Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Buying and Owning

Remember, ladies and gentlemen, there is no background check if you want to buy a senator.

David Letterman

I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where American billionaires own the political process.

Bernie Sanders

This week’s featured posts are “Turning the Theocracy Against Itself” and “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie Sanders“.

This week everybody was talking about Ireland

Friday, the Irish voted to legalize same-sex marriage by a whopping 62%-38% margin. Turnout was impressive: 61% of the electorate. This is the first time a country has legalized same-sex marriage by a national referendum, and points out just how fast public opinion has been changing: Homosexual acts were illegal in Ireland just 22 years ago.

From The Guardian:

All but one of the republic’s 43 parliamentary constituencies voted Yes to same-sex marriage. And fears of an urban-rural, Yes/No split were not realised either. Constituencies such as Donegal South West, which in the past voted against divorce and abortion reform, backed the Yes side.

There’s some debate about whether a referendum is proper when we’re talking about a basic right. (I’ve seen a t-shirt that says “How about we vote on your marriage?”) But when the result comes in clear and strong like this, it’s the most satisfying way to establish marriage equality. Nobody can argue that out-of-touch elitists forced this change on a silent majority.

And so the Archbishop of Dublin reacted like this:

I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church.


Here’s what I don’t understand about the Catholic Church and all the other religious groups who are dead-set against marriage equality: Compare to divorce. A web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says:

The Church does not recognize a civil divorce because the State cannot dissolve what is indissoluble.

Or, as Catholics sometimes put it, the couple is still married “in the eyes of God”. If a person who gets a civil divorce then marries someone else, those marriages aren’t valid “in the eyes of God”, who sees the sex in those second marriages as adulterous and sinful.

And yet, Catholic politicians like Rick Santorum aren’t campaigning to make second marriages illegal. Bakers and caterers aren’t asserting their “religious freedom” to deny service to the receptions after second marriages — which, just like same-sex marriages, are public announcements of the couple’s intention to sin.

In short, American Catholics long ago made peace with the notion that civil marriage and sacramental marriage are different things. Why isn’t a similar outcome sufficient here, for all the conservative religious groups? Why not accept that same-sex couples can be married under the law, with all the legal rights and privileges civil marriage offers, but go on teaching that they aren’t married in the eyes of the Deity? Like taxes and currency, the civil code is a thing of Caesar, not of God.

and the coverage of the Waco shoot-out

A week ago yesterday, nine people died in a shoot-out between biker gangs at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas. A large number of liberal pundits have noticed how this has been covered compared to, say, the violence in Baltimore or Ferguson.

The apparent difference is the number of white people involved. Violence among whites is covered as some bizarre exception — crazy people do crazy things — while black violence is presented as an indictment of the whole community. Charles Blow comments:

Does the violence in Waco say something universal about white culture or Hispanic culture? Even the question sounds ridiculous — and yet we don’t hesitate to ask such questions around black violence, and to answer it, in the affirmative. And invariably, the single-mother, absent-father trope is dragged out.

But a father in the home is no guarantor against violence. By the way, is anyone asking about the family makeup of the bikers in Waco?

No? Exactly.


The shooting also drew attention to Twin Peaks, a racier version of Hooters that was the fastest-growing restaurant chain of 2013. Some of that attention has exposed TP’s demeaning image of its customers. “Men are simple creatures,” TP’s director of marketing (a woman) told Huffington Post in January. A leaked internal memo says the restaurant targets men who “love to have their ego stroked by beautiful girls.” Especially beautiful girls who are paid, I guess. Simple creatures crave simple relationships.

and the Santa Barbara oil spill

A pipe owned by Plains All-American Pipeline broke Tuesday, spilling oil into the waters near Santa Barbara and sludging about nine miles of previously beautiful beach. The exact whys and wherefores are still under investigation, but The LA Times reports that Plains has had a “long record of problems“.


For me, the oil spill has a personal angle: To what extent am I responsible for it?

You see, when my Dad died, I inherited half his shares in Plains. I still have them. So while the rest of you look at Plains spokemen on TV and think “those evil bastards”, I’m thinking “they believe they represent me”.

And that raises an issue that I seldom write about, but think about quite a bit: I’ve never come up with a theory of socially responsible investing I like. Occasionally I make a decision to avoid companies out of sheer moral repugnance — tobacco companies, for example. After the 2008 crash, I sold my Citicorp shares at a huge loss without waiting to see if the bank could cash in on this government-bailout thing. But this is always an emotional response rather than a thought-out principle. I’m trying to soothe my conscience, not improve the world.

Other times, I invest in something socially responsible because I believe the world will eventually see its potential the way I do. (Sometimes it does. A year or so ago I mentioned Hannon Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure, which provides capital for sustainable-energy projects. Its shares were around 14 then and are near 20 now.)

But divestment movements in general leave me scratching my head. Me selling a stock drives the price down (by a miniscule amount, given the quantities I trade in) and makes it a better deal for somebody else. (Thursday, when I asked my broker what he knew about the oil spill, he opined that this price dip might be a good time to buy more of Plains. That’s how the investment community thinks.) No matter what socially responsible investors do with their money, we’re still going to live in a fossil fuel economy. There are still going to be oil wells and pipelines — partly to service customers like me, who drive cars.

So anyway, I’m feeling an emotional repugnance towards Plains right now — not because they’re a pipeline company, but because it looks like they’re a bad pipeline company (rather than a decent company that had the kind of accident that could happen to anybody). I’m watching the news to see if their/our actions have really been as negligent/corrupt as I suspect.

But I’m still no closer to a principle. If you have one you’re happy with, please talk about it in the comments.

and you also might be interested in …

Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate voted to give President Obama and the next president “trade promotion authority” to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The bill requires an up-or-down vote on the treaty as the president signs it, with no amendments of filibusters. The bill goes to the House now, where the vote should be close. Few Democrats currently support it, while far-right Republicans are balking. Rush Limbaugh has announced his opposition, on the general principle that Obama should not be given more authority to do anything.


David Letterman signed off. The tributes were so glowing that he admonished well-wishers to “save a little for my funeral“.


An Atlanta TV station shines a light on the secretive ALEC meetings.


Robert Reich points to an interesting political fault line that someday — but probably no time soon — will cause an earthquake: the uneasy juncture between small business owners and giant corporations. Currently it’s having a tiny rumble over the push to lower the corporate tax rate. Small business associations aren’t supporting that push, because the majority of small businesspeople don’t pay the corporate tax rate. (Their profits show up on Schedule C or some other part of their individual 1040s.) So lowering the corporate rate while leaving individual rates fixed would shift the balance in favor of big business and against small business.

In general, small businesses provide political cover for big businesses and get little in return. Whenever some proposal would hurt Citicorp or Walmart, their PR flacks want you to focus instead on your favorite chef-owned restaurant or your cousin’s hardware store. And they want the chef and your cousin to identify with them and support their full political agenda, even as that agenda favors the banks who won’t loan small businesses money or the big chains that are squeezing individual proprietors out of the market. They want the 600-acre farmer to blame government regulations for his problems, and not the monopolistic power of the Monsantos who supply him or the Cargills he has to sell to.

There’s room for a psychological study here, and a polemic along the lines of What’s the Matter With Kansas?. What’s the matter with small businesspeople? When the mega-corps completely take over, they’ll be peons just like the rest of us. Why can’t they see that their best allies are below them on the economic scale, not above?


It took a while, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has put together a new government following the recent Israeli elections. He himself is the acting foreign minister, so the deputy foreign minister is the country’s top full-time diplomat.

That would be Tzipi Hotovely, who gave a speech Thursday re-orienting Israel’s diplomatic rhetoric. Those who speak for Israel abroad, she said, need to start talking about the morality of Israel’s domination of the occupied territories, not just Israel’s practical need for security.

It’s important to say [that] this land is ours. All of it is ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.

She referenced a great medieval Jewish scholar:

Rashi says the Torah opens with the story of the creation of the world so that if the nations of the world come and tell you that you are occupiers, you must respond that all of the land belonged to the creator of world and when he wanted to, he took from them and gave to us.

In short, the religious fanatics in the Middle East aren’t all on one side.

and this week, let’s do a double closing

I mean, I’ve already blown away my weekly word limit, so why not?

First, this cartoon is supposed to encourage people to travel in groups, but I find a political message here too.

and then there’s Coldplay’s idea to do a Game of Thrones musical with the original cast. What could go wrong?

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders challenges not just Hillary Clinton, but the country’s long-term rightward drift.


[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont began his presidential campaign on April 30 with a five-minute statement in front of the Capitol, and then took five more minutes of questions from reporters. [video, transcript]

The standard I try to maintain at The Weekly Sift is that I’m honest, but not necessarily objective. So I’ll tell you the bias I start with: As I listened to Sanders’ talk, I had the reaction conservatives must have had in 1964 when they listened to Barry Goldwater. In my heart, I know he’s right.

Sanders says the things I’ve been thinking, but that I never hear directly from presidential candidates. Or I hear them, but only because I know how to unwrap the layers of bows and wrappings that politicians put on their ideas to make them look pretty to the conventional wisdom.

Prosperity for everybody. All candidates, left and right, seem to agree that the major economic issue America faces is the shrinking of the middle class and the dismal prospects faced by our young adults. Rand Paul, for example, said:

I’ve been able to enjoy the American Dream. I worry, though, that the opportunity and hope are slipping away for our sons and daughters.

And Ted Cruz:

For so many Americans the promise of America seems more and more distant. … So many fear that that promise is today unattainable.

And Marco Rubio:

My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible.

If the 2016 race is about issues — always a question in this era of trumped-up pseudo-scandals and 30-second attack ads — the issue it should be about is why the middle class is shrinking and what can be done about it. Paul explains that our economy is “collaps[ing] under mounting [government] spending and debt.” Rubio blames leaders whose “ideas are stuck in the 20th century” and says we need to “reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace ObamaCare”. Cruz talks more vaguely about “liberty”, mentions policies like a flat tax, and implies that the real secret to success in all areas is for our nation to get right with God.

Sanders points in a different direction: The middle class is endangered because the very wealthy have taken control of our political system and shaped our economy so that virtually all economic growth flows to them.

The major issue is how do we create an economy that works for all of our people rather than a small number of billionaires, and the second issue, directly related, is the fact that as a result of the disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, we now have a political situation where billionaires are literally able to buy themselves elections and candidates.

Class warfare and socialism. Conservatives have wasted no time calling this “class warfare“. Ben Stein expressed his upper-class let-them-eat-cakism like this:

There has never been a case in history where a poor person who’s a slovenly, uneducated, lazy, undisciplined drug addict got to be rich because of some wealthy person being taxed.

But a lot of progressives aren’t afraid of the class-warfare meme any more, and respond: “It’s about time somebody started fighting back.” As Warren Buffett said in an interview in 2010:

There has been class warfare waged, and my class has won. I mean, it’s been a rout. You have seen a period where American workers generally have gone no place, and where the really super-rich have (as a group) increased their income five for one.

Sanders has been turning around the “class warfare” rhetoric for a while now. When Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankenship (with an annual salary of $16 million) came to Congress in 2012 to call for cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, Sanders’ web page called him “the face of class warfare“.

Likewise, Sanders doesn’t run away from the word socialism. They have socialism in Scandinavia, and those countries are pretty nice places to live. Let’s talk about how kids are going to afford college, not about labels like socialist.

Proposals. Sanders alluded to a number of proposals he has fleshed out elsewhere. All of them take a step beyond anything the Obama administration has proposed.

Reverse Citizens United. Sanders has proposed a constitutional amendment.

Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power of Congress and the States to protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections, and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.

Make College Free. He has proposed legislation he describes like this:

$70 billion a year in assistance – two-thirds from the federal government and one-third from states – would replace what public colleges and universities now charge in tuition and fees. The federal share of the cost would be offset by imposing a tax on Wall Street transactions by investment houses, hedge funds and other speculators.

That tax, the so-called Robin Hood tax, is interesting in its own right. The theory is that introducing friction into the financial markets would make them less volatile.

Transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Sanders is a long-time champion of solar energy, and a leading opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. He has proposed spending $1 trillion over five years on infrastructure, and claims this would create 13 million jobs. (I don’t know what that’s based on.) He has not specified how to pay for this (though the next item might play a role). He has pointed out that this plan would be cheaper than the Iraq War, which also had no funding mechanism.

Tax corporate profits that are hidden overseas. Again, he has a bill proposed:

Under current law, U.S. corporations are allowed to defer or delay U.S. income taxes on overseas profits until the money is brought back into the United States.  U.S. corporations are also provided foreign tax credits to offset the amount of taxes paid to other countries. Under the legislation, corporations would pay U.S. taxes on their offshore profits as they are earned.  The legislation would take away the tax incentives for corporations to move jobs offshore or to shift profits offshore because the U.S. would tax their profits no matter where they are generated.

He quotes an estimate by the Joint Committee on Taxation that this would bring in $590 billion over ten years.

Can he win? Should he? I understand the point Hillary Clinton supporters make: The difference between the two parties is so vast now that our entire focus should be on winning in the general election. (Justice Ginsburg will be nearly 88 by the time the next president leaves office; 92 if there’s a second term. Imagine any of the Republican candidates appointing her replacement.) The best way to do that is to get behind our strongest general-election candidate early, and avoid any fratricidal strife that will hurt the party.

I see two problems with that. First, since Republicans show no signs of returning to the moderate ways of Dwight Eisenhower and Jerry Ford, we might be in this position for decades. So the upshot of this argument is that the liberal wing of the party should never make its case to the primary electorate. If that’s how things are, then I have a hard time arguing against the progressives who want to abandon the Democratic Party completely. If you want to prevent another Nader-style candidacy by Sanders (who has already rejected the idea) or somebody else, you have to be able to argue that the Left had a shot at the nomination and just lost it fair and square.

So I think it’s way too early to make the unite-behind-a-winner argument. There has to be some point in the electoral process where people express their consciences and vote their ideals. Otherwise, the horse-race mentality because self-stoking: People won’t support a candidate they agree with because he can’t win, and he can’t win because the people who agree with him won’t support him.

Second, there are large sections of the electorate who never hear a strong progressive message. Compare to the Republicans. No matter who gets nominated, they always make a pitch for their overall brand identity: small government, low taxes, strong defense, so-called “family values”, and so forth. It would be unthinkable to go through an election cycle without somebody preaching that gospel in its purest form.

The Democrats don’t do that, and in the long run it hurts us. Obama-Clinton in 2008 was a debate between two flavors of moderate. Dean and Kucinich were out of the picture early in 2004, and so was Bradley in 2000.

The result is that right-wing alternatives to the status quo are part of the national debate, but left-wing alternatives aren’t. So voters who could tell you about the conservative Ryan Budget have never heard of the progressive People’s Budget. Every hint of a conservative alternative to ObamaCare gets massive coverage, but a liberal alternative well tested in other countries — single payer — is off the table.

So when it comes time to compromise, the compromise that seems reasonable in the media is between an already-moderate Democratic plan and a far-right Republican plan. Should we cut Social Security little by little, or make a big slash in it? Should we invade any country that gets in our way, or just hit them with a few drone strikes? Hold the line on the estate tax or eliminate it?

In short, even if we end up nominating Hillary, I want the public to know she’s not the extreme edge of the liberal spectrum.

I’ll get more pragmatic as Election Day gets closer. (I was totally against voting for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general election, for example, and I stand by that. The Nader voters in my own state of New Hampshire — forget Florida — had it in their power to swing the election from Bush to Gore, and decided not to.) If, late in the primary season, after Sanders’ message has been aired around the country, polls show him running behind the Republican front-runner while Hillary runs ahead, then Democrats should think about doing the pragmatic thing.

But this far out, that’s not the only possible scenario. Sanders is claiming that a full-throated defense of the middle class will resonate with voters who don’t get inspired by baby-step proposals like bumping the minimum wage up a little, or not cutting Social Security as much as Republicans want to. That case needs to be tested every few cycles, and it has been a while.

Fact-checking. Sanders made a number of checkable claims.

For most Americans, their reality is that they are working longer hours for lower wages. In inflation-adjusted income, they are earning less money than they used to, years ago, in spite a huge increase in technology and productivity.

There are a lot of ways to measure wages. But in terms of take-home pay adjusted for inflation, Sanders is right.

The wild card in this discussion is how you account for health-care costs, which have ballooned over the last several decades. So pro-business groups will show you graphs of total cost of employment, which includes everything a company spends on a worker, including health insurance premiums. That looks less depressing.

Even so, a 2013 Brookings Institute report began:

Over the past quarter century, labor’s share of income in the United States has trended downward, reaching its lowest level in the postwar period after the Great Recession.

99% of all new income being generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent

The transcript I linked to has this quote wrong. (It says “99 percent of the income”, which would be a laughable statement.) Watch the video to get it right.

PolitiFact rated this claim “mostly true“. The more complete story is that Sanders’ claim is based on what the economy does prior to any government interference: before taxes on the rich or government benefits paid to the rest of the country.

the top 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent

This is wrong, but not in the way you think: Sanders should have said the top tenth of a percent. Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman provide the following graphs:

we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on Earth

Like so many claims, this one depends on how you define your terms. In sheer size, India is a “major nation”, and in absolute terms, a lot of Indian children have less than American children who are considered poor.

Most studies that get results like Sanders is stating are measuring relative poverty, i.e., the number of children who live in households whose income is less than some percentage (typically 50%) of the national median. Also, they are comparing the U.S. to other developed nations — a group that includes Canada, Japan, and the European Union nations, but not India or Indonesia.

Miles Corak does a creditable job of explaining why relative poverty is the right thing to measure. (Summarizing: A household receiving less than 50% of the median income has a hard time participating in normal society. So these children are growing up so far outside the mainstream that it will be hard for them to present themselves as normal adults when they go looking for work.) And if contemplating America’s superiority to Ethiopia or Bangladesh gives you a chest-thumping satisfaction, don’t let me stop you.

the Koch Brothers and other billionaire families who are prepared to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in elections to buy the candidates of their choice

According to the NYT:

The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign.

It’s not immediately obvious how much of that $889 million is from the Kochs themselves. Sheldon Adelson spent around $100 million of his own money on 2012 campaign (including $20 million for Newt Gingrich), and is expected to be a major donor in 2016 as well.

There’s no way to quantify to what extent the candidates who receive this money will be “bought”. In the 1950s, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn is supposed to have told a young congressman, “Son, if you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and then vote against ’em, you don’t deserve to be here.”

Real unemployment in America is not five and a half percent, if you include those people who have given up looking for work, and people who are working part time when they want to work full time. Real unemployment is 11 percent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates something it poetically refers to as “U-6″: a measure of unemployment that includes the people usually classified as “unemployed”, but also people who are underemployed (i.e., the engineer who’s flipping burgers) or who want a job but aren’t currently looking for one (i.e., “discouraged workers”). (The unemployment rate you usually hear about is U-3.)

U-6 is running at about 11%, — 10.9% in the most recent stats available when Sanders spoke — so that might be what he was talking about.

It’s fine to quote U-6 or any of the other U’s, as long as you’re consistent about it. Watch out for anybody who compares some measure of “real” unemployment today to what the official unemployment rate was when Obama took office, or claims that the gap between the two represents some kind of statistical shenanigans. Since discouraged workers tend to be the last people to start working again, you’d expect U-6 to lag behind the official unemployment rate. So even though the official unemployment rate is back below where it was when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, U-6 hasn’t completely recovered yet. That’s not some sleight-of-hand by the Obama administration, it’s how these statistics run.

One thing is undeniable: All the measures of unemployment have been coming down over the last few years, as shown in this graph:

In Germany, countries around the world, they understand that you tap the intellectual capabilities of young people, and you make college tuition in public colleges and universities free.

True.

Bernie Sanders has never run a negative ad.

“Never” is hard to check, and “negative” is a judgment call, but in his 2012 Senate race (as an incumbant Independent) Sanders didn’t run TV ads at all. He got 71% of the vote. People say, “Well, that’s Vermont for you.” But Sanders counters:

It wasn’t that long ago that Vermont was one of the most Republican states in the country. Until two years ago, the governor was a Republican; the lieutenant governor is a Republican. This is a significantly rural state. This is a state with some very conservative regions.

Since April 30, Sanders has been living up to his word and running a positive campaign. On CNN’s State of the Union he said:

I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. Maybe I shouldn’t say this: I like Hillary Clinton. I respect Hillary Clinton.

That doesn’t sound much like the fratricidal strife Clinton supporters are worried about.

Turning the Theocracy Against Itself

What happens when atheists claim the new kind of “religious freedom”?


Ever since the Tea Party sweep of 2010, conservative Christians have been on offense in state legislatures, pushing a variety of laws that distort religious freedom — a fine principle that goes back to the foundation of our country — into something the Founders would not recognize at all: the power (not freedom) to shape society so that it doesn’t rub Christians the wrong way.

The hole in this “religious freedom” rhetoric is that in practice only Christians (and only certain kinds of them) can wield such power. The people who push these laws are shocked whenever someone wants to extend the same kind of consideration to, say, Muslims or atheists. (Muslims, after all, can’t even take for granted the original meaning of religious freedom, which included the ability to build a house of worship.) Justice Alito’s majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case more-or-less just laughed off the idea that employers with less mainstream religious views — Christian Scientists, say, who reject virtually all modern medicine — might claim the right to control their employees’ health insurance too.

In recent months progressives have been playing whack-a-mole with anti-gay “religious freedom” laws in various states, threatening boycotts and mostly succeeding in avoiding the worst.

But the way the new “religious freedom” will ultimately be brought down is to force courts to consider its laws in the light of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law”. If “religious freedom” laws end up giving atheists and Muslims the same consideration Christians are claiming, Christians will repeal those laws themselves.

In other words, non-Christians need to insist — in court — that society shouldn’t rub them the wrong way either. There will often be an aspect of the ridiculous in these cases, like the statue Satanists want to install on the grounds of the Oklahoma statehouse, now that religious statues are allowed.

A very interesting legal argument is being put forward by atheist Michael Newdow, who is famous for taking the case against the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Supreme Court, which denied his standing to sue. This time Newdow is targeting the “in God we trust” motto on the currency. (Like “under God” the motto does not go back to the Founders, who would have been horrified. It appeared on some bills during the Civil War, but wasn’t established as the national motto until 1956.)

Newdow has failed to banish “in God we trust” before, but this time he’s basing his argument not just on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but on Justice Alito’s interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The RFRA says:

Government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person — (1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The Hobby Lobby decision put forward a very expansive notion of what it means to “burden a person’s exercise of religion”. It used to just mean things like forcing Jews to work on Saturday or lose their jobs. But the Hobby Lobby decision extended it to forcing a corporation to fund health insurance that its employees might choose to use in ways that the offend the corporate owners.

Newdow argues that under this expansive interpretation, the government burdens atheists’ exercise of religion when it forces them to choose between

  • carrying around and distributing pieces of paper saying they trust in God,
  • forgoing the convenience of using the public currency.

And since putting “In God we trust” on the currency accomplishes no useful purpose whatsoever, this burden does not further any compelling governmental interest.

In case anybody out there wants to volunteer, Newdow is seeking plaintiffs from legal jurisdictions where no existing ruling supports “In God we trust”, especially Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.

The time commitment will be minimal (as you help write the prose relevant to your particular circumstances) and there will be no obligation to provide any financial contribution … What we need mostly are families with minor children since the Supreme Court has indicated that it is more likely to uphold constitutional (and, presumably, statutory) principles when children are involved. Please be advised that the identities of any families with children will be kept “under seal” in order to protect the children from any harms.

I don’t have children, and my published opinions on God are sufficiently ambiguous that I’d make a lousy plaintiff anyway. But I’m sure there are Sift readers out there who are just perfect for the job. One of my friends was a plaintiff in one of the important religious-freedom cases of the 1960s (when religious freedom still had its original meaning). His family’s experience was more difficult than what Newdow pictures (because their name was public) but half a century later, I think he still looks back on it with pride.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week my 2016 Speech series covers its first Democrat: Bernie Sanders. As you can probably predict, I like what Bernie is saying. But liberals like me still have questions to consider: Is his candidacy just a little too quixotic? And if Hillary is going to be the nominee anyway — and if nobody remotely reasonable is going to win the Republican nomination — should we already be worrying about the fall campaign instead? Or is it important that somebody plant the progressive flag, whether he wins or not?

A second featured article arose when a section of the weekly summary got out of hand. An explanation of Michael Newdow’s new strategy to use the RFRA in getting “In God we trust” off our money became a more general “Turning the Theocracy Against Itself”.

The weekly summary has a lot of parts that nearly turned into articles: the Irish marriage equality referendum, the Santa Barbara oil spill (which is partly my fault), the political fault line between big business and small business, and the bizarre opinions of the woman who is now Israel’s top diplomat. Since the weekly word limit was already blown away, I figured I might as well have a double closing: a great cartoon about the power of unions, and Coldplay’s attempt to turn Game of Thrones into a musical.

The theocracy article should post shortly, and the Sanders article around ten or so (EDT). Expect the weekly summary before noon.

The Memory Hole

The official forgetting we are supposed to do will not produce the desired result.
[Eventually] people forget why they are supposed to forget, and then they start to remember.

— an anonymous Chinese man commenting on the Cultural Revolution,
quoted in Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century.

This week’s featured posts are “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George” and “Civics for Dummies: Judicial Review“, where I explain why Mike Huckabee should have flunked 9th grade.

This week everybody was talking about the Amtrak accident

A derailment in Philadelphia killed 8 and injured 200. It’s still not clear whether bad track played any role, or if better tech would have avoided the accident, but the incident did provide an opening to discuss our generally crumbling infrastructure.

Whatever caused this week’s derailment, it’s crazy that we just went through years of high unemployment and low interest rates, but we didn’t borrow money to hire people to fix our at-risk bridges, build a 21st-century power grid, and upgrade our railroads.

and the Boston Marathon Bomber

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the pair who planted the bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, was sentenced to death on Friday. Three died in the bombing and at least 260 were injured. The brothers also killed an MIT policeman while trying to escape.

Several factors weighed against a death sentence: His age (19 at the time of the bombing), the possibly dominating influence of his older brother (who died in the shoot-out with police), and a plea from the parents of an 8-year-old victim that the state settle for life imprisonment in order to get the case completed. (If this case follows the usual pattern, appeals could continue for a decade or more before Tsarnaev is executed.) A Boston Globe poll showed that 57% of Bostonians favored life without parole, against only 33% who wanted death. (Death is a possibility only because Tsarnaev’s case is federal; Massachusetts has no death penalty.)

I seldom discuss the death penalty on this blog, because my position is mushy. I’m against the vast majority of executions, but I don’t have a clear set of principles to put forward, and I would rather save my effort for injustices with more deserving victims.

A thought-provoking book on the death penalty is Debbie Morris’ Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. Morris is a surviving victim of Robert Willie, whose execution inspired the book and movie Dead Man Walking. Willie kidnapped and raped Morris, but she managed to escape before being murdered like Willie’s other victims.

Morris became an anti-death-penalty activist, and her book describes the sense of peace she found after she “forgave” Willie, an event of mostly spiritual/psychological significance, because it happened only after Willie’s execution. To me, that’s what makes the book so thought-provoking: I wonder if Willie being dead played a role in the peace Morris reached, even if she doesn’t see it that way.

Morris’ situation is one of the rare examples in which I could support the death penalty: when there are traumatized surviving victims who will always be looking over their shoulders as long as the murderer is alive. (Morris testified against Willie, and the one time he briefly escaped from prison, he might have been headed in her direction.)

But the simple desire of surviving friends and relatives for revenge doesn’t move me. And I don’t think national trauma justifies executions either: Robert Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is serving Year 47 of his life sentence, and I’m fine with that. I’d be fine with Tsarnaev in prison for the next half-century too.

and Jeb Bush’s bad week

He had trouble fielding one of the campaign’s most predictable questions: “On the subject of Iraq, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” After four days with four different answers, he finally found the one he should have been practicing in front of a mirror for months: “I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.” I discuss all this in detail in one of the featured posts: “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George“.


This week’s other 2016 news was best expressed by Gail Collins:

Former ambassador John Bolton announced he would not be running this week, stunning many Americans who had no idea former ambassador John Bolton even existed.

If Donald Trump runs, that will stun many other people who believe he’s a fictional TV character.


Also, Marco Rubio spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations on the “three pillars” of his foreign policy:

  • American strength. He called for higher defense spending and making the domestic-spying part of the Patriot Act (Section 215) permanent. I found this statement a bit chilling: “We must never find ourselves looking back after a terrorist attack and saying we could have done more to save American lives.” As long as we’re not a completely totalitarian state, we could always do more to save American lives.
  • “Protect the economy” through free trade. Rubio inverted the typical usage of the word protect, which usually means protecting American industries from foreign competition. He endorsed TPP and similar trade agreements, and pledged to “use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.”
  • Moral clarity regarding America’s core values. He defined those values as: “a passionate defense of human rights, the strong support of democratic principles, and the protection of the sovereignty of our allies”. But this is just rhetoric unless he gets down to cases, because those principles are often in conflict. Take the overthrow of Muburak’s regime in Egypt, for example. Should we have supported human rights or protected our ally? What if the sexist, autocratic Saudi monarchy faces a revolution?

One piece of Rubio’s “moral clarity” is a point that virtually every Republican candidate has voiced: We should not “hesitate in calling the source of atrocities in the Middle East by its real name — radical Islam.”

I don’t think the Obama administration or its defenders have done a good job explaining why this is such a bad idea. So let me give it a try.

The most important battlefield of the current struggle is inside the minds of Muslim teen-agers, particularly the talented ones who have opportunities in their personal lives. (Anwar al-Awlaki comes to mind. His formative years are recounted in some early chapters of Jeremy Scahill‘s book Dirty Wars.) They could go to college and become engineers or dentists or something. On the other hand, they could join ISIS or al Qaeda, or do some lone-wolf terrorism wherever they happen to live, like the Tsarnaev brothers.

I know radical Islam sounds terrifying to many Americans, but how does it sound to those kids? For comparison, imagine how radical Christianity sounds to kids growing up Baptist in Georgia or Catholic in Boston. I suspect it sounds like something they should aspire to. So wouldn’t it be a huge mistake to tell those Baptist or Catholic kids that the way to be a “radical Christian” is to assassinate doctors and blow up abortion clinics?

Similarly, ISIS recruiters would love to convince Muslim teens around the world that the way to practice radical Islam is to join them. Radical Islam is a term of strategic importance. We should fight ISIS for it, not surrender it to them.

[Slate‘s William Saletan details how Republican rhetoric about Islam echoes ISIS rhetoric, then comments: “Remind me again who’s naïve.”]


Josh Marshall’s hindsight on Iraq is more interesting than Jeb Bush’s.

and you also might be interested in …

In a current article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nahisi Coates points out a double-standard in President Obama’s rhetoric: He’s willing to single out the black community for moral lectures, but

[Y]ou will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share.

Coates has long argued that since the oppression of black people was very color-conscious, helping them overcome that oppression needs to be color-conscious too (rather than relying on generic anti-poverty programs like Food Stamps). Last year he wrote “The Case for Reparations“, which I reviewed.

The current article’s most striking quote:

In a country where Walter Scott was shot in the back, where Eric Garner was choked to death, where whole municipalities are—at this very hour — funding themselves through racist plunder, fleeting references to “past injustice” will not do.


Can anybody spot what’s wrong with this tweet from the Texas Senate Republican Caucus?

Yes, it’s the cross. Apparently, only Christian religious freedom is protected in Texas. But why would anybody outside the majority religion need protection, anyway?


Remember the 20-week abortion ban the House almost passed last January, but pulled after the female representatives they need for cover balked? It’s back, and this time it passed.

and let’s close with something enviable

Those of us who don’t own dogs never get greeted like this:

Civics For Dummies: Judicial Review

Or: Why Mike Huckabee should have flunked 9th grade.


The possibility that the Supreme Court might soon rule in favor of same-sex marriage, resulting in its legality in all 50 states, is causing a certain amount of panic on the Religious Right. In response, presidential candidates whose campaigns hope to exploit that panic have been spreading dangerously ignorant ideas about the Constitution and the judicial branch of government. And, as ignorant people often do, they’ve been claiming that everyone else is ignorant, while they alone grasp the true nature of the Founders’ vision.

For example, when NewsMax asked Dr. Ben Carson about same-sex marriage, he responded:

First of all, we have to understand how the Constitution works. The president is required to carry out the laws of the land, the laws of the land come from the legislative branch. So if the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibly to carry it out. It doesn’t say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law.

And Mike Huckabee presented a similar perspective in more detail:

Getting a decision from the Court is not tantamount to saying, “That settles it. It’s the law of the land.” And when I hear people say that I just cringe, and I’m thinking: “How many people passed 9th-grade civics?” This is not that complicated.

There are three branches of government, not one. We don’t like it if the executive branch overreaches, and pretends that it can act in indifference to the other two. And neither can we sit back and allow the Court — one branch of government — to overrule the other two.

And so when a court rules that same-sex marriage is OK, it doesn’t mean that the next day marriage licenses should be issued for same-sex couples. It simply means that if the legislature agrees with that court decision, and the representatives of the people, the elected officials, if they then put this into legislation, and it is signed and enforced by the executive branch, then you have same-sex marriage. But until those other two branches act, what you have is a court opinion and nothing else.

Clearly, Governor Huckabee’s 9th-grade civics teacher has a lot to answer for, because he seriously misunderstands how our system of government works. So let’s back up and answer a simple civics question: How does the Supreme Court come to have the power to say what laws mean and even to determine that some of them are unconstitutional?

Where judicial review comes from. People who dislike particular court rulings often imagine that this power of judicial review wasn’t in the Founders’ original vision at all; somewhere along the line the Supreme Court just usurped it. But in fact the Founders foresaw judicial review and approved.

If you want to know what the Founders thought the Constitution meant, one of the best places to look is in The Federalist, a series of essays Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote to explain the new Constitution and encourage states to ratify it. In Federalist #78, dated June 14, 1788, Hamilton wrote:

The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. … [W]henever a particular statute contravenes the Constitution, it will be the duty of the judicial tribunals to adhere to the latter and disregard the former.

So where does the power of judicial review come from? From the Founders. It goes all the way back.

Without judicial review, our constitutional rights are meaningless. This idea is easiest to explain through a hypothetical: Imagine that a Clinton landslide in 2016 sweeps in large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. When the new Congress takes office in January, 2017, it passes this one-sentence law:

Whereas Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee are pernicious individuals whose continued liberty is detrimental to well-informed public discourse, they shall be imprisoned in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas for a period of ten years.

President Hillary Clinton signs the law. Federal agents arrest Carson and Huckabee and drag them to Leavenworth. What happens next?

First, notice that even though the Carson-Huckabee Imprisonment Act of 2017 went through the process the Constitution lays out for passing a law, it is still blatantly unconstitutional. In technical terms it’s a bill of attainder, which the Constitution specifically forbids in Article I, Section 9:

No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

But how does that fact do Carson and Huckabee any good? They can complain to the agents who arrest them. They can complain to their Leavenworth guards and cell mates. But so what? “Yeah, yeah, join the club,” they’ll be told. “Everybody in here is innocent.”

Short of counting on friends with guns to break them out, there is only one effective thing they can do: file a writ of habeas corpus, (another Article I right). In other words, Carson and Huckabee can make their jailers justify themselves before a judge. That judge then has the power to say that the Carson-Huckabee Imprisonment Act is unconstitutional. And the very instant that decision comes down, they have to be released.

Notice what doesn’t happen here: There is no “judicial law”, no Carson-Huckabee Release Act that the judge has to pass. And the judge’s ruling is not a suggestion that the other two branches might want to revise or repeal the Carson-Huckabee Imprisonment Act. Carson and Huckabee don’t have “a court opinion and nothing else”. They have their freedom.

If they didn’t, then the Constitution’s protection against bills of attainder would be meaningless. Congress could just refuse to pass a Release Act, or President Clinton could veto it, or just not get around to enforcing it. And Ben and Mike would sit in jail, no matter what rights they had in theory.

All our rights are like that. If you can’t bring your case before a judge who has the power to tell the other branches “Stop doing that right now!”, then in practical terms you don’t have any rights.

Interpretation. I intentionally made that last example simple: a one-line law that stood on its own and did something obviously wrong. But lawmakers with bad intentions are usually sneakier than that.

A much more likely scenario is that Carson-Huckabee imprisonment would be a page of legalese somewhere in the middle of a 300-page bill that built a dam and changed food-stamp requirements and made Al Sharpton’s birthday a national holiday. It wouldn’t mention Carson or Huckabee by name; it would just give the administration power to imprison people who fit some abstract description. Of the people described, only Carson and Huckabee would be worth bothering to arrest. Or maybe 100 people would get arrested, of whom 98 really would be dangerous to the public.

However it shook out, the effect would be the same: Ben and Mike would find themselves in Leavenworth without a trial. But now their habeas corpus case is more complicated, because it isn’t obvious that the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2017 — which contains that one significant page — is a bill of attainder. Somebody has to interpret it, and weigh its effects against the abstract definition of a bill of attainder, or against the 14th Amendment’s abstract guarantee of “due process of law”. Exactly how much “process of law” were Carson and Huckabee “due”, and did they receive it? Lawyers from the Clinton Justice Department might concoct some very slick arguments saying that they did.

And that brings us back to Hamilton: “The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts.” If the courts are prevented from doing that job, then a clever lawmaker or a hostile administration can take away your rights.

Change. Another way my example is simple is that “bill of attainder” means pretty much the same thing today as it did when the Constitution was written in 1787: a law that sends people to prison without a trial. But it’s reasonably certain that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had no idea it might be creating a right for same-sex couples to marry, and neither did the people who drafted and passed and ratified the 14th Amendment after the Civil War.

So how can a judge “find” that right in the Constitution today? Did the Founders and subsequent amendment-drafters not understand what they were writing? Were all previous judges stupid not to see this right that judges see today? Or if you don’t believe those absurd things, how is marriage equality not a total abuse of the power of judicial review?

The answer is that even when the text of a law doesn’t change, the practical meaning of that law can change as the world changes around it. Today we have lots of “constitutional” rights that the Founders could not have imagined. When they wrote the Second Amendment, they weren’t picturing AR-15s. When they guaranteed “freedom of the press”, they weren’t thinking about blogs. The Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” didn’t originally have anything to do with the pictures on your smart phone, or the possibility that police might see through your walls with infrared devices.

Today, those kinds of issues come up all the time, along with examples of extended rights we probably shouldn’t have. (If a nuclear weapon can be shrunk down to a suitcase that I can carry, should I have a right to “bear” those “arms”?) In a perfect world, maybe we’d be constantly updating the Constitution to make this stuff clear. But judges don’t get to live in that perfect world; they have to decide the cases that come before them on the basis of the laws on the books.

One solution would be for a court to throw up its hands whenever a case involved something lawmakers hadn’t foreseen. (“How should I know what to do with bazookas?”) In an era with fast technological change and a dysfunctional Congress, increasingly large parts of life would move outside the law. So you’d have the right to bear the same kind of ball-and-powder weapons the Minutemen used, or to print whatever you wanted on a press like Ben Franklin’s. Beyond that, though, your rights would start to evaporate.

Instead, in the American legal tradition, judges read the laws as embodiments of principles, which can then be abstracted and applied to new situations. You really wouldn’t want it the other way.

Marriage equality. In the case of same-sex marriage, the main thing that has changed since the Founding era isn’t the Supreme Court, it’s opposite-sex marriage. In 1789, any gay or lesbian couple claiming they had a right to marry would have been laughed out of John Jay’s Supreme Court, and rightfully so.

That’s because in a truly “traditional” marriage husband and wife are legally distinct roles that can only be filled by people of the appropriate gender. As Blackstone’s authoritative Commentaries on the Laws of England put it in 1765:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband. … The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.

Only the husband could own property or sign contracts. No wife could enter into employment without her husband’s approval. There was also no concept of marital rape; for all practical purposes, a wife’s body was her husband’s property, so if he chose to use that property in the ways that husbands typically did, the law saw no issue.

(BTW: Anybody who uses the phrase “traditional marriage” and doesn’t mean what I just described is playing games with words. A marriage of spouses equal under the law is not at all “traditional”, even if the spouses are of opposite genders.)

In that legal environment, a same-sex couple trying to marry would be doing something absurd. Who would be the husband and who the wife? Whose contractual agreements would be valid? Which spouse could discipline the other? And in an era when only men could vote, wouldn’t democracy be undermined if some households had two votes and others none? Nonsense!

But all those circumstances changed. As Justice Ginsburg framed the issue last month:

Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down … Would that be a choice that states should [still] be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?

In current law, the roles of husband and wife are virtually interchangeable. There continue to be social and cultural differences, and many religions still encourage husbands and wives to take on distinct roles. But nothing in the law forces them to do so.

So under the law as it currently exists, same-sex marriage is not absurd, and it exists without causing any apparent problems in about half the country, as well as in several other countries.

Equal protection. In addition to “due process”, the 14th Amendment guarantees each American “the equal protection of the laws”. In practice, that phrase has been interpreted to mean that if the government treats some people differently than others, it has to have a good reason. The more significant the discrimination, the weightier the reason needs to be.

That’s why laws that provide a marriage option to opposite-sex couples but deny it to same-sex couples are in trouble: because it’s increasingly hard to say what legitimate reason the government might have for that discrimination. Salon summarized Justice Breyer‘s analysis like this:

When states try to justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry, “the answer we get is, well, people have always done it,” observed Breyer. That answer won’t do, because it was used to justify racial segregation. “Or, two, because certain religious groups do think it’s a sin.” That can’t justify a law either. “And then when I look for reasons three, four and five, I don’t find them. What are they?”

So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

In short, the Constitution and the 14th Amendment haven’t changed, but the world has changed around them. Nor is the Supreme Court being asked to “redefine marriage” or to pass a “judicial law” legalizing it. That’s not what a court is for. But we do need the Court to tell us what “equal protection” is going to mean in the context of today’s marriage laws.

That’s a use of judicial power I think Alexander Hamilton would understand.

2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George

Republicans won’t repent the Bush/Cheney mistakes, so they have to keep pushing them out of mind.


The aura of inevitability around Jeb Bush’s nomination started to flicker this week, as he gave four different answers about Iraq in four days.

  • Monday, he responded to Fox News’ Megan Kelly’s question: “On the subject of Iraq, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” With “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.” (In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton addressed the topic like this: “I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”)
  • Tuesday, he told Sean Hannity that he had misinterpreted Kelly’s question, but still avoided answering: “I don’t know what that decision would have been, that’s a hypothetical. But the simple fact is that mistakes were made.”
  • Wednesday, at a town hall meeting in Nevada, he defended Tuesday’s non-answer, citing the feelings of the families of the soldiers who died in Iraq: “Going back in time and talking about hypothetical, ‘what would have happened, what could have happened,’ I think does a disservice for them.”
  • Thursday in Arizona, he finally gave the opposite of Monday’s answer: “Knowing what we now know, what would you have done? I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

While this clumsy performance does raise doubts about Bush’s ability to run a smooth campaign — how could have he not have foreseen that question and prepared a better answer? — it was just a bad week, and he has a lot of weeks to get back on track before any votes are cast. But Jeb’s Iraq misfortunes underline a larger handicap for Republicans in general in Jeb in particular: In response to the horrible shape President Bush left the country in — and the corresponding electoral disaster of 2008 — the Republican Party still has not developed any better strategy than pretending George W. Bush never existed.

For comparison, Bill Clinton came back from his impeachment to be one of the most valued campaigners in the Democratic Party, with prime-time speaking slots at every Democratic Convention since he left office. (Bill has in fact spoken at every convention since he gave a widely-panned nomination speech for Mike Dukakis in 1988. I wonder if seven in a row is a record.) But W has been a no-show at Republican conventions, and his political appearances in general have been limited to closed-door fund-raisers in front of audiences known to be friendly. As for the other major players in his administration: Dick Cheney was not even in the country during the 2012 GOP convention, where the only speaker with a major Bush-administration role was Condoleeza Rice, who Romney’s people needed for racial and gender diversity.

During this time that they’ve kept W himself locked in the basement, though, Republicans have never rejected his policies or philosophy. Again, compare to the Democrats: Bill Clinton’s centrist “New Democrats” turned away from classic liberalism after bad losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988; and recent Democrats have changed their minds about specific Clinton administration policies while continuing to cite the successes — relative peace, low inflation, low unemployment, and budget surpluses — of the Clinton era in general. For example, many Democrats cheered when the Supreme Court rejected the Defense of Marriage Act, and Hillary’s recent speech against “mass incarceration” implicitly rejected Bill’s 1994 crime bill.

But in spite of all the “revolutionary” noise the Tea Party has made since Bush left office, their candidates’ proposals (with the exception of Rand Paul’s isolationism and several candidates’ anti-immigrant positions) are to do more of what Bush did: cut taxes on the rich, cut regulations on corporations and the big banks, boost fossil fuel production, deny global warming, hold the line against gay rights, keep chipping at abortion rights, and don’t shy away from new wars in the Middle East.

You can’t ask for forgiveness if you won’t repent, so Republicans’ only option is to keep pushing out of mind the mess left behind the last time a president implemented these policies.

Like all people trying to forget a traumatic past, Republicans are full of impatience and even anger when Democrats bring it up: Why can’t Obama stand on his own record rather than keep blaming things on the disaster he inherited from his predecessor? The rare occasions when they speak the forbidden name usually are coupled with some major memory lapse, as when Rudy Giuliani edited 9/11 out of history: “We had no domestic attacks under Bush.”

I’m reminded of a quote in Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century, from a Chinese man reflecting on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution: “The official forgetting we are supposed to do will not produce the desired result. [Eventually] people forget why they are supposed to forget, and then they start to remember.”

It’s still too soon for Republicans to remember the Bush administration, because the American people still haven’t forgotten why we’re supposed to forget. So any successful 2016 Republican general-election campaign will have to continue making the Bush/Cheney years disappear. And, as we saw this week, the candidate least likely to pull off that trick is Jeb Bush.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Two posts demanded to be written this week, which pushes my Bernie Sanders article off another week.

In the first, I identify the problem that was really at the root of Jeb Bush’s bad week: Republicans have never come up with a better response to the disaster of his brother’s administration than to pretend George W. Bush was never president. They won’t defend W and they won’t denounce him. They haven’t changed their philosophy to explain why he was wrong. So his name can never be mentioned. That denial is why they get angry whenever Democrats bring him up: When is Obama going to stop blaming other people for his problems?

The one candidate who can’t use this strategy is Jeb Bush. So what’s he going to do? I discuss that question in “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George”. It should be out around 8 EDT or so.

In the second article, I decided the misinformation Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee are spreading about a possible gay-marriage decision by the Supreme Court needs some kind of response. Under the guise of respecting the Constitution, Carson and Huckabee are just flat-out lying about our system of government. That kind of propaganda has results that linger beyond the immediate issue, so I wrote “Civics for Dummies: Judicial Review”. Expect it about ten.

That doesn’t leave much room for a weekly summary, but I do have to say a few things about the death penalty and why we shouldn’t identify the enemy as “radical Islam”. And Texas Senate Republicans tweeted a very revealing image about religious freedom. I’m still looking for a good closing, so I’m not sure when it will be out.

Sure Signs

The complete lack of evidence is the surest sign that the conspiracy is working.

— Anonymous (or maybe they just don’t want us to know who said it)

This week’s featured post is “Rating This Week’s Craziness“. It introduces the Weekly Sift’s Crazy Scale, for rating the relative danger posed by the sheer insanity of stories and events that need more than just a debunking.

If you’re wondering what I was up to last week when I didn’t put out a Sift. I was telling a Unitarian Universalist congregation how Universalism provides a religious unification of a bunch of positions that often get dismissed as “politically correct”.

This week everybody was talking about crazy stuff

In addition to the stuff that made it into the featured article, this NYT cartoon summarized a bunch of other crazy-sounding things that are really happening:

and Baltimore

The riots are over and the National Guard is packing up, but Baltimore gave rise to a lot of interesting public discussion (as well as a lot of complete crap).

For one thing, who knew street gangs were this articulate?

The NYT Magazine‘s “Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us” is well worth your time. So is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Clock Didn’t Start With the Riots“, which makes this excellent point:

I read the governor in the New York Times today and he was saying in the paper that—you know, because it’s going to be a big day tomorrow—he was saying “violence will not be tolerated.” And I thought about that as a young man who’s from West Baltimore and grew up in West Baltimore and I thought about how violence was tolerated for all of my life here in West Baltimore. …

I don’t want to come off as if I’m sympathizing or saying that it is necessarily okay, to inflict violence just out of anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is. But I have a problem when you begin the clock with the violence on Tuesday. Because the fact of the matter is that the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time.

There’s a similar problem with all those columns about how street violence is the wrong way to make the point that police violence against already-subdued black men has got to stop. If we call for communities like Baltimore and Ferguson to quiet down, that’s got to be coupled with a commitment to start listening when they speak in softer voices. Otherwise we’re just saying: “Pipe down to make it easier for me to ignore you.”

Larry Wilmore makes this point humorously but effectively in his “Justice for Tamir Rice” piece. Tamar Rice is the 12-year-old who was playing with a toy gun in a public park near his home, when Cleveland police rolled up and killed him within seconds, all of which was captured on video. Cleveland has been peacefully waiting for some kind of resolution in this case for five months. With a Comedy Central lawyer standing over his shoulder to make sure he doesn’t actually call for violence, Wilmore observes that non-confrontation isn’t getting anything done.

There’s a self-fulfilling pattern here: If violence is the only kind of speech you’ll pay attention to, then sooner or later you’ll get violence.

Finally, there are all the white pundits saying or writing something along the lines of: We elected Obama to make race relations better, and they’ve gotten worse. Elspeth Reeve answers that point in The New Republic with “The White Man’s Bargain“. She starts with an NYT report quoting Republican strategist Rick Wilson:

A number of people “crafted this tacit bargain in their heads,” he said, speaking of Mr. Obama’s election. “This is going to be the end of the ugly parts of racial division in American.”

Reeve then raises this question about the “tacit bargain”:

What is being exchanged? Wilson is probably not saying people thought police would stop killing unarmed black kids because Obama was elected. Perhaps instead he is saying people thought black people would stop getting so mad when it happened. What he means is that people (and, let’s say this right here: white people) are eager to pay off the whole legacy-of-slavery-and-systemic-racism tab, to finally settle up and not have to think about social justice anymore. Wasn’t making a black guy president enough?

She goes through the long history of whites making imaginary bargains, which goes all the way back to slavery. She concludes:

What tacit bargainers have always been asking is: Isn’t there something else we can substitute for true equality? The answer is no.

and new presidential candidates

The big political news since the last Sift is that Bernie Sanders is running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. So Hillary won’t simply be coronated, and somebody will make the case for real liberalism in this cycle.

I’m trying not to make the Sift all-2016 all-the-time, so I won’t get to Bernie’s announcement speech until next week. My snap reaction is that everybody left of Hillary should be happy that the primary campaign will keep her from drifting too far right. Beyond that, I need to decide how far my enthusiasm for Bernie should go: Will I vote for him in the New Hampshire primary? If do, is that because I’m making a statement or because I want him to get the nomination? If he did get nominated, would he stand a chance in the general election against, say, Jeb Bush or Scott Walker? Give me another week to think it through.

On the Republican side, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee all joined the race, which is getting unusually crowded. Rick Santorum announced a date for his announcement: May 27. (I don’t know why he hadn’t previously announced that he was going to announce the date of his announcement. It just came totally out of the blue.)

Again, it will take some time for me to add these candidates to my 2016 speech series. I do have a snap reaction to Carson: I’m not sure he understands his role in the Republican Party, which is to provide cover against accusations of racism, as Herman Cain did in 2012. White audiences can cheer Carson’s aggressive and disrespectful criticisms of President Obama without worrying about being called racists.

But as Obama starts to fade from the scene, that role becomes less important. If Carson wants to stay relevant, he’ll have to move on to providing cover for more general I’m-not-a-racist-but criticisms of the black community. His path forward is to say things about Baltimore that are more extreme than a white candidate can get away with. I’m not sure he realizes he signed up for that.

Fiorina, meanwhile, is well set up to provide the same service for sexist Republicans who need to trash Hillary. She could easily wind up with the VP nomination.


The religious right has Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz to choose from. But in view of the bad advice God has given his family in the past, it’s Jeb Bush who should be pushed to spell out exactly what role God will play in his administration.

and you also might be interested in …

We’re about six weeks from a Supreme Court decision on King v. Burwell, the suit that might make ObamaCare subsidies illegal in about half the country. Congressional Republicans have written in the WaPo “Republicans have a plan to create a bridge away from Obamacare” so that millions of people would not instantly lose health insurance.

Unfortunately, only one relatively unimportant committee in the Senate and none in the House have held any public hearings about this plan. As for assembling a coalition in the House to pass it — the kind of thing John Boehner has not been particularly good at — there seems to be no motion at all. HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn says what I’ve been thinking:

the absence of a public effort to match the public rhetoric matters only if Republicans are actually serious about passing a plan. They may not be. Their real goals may be purely cosmetic — to insulate the party from a political backlash should millions of people suddenly lose health insurance and, more immediately, to ease the anxiety of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, either of whom might hesitate to issue a ruling with such potentially devastating consequences to so many people.


Two weeks ago, I told you about a poll that showed how sensitive opinions on abortion are to how the question is phrased. (You get a more pro-life response if you phrase the question in terms of abstract right-and-wrong, and a more pro-choice response if you phrase it in terms of women’s rights.) Wednesday, the NYT’s Upshot blog described how poll results about abortion get less polarized as the questions focus on specific cases: Many people who say that abortion should be “illegal in all cases” will nonetheless say it should be legal if the mother will die. Conversely, many people who say it should be “legal in all cases” still think it should be illegal to abort a healthy fetus ready to be born.

That’s the extreme edge of a more general phenomenon: People who think they are diametrically opposed to each other on abortion often agree on a lot of specific cases. Apparently, much of the polarization centers on what comes to mind when you hear the word abortion. Do you think of a promiscuous woman who couldn’t be bothered to use birth control, and now wants to get rid of a problem-free pregnancy rather than offer a healthy baby to a couple who would give it a good life? Or do you think of woman carrying a child for her rapist, or facing serious health issues?

I think the winning choice-leaning argument goes something like this: Every woman, every family, and every pregnancy is different, so ideally the decision to carry a fetus to term would be made by the people involved, and not by a legislature or a court or a bureaucrat. But the decision to abort becomes more morally weighty the longer the fetus develops, so the law should push women to decide promptly, and demand higher levels of justification for later-term abortions.

Sweden seems to have it about right, in my opinion:

The current legislation is the Abortion Act of 1974 (SFS 1974:595). This states that up until the end of the eighteenth week of the pregnancy the choice of an abortion is entirely up to the woman, for any reason whatsoever. After the 18th a woman needs a permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) to have an abortion. Permission for these late abortions is usually granted for cases in which the fetus or mother are unhealthy. Abortion is not allowed if the fetus is viable, which generally means that abortions after the 22nd week are not allowed. However, abortions after the 22nd week may be allowed in the rare cases where the fetus can not survive outside the womb even if it is carried to term.

Wikipedia adds:

The issue is largely settled in Sweden and the question of the legality of abortion is not a highly controversial political issue. … Consensus in Sweden is in favour of preventing unwanted pregnancies by the use of birth control and the primary goal is not to lower the amount of abortions, but rather the goal is that all children that are born should be wanted.


In the Republican-controlled Congress, climate-change denial is a two-step dance:

  1. Claim that the science isn’t settled yet, so more research is necessary before we take any action.
  2. Defund that research.

and let’s close with something fantastic

like Key & Peele’s musical trip to Negrotown, where you can wear your hoodie and not get shot.

Rating This Week’s Craziness

What should we do when debunking just isn’t enough?


Sometimes inaccurate news stories or false factoids get widely distributed and need to be corrected, like “Obama was born in Kenya” or “Saddam was behind 9-11.” Other times, claims about economics or history need correcting, like “Tax cuts raise revenue.” or “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery.” Debunking such popular misconceptions may not get the attention it deserves in the national media, but it does get covered if you know where to look: Snopes.com specializes in it, newspapers have fact-checking columns, and some news-and-opinion TV shows include regular features like Rachel Maddow’s “Debunction Junction” or Lawrence O’Donnell’s “Rewrite”.

But then there’s stuff that isn’t just wrong, it’s crazy, like the myths about  FEMA concentration camps a few years ago. Debunking the alleged “facts” just doesn’t seem adequate, because people who assess things rationally … well, they wouldn’t have believed the story to begin with, would they? For a story like that, the question that needs an answer isn’t “Is X true?”, but “Are there are really people out there crazy enough to believe X?”

And if there are, what should we do about them? If you’ve ever met such a person and tried to argue, no mere fact-checking column can help you, because the storehouse of pseudo-facts that support the crazy idea is bigger than you can possibly imagine. Each of those then needs its own debunking, and the whole thing goes fractal in a hurry.

So when crazy things ricochet around on my Facebook news feed, it’s often hard to decide what level of attention they deserve. It’s tempting not to take them seriously, but if all the sensible people do that, maybe the insanity will metastasize into delusions popular enough to have real influence on our political process, like the ObamaCare death panels. Maybe by ignoring them, I allow irresponsible politicians to dog-whistle; i.e., to say things that sound innocuous to the general public, but send another message entirely to the part of the population crazy enough to think they’re “in the know” about this. Worse yet, the wider these things spread, the more likely they are to reach the ears of some unstable person who will take violent action, like the guy police apprehended on his way to shoot up the Tides Foundation, a well-meaning organization that Glenn Beck thrust into the center of some big conspiracy theory.

On the other hand, maybe the whole point of craziness is to distract the public from discussing genuine issues, and if I respond I’m just playing along. Craziness has been running high lately — I’ll get into that below — and it’s probably not a coincidence that the news-for-rational-people has been very upsetting to the right-wing fringe lately: The protests in Baltimore — and the sporadic violence that spun out that situation — have emphasized that the police-killing-black-young-men issue is not going away; the black community is justifiably mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more. The Supreme Court might be on the brink of recognizing marriage equality for gays and lesbians. There might be a peace agreement with Iran. And the second consecutive year of record temperatures makes global warming much harder to deny.

Given all that, how comforting it must be for extremists to create scenarios where the righteousness of their cause is obvious, like if Obama declares martial law in Texas and starts confiscating guns. Insane scenarios like this are the comfort food of far-right politics: They’re not going to happen, but imagining that they could underlines how important your movement must be — the Tyrant will have to bring down the Republic to try to stop us! — and lets you live in a heroic Red Dawn fantasy rather than in the real world, where you’re probably just an ignorant bigot.

With those considerations in mind, I’ve decided that — instead of fact-checking or satirizing —  craziness calls for something more along the lines of the Fire Danger scales you see in the national parks. Here’s the scale that makes sense to me:

  • Green. The only danger is to your blood pressure if you let yourself pay attention.
  • Blue. Laugh. You should probably have heard of this, but if it starts bothering you, let it go.
  • Yellow. Somebody you know probably takes this seriously, but it’s not going anywhere. Bookmark a debunking article, and if Cousin Bob tries to get you interested, invite him back into the sane world by sending him the link. (If he replies with a 10-page de-debunking, ignore him. Life is too short.)
  • Orange. This has the potential to get out of hand. It’s starting to infiltrate mainstream political discourse, and if the wrong people take it seriously, bad things could happen. Learn the key phrases that indicate someone is infected with this meme. When you hear them, you have a decision to make: Either quietly back away, or draw the topic into the foreground: “Are you really claiming …?” This is the level where it makes sense to start psycho-analyzing: What anxiety is really at the root of this?
  • Red. Bad things are already happening, and you hear the craziness from people who are not even crazy, they’re just poorly informed enough to be susceptible. You need to educate yourself and start actively inoculating the people you care about. Extra credit: Is there some way you can take action on the actual anxiety-causing issue?

Given that scale, let’s start evaluating the unusual run of craziness we’ve been having these last few weeks.

1. Jade Helm 15. Wikipedia describes Jade Helm 15 as “a planned United States military training exercise that is scheduled to take place over multiple states in the US from July 15 through September 15, 2015. It will involve U.S. Army Special Operations Command (SOC) with other U.S Armed Forces units in a multi-state exercise that includes Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

But if you look at it through the eyes of paranoia … well, that’s what makes it such a great crazy theory: It’s hard to argue with because it’s hard for reasonable people to grasp exactly what the threat is supposed to be. Maybe it’s a dry run for the imposition of martial law, or maybe it’s not even a drill, it’s martial law itself, or something else that involves confiscating guns (and secret tunnels under abandoned WalMarts). Because if President Obama were about to launch a coup against his own government, the place he would absolutely have to get under control first is Bastrop, Texas. I mean, if the Red Dawn patriots are anywhere, everybody knows that’s where they’d be.

The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler supplies the needed psychological analysis:

There’s a good amount of mythical and self-important thinking going on here, but there is also a very real sense in which these conservatives conceive of themselves as beleaguered, bent over a barrel by the federal government, living every day at the breaking point. It helps explain why [Senator Ted] Cruz believed a missive about using the Second Amendment as an “ultimate check against government tyranny” would make for a winning fundraising pitch, and why South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (also running for president) had to remind him that armed insurrection didn’t work out so well for his state a while back.

But this reasoning collapses without a foil. The secessionist impulse can’t be attributable to the ebbs and flows of social policy alone. If we live our lives on the razor’s edge of rebellion, there must be an equally reactionary adversary somewhere in the middle distance threatening our autonomy. That’s what gives rise to a projection of the kind we’re seeing in Texas today. Without an enemy, real or imagined, threatening our autonomy, we’re not patriots. We’re merely zealots.

Rating: Yellow/orange. It’s tempting to call this one blue, because liberals have gotten a lot of laughs out of it. But numerous Republican officials have responded as if the upset members of their party’s base had a legitimate concern, so it has definitely crossed the line into the mainstream. We can only hope that no wackos are taking this so seriously that they start shooting at our troops this summer. That plan probably wouldn’t work out well for them.

2. Kids posing with the Confederate flag. This one is true: The craziness isn’t in believing the rumor, but in why anybody would do this to begin with. Apparently egged on by some of their parents, eight teens dressed for the prom at Chaparral High in Parker, Colorado took a few minutes to pose for this picture and upload it to the internet. (Media versions of the photo have blurred the teens’ faces to protect them from their own foolishness.)

Denver’s Fox31 quoted a University of Colorado-Denver history professor identifying the flag as “first the Tennessee flag and more importantly the army of Virginia’s battle flag” before becoming the symbol of the KKK after the Civil War.

One of the parents speculated that there was no racist intent involved, but that “in their immaturity they kind of think it’s a sort of a cowboy type of thing.” Other commenters have suggested admiration for a “Southern lifestyle” a la Duck Dynasty.

CNN’s debate between Marc LaMont Hill and Ben Ferguson is instructive. Ferguson (a white conservative) accepts that the kids were probably not trying to offend blacks, and sees this very lack of race-consciousness as a sign of progress.

It may not be race as much as you’re trying to make it into race. It could actually be that there are younger people in America today that are not obsessed about racial issues or being bigoted or racist as you’re implying there are.

And Hill (black) replies, “Yeah, they’re called white people.” His point is that the ability to live without consciousness of race is itself part of white privilege. Blacks are never able to forget that there is a racial divide, or to ignore the possibility that whites might read something offensive into what they do. (I’m trying to picture how this story would play in the media with the races reversed: black kids with guns surrounding a Black Panther or Nation of Islam banner. I find it hard to imagine that pundits would accept a claim of innocent intent or see it as a sign of racial progress.)

Rating: Green, but orange if you have any connection to Chaparral High: If kids are coming out of your school without understanding what that flag really means — particularly when surrounded by whites with guns — you’ve got a problem.

3. Christianity is in danger of being “criminalized”. As unbelievable as it might be to outsiders (who see the Religious Right throwing its weight around all over our society), conservative Christians honestly believe both that they are persecuted and that their persecution is about to take sudden turn towards something truly dark and tyrannical.

This bizarre notion has been around for many years. In 2005, Janet Fogler published The Criminalization of Christianity: Read this book before it becomes illegal! (If it has become illegal in the subsequent decade, no one has told Amazon.) She in turn attributed the phrase to a speech she heard in 1997: “The ultimate goal of the homosexual movement is the criminalization of Christianity.”

A number of Republican presidential candidates are dog whistling about this idea, as when Ted Cruz said “Religious liberty … has never been more in peril than it is right now.” But Mike Huckabee is explicitly making this looming criminalization one of the themes of his presidential campaign. In a conference call recorded by Right Wing Watch, Huckabee laid it out:

Christian convictions are under attack as never before. Not just in our lifetime, but ever before in the history of this great nation. We are moving rapidly towards the criminalization of Christianity, where it’s not simply going to be that a church’s tax-exempt status is threatened, but more importantly, where [there are] criminal charges for a person who defies the new government norm. … We would be in essence criminals for preaching the scriptural truth about holy marriage.

He justified this fear by citing “numerous cases” across the country of “chaplains in the military being told to put their Bibles away, no longer pray in Jesus name”. (Air Force Chaplain James Bradfield explains the origins of this canard: When soldiers have been ordered to attend a meeting, regulations say the invocation of that meeting — if any — should be non-sectarian. So it is inappropriate to pray in Jesus’s name, or in Allah’s or Buddha’s. In short, the regulation is against forced devotion, not devotion in general or Christian devotion in particular.)

To me, this a classic example of what I have elsewhere called privileged distress: as a favored group loses some of its privileges and is treated more like everyone else, its members imagine that they are being persecuted.

The sad thing is that Huckabee and his ilk are blind to the sense in which Christianity really is being criminalized — by Christians who believe their higher righteousness justifies them in ignoring the laws and Constitutional principles the rest of us have to live by. Scott Roeder, for example, criminalized Christianity when he killed abortionist Dr. George Tiller. Governor Jindal is criminalizing Christianity when he conspires to misappropriate public funds to promote his religious views in the Louisiana public schools. And Huckabee himself is advocating the criminalization of Christianity later in this same conference call, when he urges local government officials to defy court orders to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Rating: Red. Bad things are already happening. The proponents so-called “religious liberty” bills in the state legislatures often take as given that Christian belief and practice is in some kind of legal danger.

4. Obama is bringing on the Apocalypse. This story, in my opinion, got blown out of proportion. In an interview on a religious-right radio program, Michele Bachmann accused President Obama of helping Iran get nuclear weapons, which spins the world toward disaster. But then she segued into a common Christian belief: that the worse things get, the closer we are to the Second Coming.

To my mind, this is comparable to a point Communists often make: that the worse things get, the closer we are to the Revolution. And Bachmann never completely boiled it down to “Obama is causing the Apocalypse”, as you might assume from the headlines.

I find another clip from this interview more interesting, because it illustrates how the conservative mind uses theories of dark magic to deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the increasing evidence for climate change: Since President Obama has “in effect, declared war on Israel”, he has invoked the curse in Genesis 12:3 against the United States. The interviewer (Jan Markell) sums up the consequences: “As we speak, they’re severe, from economic issues to some of the weather-related issues: drought on the west coast, unparalleled, unprecedented snowstorms on the east coast.” And Bachmann responds: “It’s my opinion that that is only the very threshold or down payment.”

Rating: Green.

5. Two guys die trying to shoot their way into a Muhammad cartoon contest. Like #2, this one really happened. The American Freedom Defense Initiative — an anti-Muslim group whose president is Pamela Geller — attempted to recreate the Charlie Hebdo situation in Garland, Texas.

They succeeded. Two extremely foolish Muslim extremists took the bait and wounded a security guard. They were gunned down by police and died.

The incident reminds me of high school, where a big guy might start talking trash about a little guy’s Mom or girl friend, hoping he’ll attack and provide an excuse to beat the crap out of him. Yeah, the little guy is wrong to react, but that doesn’t make me root for the big guy either. Larry Wilmore nailed it:

Make no mistake, it is absolutely, unequivocally wrong to shoot people who do things that offend you, but two things can be wrong at the exact same time. Even if Pamela Geller’s argument about free speech is valid, she can still be a dick.

If somebody has a real point they’re trying to make, and if the best way to get that point across is through a cartoon with Muhammad in it, I totally support the right to draw that cartoon no matter how many Muslims it incidentally pisses off. But if pissing off those Muslims is the whole point, I still agree in a legal sense, but my sympathy is limited.

I know it’s Bill Maher’s job to make the New Rules, but here’s one I’d like to propose: If you portray AFDI as innocent victims, you are absolutely forbidden ever to claim that any victim of any crime was “asking for it”. If supermodels want to walk down inner-city sidewalks by themselves at 3 a.m., naked but for solid-gold jewelry, they’re just exercising their right to free expression.

Rating: Red. Craziness really starts to take off when you can provoke a crazy response from the opposite fringe. Eventually you can get into the center-destroying cycle of reprisals I described a decade ago in Terrorist Strategy 101.

6. Obama is promoting a race war so he can cancel the elections. World Net Daily is the New York Times of conspiracy theorists. On its site you can find columnists like Erik Rush, who will “connect the dots” and explain to you what this Baltimore nonsense is really about.

The common denominator, as we have seen illustrated above, in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the White House and across America: Marxists and militant Muslims working together in a coordinated effort to precipitate circumstances that will eventually “necessitate” the imposition of martial law. …

The operatives in Baltimore are but one contingent of Obama’s Revolutionary Army; illegal immigration and amnesty activists are another, as are various other entitled and protected class groups the political left has cultivated over many years. Effective manipulation of these demographics will be integral in determining whether or not he can successfully turn us all against one another at the appointed time.

Another WND columnist, Morgan Brittany, says “I completely agree” with that Rush column, and elaborates:

I don’t think the chaos in Baltimore “just happened”; I think it was planned and is the next step in the breakdown of our society.

Another piece of the plan is the “over-charging” of the officers who killed Freddy Gray, because when they are inevitably acquitted, Obama’s Marxist/Muslim allies can incite similar riots across the country.

If the verdict is not what they want, perhaps Obama will have to institute martial law to preserve order, form a national police force and postpone the 2016 elections.

Michael Savage knows who will be in that national police force: Obama’s about to “deputize” the Crips and Bloods to “keep order on the streets”.

You’re going to see more race war right up until the Labor Day of 2016 for an obvious reason. … they’re going to take the street garbage and they’re going to take the illegal immigrants and they’re going to warp the entire election.

Rating: Blue. But only because everything from Savage or WND rates as Blue until it gets picked up elsewhere; I’ll upgrade this bit of craziness to Yellow as soon as I see it on Fox.

The Obama-planned-Baltimore theory has potential. If you take as an axiom that white racism in America is ancient history, then these repeated unnecessary police killings of black men and the deep anger they evoke in the black community are profound mysteries. What better explanation could you find?

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