered but (somewhat) professional politician hamstrung by the wingnuts in his caucus. This incident, though, shows that he's really a small-minded, small-souled man who has no respect for our governing institutions, and thus no respect for our country. I don't see the case for Congressional victimhood during the Obama years, but even if you posit that Obama has dropped the ball on relations with Congress, that he has earned the enmity of Congressional Republicans, there's no excuse for this incident. None.

As for you, Bibi: go home, secure in the knowledge that you've undermined the U.S.-Israel relationship as no Israeli leader ever has. Go home and pray hard that a plurality of Israeli voters are stupid enough to believe your D.C. speech was a good idea. Go home and count how many formerly passive Americans you've pushed off the fence into favoring a significant reduction of the foreign aid the U.S. sends Israel's way. Go home and ponder how their — our — simmering resentment will play out in the long run.

Most of all, Bibi, go home and stay there. You're not welcome here any more.