Friday, June 26, 2015

The religious right's attitude problem

Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. Cue the freakout.

Justice Samuel Alito's dissent is as good a sampling of the opposition's reaction as any:

Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences.

It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.

About using the decision "to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy", I can only snort derisively. No matter how the Court ruled, I would feel the same way toward opponents of same-sex marriage. Were I inclined to vilify them (and I like to think I'm not, but to tell the truth I'm not sure), nothing the Court could have said would have kept me from feeling that way. (Nothing the majority claimed in the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby decisions has changed my mind about their fundamental wrongness.)

As much as Justice Alito might like to think the Court's imprimatur matters to public opinion, it really doesn't. Not much. By the time the Justices start considering a case, everybody who cares has made up her mind. Certainly that's true for this issue.

To the question of "vilification" and the specter of "[stamping] out every vestige of dissent", I must again snort derisively.

First: you have the right to say and to believe same-sex marriage is wrong. You don't have the right to be popular. You don't have the right to escape criticism. "Vilification" of private citizens by other private citizens is a necessary risk in a society that prizes free expression. So, Justice Alito, even if the Court's decision directly prompted that kind of vilification (which, again, it won't), tough luck.

Second: the phrase "stamp out every vestige of dissent" is deliberately inflammatory. It conjures the image of Nazis ruthlessly crushing those who opposed Hitler, of resistance to authoritarian regimes everywhere and throughout history.

That's not the situation that obtains in the U.S., nor is it likely to obtain unless the nation crumbles entirely.

Alito and likeminded souls seem to imagine that federal stormtroopers will come for opponents of same-sex marriage, but those (nonexistent) stormtroopers won't come. No, the coercion of same-sex marriage foes will come from the daily interactions with millions of their fellow citizens who disagree with them and who tell them so firmly, and, I hope, respectfully. They will feel not the hands of federal marshals, but the weight of society's disavowal of their views. Alito probably doesn't like such coercion any better than the idea of federal stormtroopers, but he can't stop it.

Finally, opposition to same-sex marriage in all likelihood will never be stamped out.

You can't legislate attitudes out of existence. You can't change people's core beliefs with a court decision. And if the struggle for equal rights in the last century has taught us anything, it's that some people will never accept that certain others are worthy of respect. A small percentage of people disapprove of interracial marriage even today; Dylann Roof is but one of many who have an irrational hatred of blacks; sexism, explicit and implicit, still haunts us in spite of all the progress women have made over a hundred years.

In light of all that, is it reasonable to expect that opposition to same-sex marriage will be stamped out in our lifetime? Of course not.

Is it reasonable for people to try to bring the opponents of same-sex marriage around? Well, yes, court decision or no. And that persuasive process would have gone on even if the Court had ruled same-sex marriage was not mandated by the Constitution and its amendments.

Alito doesn't want himself or his ilk to be subjected to societal pressure, a curious attitude to have considering that the devoutly religious (who form the majority of the opposition to same-sex marriage) are perfectly happy to exert pressure on others in service of their religions.

To that I say, again, tough luck.

Get over it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When your choice screws the rest of us

California's legislature is close to ending the state's very loose policy allowing parents not to vaccinate their children for personal or religious reasons. The state Senate has to vote on amendments in the state Assembly's version of the bill.

Predictably, some people are deeply unhappy.

Christina Hildebrand, the founder of A Voice for Choice, a nonprofit organization that has lobbied against the bill, said, “Parental freedom is being taken away by this because the fear of contagion is trumping it.”
"The fear of contagion" is a hell of a lot better justified than the fear of terrorism, yet we somehow have seen fit to legislate on the basis of the fear of terrorism anyway. If we're going to use statistical likelihood to measure our legislation, let's start with where statistics have been worst abused and fix our broken federal counter-terror legislation.

But to the matter of parental freedom — here's a classic case of end-of-nose-ism. Your freedom to act, that is, ends at the end of my nose.

What you feed your kid, what religion you raise her in, whether or not you spank him — that kind of stuff doesn't affect anybody else (mostly). Whether you vaccinate your kid does affect others. Every unvaccinated child reduces the immunity of the whole group and increases the likelihood that diseases can get a foothold. We've seen it happen, notably in the measles outbreak traced back to Disneyland last year.

Some kids can't be vaccinated for medical reasons. They rely on the rest of us not being hospitable breeding grounds for diseases.

So, Christina Hildebrand, tell me why "parental freedom" is more to be cherished than the lives of unvaccinated children, including, possibly, your own?

Am I supposed to let you bloody my nose because "choice" is a sacred principle?

When your choice screws the rest of us, must we give you the choice?

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Confederate battle flag

It was mildly amusing to read that the governor of Massachusetts got tripped up over the Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol. I mean, we're talking about the governor of a state that is quite a ways from South Carolina, and Massachusetts isn't a state where the Confederate flag ordinarily looms large as an issue.

The way the Boston Globe described it, Gov. Charlie Baker "said in an early-afternoon radio interview that states should be entitled to decide whether to fly the Confederate flag at their capitols, laying out a brief argument for local government." He later walked back his remarks after friends asked him, as he put it, “Basically: What were you thinking?”

I actually appreciate that Baker's first instinct was to say essentially, "This is really up to South Carolina". It's irritating to hear some idiot politician in some state hundreds of miles away lecturing me on what's wrong with my state.

But consider the Confederate battle flag. To claim that it's merely a symbol of Southern pride is to deny all the baggage that comes with it. I'm mindful of Godwin's Law, but it's no exaggeration to say that the Confederate battle flag is freighted with as many negative connotations as the swastika. It's a grotesque distortion of history to claim that the flag "just" represents the romantic struggle of states to fend off an overbearing federal government. The pretense that the Civil War was about "state's rights" transparently ignores what "right" the seceding states wanted to preserve: the right to keep slaves. The right to deny some human beings their humanity.

Baker got tripped up because the Confederate flag isn't just some innocuous local idiosyncrasy, like Cincinnati chili. If he had ever given the matter two seconds of thought, he would have known that. I'd argue that nobody with a fifth-grade education can claim he or she doesn't know that. Claiming ignorance is really claiming willful ignorance. It's refusing to face reality.

That's what the Confederate battle flag's supporters do. They refuse to face reality.

Well, the rest of us are absolutely free to call "bullshit" on their bullshit.

Yes, Virginia, there really is racism against blacks in America, and it got its start in the institution of slavery. Racism by whites against blacks endures because a hard core of people refuses to accept that slavery and its defenders were wrong. They tell themselves and their children a fantasy story about the nation's history and the relations between blacks and whites, a fantasy story that makes Southern whites the beleaguered victims of everybody else. In this fantasy the Confederate battle flag symbolizes the righteous lost cause.

Like I said, this is a fantasy. A dangerous one. And it's way, way, way past time to give it up.

[EDIT: Reworded to eliminate incorrect references to the "Stars and Bars", which was the first national flag of the Confederate States of America. Thanks to this Slate article for enlightening me as to the difference.]

The virulence of racism

Dylann Roof murdered nine black people at a South Carolina church Wednesday.

He wore his white-supremacist, racist heart on his sleeve, or rather, his chest: his now infamous Facebook profile photo shows him sporting the flags of white-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa on his jacket. As yet, no one has stepped forward to paint him in a sympathetic light. Perhaps no one will.

So yeah, Roof seems like an irredeemably bad guy.

But how did he get that way?

No child is born with the views Dylann Roof holds. He had to be taught those views.

Maybe his parents instilled the ideas. Maybe his parents didn't do anything to combat racist ideas he clearly was getting from somewhere else. Any way you look at it, though, the people who raised this murderer bear a measure of responsibility for what he did.

They almost certainly don't want to hear this, but their son murdered in the cause of a sick, irrational, just flat-out wrong idea of how the world works. And they're at least partially to blame for letting him be infected by this nihilistic creed. They let it happen.

To be clear, he's not a victim. I'm not at all saying he's a victim. He's a murderer and a terrorist who is no better than the butchers of the Islamic State.

But he didn't start out that way. He was made that way by people who are just as wrong and sick in the head as he is.

There has been a minor fuss raised by some comedians of late, railing against so-called "political correctness" and its supposedly deleterious effects on their standup routines. I almost blogged about it, but I thought Jerry Seinfeld's idiotic whining didn't deserve any more attention than it had already gotten. My feeling was and is, if you as a comedian can't figure out how to make people laugh without visiting tired stereotypes, maybe it's time to find a new job.

The impulse that keeps an audience from laughing when a comic makes an easy joke based on a dumb stereotype is the same impulse that keeps us from succumbing to the mindless contempt for somebody else based on irrelevant characteristics like race. It's a sense that tells us, "This ain't right". It's a moral compass. It's a conscience.

A good comedian can find ways to subvert our expectations and make us think about our reflex reactions. Audiences embrace a comedian who can do that. If Seinfeld and Chris Rock and others are finding that audiences simply aren't laughing, I suggest that the fault isn't in the audiences — it's in the comedians.

It's too damned bad that some measure of political correctness — or rather, appreciation of the value of other human beings — didn't find its way into Dylann Roof's hate-filled head.

Racism and other forms of mindless bigotry are particularly insidious and damaging mental virii (damaging to both the host and others). We may not be able to cure those currently infected, but we damned well ought to keep everybody else from getting sick. If that's what you want to call "political correctness", then I embrace political correctness.

Better political correctness than homicide.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Corruption is the key

Bill Curry penned a compelling piece in Salon.
Our government is so corrupt it is odious even in the eyes of patriots. In a Gallup poll measuring reputations of professions, nurses finished first; 80 percent judged their integrity to be high. Members of Congress finished last at 7 percent, a full 14 percent behind lawyers. Even these numbers don’t capture the depth of public anger. If the anger turns to cynicism millions will walk away from politics. Millions already have. If it finds a voice we may have an Arab Spring of our own, maybe as soon as 2016. If so, the less-prepared party will be blown away. As things stand now, that would be the Democrats.
However, Curry thinks the problem goes way beyond the Democrats. The Republicans, of course, are just as culpable but don't give a damn about corruption in government because they're not interested in good government. But it's not just the overtly political establishment: he holds up the New York Times' ethically-challenged decision to "partner" with the author of Clinton Cash as an example of the "soft corruption" that the sociopolitical elite considers acceptable.

As long as corruption is acceptable, society pays — in dollars and in that quaintly old-fashioned conceit, "moral fiber". Curry's prescription:

The only way to put ethics where it belongs, at the center of the political debate, is for progressives to mount a full-bore, grass-roots anti-corruption campaign.
But he wants us not to focus on Citizens United and campaign finance, but on how government is run. His specific proposals, which start with a number of unkept Obama promises, emphasize transparency. They're good proposals, but they don't address the problem that not enough people pay attention to the process. Surveillance cameras don't deter crime if the criminals know nobody's watching.

We, the people, have to be engaged enough in our own governance to keep an eye on it.

(Most of us don't have the time or energy to be so engaged. How do we fix that? I think it will be a combination of inculcating civic virtue in each person, and rethinking the safety net so as few of us as possible are too wrapped up in making ends meet to do anything more.)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Evangelicals and culture

The headline is "Some Evangelicals Take New Look at Bible's Stance on Gays".
Few [pastors] are dropping their opposition. But aware that they are seen by many as bigots, some evangelical leaders are trying to figure out how to stand firm without alienating the increasing share of Americans — especially younger ones — who know gay people and support gay rights, or who may themselves come out as gay.
The argument that the Bible doesn't explicitly and unambiguously condemn homosexuality doesn't sit well with everyone. One pastor argues that if one accepts that the Bible doesn't say that, the result is "the loss of all confidence in the Bible".

I would argue that if the Bible is inerrant, the obvious answer to manifest error is human misinterpretation. Or, don't lose confidence in the Bible, Pastor: lose confidence in your assumption that you have a comprehensive and accurate understanding of what the Bible actually says.

I think that assuming Biblical inerrancy is a pointless exercise: translation introduces inaccuracies that render any translation hopelessly suspect. But if you hang your hat on inerrancy, well, blaming the pastor (or minister, or ...) for misinterpretation is a way to keep your dream alive.

But that's not the reason I mentioned this article. What I want to examine is a different pastor's quest "to deescalate the fight over homosexuality". “Not everything has to be a culture war,” the Rev. Caleb Kaltenbach says. And yet:

He says evangelicals should welcome gay people with “acceptance, but not approval.” Openly gay couples attend his church, he said, but are not allowed to serve on the leadership board.
On the one hand, how evangelicals square the circle — how they reconcile their interpretation of the Bible as condemning homosexuality with their strategic interest in appealing to those who might be open to their message were it not for their view of homosexuality — is really not interesting to me since I'm not an evangelical.

On the other hand, I can't entirely ignore what evangelicals do because they insist on pushing their values on me. It's not enough for them to live the morally upright lives they deem necessary for spiritual salvation: they seem to think the law has to mandate that the rest of us live that supposedly morally upright life, too. Sexual intercourse outside marriage? Abortion? The moral probity of these behaviors is a matter of vital disagreement between reasonable people, but it's clear, or it ought to be, that permitting these behaviors does not compel anyone to engage in them or to deem them morally acceptable. Making these behaviors illegal, on the other hand, prevents those who disagree with evangelicals from acting in accordance with their moral beliefs. We all must share the evangelicals' morality whether we will or no.

That's as profoundly disturbing as any violation of the First Amendment I can imagine.

Evangelicals, if you disagree, tell me exactly how permitting but not requiring behavior of which you disapprove is a violation of your rights. Then explain exactly how prohibiting behavior of which you disapprove isn't a violation of my rights.

As a rhetorical matter, I also have to wonder exactly what it means to "accept", but not to "approve". That sounds like the attitude one adopts around people who smell bad: you accept that you can't do anything about these people's presence in public, but you avoid them as much as possible. That attitude wouldn't make me feel especially welcome.

I'd have a smidgen of sympathy for evangelicals if they weren't so sanctimonious. They'd be a lot easier to get along with if they didn't spend so much of their time judging the rest of us.