The Monday Morning Teaser

This week the clown show was back in town: Friday, Republicans in the House came within hours of shutting down the Homeland Security Department, and managed to pass only a one-week funding bill. So this week they can play the same game of chicken all over again.

That’s why today’s featured article will be “The Myth of Republican Governance”. Every time the Republicans get more power — first the House, then the Senate — we hear how now they’re going to have to get serious and prove to the voters that they can govern responsibly.

They haven’t and they won’t. Government dysfunction is actually a strategy now, and until we understand that, we’re going to keep trying to live in a bygone era. “Can’t make me!” the bratty little kid says, and in this case he might be right.

The weekly summary will also cover the net neutrality win, Obama’s Keystone Pipeline veto, Bill O’Reilly’s troubles, and the “problem of good” that right-wing Christians have discovered, before closing with a hilarious Jim Jefferies routine about gun control.

As for when these posts will appear, I make no promises. I still have a lot of supporting links to find for the featured post, and posting from the road (I’m in Savannah, on my way to Florida) is always a little unpredictable. Be patient.

 

True Love

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

- James Baldwin

This week’s featured article is “The Islamic State: Separating Insight from Stereotype“.

This week everybody was talking about what the Islamic State wants

It all started with “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic. The reason that article inspired so much back-and-forth is that it’s the hardest kind of article to sort out: one that contains both major insights and major flaws. So I want to encourage you both to learn from it and not to be fooled by it. Hence this week’s featured article.

and who loves America

One measure of our democracy’s lack of vitality is the triviality of the things we talk about. This week at a Scott Walker event, Rudy Giuliani said:

I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Walker avoided committing himself, saying that he doesn’t know whether Obama loves America. He also doesn’t know whether Obama is Christian.

People who had any substantive vision of their own to put forward wouldn’t be talking about stuff like this.

And if we’re going to talk about loving America, consider this: After 9-11, President Bush’s approval rating shot above 90%, because when the country was threatened, liberals lined up behind a president they didn’t like and didn’t even necessarily believe had legitimately won the election. How many conservatives love America like that?

and Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress

It’s really a weird situation: Congress is providing a platform for a foreign leader to campaign for re-election by denouncing American policy. Rabbi David Teutsch has responded with his “first fully public statement criticizing a sitting Israeli government official”.

Netanyahu has stated that in coming to speak to Congress, he represents the voice of world Jewry. At best, that claim is a delusion, and at worse, a self-serving lie. There has never been any one person able to speak for world Jewry, an ideologically, theologically, and culturally diverse group of communities. He surely does not speak for me, nor for thousands of active, Jews committed to Israel.

Back when JFK was running for president, anti-Catholic rhetoric said that Catholics couldn’t be loyal Americans, because their first loyalty was to the Pope. Anti-Semites say the same thing about American Jews and Israel. This kind of rhetoric from Netanyahu doesn’t help. M.J. Rosenberg responds:

If American Jews feel that they are being forced to choose between the United States and Israel, there can be little doubt that they will choose the country they live in and to which they have always been devoted. Netanyahu is playing with fire when he even hints at such a choice.

On the substance of the issue Netanyahu wants to talk about — a nuclear deal with Iran — see James Fallows.

and you also might be interested in …

One question that I hope gets raised repeatedly in the 2016 presidential campaign is: Can conservatives acknowledge past mistakes and learn new lessons?

Paul Krugman raised that question with regard to economic policy. He notes that Scott Walker and Rick Perry have been courting the supply-side economics crowd, whose predictions have been consistently wrong for the past eight or nine years: Not only didn’t they see the real-estate bubble or the Great Recession coming, but they have spent the Obama years warning about the return of inflation and high interest rates — the exact opposite of what has been happening.

It also came up this week when Jeb Bush made a lackluster foreign policy speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. (He read the text as if his speechwriters had left it sitting on the podium and he was seeing it for the first time.) His claims to be his “own man” clashed with his list of foreign-policy advisers, nearly all of whom were architects of his father and brother’s foreign policy — including Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney’s only rival for the title “The Man Most Consistently Wrong About Iraq”.

Krugman sums up:

Across the board, the modern American right seems to have abandoned the idea that there is an objective reality out there. … If anything, alleged experts seem to get points by showing that they’re willing to keep saying the same things no matter how embarrassingly wrong they’ve been in the past.

Whether they share his name or not, Republican presidential candidates (other than maybe Rand Paul) still seem to be running for George W. Bush’s third term. Even after eight years to think about it, they have announced no lessons that they have learned from the across-the-board failures of his first two terms.


Matt Yglesias has a good analysis of the gender wage gap.


Ben Carson says that all’s fair in war. I’m afraid to ask him about love.

OK, that was too flip. What Carson actually did was object to fighting a “politically correct war”. Instead, he said: “If you’re gonna have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says no war. Other than that, we have to win.”

What is lost in this point of view — and marks Carson as dangerously naive in military affairs — is that the tactics of war have to serve the objectives of war. If your objectives are more subtle than just “kill everybody and come home”, you need rules of engagement, and you need to punish soldiers who break those rules.

and let’s close with a simple sex fantasy

The Islamic State: separating insight from stereotype

The Atlantic published a much-discussed article about ISIS.
About half of it was deeply insightful.


What does the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria want? How is it different from al Qaeda? Why does it act the way it does? What are its leaders trying to do? What draws in Muslims from all over the world? And if we understood all those things, what strategy would we use to fight it?

Graeme Wood’s article “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic touched off a heated discussion of these important questions, and was answered by a flurry of other articles like “The Atlantic‘s Big Islam Lie” in Salon, “What The Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong about ISIS and Islam” in ThinkProgress, and many others. Just looking at the headlines might convince you that Wood’s article just touches off another he-said/she-said argument and isn’t worth the investment you’d need to figure out what it’s about.

That would be a mistake, because Wood’s article is a rare combination of deep insight with deep flaws. What’s even rarer, the insights don’t depend on the flaws. In other words, you can learn a lot from Wood about how Islam figures in the self-image and self-definition of the Islamic State, but avoid picking up Wood’s stereotyped view of Islam in general.

Let’s start with the insight. Wood raises two topics that hadn’t gotten much attention previously in the mainstream articles about ISIS, and makes a good case that they are highly significant in understanding the Islamic State:

  • a particular Muslim vision of the end times
  • ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi styling himself as a caliph who controls territory.

The End Times. Wood writes:

The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission. …

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam. … Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

Students of Christianity will recognize the parallels to Megiddo, a.k.a. Armageddon, a site in Israel about twenty miles from Haifa. Like Armageddon, whose single sketchy reference in one verse of Revelation gets spun into Volume 11 of the Left Behind series, Dabiq is part of an elaborate projection of ancient prophecy onto current events.

Groups that see themselves playing a role in a prophesied Apocalypse (like ISIS) are different from predominantly political groups (like al Qaeda).

In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda.

Apocalyptic groups have access to a higher level of fervor, but they are also more rigid. When the Americans brought overwhelming force to Afghanistan, Bin Laden could fold his tents and disappear. But if an enemy army really does show up at Dabiq, the Islamic State will have to fight it or face enormous loss of legitimacy.

The Caliphate. Bin Laden’s “franchised” terrorist movement had a highly flexible post-modern organizational structure. He envisioned a restored Caliphate as a distant goal, not something he might hope to rule (or even see) in his lifetime.

The Islamic State, by contrast, controls territory and has (according to Wood) “billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins”. At the moment that territory might amount to slivers of land nobody else wants badly enough to bleed for (see Wood’s map), but the fact that it exists — and that al-Baghdadi has been proclaimed Caliph of it — has enormous significance inside a particular interpretation of Sharia.

Wood quotes an Australian follower (whom the Australian government has been prevented from emigrating to the Islamic State):

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?

If there is a legitimate Caliph of Islam — like Popes and Highlander prize-winners, there can be only one — then all Muslims owe him allegiance.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

But maintaining control of that territory is part of the deal. A legitimate Caliph can’t just be the head of a franchised post-modern terror network, he has to control land and implement Sharia there.

So al-Baghdadi would lose his claim to the Caliphate if, like Bin Laden, he retreated to some equivalent of Tora Bora and then vanished. More than that: Islam would lose its Caliphate — which true Muslims have a duty to establish and maintain, according to Islamic State dogma — if it no longer controlled territory.

Dogma also puts restrictions on the kind of diplomacy ISIS can practice. In the long term, it is the duty of the Caliph to expand the Caliphate, so any treaties or boundaries established by treaties can only be temporary.

If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

… It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

This territory-focus also makes its followers less immediately dangerous to the West: Staying in your home country and blowing things up is a second-best option. The higher goal is to move to the Islamic State and live under true Sharia.

During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”

What ISIS implies about Islam. Where Wood goes wrong — and gets soundly thrashed for it in a number of articles — is  in his framing of the nature of Islam — not just what it means to al-Baghdadi and his followers, but what it means in a more absolute sense. He begins by setting up the straw-man argument that the Islamic State is “un-Islamic” and then knocks it down like this:

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

TPM’s Josh Marshall reacted to the straw man with:

The Wood piece is a fascinating read. But did someone read this and think, Damn, these ISIS folks are really hardcore and they are seriously into Islam!

And Fareed Zakaria writes:

Wood’s essay reminds me of some of the breathless tracts during the Cold War that pointed out that the communists really, really believed in communism. [see endnote 1]

Wood’s (and Haykel’s) argument is a slight-of-hand that works by interchanging two meanings of Islamic. On the one hand, Islam is a tradition that begins with Muhammad and the Qur’an and continues through the centuries. In that sense, Wood’s claim that the Islamic State is “very Islamic” is true: ISIS arises out of one strand of interpretation of sources in the Islamic tradition. Few, if any, critics are claiming that ISIS’s religious fervor is simply a false face consciously wallpapered over secular intentions.

But Islam is also the spiritual practice of 1.6 billion people, each of whom has a unique perspective on the true spirit of the faith. When Muslims say that ISIS is “un-Islamic”, they mean that the religion they are in relationship with finds ISIS’s practices abhorrent. (It’s similar to the way you might react if a close friend were accused of a heinous crime: “The Bob I know would never do that.”)

An appropriate Christian analogy [2] would be the white-supremacist Christian Identity movement. Its rhetoric is incomprehensible without a detailed knowledge of the Bible, so it is very Christian in the sense that it grows out of the Christian tradition. But is it in harmony with the true spirit of Christianity? The vast majority of practicing Christians would say no.

And lest secularists think this is all some defect of religion, Soviet Communism is an inescapable part of the Western secular tradition. It billed its view of history as “scientific”, and its underlying philosophy of dialectical materialism was incomprehensible without reference to the secular Western concept of history as linear and conducive to progress.

There’s a lesson here: If you don’t want to take responsibility for everything that grows out of the roots of your own tradition, you don’t get to assign similar responsibilities to people from other traditions.

Seriousness. Wood’s article embodies an attitude I’ve criticized here and here: that only extremists are “serious” about their beliefs. Again he quotes Haykel, who attributes to ISIS “an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

When you are the victim of this “seriousness” fallacy, the flaw is obvious: Communists are the only “serious” liberals and Fascists the only “serious” conservatives. If Martin Luther King had been “serious”, he would have demanded black supremacy rather than integration. Only the strictest Libertarians are “serious” about freedom. Have you ever based a decision on emotion or intuition? Ever appreciated a work of art or music without being able to explain why? Then you’re not “serious” about rationality. Would you fight against the rape of your daughter or take up arms to liberate Auschwitz? Sorry, but you’re really a war-monger at heart; only absolute pacifists are “serious” opponents of violence.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve given enough examples for you to find one that offends you.

Wood’s defeat of the ISIS-is-un-Islamic straw man leads him seamlessly into the implication that ISIS is where Islam goes if you are “serious” about it. Any tendency to co-exist with the modern world marks you as an un-serious Muslim, with a “cotton candy view” of Islam. [3] From a defense of the obviously true notion that the Islamic State is based on one interpretation of Islam, Wood segues to the dubious implication that it is the only “serious” interpretation.

Well, almost. Eventually, if you read far enough into Wood’s article, you get this caveat:

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

He counters ISIS with another “serious” interpretation: one that also wants to recreate the 7th century, but has a personal rather than political focus.

These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. … Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.

So those are your choices, Muslims: You can go to Dabiq, pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, and prepare to fight the Crusader invasion. Or you can spend your life avoiding politics, following sinful leaders, and worrying about the length of your trousers. Or, if you’d rather live in the 21st century, you can refuse to be “serious” and practice “cotton-candy” Islam.

Interpretation. Every useful insight Wood has about end-times prophecy or the Caliphate is compatible with the more common scholarly view that ISIS’s version of Islam is one interpretation among many. One writer who strikes that balance well is Hussein Ibish. As he said in an interview:

Neither is ISIS authentically Islamic, nor is it in any meaningful sense not Islamic. It is a bizarre interpretation of Islam yoked to a political agenda which is very modern. If we just stop fretting about the relationship of ISIS to the religious base of its ideology and accept that it’s a bunch of extremists who come out of a tradition that they manipulate to justify their crimes and their ambitions, it’s not so complicated.

Think Progress quotes Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary:

[Islamic] texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways — and that’s not a chronological thing, that’s been the case from the get-go.

Such interpretation is necessary, because (like any set of founding texts [4]), taking every line of the Qur’an as a truth that applies to every situation in the most obvious way leads to contradictions. Non-literal interpretation is also necessary for the Islamic State, because the Qur’an contains peaceful, merciful verses as well as violent, cruel ones.

ISIS exegetes these verses away I am sure, but that’s the point. It’s not really about one perspective being literal, one being legitimate, one ignoring things … it’s about diverse interpretations.

The various versions of Sharia — there’s not just one — are themselves interpretations that arose centuries after Muhammad. For example, all the Islamic State dogma about the significance of the Caliphate has to be post-Qur’anic interpretation for a very simple reason: In Muhammad’s day there was no institutional Caliphate; there was just Muhammad. (Similarly, the New Testament contains no mention of the Papacy. The institution-builders came later.)

Don’t give ISIS what it wants. There are two reasons we should try to understand ISIS: so what we can predict what it will do (and maybe even manipulate it to our advantage), and so that we don’t inadvertently give it what it wants.

Here are some things ISIS wants:

  • To be seen as the only Muslims who take Islam seriously. Wood and many others are giving al-Baghdadi what he wants.
  • To be Islam’s representative in an apocalyptic Islam-against-the-infidels holy war. So when Bill O’Reilly announces “The Holy War has begun.”, he’s endorsing ISIS’ narrative.
  • Polarization. An essential aspect of the Apocalypse is that everybody has to pick a side. The worst thing for ISIS is to be viewed as nothing more than one bizarre splinter of Islamic interpretation. We should be encouraging other Muslims to ask: “So how’s that working out for you? Are you prosperous and thriving? Or have you turned your corner of the Earth into a little piece of Hell?”
  • Drama. Jihadists come to the Islamic State looking to fight the ultimate battle. So the more boring we can make their lives, the harder it will be for them. Keeping ISIS bottled up inside its current boundaries may seem like no progress, but it may be the best strategy. The search for drama may lead ISIS to splinter into factions that fight each other over trivial doctrinal differences.
  • To strike terror into the hearts of infidels. Whenever American pundits frame ISIS’ jihadists as the baddest baddies in the history of badness, they’re serving the ISIS propaganda effort. The reason ISIS has to keep racheting things up — from beheadings to burning people alive — is that they need to shock us. We should refuse to be shocked.

Face it on our terms. In the long run, al-Baghdadi can only succeed if he can create an economy based on more than just loot and ransom. That will be hard to do with the territory he has, so keeping him bottled up in it is a good strategy.

The United States military has two major advantages: First, we can bomb the hell out of any army that tries to mass and advance. That’s how we stopped the progress of ISIS towards Kirkuk and Baghdad, and in general how we can hope to keep it bottled up.

Second, our troops can win any pitched battle on open ground. Where we run into trouble is in the kind of guerrilla fighting where we can’t tell who the enemy is.

If the Islamic State doesn’t dissolve into frustrated splinters, we may someday need to fight that pitched battle on open ground. And unlike al Qaeda or the Taliban, ISIS will have a hard time avoiding it.


[1] It’s striking how closely current anti-Islam rhetoric tracks Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric. For example, here’s a Cold War quote from Ronald Reagan in the 1960s (lifted from The Invisible Bridge): “The inescapable truth is that we are at war, and we are losing that war simply because we don’t or won’t realize we are in it.” Compare this to Newt Gingrich discussing our current war with Islam: “You cannot win this war if you don’t admit that it’s a war.”

[2] Whenever people make such analogies, a linguistic problem shows up: Muslims have two adjectives — Muslim and Islamic — where Christians have only the adjective Christian. A Muslim is an imperfect human being who practices Islam. To say that something is Muslim means only that it is associated with Muslims. So Egypt is Muslim country, because you can expect to run into a lot of Muslims there.

But to Muslims, something is Islamic only if it is part of the religion of Islam, and there is a strong implication that it is a true part of Islam, since Islam is the true faith. So it would be inappropriate to say that Egypt is an Islamic country, unless you believe that the current military junta governs according to Allah’s true will.

Hence the controversy over the phrase Islamic terrorism. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was clearly Muslim terrorism, since the people who carried it out were Muslims. But to call it Islamic terrorism implies that the terrorists were faithfully serving Allah when they killed their victims. The terrorists themselves made that claim, but Muslims around the world disagreed. Those who describe the massacre as Islamic terrorism are implicitly taking the terrorists’ side in this argument.

[3] Sam Harris uses serious in a similar way: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.”

[4] As former Supreme Court Justice David Souter pointed out, the same is true of the Constitution. Interpretation is necessary because “the Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony.”

There’s a whole other essay to write here, but traditional societies tend to govern themselves according to collections of contradictory aphorisms that serve to frame the community discussion of any particular case. (Is this a “look before you leap” situation, or a “he who hesitates is lost” situation?) That’s a system, not a flaw; it’s how timeless folk wisdom mixes with immediate circumstances. Only when you start using Enlightenment-style rationality and treating the aphorisms like Euclidean axioms do the contradictions become a problem.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The recent Atlantic article “What ISIS Really Wants” has that unique trait that makes an article worth discussing at length: It combines deep insight with deep flaws. It taught me a lot about how end-times prophesy and the Caliphate’s role in ISIS’s interpretation of Sharia figure in the Islamic State’s appeal. But the article wraps those lessons inside an orientalist view of Islam, in which re-creating the 7th century is the only way to be “serious” about the religion.

It would be a shame if readers either ignored the article or swallowed it whole. But fortunately, its insights into the Islamic State are completely separable from its stereotypes about Islam. I guess that’s what a sift is for.

Look for that article — I’m still futzing with the title, but it will have “Islamic State” in it somewhere — around 10 EST.

The summary will go on to discuss whether President Obama loves America (isn’t that the issue we really need to be talking about?), whether conservatism can learn from its mistakes, and Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress, before closing with a sex fantasy that a feminist cartoonist prefers to 50 Shades of Grey.

Undying Legacies

Did I die?

– Jon Stewart, 2-11-2015

This week’s featured article “When Hate Stays in the Closet” is my attempt to answer some of the more well-intentioned arguments against same-sex marriage.

This week everybody was talking about war

Once in a while, it’s instructive to take the long view and consider how different the world is from the one the Founders envisioned. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but made the the President commander-in-chief. Today, that separation of powers tilts in the President’s direction. But originally it tilted towards Congress.

In the Founders’ vision, the United States wouldn’t have much of a peacetime military. State and local militias would handle smaller-scale stuff like Indian raids, slave uprisings, and criminal gangs — that’s what the 2nd amendment was really about* — while the federal military would only come into play in the event of a war with a distant power like Britain, France, or Spain. Wars on that scale took a long time to develop, so as long as we had an officers corps to build a larger force around, a big standing army wouldn’t be necessary.

Most of the time, then, the President would be commander of not very much. To move towards war, he’d have to ask Congress for a larger military appropriation or to federalize the state militias (a power that Article I, Section 8 assigns to Congress). Probably it would probably say no unless it was ready to declare war.

That’s all turned around now. There’s huge standing military establishment, which the President needs to be able to put into action instantaneously, without waiting for Congress. (During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could have destroyed most of the country by the time Congress could assemble.) And once hostilities begin, Congress has a hard time refusing to support a war the President has already committed forces to.

So we wind up with after-the-fact debates like the current one about whether Congress should authorize the ongoing air war against ISIL. President Obama has been fighting that war since September, under the authority that he claims was granted by the AUMF Congress passed immediately after 9-11, against

those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

That’s kind of a stretch, since ISIL didn’t exist in 2001, but might be considered a successor of Al Qaeda. President Obama says he’d ultimately like Congress to repeal that open-ended AUMF and replace it with a narrower authorization. This week he proposed a more specific ISIL authorization, which would include a repeal of the 2002 authorization to use force in Iraq.

Obama’s proposal has some good features that I hope will be in any future AUMFs: It’s time-limited, for example, so Congress would need to re-authorize it (or not) in three years. But it may still be too broad. Politico has a good discussion of the issues involved.


* The 2nd amendment starts “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …” The NRA thinks that means that  in order to maintain their freedom, the People need to have the weapons necessary to rebel against an oppressive central government. But originally it just meant that locally-controlled militias would eliminate the need for a large peacetime army that might tempt a President (or some general) to start a military coup, as Rome’s Praetorian Guard often had.

and news anchors, real and otherwise

Jon Stewart announced he is leaving The Daily Show later this year. That inspired a number of tributes and summaries of his 17-year run, prompting Stewart to ask, “Did I die?

Meanwhile, Brian Williams has been suspended for six months by NBC News, following the revelation that his account of being on a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003 was not true. Subsequently, questions are being raised about his claims that he flew with Seal Team 6, that he was present when the Berlin Wall came down, and that he saw a dead body float by in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Except for the Katrina piece (which seems unlikely, but is not obviously untrue), the questions are not about his news reporting, but about exaggerated accounts of his experiences that he gave later. (His original report of the RPG incident appears to have been accurate: He was in a copter that was behind the one that was hit.) So given what we know so far, NBC’s response seems to be based on a Caesar’s-wife principle: The public ought to be able to trust everything that NBC’s news anchor says, no matter where he says it.

Humorist P. J. O’Rourke was a little less outraged, and observed that all correspondents tell tall tales about the dangers they’ve faced.

Welcome, Brian Williams, to the International Association of Guys Who’ve Been to War – And Lied About It Later in the Bar. (I.A.G.W.B2W. — L.A.I.L.) Membership includes everybody who’s been to war or near a war or in rough proximity to something that is remotely comparable to the dangers and hazards of war, such a being a teenage volunteer fireman who saved puppies from a smoky building.

A more biting response came from Scott Long at Mondoweiss:

What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?

Or, as Jon Stewart put it:

I am happy. Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War. Finally. Now, it might not necessarily be the first person you’d want held accountable on that list. But never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual f–king war.

What will we do without you, Jon?


This is a good time to look back at Atlantic‘s discussion of why there’s no conservative Jon Stewart. It’s a little more complicated than just the observable fact that conservatives aren’t funny, but not a lot more complicated.

and a government shutdown

When the 2014 elections completed the Republican takeover of Congress, a lot of ink was spilled about governing responsibly and not playing chicken with government shutdowns.

Well, now John Boehner is starting to talk about shutting down the government. Not the whole thing, just the part that keeps us safe.

and you also might be interested in …

Not all of us in New England are as happy about the weather as the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was when he recorded thundersnow — or as happy as the toddler who watched him do it.


Science is still too suspicious an activity for a Republican presidential candidate to associate himself with. Asked if he believed in the theory of evolution, Scott Walker replied “I’m going to punt on that one.

Here’s a question I’d like to ask every candidate who courts the Religious Right: “Do you believe we are in the end times described in the Book of Revelation?” And if the answer is yes, follow up with: “How will that affect your foreign policy? In particular, if events in the Middle East seemed headed towards the Battle of Armageddon that heralds the return of Christ, would you regard that as a good thing or a bad thing?”


Bad Astronomy explains why the adjustments scientists make to temperature data are just good science, and not the “scandal” that global-warming deniers claim.


Authorities are still trying to figure out whether the murder of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, NC was a hate crime or not. The alleged shooter’s alleged Facebook page is full of anti-religious stuff, but a quick scan didn’t reveal anything uglier than what comes across my news feed every day from people who don’t seem particularly dangerous. I didn’t see any threats of violence or Muslims-must-die messages. Neither did atheist blogger Michael Nugent, who has done a more thorough search.

Still, the idea of an self-described “anti-theist” turning violent has captured the dark side of the public imagination (and promoted some introspection among atheists). For example, what happens if someone takes literally a text cherry-picked from, say, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith:

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.

(The quote is really there, but the link argues — I’m not sure how convincingly — that it isn’t nearly so bad in its larger context.)

Secularist groups (including a local one I have spoken to and am a not-terribly-active member of) have been debating whether to issue a statement denouncing hate crimes against believers, or whether such statements might cement the public’s speculative interpretation that this really was an atheist hate crime. On the flip side, I’m not aware of any atheist group that has endorsed the murders. (I’m sure that would make headlines, so I’ll go out on a limb and say it hasn’t happened.)

Whatever the facts turn out to be, one lesson to draw from this is that there are violent people in every religious and/or political movement. If you yourself are non-violent and see the essence of your movement as non-violent, it stings to suddenly feel like the public is picking out that one lunatic to be the poster boy who represents you.

If you’ve ever had that experience, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The next time somebody from a different religious/political group does something horrible, don’t hold everybody from that group responsible — or cherry-pick the movement’s favorite texts to find justifications.


Meanwhile, somebody burned down a Muslim school in Houston.


TPM’s Ed Kilgore sees the religious-right’s freak-out over President Obama’s prayer breakfast remarks as an attack on liberal Christianity in general.

and let’s close with something amazing

Linsey Pollack shows TedxSydney how to turn a carrot into a clarinet. (Why do I think this is harder than he makes it look?)

When Hate Stays in the Closet

answering the most sympathetic and reasonable arguments against same-sex marriage


I found the Marriage Conservation Facebook page when one of my FB friends linked to something “hateful” posted there. And it’s true, you don’t have to read very far to find nasty comments cloaked in self-righteousness.

But that’s not what I found interesting.

In general, I try to discourage my friends from winding themselves up by seeking out other people’s bile. Once in a while I run into some blessedly innocent person who doesn’t understand the depth of irrational hatred in the world, and who (sadly) needs to be disillusioned a little. But I believe that for most of us, the idea that there are crazy, nasty, ugly people on the other side comes to mind far too easily.

What’s harder to hold in mind is all the good, decent, well-meaning people who are trying their best to do the right thing, but happen to believe something different than I do or you do.

There always are such people, and they often form the majority of the opposition. This is true even if you are 100% right. Human beings are fallible, we’re loath to discard familiar attitudes, and the opportunities for rationalization to derail clear thinking are innumerable. (That’s true for me and the people who agree with me, too.) So recognizing the fundamental humanity of your opponents doesn’t mean you have to compromise with them or pretend that their points have more validity than you think they really do.

Failing to see the well-intentioned people on the other side is also counter-productive. Because the more an argument becomes dominated by hate and angry condemnations of hate, the more convinced the well-meaning people will be that they must be right. After all, if the points they find convincing were answerable, surely people would be answering them, rather than tarring them by association with the bigots or the self-righteous types whose best argument is something like “I just talked to God and He agrees with me.”

So let’s consider some of the points that the more reasonable folks who post to Marriage Conservation find compelling. There are basically two types: testimonies and statistics.

Testimony. One kind of article that has been showing up more and more often lately is the testimony of a young adult raised by same-sex parents. Marriage-equality advocates been using such testimonies effectively for some time, and Justice Kennedy (who is likely to be the deciding vote when the Supreme Court rules on this issue later this year) has said:

There are some 40,000 children in California, according to the Red Brief, that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?

So naturally, the other side has found its own testimonies: Not every child raised by a same-sex couple believes in marriage equality. A good example is Katy Faust’s “Dear Justice Kennedy: An Open Letter from the Child of a Loving Gay Parent“.

I write because I am one of many children with gay parents who believe we should protect marriage. … I’d like to explain why I think redefining marriage would actually serve to strip these children of their most fundamental rights.

Faust goes on to say that she loves her mother and her mother’s partner, but the debate about marriage shouldn’t hinge on “lessening emotional suffering within the homosexual community”

This debate, at its core, is about one thing. It’s about children.

“There is no difference between the value and worth of heterosexual and homosexual persons,” Faust writes.

However, when it comes to procreation and child-rearing, same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are wholly unequal and should be treated differently for the sake of the children.

When two adults who cannot procreate want to raise children together, where do those babies come from? Each child is conceived by a mother and a father to whom that child has a natural right.

She then talks about “the missing parent”. In her case she was raised by two mothers, but her parents’ divorce distanced her from her father. The authenticity of that yearning is what gives her testimony its emotional punch. I’m sure that when same-sex-marriage opponents read her article, they come away with a strong desire to protect children like Katy.

But … what does her testimony have to do with same-sex marriage? The problem here is divorce, not gay or lesbian relationships. Children of divorce often miss their non-custodial parent. It’s a sad situation, whether the custodial parent stays single or re-marries someone of either gender.

If you follow Faust’s argument where it logically goes, rather than just to the place that’s politically expedient, you’ll pay no attention to same-sex marriage and instead work to make it much harder for parents to divorce, and to force men to marry women they get pregnant. That would really enforce a child’s “natural right” to both biological parents.

But no one is pushing either of those proposals, probably because you couldn’t even get support for them in religious-right churches (where divorce rates are higher than among, say, atheists) or in Bible-belt states like Louisiana and Mississippi (which have the highest birth-out-of-wedlock rates in the country).

Lying behind Faust’s argument (and many others like it) is an idealistic view of sex and child-bearing that is beautiful in its way: In the ideal world, there would be no unwanted pregnancies. Every conception would result from an act of love between two people committed to each other and to the life they might bring into the world. The parents would be mature enough and self-aware enough to make that commitment and see it through, and Life or God or Fate would cooperate by letting them live long enough to do it.

Unfortunately, though, that vision is disconnected from the world where we actually live — disconnected, in fact, from any world where anyone has ever lived. Selectively imposing pieces of that vision on gay and lesbian couples because they are an unpopular minority is unfair.

It also would be ineffective; there is no reason to believe that banning same-sex marriage would move the children of America closer to that vision in any way. In a world where no one had ever heard of same-sex marriage, Katy Faust’s parents would still get divorced and she would still grow up without her “natural right” to live with her father. And nothing Justice Kennedy does or avoids doing will fix that for future Katy Fausts.

Who redefined marriage? I keep going back to what Dan Savage told Chris Hayes a few years ago: It isn’t that gay people want to redefine marriage, it’s that straight people have already redefined marriage in such a way that there’s no longer any coherent argument for keeping gay couples on the outside.

I am one of those straight people. My wife and I have been married for 30 years, but (though we dearly love some of our friends’ children), we decided not to have a child of our own. For us, as for many childless-by-choice couples, marriage has been about forming a life-long partnership. A strong marriage partnership is indeed a good setting to raise children; but these days, whether a married couple will raise children or not is a separate decision.

Among straights, child-raising has not been the defining characteristic of marriage for at least a generation. To make it the defining characteristic again only when we consider same-sex couples is unfair.

Maybe you want to roll marriage back to the 1960s, before Governor Reagan signed California’s no-fault divorce law (or even to the 1800s, when wives couldn’t own property). If so, be honest about it and go after the people who are really responsible for the changing expectations about marriage: divorced or never-married straights with children, and married straights without children. Try using the law to impose your will on them. See for yourself how popular that would be.

Statistics. Just in time for the Supreme Court’s consideration comes a statistical study comparing children raised by same-sex and opposite-sex parents: “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition” by Donald Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and a sociology professor at the Catholic University of America (the same institution from which he received his masters and doctorate).

Sullins looks at data collected by the National Health Interview Study between 1997 and 2013. His sample includes 207,007 children, of whom 512 came from households where the adults in the household were same-sex couples. (The study has no data on whether the couples were married. Given the legal situation during most of the period in question, the vast majority of them probably weren’t.) He finds that

Emotional problems were over twice as prevalent … for children with same-sex parents than for children with opposite-sex parents.

Mark Regnerus — author of a similar study a few years ago — interprets Sullins’ results to say “Kids do best with Mom and Dad.” In other words, “biology matters”; the more biological parents a child lives with, the better (on average). And since a same-sex couple at best contains only one of a child’s biological parents, it starts out at a disadvantage.

There are, of course, a number of studies that say the opposite: that all other things being equal, children raised by same-sex couples on average do as well or better than those raised by opposite-sex couples.

What the debate ultimately comes down to is what it means for all other things to be equal, because they seldom are in any literal sense. We live in a society where biological parents get the first shot at raising a child. If they are a committed couple who are willing and able to do the job, no one can stop them or even wants to stop them. So when you study children being raised by someone other than both biological parents, you are often looking at a child for whom something has gone wrong. There may have been a divorce, a death, a desertion, a parent in prison, abuse, a series of foster homes, or an involved custody battle — maybe several of those things.

If you are looking at the emotional well-being of those children as a measure of the the quality of the parenting they are receiving in their current homes, you need to compare them to similar children in other homes. If, say, my wife and I were to adopt a six-year-old from an orphanage in Indonesia, a few years later it might be fair to compare our child to other children adopted at a similar age from similar orphanages — but not to children raised from birth by American parents.

Most studies of same-sex parenting do some similar kind of data-normalization, so that, say, children of divorce are compared to other children of divorce, and so on. But Regnerus argues explicitly for not adjusting the raw data to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

You can make the children of same-sex households appear to fare fine (if not better), on average, if you control for a series of documented factors more apt to plague same-sex relationships and households: relationship instability, residential instability, health and emotional challenges, greater economic struggle (among female couples), and—perhaps most significantly—the lack of two biological connections to the child. If you control for these, you will indeed find “no differences” left over. Doing this gives the impression that “the kids are fine” at a time when it is politically expedient to do so.

This analytic tendency reflects a common pattern in social science research to search for ‘‘independent’’ effects of variables, thereby overlooking—or perhaps ignoring—the pathways that explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world.

What he is arguing, in other words, is that same-sex couples who are raising children ought to be held responsible for how their children got into this situation, whether they had anything to do with it or not.

For example, suppose a husband deserts his wife and children for another woman, and the wife later finds a committed partner who is female. Regnerus and Sullins would assign the emotional baggage of the desertion to the wife who stayed and the woman who took on the challenge of helping her, not to the opposite-sex household of the man who actually deserted. The impact of bigotry on the same-sex household (which might have something to do with why lesbian couples on average make less money than couples that include a man) is also their responsibility, not the responsibility of those who discriminate against them.

I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to do a Sullins-type study about the emotional problems and developmental difficulties faced by children raised by black parents. Blacks parents, on average, are poorer than white parents. They have lower academic achievement, are more likely to live in neighborhoods with bad schools, and so on. Maybe those factors shouldn’t be normalized out of the statistics by which we judge black parents, because they are “the pathways that explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world.” Maybe they should instead be arguments for not letting blacks raise children at all, or not letting them get married. Maybe solidly middle-class black couples with good educations should be considered suspect because of the statistics associated with their race.

Or not. Maybe if two men find a willing surrogate mother to bear a child for them, and then raise that child from birth to adulthood in a loving household, they shouldn’t have to answer for statistics shaped by divorce and desertion — as Regnerus and Sullins would have them do.

Magic. Lying behind the Sullins and Regnerus studies is the same kind of magical thinking that Katy Faust demonstrates: If only we made same-sex relationships more arduous, then opposite-sex relationships would miraculously improve. Through some benevolent act of God, there wouldn’t be any more unwed mothers or divorces or households so toxic that the state had to intervene. Those things are all the fault of homosexuals, so of course we shouldn’t factor them out of the statistics when we judge the children they are raising.

I’ve never met Sullins or Regnerus or talked to anybody who has, so I have no idea what motivates a person to devote his career to constructing such studies. But the people who are impressed with those studies and quote them to others, I suspect, are mostly well-intentioned folks. And if Faust is some kind of hater, she hides it really well. I can easily sympathize with her wish that her mother and father had done a better job with their marriage, so that Faust need never have gone through the disruption of their divorce.

But the problems of opposite-sex relationships belong to opposite-sex couples. Making life harder for gay people won’t solve them.

And whether it would happen in your ideal world or not, same-sex couples are raising children. Some are adopting children whose biological parents can’t or won’t raise them. Some are working with doctors and friends to conceive children that they will raise from birth. And some are keeping faith with the children they had in a previous opposite-sex relationship that failed.

In the vast majority of those cases, if they gave those children up something worse would happen to them. And if you make life harder for those couples, you can’t avoid making life harder for their children. Who would that benefit?

If you think someone would benefit, I don’t automatically see you as a hate-filled bigot. But I can’t figure out who you’re picturing. It can’t be Katy Faust, or any of the other victims of failed opposite-sex relationships. And if not them, then who?

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I spent some time looking around on the anti-gay-marriage Facebook page Marriage Conservation to see what kinds of arguments motivate the people who seemed most thoughtful and reasonable (i.e., not the ones who express a blind hatred for all things gay). My response to those arguments will be in “When Hate Stays in the Closet”, which I think will be out around 8 EST.

I don’t know if this post will convince anyone, but I hope it will at least explain why the rest of us don’t find these points as obvious and compelling as the “marriage conservationists” do. (Feel free to forward it to that aunt or cousin who keeps sending you anti-gay stuff.)

The weekly summary will discuss President Obama’s proposed Congressional authorization for the war against ISIL, Brian Williams, Jon Stewart, the Chapel Hill murders, and a few other things, before closing with a short video demonstrating how to make a clarinet out of a carrot. (Hard to believe Bugs Bunny never thought of that.)

Sanctifying Power

Christianity did not “cause” slavery, anymore than Christianity “caused” the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion’s share of American history.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates,
The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech” (2-6-2015)

This week’s featured post is “The Individual and the Herd“.

This week everybody was talking about vaccinations

The week was a lesson in the unpredictability of presidential campaigns. When Chris Christie planned his trip to London, it probably never occurred to him that the headline would be his comments on vaccinations, or that before it was all said and done, just about all the other Republican hopefuls would have to respond.

In “The Individual and the Herd” I discuss what I think is really behind this argument: Many Republicans want to use an extremist rhetoric of individual freedom without being willing to go where it leads. In particular, you can’t understand public health without looking at things from the point of view of society and the public good. If all you can see are individual trees, any discussion about the health of the forest is going to go over your head.

But, politics of the issue aside, there really is a measles problem developing. We had this disease beaten, and now we don’t.

And let’s face it: To the extent that we are unable to come to terms with public-health and public-good problems like this, we’re uncivilized. The rest of the world sees this clearly.

and Christian/Muslim history

Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama gave a wonderful talk that I recommend everyone read. You can skip past the loosening-the-room-up humor to where he starts to get serious: “And certainly for me, this is always a chance to reflect on my own faith journey.”

Several times (most recently two weeks ago) I’ve focused on the difference between liberal religion and fundamentalist religion. One aspect of that difference is summed up in a quote often attributed to President Lincoln:

My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.

In fundamentalism, it’s obvious which side is God’s: It’s all spelled out very clearly in a “literal” interpretation of scripture. So there’s no problem problem going to extremes, because you begin with 100% certainty.

But in liberal religion, how to bring the spirit of your faith into the nitty-gritty of human experience is always a bit mysterious, and you constantly have to re-examine your actions and motives to be sure you’re still getting it right. That’s what Obama is talking about:

We should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

He goes on in that vein, in a way that I find beautiful.

But you’d never know that from the public discussion of his talk, which focused on this small excerpt, one that comes right after Obama has criticized ISIL and “those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends”:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

That statement is entirely accurate historically. But Christian-good/Muslim-bad is a central tenet of American conservatism these days, so this response from former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was far too typical:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

Apparently one value Gilmore thinks “we all share” is to regard whatever story makes us feel good as “history”, no matter what actually happened. And he’s right: Obama doesn’t believe in that. But neither do I or a lot of other Americans … or even a lot of “believing Christians”.


The theory that Islam is an inherently violent religion runs head-on into a study showing that the murder rates in Muslim countries are much lower than in non-Muslim countries.


Some secularists segued from Obama’s criticism of Christianity to a denunciation of religion in general: They all have been used to justify wars and atrocities at one time or another, so they should all be done away with.

This is where I think the Ta-Nehisi Coates quote at the top of this post fits in: People seeking power or exercising power are always going to justify what they do in whatever way things get justified in their culture. (Stalinists used to describe their version of Marxism as “scientific” and make reference to the “laws of History” rather than the will of God.) For most of history, that’s meant justification in religious terms. But getting rid of religion wouldn’t change the underlying dynamic. Rationalization will use whatever tools are at hand.

And religiously-justified atrocities are never going to convince ordinary people stop practicing religion. It’s like drinking alcohol: If you regularly enjoy a glass of wine at dinner without it ever leading to anything horrible, hearing about drunk drivers who kill innocent children or alcoholics who wreck their own lives isn’t going to persuade you to stop. Your own positive experiences are always going to trump horror stories about somebody else.

and the budget

From the news coverage, you’d never know that President Obama has proposed a budget for the next fiscal year. It fleshes out some of the ideas he floated in the State of the Union, like free community college and a middle-class tax break. Given that Republicans control Congress, the Obama budget probably isn’t going anywhere. But Paul Ryan’s budgets have also been doomed the last few years, and they got quite a bit of coverage.

The Dealbook blog at the NYT highlights Obama’s corporate tax reform proposal, and explains why no corporate tax reform is likely to be passed, no matter how much each party calls for it.

The basic idea of corporate tax reform is simple: Compared to other countries we have a high nominal corporate tax rate, but the tax code also has so many special breaks in it that few corporations (and really few large corporations) pay anything like the nominal rate. (According to Citizens for Tax Justice, when you aggregate the years 2008-2012, General Electric, Verizon, and Boeing paid a negative tax rate on their very large profits.) In theory, American business in general would benefit if we could lower the nominal rate while getting rid of loopholes.

The problem is, neither party really wants to do that. Democrats mainly want to reverse the long-term slide in the percentage of revenue the government gets from corporations, while Republicans want revenue to slide further. The corporations whose campaign contributions call the tune in Congress just want to pay less tax; preferably they’d get lower tax rates and more loopholes. Or maybe the loopholes could go away temporarily and then get put right back in.

and you also might be interested in …

Rick Perry’s case for becoming president rests on his record in Texas, which he says created 1/3 of all the new jobs in America during his tenure, and claims as proof that his keep-taxes-low and get-government-out-of-the-way policies work. Another view, though, is that he was governor of an oil state during a time of high oil prices. Now oil prices have fallen, so it will be interesting to see if the Texas “miracle” continues.

The collapse of oil prices is happening on his successor’s watch, though, so Perry may be able to avoid blame for the consequences. But Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is not so lucky. He’s still governor, his state is still largely dependent on oil, and it faces a projected $1.6 billion deficit in the coming year, caused partly by the big tax cuts he pushed through during the boom part of the boom-and-bust cycle. Jindal’s presidential prospects will end if he raises taxes, and Louisiana already ranks near the bottom of all states in per capita education and health-care spending (and in results; the people of Louisiana are relatively unhealthy and uneducated, compared to other states), so it will be interesting to see what he does.


It looks like that Oregon bakery is going to have to pay damages to the same-sex couple it refused to make a wedding cake for. (The amount is still to be determined.) Salon‘s Gabriel Arana is not sympathetic.

At heart, what the religious right is asking for with its “religious liberty” campaign is to rewrite our secular code to allow the practice of refusing service to members of society for no substantive reason other than to express moral disapproval. They are unlikely to succeed. That’s because this is a debate we’ve already had and settled. … As a society, we decided, after more than a century of wrangling, that our civic code required citizens to treat each other equally in the arenas of commerce, housing and public accommodations—even if your religion says you don’t have to, or that you shouldn’t.

… The problem with these [anti-gay religious liberty] bills is that it’s impossible to write them in a way that doesn’t also uphold the right to discriminate against people on the basis of race; you either have to use broad language to write the bill so it can’t be construed as singling out gay people, or specify that all other forms of discrimination are bad except discrimination against gays.

These attempts to write prejudice into our civic code will fail. We long ago decided the mantle of religion does not override our basic duty to be decent to one another.

and let’s close with something creative

Steven Benedict did a smash-up of lines from Coen brothers movies to create a conversation. As he describes it:

The characters talk to one another across the films so we can more clearly hear the Coens’ dominant concerns: identity, miscommunication and morality. Taken as a trinity, these elements indicate that the Coens’ true subject is the search for value in a random and amoral universe.

The Individual and the Herd

How the rhetoric of freedom can lead us astray.


The question Governor Chris Christie was asked seemed simple enough:

There’s a debate going on right now in the United States, the measles outbreak that’s been caused in part by people not vaccinating their kids. Do you think Americans should vaccinate their kids? Is the measles vaccine safe?

He could have just said: “The measles vaccine is safe and parents should get their kids vaccinated.” That appears to be what he believes, and the question required nothing more. But instead he decided to expand the context and give a more complex answer:

All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It’s much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that’s what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.

In response to follow-up questions, he explained that vaccines for different diseases have different risks and benefits (which is true), so the government should be careful about which ones it mandates and which ones it leaves up to parents (which hardly anyone disputes). “I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option,” he protested. And when asked again whether vaccines were dangerous, he responded: “I didn’t say that.” But he also stopped short of saying: “The measles vaccine is safe.”

In short, if you parse Christie’s words very carefully and give him just a little benefit of the doubt, he didn’t say anything all that objectionable. But the question lingers: Why did he go there in the first place? Why not just give the simple answer, if that’s what he believes? After all, that’s the image Christie works so hard to project: a man who bluntly says what he thinks without a lot of political doubletalk. Why couldn’t “Is the measles vaccine safe?” get a “yes” answer, rather than a long-winded discussion followed by a denial that he was saying it was dangerous?

The obvious implication was that (as he progresses towards an as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign) Christie was trying not to offend some bloc of Republican voters. And many then jumped to the conclusion that the bloc in question is the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, who believe the scientifically groundless theory that vaccines cause autism.

The controversy Christie’s remarks started might have died out quickly, if rival presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul hadn’t jumped in and said explicitly what Christie was accused of implying:

I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.

(He later backed off, claiming that after just means that vaccines and mental disorders are “temporally related”, not that one causes the other. So I’m sure he won’t mind if the media publishes a slew of stories of the form: So-and-so did something horrible after listening to Rand Paul. Or maybe a headline like “ISIS Beheads Hostage After Paul Speech”.)

But here’s the problem with the pandering-to-Republican-anti-vaxxers theory: First, there just aren’t that many anti-vaxxers. [See endnote 1]  And second, they aren’t all Republicans. There’s a liberal version of anti-vax that focuses the conspiracy theory on drug companies rather than government. [2]

So the theory that a Republican primary might be decided by anti-vaxxers casting a single-issue vote is a little sketchy. That’s why as soon as their position got labelled as pandering to anti-vaxxers, other potential candidates took the opposite side of the argument [3] and both Christie and Paul had to back down to a certain extent.

So who were they pandering to? The Libertarian/Theocrat side of my model in “The Four Flavors of Republican“.

Again Paul was the more explicit:

The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own their children. [4]

In other words, decisions about vaccinations shouldn’t be made by the American people as a whole through the democratic process, or by the medical experts that the people delegate those decisions to. Libertarians believe those issues should be decided by sovereign individuals, and Theocrats want them decided by the fathers that God made sovereign over their households.

When you look at the world through either one of those lenses, vaccinations aren’t the point, they just symbolize larger issues about authority. So sure, I’m going to vaccinate my kids, but the decision should be up to me. “It’s an issue of freedom,” Paul said, and when the CNBC interviewer pressed him, he got sarcastic. “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual.”

This ties vaccinations to other “freedom” issues, like your freedom to go without health insurance rather than accept ObamaCare, your freedom to let your kids grow up ignorant rather than send them to a government-approved school (or report their home-schooling progress to an education bureaucrat), or your freedom to take the low wages and poor working conditions an employer offers rather than negotiate through a union. Newly elected North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis defended the freedom of food-sellers to set their own hygiene standards rather than be bound by government regulations:

“I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,'” the senator said.

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience. [5]

So in Tillis’ ideal republic, you would have to study the diverse hygiene practices of all the places you eat, so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s safe to eat there. Because freedom.

Taken to its logical extreme, the freedom agenda says that you should be free to drive on the left side of the interstate. You wouldn’t, of course, because it’s dangerous and you’re not stupid. At least, you wouldn’t most of the time. Most people wouldn’t, most of the time.

But it wouldn’t take many to screw everything up. What if, of all the drivers who would be traveling north during your next trip south down the interstate, you knew that only one would be using his freedom to drive on the left side and come straight at you? How would that change your driving experience?

Here’s what it boils down to: Human beings are simultaneously individuals and members of society, not fundamentally one or the other. Some issues (like free speech) are easier to understand from the individual point of view, while others (like traffic) require a  social point of view. [6]

Public health is fundamentally social. Germs pay no attention to your individuality; they just spread through the herd. You personally may do everything right, but whether or not you get sick also depends on social things like the quality of the sewage system, whether other infected individuals have access to health care or paid sick leave, how well your city controls rats and other vermin, whether restaurant workers wash their hands, and what percentage of people get vaccinated. In extreme cases, it depends on really draconian government interventions like quarantines and travel restrictions.

No matter what kind of intellectual contortions you do, you can’t square all that with a pure individual-freedom agenda. What if a free individual exposed to Ebola doesn’t want to be quarantined in a treatment facility? (Maybe he has his own theory about diseases and doesn’t believe all this germ-and-virus nonsense. Or maybe he was only probably exposed, and he’s willing to risk it.) If your ideology limits you to looking at everything from the individual-freedom viewpoint, your thinking about public health is going to be crippled.

So that’s who Christie and Paul were pandering to this week: people whose thinking about public health has been crippled by individualist ideology. If either becomes president, he may continue to pander to them.


[1] Anti-vaxxers only dangerous because it doesn’t take many to screw up herd immunity, which protects people who can’t use the vaccine. (In other words: Even if you can’t be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated yet, you’ll be safe because you are unlikely to come into contact with sick people.) According to the World Health Organization, as reproduced in Wikipedia, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 83-94% vaccinated, so as few as 6% in a local community might be enough to make that community vulnerable to an outbreak.

If you think of this in terms of the free-rider problem, the herd immunity threshold measures how many free riders the vaccination system can stand before it starts breaking down.

[2] Anti-vaccine liberals are sometimes used to prove that in their own way Democrats are just as much at war with science as Republicans who deny climate change or evolution. But here’s the clear difference: Anti-science liberals are on the fringe of the Democratic Party, and elected officials seldom pay much attention to them. Conversely, climate-change denial is a core position of the conservative base, so virtually every elected Republican has gotten in line.

[3] Marco Rubio demonstrated that a Republican presidential contender can give the simple, direct answer: “There is absolutely no medical science or data whatsoever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism or anything of that nature. And by the way, if enough people are not vaccinated, you put at risk infants that are three months of age or younger and have not been vaccinated and you put at risk immune-suppressed children that are not able to get those vaccinations. So absolutely, all children in American should be vaccinated.”

Also Ted Cruz: “On the question of whether kids should be vaccinated, the answer is obvious, and there’s widespread agreement: of course they should.”

But both avoided a direct endorsement of mandatory vaccinations, like Ben Carson’s.

[4] Rekha Basu of the Des Moines Register had the right response:

No, we don’t own our children. From slavery to child sexual abuse, the notion of owning another human has led to nothing good. Legally, we’re responsible for our kids and their care, feeding and safety until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. But they are autonomous human beings, which is why, unlike property, there are laws and standards governing what we can and can’t do to them.

[5] We’ve seen this two-step before. The same politicians who say that a well-informed public can sort things out without government help will also oppose any regulations that inform the public. Today, Tillis says he’d make Starbucks post that sign, but when the time came to vote on it he actually wouldn’t, for exactly the same reason: The market can sort out whether businesses should have to post their hygiene policies.

[6] It’s like the wave/particle thing with light, if that analogy makes sense to you. If not, forget I mentioned it.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week was a lesson in the unpredictability of presidential campaigns. Who knew Republican candidates would be talking about the measles vaccine? Maybe next week they’ll argue about whether cities should have fire departments or some other issue no one is thinking about now. (BTW: This has been an example of why I haven’t been taking Rand Paul’s candidacy seriously: He has never figured out how to downplay his loonier views, so if he ever becomes the focus of the campaign, the other candidates will maneuver him into spending a week talking about eliminating public schools or something.)

If you’ve been listening to the vaccination debate and wondering “Why are we talking about this?”, this week’s featured article will take it back to its roots in “The Individual and the Herd”. It should be out by 9 EST.

The weekly summary will say more about the measles outbreak, then talk about the wonderful talk President Obama gave at the National Prayer Breakfast — and the fevered response to the two lines in which he pointed out that Christianity is open to abuse just like Islam is.

I’ll also mention some of the minor matters that got lost in all the sturm und drang about measles and the Crusades, like next year’s federal budget, and state budgets whose main purpose is to promote the governor’s shot at the Republican presidential nomination.

The summary will close with a very creative smash-up that turns the Coen brothers’ movies into one big conversation. Expect that by noon.

And in case you’re wondering: It’s still snowing. If Shakespeare had set “Twelfth Night” in New England, Feste would sing, “The snow, it snoweth every day.”

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